Category: Anxiety

Why you can’t stop worrying

Why you can’t stop worrying
Just by the power of thought alone, we can activate our body’s stress response

Excessive worrying is a common problem. Most of my clients’ complaints are directly linked to the frequent occurrence of negative thoughts. While some are constantly bombarded by intrusive thoughts that make them feel ashamed or insecure, others are stuck in catastrophizing, or the habit of picturing worst-case scenarios. Regardless of its content, such dysfunctional thinking has a great impact on their mental health and quality of life. Simply put, those who worry excessively find it hard to feel good and enjoy the moment. That is because their brains are often busy anticipating supposed adversities, dangers and losses. But if worrying too much is counterproductive, why most of us struggle to make it stop?

In his brilliant book “Mind to Matter”, Church (2018) explores “The evolutionary value of negative thinking”. When we think of the bigger picture, we are able to understand how a preoccupied attitude has been central to our success as a species. If we were not able to be sensitised by fear, our limbic system or emotional brain would not mobilise us for the fight or flight response. A laid-back attitude to danger would increase our exposure to being eaten by predators, amongst other dangers. If there were fewer of us who were lucky enough to dodge death and manage to grow and procreate, our probability of thriving as a group would have been considerably reduced. A hypervigilant state of mind, or our ability to remain alert and be warned by our thoughts of the possibility of something bad happening, seems to have greatly enabled us to stay alive and become masters of our destiny.

It all makes sense, does it not? Now you know why it is so easy for you to start worrying: your evolved brain is trying to protect you! Of course, there is one caveat: its inability to differentiate between real and imaginary threats. You can literally bring yourself to a state of high fear and anxiety just by imagining something awful happening, as dying suddenly from a heart attack, even though you are in perfect health. Just by the power of thought alone, we can activate our body’s stress response and induce a change in our physiology so to prepare it to deal with a problem that does not exist. Cortisol and adrenaline, our stress hormones, flood the body and increase heart and breathing rate as well as blood pressure. While you are worrying if you have managed to charm everyone at that presentation, your survival instinct is making you feel like approval is a matter of life or death.

To find out if you are stuck on fight or flight, make a conscious effort to reconnect with your body and emotions. Hypervigilant people tend to live in their heads and neglect their physical and emotional health. As yourself, from time to time, “What are my bodily sensations and feelings saying about me at this very moment”. Muscle tension that does not get better with time, cluster headaches and unexplainable pain, for instance, are common chronic stress symptoms. While constantly checking your phone may seem like a harmless behaviour, it is also central to keeping your brain in a state of overstimulation. The practice of self-awareness will turn off the autopilot and enable you to start regaining control over yourself. Then, as you become familiar with how your life style, habits and choices affect your mind and body, be courageous and start investing in change that will bring balance and happiness into your life.

Reference:

Church, D. (2018). Mind to Matter, The Astonishing Science of how Your Brain Creates Material Reality.  Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.

How to cure insomnia naturally

If you struggle with sleep disturbances and would like a natural cure, this article will help you reduce or even end your reliance on medication. As you may already be aware, insomnia and anxiety have a high comorbidity rate. In other words, they tend to co-exist. As understandable as that sounds, determining the root cause of the problem could pose its own challenges. Are you having sleep disturbances because you are anxious, or are you anxious because of sleep disturbances? The good news is that even if you are unable to pinpoint the main cause of your current inability to sleep soundly, you might still be able to restore it by tackling it from different angles.

How to cure insomnia naturally
Our circadian rhythm, or internal clock, regulates our sleep/wake cycles

1- Regulate your circadian rhythm with light therapy

If you are not suffering from depression or a medical condition such as gastroesophageal reflux disease or asthma, your insomnia might be a result of circadian rhythm dysregulation. Our circadian rhythm, or internal clock, regulates our sleep/wake cycles. Light exposure to the eyes is one of the main factors that keeps our body clock functioning properly, as well as a fixed sleep routine. If you believe your insomnia could be related to circadian rhythm dysregulation, I highly recommend light therapy with the help of a 10000 Lux light therapy lamp. To reset your internal clock successfully, follow the below steps:

  • Set up a time when you would like to wake up every morning. If you need to be awake at 7 am, for instance, set up your alarm clock for that time
  • Only go to bed when you are exhausted
  • Get up when the alarm goes off, regardless of how tired you feel. Immediately after getting up, have a 20 to 30 minute session of light therapy
  • Have your 10000 Lux light therapy lamp positioned diagonally from your eyes, at eye level and at arm’s length
  • Repeat that routine on a daily basis, especially throughout the winter months

2- Listen to your body

If you are not tired enough to fall asleep, that probably means you will not. Tossing and turning in bed while forcing yourself to sleep may only increase your anxiety and further delay sleep onset. If that happens to you, stop berating yourself and use self-compassion and tolerance to accept when you are not ready to fall asleep. While sleep does not come, rest, do a breathing exercise or read. Do not look at your phone. The brightness of its screen can send the wrong message to your brain and interfere with your sleep/wake cycle.

3- Be patient and persevere

Treating your insomnia naturally is possible, but it requires patience and perseverance. Stick to a very strict waking up time and do not take naps or make up for lost sleep in the morning or during the day. Even when exhausted, get up when the alarm clock goes off. Give your body time to process your new sleep routine and do not give up.

4- Practice vigorous exercise

If your body is stuck in fear mode (anxiety is a fear based feeling), or fight or flight, it will often not allow you to be tired. You can change that scenario by doing some form of vigorous exercise such as running, swimming, playing football, practicing martial arts or taking fast dance lessons. Whatever your choice, do not exercise vigorously 3 hours before bedtime.

5- Do therapy for unresolved childhood trauma

Insomnia caused by anxiety and hypervigilance is one of the effects of unresolved developmental/childhood trauma. Complex trauma victims tend to struggle with sleep disturbances over certain periods, which can increase their anxiety particularly when going through tough times in their lives. In such cases, therapy can help you heal your trauma wounds and improve sleep.

Other sleep hygiene tips include:

  • Read “light” books at bedtime and avoid highbrow, textbook or technical reading that requires concentration
  • No computer or mobile phone screen 2 hours before bedtime
  • No coffee after 2 pm
  • No alcohol, heavy meals or smoking in the evenings
  • Sleep in a quiet and dark place
  • If you suffer from night terrors, practice the self-soothing techniques listed here

5 self-soothing techniques for sleep disturbances caused by trauma

5 self-soothing techniques for sleep disturbances caused by trauma
Sleep disturbances are not uncommon for those with a history of trauma

Sleep disturbances are not uncommon for those with a history of trauma, be it psychological/emotional and/or physical, of a single or complex nature (a series of adverse events). That is because some trauma victims, especially those who grew up in a stressful environment (developmental trauma), often suffer from hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is a state of constant arousal, which is experienced in a conscious or unconscious manner. For a number of trauma sufferers, their brains are stuck on survival mode, even when there is no reason to feel unsafe. As a result, they may experience at least one of the following sleep problems:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Waking up during the night or too early and struggling to fall back asleep
  • Feeling scared while trying to fall asleep
  • Having a strange feeling that there is an image, something or someone in the room
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Jerking awake right as falling asleep
  • Having racing and/or incomprehensible thoughts
  • Feeling scared of falling asleep
  • Not being able to fall back asleep after having a nightmare
  • Waking up scared and lost and not knowing why
  • Not being able to sleep in complete darkness and/or without background noise

To better deal with the above, I suggest the following 5 self-soothing techniques for sleep disturbances caused by trauma:

1- Tell yourself you are safe

As simple as this sounds, telling yourself, “I am safe”, silently and repeatedly, can remind you that there is nothing to worry about anymore. Reminding yourself that you are safe now works as to bring you back to the present. Moreover, when you say to yourself that you are OK and that there is no current threat to your well-being, you return to your own, grown up body, as well as to the safety of your own home (or wherever you are sleeping).

2- Physically comfort yourself

As the renowned trauma therapist Peter Levine explains in this video, by giving yourself a cuddle or touching your forehead and chest simultaneously, you can help yourself regulate the negative feelings that make you feel overwhelmed, such as fear and anxiety. I often recommend my clients to gently stroke their arms to feel a sense of tenderness and love for themselves, not only when having sleep disturbances, but also when feeling rejected. Touching, even when performed independently and without another human being, helps us calm down and relax.

3- Connect with your inner child

If you have suffered developmental/childhood trauma, your inner child requires your attention from time to time. As much as your self-esteem needs nurturing to stay high, that little boy or girl inside of you also craves attention and care to feel safe, particularly when your fears do not seem to correspond to that competent adult you have become. When that seems to be the case, close your eyes, breathe deeply for a few minutes and go to a place inside yourself where you can connect with that little person. Picture yourself as a figure of protection, love and safety, as your inner child’s ideal father or mother (not the ones you have in real life), and spend some time comforting, talking or even playing with him or her.

4- Do a breathing exercise

Breathing exercises are effective practices to reduce arousal and stress. Physiologically, they help calm down your nervous system, which is a simple and useful means to manage not just the symptoms of PTSD or C-PTSD, but also those of other anxiety disorders or episodes. I highly recommend this Pranayama exercise at least once daily to help you manage your anxiety and prevent sleep disturbances, as the ones above listed.

5- Challenge negative thinking

If your intrusive/racing/automatic/negative thoughts are discernible, challenge them immediately. If they are telling you that something bad is about to happen or other such nonsense, shut them up with objectivity. Regain control over your own mind and do not let them run the show. You can do that by questioning their meaning with rational explanations that expose their incoherence. If you are truly enraged by the effect they have had on you and your sleep, you can also openly curse them or tell them to go away and leave you alone.

The 5 self-soothing techniques for sleep disturbances caused by trauma related in this article could also become part of your self-care routine, and not be limited to what happens before and after sleep. The most productive way to manage hypervigilance is consciously and proactively. You do not to have to wait until you lose sleep to be made fully aware of its power. The earlier you start taking care of yourself and your emotional, psychological and physical health, the longer you will be able to enjoy its benefits.

How to stop taking everything personally and raise self-esteem

If like most of us, you were raised in an environment of emotional neglect, you may believe – even without awareness – that you are not good enough, unlovable and/or incompetent. That is because growing up not having our emotions validated by our primary caregivers leaves us feeling empty and unworthy. Systematically ignoring a child’s need to have his or her feelings acknowledged – be it consciously or not – has an impact not only on his or her emotional health, but also psychological one. As children learn how to regulate with the help of caring, empathic parents who are attuned to their individual needs, when their caregivers do not respond as often and as consistently as it is required for them to build an inner sense of wholeness and safety, they grow up without being able to secure their own emotional wellbeing.

Not knowing what to do with one’s own fear, anger, sadness, guilt and/or shame after having witnessed them being dismissed or – what is worse – having been judged for expressing or even having such feelings is disconcerting to the developing child. In fact, the message anyone registers when their feelings are discarded is “If my emotions do not matter, I do not matter”. This cognitive process, even if not conscious in nature, affects us deeply, regardless of age. For this reason, it is virtually impossible to truly believe in our value, as well as naturally and autonomously feed our own need for love and acceptance, when what we feel is not worth the attention of those who are responsible for our care and influence us the most.

What’s wrong with me?

So, you grew up in an environment of emotional neglect and now your self-esteem is volatile. As a result (and because you do not have solid emotion regulation skills), you are very sensitive to the changes that take place around you, especially when it involves people. If a colleague snaps at you for no apparent reason, you start wondering what you have done to upset him or her. As you worriedly go over the latest interactions you have had with this person, you analyse your actions repeatedly and meticulously so to identify what you could have said or done to have triggered his or her reaction. You ask yourself, feeling powerless and exposed: “What have I done (wrong)?”.

Taking things personally is a cognitive error frequently committed by those with low self-esteem, because it stems from the principle that if something unpleasant or “not right” happens to you, it should be your fault. Naturally, as a lover of cause and effect, it also makes sense for the human brain to think that what happens in our life is a consequence of who we are. Therefore, associating what goes wrong with your core self feels rational, particularly if you think not to be competent, good enough or worthy of love and respect. Knowledge, even if of a highly subjective, biased and inaccurate nature as illustrated above, helps us find a sense of direction and safety, particularly when we lack them, as the ability to separate from others’ feelings and regulate our own independently. On that account, taking things personally can easily become a habit for those who self-regulate poorly and hold strong negative beliefs about themselves.

How to stop taking everything personally: start asking the right question

How to stop taking everything personally and raise self-esteem
Changing the way you place yourself in the world helps you manage your own inadequacy

To break this habit and save you from making yourself feel on edge every time there is unease around you, I suggest a simple technique. Whenever you feel inadequate as a result of the way others are behaving around you, instead of wondering what you have done wrong, ask yourself the following:

“What is going on here?”

Asking yourself “What is going on here?” rather than “What have I done (wrong)?” will put you in a better place in which to evaluate a situation. By asking that simple question, you are already moving away from what is happening. As a spectator, you gain the necessary distance and detachment to see things more objectively. Please notice that becoming an observer does not mean avoiding or denying responsibility for the impact your actions have on others (should they have any), but it provides you with the space you require to become mentally composed and address your feelings in a more centred manner.

To keep self-esteem at a high level may come as a challenge for those who grew up in an emotionally neglectful environment. Nevertheless, you have the power to replace old thinking patterns with healthier ones. By changing the way you place yourself in the world and by creating an open-minded and impersonal perspective, you are in a more favoured position to manage your own inadequacy and act with confidence, even when there is evidence of fault in your behaviour.

Understanding negative emotions: the fear factor

When we explore emotions in greater depth and bypass their unfavourable connotations, we come to appreciate their wisdom and value. From an evolutionary perspective, fear has helped us survive and even thrive as a species. The fear of death and loss of health, for instance, is a tremendous motivator to stay alive, as well as an excellent reminder of how important it is to invest in a healthy lifestyle, or not to engage in violent behaviour. An increasing sense of self-preservation – highlighted by the emotional significance of fear – has allowed us to prioritise and value life, avoiding practices that threaten our peace and security. If you are interested in boosting emotional confidence, congruence and intimacy, this article will help you refresh your knowledge and recognise the significance of fear.

Understanding negative emotions: the fear factor
Fear is an emotional response to what we perceive as a threat to our wellbeing

The role of fear

Fear is an emotional response to what we perceive as a threat to our wellbeing, be it physical or emotional. The fear reflex is there to protect us from any type of danger, be it real or imaginary. Because of our ability to feel fear, we are able to protect ourselves from things, animals, people (even ourselves) and situations that expose us to harm to our minds, bodies or relationships. As fear is not only an automatic response to danger, but a learned behaviour, it also depends on direct instruction or experience to gain greater significance in our lives. For that reason, we are more inclined to feeling fearful towards what we have learned to fear, be it from our parents’ stories, cultural values or past events that were unpleasant in any way and, as a result, secured their places in our memory network.

Feelings related to fear

Anxiety, distress, apprehension, tension, horror and panic, for instance, are all fear states. We often forget when worrying excessively, for instance, that we, essentially, fear someone, a certain situation or outcome.

How fear is felt in the body

The fear response is a product of the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system or “emotional brain”. The amygdala is responsible for getting you physiologically ready to deal with threats, in other words, to fight an enemy, fly the scene or freeze on the spot. As you can notice below, the most common bodily sensations associated with fear can be connected to those three basic fear responses:

  • Fast heartbeat
  • Short breathing
  • Armouring (tense muscles, especially back and neck)
  • Shaking, trembling
  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Light-headedness
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth

Adaptive and maladaptive fear

Fear is adaptive when it is productive. Stereotypically, productive fear raises our awareness of potentially life threatening situations, such as standing too close to the edge of a cliff. Maladaptive fear, on the other hand – even when it arises, initially, from a healthy fear response such as escape and avoidance – is exaggerated and pathological, such as the one felt by sufferers of anxiety disorders. This last modality causes much more harm than good, compromising psychological, emotional and physical wellbeing.

What your fears say about you

As fear is also a learned behaviour, it is deeply connected to the views we hold of ourselves, the world and others – our core beliefs. When those core beliefs are rigid and lead to automatic thoughts that are filled with cognitive errors, such as “all-or-nothing” and “catastrophizing”, for instance, they exaggerate the relevance or probability of negative outcomes, making one more vigilant and susceptible to feeling fearful. This heightened state of alert leads to feelings of unsafety, inadequateness and insecurity, which interfere with one’s ability to function with confidence, be it in a social, academic or professional scenario. If you often feel easily affected or even overwhelmed by excessive worrying, anxiety or a constant need for reassurance, it is probably time to check in with yourself and re-evaluate the core beliefs that are at the root your fear. Rigid core beliefs such as, “It is shameful to make mistakes”, “If I do not worry, something bad will happen”, “The world is a dangerous place” and “I cannot trust others” are renowned for making one feel powerless and afraid.

The best way to deal with fear is not to repress it through denial or disguise it as anger, but befriend it with honesty. You can embrace your fear by admitting it (even if only to yourself), respecting its wisdom and learning a little more about yourself from it. Even when uncomfortable and maladaptive, fear tells us something about our vulnerabilities and warns us of areas that need our attention.  Above all, facing our fears reminds us of the limitations of our humanity and promotes growth and development, allowing us to live more fulfilling and rewarding lives.

3 developmental trauma beliefs and the problems they cause

3 developmental trauma beliefs and the problems they cause
Dysfunctional beliefs lead to dysfunctional coping strategies

Traumatic events change our perception of ourselves, the world and others. Because our sense of safety and trust are shaken and sometimes even shattered by trauma, we “learn” from the pain we feel by changing our views and adapting, cognitively and emotionally, to our circumstances. In developmental trauma – a series of adverse experiences in childhood which affect one’s development –  that change is quite dramatic and it tends to transcend time. Imagine an adult who, as a child, was repeatedly criticised and attacked verbally by an abusive mother and/or father. His rigid and negative beliefs, formed as a result of trauma, would probably prevent him from holding a coherent view of himself as a competent and lovable adult. These beliefs would also serve as to warn him of the dangers of love and intimacy that, supposedly and for him, would apply to all close relationships. Living in a world in where safety cannot be felt even in the family home, this trauma victim would feel empty and lost, as if his existential wound could never be healed.

As dysfunctional beliefs lead to dysfunctional coping strategies, and those, in turn, to mental health and relationship problems, it is worth being conscious of how your thinking could be affecting your happiness. If you suspect to have suffered developmental trauma and would like to become more conscious of its effects, here are 3 developmental trauma beliefs and the problems they cause:

1- “I cannot trust others”

Developmental trauma victims struggle to believe in and rely on other people. That is because they had their trust broken very early in life and at a time of intense vulnerability. Since they were betrayed by those who were close to them – namely their primary caregiver(s), such as their mother and/or father – the damage caused by such loss is far greater. Their fear of rejection and abandonment, even when completely unjustified and unrelated to their current circumstances, often results in obsessive self-reliance. Their lack of faith in people’s good intentions and ability to become a positive influence on their lives make it impossible for them to ask and even accept help, when needed. That tendency gives rise to codependent behaviours and loneliness, as well as it increases their probability of becoming depressed, due to their need to isolate or neglect their own feelings when things get tough. A healthy, intimate relationship with oneself and others is seldom achieved without conscious effort and dedication.

2- “I am unlovable”

When a child does not have her feelings validated or is constantly attacked or ignored, he is not able to separate his parents’ anger and neglectful attitude from his own sense of self-worth. Because children do not have the intellectual sophistication of an adult, they immediately associate their parents’ attitude with something to do with themselves, as if they were intrinsically related (“If my mum is not interested in me/is angry at me, it is because I am boring/not good enough”). Naturally, that feeling of unworthiness is also frequently present in children who are physically and/or psychologically/emotionally abused. In order to deal with the torturing feeling of inadequateness that comes from believing that “There is something wrong with me”, these trauma victims work hard to be noticed and feel worthy of love and acceptance. Self-esteem is low and “built” from the outside in through conditional love. They become perfectionists, codependents, approval junkies and people pleasers, who find it hard to say no. All of which are driven by a powerful fear of rejection.

3- “The world is a dangerous place”

Living in fear creates a state of alertness that shapes the way the brain develops and processes information about the environment. A child that is raised by emotionally unstable, anxious, extremely inconsistent or unpredictable parents, sees the world as a dangerous place filled with threats to his well-being. Guided by the thinking that “something bad is about to happen” and “I am weak/helpless”, as well as the anxiety that follows, his behaviour becomes dictated by fear. The trauma victim’s biased negative thinking and low self-confidence turns everything into a challenge. Making changes, creating new habits, taking risks, standing up for oneself and meeting new people, as other similar behaviours that require self-confidence, are a source of unease, and, in some cases, even panic. Because high anxiety crushes motivation, it gets in the way of personal, academic and professional achievement. It also affects sleep and physical health. Relationships suffer as a result. Anxiety, as a powerful mood killer, makes a person seem inaccessible, indifferent, distant and even difficult, which are traits not usually seen as attractive for those who feel whole and are emotionally intelligent.

As depressing as all of the above may seem, those trauma beliefs that may be causing you so much pain can be restructured. If you identify with the above, start actively challenging negative thinking that is stopping you from trusting yourself and others. Be objective when you catch yourself catastrophizing and stop taking everything personally. Bear in mind that our subjective reality is built from background knowledge, which is organised and categorised through core beliefs. That knowledge – highly subjective and loaded with emotional significance – does not equate, necessarily, to fact.