Category Archives: Anxiety

6 Simple Things You Can Do To Improve Your Mental Health

Thinking about improving our mental health can feel overwhelming–especially when we’re under the influence of negative emotions such as anger, sadness or anxiety.  However, there are a few simple things that you can do in the moment that can help…and, if you practice these things on a regular basis, you may see an improvement in your overall well-being.  So, what are they?

1.  Stop and Breathe

As humans, we are under a lot of stress.  Our stress levels encourage us to be ‘shallow’ breathers–instead of taking deep breaths; we take short,  shallow breaths.  If we pay attention, we may notice that most of our inhales barely make it past our collar bone!    This way of breathing encourages panicky feelings as we’re not getting enough oxygen to our brains–it’s as if we’re hyperventilating.   If that’s our normal, how should we breathe?

Have you ever watched a baby breathe?  They  naturally ‘tummy’ breathe…slow, deep, relaxed breaths.  Tummy breathing helps to calm the nervous system, which puts the breaks on the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.  You can practice this type of breathing by gently placing your hands on your stomach and inhaling until you feel your tummy rise and fall.

If you are interested in practicing your breathing as a way to cope with difficult emotions, a meditation/breathing download is available on the Welcome Page of Blaikie Psychotherapy.  The exercise takes 20 minutes and includes instructions.

2.  Eat Something Healthy

Are you familiar with the ‘hang over’ from a greasy, high-fat, calorie-dense meal?  I know that I am!  If I have made a stop at my local fast-food palace as a way to cope with negative feelings, I can pretty much guarantee that I won’t feel better afterwards.

Our brains and bodies are connected.  There is now a branch of science called Nutritional Psychiatry that looks at the effects of food on our mental health.  Scientists are recognizing the interplay between mental health and a healthy gut (the microbiome).  When we provide our bodies with healthy nutrients, we are encouraging brain health.  This article from the Harvard Medical School explains how eating a diet high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants helps to increase serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain.

So, if you’re feeling down, grab an apple instead of a doughnut!

3.  Move

We have known for a long time that exercise is a good way to improve our mood.  There’s nothing like a good stomp around the block after an argument!

The great thing is that it doesn’t have to be a big deal…just 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week will provide benefits.  While 150 minutes may sound like a lot, it’s only a 20 minute walk per day.  And the 20 minutes can be spread out over the day…park the car a bit farther from where you’re going…take the stairs when possible…hit replay on your favourite tune and keep dancing.  When we’re mindful of ways to increase our amount of movement, it’s easy to find 20 minutes.

4.  Enjoy Nature

Not only can we add 20 minutes of movement into our day, we can do it outside.  While spending time in a forest or at a lake is ideal, the benefit is in getting outside.  Is there a park or other green space in your area?  What about your backyard?

A recent trend called “Forest Bathing” encourages us to benefit from the healing properties of trees.    According to a CTV News article,  the forest bathing movement is all about immersing oneself in the healing properties of trees and plants.  It involves simply walking — quietly, slowly and deliberately — in a forest, and taking in the sounds, scents, colours, forms and general vibe of nature.

The concept is inspired by the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, which translates to “taking in the forest atmosphere.”  The certified forest therapy guide quoted in the article stated that “studies in Japan and Korea found forest bathers after their walks had an increased number of “natural killer cells,” immune system cells that combat disease and may even help prevent some kinds of cancer. The researchers believe natural killer cells are boosted when people breathe in organic compounds called phytoncides released by trees.”  Apparently, forest bathing helps to lower cortisol levels, thereby lowering your stress levels.

If you’re curious about nature therapy or forest bathing, you can read more about it here.

4.  Count

We’ve all heard the advice about counting to 10 before losing our temper, and for a good reason as it often works.  However, sometimes we need more than that.

When we get overwhelmed by big emotions like anxiety or anger, our limbic system (or lizard/emotional brain) is over-stimulated.  This means that the logic part of our brain (pre-frontal cortex) is not in charge.  By counting, which is a ‘thinking’ activity, we put that part of our brain back in the driver’s seat, and we stop the flooding of emotions.  While counting our breaths may help, it can be more helpful to count something that is external to us.

One suggestion that I often give to clients is, when needed, look at what is around and find something to count.  In a meeting room?…count the number of pens or paperclips on the table.  In a store?…How many items are on the rack or shelf in front of you.  At home?…Count the number of books on a shelf, spots on the carpet, dust bunnies on the floor.  Outside?  Count trees or cars.  We can always find something to count.

6.  Talk to Someone

One of the signs of depression is self-imposed social isolation.  We don’t feel like interacting with other people, so we don’t.  The more we keep to ourselves, the deeper we fall into our negative thoughts and the less we want to spend time with others….and the pattern repeats.  I’m not talking about the bigger problem of a chronic lack of friends, but the turning away for others.

Social interaction is important for our mental health.  We are social creatures and need contact with others.  So make a point of talking to at least one person during your day…maybe it’s the person who makes your coffee or tea…smiling at someone who crosses your path…asking a co-worker about their plans for the weekend.  It doesn’t have to be deep, just a sharing of humanity.

This post provides 6 simple ways to improve your mental health.  However, if you are dealing with a significant mental health challenge, these may not be enough.  If you would like to get in touch to talk more about what you are experiencing, you can reach me through my contact page.

And now, since humour is also good for mental health.  Here is some classic Monty Python.  Enjoy!

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The Anatomy of a Worry

The following content is a summary of information contained in The Cancer Survivor’s Companion:  Practical ways to cope with your feelings after cancer by Dr. Frances Goodhart and Lucy Atkins.  While the book is from the perspective of cancer patients, I believe that much of the information on worrying is applicable to all of us “worriers”.

We all worry.  It’s part of being human.  But if we look closely at a worry, what is it?  How does it work?  What is it made up of?  How do I cope with it?  Can I make it go away?  One way of dealing with a challenge is to intimately understand it–so let’s dissect a worry and see what makes it tick!

What Is A Worry?

Finances…health…job…family members…what others think of us…I bet that we can all give a list of what the topics that we worry about, but what actually is a worry?  Goodhart and Atkins define a worry as “a natural, instinctive, human response to a perceived threat”.  When we worry, we are afraid that something negative is going to happen.  Worries are future-driven.

While worrisome thoughts may cross our minds, worrying becomes a problem when we can’t stop and begin to ruminate on specific ideas.  These thoughts start to take over all of our brain space to the point that we can’t think about anything else. When worrying becomes out of control, we can’t determine between big and small things to worry about–we worry about them all equally.  Our sense of perspective is gone.

Worrying is such a common, human experience that you can buy something to do your worrying for you.  A Worry Bird!  They also come in a charm bracelet version, so you can take it with you!

How Does It Work?

There are four parts to a worry:  thoughts, behaviour, feelings and body sensations.  They are all inter-related and play off of each other.  A body sensation (perhaps a muscle spasm or stomach ache) triggers a thought about a threat which leads to feelings of fear.  This fear may then cause us to stop what we’re doing and focus on the subject that is worrying us (I’m getting sick or my boss wants to get rid of me…), then we’re off to the worry races.

Treating Worry as a Science Experiment

The key to coping with a worry is to learn to handle each of it’s parts:  thoughts, behaviour, feelings and body sensations.  When we can do that, we can break the cycle and decrease the control that worries have over our lives.

One of the ways to get a handle on worry behaviour is to treat it like a science experiment.  The more we know about an activity, the better able we are to change it.  When you find yourself caught in a worry, pay attention.  When did the worry start?  What were you doing at the time?  Was the trigger a feeling, action, body sensation or thought?  As we gather more information, we can start to see trends and triggers.

It’s Usually About Our Thoughts

For most of us, the worry trigger is our thoughts that are fed by thought traps.  Here are some common thought traps that lead us down the path of worrying.

  • Mind reading:  We are mind reading when we are making judgements about what others are thinking.  (“I know that she’s mad at me because she didn’t return my text”.)
  • Fortune telling:  None of us are able to predict the future.  When we make negative assumptions about what will happen, we are giving in to worry.
  • Thinking the worst:  When we are in a worry cycle, we never think the best, but of the most negative possible outcome.  (“My boss is looking for any reason to fire me…if I’m late, I’m going to lose my job.”)
  • Labelling yourself:  These are all the negative “I am” statements that we beat ourselves up with…”I’m lazy”, “I’m dumb”…
  • If…then thinking:  Logic stops being our friend when we link it to thinking the worst.  “If I don’t hear from the recruiter today, then I didn’t get the job.”
  • Should and oughts:  When we ‘should’ or ‘ought’ ourselves, we are putting unrealistic expectations or demands on ourselves.   “Even thought I’m feeling overwhelmed, I should be taking care of everyone else.”
  • Selective thinking:  When we only remember the negative parts of an interaction or situation and forget the positive parts, we are falling into the trap of selective thinking.

Now that we have gathered information, what’s next?

Coping Strategies

One you know your triggers, you are on the way to getting the upper hand on your worry.

If your trigger is a thought:

  • Write down your actual thought.
  • Compare the thought to any of the thought traps listed above.
  • Problem solve about what you can do, if your actual worry became real.
  • Being able to do this exercise takes practice, so in the beginning you can work with someone your trust.

If your trigger is a body sensation:

  • Slow your breathing–counting your breaths as you breath deeply is a useful technique.
  • Exercise–go for a walk, dance around your room, do a few yoga poses–anything that will help to release the energy surge that often accompanies worrying.
  • Relaxation techniques.  There are many guided relaxation exercises on-line.  Check out this link for an example.

If your trigger is a feeling:

Here’s a method for dealing with negative feelings.  Feelings are energy–they arrive, peak, and subside.  When we can recognize their pattern, we can practice sitting with them until they move on.

For example:  When a feeling of fear arrives, try not to get hooked into the ‘story’ of the fear, but watch the ‘fear’.  What does fear feel like in your body?  Do you feel hot or cold?  Does it sit in a particular part of your body that leads to a negative body sensation?  If you don’t feed your fear with thoughts, how big does it get?  How long does it last?  Over time, you will be able to ‘ride the wave’ of feelings/emotions.

If your trigger is a behaviour:

Sometimes a worry begins with an action.  For example, if you are coping with an illness, researching information on the internet may trigger worries about possible diagnosis or outcomes.

Once you know what the triggering behaviour is, you can avoid the behaviour when possible.

While worries are a fact of life, but they don’t have to let them control us.  We can get the upper hand!

And now…some classic Bobby McFerrin…enjoy!

 

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The Monster Under the Bed…Childhood Anxiety

As parents, we want the best for our kids–to be happy and healthy–physically, emotionally and mentally. It can be heart-breaking when we see them suffer and unable to enjoy all that life has to offer.  One of the ways that children can struggle is with anxiety.

What is  Anxiety?

Simply put, anxiety is the fear of what might happen.  We experience a trigger such as an invitation to a party. Our social anxiety ramps up.  As we imagine ourselves standing tongue-tied and lonely on the edges of the party, the emotional centre of our brain becomes activated, stimulating the fight, flight or freeze reaction.  Next thing we know, we’re having a full-blown anxiety or panic attack.

Anxiety is a condition that can make our world become very small as it is a condition of “avoidance”.  When we have been anxious in one situation (e.g. a large party) we seek to avoid similar experiences in the future (no more parties!).  The more anxiety-producing events there are, the more we start to avoid things.  Untreated anxiety can lead to depression.  In extreme cases, we may become afraid to leave our homes due to the fear of anxiety or panic attacks.

Anxiety in Childhood

While we can think of anxiety as being a ‘grown up’ challenge, according to the website anxietybc, anxiety is one of the most common mental health concerns for children and adults, affecting upwards of 20% of children and adolescents over their lifespan.

The good news is that childhood anxiety is very treatable.  With support from parents, teachers, family members and therapists; anxious children can learn ways to cope with their anxious thoughts and develop new patterns of behaviour around triggers.

Signs That Your Child May Be Suffering From Anxiety

It can be difficult to admit that your child is struggling.  However, if your child is showing any of the following behaviours, they may be suffering from anxiety.

  • Clinging, crying and/or tantrums when you leave
  • Excessive shyness, avoiding social situations
  • Constant worrying and/or worrying hours, days, or weeks ahead of an event
  • Avoiding situations or places because of fears
  • Complaining of frequent stomachaches or headaches that prevent them from going to school
  • Taking part in repetitive physical behaviours such as nail biting or hair pulling
  • Experiencing sudden and frequent panic attacks
  • Asking repeatedly for reassurance, but not comforted by logical answers
  • Has difficulty falling asleep, frequent nightmares, and difficulty sleeping alone
  • Experiencing perfectionism, self-critical, or very high standards that make nothing good enough
  • Feeling overly-responsible, people pleasing, and showing excessive concern that others are upset with him or her, as well as unnecessary apologizing

If your child is dealing with anxiety, it is not a reflection on your parenting.  There are many reasons why children can be anxious. Please don’t take your child’s anxiety personally. 

Why Should We Be Concerned?

As parents, we sometimes hope that the negative behaviours that our children are showing are ‘just a stage’ and that they will ‘outgrow’ them.  Unfortunately, due to their nature, untreated anxiety issues become worse over time.

Unlike adults, young children don’t have the language or concepts around anxiety to explain what they are experiencing.  They can begin to think that they are different from their peers, while at the same time not understanding why they feel unable to take part in the same activities as others.  These feelings can lead to a lack of self-esteem and the confidence that comes from  mastering new situations and skills (social, mental and physical).

What’s a Parent or Caregiver To Do?

As the most important person/people in your child’s life, there are lots that you can do. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggests the following ideas for parents to do at home to help their child to cope with anxiety.

  • Pay attention to your child’s feelings
  • Stay calm when your child becomes anxious about a situation or event
  • Recognize and praise small accomplishments
  • Don’t punish mistakes or lack of progress
  • Be flexible, but try to maintain a normal routine
  • Modify expectations during stressful periods
  • Plan for transitions (For example, allow extra time in the morning if getting to school is difficult)
  • Talk to your child’s teacher, principal, etc. to create a support plan that can be followed both at school and home
Other Resources

There are many resources to help parents and caregivers as they support their children. Websites such as WorryWiseKids and AnxietyBC provide a wealth of information as well as links to other useful sites.

Depending on your child’s age and school district, schools usually have access to on-site social workers, child and youth workers and other specialized staff members who are experienced in helping children with anxiety issues.

A wonderful, child-friendly workbook for parents and children is The Anxiety Workbook for Kids:  Take Charge of Fears & Worries Using the Gift of Imagination by Robin Alter, PhD, CPsych and Crystal Clarke, MSW, RSW.  Divided into chapters, this book covers everything from explaining anxiety and the brain to how our body reacts to anxiety and coping skills.  It also helps children to identify their own triggers and gain mastery over them.

Sometimes, your child’s teacher or social worker will suggest that they see a therapist. When looking for a therapist for your child, check to see that they have experience working with children as this requires a different skill set than working with adults.  Depending on the age of your child, they may do well with a therapist skilled in Play Therapy.

At the end of the day, we want our children to feel better as they grow and enjoy their family, friends and activities.

The 2015 movie Inside Out is one of the bests movies I’ve seen to help children understand feelings.  Here’s a clip…Enjoy!

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