Our “Cone of Attention”

Our survival brain is constructed to be alert and ready at any sign of danger. It is the part of the brain that will create a fight, flight or freeze response when our system becomes alarmed. In short, it creates a cone of attention – essentially, we become super focused to the alarm in our system and our energies are directed towards getting out of the danger zone.

Thank goodness we have this cone of attention! Imagine encountering a bear without it – or not reacting quickly to a car veering in our lane, or a thunderstorm bearing down upon us?

What about the difference between a true alarm and a false one? How does the cone of attention work for our perceived fears? Our ruminating thoughts, worst-case-scenario worries, our sense of overwhelm? It works in the exact same way. 

Regardless of whether we are in true physical danger or trapped in the angst of a perceived fear, our cone of attention is biological and will target all of your focus to your worry. It is why we report feeling less able to concentrate when feeling uneasy.

We are much better served to recognize what is happening, be grateful to our cone of attention for working so diligently and to then take some deep breaths. By resetting our nervous system, we can move to accessing our rational brain to weigh in on the facts. “Is this a true alarm or a false one? Can I do something about this worry right now?”

From here, we can settle our attention on other things, grounding ourselves in the facts.

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What Anxiety and Anger Have in Common

You’re running late, feeling keyed up about not being on time; no one seems to be co-operating and the littlest one is starting to have a meltdown because she can’t find her favourite hat. Before you know it, you are yelling at the kids and yanking the closet door practically off of its hinges.

How did you go from anxious to angry so easily? Simply answered, our bodies set us up for it. When we are anxious, our body’s muscles tense up, our blood pressure rises, our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes more shallow and our attention narrows. The same thing happens when we are angry. Both our anxiety and our anger activate what is called the sympathetic nervous system which gets us ready for action. It becomes very easy when feeling stressed, to simply shift into anger because our bodies are already there.

It is our parasympathetic system that gets us back to a relaxed state. Eventually, whether anxious or angry, built in mechanisms eventually bring us back to calmness (picture driving to work after having dropped off the kids, coffee purchased and music playing). In the midst of feeling stressed, we can help that process along and allow it to get us there sooner by taking some deep breaths.

Focusing on slowing down our breathing pushes the reset button on both our physiological state and our mindset. We are much better served to stop, take some deep breaths and state to ourselves “It’s okay, like every other morning, we’ll get there.” Leaving everyone less rattled and the door still on its hinges 🙂

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Anxiety Symptoms in Children

When exploring when anxiety first started for them, many clients will link it back to their early adult years; I often remark that their anxiety may have started earlier than that as it tends to manifest differently in children.

In an article entitled “10 Anxiety Symptoms in Children that Most Parents Miss” by Angela Pruess, we learn about how anxiety isn’t always what we assume it to be in children. Pruess lists symptoms that might be masking what turns out to be underlying anxiety. Three that stood out to me include:

  • Anger. “When our brain’s emotion center is overactivated (which is what happens with anxiety) a child is more inclined to be irritable and reactive as all emotions are working in overdrive.” I often mention to folks that it is a natural response to jump from feeling anxious to feeling angry as our body physiologically is essentially mimicked in both cases – heightened blood pressure, rapid breathing, feeling ‘wound up.’ Makes sense that could be happening to our littles too.
  • Struggling to fall asleep. “Anxious thoughts love to visit when our minds are quiet and the hustle and bustle of the day are no longer there to distract us. Night waking is also common when our brains are functioning out of a state of anxiety and are more hypervigilant of any external or internal stimuli such as a noise from the hallway or a scary dream.” Children’s tendency for magical thinking might also trigger an anxious response; especially when the house is dark and quiet.
  • Trouble with focus. “Living under a heightened state of stress puts a child’s brain on continual ‘survival mode’, meaning the emotion center of the brain is continually overactivated. When a child’s amygdala is working in overdrive their ‘thinking brain’ (located in the frontal lobe) automatically becomes less accessible.” This is why it is important to assess the amount of stress that might exist in our children’s lives; from overscheduling, to conflict in the home, or not enough down time/connection as a family.

Pruess mentions seven other symptoms that are noteworthy of reading. To read the full article: https://parentswithconfidence.com/anxiety-symptoms-children-parents-miss/

To visit her website entitled “Parents with Confidence”: https://parentswithconfidence.com/

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Asking the Worry

After a worry has passed we can often look back and recognize that the worry grew too big. We agonized over it, paced the floor with our minds over it, allowed it to grow out of proportion until it occupied way too much of our time and space. Perhaps, instead of reflecting after the worry, we can pause for a moment mid-worry and ask it “Are you a hypothetical worry or a practical one?”

Hypothetical worries are not based on facts – they are based on fears. They are the worries that niggle at our doubts and drown us in anticipated despair. They are the worries that take up way too much space. Practical worries might actually help us. They are the here and now worries, the ones we can do something about.

If our worry is hypothetical, we are much better served to ‘put it on the back burner’ and move to a distraction. This can take some work, but it is achievable. And if the worry is practical, we can move to action – doing something always brings us a greater feeling of feeling settled.

Stopping to pause and ask our worry just where it stands can be a small coping strategy with big impact.

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Fretting and the Essence of Time

I have to imagine that at the “pioneer point” in our existence, there was a time for worrying – that we were presented with something we needed to deal with and apart from that, we were pretty busy just trying to till the land, fill the larder, and keep the fire stoked. In times when there was so much work to be done in a day, our worries were immediate and we needed to deal with them accordingly.

It would seem today that our worrying and fretting is no longer balanced with the essence of time. If we are in a position of having too much time to fill, our worries have the ability to take over; we tend to ruminate, overthink and get ourselves worked up. We stew about it.

If we are in a position where we don’t have enough time in our day, our tendency is to push away the niggling thoughts; the worries get set aside as ‘we have no time to deal with them.’ Don’t worry, they will come back with a vengeance, the moment your head hits the pillow or a sense of panic comes out of nowhere.

Perhaps the trick is to deal with the worries as they present themselves. Slow down long enough to give the worry some room, without letting it take over completely. Action being your biggest ally.

Asking yourself:

  • What am I worried about?
  • Is this a true alarm or a false one? (Focus on fact, not on fear)
  • What can I do about it right now?

When we are able to deal with the worry accordingly as it comes up, we also have the essence of time on our side and we can get back to a grounded, take life one day at a time, settled place.

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Anxiety and it’s Toll on Relationships

In an article entitled “How Anxiety Destroys Relationships (And How to Stop It) by Kristine Tye and featured on Good Therapy, Tye talks about the ways that anxiety can take it’s toll on relationships. Two of the points I found especially relevant:

  • “Anxiety breaks down trust and connection. Anxiety causes fear or worry that can make you less aware of your true needs in a given moment. It can also make you less attuned to the needs of your partner. If you’re worried about what could be happening, it’s difficult to pay attention to what is happening. When you feel overwhelmed, your partner may feel as though you aren’t present.”
  • “Anxiety is the opposite of acceptance. Unhealthy levels of anxiety make you feel as though an emotional “rock” is in your stomach almost all the time. Anxiety causes you to reject things that are not dangerous and avoid things that might benefit you. It also can stop you from taking healthy action to change things in your life that are hurting you because it makes you feel hopeless or stuck.”

Tye also notes that challenging your anxiety by focusing on the present and being okay with the feeling of discomfort are ways that you can counteract anxiety and the subsequent strain it may be putting on your relationships.

There is never a doubt that living with mental illness of any form can be taxing, to not only the individual experiencing it, but to their loved ones as well. Working towards coping strategies and leaning into healthier choices are ways that we can help counteract the after effects of emotional struggles, whether they are our own or those of whom we care about.

To read the full article (she has three more points!): https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/how-anxiety-destroys-relationships-and-how-to-stop-it-0622155

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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 Tip About Panic Attacks

One of the books that I read on vacation was entitled “maid” by Stephanie Land. A memoir, “maid” was  Stephanie’s story about how an unplanned pregnancy, and subsequent life as a single mom, saw her strapped in poverty for years as she struggled to support herself and her daughter.

For anyone who suffers from panic attacks, you know first hand how frightening and debilitating in the moment they can be. You most likely also know that they do tend to pass, and when we ground ourselves, we can help to dissipate the panic. A passage in the book that I earmarked spoke about how Stephanie handled her overwhelming feelings:

“At the stop sign at the end of the street, I pulled over to the curb. I leaned forward, pressing my forehead against the steering wheel. This had happened often in the last year. Whenever I felt the pain of loss – my chest caving in right at the hollow spot in the center – I found it best to stop and wait, to give the feeling a moment to pass. The pain didn’t like to be ignored. It needed to be loved, just as I needed to be loved. As I sat in my car, I breathed in and out, counting to five each time. I love you, I whispered to myself. I’m here for you. Reassurance of self-love was all I had.”

What I like about this passage is process, grounding, and affirmations; a great combination in how we can focus on the panic to help ourselves get through the overwhelming feelings. Being able to acknowledge our fears in the moment, breathe through them while focusing on our courage will help us to keep the love for our self close by.

A lovely story, “maid” is a worthy read.

Photo credit: Me!

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Meet Ellen Grickites; an Algonquin student who speaks her truth

I came across the website “Hope Heals;” an initiative being led by the Public Relations class of Algonquin College. In one of their featured stories, a student named Ellen Grickites, speaks about her experience with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is a fairly well known therapy and is often accompanied by other types of therapies as a practical approach to challenging some of our core beliefs and automatic thoughts.

There is a natural link between our thoughts, our feelings and our behaviours. Very often, we can be triggered by a feeling or thought that will, in turn, influence our behaviour. Ellen writes about her own experience with CBT: “Most of my early sessions included me explaining how I was feeling: Low, numb, stressed, insecure. My psychiatrist and I then began to question why I was feeling these things: Was it school? Friends? Bullying? The next step was to figure out how I could combat these feelings. I could distract myself, talk to my mom, or write them down. We discussed many options for distraction, and how I could make myself feel better.”

Although the article is about Ellen’s experience with a particular therapy, I am also able to appreciate her willingness to enter therapy and her openness about how tenacious we have to sometimes be with some of our ingrained patterns. I quote: “I am very proud of myself for having practiced cognitive behaviour therapy for the past four years. It’s a big step, and takes a lot of effort, but in the end, your mental health is worth it.”

Well said, Miss Grickites, well said. 🙂

To read the full article: https://www.hopeheals.care/ellens-story

To read an article introducing you to CBT: https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/what-is-cbt-definition-meaning/

Photo credit: http://Photo by Kristel Hayes on Unsplash

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Anxiety Fact #6

Anxiety can become a problem. This is when people usually seek therapy as their anxiety has reached a disruptive place in their life. If your body is reacting in alarm when there is in fact no danger, it creates a distressful cycle as we try to manage our worries and fears physiologically. Our body produces symptoms based on our fearful thoughts, but without any real danger, our body then has no signals that “Everything is okay. We got this.”

If anxiety reaches a level that has become disruptive, it really is okay to ask ourselves, “Does it have to be this way?” Reducing stress levels as well as actively reducing worry can help.

“Thinking will not overcome fear but action will.” – W. Clement Stone

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