"Look at what you bring to the world, not what you lack." - Miranda Kate

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Backtracking Thoughts and Emotions to Stop your Anxiety

Big white breaking waves. Do you struggle to stop feelings of anxiety?

Are you aware of the thoughts in your head before you go into an anxious state?

To be able to change or stop my feelings of anxiety, I realised I needed to find out what thoughts were triggering them. And to do that I needed to become conscious of what I was thinking moments before I became anxious - not easy with how quickly anxiety can take hold.

Whenever I found myself feeling uncomfortable or bad, I would stop in the midst of it and ask myself what was causing this feeling: Was it a situation? A conversation? Internal dialogue about something in my mind?

“A lot of pain we are dealing with are really only thoughts.”

Often the thoughts I had in my head were reflecting something that had already happened, so I had to recall what event, situation or conversation they were relating to, or where I had felt the same discomfort or bad feelings. This is called ‘back tracking’.

Once I had found what it related to, I would then think about what was happening in the present to reflect it: Why did this feel the same? What was it that was similar or familiar?

And then to break the connection, I needed to ‘update’ and change the thought/emotion. I would do this by asking myself: ‘Is what happened then, the same as what is happening now?’ ‘Is this a repeat of the same situation?’

In most instances it was not the same situation at all. The people were different, their responses were different, what actually happened was different. So I was able to ‘update’ or change my perspective on it by telling myself that it was NOT the same, and repeating this to myself several times.

“We see things not as they are, but as we are. Our perception is shaped by our previous experience.” - Dennis Kimbro

This enabled me to change how I reacted; I didn’t need to react as I had in the past, because it was a new situation. Whatever I feared then couldn’t happen or repeat now, because the present moment contained different people, different situation, and a different conversation. I was in the present, not the past, and it wasn’t the same. I was reassuring myself.

Each time that we do this we interrupt the cycle of thoughts; we break the pattern, and start forming a new habit.

I even went so far as to actually call my mother once, to ask her whether she was safe now, whether she was okay. I knew in my conscious rational mind that she was, but it was strange, I needed to do it; I needed to hear her say she was, if only to settle those thoughts and feelings. And it worked, because it gave me a new reference point to return to, something else I could use to reassure myself that everything was different and had changed now.

A great deal of anxiety or stressful thinking is maintained by the internal dialogue we use. The way we speak to ourselves in our minds.

“Whatever you hold in your mind on a consistent basis is exactly what you will experience in your life.” Tony Robbins

Besides the panicked thoughts of ‘I can’t stop this feeling’ ‘I am losing my mind’, ‘I’m going to die!’, which fuelled my anxiety attacks, I found I also undertook what I called ‘negative scenarios’, which are imagined conversations with people who had upset me.

I would imagine expressing my true feelings, venting all my anger and hurt in these scenarios. But I would also imagine a response too, turn them into arguments in my head, which would perpetuate the negative feeling.

Internal dialogue and negative thinking can be a constant battle, and they can lead to other destructive emotions besides anxiety, like jealousy, guilt and anger. But there are ways to break those too - although they take a bit more work.



Sunday, 10 February 2013

Breaking the cycle of Anxiety in your life

Rainbow through ice.

Do you suffer anxiety or panic attacks?

Does it feel like someone’s sitting on your chest? Do you struggle to breathe? Do you hyperventilate, even faint? Or do you shake and sweat?

Anxiety can take different forms, and it can be triggered by different things, some conscious, many unconscious. Thoughts and emotions about something in the present that is causing stress, or may be triggering something that happened in the past. It is very individual and can happen to anyone at any time.

I started to suffer anxiety attacks on a daily basis in my early 20s, and it went on for more than 6 months. They would always occur during the evening or late at night. I would shake violently - particularly my legs, and break out in a sweat.

Mine were centred around a fear of being sick - of physically throwing up. If I felt remotely full or bloated after eating, I would worry it would happen, and off the panic attack would go. 

I could be found walking round the streets and parks in my neighbourhood in the early hours of the morning trying to ‘walk it off', the only effective method I found at the time to break the cycle.

But I was not conscious of the underlying cause; I needed to dig it out, although I had a hunch. The timing was a tell-tale sign for me, as the correlation to the fear of being sick was reflective of my childhood.

I was a child of domestic violence. I witnessed my mother being beaten on a regular basis, usually at night, for several years from a very young age. As a child I would pace the floor when hearing the sound of it and panic, which usually resulted in me being sick.

The pattern showing up in my adult life was triggered by a bout of food poisoning, but it continued due to unresolved feelings resurfacing.

“A trigger is a connection between the conscious mind and a buried painful memory.”

Anxiety attacks make you feel powerless and out of control. You feel unable to stop them, or predict when they will happen. And you find yourself worrying more and more about them happening, compounding the feeling of anxiousness.

“Stress is directly related to how out of control we feel.”

The daily regularity of my attacks made me begin to wonder if this was how it was going to be for the rest of my life. Was this it? Was this going to be my day to day?

I knew I could not continue if they were. And so, for the first time in a serious and reasoned thought process, I considered taking my own life. I had contemplated it many times at different moments in my childhood, but I had always believed that things could - and would - get better. But with the anxiety attacks I could no longer be sure, especially if I couldn't get them to stop.

That was when I knew I had to seek help.

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

Besides help with resolving my childhood traumas, therapy enabled me to overcome my anxiety attacks, because it did one simple thing: explain what was actually going on in my mind and body to cause the physical reaction of an anxiety attack.
I discovered the catch 22 that fed the attacks: When I felt sick, my mind escalated panicked thoughts of throwing up. In response, my body tensed up, and would go into 'flight or fight' mode.
When we are in a state of fear, our body dumps a lot of adrenaline into our system, which responds by shutting down the digestive system and expelling what is in it, which is why high anxiety can lead to the desire to vomit or stomach cramps and a sudden bout of diarrhoea. When we do not either run or fight, our system has an excess of adrenaline which causes the muscles to shake.
The adrenaline will also increase our heart rate, which in turn affects our breathing. Hyperventilating is when breathing becomes irregular and too much oxygen is taken in. This raises the blood pressure and can lead to fainting or passing out.
When we tense our bodies, the muscles around our chest constrict making it hard to breathe and making it feel like there is a heavy weight on it, causing pain and/or heart palpitations.

All three are triggered by the mind and the thoughts we have in our head. And when the body reacts and we become more scared, we increase the anxiety, thus creating a cycle of anxiety.
“Don’t believe every thing you think.”Byron Katie

To overcome my anxiety attacks I had to re-learn to physically relax, to breathe differently. Initially, I believed that if I let myself relax I wouldn't be able to control the anxiety attacks, but of course this fear would keep the tension in my body and the cycle of anxiety going.

It wasn't until I did actually learn to relax (through relaxation techniques and audio tapes) that I found out it wasn't true - and that in fact it wasn't possible to be in an anxious state once I was in a relaxed state.

The most important thing I had to learn was to think differently; I needed to reprogram my thoughts and thinking. I learnt that it was NOT a feeling that triggered the panicked thoughts - as I previously believed (the sensation of wanting to be sick) - it was in fact the other way round - a thought triggered the feeling - for me the thought of 'I feel sick, I'm going to be sick'.

So besides the work on breaking the anxiety attacks themselves, I had to work on this too - I had to try and catch the thoughts I was having that were triggering the emotional response. I then had to review them, undo them, and rewrite them.

But how was I going to do that? By backtracking my thoughts and emotions.