|Posted on 27 November, 2018 at 4:30||comments (0)|
More or less a hundred years ago, Freud recognised that anxiety may be the price we pay for civilisation. Life today is faster, more frantic and over-stimulating than ever before, showing no sign of slowing down any time soon, and anxiety rates seem to be consistently on the rise. According to The Mental Health Foundation, in 2013, there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety in the UK.
Most of us will experience anxiety at some time in our lives, and for many of us it will arise in response to a specific occasion or set of circumstances, such as a job interview, school exam or first date, subsiding again once the nerve-wracking event has passed. For some, however, anxiety is a more frequent visitor, bringing ongoing disruption to day-to-day functioning. Certain situations like driving or travelling long distances, social occasions, workplace meetings or not having access to toilet facilities, for example, can give rise to persistent and overwhelming anxiety for some people.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety results from the triggering of our fight/flight response, when the part of our brain whose job it is to protect us – the amygdala – senses a threat. As a client once pointed out, if someone has a gun to your head, some level of anxiety is appropriate. Our fight/flight response is a fundamental survival mechanism, and to that extent, the anxiety that goes along with it is necessary and helpful. So we wouldn’t want to get rid of it altogether.
The problem arises when we experience anxiety so often or so greatly that it disrupts normal life, arising in response to everyday events and situations that aren’t life-threatening; instead of being functional, it becomes dysfunctional. This is sometimes referred to as generalised anxiety disorder.
It can sometimes feel as if the world today sets us up for anxiety. As technology increases the pace of life further and faster all the time, our brains and bodies can struggle to keep up. 24hr rolling news alerts us to events and disasters around the world that are beyond our influence or control. Smartphones are our constant companions, competing for our attention even when we aren’t using them. Research has shown that the mere presence of your smartphone can reduce cognitive capacity, contributing to a state called ‘continual partial attention’. Advertisers compete for our cash by telling us we aren’t enough without their products. The availability of seemingly endless streams of TV channels, and on-demand movies and box sets are keeping us up later at night than is healthy. When it comes to distraction, the possibilities feel endless. This is sold to us as a good thing, but what if it is making us more anxious by contributing to what is called ‘FOMO’ - the fear of missing out?
In his brilliant book, “Notes on a Nervous Planet”, Matt Haig writes about his experience of anxiety as a “kind of overload”, and asks what happens when overload has become almost a way of life, fuelled by our modern world.
What can we do about anxiety?
The challenge is to simplify, disconnect, unplug, and come back to ourselves. We can do a lot to lower our general anxiety levels by reducing the amount of time we spend each day looking into a screen of one type or another... For example, checking social media can sometimes feel like the modern equivalent of looking out the window for a few moments’ distraction. However, gazing at the view can restore perspective, but scrolling on social media is likely to do the opposite.
We can take time to pause, breathe, and reflect, get off the exhausting merry-go-round of ‘beginning – middle – end – next’. We can create space between things….connect with nature. Studies have shown that regular time in or looking at nature has lots of mental and physical health benefits. Research also shows that in children, regular, direct contact with nature can increase self-esteem and resilience, and improve cognitive ability and creativity, flexibility and self-awareness. I bet it can do that for all of us.
We can remind ourselves of the time before smartphones and multiple gadgets and non-stop streaming, and focus on just one thing at a time again, and reap the rewards of concentrated attention and energy. We can go to bed earlier, so that we wake up naturally rather than needing an alarm (which nowadays means that many of us sleep with our phones by our beds). Our consumer culture tells us we might be missing out on all the fun, but we won’t be, and instead we might find there is so much to gain, through a reduction in anxiety and depression, and reconnection with ourselves.
Of course, some anxiety is personal, specific to us as an individual, and may be triggered by situations or events that remind us of trauma, often childhood trauma. There may also be underlying issues, and we may need the help of a professional counsellor to explore and understand what is going on, for us.
As a general rule, what we resist, persists, and so the first step towards change and healing is to accept where we are right now; acknowledge the anxiety, get curious about it – when and where does it arise, and what can you do differently, to reduce it. You, are in control! Some anxiety may be a necessary component of our fight/flight response, but persistent, debilitating, everyday anxiety is not something we have to live with.
|Posted on 20 November, 2018 at 4:45||comments (0)|
Of all the different benefits clients report that they get from therapy, the one that comes up more than any other, and is often the first to be felt very early on in therapy, is the benefit of talking to someone who is completely unconnected to the issue the client is struggling with. Someone who isn’t emotionally invested in either the situation or anyone associated with it.
It is clear that there is a big difference between sharing our troubles with people we know, and sharing them with an impartial outsider, but what makes the difference, and is unburdening ourselves to a therapist any more beneficial than seeking support from a friend?
The clue is in the word burden, which is what a vast majority of us wish to avoid becoming. We would rather bear the weight of our worries alone than ask a friend or loved-one to share it. The problem becomes even greater if what is troubling us involves the people we love, and we can’t share our feelings for the added reason that we might upset someone. Nobody wants to ‘stir up a hornet’s nest’, or ‘open a can of worms’ and risk damaging relationships with those they love – the very people from whom they derive support.
The risk of damage to ourselves is seldom underestimated either. Although more rarely acknowledged out loud, the anxiety around making ourselves vulnerable to the people we see every day is also a factor. It could be that we are worried about letting people down – we may have partners or parents or friends that we look up to and respect, and the expectations we have of ourselves in those relationships inhibit our capacity for vulnerability, usually because we are afraid of being judged, or because we think we might become a disappointment by revealing what we perceive as our weaknesses.
No wonder, then, that one of the greatest effects clients report in the initial stages of therapy is relief – the effect of the weight set down just by being able to talk about difficult issues without fear of judgement or of harming the listener. It seems it is sometimes easier to be a burden to a stranger than to a friend. On the whole, clients also understand that a therapist is trained to reserve judgement, and bound by a code of ethics that dictates a level of confidentiality which cannot always be relied upon between even the closest and most well-meaning of loved-ones. And if they have allowed themselves to be really seen and heard, complete with all the things that most of the time may be kept hidden – anger, hurt, sadness, shame... the feeling of vulnerability that accompanies such openness can be left behind when they leave the therapy room.
Perhaps in the short-term counselling can, among other things, act like a safety deposit box, in which some of the things that may be making life difficult are placed for safekeeping with the therapist, who is trained to hold onto them, without judgement, until such time as the client is ready to take them out again, examine and integrate them. Or from another perspective, therapy can offer a place to practise being vulnerable by sharing the things we are afraid of sharing, when not sharing them has become unsustainable.
|Posted on 18 May, 2018 at 8:55||comments (0)|
What is stress? One way of looking at it is as the effect produced by any kind of change. But life is always changing, right? What is that saying – “the only constant in life is change”? In fact, we need a certain amount of change to keep us sane, because also, sometimes, “a change is as good as a rest”.
OK, so the right amount of change is important, because it keeps us alive, stimulated and motivated. Too little and we become bored and our lives seem to lack purpose. But every time we encounter change, our mental map of the world gets redrawn. Sometimes it gets redrawn only temporarily, like when a colleague is off sick and we have to cover their workload for a while, but at other times the redrawing can be more permanent, as it is, for example, when we change job, move house, or lose a loved-one. When we are under pressure or life is very busy it can feel like we are having to make too many alterations to our map all at once, and we can end up feeling stressed – tired, angry, anxious, unwell.
So what can we do to take care of ourselves at these times?
First of all we need to feel we have support, someone to turn to who will listen and try to understand and, if necessary, take the reins for a while so that we can rest and recuperate. This may be a professional, such as a counsellor, who can shoulder some of our emotional burden and help us explore any underlying issues, or it might be a friend or family member, who can help in a more practical way by taking over responsibility for something until the pressure we feel under subsides – a grandparent picking up the kids from school, for example, or a partner taking over the housework for a week.
Rest is also vital. When we are stressed we dream more and so get less of the restorative deep sleep we need. We go to bed tired and strung out, and wake up tired and groggy rather than refreshed and ready to face a new day. When we are rushed off our feet or under a lot of pressure, allowing ourselves time to decompress before we go to bed can improve the quality of our sleep. We can do this by going for a walk, sitting quietly, meditating, taking a bath...anything that restores calm and allows the fight/flight response to deactivate. Decompression is best done away from technology, as TV, social media etc will only increase stimulation. Playing or listening to music is good, but “conscious repose” is ideal. Be aware of the desire to comfort eat when stressed, and beware inertia too – I don’t know about you, but I find that the more I do, the more I want to do (just like the less I do, the less I want to do). During a hectic week recently, I found myself adding more pressure by deciding to swap round two of the rooms in my house. I got as far as measuring up to see if the furniture would fit before I realised what was happening. My “distraction” defence mechanism was activated, and my mind had found me a pleasant project with which to avoid the other less appealing jobs on my plate, but if I had gone ahead, all I would have done was pile on more pressure by adding to my To Do list, and increase the likelihood of my not finishing anything. This would undoubtedly have left me feeling more stressed. Definitely one mental map change too far!
When our mental map of the world is changing fast, routine can anchor us in the familiar and help guard against emotional overload; taking meals at regular intervals and finishing work on time, avoiding the temptation to work longer to try and achieve more – literally, enough...is Enough! Busyness is not a virtue. Going to bed and getting up at the same time each day, and allowing ourselves time off all count against the effects of stress too, so have that cheat day, and stick to date night or movie night if that’s what you normally do, even (especially) when it might feel like obligations are getting in the way.
So change can add interest to our lives, but too much can leave us reeling. Change can feel good, and at other times it can feel bad. But difficult changes can be beneficial, because we need a certain level of frustration in life to help us define and maintain our boundaries. In other words, we find out what is important to us and where our limits are – what we will stand for and what we won’t – when we encounter frustration. When we’re born we don’t have any awareness that we are separate, distinct from the rest of the world, and it is only through the natural frustration of our needs (a feed not arriving precisely on cue, for example), that we begin to experience ourselves as separate. So in a very literal way, early-life frustration teaches us where our edges are, first our physical ones, then later our mental and emotional ones. This process continues throughout life, and if we can learn to meet frustration with self-awareness and self-reflection, we can use it to better understand ourselves and live by our values, building an ever stronger and clearer sense of who we are.