How Can I Reduce My Anxiety?

How Can I Reduce My Anxiety?

Emotions 101

We all have feelings, or emotions. We need emotions to survive. Emotions get us going, they make us act to protect ourselves, and they help us to get what we need or want.

Anxiety makes us slow down and avoid danger, anger drives us to fight, sadness causes us to withdraw and grieve, shame demands that we hide.

Our emotions are necessary for our survival, and yet they can also cause us a great deal of emotional pain, and anguish.

Often it feel as if the emotions are the problem, not the solution, and we just want to get rid of our feelings.

I’m going to talk about feelings, and how we can regulate our emotions so that they don’t overwhelm us, and how we can listen to our emotions so that we can hear the important messages they are telling us. I’m going to give you suggestions about what you can do to get the most out of this blog.

What am I feeling? What are my feelings telling me?

  1. I just want you to be curious about your feelings. Ask yourself, what is the feeling? You can set an alarm on your cell for 1 – 3 times a day and just ask yourself, ‘what’s the feeling?’ Look up the feelings wheel if you have trouble working out what it is you are feeling (http://feelingswheel.com).
  2. Next, ask yourself what is the physical sensation in my body? Where do I feel that feeling in my body? Is it in my chest, or shoulders? Is it hot or cold? Is it shaky or fidgety? See the body scans of where different emotions are felt in our body to help you with this. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZP_I6NkQb4).
  3. Then ask yourself what am I thinking? These are emotion-driven thoughts. Take a moment to check in and see what is going on in your head? Is it about what is about to go wrong next, or is it about someone that hurt you in the past?
  4. Finally, what does this emotion make you want to do? All emotions make us want to do something, even if the ‘doing’ is simply to freeze, or do nothing. All emotions have emotion driven behaviours, or behavioural urges associated with them, and finding out what the emotion driven behaviour is will help you to understand the emotion and know how to regulate it.

I encourage you to track these feelings on your phone, or in a note pad, as we begin to explore how you feel your feelings.

How to feel your feelings, rather than hide them, eat them, or fight with them?

Overwhelming feelings of sadness, crippling anxiety, and many other painful and difficult emotions are common to many of us.

Feeling bad is what brings many people to therapy.

There are a lot of reasons why we experience emotional pain. It can be related to our what genetical material we inherited from our parents, our personality type, our own experiences growing up, critical incidents that have occurred in our lives, such as traumas, deaths, or disappointments. There are many factors that contribute to us feeling the way we do.

A good therapist, can help you to explore what you are feeling, and also what has gone on in your life that has left you feeling this way.

All of us want to feel better. No one wants to feel anxious, or sad.

All of us have things that we do to try and make us feel better. Some of the things that we do to stop us feeling so anxious take us in a good direction, and are healthy. Some of the things that we do to stop us feeling so anxious take us in a bad direction, and aren’t quite so healthy.

We all know the basic ones:

Healthy coping skills: talking to a friend, working out, walking, meditating, journaling, having a shower, making sure we are eating and sleeping well.

Unhealthy coping skills: eating/drinking too much, drugs and alcohol, yelling at the people we love, shutting down and closing everyone else out.

There are other things that a lot of us do to make us feel better, and which can get in the way of us feeling good.

Why can’t I just bury my feelings so I don’t feel them anymore?

Experiential Avoidance:

Experiential avoidance is a very common response to painful emotions. It involves pushing the painful feeling, suppressing it, numbing it or distracting from it. Sometimes, distraction can be helpful. Sometimes being able to move away from an intensely painful feeling allows us to function, but often it simply pushes the painful feelings down into our bodies. When we do this, we may think that the feeling has gone away, and we won, but actually the feeling doesn’t go away. The feeling is still there inside of us. It may change, so sadness may change into anger, or fear may change into anger, but it hasn’t gone. Suppressed feelings can create a lot of new problems that you didn’t already have. They can create tummy ache, headaches, anxiety, and depression. Infact, a lot of our emotional distress originates with feelings that we don’t want to feel, or aren’t able to feel, and that we push down into our bodies.

When I talk to people about feeling our feelings instead of avoiding our feelings, I often use the example of being thrown overboard at sea. If there’s a storm, and you aren’t a very good swimmer, you will probably panic, scream, and wave your hands in the air. You’d drown pretty fast if you did that. If you were able to roll on to your back, and float, you’d have a much better chance of surviving until you got picked up.

Feeling our feelings is a bit like rolling on your back and letting the waves carry you. It is completely counter intuitive. Your intuition tells you that you need to get rid of the feeling. But when it comes to feelings, the more you try to push them away, or get rid of them, the stronger they get.

The counter intuitive response to painful feelings is to roll on your back, open your arms and accept the feelings. Sounds crazy right?

It is in fact liberating. You need to be really brave, as you are going to feel scared about doing this. When you are feeling really brave you are going to take a moment, breath in slowly, and out again, and hold your hands open on your lap, or simply imagine opening yourself up to the feelings. Say:

‘I feel scared, and it’s okay that I feel scared, I haven’t done this before. The feelings of fear and the feelings of sadness won’t overwhelm me or kill me’.

It may be difficult at first, and so take small ‘sips’, of this technique as you go. As you do this you are beginning to stop avoiding your feelings, and being to feel your feelings. You are also beginning to increase your tolerance of these painful feelings.

If you experience feeling overwhelmed, panicky, or become very emotionally escalated while doing this exercise, stop and take a few deep slow breaths. If you find that this is too difficult for you touch base with me. I’d be happy to go over this with you in a session.

As always, if you have any thoughts of hurting yourself or anyone else, then please seek immediate medical help by calling 911, asking a friend or family member to take you to ER, or calling a crisis center.

Here’s to feeling our feelings, rather than drinking, eating or pushing them all down inside where the sun doesn’t shine.

How to Stop Ruminating

Rumination

I’m an Emotionally Focused Therapist (EFT). I work with emotions. The vast majority of therapists are trained in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT, and work primarily with people’s thoughts, rather than their feelings. CBT has been the first choice for therapists, and the main approach taught in school, for quite a few years now, and there is a lot of resistance to change.

My own approach to therapy is what has helped me in my own healing journey. I had symptoms of anxiety and depression in elementary school, and when I heard about CBT, I was taken a back, that therapists actually thought that if you just changed your thoughts you could change your feelings. I remember being pretty upset with the lecturer, that he thought it was that easy! If it was that easy, why was I still stuck!!

That said, CBT does have some good things to say, and some theories that EFT therapists will agree on.

CBT and EFT therapists both agree that our thoughts, what we are thinking about, keeps our difficult feelings, active, and growing.

Most approaches to therapy agree that when we carry on thinking about what is troubling us, all the bad things that are going to happen to us in the future, or all the bad things that have happened to us in the past, we will keep our difficult feelings active, and growing.

Does that make sense? It is a bit like a boiling kettle; if the boiling water is our anxiety, then our thoughts about what is going to go wrong, is the heat under the boiling kettle. If we turn the kettle off, and there isn’t any more heat going to the kettle, the water will stop boiling and start to cool down. But, if we keep thinking about all the bad things that are going to happen to us we keep the kettle turned on and the heat under the kettle will keep the water boiling, and the steam from the boiling kettle will fill up the kitchen.

There a million strategies to turn off the kettle! I lose track of how many ways we can turn off the boiling kettle.

Thinking about all the things that can go wrong is called ‘rumination’. Think cow chewing the grass all day, and then chewing all the same grass again all the next day. That’s rumination, just keep chewing, chewing and chewing, over and over. Rumination is when our minds keep going over and over the same terrible things that can happen.

Our brains do this, because our brains think that they are helping us to prepare for the future. If only our brains knew!

Our minds have evolved to prepare us for everything that could go wrong. But, when our minds are over functioning and sending us lots of scary thoughts, they end up doing us more harm than good.

So how do we quieten those thoughts.

Here’s just one idea: Think of the thoughts in your head as humming birds flying around above your head. You can change this image to butterflies, or mosquitoes, anything you like.

Imagine that those humming birds are coming and going all the time, busy buzzing around your head.

Some of those thoughts are really helpful, and you want to hear them, and some of the thoughts are not helpful.

I try to avoid talking about the thoughts as true or not true, as you can get caught up in a mental debate that isn’t going to help you.

If you have imagined the thoughts as humming birds, then imagine the birds flying in and out, and around your head.

If you prefer, you can imagine your thoughts as cars running back and forth all day on the highway.

If you have imagined your thoughts as cars on the highway, imagine that you are sitting high up on a bridge, and you are watching the cars, and obviously a multitude of trucks, rushing back and forth along the highway.

Slow it down a little, breathe in to your nose, and deep into your belly, and out again.

Hear the thoughts in your head.

Now, give each thought a name, 2 or 3 words that describe it, such as ‘paying the bills,’ or ‘whether he loves me’, or ‘kids in trouble.’

Now imagine that the humming bird, or the truck is one of your thoughts, and see it fly in and then out of your head again.

Imagine the birds/tucks coming and going and name them as they come and go: paying the bills, if he loves me, kids in trouble.

As each thought comes, watch it arrive, name it, and watch it leave.

Put some distance between you and your thoughts.

Let the thoughts come into your mind and leave your mind without staying around.

This is a like a kid eating a candy bar, rather than a cow chewing the cud. The thought comes, and goes – quite fast. The thoughts don’t hang around. They come into your head and leave your head. If you hold on to them, and ‘chew them’, like the cow chewing the cud, the thought will hang around with you, and keep the bad feelings hanging around too. If you can let them come and go, like a kid eating a candy bar, the candy bar/bad thoughts, and the bad feelings, will come, and then go again.

This isn’t easy, you may only manage 30 seconds to begin with, just keep plugging away at it, and slowly you will be able to rewire your brain. Brains are funny that way, you can literally rewire them!

When our thoughts stay around all day, like the cow chewing the cud, we will stay emotionally escalated and distressed. When we train, our brains to notice the thoughts coming, and then notice the thoughts leaving our minds, we will reduce our emotional distress. Simply because the constant presence of anxious thoughts will keep the anxious feelings active, and make the anxious feelings grow.

You can change this up a little bit: see your mind, and your thoughts as quite separate from you. Imagine your mind as a big computer on top of your body. When the thoughts come into the computer/mind, say to yourself, ‘my mind is having a thought about paying the bills.’ Then let the thought go.

Say to yourself, or out loud, ‘my mind is having a thought…’ Doing this moves the thought out of your body, and away from you, and in moving it out of your body it makes the thought less potent.

Compare: ‘I’m really anxious because I can’t pay the bills’ to ‘my mind is having a thought that I can’t pay the bills’.

As I said there are many ways to reduce rumination. This is just a short description of one or two exercises that can help you reduce the constant run of anxious thoughts in your mind.

If you would like more help please do not hesitate to get in touch. I can set you up with a therapist to see to talk about this and many other ways that you can reduce the noisy busy thoughts in your head.

Why Quick Fixes Don’t Work

Emotional pain is painful! If you drop a chopping block on your toe it hurts – and what do you do next? You look for the quickest way to make the pain go away. You may grab some ice, or frozen peas, and mash it into your toe, or you might reach for the Advil.

No one likes being in pain. Pain is painful, and all of us instinctively reach for something to make the pain go away. Some will reach for the bottle, some a drug, some a friend to talk to, some will sleep, some watch Netflix. All of us have different ways to ease the pain of emotional injury.

Unfortunately, quick fixes are limited in their ability to fix what is really going on inside us. Even the healthy quick fixes, such as going for a run, or taking a shower, will not resolve what is going on deep down inside of you. They will help you to cope, and make you feel a little bit better, which is awesome, but they won’t change what is triggering the distress inside you. This is a little like medications. Medications can be great, and I am very much a supporter of the use of medications. However, while medications will reduce the bad feelings – medications will not untangle the complex emotional experiences, and injuries that have happened in your life, and got you to where you are today.

So, there are quick fixes that make things worse, such as addictive substances, and there are quick fixes that soothe us in the short term but don’t resolve what is going on deep down.

The quick fixes that make things worse are particularly troublesome, and we don’t always recognize them when we see them.

Here’s a quick look at some of the common, and less obvious ones:

Alcohol/Drugs

This short-term fix is pretty well known, and very common. It can take the form of a multitude of substances from tobacco, vape, bongs and pot, to over the counter everyday medications, and street drugs. These substances make us feel better quickly. They numb the internal emotional pain, and may even make us feel some semblance of happy, but the ‘numbing’ and the ‘happy’ don’t last very long – the bad feelings come back again, and are often accompanied by feelings of guilt and shame about our use of substances and the bad stuff that happens when we are under the influences of other substances. When we use and reuse this coping mechanism for any length of time we cause a lot of collateral damage, to our bodies, to our emotions, to our minds, and to our relationships. It’s a short-term fix which has potentially devastating long-term consequences.

Avoiding People & Places

There is a quick rule of thumb for checking if your planned behavior is going to make your anxiety get worse, or whether it is going to make your anxiety get better. It goes like this:

Anxiety makes you feel like AVOIDING, and avoiding behavior will always make your anxiety get worse.

Anxiety makes you feel like CHECKING, and checking behaviour will always make your anxiety get worse.

If you feel anxious and you feel like avoiding something/someone/somewhere, and you go ahead and avoid that place/person you will experience a short-term reduction in anxiety, because you don’t go through with what is making you feel anxious, but in the long term you are telling your mind and body that whatever it is you are avoiding is really dangerous, and so in the long term you are actually increasing your anxiety.

In the same way, if you are anxious and you feel like checking something/someone, and you go ahead and check – for example, check on your ex, check online, check your hands are clean, check the doors are locked, you will experience a short-term reduction in anxiety, because you have checked, but in the long term you are teaching your mind and body that whatever it is you are scared of is really dangerous, and so in the long term you are actually increasing your anxiety.

Does that make sense?

So, the rule of thumb is: if you are anxious and feel like checking – don’t, and if you are anxious and you feel like avoiding – don’t.

All feelings come with an urge to do something, and the anxious feelings come with an urge to check or avoid, but unfortunately while the action of checking or avoiding will give you some short-term relief in anxiety, it will increase your anxiety in the long term.

This is easy to write down in black and white. It is very much more difficult to do. If you are reading this, and have experienced acute and/or chronic anxiety, you may be feeling a little upset and annoyed with me at this point. And I get that.

When I work with clients with anxiety who are struggling with checking and avoidance I always, always, assess where the client is, and what is possible for the client to do. Any step forward toward not checking, or not avoiding, must always feel easy for the client. I have worked with clients who are acutely anxious about driving after a motor vehicle accident, and the first step to stop avoiding is simply to walk outside their front door and look at the car.

Any movement forward toward health has to feel easy for the person who is feeling anxious. Anything more sets the client up for failure and disappointment.

We see this with school avoidance in anxious kids. If, for example, a teen is struggling with anxiety and has stopped attending school – thus avoiding school, then the process of changing the avoiding behaviour may simply start with going to the front doors of the school, or going into school when no one else is there, such as before or after school.

As therapists, our job isn’t to scare or scar a person who is already traumatized or severely anxious, our job is to gently coach and support small changes toward health.

That’s a rather long-winded look at a short-term coping mechanism that has negative long-term consequences. There is one more I think is worth mentioning.

Triangulation

Triangulation is just a fancy name for making a triangle. It is about making triangles in our relationships. This is very common behavior, and I’m sure that all of you will recognize this in your own relationships – if you don’t you are doing pretty well.

Triangulation is a short-term coping mechanism that has long-term negative repercussions. Triangulation occurs when you have an issue or a problem with someone and rather than going directly to the person you have a problem with, you go to someone else.

Say, I have an argument with my neighbor about my cat peeing on their lawn, and I get really upset, and call my friend, who might also know the neighbor, and tell my friend how horrible my neighbor is, I might reduce my feelings of sadness, and anger, and fear – but I won’t resolve my issue with my neighbor. Nothing has changed between myself and my neighbor.

In families this seemingly small demeanor of reducing our unhappiness in one relationship by talking to someone else, can have devastating effect.

It is very common between a wife/husband and their parents, or between mom/dad and their kids. It may serve to reduce immediate distress in the short term, but has the long-term effect of undermining and sabotaging the relationship between the two people who are at odds with each other, such as a husband and wife, or 2 partners.

The alternative is for the two people who have a misunderstanding to come together and discuss the issue together, rather than avoid the problem and reduce their emotional distress by talking to someone else.

Again, this is difficult, and if you would like any support in changing up some unhealthy relationship triangles in your life just let us know.

Triangles are extremely common, sometimes they can be supportive and can be the impetus for good conflict resolution between the two people who have fallen out, but often they can become chronic and entrenched and undermine the intimacy and emotional connection between two people who are unable to address some core issues that are causing distress in their relationship.

It’s been great to have this chance to speak about anxiety and other difficult emotions, and in particular some of the ways that we try to reduce the bad feelings – some which work, and some which really don’t.

If you would like to any more help with this or anything else, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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