So it's the holiday season again! It comes around quickly (unless you are under the age of 10!). For many of you, the festive season marks the end of a long year, a time to reflect and have a nice time with people around you. For just as many people though, Christmas and associated stuff is a really stressful time, and for many of my clients, it's a time of firsts. The first Christmas without their partner, the first holiday since someone has become unwell, the first holiday on treatment. Everyone deals with this differently, which is ok, but I think at this time of reflection, it's worth taking stock for everyone about how to make sense of everything that happens for us.
Our instinct is often to busy ourselves so we don't have to deal with difficult and painful emotions and hope that they will go away. Sometimes this can be a good short term strategy. But, perhaps instead a helpful skill is to learn how to sit with the emotions and to not be fearful of them. If we try and block them out and ignore them, they often just keep bouncing back at us. But, if we acknowledge the sadness, happiness, grief, anger and everything else that our brain throws at us we are able to change our relationship with it a little bit. It won't make it go away, but powerful emotions will never just disappear! Instead, by noticing what happens when you feel angry, sad etc then you can change the relationship you have to it. If you google some "sitting with emotions" there will be a heap of exercises come up which will be helpful.
And so, when these difficult things come up over the next couple of weeks (as I am sure they will for everyone), take the time to notice it, pay attention to it, and sit with the discomfort rather than trying to push it aside. This time of year leads to reflection and perhaps for you, it will bring you to decisions about changes or things to do differently. All of these things are good, even if they feel uncomfortable. Most change does.
So, on that note, I am going to sign off for the year, but I am looking forward to what the next one brings! Stay safe, look after yourself and the people around you.
Cheers Toni :)
It must be terrifying to be acutely aware of all of the bad things that might happen to us. If you wake up in the morning and head to work, there are probably hundreds of potentially harmful situations that we don't even think twice about. Unless of course you suffer from anxiety. We are all anxious at times, and there are situations which are inherently anxiety provoking, such as giving a speech, going to the dentist, job interviews, breakups etc. You might even have some that other people don't. That's ok, we all do. Although if you are amongst the group of people who suffer from anxiety on a daily basis, it can be horribly debilitating. On top of that, often unless someone tells you about it, you might not even know about it, so there may be people wandering about who are struggling through everyday, and you might even be one of them.
Why do we get anxious?
Well, the cliff notes version is that it keeps us alive. Without anxiety we wouldn't get anything done, wouldn't evolve and would walk ourselves into all kind of danger. If we didn't have these skills, the lions, tigers and bears (oh my!) that were running around in our ancestors past wouldn't have had much of a challenge. Our anxiety keeps us safe, the problem is that in our worlds right now there isn't a whole lot of things chasing us and eating us. But there are lots of other threats, generally fueled by our thoughts and perceptions. To keep us aware of these things, our brains are pretty good at sizing up threat and working out what to do with it.
Thanks for the history lesson, however I am still anxious...
First up, you will never get rid of your anxiety completely. No one does. Anxiety is very purposeful, and so getting rid of it would be unhelpful, but if you have lots of it, it's about scaling it down so it feels manageable. There are lots of schools of thought about how to manage your anxiety, and you can read about some of them by googling CBTor ACT. If you find a model that makes sense for you, it helps to find a therapist who works in that model and you are both on the same page.
Another helpful strategy, and the most effective if you are having panic attacks, is to use your breathing. When you become anxious, your breathing becomes fast and shallow (you may not notice) and tells your brain to get ready to escape or get ready to deal with whatever the problem is. If you slow your breathing down, you can tell your brain that you are ok, and it will reduce those anxious feelings.
I can guarantee that if you wait until you feel really anxious to try the breathing strategy, it won't work! You need to practice when you are feeling calm! There are whole bunch of exercises out there, but the one that I like is 6 second breathing, breath in for 3 seconds and then out for 3 seconds. Do this as many times as you like, but usually for at least 10 cycles (1min!).
It's hard to manage anxiety on your own, particularly if it's really bad and eating up a lot of your mind space. If this sounds like you, then I recommend getting some professional support.
Anyone have any strategies that work really well they would like to share?
Often people come to see me worried that they are going crazy, or that things are out of control. Despite considerable health promotion efforts, the sense that I get is that there remains a considerable stigma about mental health concerns, particularly for some cultural groups. Often when people walk into the therapy consult, they remain worried that they are going to be judged, minimise their problems and as a result don’t get the help they need. The step that people take to decide to come along is a huge one, and sometimes this gets minimised. You see for psychologists and GPs talking about mood, coping and depression is something that happens every day, so sometimes we forget just how hard it is, if you have never had to talk about it before.
How do you know if it would be helpful to have therapy?
Lots of things happen in our lives that make them difficult. In fact, I am yet to meet anyone who doesn’t have any difficult things happen in their lives. Sometimes we manage them well, particularly if they happen one at a time, and we have lots of space and time to process whatever is going on. But, generally what happens is that things don’t happen to us one at a time. In fact, in my experience there are always lots of dimensions to our stressors, and
sometimes trying to balance these become very difficult.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by what’s happening for you, or you are feeling that your mood is a little flat, if you become anxious or worried about things that you have not been worried about before, if you’re sleeping patterns have changed or you have lost interest in things that normally make you happy these are all things which are suggestive that things are becoming harder to manage. Like most things in life, it becomes easier to engage in help when things are starting to get hard, rather than waiting until you feel completely overwhelmed.
Often therapists are happy to chat with you about what you are concerned about, and whether they think therapy would help before you commit to coming along.
Other than therapy, what can I do?
Some of the things that will make you feel better, are the things that you normally stop doing when you start feeling flat or overwhelmed. One of the best things that you can do is to get your routine back on track, start eating well, and probably most importantly, start doing some exercise. All of these things help manage you mood, bolster your coping strategies and generally help you feel better. In addition to this, the thing to help you manage is to take time for yourself to do something that will make you feel better. It could be easy, it could be a treat or it could just be as simple as taking a nice long shower. But taking that one thing and prioritising it, can make a huge difference to your mood, even if it doesn’t feel like it at first.
However, if things are not feeling any better after you try these things, then you may need additional support. Often talking with your GP in the first instance can give you an idea of what might be helpful. If at any time you feel suicidal or have thoughts about harming yourself, then you need help straight away, and so the best option to the call the community mental health team in your area (easy to find if you google it!) and they can make contact and
engage support very quickly.