Stress Management 101

Next in my series of ‘how to’ topics is how to manage stress more effectively. Previous posts include Relapse Prevention Essentials and Learning How to Manage Unpleasant Emotions.

Stress. It’s a word that gets used often in today’s busy-ness obsessed world, but do we really know what we are talking about when we say we are “stressed”. What is stress, really? Stress is anything which causes a person to feel unable to cope or pressured beyond what is comfortable, from feeling the urgency of a looming deadline to the blind panic one might feel whilst running from a dangerous predator. Both these examples place the person under stress to a degree.

Types of stress: internal and external

The term ‘stress’ is used in both physics and psychology. Both mean similar things, something is causing the system (you) to move beyond a state of equilibrium. When applied to humans, stress can be anything that causes feelings of pressure, tension or discomfort. There are generally two types of stress that humans experience: Internal stress and External Stressors.

Internal stress is stress arising from thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations (feeling hungry, tired, sick) and as a result of trauma. All these things increase tension which we experience as “stress”.

External stressors can come in the form of time constraints, deadlines, traffic, obligations, appointments, demands from others and financial burdens. These are all forms of external stress.

They both play off each other, in that external stressors cause internal stress, and internal stress can make it more difficult to adapt to external stressors.

Dealing with internal stress

Managing internal stress can be tricky. Much of it happens below the level of consciousness and it can seem like our thoughts, reactions and emotions are automatic or just ‘how we are’. This is not the case. Internal stress can be managed by increasing awareness of the content of our thoughts; paying close attention to the words we are saying to ourselves in private, tuning in to our emotional responses; asking questions of oneself such as, what sensations are present when I think these thoughts and generally listening to our body. Sometimes we are just tired, hungry, angry or thirsty. Sometimes, managing stress can be as simple as tending to our physical needs as they arise. For example, you might be tempted to work through lunch because you feel stressed about the volume of work you have to get through. However, working on an empty stomach makes it difficult to focus and you end up making a mistake. This ends up increasing your feelings of stress and overwhelm. If you had stopped when you were hungry and had something to eat, you would have saved yourself hassle later on.

Given that internal stress affects our thoughts, how we feel, and our actions, it is important to have tools on hand to manage all three types of internal stress. CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) strategies and Mindfulness based behavioural therapies (such as DBT, Dialectical Behavioural Therapy and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction are all good therapies for understanding how our thoughts, emotions and actions affect each other, and how getting a handle on how these three things can impact our ability to manage stress.

Managing stressful thoughts

Often the way we think about a situation causes us to feel differently. For example, if we think of things in a negative way then we are likely to feel upset and that may cause us to act irrationally or impulsively. And, usually when we act from a stressful place, we usually end up doing things that ultimately make our situation worse, and that of course, leads to more stress. For example, you get invited to dinner with a group of people you don’t really know all that well. This is a situation in which a lot of people may experience some nervousness or anxiety about anyway. However, if your mind starts coming up with thoughts such as “I’m hopeless in these situations, I never know what to say, What if nobody wants to talk to me, Why am I so ridiculous… You get the idea, it’s easy to see how one negative thought leads to another, and another, and how pretty soon the idea of cancelling altogether seems like a good idea. However, if you had stopped yourself at any point from thinking these thoughts and consciously made a decision to think different thoughts, more positive or even neutral thoughts, the negative thought train may not have had a chance to build momentum. Learning how to tune into your thoughts and deciding whether or not these thoughts are helpful, useful or accurate takes time and patience, but it is a skill well worth practicing. At first, you may find that you have already allowed your thoughts to get the better of you and have already acted on those thoughts and are feeling regretful before you remember that you are supposed to be practicing this new skill. Don’t let that worry you. At least you picked up, albeit after that fact, that you could have chosen to think differently. Keep at it, eventually you will catch yourself mid-negative thought and actively change how you think about a situation and then choosing more positive thoughts, change how your feel and act. It takes courage, patience and practice but it gets easier the more you try.

Handling stressful emotions

Focusing on your thoughts, thinking patterns, unhelpful beliefs about yourself is a great start. However, sometimes, stress seems to hit us out of the blue. Like an emotional storm that feels uncontrollable and all consuming. It all happens so fast that before we know it, we have said something, done something or taken something we regret. When this happens, our ability to think, act rationally or even speak can be affected. The opposite can also be true. Emotional stress can build up gradually, or we may experience a series of emotionally stressful events. Sometimes, our tendency is to ignore these feelings, to push them down, or to sometimes drink or use substances as a way of ‘self-medicating’ or coping. This can sometimes go on for some time and become a way of being and merely existing, but it is not really thriving or sustainable.

The best way to handle emotional storms or feelings is to stop. That is, stop whatever it is you are doing, pay attention to the feeling or the emotions as they are happening. If you are in the middle of an emotional storm, you often act out that emotion in ways that you usually regret. The best thing you can do if you find yourself in an overwhelming emotional storm is to hold on and wait for it to pass, and it will. Ground yourself in the present moment, (breath, feel something, look at something in the room) and count to 10, breathing in and out slowly as you do. Sometimes, going for a quick walk or a run can do wonders to settle an emotional storm. And yes, it’s o.k. to cry if you want to.

Learning to experience, process and attend to your feelings as they happen is also a skill that may take some practice. Sometimes, we have old ideas about feelings that may hold us back from experiencing certain emotions. Old “programming” from childhood that may tell us that this emotion Is bad, or not acceptable. What is important to know is that all emotions are healthy, and are neither right nor wrong, they just are. They are our truth in the moment. Emotions don’t harm us it is what we do to avoid feeling those emotions or when we allow our emotions to get the better of us that causes the most damage.

Stress inducing habits

Sometimes, stress can encourage us to take short-cuts in an attempt to manage day to day or because we fear dealing with the underlying cause of our stress. Sometimes this fear is valid. We may have responsibilities, debts to pay, or children to look after and taking time out to manage our stress properly can sometimes seem like too much of a big issue to tackle, or it can slip way down on the ‘priorities’ list of school runs, work meetings, deadlines and bills etc. However, often the short-cuts we take to manage our stress in the sort term unfortunately tend to be not so good for us in the medium to long term. Alcohol, just for example, can lead to serious health problems, relationship issues, loss of time and even premature death in some cases (car accidents, mishaps, violence). In-fact, addictions in general are linked quite strongly with childhood trauma and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Trauma reactions generally increase stress in the body and an affected person may be more likely to turn to addictive behaviours or substances as a way of coping with the ‘unspeakable’. However, it is important to know that addictions don’t really solve a problem, they just delay the inevitable. Other stress inducing habits include poor time-management, staying up late (when you know you have to get up early the following day), eating junk or takeaway food in the name of ‘convenience’, leaving things to the last minute rather than attending to them as they arise,

External Stress: Prevention is better than cure

External stress as stated above involves stress that is external to you. First thing I recommend is doing what I call a ‘stress audit’. That involves simply writing down a list of all those things that cause you stress and working out what items you can do something about and those you can’t. For a very simple example, driving to work often causes a lot of stress because the traffic is out of control and getting worse. Consider taking public transport or leaving 15 minutes earlier. Or if your work is flexible, arrange for a later start time to avoid the peak hour crush. That is a very simple example and granted, there are some stressful situations which are out of your control. For those situations, practice letting go of struggling with unhelpful thoughts related to a situation you cannot control and try to focus your attention on those things that you can do something about. However, for those things that are in your control, small changes can add up to huge benefits when you put your mind to useful thinking and problem solving.

Making concrete lifestyle changes can be challenging, especially when coupled with having to give up an addiction or habit which previously seemed like your only way of managing or coping. It is well worth the effort however when you find out how to properly deal with stress in ways that truly benefit you and those around you.

Complex trauma and stress management

O.k. time for a disclaimer. The above advice is general in nature and you should consider your individual circumstances before following my or any advice you read on the internet for that matter!

However, I do want to acknowledge for some people who have experienced significant and extended trauma or who suffer with the effects of Complex-PTSD the above information may seem contrite or over-simplistic for your situation. I get it, however, trauma is not what happened to us but how our body responds to what has happened. This response creates added intensity to our experiences of and dampens our ability to handle every-day stress. The above techniques and ideas may not be and is not intended to be an overarching solution to complex stress, but the basic ideas are sound and can help with some of the effects of complex trauma such as anxiety, addiction, depression and avoidance.

If you are experiencing the above symptoms, seek out help. Your GP is often the first port of call however, it is easier than ever to find a therapist online or try out some of these online based courses for managing stress and anxiety. Most of them are free too which is not a bad thing.

https://mindspot.org.au/

https://moodgym.com.au/

Why acceptance of anxiety is your best foot forward

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

 

 

Anxiety is a part of life and a part of being human.

Life is by its nature uncertain. We try lots of different ways to feel secure and increase certainty in our lives but ultimately we really cannot control everything.

This creates anxiety for everyone to some degree.

According to ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy), there are three fundamentally different ways we can choose to approach anxiety: fusion, avoidance and acceptance.

Fusion

We can choose to allow anxiety to control us and dictate how we live our lives. We can choose to follow its demands and try to control things as much as we can to reduce it. Ultimately however this strategy does not work very well as there are more and more things that we find we can’t control and it’s hard to keep up with all the things anxiety tells us we need to do to feel ‘safe’. An example of this is agoraphobia. In the end, a person with this condition cannot leave home at all and their house becomes a prison. Anxiety can push us to do all kinds of silly things that seem to make perfect sense at the time, like calling that friend over and over again when they are 10 minutes late, or going back to check you’ve locked the door 20 times, just in case. Anxiety thrives on what ifs and the more we listen to its shrill, insistent call the less we allow ourselves to really live.

Avoidance

We can choose to try and rid ourselves of our anxious thoughts and feelings by avoiding them. This often takes the form of distraction or numbing. We can choose to distract ourselves from anxiety by a number of ways. Some distractions are healthier than others, for example, going to the gym or reading. However all distractions can become problematic if we engage in them too much or too often. Some distractions are pretty unhealthy from the get go, such as alcohol or other drugs. Some can be o.k. in small doses but can cause problems if we allow ourselves to get ‘hooked’ by the distraction – I am thinking of things like eating, gambling, surfing the net, watching a movie or even having sex. These are all potentially unhealthy distractions. In the end however, avoidance only works for a short time to relieve our anxiety, and we often find that when we come back to reality after spending time with our distractions, things have gotten much worse in our absence!

Acceptance

The third way we can choose to relate to our anxiety is to accept it for what it is. That is, make room for anxiety in your life. Expect anxiety as part of life and that it will come up at different times. In-fact, if we didn’t have any anxiety at all, we would get in trouble real quick! Acceptance doesn’t mean you want or like the feeling but simply that you are willing to allow it. Respect anxiety as a part of your humanity and in some ways, anxiety can sometimes even be helpful. I know it sounds crazy but learning to tune in to your anxiety and really listen to what it is trying to tell you can be really beneficial. Some people might call this level of attunement to our inner world intuition. Learning to tune into your anxiety can help you to distinguish what kind of anxiety you are experiencing. That is because anxiety is not a blanket, one size fits all emotion. There are different types of anxiety. For example, there is the anxiety that comes with staying stuck and the anxiety that comes with moving forward. Both generate anxiety but one is more of an excited type of feeling and the other, the former, is more of a sluggish, mucky type of anxiety. I know which anxiety I’d prefer to feel!

So there you have it. Three different ways to interact with anxiety. Which will you choose?

 

 

7 simple life hacks to commit to in 2018.

Forget New Years resolutions. The news is out! We are not victims of circumstance or biology. No matter what your past history entails, the good news is change is possible. Our brains are flexible and wired for change and adaptability. It’s called neuroplasticity. The more we practice a behaviour, whatever that behaviour is, the stronger that part of our brain becomes. In other words, we become what we do most.

So, becoming more conscious of what we do on a daily, hourly and moment to moment basis is the key to change. Whatever it is you want to start or stop doing, there is no time like the present to take a step in the right direction.

Here are seven ways that you can change your mind, and life, for the better with the help of mindfulness practices.

1. Live mindfully

…that is, consciously, with awareness and conscious choice. Living mindfully means bringing conscious awareness to everything you do. It doesn’t mean you have to spend hours a day meditating but even a few moments of pausing, breathing and noticing what you are experiencing without overthinking can help improve mood and manage daily stress.

2. Relate to experience directly

Try using your senses rather than through thinking, analyzing or judging all of the time. Take a moment to stop, notice and check in with your self. A simple mindfulness exercise is the 5×5 pause. Going through your five senses and noticing the first 5 things you see, hear, feel, smell and taste. (Taste is sometimes a difficult one, unless you are seated at a sushi train…yum!) However, by the time you get to taste, you will have mindfully checked in with yourself.

3. Stay in the present

Resist the urge to dwell on past events or worry about future “what ifs”. Staying present involves noticing and accepting your day to day, moment to moment experience as real and valuable. Whenever you find yourself time travelling in your mind try a simple 5×5 meditation or simply stop and notice your breathing for a few moments, to bring you back to now. You can also take a moment to look around you and notice the small details of your immediate environment. It’s amazing what you see when you stop to look.

4. Avoid avoiding all unpleasant feelings at any cost

Try to welcome all feelings and emotions as temporary messengers who have something important to tell you. Feelings are neither good nor bad, they just are and they do pass. Emotions are our body’s way of communicating our truest needs, desires and wants. We don’t have to follow our emotions or do what they tell us to every time, however, acknowledging your feelings is the first step towards honoring our truth. Knowledge is power after all.

5. Accept things as they now are and go from there

…instead of how you would like them to be. Don’t waste energy or time on struggling with discontent. The more you struggle with feelings of frustration, unfairness and anger regarding those things (or people) that you cannot change, the less energy you have to put into changing those things you can. Take a deep breath, and take control of the only things you can control, your own mouth, arms and legs!

6. Learn to see your thoughts as just thoughts, not facts or reality

Some thoughts are factual, some may have elements of truth and some may be completely incorrect – learn to choose which thoughts are most helpful to you rather than focusing on whether they are true or real. Our thoughts have the ability to influence our emotions and actions. But, thoughts are really just words, symbols and images floating in and out of your conscious mind. They are not who you are. Your thoughts do not define you. One of the core mindfulness processes is taking a step back from your thoughts and watching them come and go. Like clouds in the sky, or sushi on a sushi train! You can choose your thoughts just as you can choose your sushi. Focusing on thoughts gives them undue power  however so, choose your thoughts wisely.

7. Practice self-compassion daily.

Be kind to yourself. Learn and practice how to be your own best friend and treat yourself with the kindness, compassion and respect you really want. Watch what you say, do and how you treat you. If you find yourself saying, doing or treating yourself in a way that you would never treat a friend then that is a sign that you need to be more loving to you. Take some time every day to say a kind word to yourself or give yourself some praise or encouragement. It might be useful to practice daily affirmations like, I am doin the best I can with what I have or Every day I get a little better at being me.

There you go. Seven super simple New Year strategies to practice daily to improve your mind, reduce anxiety and stress without having to start a new exercise class or join anything.

Wishing you all a safe and enjoyable end of 2017!

 

To my friends about to turn the big four Oh No!

A little less than 10 years ago now I wrote by first ever blog post. I was 39 at the time, newly single (again) and about to turn 40. I had just left a particularly nasty relationship and found myself playing the dating game again. That was the start of a long journey for me, a journey of discovery, fun, excitement, pain, heartache, joy, some hard truths and much more. I am very thankful for what I learned along the way however, it led me to where I am today and that is something I am extremely grateful for.

But that was my situation at the time. Every ones’ circumstance is different but whatever is going on for you, whether you are married, divorced, single, with or without children – whatever the case may be, turning 40 is probably the most anxiety provoking thing you will ever do. (Apart from being born, getting married, starting a new job and a myriad of other things that life throws at us.) Yes, turning 40 is one of those milestones that stumps us all. It’s the time to really say good bye to your youth and a time to accept that you are definitely on the downward slope now… (cue evil laughter).

Or, is it?

I certainly thought so at the time, and the idea filled me with a sense of impending doom and dread. Of course, I now know that I was having what Bugental may have termed an existential crisis. There is something about the shock of turning 40 that makes you feel as if death is just around the corner, that life from now on will be just that little bit worse and that it will continue in that vein until death. But, I can honestly say, that is just anxiety talking. The fact is that 40 is just another number, another year, another arbitrary marker that only has meaning because we make it so. For me, turning forty was the start of one of the most fruitful, productive, exciting periods of my life. I can honestly say, I had nothing to worry about. Now. But, that’s the benefit of hindsight.

Here’s what I wrote back in 2009:

I’m not forty, yet. But it is looming around the corner like the bus my best friend stepped in front of when she was 18 and which kept her in hospital for 6 good months. I mean, she knew the bus was close, on it’s way, due even… like, it was a busway she was crossing at the time, but still, she didn’t see it coming. But that didn’t stop the bus from whacking her one and leaving her broken up and unconscious on the side of the road. I have the feeling that turning 40 is going to feel a bit like that…

I can tell you now, it was nothing like that.

So if 40 is in fact just another number and reality is scary the truth may be somewhere in between, but, whatever that truth is make it yours and make it count.

To all my friends and about to or who have just turned forty and are, as I was at the time, freaking out, take comfort. Life is a process and every stage has its challenges and benefits, its good points and bad. I hope that your forties give you everything you ever hoped for and more, and try not to freak out.

 

 

 

Meditation on flying

 

Caught a plane to Melbourne yesterday morning. I was allocated a window seat, first time in a long time that I have. I also had the entire row to myself which was unusual considering the plane was otherwise full. Not that I’m complaining.
It was a beautiful, blue and sunny Sydney morning, so I took the opportunity to not read, or look at my device but to just sit and enjoy the view and the experience. I augmented my experience with music by way of what I had on my phone, which was also an unfamiliar experience for me. I rarely wear headphones around, I’d rather hear what is going on around me, most of the time. But for this flight, I thought it might be a nice change.
As I looked out of the small window, my view was restricted by the wing. Not that I’m complaining about that either, I am really glad that it’s there but my mind did go to some future place in which planes were designed to be mostly glass – that way you’d really feel like you were flying among the clouds. But that hasn’t happened yet. As such, I had a small window framing my view and that would have to do.
As the plane gathered speed, about to take off, I marvelled at this feat of human engineering. This pinnacle of human achievement. What was once thought of as impossible was now an everyday occurrence, something we mostly took for granted, like so many of our current technological advances. I use that word with some hesitation, however, I cannot think of a better one for now. But, I think it prudent to sometimes pause and reflect on that which we take for granted lest it get away from us, or overcome us somehow…
The plane gathered speed and soon it lurched forward and the ground was no longer supporting me. A weird, unnatural feeling which gave me a sudden feeling of anxiety. This is not natural. Humans were not meant to fly! I am literally putting my life in the hands of a stranger. How do I know he isn’t throwing back tequila shots in the cockpit? Suddenly the whole idea of leaping into the sky in what pretty much amounted to a tin can with wings seemed completely preposterous. The definition of madness! I felt my amygdala ignite and my brain flood with chemicals which signalled ‘danger, danger’ to the rest of my body. My heart started beating faster and my breath felt short and strained. Was it too late to turn back?
Then, I was overtaken by the sight of a fluffy white cloud which seemed in hands reach – if I were able to open the window, and by how solid the clouds all seemed, I almost expected to see an angel or two, lazily plucking at a harp string. The sky beyond the clouds was blue and the ground had pulled away from us enough so that you could see the curve of the earth on the horizon. Another reminder to me that my existence is depended on the vehicle in which I am travelling. Be that a tin can catapulted by jet fuel, or a big round rock obiting a sun, which is itself moving through space. Or the body that houses my consciousness.
Nothing is that stable, or that permanent. If this was my last day on earth then I was grateful for the time I had been alotted. Beauty comes at a price, truth depends on your perspective and joy is a choice you make every day. Yesterday I chose joy, and gratitude, and hope.

Yoga for stress reduction & anxiety

Yoga is one of those things I’ve dabbled in on and off since I can remember. It is something I do for a while, and while I’m doing it I love and really enjoy the benefits of, but then for some reason or another I just stop. And then, after a while I start to feel crap again, disconnected with myself, tense etc and then I remember…oh yeah! Maybe I should do a yoga class.

Since I’ve discovered the benefits of mindfulness practice, this has bought a whole new dimension to my understanding and appreciation of yoga. There is really no better way to connect the mind with the body than to connect the breath with movement. Yoga really is mindfulness in action.

So, having said that, I was pleasantly surprised to find this infographic appear in my inbox this morning from the wonderful people at Happify.  It’s an infographic of 7 yoga inspired breathing exercises and poses to instantly destress any time of the day. And you don’t have to be a yogi to do any of the poses, as they are very simple. This is something I am definitely going to be sharing with my anxiety clients so I just wanted to share it here with you’all.

Here you are:

7 yoga poses for stress reductionOh.. and if you want to get into yoga again in the comfort of your own home none the less, I really recommend Yoga with Adrienne’s YouTube channel. She has heaps of yoga videos for whatever mood you happen to be in, and if you really want kick start your yoga journey, I highly recommend taking her 30 days of yoga challenge.

Namaste y’all for now!

5 things I’ve learned about anxiety from a bunch of anxious peeps

I’ve recently finished co-facilitating two rounds of a 12 week therapy group aimed at helping anxiety sufferers conquer their fears. The ‘self help’ group, as it is called, is basically an exposure based 12 week program which encourages members to face their fears by gradually ‘exposing’ themselves to the source of their anxiety bit by bit. It’s called the stepladder approach and is based on basic behaviour therapy.

The aim of the group is to guide members, after explaining what exposure is and how to construct a stepladder, towards conquering specific fears or phobias. It’s not really structured for those who are diagnosed with GAD (generalized anxiety disorder), PSTD or depression for example. There is only so much you can do in a group context. That was the theory behind the group, however, the reality proved quite different. We had a few members that had a specific phobia or fear such as public speaking, or a specific social phobia such as fear of eating in public, but most of the members’ anxiety was not that specific. Most seemed to be suffering from a general malaise and in some cases extreme uneasiness in public, social phobia in general or just a case of debilitating shyness. Some had depression as well.

It soon became clear that the prescribed ‘stepladder’ technique was not going to work with these people. One could still go over the basic idea of the stepladder, that is, expose yourself to your fears, little by little. Take baby steps. But a definitely rigid approach was not going to do. So, I did some research and also, concurrently, I started an online course on ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) but mostly, I learned from the group members themselves. Hearing their stories week by week, their awkward to embarrassing moments, their small and seemingly tiny triumphs and major breakthroughs…they taught me more about how to manage this thing called anxiety, which we are all faced with to some degree, than any text book or peer reviewed article I have read.

So here’s what I learned about how best to deal with anxiety from my research and from those that know best:

1. Accept anxiety as part of life.

Most people who come to a group such as the one I have just described have been struggling with anxiety for a long time before seeking help. Some for years. What they want most when they first come to the group or seek help is for a ‘cure’ that will somehow make their anxiety ‘go away’. But what is most freeing or a revelation for some is when we explain that anxiety is a normal part of being human, and that it will always be present to some degree. Struggling with it only makes it seem stronger and bigger than it really is, ignoring it doesn’t make it go away either… However, acceptance of anxiety is something altogether different. Acceptance allows for dialogue, it allows for a two-way exchange between the person suffering from anxiety and the message that anxiety is trying to convey. It is the first step towards healing, it signifies a willing to listen, to engage.

2. Face and then embrace your fears.

Whatever it is that makes you most anxious, that is where you need to start.  Jumping in head first is not a good idea, however a measured, stepladder if you will, approach really does work if done consciously, with self-awareness and with self-compassion. A step is still a step, no matter how small….however, there is a qualifier and the qualifier is as follows:

2a. Face your fears, only if they serve your greater good. That is, face and accept anxiety only if it serves your values. There is no point putting yourself through all that pain and anxiety for no good reason, if it serves you however, and helps you to achieve your goals or be the person you really want to be, then there is a very good reason.

3. Know your values.

One session, after learning about the importance of values in ACT I asked the group members to share with me their reasons for coming to group in the first place. They looked at me blankly at first, as if it was a silly question but then I explained… Yes, I know it’s because you wanted to get help with managing your anxiety but WHY? Why does that matter to you? Wouldn’t it be easier to just stay home, live with your anxiety to a degree and not push yourself to come here, or go on working through your stepladders each week? There is a reason why you do that, come to group each week, something you want to achieve or a way you’d like to live, and that reason should give you a big hint as to what your values are. Values guided action makes anxiety meaningful. It adds another, very powerful dimension to the how of exposure based therapy. The why.

4. Listen to what your anxiety is trying to tell you.

Anxiety is not always blind fear and anxiety is not a one size fits all broadcast. There are different types of anxiety. There is helpful anxiety and not so helpful anxiety. Sometimes, it is steering you towards something, sometimes it is telling you your off track. There is the anxiety that comes with moving forward, and the anxiety that comes with staying stuck. Only the individual can know what their anxiety means to them, or what it is trying to say. Mindfulness is one way of getting tuned in to what your anxiety is trying to tell you by displacing some of the static that most of us walk around with every day, without realizing it most of the time.

5. You are what you do most.

All the skills and techniques broached in the 12 week course (and in most CBT based therapies including ACT) are all pretty sound, yet none of them will work if we only pay lip-service to them. There is no magic pill or cure for anxiety or any other mental illness. Medication helps to a degree but it really only treats the symptoms, or helps with balancing out chemicals that have become imbalanced in the first place because of what the individual has experienced, reacted to and consequently how they have been behaving for many years. It takes dedication, practice and conscious choice to over-ride what have become automatic behaviours or ways of responding for many anxiety sufferers. The more you practice these new behaviours, thoughts, techniques and ways of being, the more they will seem natural.

 

So that’s pretty much it. (Well not really it, but a sizeable chunk, and besides, I’m getting sleepy!)

All good things take a little time, but like all good things, they are truly worth it in the end. As has been my journey towards becoming a qualified counsellor…it’s been a long 3 and a half years and in a few weeks I will be done with this first long stretch of road. Yes, in just a few weeks I will be qualified! However, while I feel I have learned so much, it gives me a certain amount of anxiety to realize that I have still sooo much more to learn. But, I’m pretty sure it’s the good sort of anxiety…

Neurobiology and Attachment – New research highlights the link between the biology and psychology of human interaction

It’s an exciting time to be getting into the world of therapy. In the last 10 years, brain research aided by technology which allows scientists and psychologists to map actual areas of the brain and have a good look at what happens there, has shed a fascinating biological light on the theory behind psychology and therapy.

One such example is attachment theory. In 1969 John Bowlby noticed that development in infants, both human and animals, is very much associated with how secure the initial attachment to their primary caregiver was. This is especially vital in the first year of life. If the primary caregiver is distant, disorganized, inconsistent or unavailable for whatever reason, the child will develop an insecure attachment style. Bowlby was basically testing out Freud’s theories and seeing if he could find a biological basis for Freud’s theory of psychodynamic development. As quoted by his colleague Mary Ainsworth in 1969, who further developed Bowlby’s theory by differentiating between insecure attachment styles, “In effect what Bowlby has attempted is to update psychoanalytic theory in the light of recent advances in biology’’ (p. 998). Current research in neurology is now doing the same for Bowlby’s Attachment Theory.

The most recent research suggests that how a baby interacts with their primary caregiver, usually the mother, has an actual effect on how their brain physically develops. This impacts things like emotion regulation, the ability to self-soothe, resilience, the ability to handle change and tolerate uncertainty. These earliest memories impact the brain and sets the mold for how a person relates to other human beings, and the self, going forward. Our early interactions with other humans and our environment effects how our brain regulates emotion and behaviour. In fact, learning to self-regulate our internal emotional states is one of the main tasks of childhood development. If this task is not completed successfully, or interrupted in some way, perhaps hijacked by trauma or some other circumstance, then the child emerges as an adult with an insecure attachment style, or an attachment disorder. It’s a matter of degree. Everyone has an attachment style, and falls somewhere on a spectrum of secure and insecure attachment. (To find out what your attachment style is try this survey: http://www.web-research-design.net/cgi-bin/crq/crq.pl

The fascinating thing is how this actually plays out in biology. Our early attachment experiences shape the way our brain, and specifically our right brain (our unconscious brain) organizes itself, (Schore & Schore, 2007). Subsequent experiences in a child’s environment contribute to the process of overall development. Our unconscious brain takes care of most of our body’s automatic functions, such as heart beat, breathing, motor skills etc. It’s also where our most primitive, basic urges emerge; our sexual drive, our need for nourishment and the need for security and safety. The instinctual impulse to reach for pleasure and avoid pain also lives here. (Freud called this the Pleasure Principal.)

This is also where the brain generates anxiety. Anxiety is a natural human response to perceived danger or threat. When we feel afraid or anxious, this part of the brain takes over and gets ready to either run to safety, or fight if running is not an option. Or if neither is an option then the ‘freeze’ response takes over. (Animals do this by literally ‘playing dead’. Humans are slightly more subtle  in their approach.) These are all instinctual processes that occur in our brain which are essential for survival, both immediate survival of the individual and the over-all survival of the species. As an infant, attachment to our primary caregiver is essential for physical survival. A human baby cannot survive on its own. A secure attachment allows the baby to feel safe and this allows for healthy brain development.

If the attachment process is incomplete, or inadequate for whatever reason, a child’s brain begins to rewire itself as a protection or defensive measure based on what it encounters in its environment. The brain’s automatic nervous system, (the ANS)  may become unable to re-balance itself. The ANS is what regulates the anxiety response in humans. When there is a ‘danger’ situation, it immediately sends word out to the rest of the body to prepare for danger. When the danger subsides, or is revealed to be not that serious, another part of your brain kicks in and tells the body to relax. If there is no opportunity to relax, or if a child experiences a constant state of hyper-vigilance, for example, an imbalance may occur.

As adults, these defences manifest themselves in numerous ways. Sometimes as an anxiety disorder, personality disorders, sometimes as an addiction disorder, sometimes as depression, or simply an inability to engage in or maintain stable relationships or other internal or external issues. (Internalizing refers to things that happen to you within your mind, externalizing refers to behaviours or actions that you undertake in the environment).

The bottom line is that everything we do as humans is in relation to other human beings. We exist interdependently. The role that attachment plays in human development is showing itself to be, in light of recent neurological research, increasingly fundamental. Freud under-estimated the need for attachment. He saw it as secondary to other basic human needs such as food, shelter and sex however as the work of Bowlby,  Ainsworth and more recently from a neurological perspective, Schore have shown, the basic need for attachment actually  resides more on the level of these fundamental human needs.

Attachment is closely related to our survival instinct as humans. Any threat to the attachment mechanism is seen by the unconscious mind as a point blank threat to survival. That’s why attachment disorders tend to lie at the root of many psychological imbalances.Understanding the way attachment works and why it is so fundamental to emotional development can be the first step towards healing that broken heart that many of us have been dragging around for so much of our adult life.

Further reading and references:

Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1969). Object relations, dependency and attachment: A theoretical review of the infant–mother relationship. Child Development, 40, 969–1025.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss. Vol. 1: Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books.

Judith R. Schore J, R. Schore A, N. (2007) Modern Attachment Theory: The Central Role of Affect Regulation in Development and Treatment. DOI 10.1007/s10615-007-0111-7

From the net:

A brief overview of adult attachment theory and research. Retrieved 30/12/14 from http://internal.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm

It’s Not All in Your Head: Affect Regulation in Psychotherapy. Retrieved 30/12/14 from http://www.centerforhealingandimagery.com/articles/its-not-all-in-your-head-affect-regulation-in-psychotherapy/

Anxiety – Facing the enemy within

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about anxiety. Part of the reason is because I have just written an essay about it, and part of the reason is because I have been living with anxiety in one form or another for most of my life.

At times, I have been the at the centre of the storm, and at other times, I have watched others wrestle with this demon or demons as is often the case.

I think, I know a lot more about anxiety than I did only a few months before. And, based on my research and observations, the following is a short list (in no particular order, hence the bullet points) of what I know about anxiety, the enemy within.

  • Anxiety disorders affect about 14 per cent of Australian men and women at some point.
  • Anxiety affects the brain and the body. It may start in your head but pretty soon, your whole body is involved. See this infographic:

Affects of anxiety

  • Anxiety isn’t all bad. It’s what makes you get up in the morning, when you’d rather stay in bed, it’s what forces you to go to work so you can pay your bills. A little anxiety is a good thing. It gets things done. (It gets most of my essays done, that’s for sure!)
  • Anxiety gets stronger, the more you avoid it. Like any school yard bully, the more you try to ignore it, the more persistent it gets. But also like any classic bully, it is better at dishing it out than taking it.
  • Anxiety feeds on negativity. It can take a lifetime of therapy to undo the damage of one negative idea. Negative ‘what ifs’, ‘catastrophic thinking‘ and ‘inner critics‘ are anxiety’s friends and partners in crime. If anxiety is the ring leader, than these troublemakers are definitely in its posse.
  • The best way to rob anxiety of its strength is to do the opposite of what you instinctively want to do which is run in the opposite direction . In-fact, ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) which is one of the so called ‘third wave’ of CBT, actually encourages clients to ‘accept’ their anxiety as a part of the lives, kind of like an annoying yet unavoidable family member or uninvited guest.
  • Fear is a formidable enemy. It’s no wonder it has been used as an effective weapon on the battlefield in days gone past. However, for anxiety sufferers it may be helpful to remember, it’s not your fears which are the problem, it is fear itself.

Johnny Depp

If you or someone you know is suffering from anxiety, the following websites may be of help. The Mental Health Association offers free anxiety support groups and Beyond Blue has a lot of information on anxiety and depression as well as free telephone or internet based counselling.