Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Get Off the Anxiety Wheel by Practicing Mindfulness

The wheel is considered one of humankind’s greatest inventions. It gave humans more freedom and control over their world. Our thoughts very often move around and around like a wheel, however, when this happens, we lose our sense of freedom and become stuck in indecision.  Think of the phrase, “you’re just spinning your wheels” with thoughts like, ‘what if I fail?’, ‘what if I make the wrong decision?’, ‘what will other people think of me?’ and so on.  These questions end up spinning around in our minds without end. It is a thoroughly frustrating experience.  A way to stop the spinning is to practice mindfulness, noticing and being curious about our thoughts rather than judging them.

What fuels this wheel-spinning is fear and anxiety. We feel a lack of internal control, like our mind and body are doing this distressing thing to us.  In response, we look for things outside of us to control, like situations, people, outcomes.  It relieves some of our anxiety for the moment and is, therefore, a protective response.  If we can become aware of this response in the moment, we can then consider the underlying anxiety. It is preferable to experience our true feelings and take steps to manage those, rather than continue to try and manage things we do not have control over. It is a paradox in that the more we attempt to control what is external, the more powerless we become. So, what DO we have control over? The answer is our internal world and all of the thoughts and feelings that reside there.

Our thoughts have the power to either increase anxiety or to lessen it.   Being mindful of our thoughts can help make anxiety more manageable. The three main components of mindfulness are:

§  Notice

§  Be Curious

§  Let it Go

When we stop what we are doing, close our eyes, and turn our attention inward, thoughts will naturally come and go.  The goal is not to stop the brain from producing thoughts. The goal is to be aware of them by noticing the thoughts in the moment they come up, be curious without judging them as good/bad or right/wrong, and then let them go.  
The following visual exercise can help:

See a snow globe in your mind’s eye that has been shaken up.  Notice the tiny flakes all swirling around inside.  Think of the globe as your mind and the flakes as your thoughts. As you watch the flakes float gently downward, imagine your thoughts floating around, then notice as they slowly descend and settle on the bottom of your mind just as the flakes settle at the bottom of the snow globe.
IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER: No one flake is better than another and, most importantly, you are not connected emotionally to any of the flakes.  It is similar to riding in a car or train and watching the scenery go by. With mindfulness, you simply watch your thoughts go by.
If you practice noticing your thoughts in a neutral way, they will naturally slow down, stop spinning, and prevent your anxiety from increasing.

May we all create the time and space to connect to our internal world, gifting ourselves with mindfulness.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Harnessing the Power to Tame Your Anxiety

For many of us, trying on new experiences and stepping out of our comfort zone produces anxiety.  This anxiety can be manageable or severe enough to prevent us moving forward into something new and exciting.  A way to manage anxiety and harness your self-power is to ask the question, What do I need in order to     fill in the blank   ?  Just asking the question can be a challenge, however, as an adult, the only person truly able to know what you need is YOU.

If asking the question, What Do I Need? is unfamiliar to you, consider breaking it down into the following:  Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How?

WHO-  It can be helpful to have someone accompany you. Ensure it is someone you trust, who keeps you grounded in the present, not triggered back into the past, or full of ‘what ifs’.  If this is not possible, could you keep in contact with the person via text message or phone?  One of the symptoms of anxiety is a sense of being disconnected from the environment.  This includes not just objects but people.  When you are able to connect with another, your anxiety will decrease.

WHAT- Identify an object that brings comfort or joy.  Some people connect to good luck charms which can bring a sense of control over worrisome situations.  It can be especially helpful to have a ‘kit’ of resources like a tote bag or backpack that contains the things needed to meet basic needs like water, essential oils for focus or relaxation, snacks, a notebook to write down and organize your thoughts, or a puzzle book that keeps the logical part of the brain online.  When emotions overwhelm us, the rational part of the brain shuts off.

WHEN Know what time of the day is most soothing to you.  Some people are highly anxious in the mornings as melatonin decreases and adrenaline increases urging you to start your day.  Create time to practice a tool or activity that emotionally calms/soothes you prior to the new experience.  When anxiety is triggered, the nervous system becomes highly aroused and the brain secretes stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline.  Yoga poses, rhythmic breathing, a youtube meditation, or brisk walk are just some ways to decrease this state of arousal.  Furthermore, running behind schedule, in itself, can trigger anxiety. Ensure that you have wiggle room to accommodate unexpected delays.

WHERE-  Know the setup of the situation and, if possible, visit the location prior to the activity.  This will create some familiarity. If you are able to enter the building/area, make note of an accessible restroom.  This can provide a time-out to practice a relaxation tool, repeat an affirmation or connect to your support person without being observed by others.  Anxiety often overrides the logical part of the brain, therefore, the less ‘figuring out’ you need to do the day of, the less draining it will be on your entire system.

WHY When you are clear on why you are facing the anxiety-producing experience, you can uncover the motivation to persist.  On the other hand, if you are proceeding because of feeling pressured by others that you ‘should’ do it, the motivation will be minimal.  Purpose is especially helpful when the situation is one you really do not want to face, however, it would hurt yourself or others if you did not, such as, having a dental procedure, showing up for a job interview, or visiting a loved one in the hospital.

HOW- Consider the personal qualities you need to possess, like courage, persistence, or flexibility.  You can then create a real or imagined visual symbol that represents the quality.  In your mind, see your present self connected with that symbol, embracing it, holding it in your hands.  If you are connecting with a specific character, look into their eyes and thank them for accompanying you into the experience.  It might be helpful to imagine your present self as that character with the same manner of dress, posture, and facial expression.

Asking, What Do I Need?, connects you to a sense of self-power over the inner workings of your mind and body as well as your external world.  Consider this quote by the writer, Alice Walker, best-known for her book, The Color Purple.

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

Keep in mind it is not necessary to answer all of the questions in order to experience a sense of empowerment over your anxiety.  Take the steps you are able to and let go of the others.  Most important of all, be gentle with yourself.


Monday, June 17, 2019

Toxic Stress in Relationships

“Whatever relationships you have attracted in your life at this moment, are precisely the ones you need in your life at this moment.  There is a hidden meaning behind all events and this hidden meaning is serving your own evolution.”                                              

                                         -          Deepak Chopra

There may be individuals in our lives whom we do not plan to sever ties with, however, their words and actions often cause us great distress.  This distress goes beyond mild annoyance or irritation.  It can actually be toxic to our self-image, feeling of emotional safety, and sense of competency. 


 All-consuming.  We may be able to identify a specific emotion or two that gets triggered by a toxic person, however, the stress seeps into the core self and triggers negative beliefs about who we are.  Examples of these negative beliefs are: ‘I am not lovable’, ‘ I am worthless’, ‘I am weak’, ‘ I am helpless’.   We carry negative beliefs with us into every situation and make decisions, based on these beliefs, about who to trust, what challenges to confront, and whether or not we learn from our experiences.

Physical. The effects of toxic stress are felt severely in the body from migraines and back pain to irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal maladies.  The physical discomfort serves to distract us from the emotional pain that is triggered by the person toxic to us.  Emotions occur in our bodies before the conscious mind is able to label them. Consider common sayings like, “he is such a pain in the neck” or “she is a pain in the ass” or “I wish he would get off my back.” Ask yourself- How would I describe this toxic stress in bodily terms.

Persistent.  The residue of interactions with a toxic person can remain with us for days, weeks, even months after an encounter.  If we do not explore and work through our emotional distress, eventually it becomes stored in our brain until the next encounter and we end up with a tangled mess of unreleased emotions from all the previous interactions with the person.  When we become triggered, meaning our brain connects our current experience with the previous ones, the ‘mess’ pops out from our emotional ‘junk drawer’.  This toxic stress overwhelms us and compromises our ability to respond in a rational, healthy way.

Setting and maintaining boundaries in a relationship with a person who is toxic to us is the key to preserving our emotional health. The same way we take actions to protect our physical health from toxicity in the physical environment, we need to protect our emotional health from toxicity in human relationships.

Consider this scenario:

Your neighbor next door is in the back yard spraying a tree with a toxic pesticide.  Would you walk into your back yard with no face mask, your skin exposed, lean over the fence, and have a conversation with this neighbor?

If it was really necessary to interact with the neighbor, you might take precautions and physically shield your skin, remain a good distance away from the toxicity, or wait until there is a time when it is safer to approach this person.


Take Precautions.  Mentally prepare yourself  or  ‘psych yourself up’  by using some relaxation tools, positive affirmations, identifying any expectations, and even writing down specific statements you can use to set boundaries.

Keep your distance. Consider who else will be present, the location, activity involved, and purpose of the encounter.  Create some distance by having a ’buffer’, someone you trust to run interference for you. 

Most important of all, is to weigh the necessity of interacting with the toxic person, know that you are in charge of your own emotional health, and believe that you have the personal right to choose how much toxicity, if any, you wish to be exposed to.

From a spiritual perspective, it just may be that this toxic person is a gift from the universe, someone most able to trigger an issue that needs to be addressed by you in order to continue on your journey toward healing.  Basically, if your ‘stuff’ doesn’t come to the surface, you can’t work on it.

May we all work toward releasing toxic stress in relationships, setting healthy boundaries, and confronting our emotional triggers.


Friday, March 1, 2019

The Survival Response in Relationships

When you experience a perceived threat, your brain responds involuntarily.  It is the same mechanism that enabled your ancestors to survive thousands of years ago as cavepeople. Within the brain’s limbic system, sometimes referred to as the ‘reptilian brain’, there is something called your amygdala. It controls all of your survival instincts like hunger, thirst, and sexual and maternal urges, and is, therefore, really efficient at detecting threats to your survival. Once a threat is detected, the amygdala sends a signal for the body to get ready to fight, flee, or freeze. Your body experiences actual physical changes as the hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, increase.  You may notice that your respiration quickens, vision narrows, and blood flows away from your organs and out toward your limbs. It is all part of the survival process.

While the physical changes are the same as they were thousands of years of ago, the types of threats  we face have changed significantly.  It is not a saber-toothed tiger coming your way, but a boss who reminds you of your hyper-critical parent or a police officer who has just pulled you over.  When you are experiencing difficulties in relationships, it can be helpful to identify your own primary response to danger.

Fighting is just what it seems to be.  It is moving toward a perceived danger and confronting it.  In an argument, the ‘fighter’ most often looks directly at the other person, asks direct questions, demands answers, raises one’s voice or talks over the person, and moves in an agitated way.

Fleeing is moving away from a threat and attempting to avoid it.  In an argument, the ‘fleer’ most likely avoids eye contact, turns away from the other person or leaves the situation, deflects questions, gives evasive answers, and/or becomes ‘busy’ in some unrelated activity or task.

Freezing is, essentially, shutting down. Like the antelope in the wild, the person ‘plays dead’ until the threat has passed.  The ‘freezer’ most often turns silent, stares into space, shrugs when asked a question, takes on a rigid posture, and is, overall, unresponsive. 

Within the context of relationship, you really need to understand not just your own response to threat, but the other person’s as well so that you can detach in a healthy way and refrain from taking their words and actions personally.  A common situation that occurs in relationships is response escalation.  This is when each person’s initial response becomes further activated by the other’s danger response. It is like a super stressful game of tennis in which the ball is returned with more and more force each time.

For example, two people plan to meet at a specific time for dinner.  One is punctual while the other arrives almost 30 minutes late. Being on time is very important to the first person, therefore, arriving late shows a lack of concern for his/her feelings. This is the perceived threat, anger and anxiety are triggered, and the brain is thrown into a ‘fight’ response.  When the second person shows up, the ‘fighter’ is standing with shoulders back, hands clenched in attack mode. In a loud tone of voice, they demand to know why the person is late and, without allowing the opportunity for a response, goes on about how long they have been waiting, how hungry they are, and how rude, inconsiderate, etc. the other person.  Now, unable to recognize this as an involuntary danger response, the second person becomes anxious. Their brain is thrown into a ‘freeze’ response.  They put their head down, avoid eye contact, and do not verbally respond.  This causes the ‘fighter’ to feel further ignored and offended, so the fight response increases, the ‘freezer’ shuts down even more, and on they go in a tennis match of heightened stress.

So what do you do after identifying your primary response to danger? 
Communicate. Choose a time after the brain has reset and the body’s physical response has subsided.  Sit down with the other person and talk about what triggered one of the three responses and how the brain is wired to ensure our survival.  It can be relieving for both you and the other person to understand that fighting, fleeing, or freezing behaviors are not something you consciously choose in the moment, and, therefore, are not connected to bad intentions.  Consider this French proverb:

“To understand everything is to forgive everything.”

May we all strive for self-awareness with curiosity and an open heart and may our relationships benefit.

Thursday, December 6, 2018


“Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang the best.”

                                                                                                                -Henry van Dyke

For some of us, the holiday season brings to the surface feelings such as loss, loneliness, and regret as well as the tendency to compare ourselves to others.  We may feel that we are lacking and that others are living much more abundant lives. One of the ways to counteract these thoughts and emotions, which can truly dampen our spirits, is to practice gratitude. Gratitude injects us with positive energy that boosts our physical and emotional resiliency so we are better able to weather the challenges that come up. One way to practice gratitude is to focus on the external gifts in our lives, like, material comforts, awards/recognitions, and relationships within our families and communities, however, it is also helpful to recognize our internal gifts.  Our internal gifts are an integral part of our core selves.
These internal gifts include:

Wisdom- knowledge gained from processing and then reflecting on life experiences

Formal skills- procedural behaviors learned through schooling and mentorship

*Natural abilities/talents- logical, visual, auditory, physical, literary, interpersonal, intrapersonal

Helpful Habits- daily actions/self-talk that make up our self-care routine

When we become thankful for our own internal gifts, we are able to recognize and accept our true worth. This stimulates our ability to self-motivate and to work toward our goals. When we self-motivate we are more likely to engage in activities and embrace experiences for the intrinsic reward rather than the external one. This intrinsic reward becomes more tangible when we devote our time and energy to those activities which utilize our internal gifts.

Self- gratitude extends outward.  We may end up recognizing that many of our internal gifts are the direct result of our interactions with other people:  the person who taught us the skill, encouraged our natural talent, modeled emotional resiliency and self-care, or gave us the support and personal space to process and learn from our life experiences.

*A full description of natural talents is offered in the book, 7 Kinds of Smart by Thomas Armstrong.

May we all practice self-gratitude, progress on our life path, and be the best version of ourselves at each stage of the journey.