When you are anxious you are on the spectrum of fight, flight or freeze. All of which fall somewhere between uncomfortable and horrible. That is because your brain is telling your body via a tsunami bio-chemistry that you are in trouble. Unfortunately, most of the time, this is not true. Anxiety is when we have a pervasive, but inaccurate, sense in our body (thoughts and feelings) that something is really not okay. It is exhausting and defeating. There is hope, a lot of hope. Understanding your anxiety is a huge step toward taking the edges off of it.
Our brain is loyal and committed but, it tends to overreact. The default of the brain is to look for threats and problems. The real problem is that with nearly infinite information available to the brain, our brains have to choose what to pay attention to, and choose quickly (tiny fractions of a second). Our brain also always errs on the side of keeping us safe, which means assuming danger wherever possible. So, when left to default settings, it looks for all the scary stuff first and often doesn't have room or time for the rest (the good stuff).
When the brain establishes that there is scary stuff (which is a self fulfilling prophecy), it turns on the fight, flight, freeze response in the animal part of our brain. Heart rates rise, breathing gets shallow and rapid, our body is in a code red. It also limits access to the higher part of our brain because that part is too slow. Our higher brain likes to take it's time, collect more information and offer thoughtful responses. This is what a six year old client called his peace brain. Sounds nice huh? This is not an option unless we can convince the animal brain to stand down. This pattern only strengthens over time. Our brain thinks it's getting better and better at keeping us safe, when in reality it is making it harder and harder to be happy and grateful.
To understand why some people's brain's are so much more loyal and protective, let us talk about your childhood. I'm kidding...sorta. We can find out a lot by looking back at patterns and experiences, but we don't have to do that at this point. Entertain the idea that the voice of the fear brain generally feels pretty unempowered and small...like a kid. Usually the one liners that the fear brain is screaming out sound like a fearful kid. They are concerned with fundamental safety and being lovable, which are probably not real problems (if they are it is not anxiety, but stress). These are not rationale adult thoughts. Of course, adults have them, but they are fears that arise as young children and never leave. Check it out for yourself. Next time you lose it, ask yourself, do I feel like an grown up or a kid?
So, why you? For reasons, we do not necessarily need to know now, you have a very vigilant inner child. This is likely a combination of nurture (yes, your parents) and nature (you just came this way) and whatever else we are yet to understand about the nature of human experience. Assigning blame is not helpful. Why is less important than accepting this is a real 'thing' for you. Running away from it or telling it to just stop, only makes it worse. That confirms in your nervous system that something is really scary and wrong. For whatever reasons, this is simply something that is part of your job in life right now. Go toward it and the job will be done better and faster.
First, we have to begin to notice when we are anxious. This is huge because being able to observe the experience changes how we experience it, and thus, gives is a tiny window to slip in other options. So, when you notice, say; "hey, I'm anxious, that means my brain is sending out all those hormones that make my body feel like this". Try to entertain the thought that even though you really don't like this feeling, you can do it, you can get through it. I mean, let's get honest, you've 'gotten through it' for years. Simply starting to debunk the brain's story about this being a real threat that could kill you is beginning to change the actual neural wiring of your brain!
If can notice your own anxiety you can also begin to see that you know how it well. You know how it goes and how it ends and how long it usually lasts, and on and on. Begin to observe it, not just have it. From this observer role, you may make an effort to affect the feeling. If you can't think yourself out of it, then feel yourself out of it. Try to interrupt the physical side effects of the biochemical tsunami. Deepen your breathing & slow your heart rate. NO thinking except to make sure your are breathing deeper and your heart is slowing. The brain and body work in concert, so that your body can send the conflicting information back (we are okay), forcing the brain to stand down. You should know this skill only gets more effective each time you do it.
Finally, this may be a anit-climactic conclusion, but the only other thing we need to do is stop giving ourselves so much sh*t about being anxious. This is a brilliant and well meaning attempt by your brain to take care of you, like a well meaning parent always afraid you're going to shoot your eye out. We need to learn to ignore the hype and trust our own grown up self has us covered .
Back to School. This time of year rivals the holiday season in stress levels. Here are three tips for helping your family have more calm in the storm this year.
1. Get real. There is no reason children should be calm about returning to school, it's a lot of change and unknown. Going back to school is a major transition. Here is a chance to help your child practice tolerating uncomfortable feelings. Let your child know that big feelings are natural, they can get really uncomfortable, but they will ease.
As the uncomfortable stuff comes up, often appearing as bad behavior or melt downs, remind your child that a lot is changing and that can feel really hard. If you can keep in mind that bad behavior may be a symptom of stress (just as adult bad behavior is usually a symptom of stress), then you can help your child make better choices in their efforts to feel better. After your child has found their way to being calm, do the apologies for bad behavior, and then everyone let's it go. No grudges, no shame.
2. Begin before school starts. Talk about the change coming, and be sure to make it clear that if it brings up big feelings, you're there to help. This will allow you to come back to this if things get hard, saying to your child; 'remember we talked about how the excitement of going back to school can be hard? I wonder if you need some time to relax and that's why you are having a hard time.' This is a shame free way of essentially doing a time out. Time out as a place of peace and caring instead of punishment.
Another pregame consideration is to shift the family routine from the summer routine to the school normative routine before school actually starts. The more gradual change sets up a more mindful atmosphere, respecting that it's a challenging time. Things like meal times, bed times, food options add up when it all happens at once. The all at once shift minimizes how hard it may feel for your child (and you) and limits time for adjusting.
3. Slow it down. The days before and days after school starts will be especially tender. Children regulate their stress and solve their problems primarily through play. Time to just play will go a long way toward helping them feel centered and strong in big transitions. Slowing it down can support everyone in the family, it gives everyone a chance to feel calm and 'normal'. Be at home and ideally outside. No agenda.
Finally, cut everyone a little slack, including yourself. It's still true that children do what we do, not what we say. When we are more gentle with ourselves, we can be more gentle with those we love.
You lay awake in the middle of the night thinking. Sometimes it’s the obsessive thoughts about how much you suck, what you should of done differently, or how someone else has wronged you. Or maybe there is agitation in your body, some energy that is erratic and frustrating. You wonder how could anyone sleep in these conditions!?
You have tried everything: exercise during the day to wear yourself out, drinking less coffee during the day, meditation, sound machines, getting up and doing things around the house in the middle of the night, maybe even praying to God! As you become more desperate you start to use THC (think smoking weed), or decide to just have a few drinks to lull you into a nice comatose like state. Possibly sedatives and prescription drugs enter the scene at this time as well. It all starts to get a little sketchy at this juncture, mixing meds, going on, getting off, and all you want to do is sleep.
This is a rough place to be. There is something particularly stressful and even frightening about not being able to sleep. The next day is often shot to hell, your relationships suffer, your work suffers, and your general sense of wellbeing is thrown off. Maybe you have only some of these symptoms and can manage to sleep well from time to time, but there is always that fear that this night you wont be able to.
At this point you might be thinking, “Ok, yes all very depressing, so what are these “suggestions” you alluded to in the title?!” Right, ok here they are! If you have been checked out by a doctor and all your hormones are in order and you are not having an allergic reaction to some thing in your house then maybe there is something psychological happening.
During sleep we are very vulnerable. We are unconscious and on some level very open. If your issue is falling asleep then I would suggest exploring any resistance you have to the ideas of “letting go,” “surrender,” or “vulnerability.” Explore through writing, therapy, or art what happens at the point when you could let go into sleep but cannot.
Others of you may wake up in the middle of the night, you fall asleep fine but at some point you awaken. There may be racing thoughts, an agitation in the body, or even emotions arising to the surface. If this is your struggle then look to unresolved trauma, resentments, and/or difficult family of origin relationships. See if there are parts of your inner life that you have been amputating out of your consciousness for fear of what would happen if you faced these issues. Because we are so vulnerable in these unconscious states this rejected inner material is ripe to pop its head up and make you face it. One solution for this is to deliberately face this rejected material in the light of day. Explore through writing, art, meditation, and especially therapy the ins and outs of this material.
The basic guideline is to see what is rejected in your consciousness with compassion in the light of day. Then these parts of yourself may be satisfied and let you get a good nights rest. A therapist adept in parts work (also known as internal family systems), and in trauma work will be especially helpful in getting you on the right track. Give it time, but with persistence and compassion for this rejected internal material you have the possibility to sleep soundly again!
I've known Karolina for several years now. We met back in grad school. Since day one I have been impressed with her ability to be sincere, kind and insightful. She has a keen and compassionate eye as a therapist. Recently, I was lucky to find that my new office is just down the hall from Karolina, so I've found myself enjoying that we are able to share insights and a laugh pretty regularly. I hope that you enjoy her thoughtful and candid writing. To find out more about Karolina see her Bio and contact links in the post script of this blog.
Karolina has worked in the therapeutic field for 11 years. Her passion for writing, teaching, and experiential work has led her on many adventures both inner and outer. From the desert canyonlands of Utah, to the mountains of northern Arizona, to most currently the foothills of Colorado. In all these places Karolina has sought a further understanding of herself, others, and the systems both inner and outer that deeply affect our daily lives. All of her writing is based on work with her wonderful clients, or personal experience. For more blog posts check out her website at karolinawalsh.com. Or to contact her please send an email to email@example.com
For parents and caregivers who want to support a child in resolving a difficult experience including grief, I've offered simple talk tools relative to your child's developmental age.
A note: In the case of death or trauma that is especially violent or has very directly affected the child's experience of safety, professional support from a psychotherapist is the first step. If you are looking for a children's therapist, research the different types of Play Therapy as well as EMDR on the web. These are the top three treatment modalities for children who are navigating trauma.
Story Telling. Very young children will often tell the story of the event over and over. It can feel instinctive to a caregiver to re-direct the child, but really the child's insistence on recounting the story is their effort to make peace with it. If you find your child re-telling a story over and over, encourage the child gently each time the story comes up. Help them fill in the pieces that they are missing. When children tell stories of trauma they will generally leave out the portion of the story that describes the resolution and return to safety occurs. Validate any expression of fear, sadness or other emotions and gently remind them how the experience ended (eg; & then I came and got you, picked you up and gave you a kiss). Emphasizing deep breaths will help the child regulate their nervous system while they recount the events. When we go through these type of events, our nervous system gets aroused because of the flight or fight response process. Relaxing after we are aroused to fight or flight is easier when we move. For these reasons, you may find it helpful to get a child moving after recounting the story. Running, wrestling, sand boxes, blowing bubbles, art, and most play will help the child re-regulate and calm down. Eventually, the child will either just stop telling the story or they will include an ending in their narrative on their own, that allows them to make peace with the event.
Discussion and Support. At around 7 or 8 years old children begin to discuss events in an organized and accurate way relative to the our adult world. Do not force a discussion at any age, but do bring it up. Your willingness to take the first step can be very important. If your child is not open to talking to you, tell them that it is really best when something this difficult happens that they figure out how to talk about it. This might mean brain storming about who they want to talk about it with, maybe a grandparent or trusted family friend or a professional. Whoever they talk to will do best to have activity planned that will allow for conversation but also busy hands. Again, this will help the child's nervous system stay calm while they go through the process of organizing the events of their story. The conversation itself should cover the sequence of events. Sometimes children (and all people) make up events for parts of an event that they are unsure of. Often the parts they make up are more frightening than the real story. Once the story is recounted, to the relative comfort level of the child, ask directly what they think will help them feel safe moving forward. Check in again in a few months.
Consider the extent to which you are affected by the trauma as well. It is rare that something of significance happens to our children that doesn't affect us at least as much as it affects the child. This means that it may not be as upsetting to your child than as it is you, but still some level of inquiry is probably best. Parents and caregivers need to take care of themselves too. Attempting to help a child relax and let go of events that continue to rock your world isn't effective. The talk tools described for children could be translated to adults as well.
As always, if you feel as though you are in over your head, or your child's behavior and discussions make it clear that they are still struggling, or you feel stuck and overwhelmed, find a professional. There are some really wonderful folks out there ready to support you and your child in navigating grief.
Recently we were cited in an interesting blog about work life balance. It's a worthwhile read.
Here is the link to the blog we were quoted in if you want to read more