Rethinking Worry

My class at the VCS in December focused on worry and anxiety. Starting with a description and discussion of the differences between these, the focus was on strategies to be with emotions differently (working from a felt-sense, and building both grounding and emotion-regulation skills).

So what does worry, anxiety, fear, and panic have in common? Each state amps up our nervous system: awakening our senses and moving us into readiness for action – for our survival. Each state has a helpful side to it as well as a problematic side.worry_bird

Worry can encourage us to take action to change a situation. For example, a few years back I was worried that I wasn’t confident driving a car with standard transmission (which was all I had to drive at the time). I took a few extra driving lessons to gain experience and build confidence. The problematic side of worry however, shifts our thinking into a negative and catastrophic cycle. Focusing on themes that exacerbate a sense of helplessness, incongruence, and unpredictability can spiral us into anxiety. Worrying at this end of the continuum tends of focus on imagined future problems, which, by their very nature exceed our present-moment problem-solving abilities. In my example, had I focused on stalling the car while at an intersection, or rolling back down a hill, my worries would have shifted into anxiety and I might have found excuses to just not drive the car!

The trouble with worrying is that it appears as though it should be helpful. After all, we are in a sense working through a problem from many different angels! As practical as that sounds, worrying does not help us find solutions to our problems, mainly because the focus of worry tends to center on problems that can not be solved with present-moment resources.

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened”
– Mark Twain

The anxiety reaction serves us well if we are presented with real-life danger and need to respond rapidly and effectively to the situation. It activates our body and our mind, putting us on high alert and causing us to scan for possible danger. Anxiety is always an attempt to stay safe – our bodies built-in survival mechanism. Anxiety becomes problematic when there is no real danger and the anxiety response goes off anyway. It becomes a problem when the intense felt-sense of anxiety and the cognitions of anxiety get in the way of our daily activities. The thoughts associated with anxiety most often focus on the future, which can lead to too many unresolved “what ifs”. These are problematic by nature because we can not foresee the future, and they have a tendency to lead us towards the negative. As we move into anxiety, subtle changes start to take place in the body as the nervous system moves into activation. The anxiety response serves us well if we are faced with real danger (flight/fight/freeze response). It is less helpful when the danger is imagined and we are trying to evaluate a future course of action: forecasting the worst-case scenario just leaves us feeling apprehensive and fearful.

Practice 1: Grounding
Learning a new way to be with emotions can ben challenging. And just reading about it, or talking about it, doesn’t really help us learn how to do it. We have to actually learn to connect with the felt sense of emotion, and develop ways to settle the discomfort or fear that can arise when we do that. To do this, I used a guided mindfulness meditation for grounding that worked with deepening the breath.

Practice 2: Noticing the Felt-Sense of Emotion
Instead of running from worry, try focusing your attention on the way worry impacts you (for example, when you notice yourself worrying, what triggered it, how do your thoughts change, what sensations do you experience in your body, what is your typical response pattern for coping?). Once you have tuned in, use the grounding technique, and then prepare yourself to deal with the situation. Sometimes we need to pause and tune in so that we can respond to the situation with conscious intention. 

Practice 3: Linguistics Play a Role
The words we use play a strong role in how we perceive our self, others, and the world around us. Our words have the power to impact our quality of life – some words can be destructive, and other words can be empowering. Over the next few days, tune in to the words you use. Do you use a lot of “I can’t”, or should, could, always, never, or other words that focus on pain, scarcity, or blame? If you catch yourself using them, try swapping them out for statements that are more empowering. For example:

  • I can’t = I’m currently struggling with
  • It’s a problem = It’s an opportunity
  • I’m not getting it = I am learning and growing
  • What am I going to do? = I will be able to handle this
  • It’s terrible! = I can move on from this

References:
McLaren, K (2010). The Language of Emotions: What your feelings are trying to tell you.
Miller, K (2012). Mind-Body Attunement Therapy: Clinical Strategies

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Listening to our Emotions

(Lesson 3 with the Vernon Community School, SD22) Let’s try to make sense today of what it would mean to experience our emotions in a different way. Rather than fearing them and shutting them down – actually noticing the sensations of our emotions, and considering the messages within the emotions. How do we learn to hear the message of the emotion? Well, emotions are often felt in the body – there is some sensation stirred up. Because of that, it seemed fitting to start our group today by thinking about a recent situation (unique to each student) that triggered some emotion. Once each student had an example in mind, I asked them to notice what sensations stirred up in their bodies. The students noticed that there was a lot of muscle tension that accompanied their emotions: tightness in their chest, throat, and stomach. Some students giggled and noticed a lot of nervous energy in their bodies. The key is to notice the emotion in your body: just observing the sensations the emotion evokes in your body, and less of those verbal descriptions. Become a curious observer – notice and track the sensations, and how they change (intensifying or lessening). Ultimately, if we learn to notice our emotions and how they impact us, we can tap into the message of the emotion and perhaps even the energy of that emotion – and that emotion will then despite. But what if it doesn’t? Sometimes our emotions do run awry. What if fear bubbles up in a person and when she tunes in, she notices the energy of her fear response but there is no message? We need to change the way we understand these emotions in our bodies, and have an understanding of how our brain processes emotion. For a great description of how the brain processes emotion, check out the Integrated Wellness blog. Fear rises up from our reptilian brain (I know, why the heck does it have to be called the ‘reptilian’ brain?? Well, its because 3 important parts of the human brain emerged successively in the course of evolution. These include the brain stem, the limbic system, and the neocortex). The term ‘reptilian brain’ refers to the brain stem and the cerebellum. These parts of the brain control vital body functions such as heart rate, temperature, and breathing. It is the center for our survival and instinctual behaviours – they are reliable but often rigid and compulsive (and thus resistant to change!). Back to the example of fear flaring up. These situations can trigger panic responses in our bodies. If we fear the panic response in the body, we grow to fear emotions that lead to fear and panic, which can lead to avoidance behaviour. Unfortunately, if we don’t want to have an emotion, try as we might not to have it, we still will – just in covert ways. (For example – not wanting to feel the energy of ‘anxiety’ but then noticing this energy has converted into an argumentative communication style in relationships). So instead of being so quick to shut down those emotions – let’s try working through them over the next few weeks.

  1. Notice the emotion instead of quickly shutting it down, bracing or defending against it.
  2. Notice how that emotion manifests in your body (use that ‘curious observer’ to notice what sensations are there in your body – what muscles tighten? How does your breathing change? How does your posture or body movements change?)
  3. If the sensations you notice with the emotion are over-whelming – use one of the techniques we discussed for grounding:
  • usearrow your imagination and visualize the uncomfortable sensations as a colour – allow the colour to move through your body and out through your feet
  • take a moment to write/draw/scribble in your journal as a way to process the emotion
  • imagination technique of protection

These 3 points are all designed to just get you grounded, so that you don’t feel so overwhelmed by the emotions. Once grounded and back in your thinking brain, it becomes a little easier to decide what course of action you would like to take (responding to the emotion).   To learn more, check out Karla McLaren’s blog. She talks a great deal about being with our emotions, and breaking cycles of fearing our emotions.

Four Reasons Why our Emotions are Important

(Lesson 2 with the Vernon Community School, SD22)

I thought it would be helpful to start out our journey together by exploring the role of emotions. Understanding the role of emotions is an important starting place because emotions are largely misunderstood. We are often sent messages from a young age not to feel certain ways. A common example is a caregiver saying to child “don’t cry” – often because they themselves feel uncomfortable with emotion. Society sends us messages about emotions that are “good” or “unacceptable” – and we then become conditioned that we are unacceptable when we feel this ways. There is a great blog written by Karla McLaren’s about common misunderstandings people have about emotions – check it out if you have a moment.

 The Role of Emotions… in 4 points

1) The Need for Balance (and what happens when we don’t have it)

We don’t enter into this world with the ability to handle intense emotions. Our ability to for affect regulation depends on many circumstances. What we are often left with is a lack of balance between the experience of intense emotions that arise from difficult experiences and the skills required to process those emotions in healthy ways

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2) The problem of not feeling our feelings (why numbing those strong emotions isn’t the solution)

In a similar way that our body strives for homeostasis (internal balance), so to does our body strive for emotional balance. So when the EXPERIENCE of intense emotions EXCEEDS our ability to COPE with those intense emotions, problems arise. Without the needed skills to be with those emotions and work through them, we start to seek out anything that will reduce the distress we feel. Psychologist Kevin Miller writes the following:

“When we experience difficult and particularly horrible sensations and feelings, our tendency is to recoil and avoid them. Mentally, we split off or ‘dissociate’ from these feelings. Physically, our bodies tighten and brace against them. Our minds go into overdrive trying to explain and make sense of these alien and ‘bad’ sensations. So, we are driven to vigilantly attempt to locate their ominous source in the outside world. We believe that if we feel the sensations, they will overwhelm us forever. The fear of being consumed by these ‘terrible’ feelings leads us to convince ourselves that avoiding them will make us feel better and, ultimately, safer. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. “

Unfortunately, the unhealthy behaviours we might choose serve their purpose only temporarily and often create additional problems. They create a false sense of balance by numbing the distress). By learning to feel our emotions and regulate our emotional state in healthy ways, we render these unhealthy behaviours unnecessary.

3) The Feeling your Feelings Proposition

I proposed to the group that there is another way to view our emotions. What if we could view them as giving us important information about ourselves. So we don’t fear our emotions but rather look at them and learn from the messages they have for us. Our emotions are meant to motivate us to take action, to help us survive and avoid danger, and to assist us in making decisions – essentially, to take action.

4) The real Purpose of those Emotions (Harnessing the Power of our Emotions)

Psychologist Kevin Miller writes that emotions are behavioural readiness. Our emotions want us to take action (depending on what the situation requires and what the emotion is telling us). The very word emotion alludes to the notion of motion. When we suppress our emotions because they are uncomfortable, we are suppressing the energy associated with those emotions. So, we need to recognize, understand, and reflect on our emotions.

Our emotions provide us with important messages. If we tune in and listen (i.e. noticing how our body experiences emotion) we can then hear that message and respond appropriately.

 


References:

McLaren, K. (2010). The Language of Emotions.

Miller, K. (2012). Mind-Body Attunement Therapy, Clinical Strategies. http://mind-bodyattunement.com/

 

 

Healing Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress

The experience of trauma can come from any event which stresses the nervous system or drains our emotional (psychological) resources. Being “traumatized” often refers to the symptoms a person might experience after the event. These can include:

  • anxiety and dysphoria (uneasiness, depression, restlessness)
  • emotionally-based problems (such as irritability and detachment from relationships)
  • intrusive re-experiencing (unwanted memories and reminders, “flashbacks”)
  • avoidance of the unwanted memories and reminders
  • hyperarousal (jumpiness, easy to startle)

Individuals experiencing a life-threatening (or perceived to be life-threatening) event sometimes experience post traumatic stress. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress include:

  • hypervigilance
  • flashbacks (reliving)
  • dissociation

Falling into the anxiety disorder category, post-traumatic stress is considered to be a psychological reaction to experiencing a life-threatening event. The traumatic event usually involves actual death or a sense of impending death/serious injury to one’s self or others.

Traumatic events leave the mind and body in shock. In the aftermath of the experience, we start to make sense of what happened and we begin to process our emotions and reactions. Individuals with post-traumatic stress remain in psychological shock. In order to move on from the experience, we need to look at the experience, and face those memories and emotions. As the famous poet Robert Frost said, “The only way out, is through it”. However, the way in which we look at it needs to be gentle and moderated. Contemplating the entirety of an upsetting situation will only leave us raw and emotionally flooded. We need to look at it in bits are pieces, while taking care to resource ourselves.

Click here to read more about post-traumatic stress and complex post-traumatic stress on my website.

I choose to believe that post-traumatic stress is not a life sentence. I believe that by working with the thwarted energy in the nervous system and creating regulation, we can process the traumatic material and start creating healing. The therapeutic approach I am speaking of is Mind-Body Attunement Therapy (MBAT). Developed by psychologist Kevin Miller, MBAT is based on the self-regulation therapy of research and therapist Peter Levine.

Some great books by Peter Levine include:

Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, The innate Capacity to Transform Over-whelming Expereinces (1997), by Peter Levine and Ann Frederick

In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness (2010), by Peter Levine and Gabor Mate

Trauma-Proofing your Kids: A Parent’s Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy, and Resilience (2008), by Peter Levine and Maggie Kline

Visualizing a Safe Place

flower gardenOur imagination is a powerful tool in our repertoire of resourcing strategies. An imaged safe place is one of these. Everyone needs a place where they can feel safe and each person’s safe place makes perfect sense just for them. It could be in the Swiss Alps, in a quiet country house, an beach beside the ocean, a peaceful garden, or a cozy room. While these lovely places of comfort aren’t usually physically available to us when we need them most – we can still create a mental haven,  accessible through imagery, and available to you whenever you need it. Having an inner safe place has proven effective in helping people cope with stress and increasing their sense of safety and comfort.

The use of an imagined safe place is especially helpful for people who have experienced trauma. When fear, panic, or self-destructive thoughts become over-whelming, you can use your imagination to go to a restful inner sanctuary – a personal haven from the effects of trauma and other life stresses – to regain a sense of safety, to restore strength, and to achieve a renewal of spirit. Once you have grounded yourself with your safe place, you will find yourself feeling more equipped to deal those tough emotions or memories.

Resources:

Cohen, B. M., Barns, M. M., & Rankin, A. B.  (1995). Managing Traumatic Stress Through Art: Drawing from the Centre.

Miller, K. (2012). Mind-body attunement therapy: Clinical Strategies. Mind-Body Attunement Training Centre

Use a Memory Cue

sticky dotsWhen it comes to behaviour changing, remember to use our techniques can be difficult. We can learn the greatest, life-changing technique, but if we can’t remember to use it in the moment we need it the most, well then, it is rendered quite useless. Try using a memory cue to start creating a pattern of use.

I call this strategy the “Sticky Dot Technique” because it involves the use of the small, circular sticky dots that can be purchased at any business supply store. Take approximately 10 sticky dots, and place them in places that will be visible to you (such as on your computer, cell phone, in the kitchen, on a coffee mug, on a mirror, and so forth). When you see a sticky dot, check in on how you are coping. What are you doing behaviourally? What sensations are you experiencing physiologically? What are you saying to yourself? You may want to remind yourself to “just breath”, or to honour your healing journey in another way.

I can not take credit for the genius behind this technique! It was taught to me in 2005 by a practicum supervisor (Derrick Doige), as part of my Master’s degree. Derrick Doige is a Counsellor with Okanagan College in Vernon BC, and also has a private practice.

What is Affect Regulation?

Affect regulation strategies include developing the tools and resources necessary to recognize, observe, modulate, and cope with affects you may be experiencing (affect is another word for emotion). In developing these tools and skills, you will be better able to cope with disturbing emotions as they arise (such as grief, anxiety, anger, fear, frustration, etc.).

Developing the ability to regulate affect begins with learning to identify emotional sensations within your body.

Containment strategies are useful techniques to regulate affect because they can be effectively used to control intrusive trauma memories and images (flashbacks), and disturbing physiological sensations. These overwhelming memories, images, sensations, feelings, or thoughts can sometimes lead to harmful behaviour, making it extremely difficult for you to focus on healing. Learning effective containment skills can empower you and reassure you during difficult times. The term containment is not used here to refer to “stuffing” or ignoring your experiencing. Just the opposite, in fact. It’s about acknowledging the incredible power the distressing memories have, and creating the safe internal place from which to work through them. In her book “Healing from Trauma”, Jasmine Lee Cori describes it as “to contain something is to hold it, to create a place for it, in some ways to protect it”.

“With containment… we learn to discriminate how much (emotion) we an handle at  any given moment without overload. We understand that the point is to keep the feelings from getting so intense that they burn us. We learn to contain a feeling so that it doesn’t run roughshod over us but instead is given a place and listened to” — Jasmine Lee Cori

Because every person is unique, there may be some affect regulation strategies that work well for you and others that do not. Try the strategies that sound interesting to you, approaching them with an open mind and a curious attitude. Try each strategy you select over a couple of days, and write in your journal what the strategy was like for you.

Resources:

Cori, J. L. (2008). Healing from Trauma, A Survivor’s Guide to Understanding your Symptoms and Reclaiming your Life.

Haskell, L. (2003). First Stage Trauma Treatment: A guide for mental health professionals working with women.