The Benefits of Mindful Breathing

Mindful breathing is a conscious exercise; one in which we purposefully carve out some time (even 5 minutes) to pay attention to our breathing. The basics include:

  • Pick a quiet location, free of distraction.
  • Close your eyes and turn your attention inward to your breathing.
  • Slow your breaths; inhale through the nose, expanding your belly. Exhale slowly.
  • If your attention shifts from breathing, that is okay. Gently encourage it back to the simple act of breathing – in and out.

The benefits of mindful breathing include:

  • It inhibits anxiety, decreasing stress and worry.
  • It distracts us from the things we can’t control and reminds us that we are capable of facing challenges.
  • It helps to still ruminating thoughts.
  • It slows the heart rate, decreasing pain and the body’s stress response.
  • It helps us to recognize calm.
  • It helps us to feel more centered and increases our self-control.
  • It inhibits anger; allowing our rational brain some space.
  • It helps the brain to focus.

When we practice mindful breathing on a daily basis – this can become a lovely anchor activity – we are proactively working with our comfort system to feel grounded and secure. In order to get started, it may help to listen to a guided mindful breathing exercise such as this one from Anxiety Canada: https://www.anxietycanada.com/articles/mindfulness-mindful-breathing/

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Tips for Moving Past Social Anxiety

Yesterday’s post examined what social anxiety is and how it tends to develop for people. Today, we will look at ways that we can begin to challenge social anxiety by lessening it’s hold on us.

The first step comes by way of exploring why social anxiety has become an issue. When we can understand something, it tends to give us permission to ask ourselves “Does it have to be this way?” It is also important to recognize that what may have started out as an association, has now become a fully formed habit due to reinforcement; after all, the more we feed something, the bigger it gets.

Tips for challenging social anxiety:

  • Start small. Going to the biggest event in history is probably not the best way to challenge social anxiety. Instead, choose an event in which there are going to be people present that you know, as well as a few people that you don’t.
  • Create a safety net. Arrive with someone you know, position yourself closest to an exit (sometimes just knowing that you can ‘escape’ helps), give yourself a timeline (commit to an hour), purposely choose your time to go to the store or use the phone (peak times are not the time to be challenging your social anxiety.) Feeling safer in social interactions will help to temper the fear response.
  • Get your mind into it. Your body is designed to react to your fear response; by challenging that fear with curiosity and positive affirmations, we can begin to temper our visceral response. Are you telling yourself you are going to be judged, or are you telling yourself that people are usually pretty wrapped up in what they are doing, and not really noticing what is going on with you. Use reality; logic, your rational voice. Tell yourself what you would tell a friend.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Challenging a fear means choosing a different focus and creating a new habit. Social situations can be less daunting, and as you challenge those fears, it will increase your self-confidence and sense of agency.

The goal of challenging social anxiety is simply to become more comfortable with social interactions and meeting new people. Big crowds and social situations may still give you the nervous nellies, but with coping strategies in place, you also can be reassured that you don’t have to continually miss out. Sounds like a good plan to me 🙂

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Let’s Look at Social Anxiety

“I will worry about a social gathering as soon as know about it. I rarely commit so that I can have a way out.” 

“Just the thought of going to the grocery store can send me into a panic. And if the parking lot is full? Forget it, I don’t even go in.”

“I hate talking on the phone; I get so anxious when I have to call for an appointment, or even to order a pizza.”

Social anxiety is the fear of social situations; people who suffer with social anxiety will report that it really isn’t about shyness, but rather the fear of interacting with people they don’t know. This is typically why crowded places such as stores, theatres, or big social gatherings become sources of anxiety, fear and avoidance.

In my work with clients who report struggling with social anxiety, they often speak about the fear of being judged by others and not wanting to be the center of attention. They worry that everyone will be looking at them, or they will have no one to talk to and be left standing alone, open to  criticism. They feel trapped.

The first step in addressing social anxiety is to explore it. How did it develop? What are your biggest struggles when it comes to meeting new people? How would you like it to change?

Sometimes social anxiety can begin as a result of having been bullied or ostracized as a child. The social interactions we have as adults often mimic those in a school setting, and if we struggled in school to fit in or make friends, it might have created an association of fear when meeting new people. Sometimes social anxiety can come from a history of family conflict; being repeatedly criticized, or having been abused as a child. We can also struggle with social anxiety if we tend to be quite introverted; small talk is difficult, coupled with a fear of confrontation, and the noise and heightened energy of crowds can be overstimulating.

Once we can identify the potential cause of our social anxiety, we can begin to work at challenging it. Tomorrow’s post will explore some ways that we can move towards feeling safer in social situations.

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Being Grounded as a Preventative Measure

There are times when we are just going to feel anxious as we get faced with challenges and worries that we must attend to. Using grounding techniques for those times help to get through the anxious moments.

But there is something to be said for the practice of “being grounded.” It can be a goal that we set as a way of life that helps us to consciously spend more time in our comfort system. By practicing the art of being grounded on a daily basis, we are giving ourselves permission to not only prevent a lot of unnecessary anxiety, but we also create a good foundation for dealing with worries when they strike.

Choosing to ‘be grounded’ involves soothing techniques and creating space for daily self-care:

  • Anchoring your day. When we dedicate time to feeling grounded, we begin our day with something that anchors it. It doesn’t need to take up a lot of time – it can be something as simple as doing some morning stretches, saying your prayers, sitting by the window for a few minutes, meditating, writing in a gratitude journal, reading a favourite blog. 🙂
  • Bookending your day. It is good practice to break up our day with activities that reset our system. It is good to have a mid-day reset (such as a 15 min walk outside) as well as one at the end of the work day (listening to a positive podcast on the way home from work, or playing a soothing playlist.) A short ritual at bed time is also recommended (it can look quite similar to your morning activity.)
  • Choosing to soothe. This involves making sure that we are creating moments of feeling soothed or grounded throughout the day. It can include having a warm cup of tea, listening to music while making dinner, taking time to just step outside to take in the fresh air. Wrapping yourself in a cozy blanket, having the dog or cat cuddle up beside you, giving hugs to your loved ones.
  • Creating joy. Building time into our week that focus on joy and laughter is a great way to remain grounded as those types of activities soothe and feed the soul. Making sure to build those into our week on a regular basis helps to feel settled as we have connected with the joyful and creative sides of ourselves.
  • Get outside daily. Find the green spaces, do some gardening. The earth has the ability to remind us daily that it is okay to feel settled and calm.

To live grounded is a choice. There are times that are going to unsettle that feeling and that is okay; we will be better equipped to handle those challenges when we have worked diligently to live in our comfort system.

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Grounding Techniques; Post 2

Yesterday’s post touched on the importance of using the practice of grounding when feeling especially anxious or overwhelmed. We explored five ways to use our physical selves to bring our calm back to the situation at hand. Today’s post will feature five mental techniques of grounding:

  • Describe what is around you. Take in your surroundings as a way to help ground yourself. “I am sitting on a blue chair. I can feel the way the chair supports my lower back; my feet are flat on the floor. The dog is lying on her bed. She has her face curled into her paw. The sun is shining, the leaves on the trees are so green. I can faintly hear the birds chirping.”
  • Use math or a repetitive phrase. Counting backwards from 100 by threes (it is harder than you think!), running through times tables. Saying a favourite prayer repetitively until a sense of calm begins to return, choosing a favourite positive affirmation such as “No matter what I will be okay,” or “This too shall pass.”
  • Use your imagination. We all have a place to which we associate a feeling of being calm. Use your imagination to picture yourself there – “I am sitting on the gray sand of York Beach, Maine. The sun is warm on my face, I can see the waves rolling in and crashing on the shore. I can hear the seagulls calling each other, sounds of people in the ocean. I can close my eyes and feel the slight breeze on my face, the scent of salt water in the air.”
  • Listen to a guided meditation. Sometimes we have trouble bringing our mind away from the ruminating cycle of thought and we need to hear someone else’s calm voice.
  • Play a category game. Using the alphabet, think of a person’s name for each letter. Pick any category and try to list as many things as you can – examples such as “zoo animals,” “bands from the eighties,” “places I’ve visited,” etc.

The trick to grounding techniques is to use them. Very often, our anxious moments are so convincing, we are pulled into feeding our fight or flight system versus realizing that we can make a conscious choice to feed our comfort system.

Tomorrow’s post will feature the act of grounding as a preventative measure; as a way to stay ahead of our anxiety instead of chasing it.

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Grounding Techniques for when Anxiety Strikes

We can all have those moments when we feel especially overwhelmed. For those who struggle with pervasive anxiety, chronic worry, or panic attacks, being able to slow things down can feel almost impossible. Grounding is a practice that can help to do that. Grounding techniques are designed to use distraction as a way to help manage challenging emotions. Here are five grounding techniques that focus on using the senses, or our physical self in order to calm:

  • Deep belly breathing. When we are especially anxious, we are breathing more quickly which can feed the spiral. Diaphragmatic breathing triggers our comfort system as it helps to inhibit anxiety. One way to practice is to place your hand on your belly and begin to take in deep breaths through your nose (about 3 seconds) and exhale through pursed lips (for 6 seconds). Doing this for 2 minutes resets the system.
  • Temperature change. Running cold water over your hands, splashing your face with it. Holding an ice cube. If it is winter, stepping outside and taking in some deep breaths.
  • 5 senses trick. Using the environment around you, label 5 things that you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. Doing this exercise can help to bring our body and mind together, distracting our mind from  thoughts that are pushing to take over.
  • Go for a walk. The change of scenery will help, so will counting your steps, movement alone does wonders for getting your body and mind working in sync.
  • Pick an anchor object. We may have a difficult moment we just need to get through. An anchor object is a small item that brings you comfort when holding it. It might include a charm on a necklace, a worry ring, a smooth stone, a rosary, a coin. When feeling anxious, it helps to hold the anchor object, reminding yourself of why it brings you comfort.

These grounding techniques are ones that are use our physical senses to help calm our mind. Tomorrow’s post will look at mental techniques that we can use when feeling anxious.

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The Dragon and the Treasure

My trusted colleague and friend, Darlene Denis-Friske, has a wonderful analogy for anxiety that she calls the ‘dragon and the treasure’.

Very often, when we are anxious about something, it has the capacity of keeping us from the goal we wish to achieve. The treasure is there, we are aware of its presence and the path to get it – but a dragon is guarding it. Afraid of the dragon, we hesitate; we lean into our fears, we convince ourselves we will never outwit the dragon, our focus shifts from the goal at hand and we choose to avoid the dragon completely. But the treasure is patiently waiting, we know we must get to it, and as the anticipation of getting the treasure draws nearer, the dragon gets bigger, fiercer, more menacing.

But is he really? What do we even know about the dragon?  He has been given a bad rap; folklore tells us to fear him – that he is not to be trusted.

But could it be that he is perhaps misunderstood? That what he really desires is to be befriended, welcomed, appreciated for his unwavering vigilance? Perhaps in what appears to be frightening, he is simply looking for acceptance and validation.

Much like anxiety, our goal is not to defeat or outwit the dragon, but rather to tame it. When we can acknowledge, accept and appreciate the valued role it plays in our survival brain, we can move from being frightened (and therefore controlled) by it, to feeling as though we walk along beside it.

Befriended, the dragon stands aside to the treasure and the path is ours. After all, the dragon will be the first to tell you “What need does a dragon have for treasure anyways?” 🙂

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A Little Trick for ‘What-if’ Thinking

Worrying about something can often monopolize our thoughts, wreak havoc on our emotions, and rob us of our energy. ‘Worst-case-scenario’ worrying will quickly bring us from a place where logic might have had a say to the “worst outcome possible, which will be devastating.” 

Sound familiar? I think that everyone can say that worriers or not, we have all landed there a few times. I was recently with a client who talked about the things in her past that she was proud of having accomplished; one of them was taming down her worst-case-scenario worrying. She stated that what really helped her was a simple trick with language – “Every time I go to automatically think ‘What if….” I change it to ‘What is.'”

Which, when we think about it, totally makes sense. “What if” brings us to a place where our worry gets tied into our imagination and we lean into the infinite possibilities. That gets combined with negative bias (the natural tendency to think the worst – based on our survival brain), and we have the worst outcome possible. But if we change that to “What is” we are now leaning into our rational brain; we shift from our imagination to the facts, or what we know right now. When we utilize our logic, we also open up the space to move away from negative bias, creating a more realistic, objective analysis of the situation.

“What is” instead of “What if” – I like it! 🙂

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Over-Thinking and Anxiety

When we are anxious about something, we tend to worry. Sometimes we ‘worst-case scenario’ our worries, other times we spend time ruminating through something endlessly; we can also have the tendency to over think everything.

Over-thinking and anxiety work hand in had to keep us stalled. Self-doubt and fear combine to put us in a position of not being able to make a decision; it binds us to a state of limbo and opportunities may pass us by. The tendency to over-think may be a learned behaviour, a consequence of low self-confidence or esteem, or simply a bad habit.

Our first step in moving past the tendency to over-think is to recognize it’s hold. From there, we can begin to shift our focus to include:

  • Challenging the fear. Lean into it by simply recognizing the fear. Acknowledge it – we can remind ourselves that curiousity is a way to temper fear’s grip.
  • Write down the alternatives. Sometimes this helps us as it allows some of our rational mind or logic to chime in on the issue.
  • Vet it with a friend. Sometimes we over-think as a way to simply avoid something. Using someone else as a sounding board prompts us into action.
  • Set a timer. Give yourself a set amount of time to overthink – then make the decision.

When we actively work towards tempering our over-thinking, we can begin to feel more confident in our ability to make a decision; thereby feeling less anxious and more prepared to face life’s challenges.

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Have Social Anxiety? Try this tip!

When clients come into therapy with the issue of social anxiety, one of the most common statements I hear is “I am afraid of what people will think of me.” It would seem that somewhere along the line, what was incorporated into their core belief system was a fear of judgement, a fear that somehow they weren’t going to live up to someone else’s expectations. “What happens if I say something stupid?” “I worry that all eyes will be on me.” They fret about what they should wear, how they look, what they should say or not say, that people will talk about them.”

Although it is important to gain an understanding as to how this core belief developed, it is also important to understand the thinking trap that we get into called ‘Mind Reading.’ Mind Reading is when you assume what others are thinking and feeling about you without having any concrete evidence about what they are really thinking. The problem is that we often respond to these assumptions as it they were true.

And in challenging this thinking trap, I ask you to think about why it is that we always assume that what another person is thinking about us is negative? Why aren’t we assuming that they might like our outfit, or laugh at our joke?

Because when we go into a situation already geared up for a negative response, we will distort or misinterpret the information we are receiving. As we are getting ready for the social event, we lean into the negative feelings and thoughts, we feed our fears.

We are much better served to tell ourselves, “I am not going to mind read. I am not going to assume that people are thinking anything of me. I am going to remind myself about the reality of the situation which is that people really aren’t paying that much attention.” (Which really is the truth.)

Accept the social invitation. Smile. Have good manners. Remember to breathe. Pat yourself on the back. Oh, and remember to have fun. 🙂

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