I know that it is very hard to be living in this world right now. It is hard to live with such uncertainty and such rapid change. It is stressful to think about the future and to think about the past. It can be difficult to live with other people who are feeling stressed and anxious.
While I am so grateful that we have tele-health options available for our sessions, I am also disappointed and a little angry that the choice whether to use tele-health was not mine to make. I can hold those two feelings, gratitude and disappointment, and notice that it is really possible to feel both.
When I think about what you may be experiencing in this turbulent time, I want to be able to help. The very real desire I have been feeling is about taking care. In my mind, I wanted to bake you some cookies….bring you a pot of soup…..offer connection and caring and a moment of peace.
However, I can’t do everything that I would wish I could do. I cannot see you in person, and I cannot bake cookies for you. However, what I can do is offer the telehealth visits, and I can also offer a message a couple of times each week. If you are interested in seeing those messages, you can head to my resurrected blog and sign up to get a notice by email when I have posted something new. This is a small gift to you, something else to help you get through these potentially difficult days while we adjust.
More and more, I am thinking that anxiety is about trying to cover up your feelings. You don’t want to feel whatever it is that you are feeling, so you try everything in your arsenal to stop feeling. You tense your muscles, constrict your breathing, start thinking obsessively, focus on external sensations or fill your body with too much food or alcohol or other chemicals to numb whatever is happening.
But the body doesn’t buy it. Instead, it sends you a message that something is wrong. Tense muscles, upset digestive processes, shallow breathing, racing thoughts, pains in gut and head, shakiness or trembling….all of these body experiences can connect to anxiety. Anxiety isn’t exactly fear. Fear is cleaner, has a more specific focus. But fear can be one of the emotions we try to cover up…and that can result in anxiety.
How can you recognize anxiety? It can show up as body symptoms: tensions, pain, nausea or other digestive upsets, headaches. It can show up as shakiness, foggy thinking and an inability to concentrate. Or it can appear in disguise. This is what happens when our defenses against anxiety are working to keep us from feeling it. So, for example, I tend to make internal lists, develop complex plans for my future, create diet and exercise and frugality hell for my body to live in. I have learned to recognize that my mind uses these tools to defend against my anxious feelings. When I am doing a lot of rigid planning and programming for myself in my mind, I know (in some other part of my mind) that I need to look deeper. This is one way that I manifest anxiety.
You might have racing thoughts. Or worrying. Or obsessive ritualistic behaviour such as around cleaning, or working out, or making contacts with people. Or avoiding contact with people. Many different behaviours can be manifestations of anxiety because we learn very quickly to make associations. That is, if we engage in a behaviour and experience a lessening of the uncomfortable feelings of anxiety, then we are pretty likely to engage that behaviour again. Sometimes it is almost as if the behaviour IS the anxiety; so we think our racing thoughts ARE anxiety. But really they are an attempt to cope with the body sensations that are unpleasant.
Learning to live with emotional discomfort is just as useful as learning to live with physical discomfort. We don’t have to happy, contented, or relaxed ALL of the time. Allowing ourselves to feel what we feel, experience what our body is experiencing, and just being present to it….well, that’s a great way to be really alive.
How do you do that when you have only ever run away from your feelings? Yes, that’s the hard part. It helps to remember that you are just going to be FEELING something…and feelings, like thoughts, come and then then go. And it helps to remember that nobody ever died from just feeling something. Watching out for catastrophic thinking helps too….thinking thoughts like “I can’t stand this” won’t make it easier to actually stay right with that feeling. So when you feel a bit anxious, see if you can give yourself some time and space to just ask what might be there under the anxious feeling? What else is there? Allow yourself to breathe into your belly, and feel your feet on the ground, and ask….what is this about? What do I notice in my body? Oh, yes, this sensation in my belly, and this one in my chest….oh, THIS…this is sadness….(or anger, or fear or whatever…). Then watch that felt sense with kindness and compassion and some curiosity…oh, yes, this is what I am experiencing right now….THIS is it. And watch it as it shifts and changes, and notice what that is like for you. Giving yourself time and space and permission to have feelings can make a big difference.
The huge benefit to allowing ourselves to fully experience our uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or unpleasant feelings is that ALL of our feelings become more accessible. When you experience your own integrity, where you are not hiding, covering up, or showing off your emotions, you feel yourself more solidly on the ground, and more real in your body. And that’s what life is about…being here, in this body, in this moment, right now.
You are a human being. You have a whole range of feelings as your birthright. Don’t live your life halfway: feel them all!
Positive thinking is fine. There is nothing inherently bad about it. Usually when people refer to thinking positively, they are actually experiencing unpleasant thoughts….thoughts that might create imaginary catastrophes, thoughts of criticism or judgment, or just overt pessimism. Those thoughts generally don’t lead to better outcomes, so people want to change them. And that’s okay.
If all it took to recover from traumatic stress was positive thinking, we’d probably all be just fine. And therapists like me might have a lot less to do at work.
There is a lot that happens in our thinking. And there is also a lot that happens in our minds apart from our conscious, word-based thoughts. That’s where the over-simplification of “positive thinking” starts to fall apart.
What else is in there? If you sit, quieting your body and breathing and just noticing your mental activity for a period of time, you’ll become aware of the constant overlapping parade of ideas, words, memories, anticipations, and images that are flowing through your conscious mind. Then you might be able to start to notice the spaces: can you find space between the discrete items in that steady parade? Then, over time and practice, you might notice specific types of items in your continuous mental flow, or you might focus on paying more attention to the empty space, allowing stillness to come into your mind as well as in your body.
This practice helps us to become more acquainted with the contents of our minds, and helps us to access some things that we may have been avoiding or simply not noticing in the chaos of the untrained mind.
The danger of “positive thinking” is that we might use it to avoid looking deeply into ourselves, to pack away uncomfortable feelings and memories, to try to keep ourselves from feeling sad, for example, or angry or afraid. While there is certainly some short-term utility to that approach, in the longer term we end up cutting off parts of ourselves.
Wow, that sounds brutal! But what might it actually look and feel like, to have cut off parts of yourself? Well, one example might be that you have very poor memory for parts of your life. Or you may only experience a very restricted range of feelings: you feel happy, sad, angry or afraid, but only a little bit and you wonder what all the fuss is about, when other people seem to experience their feelings more powerfully. Or you just feel slightly anxious much of the time, with no apparent reason. Perhaps you everything in your life looks just fine from the outside, but you feel like something is missing….but it is embarrassing to say that because your life is “just fine.” These are all possible indications that you are out of contact with parts of yourself.
Looking deeply into ourselves, staying with the thoughts, feelings, and body sensations that arise, can be an act of great courage. Really experiencing our experiences, whether we label them “good” or “bad,” “positive” or “negative,” or (my preferred label) “pleasant” or “unpleasant,” allows us to find the hidden parts and embrace them.
Positive thinking isn’t bad, especially if you are trying to change a pattern of catastrophizing, what iffing, or shoulds. Using it to numb us to our uncomfortable thoughts and feelings can keep us stuck in our old patterns, though. Be aware of what you most want to avoid…there is usually something of value there!
Body psychotherapy isn’t as odd-sounding as it once was. People are beginning to understand that the mind and body are not really separate, that there are tissues in the gut, for example, that are much like brain tissue, that emotions are experienced at the body level, and that even those classic “psychological” problems of depression and anxiety are body experiences. The mind of course is part of them; the kinds of distorted thinking that we engage in when we are experiencing depression or anxiety can most certainly make things a lot worse. But I am not sure that the chicken-egg question matters here….I personally don’t care if how you feel affects how you think, or if your thoughts are affecting your emotions. The point is that things are pretty bad, one way or another, and how can you live more comfortably?
So it is obvious, I guess, that developing awareness of what you are thinking can make a difference. You can even change your habits of mind. You can also change your habits of body, and your habitual ways of responding to situations, and those kinds of changes can be most helpful in trying to cope with symptoms of depression or anxiety.
Self awareness is the key to any kind of change. You can’t change if you don’t know what you are currently doing. And the key to self awareness is, for many of us, slowing down. Slowing our everyday experiences so that there is time for self-reflection, slowing our thinking, so that we can become aware of thoughts as they arise and fade away, slowing our behaviour so that we can become responsive rather than in the perpetual knee-jerk of reaction.
What happens when you slow down? Just take a moment to notice what happens….without judgment, without struggle, with compassion. For many of us, slowing down generates negative thoughts (“this is unproductive,” “I”ll never accomplish anything,” “Does she think I’m not a busy person? I don’t have time for this nonsense.”). For some people, the open space of unstructured time feels uncomfortable, as if you should DO something. For some, a bit of quiet allows us to feel our exhaustion, the fatigue that comes with forever and forever keeping up a front, being frantically productive and chronically stressed.
But without judgment and with compassion, what is it like for you to take time and space to just be? What do you notice about yourself? Who are you, really, when you separate yourself from the story inside your head?
Wherever you are is the place to work. Notice sensation in the body. Notice what you notice in your environment; what are you sensitive to in this moment? In the next moment? Notice thoughts as they arise and fade out. Notice which ones tug hardest on your attention. Notice more sensations in the body; try moving, and notice what that is like. Can you feel the desire to move, the intention to move, before you manifest that intention into action? Where in your body are you aware of that intention? How do you KNOW, in your body, that you want to move?
There is something about feeling miserable that seems to be uniquely human. Emotional misery seems to be a gift that humans get along with being human. Okay, I have to back off from that and say that I really don’t know about other primates, and I have also heard recently that elephants exhibit behaviour that can be interpreted as grieving. But when I think about my goofy Labrador retriever, Max, I don’t see him suffering emotional pain because of something he did, or something I did, or something that might happen in the future.
However, the people I know all are capable of that kind of suffering. Our capacity to think has permitted us to think about things that actually make us FEEL bad. Have you ever noticed that you can be going about your day, all is well, everything is normal, and you suddenly have a thought….and all hell breaks loose in your inner life. Perhaps the thought is an obviously catastrophic one (“Maybe my plane will crash when I take my trip next month”) or maybe it is less obvious (“My partner won’t like my new haircut”) but then it cascades into a whole series of thoughts (“And if he doesn’t like my haircut, maybe he won’t like me, and he’ll leave me, and I’ll be alone and how will I make it, and nobody will ever love me, and I won’t be able to survive…”).
That might sound like an exaggeration but I swear to you, it isn’t. While we often are unaware (mindless) of the cascade of thoughts, images, and subsequent sensations and feelings in our bodies, they are still happening. And that’s one of the ways in which a vague dislike of your new haircut can turn into a full-blown emotional meltdown.
Now we are all intelligent people, of course, and we KNOW in our intellectual selves that our partners are not likely to leave us and we are not likely to be destroyed because of a bad haircut. The thing is, the part of the brain/mind/body that is doing this thinking and feeling is NOT our higher intellectual selves. We react on a body (somatic) level to our thoughts and also to our body sensations. Many body functions have associated sensations that are just below the level of our awareness. Your body is busy all the time maintaining itself; keeping proper blood chemistry, blood pressure, hormonal balance, particular cellular tensions and various chemical and electrical communications. When something is a bit out of whack in this process of homeostasis, then you may feel a bit “off.” You probably have no idea why, so your mind gets busy developing some cause. Humans do that; it is how we make sense of the world. However, these perceived “causes” may actually be irrelevant to what you are experiencing. If you are already feeling “off” and you get a bad haircut, well, you know what can happen.
So… How do we prevent emotional meltdowns, with all of their pain and suffering and the interpersonal fallout that is inevitable? How do we separate the thoughts that hurt us from our normal, everyday functioning?
First, we start to become aware of ourselves as BODIES. We are not a person who happens to live in a body, but the body you live in actually IS you. Any increasing level of body awareness is helpful; the practice of mindfulness, meditation, contemplative movement such as yoga, all of these practices can help develop body awareness. At the same time, one can learn to watch the activity of the mind. Watching isn’t the same as getting involved in it, but is simply observing….”Oh, there I go, thinking…..Oh, yes, that’s a memory. Oh, I can see that my mind is trying to make a to-do list again…” and gently bringing your attention back to awareness.
Tomorrow: ways to use a bioenergetic approach to developing self awareness..
By the way, if you are interested in how our bodies shape our minds, you might like Antonio Damasio’s book, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness.