When we have anxiety often one of the first things to suffer is our sleep. It may be difficult for us to drop off to sleep: we ruminate, toss and turn. Or maybe you have no problem dropping off, but wake suddenly at 3 am with an anxious thought and are then unable to return to sleep. However, the good news is that if we can improve your sleep quality, deep sleep reduces anxietylevels.
The not-so-good news
Research from UC Berkeley in the USA shows that one sleepless night can increase our anxiety levels up to a whopping 30%.
The good news
They also found that deep sleep reduces our anxiety.
Something as simple as getting better quality sleep could help reduce your anxiety levels. How awesome is that!
“Deep sleep had restored the brain’s prefrontal mechanism that regulates our emotions, lowering emotional and physiological reactivity and preventing the escalation of anxiety,” Eti Ben Simon, postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley.
So when do we get deep sleep?
In each sleep cycle there are several phases to sleep (see the image below) and we go through these cycles approximately four times in an eight-hour period. However, we only have two cycles of this deep sleep (stage 4) which has this anxiolytic (anxiety-relieving) effect.
How do I get more deep sleep to reduce anxiety?
Try this simple Evening Mind Clearance technique as you lie in bed (3 mins)
There are 3 simple steps to this Evening Mind Clearance technique created by Siimon Reynolds. So as you lie down in bed preparing for sleep, we’ll use the power of positive thinking to reduce anxiety:
Create a list in your head of things that you are grateful for.
Forgive anyone who’s annoyed you today (or before).
Visualise tomorrow going really well. Really picture your day ahead going swimmingly and having a great time. (I’m usually asleep before I get to this point, so my big tip is to turn the reading light off before you start this!)
Avoid alcohol to get more deep sleep
“Booo” I hear you say. Sadly, although it might make you feel more relaxed initially, that glass of Rosé is a depressant and a sedative. Sedation is not the same as sleep. Alcohol lessens both REM and deep sleep. Which means less of that protective anxiety-alleviating effect.
Avoid caffeine after 1pm
It’s a stimulant. Preferably we want our body and mind to calm down in the afternoon and evening.
Have a regular routine
Get up and go to bed at the same time, even on weekends.
Give your body time to wind down in the evening. Favour gentle exercise and stretching in the evening. Avoid vigorous exercise before you need to go to sleep.
Keep your bedroom cool
Keep your bedroom cool. (Easier said than done in a Queensland summer. TIP – wrap a freezer block in a towel if your ceiling fan isn’t cutting the mustard. )
Dim the lighting and reduce blue light exposure
Keep your lighting dim in the evenings to promote natural circadian rhythms. Especially avoid fluorescent lights because they inhibit the release of melatonin (which makes you want to sleep).
Avoid blue light from technology at least 2 hours before you go to sleep. The blue light affects the release of melatonin. Read more about blue light and sleep here.
If you would like to ask me what Counselling or body psychotherapy is all about, I offer a FREE 20-minute discovery session by phone/skype for new clients. You can also book this online by clicking the button below.
Why I get you to move and breathe in your session: the neuroscience
Have you ever wondered why I invite you to move or breathe deeply in your session? Have you questioned how it makes you feel better? With my training in both body psychotherapy and dance-movement therapy (as well as the more conventional talking therapies), it makes perfect sense to me. However, a new client said to me the other day “I thought I’d try something a bit woo woo” which made me chuckle inside. So in order to dispel the woo woo “I’m going to have to science the sh** out of this” as Matt Damon’s character said in the Martian. Read on to find out the neuroscience behind why I get you to move and breathe in your session:
Your brain experiences the world through your body
You experience the world around you via your body. Sound, images, sensations, smells via your sensory organs. Is it a threat? Or is it an opportunity?
When you feel anxiety or depression you feel physical symptoms in your body as well as thoughts and emotions. Your body is responding to something in your environment, whether it is actually there in front of you, or just being thought about.
For example, with anxiety you may feel a racing heart, the pressure in the centre of your chest, dizziness, and maybe even a separation from the rest of your body. With depression you may feel a total lack of energy in your body and a desire to withdraw.
There is no separation between mind and body
Historically Western medicine has followed the philosophy that diseases of the mind are separate to diseases of the body. This all started with French philosopher René Descarts in the mid 1600’s. Eastern medicine takes a very different view and thankfully, 400 years later, we are now coming around to a more integrated view of the body and mind.
What affects your body affects your mind. And your thoughts and emotions affect how you hold your body. There is no separation between dis-ease of the mind and dis-ease of the body.
Your body remembers (not just your brain)
What we normally think of as memory (images, facts, figures) is what scientist call our ‘explicit memory’ and is dependent on written or oral language. But there is another kind of memory, the implicit memory which is unconscious. For example, remembering how to ride a bike (you don’t consciously get on and thinking to yourself, I put my right foot here and my left foot here and push… you just get on and do it automatically).
Both the explicit and implicit memory are intricately linked to our sensory nervous system. How you stand, what you are touching, what you can smell, hear or see. So by changing how you stand and what you are doing with your body we might invoke old memories to surface from your subconscious.
Your somatic nervous system and the soft tissues of your body are like a storehouse of the history of your life.
We are creatures of habit and what we do every day becomes our reality
Your body ‘braces’ in preparation for a perceived threat and that over time this bracing becomes habitual. Unconscious muscular contraction occurs over time and becomes a habitual, adaptive pattern in the body, leading to altered posture and movement.
By bringing awareness to posture and creating a movement that differs from the habitual patterns, we can help bring to consciousness any unconscious beliefs and withheld feelings, and start to lessen the contraction of your muscles.
To change your mind we need to move your body
To understand WHY you feel like you do we’ll be using the newest part of your brain (in evolutionary terms), the prefrontal cortex. We’ll talk and use mindfulness techniques.
But to make a CHANGE we need to engage both your mid-brain, the limbic system (which controls instinct and the basic emotions (pleasure, anger, fear) and drives (hunger, caring, sex, dominance), plus your brain stem (movement, breathing, touch).
We recalibrate your nervous system from the bottom up. To do that we use movement, breathing, music, vocal and physical expression.
“Top-down regulation involves strengthening the capacity of the watchtower (medial prefrontal cortex) to monitor your body’s sensations. Mindfulness meditation and yoga can help with this. Bottom-up regulation involves recalibrating the autonomic nervous system, (which as we have seen, originates in the brain stem). We can access the ANS through breath, movement or touch.” Bessel van der Kolk in ‘The Body Keeps the Score’.
Just by changing your movement out of the habitual, it will allow previously withheld information to surface from your implicit or explicit memory.
Movement helps you to explore your inner reality. We find the authenticity of ourselves through movement: a sense of moving ourselves and being moved by the unconscious.
By increasing the range
of movement in your body we increase the range of psychological or emotional
possibilities in your life.
So there you have it….
I’ve explained the neuroscience behind why I get you to move and breathe in your session, but we’re all unique beings and there’s a lot we still don’t know or understand about the body and the mind. So maybe there’s a bit of woo woo in there anyway!
If you would like to learn more about the science behind what I do, I would suggest these books as a starter:
If you are interested in delving deeper into this I would recommend:
How to build emotional resilience and bolster self-esteem
Do you make an effort to look after your emotional resilience? Do you stand up for what you need? Or do you prioritize your physical health, work or other people’s needs instead? Neuroscience tells us that emotional wounds such as failure, criticism, and loneliness cause us pain in the same way as physical wounds because the same parts of our brain light up. So why do we look after our teeth better than our psychological health? What can we do to bolster our self-esteem and build emotional resilience?
1. Do something about loneliness
Social isolation is one of the biggest predictors of depression. Loneliness even affects our physical health (blood pressure, cardiovascular health, life expectancy and more). (Find out more here..)
Loneliness is not exclusive to the singletons out there. You can be equally lonely in a marriage or a family. Loneliness is subjective and depends on how disconnected you feel from your environment.
“Just reach out to someone” you might say, but loneliness is tricky emotion. Loneliness distorts our perception of our relationships, making us afraid to reach out because we believe that the people around us don’t care about us.
So what can you do to fortify your emotional resilience? Think of a time when you felt really connected to someone/people and then contact those people. It will take courage and vulnerability to do so, but it might just disconfirm your thoughts that those people don’t care about you.
Increasing the amount of contact you have with other humans is also going to help. In December 2015, I left my corporate job working in a buzzing office of 1000 people to start my private psychotherapy practice working from home. I remember a colleague had warned me how she had become depressed in her first year of private practice, but I arrogantly thought “that won’t happen to me.” But it did. The social isolation of working from home impacted my self-esteem and my mood. Initially I felt guilty for taking time out of the working day to join exercises classes or catch up for a coffee with mates, but I quickly realised how vital those activities and social contact were to my emotional wellbeing. Now I have a regular schedule of yoga, Pilates, and social events that bolster my emotional resilience.
Thomas Edison famously said: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”
If he had given in to negative beliefs around failure, I would be sat here typing this in the dark.
When we fail, we usually fall back into a default pattern of thinking “oh well that just shows I’m not good enough… I should probably never try that again”. One big failure could be enough to stop us trying that thing ever again.
Like loneliness, failure distorts our perceptions and triggers our negative beliefs. We can spiral into a failure tornado of negative thoughts. So how do we stop this familiar pattern?
Remember how your mum kissing your grazed knee better made you feel better when you were young? One way to break the hold of the failure belief tornado is to reach out and connect with a trusted friend or family member. Someone you value and care about. Someone who is going to listen to you, show you empathy and compassion, and help you soothe that wounded part of you.
Being heard or seen in your time need, feeling compassion and connection from another human being can help downgrade your tornado of negativity into a minor shower. Trust me, it works. I fail all the time, quite publicly sometimes. And it hurts. However, talking to my favorite people stops me from drowning in shame and re-builds my emotional resilience.
3. Change your filter for criticism
Talking of shame, does criticism flood you with shame? Does it
make you curl up into a ball and want to hide away from the world? One negative voice can drown out 100 positive
comments. But do you ever stop to
consider who the person is that is criticizing you? Do you even value their opinion? Are they even out there on the same playing
field as you? The internet has made it
easy for people to criticize and even bully others, without even showing their
face. But do those negative voices
belong to people you care about or respect?
Are they even putting themselves out there, showing up and doing what
I’m a BIG fan of Brene Brown. One of my favorite quotes is: “.. if you are not in the arena, and also getting your ass kicked, I am not interested in your feedback”.
YES! I bolster my self-esteem and emotional resilience by filtering out the noise, and only listening to criticism from my favorite people/tribe/squad, and those I respect. It takes practice and it still really stings, but I’m getting better at filtering out those that do not matter. And as with failure, I reach out to my nearest and dearest for compassion and connection and it helps lessen the sting.
4. Stand up for your needs
How many times have your prioritized work over a social
catchup or exercise class? Do you skimp
on sleep in order to look after others? Has
your list of dreams and needs become buried under a mountain of chores and
other people’s desires?
There are so many reasons why we might do this, most likely due to patterning in our childhood. Perhaps we got the message that good girls/boys look after other people first. Maybe there is the thought that we need to prioritize other people’s needs first so that they like us. So that we don’t get rejected or abandoned. However, subjugating our own needs in deference to others is only going to make us resentful and maybe even ill, and dent our emotional resilience.
So what can you do? Think about what you need in order to feel fulfilled, connected, have self-esteem and build emotional resilience. Talk to a professional about why you feel unable to express those needs. They will help you look into your beliefs and patterns of behaviour. You never know, you may end up getting what you ask for!
If you want to look into your own beliefs and patterns around needs, join me for an experiential workshop on Saturday 14 September 2019 in Kelvin Grove, Inner North Brisbane. Click here for more info or contact Sarah on 0450 22 00 59 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most of my new clients ask me: “How many therapy sessions will I need?” To which I usually reply: “Somewhere between a few and many”. It depends on whether you align with the ‘illness’ or ‘wellness’ model of therapy. Hopefully, this article will answer your question:
It depends on your goalsfor therapy
Do you want help or support getting over one particular issue in your life, e.g. the break up a relationship, or perhaps to alleviate some unpleasant symptoms? This is like going to see a doctor about an illness. In this scenario, I would recommend just as many sessions as you need until you start to feel more stabilized or until your symptoms are reduced.
But if you follow the ‘wellness’ model then your therapy is more like going to the gym. It is an ongoing work in progress. You go to therapy to work through things as they arise, develop deeper connections with those you care about, and generally improve your quality of life.
We can look deeper into your core beliefs, the patterns of your relationships and your past. All of which unconsciously affects your life in the present day.
It depends on how deeply you want to learn about yourself and the way you inhabit this world
Do you just want to put on an emotional band-aid? Or do you want to examine the wound, carefully treating it so that it will heal and cause less pain in your life? Not everyone is ready to do this. It takes courage, time and insight. If you want to learn about the most fascinating subject on the planet – yourself – then give me a call.
Negative thoughts, unhelpful beliefs, self-sabotaging patterns – these are all things that we can look into in long-term work. But it’s not a quick fix.
If you have grown into a way of ‘being’ or a pattern of behaving during the 20/30/40/50 years that you’ve been on this planet, then it’s unlikely we’ll be able to eradicate that in the click of my fingers.
As it took time to create those patterns of thinking, so will it take time to undo them, learning new neural pathways, trying out new ways of behaving.
Some clients stay in treatment for six months, some for a few years because they find they get so much out of it.
I created the following image to help you understand how might feel after a certain amount of sessions. The risk is that if you stop too soon, then you may lapse back into familiar (unhelpful) patterns when the next trigger occurs. (But you can always come back and see me and work on your ‘stuff’ again.)
Alternatively call me for a chat on 0450 22 00 59 and ask me how I can help you.
How frequently do I need therapy sessions? Weekly? Fortnightly?
I like to suggest that all new clients come to see me weekly for a few sessions, just so we can make some headway. Especially so if they are in a crisis. In the beginning, it’s all about getting to know each other so that I know and understand you, and you know and trust me and it helps if we keep some momentum going.
After that initial phase, I prefer clients to attend fortnightly so that we continue to make progress. You are learning a new skill, just like learning a new sport or musical instrument, so keeping a regular session is key to your progression. If you would like to reserve the same time slot each week or fortnight please let me know and I can book it for you. But this depends on your personal circumstances.
It depends on your personal circumstances
How many therapy sessions you have also depends on your circumstances: your availability, your finances, your personal situation.
Sometimes people take a break and come back to me later when they have more time and money, or if they have another issue crop up that they need help with. I’m always happy to see a familiar face return and hear what they’ve been up to.
How do I know when it’s time to end therapy?
When you think you’ve achieved all you wanted, tell me about
it in your session and we can discuss a closure session so that you walk away
feeling empowered and good about yourself. (The opposite of how you would feel if you
just walked away).
There will come a time when you know you want to end therapy. Perhaps you want to pause for financial reasons. Maybe you want to try something different. But hopefully it is because we have helped you with the issue you came in with, you’re feeling better and we have given you some tools to go on with. Either way, you’re faced with ending therapy. But how to bring it up with me? Here’s my guide on how to end therapy well:
Firstly, tell me you want to end therapy
Tell me your reasons why you want to end therapy
Firstly, tell me straight out that you think you want to end therapy and why. You can be honest with me. I want to know if we didn’t achieve your goals and you’re feeling frustrated, that way we can do something about it. I also want to know if we DID achieve your goals and you are feeling much better about yourself – let’s celebrate that!
Give yourself time to work through any difficult feelings
Sometimes people want to end therapy when difficult feelings start coming up. This is often a turning point for people. A chance to break free of negative patterns that have no longer been serving you, but you need a little helping hand to get through this. So tell me what is going on for you and let me help you through this.
An opportunity to try out a different way of behaving with no risk
Depending on your prior experiences in relationships ending, and your attachment style, this may be challenging for you. You may have feelings of anxiety come up, perhaps a worry of disappointing me or letting me down. Perhaps you’d rather just ghost me and disappear into the ether, but that can bring up feelings of guilt and shame, and you don’t get to speak your piece. However, I am not your friend/family member/partner – I am your therapist and this is a therapeutic contract. You get to try out a different way of relating to someone, in a neutral environment with no risk.
So let’s talk about a way to end therapy well so that both parties
can walk away with clarity and feeling positive about the situation.
Decide on a potential
end date and plan a closure session
Plan a closure session
Let’s plan a session (or maybe two depending on how long we have been working together). You get the chance to explore why you are leaving and feel good about leaving. You get a chance to speak up for yourself.
An opportunity to bring up any negative feelings
If you have negative feelings towards either me or the therapy we have been doing, you get the chance to air those feelings and be really heard. If you are not happy, I want to know. How many times outside of therapy do you get the chance to bring forward negative feelings to the other party in such an empowered way?
Review your progress and celebrate your growth
Equally, we can talk about the progress you have made, how your life has been positively affected and how you feel you have changed. Sometimes people appreciate the growth so much that they decide to stay or come back. We may have given you tools to reduce your initial issue, but are there other things you want to work on?
How this benefits you
An opportunity for healthy closure
Most relationships often end with a rupture of some kind. Something has gone badly wrong and either one or both parties decide to withdraw. Sometimes both parties will be aware, but other times it will be a one-sided breakup with one party unaware of what they have done wrong. This is painful and can cause significant emotional distress.
Learning an empowered, positive way to end a relationship
This is your chance to change that pattern, getting closure. Taking the opportunity to end therapy well, leaving you feeling positive and empowered. This may be your first experience of a healthy closure. A clean, healthy goodbye. Learning a skill that you can then take out into your other relationships when needed.
Leave feeling good about yourself
So don’t be afraid to tell me that you want to end therapy. This could be a positive experience for you if you get to end therapy well.
Sounds can either delight or irritate the nervous system, which in turn has an impact on how we feel, think and behave. Last Thursday a car parked in my street had the alarm going off every 5 minutes from 10am until they picked the car up after work. By the end of the day I was grumpy and frazzled. The constant blare of car horn had bored into my nervous system, setting me on edge (a sympathetic nervous system response). This unpleasant experience led me to search Google scholar for articles on the impact of music on the nervous system.
The Impact of Music on Anxiety and Depression
Heaps of research has been done on the impact of music on anxiety and depression:
In a 2014 review of 63 scientific studies, Fancourt and co. found that not only did listening to music decrease the blood pressure, levels of cortisol and stress in your body, but it had a GREATER EFFECT than anti-anxiety medication and relaxation techniques.
Let’s think about that for a minute. Listening to your choice of relaxing music is more effective than medication! All you have to do is listen… Pass me the earphones STAT!
How does music do this? Apparently listening to the music you love releases Dopamine, the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter that impacts our thinking, feeling and behaviour. See the research here…
But it’s not just about feeling good emotionally. The impact of sound on your nervous system impacts
other systems in your body.
The Impact of Music on Your Body
Music was found to have had an anti-inflammatory effect on the body (which is a risk for numerous diseases and conditions). See the research here..
It had a beneficial effect on anxiety, blood pressure, breathing, heart rate, sleep and pain in people with Coronary Heart Disease. See the research here..
And it had beneficial effects on anxiety, fatigue, pain and quality of life for people with cancer. See the research here..
So choose the sounds you listen to carefully….. Think about the impact of music on the nervous system.
Feeling stressed or anxious? Put on your favorite music and see if it makes an impact.
If you work in a stressful environment, why not use noise-cancelling earphones?
What sound do you use as your alarm? A friend of mine listens to the sublime, silky sounds of “Samba da Bencao” by Bebel Gilberto. Imagine waking up to that instead of a beep. How chilled would the start of your day be?
Grieving the loss of a pet? Some tips to help you through the heartache
To me there is nothing sadder than returning home from the vets with an empty carrier. Five days ago I found out that a furry family member had an inoperable cancer. Yesterday I made the call to put him to sleep. I’ve written this article in the midst of my own grief, to give you some tips for help and comfort if you are also grieving the loss of a pet:
1.Reach out to friends and family for comfort and nurture and to calm your nervous system – or in science nerd term: “limbic revision”
One of my closest friends came around to be with me, despite
the drama playing out in her own life, and for that I am eternally
grateful. Being with kind, caring people
is going to help calm your nervous system because of a thing we call Limbic Revision. Our ability for empathy, to share deep
emotional states with another human (or animal) comes from the limbic part of
our brain (which is responsible for emotions and memories). Your
nervous system does not exist in isolation, it is affected by those around
you. So being around someone kind and
nurturing literally rewires/remodels your neural pathways.
“Because mammals need relatedness for their neurophysiology to coalesce correctly, most of what makes a socially functioning human comes from connection – the shaping force of love.” Taken from “A General Theory of Love” – Thomas Lewis, M.D, Fari Amini, M.D. and Richard Lannon, M.D.
2. Ask for a hug
A 20 second hug is all it takes to release the hormone oxytocin into your system and you will feel a whole lot better. Find out why here.
3. Cry, sob, bawl – allow yourself to feel your emotions
I’ve taken to wearing big dark sunnies today so that I can let the tears roll down my face without people seeing (or so I think anyway!) The important thing is to let those emotions flow. Just look at the word itself: e-motion. Let the feelings flow. They just want to be felt and allowed to move through you.
4. Gentle movement for your body
I woke up this morning with a sense of heaviness in my body. I know that it’s from using back and shoulder muscles to sob, and from a general sense of sadness in my whole being. So I’m taking it easy with gentle movement – walking, stretching, yoga. Anything to gently ease the physical and emotional tension from my mind and body.
5. If you find you are not coping – talk to a counsellor
Grief is a normal process of loosing someone you love. It is different to depression. It is sadness. But sometimes we need a little help to grieve.
I am a body psychotherapist by trade and I help clients through grief and loss. Whether it is the end of a relationship, or the death of a loved one (human or furry). And I speak to my own therapist about my own grief. I walk the talk so that I can help you.
So whilst I am grieving the loss of my pet Simba, I will remember him in his finest hour, lying on the floor being stroked by three best friends, purring ecstatically as if to say “Yes, this is my best life!” Miss you buddy xx
If you’re feeling unsure, or want to ask me what Counselling or body psychotherapy is all about, I offer a FREE 20 minute discovery session by phone/skype for new clients. You can also book this online by clicking the button below.
Do you struggle with food cravings? I do. I’m an emotional eater but learning the neuroscience and psychology of emotional eating has helped me quit.
People always assume that a therapist totally has their act together, but we’re human beings just like you. If I’ve had a tough day ice cream soothes my worries away. Missing my family overseas? Chocolate brownies make me feel loved. Delicious, but not at all healthy and this emotional eating is the reason my jeans kept getting tighter. But I recently found an eating plan that is working – and it’s because it is based on the psychology and neuroscience of eating.
I say ‘eating plan’ because I don’t ‘do’ diets. I’ve only done two in my whole 47 years on the planet and every cell of my brain rebelled against the food restriction. “What do you mean I can’t eat cheese whenever I want?? FK YOU!” For me it was like DIE with a T on the end. I’d rather slog away in the gym for hours than restrict my source of pleasure. Whilst that may have somehow worked in 30’s, it no longer worked in my 40’s. Recently, however, a friend told me about Bright Line Eating Plan and so far I have lost weight, my emotional eating has reduced to ZERO and there’s no part of my brain that is rebelling. It’s not about willpower…… It’s about planning.
Bright Line Eating is the program run by Dr Susan Peirce Thompson. She has a Ph.D. in Brain and Cognitive Sciences and was a psychology professor. Her expertise is the neuroscience and psychology of food addiction and sustainable weight loss and she has done heaps of research on why and how people loose weight (and why they don’t). I found out that I am a 7 (out of 10) in her susceptibility scale (gasp!), which helps me understand why I can consume the entire block of chocolate-covered marzipan without even blinking. It also means that Persian Love Cake is my own personal form of heroin.
I joined her 14 day challenge for $29 USD and those numbers on the scale decreased and made me dance around the kitchen like a lunatic. (I admit that I do this most days just for the sheer joy of being able to dance!) However, the most important thing is that I’ve stopped the emotional eating. Dr Thompson’s daily 5 minute videos helped me with my ‘food thoughts’ and and what to do to get through it.
I have absolutely no affiliation with the Bright Line Eating program other than my own participation. I’m sharing this info because it worked for me and maybe it might work for you. And I think this lady is amazing!
I still talk to my own therapist about the underlying issues – the things that are making me sad, lonely or exhausted. If you would like to talk to me about your emotional eating and the underlying issues in your life that are upsetting you, give me a call on 0450 22 00 59 or book into my diary using this link.
How to deal with unpleasant thoughts and feelings – How Sean Connery gets me to the gym on a monday morning
We humans have evolved to do whatever we can to avoid pain, whether it’s physical, emotional or psychological. Obviously avoiding physical pain is a good thing. However, sometimes we behave in unhelpful and unhealthy ways in order to avoid unpleasant thoughts or feelings. For example, making yourself super busy in order to avoid feeling something. Smashing a tub of Ben & Jerry’s after a breakup to ‘eat’ your feelings. Or avoiding social situations that make you feel uncomfortable.
In psychological terms we call this behaviour “experiential avoidance”. I do it myself. We all do it to some extent because it’s a totally normal human behaviour. If it’s not excessive or it’s not really hurting you, it’s ok. But if it’s affecting your health or keeping your life ‘small’ in some way, then it’s unworkable. In which case, it’s probably a good idea to look at how you can stop these unpleasant thoughts and feelings from having so much sway over your life.
I have unpleasant thoughts and feelings every Monday when the alarm goes off for my early morning PT session. I’m guessing you may have similar thoughts. When the alarm goes off my first thought is “Oh gawwwwd I’m so tired. I need to stay in bed. It’s too early to exercise – I’ll hurt a muscle because I’m so tired and stiff. Ugh I’ll get all sweaty. It’s too far”. (Cough… It’s a 10 minute walk princess …)
The truth is that when I’m there I love it and I feel GREAT afterwards. My trainer is really knowledgeable and he doesn’t shout commands at me (unlike other trainers who didn’t last very long). He’s also hilarious and my unofficial dating advisor. So why the resistance? Why the melodrama every Monday morning?
Quite simply, I’m not a natural early riser and a very vocal part of me wants to stay in bed. I want to stay in a place of comfort. I want to avoid the unpleasant thoughts and feelings about having to get up, get sweaty and get out there when I could stay under the covers and snooze.
As I’ve said, these kind of avoidance strategies are ok if they work and they aren’t too costly in one way or another. But if I listened to those thoughts and stayed in bed it would affect my waist line and my muscle mass (very important for us ladies over a certain age). And I’m pretty sure my PT would get fire me as a client, which would mean no Dating High Command.
To do this, I replay the uncomfortable thoughts over and over in my head using the voice of a famous person/character. My favorite is Sean Connery. You can borrow him if you like.
“Och I’m going to get so schweaty” said Sean, over and over. It makes it sound a little silly and I smile a little. The thought has less power over me. I don’t get so anxious about it and I get out of bed! (If I’m honest it also sounds a little bit pervy when Sean says it).
Here’s how you can do it for yourself:
An easy de-fusion technique for unpleasant thoughts and feelings
Pick an unpleasant thought or feeling that’s been plaguing you.
Say it over and over in your head silently for 10 seconds.
Notice how you feel having done this. How much do you believe the thought (how ‘fused’ are you with the thought?). How does it make you feel emotionally? And what sensations can you feel in your body.
Pick the voice of a well-known character or actor. Someone you can really ‘hear’ speaking in your head. (Run out of ideas? What about: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Marilyn Monroe, Miss Piggy, Donald Duck, Dr Sheldon Cooper, or even that hideous Trump person).
Say the same unpleasant thought or feeling over and over in your head in their voice for 10 seconds.
Again, notice how you feel having done this. Do you feel any differently in your body? Does the thought or feeling have more or less power over you?
It’s important to understand that we’re not trying to avoid or ‘tolerate’ the unpleasant thought or feeling. These thoughts are going to keep popping up into our mind and that’s not something that’s under our control. But what do have control over, and what we’re learning to do, is to ‘accept’ these unpleasant thoughts and feelings. To allow them to have less power over us.
We can do this in therapy with any unpleasant feeling or thought. A particularly common one among my clients is “I’m not good enough”. Not a particularly helpful thought, and probably not true.
Through different ACT techniques we can help you unhook from these unpleasant thoughts and feelings. And in doing so, help you stop avoiding situations or people where this thought might pop up. Helping reduce the amount of experiential avoidance in your life. Helping you live a BIGGER life.
If you’re feeling unsure, or want to ask me what Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or somatic psychotherapy is all about, I offer a FREE 20 minute discovery session by phone/skype for new clients. You can also book this online by clicking the button below.
I wish that this wasn’t the case, but I’m currently helping a few clients deal with situations of domestic violence. Some still in the danger zone. Others now in a place of safety. But all of them dealing with the aftermath of domestic violence.
Each time I hear stories of domestic violence, my inner Wonder Woman wants to protect the victims and annihilate the perpetrators.
The reason it generates so many feelings in me is because for a brief, but terrifying period, domestic violence affected my family too.
When I was in my early teens a member of my family dated an asshole. Whenever she tried to leave him he punched her in the face. I never witnessed the domestic violence first hand, just the ensuing black eyes, tears and confusion each time she took him back out of sheer terror.
Even if I had witnessed the violence first hand, I’m sure I would have been frozen to the spot in fear, but I carry with me this strange mixture of guilt for not having protected her somehow, and fury at him for having picked on someone so small and vulnerable.
Whenever these feelings arise from my unconscious I work through them in a safe, therapeutic way with my own therapist, so that my own ‘stuff’ doesn’t get in the way of helping my clients.
I metaphorically “killed” him in my early psychotherapy training. The full force of my teenage feelings resurfaced 30 years later as I let out my anger in a safe, therapeutic space.
See below examples of me using a foam baton against a foam cube or punching a punchbag. These are some of the tools I use in body psychotherapy – you can find more about this here.
Obviously I didn’t want to really kill him. I’m not a violent person. However, part of me wanted him to hurt as much as he had hurt her.
My rage exhausted, I sobbed and sobbed. Tears of frustration that there was no one there to protect us. Tears of grief for not having been able to protect her, even though I was little and needed protecting myself.
Having processed these historical emotions that were trapped in my body and mind, the feelings have less hold on me. I am able to help others without getting triggered.
So if you are a victim of domestic violence yourself – male or female, or just a witness like me, please know that you don’t have to live with the aftermath of domestic violence in your system – you can get emotional and psychological support – from a counsellor, from helplines and legal advice.
Here are some helpful contacts for Queensland:
DV Connect (for both male and female victims of domestic violence)
Would you like to ask me what counselling or body psychotherapy is all about? I offer a FREE 20 minute discovery session by phone/skype for new clients. You can also book this online by clicking the button below.