Anxious thoughts…

Everyone has anxiety at times. What is it, exactly? According to the American Psychological Association: “Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” It is fundamentally a fear response, usually milder than full blown panic but with essentially the same physical response – a response to a perceived threat, even if the threat is something as innocuous as getting up for work in the morning. Anxiety can take many forms: there are phobias, OCD, and ‘free floating anxiety’, that frustrating feeling that something is wrong, but it’s not connected to anything in particular.

The body will act up, seemingly without our permission, and then usually thoughts jump in – worries, questions, all the ‘what if’s’. Anxious thoughts are usually about the future, which is why techniques that use meditation, mindfulness and grounding are generally suggested; the idea is to bring the person into the present, in order to feel that everything is ok right at this moment.

Anxiety and depression very often go together. Some people become so anxious that they feel hopeless and fall into a depression. Others are depressed, then the thought (fear) of taking action causes anxiety to flare up. Of course, both conditions can be present simultaneously. In my view, one of the things they have in common is a sense of powerlessness; a person can become frozen and be uncertain of what to do because they don’t know how to prepare for every eventuality. In other words, they want to have control over how things turn out. But the reality is no one know ahead of time what will happen.

What can be done? Just like every issue involving mental health there is no one size fits all solution. Each person needs to find what works for them, and it may involve different strategies at different times, or more than one. Medication is an option. Making efforts to change thinking is another method, and the techniques I outline here can be used for anxious thoughts also (with practice). The first step to is accept the thought, be OK with it. Other times when anxious it’s good to get moving — walk, swim, do yoga, get on an exercise bike …. still other times it’s good to sit still, meditate, rest, relax, and/or distract yourself from the thoughts. It’s good to have people to talk to, just to ‘vent’ or talk out an issue with someone and examine it logically. Writing can be very helpful; journaling, making lists and prioritizing, or even making a list of pros and cons about a subject.

Obviously, many of the above ideas can work in conjunction with therapy, either to have a nonjudgmental ear, someone to be accountable to, or to learn different coping techniques. What becomes clear as one tries to navigate all the stressors in life is that knowing yourself well can make all the difference. What works for me isn’t necessarily going to be helpful to you. My values and priorities may not be the same as yours. Sorting these things out is a lifetime job for most of us!

One thing I find useful is to step back and look at the big picture. It’s not always possible but can be extremely freeing to realize that this thing I’m so worried about is not really that important in the big scheme of things. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, I’m just one person on this little dot in a big universe, trying to do my best.

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Self-Compassion

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Most people are hard on themselves, more so than they are on others.  I have found this common thread running through clients, friends, and myself. We tell ourselves we are stupid, we shouldn’t have done that, said that, should have done something different. We ask ‘what’s wrong with me?’, “why am I like this?”  and so on.

Once I gain a client’s trust and make a real connection (which does not always happen, I am not going to pretend I’m the best therapist for everyone), there often comes a point where we get down to what’s going on inside his or her head.  Now, some people don’t notice their thoughts, and it’s all a muddle of swirling words and image, but most people are aware of at least some ‘self-talk’ — and that is where change can begin.

Let me break it down:

What do you tell yourself?  Do you criticize  yourself, tell yourself you’re a loser, a failure, will never amount to anything?  Do you berate yourself endlessly for saying the wrong thing, for wishing you had done something differently? Do you call yourself names?

Imagine you are your best friend.  Would you tell your friend they are a failure, or ask what’s wrong with them?  For most people, of course the answer is no.  So why are you treating yourself worse than your friend?  You would likely tell your friend everyone makes mistakes, no one’s perfect, or something along those lines.

So why are you holding yourself to a higher standard than your friend? For many people, I believe it’s important to ask ‘why’, and answers often emerge during individual therapy.  But there is something most of us can do, starting right now:

  • Whenever possible, notice your thoughts. Awareness always comes first
  • When you notice yourself being critical or negative about yourself, DON’T FIGHT IT.  By fighting against the thought you are actually reinforcing it. So –
  • Accept the thought.  “Oh, there I go again, calling myself stupid”.   Just notice and accept.  You can tell yourself it’s OK to think/feel that way, you are human.  Humans make mistakes. Humans are not perfect.
  • As you become more accepting, change the thought (reframe it):   “I’m not stupid, I did the best I could at the time”.

Each person has to find the best way to listen and talk to themselves. The idea is to develop, over time, the habit of observing your thoughts, and to be compassionate with yourself.

I have used this method, and over time have found that I rarely think badly of myself. When I do slip up I find that there is little of the emotional intensity behind it.  None of what I have said is original, and a lot has been written about how changing your thinking changes the brain, but right now I am just focusing on keeping it simple — how to feel better about yourself.

I welcome your comments!