Simple tools for Anxiety #1 – ‘Portrait of the Day’

This simple and quick exercise is great for transforming upset and stress.

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or upset, perhaps you feel the world is against you or maybe you just feel down and not sure why. If so get yourself a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On the left list all the bad things that have happened. On the right lists all the good things that have happened and include the smallest things. For example – I enjoyed my lunch, it was sunny, I had a nice conversation, this or that was interesting – anything! Notice how many things you forgot about because of your unwanted internal feelings and notice how you feel after making the lists. Do you still feel the same?

By doing this exercise it is both possible to transform the upset and to perhaps notice how attached you are to feeling upset. In the case of being attached you may draw up the list, feel a bit better and then go straight back to feeling miserable and decide the exercise doesn’t work. If this is the case it isn’t the exercise but just the mind’s determination. Your mind may tell you – if you stop feeling upset you will be taken advantage of or that you don’t deserve to be happy. None of this is true. Your mind is just innocently making these things up because it believes that’s what you want. You can change your mind and the stories it tells you. However, this can take time and effort when particular states of mind and belief systems have been well practiced over time. Don’t worry, all your upset and stress is actually just information that is in fact pointing you towards what needs to happen for things to change. It just take a willingness to get curious and a desire to face the difficulties you’re experiencing.

So, if what I’ve just described is true for you then add to the bottom of the exercise the following – “Right now I am choosing to be upset and I could choose not to be.” Even if you don’t believe these words write them down and keep practicing. Ideally at the end of each day and continue to notice any resistance. Resistance is just information.

If on the other hand you feel much better – identify the main things on the list that shifted the negativity and highlight them. Again, keep practicing.

Practice is important. The more we practice something the better we get and this is the same for negative and upsetting emotions as it is for confident and positive emotional and mental states. It’s absolutely no different than learning something new or going to the gym. However, if we want to think or behave in new ways we have to work at it and appreciate that this can take time.

Practicing this simple list is an exercise in changing your mind so that you’re free to enjoy your life and by doing this you can paint a very different picture of the day. One that is truer than the one you might be struggling and suffering with. We all have a tendency towards seeking negativity and problems – it’s part of our human survival mechanisms – so don’t worry you’re not alone. We just need to establish reminders about how to use these effectively so that our minds serve us and not the other way around. Reminders could be in the form of post-it notes around the home, timed reminders on our phones, a dedicated note book by the side of our bed or set and alarm to go off the same time each evening.

The main point of this exercise is to train our minds to notice the positive aspects of our selves and our lives more and more and by doing this build confidence and improve self-esteem.

“If we look for the negative we will find it and if we look for the positive we will find it – but only every time. This applies to everything and the choice is ours.”

I say all this from experience and the tools that I share with you are ones that I have tried and tested myself and have greatly benefited from.

Please let me know how you get on.

psychotherapy4london.co.uk

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The Fear of Fear: 3 tips on how to calm the dread

When thinking about an upcoming situation or event many say that what scares them most is the anticipation of fear more than the fear itself.


So what’s the difference? Essentially one is a fantasy about something that is in the future and yet to happen whilst the other is a sensory reaction to something that is happening here and now. Both, one could argue, are as a result of negative mental content about the self – “I can’t cope”, “I’m not good enough” or “I can’t handle failure or rejection”. Whether it’s a fantasy about the future or a difficulty happening right now the same stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, are released into the body as the mind signals danger and prepares the body for fight or flight. Being on full alert like this can lead to sleepless nights, panic attacks and general exhaustion.

The anticipation of future fear engenders feelings that can best be described as ‘dread’. Here, it’s the fantasy of the awful feelings that accompany the situation that crowd into ones mind. One feels powerless to stop them. This might include projecting into the future and imagining the worst case scenarios or replaying past situations over and over and from different perspectives as if to figure them out. The problem is that the past and the future don’t actually exist, other than in the mind, memory and imagination. So all that happens is that we get lost in an illusion but with all the real feelings of fear.

With all this mental time travelling the mind is stretched between two imaginary worlds, which drains our mental and physical energy and is a sure recipe for stress and worry.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be like this.

Here a few quick ideas for when the fantasy of fear strikes;

1. Unplug from the future and the past. Bring yourself into the present moment. The here and now is the only true place and time that actually exists and the only reality that really needs your full attention. Therefore the first thing to do is just notice – “Ah yes my mind is now in the future or the past”. Next, come back to the present by focusing on your breathing, your body sensations or something in front of you within the physical environment. This might simply be the ground under your feet or an external three-dimensional object. Then see how long you can remain present with this before your mind takes you off again, which it will. This is the nature of mind and so you’ve got an ongoing fight on your hands, as we all have. It’s a life-long practice. Learning the art of meditation is a great way to train yourself in how to tame the mind. If all fails app games on your smartphone are a good way of distracting your mind for some time during intense periods of stress.

2. Welcome the fear. For many people this is a bit of a stretch and you might yell, “What??!!! No way, I want it gone!!” This is understandable, but given that fear and anxiety does happen and is an unavoidable human condition you might like to entertain the notion of accepting the reality and working with it. Here, you can put worrying about the future on hold and just wait for it to happen. This does not mean discontinuing to work on what is causing the fear and acquiring tools to further support yourself. It means that you learn to expect fear and then attempt to live alongside it. As such, you’ll realise that it is possible to coexist alongside fear and that fear and non-fear can happen simultaneously. An example of this might be a presentation at work – your heart might be pounding, you might be shaking and sweating, you may be going red, your voice and breathing might be restricted. Whilst this is happening your ego will be labelling these experiences as ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’. Your ego’s nature is to seek and cling onto perfectionism, certainty and safety. Meanwhile, another part of you is getting on with delivering the presentation. This is fear and non-fear coexisting. By giving space to your fear in this way you ‘let it be’ and as result you may have space in which to generate some compassion and kindness for that scared part of ourselves, which is like a frightened child. How would you speak to a frightened child?

3. Step out of thinking. This is what meditation masters over thousands of years have strove to achieve. As such it’s much easier said than done. However, there is great power and simplicity in understanding that you don’t actually HAVE to think all the time. At our current stage in human evolution we have all conditioned ourselves to be driven by our thoughts. The truth is that thinking is a wonderful gift that helps us solve problems and create the world around us. Conversely, the curse of thinking is that we often create problems within our selves. The philosopher Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am”, which perfectly encapsulates how we currently and firmly identify with our thoughts – THINKING IS US. However, if we turn that around, “I am, therefore I think”, thinking becomes a part of our human experience rather than the totality of it. Thinking is just one of our six-sense faculties, which we have learned to over use and over identify with. So when you’re next lost in your fantasies (thoughts) about the future it’s helpful to know that, firstly, this is just your thinking faculty that is running the show. Secondly, you don’t HAVE to think. You can step out of the flow of thinking, as if it’s a fast flowing river, onto the river bank and rather than be swept away by it watch it flow past. Most of the time you feel you have no choice in whether to think or not. Generally we all have very busy minds. However, taming your minds is no easy task and takes time, perseverance and patience but is absolutely achievable. The important thing to become aware of is that you are in charge, not your thoughts. Thoughts are your workforce whilst you are the CEO.

I hope these quick ideas will be helpful whenever you next find yourself feeling overwhelmed by thoughts of the future. For further information about how to further deal with fear and anxiety please check out my other website –

www.psychotherapy4london.co.uk

Self-Doubt – Part 2

A Cultural Norm?

Before I began researching self-doubt I’d often heard it referred to as useful or important and that without it one might become arrogant. This often struck me as being at odds with the harsh, critical and self-limiting reality of self-doubt. If the opposite of self-doubt were arrogance no wonder it seemed to be such a widely accepted norm.

However, what if true self confidence has nothing to do with being an extrovert, demonstrative or even successful. What if it has everything to do with simply trusting oneself? As such the opposite of self-doubt is not arrogance or an inflated sense of confidence but actually trust and self belief.

When I trust in myself the world around me feels like a safer place to be, my faith in others is stronger and I’m more resilient to deal with life’s challenges. When I don’t have belief or faith in myself I’m faced with self-doubt wherever I go. The world is full of uncertainty and I feel both vulnerable and a victim to a world where others have all the power, success and happiness.

Internal querying of ourselves and the world is a natural and normal mechanism, which can also be regarded as our moral compass that assesses what the right thing to do or say is. Self-doubt is part of this mechanism but it turns the querying into criticism. Because of the important moral aspect it is no wonder we confuse critical self-doubt with being so important. However it is self-regulation that is important. Self-regulation is the internal assessment process that supports our journey through our lives.

In my next blog I outline the two aspects of self-doubt and self-regulation the purpose of which is to provide a simple tool for empowering ourselves and navigating beyond the self-limitation. I argue that self-regulation is the important device that assesses what is right for me as well as the world around me whilst self-doubt is a defensive position that keeps me limited and withdrawn from my life.

Understanding self-doubt as a cultural norm means we can step beyond it and make different choices. As such we can shift our attention away from unhelpful internal dialogues and towards that which helps us grow and live more fulfilling lives.

Self-Doubt – Part 1

‘My encounter’

Some time ago I decided to embark on a research MA in psychotherapy. Prior to commencing I had spent a couple of years researching my chosen topic. As a result I felt quite confident and prepared as I approached the initial stages of the programme. However, as I proceeded I was soon faced with familiar feelings of withdrawal that I recognised as self-doubt. Suddenly my chosen subject, my abilities and capacities were all brought into question. This habitual encounter with self-doubt, I realised, would often result in me abandoning similar endeavours. From here I became aware of numerous projects deserted and strewn throughout my past. I also now understood how my ongoing encounter with self-doubt continually directed me away from my true nature and, as such, authentic expressions of myself. The sort of internal dialogues around self-doubt that I found myself grappling with included – I’m not good enough – I can’t do this – I’m going to fail – I need to be perfect – there’s something wrong with me  – who do I think I am?- and so on. Self-doubt seemed only to serve to keep me small and as such my life limited. The question that now rose was – why?

As I next considered how to proceed, and with the prospect of two years of research ahead of me, I wondered why I hadn’t chosen self-doubt as my research topic as it was rich data that I had immediate access to. With that thought I was suddenly alive with inspiration and it was as if my new topic had chosen me and it now felt unavoidable. Until I turned to face self-doubt and made this my focus I knew I would continue to struggle with it as a limitation.

Therefore, my initial proposal was replaced by the topic of self-doubt. From now on any doubt or uncertainties would become part of the research and the heart of the investigation. Other areas of interest went on hold until I uncovered the nature of self-doubt and understood its origins. I decided to put myself at the centre of the research and used active imagination through which to explore the subject. This took the form of meditations, visualisations, journalling and dream analysis from which I designed a workshop where I would compare my findings with that of others who also encountered self-doubt as a limitation within their lives.

The question that took me into the research became – what is the nature of self-doubt and how can active imagination enable both understanding and transformation? As I progressed over the next two years it became clear that very little has been written on the subject despite many of us struggling with self-doubt. People around me as well as clients I worked with often construed it as being their greatest difficulty. Whenever I asked clients to rate their experiences of depression, anxiety, anger, fear etc, self-doubt was often the one they identified immediately and rated the most prominent. Like me, it seemed to stand in the way of whatever they wished to do, say or be.

The following series of blogs entitled Self-Doubt – Parts 1-5′ chart my experiences and findings from the two year research period. Please feel free to contribute your thoughts, opinions and experiences.

The everyday art of Meditation

For the past twenty one years I’ve practiced Vipassana meditation. There are many other forms of meditation out there many of which I’ve explored, however I keep coming back to Vipassana as I find it works at a much deeper level than any others I’ve experienced.

For me, meditation has helped me understand the nature of my busy mind and to bring myself more into the present moment. It has also enabled a better connection to my body and before I discovered meditation I was often stressed, angry and lost in my thoughts. All of this was what was perfectly normal to me and it had never occurred to me that perhaps I had a choice in what I did with my thoughts or how I reacted. Instead I was a slave to my reactive mind and body and a prisoner of my thoughts. Fantasising and worrying about the future or dwelling in past were states I was very familiar with and alcohol or other distractions being ways I coped with difficult feelings such as anxiety or depression.

Twenty one years ago I was coming to the end of a three month student exchange at a design college in Melbourne, Australia. My plan was to travel around the country before heading back to Manchester in the UK where I was in the middle of a three year design degree. Before leaving a friend, with whom I’d been to see the Dalai Lama give a talk at the Rod Lever arena in Melbourne, suggested doing a ten day meditation retreat outside Sydney in the Blue mountains. She explained that there was no charge and payments were based on donation. She also talked about the wonderful location and the great vegetarian food but beyond that she said very little. As a student with not much money the suggestion instantly appealed. I called the centre and miraculously they had space on the next course so all was set. Doing something alternative, becoming a beacon of calm and tranquility along with attaining the ability to sit in some sort of lotus-type position, I have to admit, where the only thoughts and expectations floating around in my twenty four year old mind.

Setting off from Melbourne I spent a few days exploring Sydney before heading up to the Blue mountains and the small town of Blackheath, which was a quiet contrast to the energy of Sydney. It was early June and so the beginning of winter. At the station I was met by a man in a truck and he drove me and a couple of other prospective meditators up to the centre. I remember that he parked at the end of a driveway and a we walked the rest of the way as snow fluttered in an icy breeze. Winter was not something I’d associated with Australia and so by this stage in the year I was ill equipped but thankfully had remembered to buy a jumper and a beanie hat in Sydney beforehand.

The centre consisted of a series of timber structures nestled amongst eucalyptus trees with landscaped gardens and carp ponds all on an escarpment over looking the Blue mountains and the valleys below. On first sight it was exactly what I’d expected of a meditation centre; peace, tranquility and beauty. This was going to be a great story to add to my experience down under and share my friends and family back in the UK.

After registering I was allotted a room but discovered that I would to be sharing with 5 other men and I would have to clamber up onto a bunk bed. This was the first blow to my idyllic fantasy. Back in the dinning room all 50 or so people who were taking part gathered and waited for the course to begin. Soup was served and we chatted in between uncomfortable silences. It was now dark outside and as the hours ticked by my impatience and uncertainty mounted. Thoughts such as “What the hell am I doing here?” and “This isn’t for me – I’m going to end up in some cult and so better make a run for it whilst I still can” played around in my head. However, before I could do anything about it the course manager came in with a series of announcements and introductions, explained the rules and pointing out various practicalities. The course was due to start at 8pm and he would bang a gong at which point we would enter ‘noble’ silence. By this stage I was feeling very nervous.

Some time after 8pm we were taken into the meditation hall and allotted large square cushions that would serve as our seating position for the duration. Men and women were kept apart with separate sleeping quarters, dining rooms and in the meditation hall men sat on the left and women on the right. As I adopted the Buddha-like position I watched, through squinting eyes, to see what others were doing. Was I doing it right? Suddenly someone, who I thought must be the teacher, entered and serenely positioned himself on an cushion facing us. I straightened my back. Through the ensuing silence and my half closed eyes I could see him fumbling with a tape which he clattered into a machine and pressed play. As he straightened himself I quickly closed my eyes lest he spot my fake buddha-hood and eject me from the course. From the speakers deep guttural chanting that sounded more like groaning filled the room as my mind filled with the idea of a goat being dragged in and slaughtered any minute. This was a weird cult after all but there’s no turning back now I thought. Never mind – what a story! Eventually the voice of the taped teacher, a man called Goenka, spoke, “You have all assembled here to proceed on the noble path of wisdom.” Enter goat! He went on to take the group through five precepts which included; no stealing, no lying, no killing, no taking intoxicants and no sexual misconduct. We all repeated the promise not to do any of these things for the duration of the course and were instructed to ask the teacher for guidance which also repeated in unison, sort of.

A tape recording? I couldn’t quite get my head around it. Perhaps this was just the beginning and the actual person sitting in front of us would impart some instructions tomorrow. At 9pm the introduction was over and we went off to bed in silence to be woken early the next morning.

When the gong went at 4am I was keen to hear the ‘real’ instructions on how to do meditation so quickly got ready in the chilled darkness and eagerly positioned myself in the hall. It was still dark and bitterly cold which added a cosiness to the meditation hall. A silent landscape of blanketed adults began to take shape like soft rocks, which struck me a quite beautiful. At 5.15am the teacher appeared, positioned himself as before followed by the clatter of tapes once again and Goenka’s chanting. Once that had finished Goenka instructed us to observe our breath as it enters our nostrils and as it exits. That was it.

Bewildered, I headed to the dining room for breakfast at 6.30. As we silently ate our breakfast I was wowed by the view from the dining hall. The moon, huge and peach-like, appeared to be setting over a lake of cloud down in the valleys below. It was a striking backdrop to my confusion.

Returning to the meditation hall later the same procedure ensued and then continued for the next 4 days. Observing the breathe as it comes in as it goes out. I couldn’t believe how easy it was yet unbelievably difficult with often 20 minutes passing before I realised I was lost in my thoughts and had forgotten all about my breath. On day four the focus of attention changed. Starting from the top of our heads and slowly moving down to our toes noting all the sensations then back up again. For someone like me who regarded my body as just something that held my head up this was uncharted territory.

By the end of the course any expectations I might have had were obliterated. Becoming all buddha-like was irrelevant and tranquility and peace were bi-products but far from the actual experience of the course.

In fact, by the end of the course everything seemed to have changed. The icy snow flurries had vanished and although we were now further into winter there was a distinct feeling of spring in the air. Flowers seemed to be blooming, the sun shone and animals came into clearings as if out of a scene form Snow White. After 10 days of silence talking was a shock and at the same time a verbal flood ensued as everyone who had taken part for the first time couldn’t wait to share their experiences. Meantime, those who had come back for a second or third time, avoided the chattering masses. At the time I couldn’t understand their need for continued seclusion let alone the fact that anyone would come back to go through the ordeal again, it was mind boggling to me.

Looking back I now understand both. The budding nature of spring that I was experiencing outside was actually inside me as something opened, shifted and was in the process of a major transformation.

21 years on I’ve now completed many 10 day retreats with each experience different from the last despite the instructions and the structure of the course being exactly the same as that first one back in Australia. I continue to get benefits from both the daily practice as well as the occasional experience of spending time in silence. I find that through the silence and the intensity of the extended periods of sitting I get insight and clarity into what direction I want my life to go. Any confusions and internal conflicts seem to get ironed out and I often emerge feeling clearer and refreshed. At other times it’s hell from start to finish but I’ve come to know that this is just as ok as the clarity and openness. It’s the nature of change.

Stepping back into the outside world can be a bit of a shock but on the course silence is lifted on the final day providing the opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with our vocal chords. Talking acts as a shock absorber before leaving and re-entering the outside world the following day.

Back in the busy world I recently, watched a documentary film on the artist Marina Abramovic who is famed for her physical installations that explore the relationship between pain, relationships and the body. The film charts her creative life but focuses on a recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Central to the show was her most recent piece entitled ‘The Artist is Present’, which was also the title of both the exhibition and the film. Within the piece Marina sits on a chair as visitors queue to sit opposite her. During that time they look at each other in silence for however long the visitor wishes. The show lasted for four months and Marina sat all day for the duration of the exhibition. Marina later described how she’d encountered a broad spectrum of emotions in the faces of her visitors that ranged from anger to sadness and love. She also described the pain of sitting for such long periods and how she’d have to look out beyond her suffering to connect with the other.

I found this film hugely inspiring and whilst it was an expression of the artist’s creative ego it also represented some of the challenges of meditating for long periods of time and the range of experiences that can be encountered during that time from bliss to boredom and depression. In ‘The Artist is Present’ Marina Abramovic turned sitting and observing into an art form. Similarly, I find that meditation provides a space in which creativity takes place and from which inspiration and insights emerge. One of the main aims of meditation is to become present. Marina’s presence beyond the suffering enabled connection with another human being. In meditation we seek connection with ourselves, our truths and the reality of each arising moment within the framework of our minds and bodies. From here, we can move out into the world bringing our presence and inspiration with us in order to be in better relationship, not only with ourselves but also, with everything around us. http://www.dhamma.org

Self-doubt – friend or foe?

Have you ever had a great idea only to find that as you try to take it forward you run out of steam or give up?

Chances are you may be in the grip of self-doubt. Often we are so familiar with self-doubt dictating what we do or don’t do that we’re unaware how much it stops us from expressing who we really want to be.

Here’s a couple of examples;

You have an idea that you’d like to write a book, you enjoyed writing at school and although this may have been some time ago you enroll on a creative writing course. On the course you feel really inspired and enjoy exploring different styles and generally getting back into writing as form of creative expression. During that time you’re encouraged to read your work out loud and whilst this brings up a lot of anxiety you receive some good feedback along with some constructive criticism. After the course you have some great ideas but you find yourself doing nothing further. Although you think about your initial idea of writing a book you also have thoughts like, “I’m not that good”, “others are better than me”, “who am I to write a book?” etc. These thoughts now overpower the original thought and they win the day.

Or .. you want to find a new job. You think you’d like to work for yourself and you have a few ideas but you are filled with anxiety every time you think about retraining or the possibility of not having a steady income. The thoughts that arise may include; “it will take too long”,”I will run out of money”, “I may fail” etc. Again, these limiting thoughts win the day.

The examples could go on to include; finding a new relationship, speaking out, moving home, following a passion, changing your mind, making decisions and the list goes on…

Of course, the argument in favor of self-doubt says that if I don’t have doubt I’ll be out of control, I’ll become arrogant or make bad decisions etc. This is where distinguishing the difference between self-doubt and self-regulation is very useful.

Self-regulation is the natural internal process that assesses our capacities, resources, talents and abilities. It is a concrete rational understanding that if, for example, I’m 95 years old, with all the will in the world, I’m unlikely to win a gold medal in gymnastics. However it might help me become a little more active.  Similarly, if I want to become a tree surgeon and I’m currently working in the banking industry self-regulation is going to help me fathom what needs to happen in order to get me to where I’d like to be.

Self-doubt, on the other hand is the internal critic. This critic acts out of fear and simply wants to keep us safe and secure. In listening to this and believing what we hear we keep ourselves stuck and our lives limited to what is familiar and away from uncertainty.

Getting into relationship with the dialogues that go on inside ourselves and embracing those moments of inspiration where we have a desire to move towards an expression of our soul nature can provide us with a map of how our live could be.

Moving beyond self-doubt and critical limitations can open up our lives in ways that, up until now, have only been a distant dream. Suddenly we become the writer we’ve always wanted to be or the tree surgeon or anything that truly makes our hearts sing.

Self-doubt can become a friend that can point us towards our wounds, our fears and what needs to heal. From there we can negotiate our doubts in order to live the lives we really want and align with our true-selves.

Coming to the end ..

Today is the ‘End of time’ according to the ancient Mayans. Whilst their calender ends today after nearly five and a half thousand years there was nothing to suggest an apocalypse yet across the globe thousands of people are preparing for our imminent conclusion. There is much debate about why it ends so abruptly but endings tend to have that element of surprise and the unknown about them.

Even those who were completely unaware of the calender and its significance, are now drawn into it’s web due to our mass global media. On the internet there is talk of people in China frantically stocking up on candles lest the sun be extinguished. Meanwhile, a friend of mine is gathering with others on a hill in Glastonbury to mark the end of time and celebrate the winter equinox. She assures me that she will be thinking of me should the earth come to a grinding halt.

Within therapy we often work with endings. The end of relationships. The death of a loved one. Loss of health. The end of a job. Within the difficulties that all these situations present there is also the beginning of something, even if it’s the beginning of the grieving process.

At the end of a therapy session I tell my clients that we have a few minutes left before we need to pause. Whilst it’s an end in itself our work is often on-going so I prefer the term ‘pause’. Eventually our work comes to an end and I like to allow a good few weeks to tie up any loose ends and review what has happened as well as what needs to happen next. In doing this we honor our work together recognising that whilst there are endings there are also beginnings.

Why talking therapy?

When I first sat in front of a counsellor and attempted to discuss the difficulties I was facing I found the experience of opening my mouth and speaking to a complete stranger both strange and profound. The counsellor patiently listened as I tried to give voice to my inner struggles and during a brief pause I was shocked to hear the words I had uttered repeated back in a calm and coherent manner as the counsellor sought clarity with sentences such as, “What I’ve heard is …” “Do I understand correctly?” “It sounds like what you’re experiencing is ..”

It made me smile to have been listened to and hearing the counsellor reflect back what I had been trying to communicate held a mirror up through which I gained understanding into my situation at that time. Within that simple interaction where words were exchanged, rambled, filtered, sifted, reflected and understood I felt a great knot of tension unraveling. Leaving that first session I felt lighter, less anxious and deeply inspired.

For this reason, and the subsequent sessions which helped me further, I decided to train as a psychotherapist and offer this service to others. I continue to find the power of putting words and voice to the challenges we face and to have these accurately mirrored back enormously transformative and healing. For many of us we have not been brought up to voice our difficulties let alone have them heard and understood so the dynamic between a talking therapist and client can be unique and create a space in which it is possible to understand ourselves better.

All about Social Anxiety

Social Anxiety is the fear of people and in particular social situations. These situations can include work scenarios as well as at social gatherings. People with social anxiety often don’t know they have it and can struggle for years before understanding their fearful reactions.

At the end of this article you’ll find some links that can offer some extra support or information.

About labels

For me, getting my head around the idea that the difficult feelings I experienced in certain situations might be social anxiety was actually a great relief. It had got to a stage in my life where I was beginning to avoid socialising as the stress was often overwhelming. Defining my social difficulties gave me the opportunity to really examine my anxiety, where it came from and what I could do about it.

How do you know you have social anxiety?

Does the invitation to a dinner party fill you with dread and fear? Rather than looking forward to meeting new people do you wrack your brain for an excuse not to go? Do meetings at work leave you feeling traumatised? Do you spend your time in meetings worrying about being put on the spot? Do the feeling you experience in these and other situations include; heart pounding, shortness of breath, self-consciousness, blushing, shaking, sweating, panic and feelings of being trapped? Do you also beat yourself up after these kind of events and then experience feelings of guilt, shame and depression? If this sounds like your experience then getting to grips with social anxiety may be good news.

What’s good about it?

Understanding why we struggle is a huge step in the right direction.  A step towards being kind to ourselves and away from beating ourselves up followed by self imposed isolation. Social anxiety can be a very lonely experience. For some people, though, understanding that they just prefer their own company and simply to give themselves permission to enjoy this is all that is needed. Remember, there is no right or wrong way for putting ourselves where we really want to be. However, for the majority who struggle with this type of anxiety they find themselves caught between how they would like to be and how they actually are. This is also good news as it point to how you really could be. The next step is how to get there and this can take a while but is worth the journey and the effort as I am testament.

What’s the cause?

People have social anxiety for a variety of reasons. My personal opinion is that somewhere down the line in our past we have taken on board that we are not ok as we are and this has lead to self-consciousness. This may not mean that we were criticised or bullied, as is often the case, but that we may also have been over protected. In the latter case it is often when individuals leave home that the problems start. In the former it it is generally our school where we experienced trauma as a result of sustained bullying and rejection.

What is social anxiety?

Social anxiety is a phobia and is one of the most common forms of phobia. When someone experiences a phobia such as claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces) they experience panic and stress similar to those of social anxiety. These symptoms can be found in all forms of phobia. When any animal is in danger three responses arise; fight, flight or freeze. Adrenaline is produced and prepares the animal to fight or flight. With freeze the same reaction occurs but the stress is so overwhelming that the body is paralysed. This state is sometimes regarded as catatonic. The same survival responses occur during the experience of phobia but the reality is our live are not in danger yet our bodies and brains seem to believe this to be the case and react accordingly.

What can you do about it?

Psychotherapy can be a great help in talking about your experiences and what may have happened in the past. Body-based psychotherapy works for many as does EMDR which is designed to release trauma from the mind and body. Joining a social anxiety group can also be a great way of supporting yourself. Knowing that I was not alone in my experience helped me. Social anxiety effects many people of all ages and from all backgrounds. The important thing to remember is that anxiety is part of all our lives and experiences and is a vital feeling but it doesn’t have to rule our lives – we can make friends with it and move towards where we really want to be.

Contact me if you’d like to know more about individual therapy or check out the UKCP directory of therapists.

For social anxiety groups in London check out the social anxiety self-help group.

 

 

Psychotherapy as Art

Recently, I watched a documentary about the performance artist Marina Abramovic which followed the process of putting together an exhibition of her work at MoMA in New York. At the heart of her exhibition was a new piece of work entitled ‘The Artist is present’. In this installation there were two chairs facing each other and a table in between. In one chair sat Marina whilst visitors queued to sit in the chair opposite. Once they had settled themselves Marina raised her head and established eye contact for the duration of their sitting. The rules were simple, no talking, no physical contact just eye contact. They could sit for as long as they wished and she remained present for the entire three months of the exhibition.

The effect of this pure and still presence attracted huge attention with some visitors queuing day and night to sit opposite her. She later described how she observed the emotional states that many sitters brought, from simple curiosity to anger and sadness to love and pain. For many there was a sense of being seen for the very first time and in this encounter deep emotions were stirred.

What was it about this simple performance that affected so many people?

In our society we have created little room for just being and as a result many of us are constantly on the move in a never ending cycle of action and reaction. Here, in the center of one of the busiest cities in the world an artist sat as the art itself and observed the observers. In that inaction she brought the visitor into the present moment with her.

Later, Marina decided to have the table removed. Now the dynamic of the piece resembled the same composition as in the psychotherapy session between therapist and client. However, in therapy there is the boundary of time where words are exchanged.

Can that pure still presence manifest in the container of a 50 minute therapy session where words and language are ever present?

I believe it can and does ..

The essence of that piece and the intention of pure presence reminded me of what we attempt to do as psychotherapists and often fail through words, interventions, solutions and opinions. We know we shouldn’t but they leak out through our mouths and our body language. The piece reminded me of what I’ve experienced as most trans-formative, both as a client and with my clients as a therapist. That of being fully present with what is happening in the room and witnessing from a place of empathic regard.

I’m always amazed, as I sometimes find myself hurtling across London, at how the troubles of my day dissolved when I’m able to bring myself fully present with my clients. Sometimes that can be challenging when the troubles of the day are great but as I listened to Marina describe the pain she often experienced through sitting for long hours and observing her visitors. In this I was again reminded of how we learn to look out from beyond ourselves into the lives of our clients and sometimes it’s just about being there as fully as we can be.