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

New Year’s Eve Anxiety : Endings and Beginnings

photoIt’s December 31st 2013 and tomorrow it’ll be 2014. Whilst one year ends the next one begins and this is a pivotal time for reflection, looking back and for contemplating the future. This time of year can also bring with it a great deal of anxiety – from the pressure of having to have fun and being part of a group as we see in the New Year in to dealing with the aftermath of Christmas and the dread of returning to studies or work.

Questions might arise such as; What am I doing with my life? Where are things going? What have I achieved? What should I be doing? These are all queries that put enormous pressure on us to do or be something other than we already are. Then, of course, when this time of year roles around again and we haven’t transformed our lives as we promised ourselves earlier in the year we focus on what we haven’t yet done rather that what we have done and so the cycle starts over again.

In our culture we have leaned to judge the end of things as often negative but, whilst endings can bring with them a natural degree of sadness and worry, we forget to allow room for the other side of the coin, namely beginnings. If we are mourning the loss of a loved one it is only natural that we allow ourselves time to grieve and mourn their absence. Other endings such as loosing a job or the end of a relationship can, similarly, take us into a place of despair and hopelessness. We dwell on the feelings of rejection or loneliness, which means our recovery takes longer or our confidence is knocked entirely.

Instead, we could to allow both truths to co-exist understanding that, whilst something ends something else begins. This is the law of change that exists throughout the entire universe. Incorporating this universal truth into our lives means allowing ourselves to fully experience whatever the end of something brings up for us. At the same time we can turn towards the other reality where a new beginning is already taking place. In doing this we don’t allow ourselves to deny our wounded feelings nor do we completely lose ourselves within our challenging emotions. Instead, we allow both to run side by side until we are ready to let go of the ending process and embrace the possibilities that the beginnings also offers us. In doing this we enable hope and optimism.

So whether you’re coming to the end of a project, a relationship, a job or simply contemplating the end of the year spend some time also allowing space for beginnings by asking yourself – what is beginning right now, who am I from this moment on? If you find your mind travelling into the future and dwelling in fear gently bring it back to the present moment.

“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” Alexander Graham Bell

5 Christmas tips for Social Anxiety

For those with social anxiety this time of year can bring added levels of stress and worry. From the office parties to the family get-together, anxiety levels are usually very high.

Self-consciousness, shyness and embarrassment are the common experiences of social anxiety. It also brings with it feelings of shame and much of the added stress comes from concealing this from others in order to fit in.

One of the great fears for someone with social anxiety is being put in the spotlight. Therefore sitting around a table in a confined space can be the source of huge stress.  I remember dreading dinner parties and eventually avoided them at all cost.

Another challenging component to social anxiety is the after effect of a social occasion. As someone who has struggled with this type of anxiety in the past I recall how I would obsess about what was said, how I came across and then beat myself up for not being good enough. If it had been a dinner party I’d tell myself that I wasn’t interesting enough and, of course, expect never to be invited again.  These days I’m much more relaxed about situations like these and not so bothered about how I come cross. Over the years I’ve learned to be kind to myself, manage my fears better, to show interest in others and to know that I am welcome.

On the back of my personal experience and my work with clients who struggle with social anxiety here are my 5 tips for surviving the various Christmas events;

  1. Know that you are welcome. Keep telling yourself this even if you don’t believe it. Understand that you are wanted and accepted. It’s sometimes enough for you to just be there and be yourself as much as you can.
  2. Understand that others are also afraid. It always appears that other people are relaxed and confident. Some are but most aren’t. Most people want to be liked and are fearful of rejection.
  3. Know that whatever you feel is a choice. If you don’t feel like joining in – smilingly decline. Stay interested in what is happening around you and allow yourself to say no if you’re really not ready. Saying no doesn’t have to be unfriendly or negative.
  4. Fake it ’till you make it. This sound like a dreadful idea but can be very effective. Imagine yourself however you’d like to be then take on that role. It can allow you to step beyond your comfort zone and discover new ways of being.
  5. Show interest in others. This is a great way to engage with others and make a good impression. Unless they also have social anxiety many people love being given attention, to have that space and to talk about what interests them. If you repeat back what you’ve heard in order to clarify this is even better as there is nothing better than truly being heard and understood.

Overcoming social anxiety can take time but it is possible as I have experienced. The key ingredients for me were; getting interested and curious about my fears instead of running away or covering up, being kind to myself and understanding where these fears come from, allowing others to be confident and relaxed without comparing myself, knowing that I’m welcome, valued and finding ways to move beyond all the self-doubt to know there is nothing wrong with me even if I do feel anxious.

For more information on social anxiety and weekly groups running in London check out – http://www.sashgroup.org

Loneliness Vs Solitude

It’s December 23rd and it’s the time of year when getting together with friends and family or perhaps cosy-ing up with a loved one is what many of us will be planning to do. It’s a wonderful time of year but also comes with a pressure and strain that can lead to that tinseled dream turning into an icy nightmare.

After many years of trying various tactics that have included both avoidance and throwing myself into it completely, I finally feel at peace with Christmas. I can now let it all happen around me without judgement or anxiety. However, in all my experiments I have found that I most enjoy Christmas when I spend it alone. In this space I can enjoy the indulgence of it, generally relax and take it all at my own pace.

Being alone can be a difficult space to inhabit in which a sense of deep unease and restlessness arises as we search for ways to fill that space with distractions such as – hours of watching television, emailing and texting or drinking and eating much more than we would do normally. We want to feel busy and connected and when alone with ourselves we can experience a profound boredom and loneliness.

For this reason being alone doesn’t come easily to many of us. For natural introverts it may be second nature while for other it takes practice and a little more effort. Part of the problem is that being alone is regarded, by our society, as something to move away from and generally encourages us to move more towards socialising and activities. Yet if more of us learned the art of solitude rather than the perceived sadness of loneliness there would be less of an ‘either / or’ situation and being alone could be regarded as an empowered personal choice.

Solitude is different from loneliness. Solitude is a choice in which to be fully present with our selves, whether that is in activity or inactivity and stillness. Loneliness, on the other hand, is an internal state of need in which we yearn for connection with someone or something outside of ourselves. This state is not a bad thing unless we turn it into something desperate and grasping. Rather, loneliness can direct us towards the needs within our heart and from there we can calmly align ourselves with what our hearts yearn for.

Meanwhile, solitude invites us to accept our aloneness completely, get still and enjoy the peace that is there inside ourselves beyond all the noise, stresses and distractions. Here we can re-charge and then, when we’re ready, move out into the world. We now feel more ourselves and more able to connect with our world in a genuine, authentic and fully alive way that is good for us and good for others. All we need do is give ourselves wholehearted permission.

Hyperhidrosis #2 – ‘It’s a cruel cruel summer!’

For those who have Hyperhidrosis summer here in London can be a nightmare. Especially if you’re commuting to and from work. Whilst air conditioning is increasingly being installed in offices, buses, shops and on the underground trains such as the district line, sweat soaked clothes before 9 in the morning is an all too familiar experience.

For most of the population sweating in the heat is a normal occurrence which, whilst uncomfortable, soon passes. However, for someone with hyperhydrosis, where the sweat glands and sympathetic nervous system are over active, excessive sweating is often an ever present discomfort.

The other day I jumped on one of the new route master buses which are based on an older style of hop on hop off bus, which were replaced several years ago. A tragedy in my opinion as they were great fun to travel on, employed a conductor and were well ventilated. The new designs by Thomas Heatherwick are a futuristic version but have no windows that can open, the idea being that temperature can be controlled internally. This is a huge oversight in the design as even in the coldest winter fresh air is a must. The day I hopped on the air conditioning on all buses had failed. Whilst it was 25 degrees outside it was more like 40 inside. Needless to say I hopped off at the next stop.

Similarly, whilst shopping for suitable summer clothes I went into a big brand store on Oxford street. To my horror the air conditioning had failed and whilst the staff ran around frantically setting up huge cooling machines machines, which did little other than blow the hot air around, I lasted about 2 minutes before heading for another store where the air conditioning was guaranteed to be in full swing. These days, has air conditioning turned us all into hypersensitive creatures of comfort?

Recently I spent some time in Malaysia where the temperature is consistently between 30 and 40 degrees centigrade with the humidity at around 90%. There, being too hot and sweating is something everyone experiences throughout the year. Some love the heat and the humidity whilst others struggle and these days, throughout Malaysia, it’s unusual to find a cafe, restaurant, shop or taxi that doesn’t have air conditioning. That’s great news for comfort but not such good news for the environment. As offices, homes and shops etc pump the hot air back outside conversely the outside heats up creating a vicious cycle. On top of that there’s the growing need for more power and energy – as we cool our interiors the exterior gets hotter. This reminds me of the smoking ban which improved the experience for non-smokers in bars, clubs and restaurants but step outside for some fresh air and you’re likely to get a lung-full of smoke as smokers are relegated to the ‘fresh air’.

Whilst summer in London can be a challenge for those with hyperhidrosis winter can also present another series of problems. This can include going from the cold outside into hot and over-heated spaces which may encourage the body to sweat and then back out into the cold again.

I remember the first time I went skiing. For those who have had the experience you’ll know how much energy is used when learning to do it. Falling down and getting back up produces a lot of body heat and being outside for most of the day I’d sweat and then I’d stop for lunch where I’d soon become cold and wet. Eventually I learned to take a change of clothes but those initial days of getting hot then cold then hot then cold resulted in me flying home with a nasty dose of flu. Being cold and wet for long periods can deplete the body’s immune system however there is one person who has developed a system for dealing with such conditions.

Wim Hof is known as the ‘Ice man’ and has swum under icebergs, run a marathon north of the polar circle wearing nothing but shorts and publicly demonstrated how he can spend hours submersed in ice. He has learnt to control his hypothalamus which governs the body temperature and claims that learning how to do this can strengthen the immune system and fight disease. He runs workshops in holland and the US and believes that anyone can learn to do it. His website is http://www.innerfire.nl and I’ve found some of his techniques very useful particularly if you experience sweating during the night which may also disturb your sleep.

Sitting on public transport and hurtling or sometimes crawling across the city can be a stressful experience in itself. This is often amplified by excessive sweating. I’ve found it very useful at times like this to meditate on the feeling of coldness on the skin. This is a memory we can all recall from being out in the snow, handling ice cubes or getting into a cold swimming pool. This accessible memory is like turning on the internal air conditioning and is just another tool to help us live with hyperhidrosis.

(It’s a cruel cruel summer!) c/o Bananarama 1983

The fear of fear

Anxiety can sometimes creep up on us. At other times it hits us unexpectedly catching us off guard. Then there’s the anxiety that always seems to be there, following us like an ominous shadow into every situation. It’s like a constant background hum of unease and dread. A shaky ungrounded feeling that leaves us vulnerable and full of doubt.

This experience can feed into a fundamental fear of the fear itself and we can find ourselves on the run, hiding from the uncomfortable feelings that anxiety brings with it and dreading might be lurking around the next corner. This can mean that we withdraw from life itself. Anxiety is part of life and part of of all our lived experiences yet for many it takes over and is debilitating.

Have you ever had dreams about being chased? Sometimes, in these dreams, we are pursed by wild animals that rarely catch us but we wake in the grip of terror and dread. It is our distorted beliefs about our live situations that is after us and it is those fearful beliefs that ultimately consumes us.

If we can gently start to turn towards the wildness of our fears and beliefs we may begin to understand that we have the power to master them and that we don’t have to be a slave to all the uncomfortable feelings and thoughts that overpower us.

Bravery, patience and perseverance are required but we can get there and eventually anxiety can become a great teacher.