Category: Worry Control

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.

What are the effects of psychological/emotional trauma?

effects of psychological/emotional trauma
The effects of psychological/emotional trauma may be causing you prolonged pain and distress

A traumatic event is an adverse experience that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope and integrate the memories and emotions connected to it. Psychological/emotional trauma is caused by damage that is not of a physical nature, but that severely affects the individual’s emotional and psychological wellbeing.  Making one feel worthless, blaming someone else for one’s mistakes or shortcomings, refusing to acknowledge or accept someone else’s feelings, displaying extreme ranges of mood, being extremely critical of the other person, belittling, humiliating, bullying, being verbally abusive and giving someone else “the silent treatment”, are some of the most common dysfunctional behaviours characteristic of abusive relationships.

Despite being the most common type of trauma, psychological/emotional trauma is the least talked about, understood and recognised by the general public as well as the psychiatric community. Due to its pervasiveness, however, it is vital that we explore the impact that psychological/emotional trauma has on our bodies, brains and emotions – honestly and openly. If you believe to have been psychologically/emotionally traumatised by an abusive parent, relative, partner or any other significant other, the following are the effects of psychological/emotional trauma that may be causing you prolonged pain and distress:

Emotional  

  • Feelings of intense sadness/depression: lack of enthusiasm for life, inability to feel happy and content, inability to enjoy the little pleasures in life, feeling like you do not belong or cannot connect with life, living on “automatic pilot”, only to fulfil your “duties” or the expectations of others.
  • Hopelessness: feeling weak, powerless, incompetent, unlovable
  • Guilt, shame and anxiety
  • Self-hatred and self-blame
  • Feeling like a bad or broken person
  • Vulnerability
  • Panic attacks
  • Intimacy problems: having difficulties to love and accept yourself, hiding or being ashamed of your weakness/vulnerabilities, repressing negative emotions, refusing to share the whole of you/the real you with somebody else.
  • Fearfulness
  • Feeling out of control
  • Anger
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Feeling detached, distanced from others

Behavioural

  • Self-harm: cutting, scratching, pinching, burning, banging or punching yourself
  • Compulsive and obsessive behaviours: fear of being contaminated by germs, of losing control and hurting others, of intrusive thoughts and images, of losing and forgetting things, accumulating junk, double checking locks, appliances and switches, having to have things arranged in a particular way, spending a lot of time washing or cleaning, counting or repeating certain words to reduce anxiety.
  • Addiction: substance abuse, alcohol abuse, gambling, shopping excessively
  • Self-destructive and self-sabotaging behaviours: behaving recklessly and irresponsibly, comfort eating and/or self-medicating to “deal” with negative emotions, procrastinating, difficulty carrying out long-term goals and staying focused
  • Social isolation: refusing to respond, initiate or keep social contact
  • Parenting difficulties
  • Difficulties in relationships: choosing the wrong people as friends or partners, identifying with chaotic, dysfunctional and dramatic relationship styles
  • Pent-up rage: feeling an intense anger towards someone or a situation that does not subside with time
  • Sleep disturbances: difficulty falling asleep, waking up too early or in the middle of the night

Cognitive

  • Difficulty remembering traumatic memories
  • Losing track of time
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Lack of concentration
  • Flashbacks, intrusive thoughts
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Biased perception: displaying a strong tendency to interpreting faces, people’s behaviours and situations as negative, threatening or frightening

The effects of psychological/emotional trauma are as potentially harmful to our general wellbeing as physical trauma. Victims/survivors of this type of trauma tend to feel isolated and misunderstood in their pain, and can go through months, if not years of suffering before they find the correct route to their emotional healing. If you identify with any of the above and feel ready to make some positive changes in your life, trauma counselling can help. For more information about trauma therapy, please click here

3 simple exercises for dealing with excessive worrying

Excessive worrying can make life seem dull and draining. How can we bring ourselves to notice the little things that make life interesting, such as a beautiful sunset on a multi-coloured sky, the value of our efforts or an act of kindness by a total stranger, if our minds are stuck in worrying mode? You know when your worries have started taking over your life when you feel distanced and disconnected from your work, friends and/or loved ones, or when most things you do for pleasure and fun seem to have lost their purpose. To help you regain control over your own thoughts, here are 3 simple exercises for dealing with excessive worrying that will allow you to approach your worries productively:

3 simple exercises for dealing with excessive worrying
Excessive worrying can make life seem dull and draining

1- Keep a worry diary

Diaries are great tools to get your thoughts and worries out of your head. Here you will find a worry diary that will allow you to keep a record of what is bothering you at that particular moment. What is more, it has one section for your triggers and another to register your tested strategies for dealing with excessive worrying. Print out your worry diary and carry it around with you at all times. Whenever a worry starts taking over your thoughts, write it down exactly as you have it, as you can see in the example. After a week filling in your worry diary, read it again and take some time to analyse it. What do your worries say about you? What triggers them? What control strategies were the most efficient?

2- Keep a worry box

Have a plastic container somewhere safe and discreet to store your worries. On a given Monday, start carrying a little notebook or sheet of paper around with you. Whenever a worry hits you, write it down on a piece of paper, fold it and put it in the plastic container. If you prefer to leave your worry box at home, keep your paper in your handbag or pocket for going in the box later. Do that for the entire week, from Monday to Sunday. On Sunday evening, take some time to have a look through the worries you have had that week and notice how you feel in relation to them. Reflect over their content and determine if they still bother you or if they have lost their relevance by then. How do they make you feel? Are you still as stressed as you were when you wrote them down?  After having read them, rubbish or burn them somewhere safe.

3- Set aside some worry time

If you are not very keen on the idea of writing your worries down every time you have them, you can make a mental note and save them for “worry time”. Whenever a worry starts taking over your thoughts tell yourself, “I will worry about this at worry time”, and get on with whatever you are doing at that moment. If you do not trust your memory, write your worry down on a piece of paper or use your smartphone to register it. Worry time is that designated time of the day that you can give yourself just to worry. Schedule your preferred worry time, ideally in the evening and after work. Save all the worries you have during the day for worry time. Then, at the appointment time, sit down and think about your worries for no longer than 15 minutes. Notice how you feel in relation to them. What has changed? How are you going to feel about those worries in a month’s time?

After having completed any of the above exercises for at least one week, ask yourself the following:

What is the main role of my worries (what do I get from them?)?

Are my worries productive (do they lead me to a solution?)

What negative beliefs about myself, the world and others are fuelling my worries (what do my worries say about me?)?

Do I tend to exaggerate the importance of my worries?How well can I cope with uncertainty?

7 common negative beliefs and the problems they cause

A great way to start looking into the reasons why you feel so unenthusiastic about life or constantly on edge is to explore your cognitions. Your thinking, or what you believe about yourself, the world and others, can say a lot about you and the mental health problems from which you might be suffering. In CBT, beliefs are commonly explored in their hierarchical order, from the most apparent and present in personal discourse (intermediate beliefs), to the least obvious but more fundamental and deep-rooted ones (core beliefs). Below you will find a list of core and intermediate beliefs such as attitudes, rules and assumptions, as well as the mental health issues to which they are connected:

7 common negative beliefs and the problems they cause
Your negative beliefs have an impact on your mental health

1- I need to be successful in order to have a right to feel good about myself.

Making your self-esteem conditional and dependent solely upon achievements and other positive external stimuli, such as material goods or the approval of others, is a sign that you may be suffering from issues surrounding self-esteem. High self-esteem is nurtured from the inside out. A confident attitude means that you have enough psychological resources to accept yourself in a loving and compassionate manner, regardless of what is going on in your personal, academic or professional life. The more your emotional well-being is bound to appearance, social status or the impact you have on others, the more susceptible you become to developing problems with excessive worrying and self-criticism, perfectionism and low self-esteem.

2- If someone rejects me, it is because there is something wrong with me.

Personalization, or the assumption that peoples’ negative behaviours are related to you, is a classic cognitive error that is either reflective or leads to feelings of low self-esteem and social anxiety. A productive way of thinking which will boost your self-confidence instantly is to be suspicious of any cognition that influences you to judge yourself negatively too quickly and easily. Peoples’ social behaviours are products of their own psychological and emotional states. Before rushing to blame yourself for the reaction of others, remind yourself that the world is much bigger and people much more complex than your biased perspective cares to explain.

3- I cannot get anything right.

Really, nothing at all? Even on your worst day, it is humanly impossible to get everything you do, absolutely wrong. Magnification/minimisation – or focusing on the negative in a global and exaggerated fashion – can make you feel incompetent and small, even when it does not correspond to factual truth. Such prejudiced and inaccurate core belief is at the hearth of feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem.

4- If I don’t worry, something bad will happen.

Worrying that takes over your time and does not lead to a solution – a process also known as rumination – is not productive. If thinking did have magical powers, there would be no such thing as anxiety disorders. The assumption that worrying gives you a sense of control over reality is not only false, but it stops you from trusting yourself, getting things done and enjoying life.

5- I should have total control over my emotions, especially when negative.

There are two big no-no’s in the above rule. Firstly, should statements are counterproductive, since they do not make you feel relieved for whatever you think you may have done wrong, but only add to your suffering, resulting in even more feelings of powerlessness. Secondly, the habit of supressing or rationalising every single negative feeling you experience, as if they lacked purpose entirely, is extremely prejudicial to your psychological and emotional health. Perfectionists as well as anxious, depressed and unconfident people often use should statements when ruminating over their problems, in a maladaptive attempt to regain a sense of control over themselves (without success).

6- If I feel insecure and inadequate about trying something new, it is because it won’t work.

Emotional reasoning is another cognitive error that makes one believe his/her thoughts and feelings are the same as actions. Thoughts are what they are – just thoughts. Feelings of inadequacy, such as insecurity and anxiety, are not predictors of an outcome, but a sign that there is an internal conflict that needs to be addressed and dealt with.

7- If people found out who I truly am, they would reject me.

That assumption is wrong for the great majority of its believers. Somehow along the way towards becoming an adult you have registered the message that being yourself is unproductive, or simply not good enough. You may have felt rejected by your parents whenever you expressed negative emotions or acted in a way that went against their own beliefs and/or expectations of you. As time went by, that knowledge created a barrier between your true self and your self-esteem, as if to be accepted by others you had to supress your essence as much as you could. That myth is not only damaging to your psychological wellbeing but it significantly affects quality of life. Incongruence between the self and behaviour can lead to intense feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, personal frustration and a depressive attitude of general discontent towards life.

In order to help yourself adopt a more positive attitude or feel more in control over your moods, be mindful of beliefs that are too rigid, be they intermediate (rules, attitudes and assumptions) or core. To correct negative beliefs that are causing you to feel depressed and/or anxious, challenge automatic thoughts whenever you feel a negative shift in your emotional state. Ask yourself, “What does this thought say about me?” repeatedly, or until you get to the root of the problem. Then, restructure your belief so that it reflects a flexible and compassionate perspective.

Stress and anxiety relief in 3 simple breathing exercises

3 simple breathing exercises
Breathing exercises can help you manage stress naturally

It is not uncommon to feel your attention being hijacked by automatic thoughts and the unpleasant emotions that follow. Even when we feel helplessly under the control of our own thinking, we still have the power to balance our emotional responses independently and naturally. Excessive worrying, hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts and other anxiety related symptoms may make you feel disconnected, but something as simple as your own breathing can bring you back to the here and now and help you feel at one with your body again. To help you manage stress more effectively, here are 3 simple breathing exercises that will enhance your sense of self-control:

Belly breathing

Sitting or lying down in a comfortable position, start breathing in and out gently through your nose. When you feel relaxed and ready for this exercise, lay your hand on your belly and take a deep breath in, filling it up as you do so like a small balloon. You do not need to force yourself to make it expand, but just focus on breathing into the belly and making it rise with air. On the out breath, feel it being emptied as it comes down to its natural position. Repeat these belly breaths for several times (1 to 3 minutes) until you notice your muscles relax, one by one. Enjoy the sensation of being in a calm state and notice how it affects your whole body.

Coherent breathing

Sitting or lying down in a comfortable position, start breathing in and out gently through your nose. Direct your attention to your breath as it fills your lungs with air and leaves your body through your nostrils. In the meantime, observe your thoughts without judgement, letting them come and go as if flowing through a river.

When you have managed to slow down the pace of your normal breathing, start counting silently in your mind:

  • Breathe in and count 1, 2, breathe out and count 1, 2

Repeat this for two breaths

  • Breath in and count 1, 2, 3, breathe out and count 1, 2, 3

Repeat this for three breaths

  • Breath in and count 1, 2, 3, 4, breathe out and count 1, 2, 3, 4

Repeat this for four breaths

  • Breath in and count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, breathe out and count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Repeat this for five breaths

“Cigarette” breathing 

Sitting in a comfortable position, start breathing in and out through your mouth. Breathe deeply and purse your lips a little as if you were smoking a cigarette, while you focus on the air going in and out of your body through your mouth. Notice how the tension that weighs heavily on your neck and shoulders starts to dissipate at each complete breath. Keep breathing in and out through your mouth and pursed lips for 1 to 2 minutes, or until you have reached a calmer and more centred state of being.

Increasing self-awareness through thought monitoring can also help you identify what is triggering negative emotional states. Combine that with some quick and easy breathing exercises and you can regain a sense of emotional balance to get you through the tough times without compromising quality of life.

2 simple mindfulness exercises to help you cope with pressure

2 simple mindfulness exercises to help you cope with pressure
Mindfulness can help you feel at one with yourself

Given the hectic pace of modern life, feeling under pressure to live up to everyone’s expectations – including our own – can easily turn into yet another unhealthy habit. Because our lives have never been as monitored or exposed to so much scrutiny as in recent years, it may feel hard to let go of that need to strive for excellence, regardless of the impact that that attitude has on you. In the era of smart phones and social media, not looking “super active” and “always busy” can easily make you feel like a lost soul, a social outcast or, simply put, just not good enough. To live a truly authentic life has become a challenge at a time when just allowing oneself to sit still and do nothing sounds like a great oddity.

Even when you feel easily swayed by perfectionist ideals, you still have a choice. You can surrender to the pressure of being there for everyone and everything but yourself, and keep on struggling to deliver that picture of success and popularity, or take this moment to make it be about you. The real you, that is, the one who like all human beings needs to nurture the connection with his own body in order to feel in harmony with himself and others. Making the time to be about you does not only mean “treating yourself” to something expensive, tasty or new. It also means taking that moment to be there for yourself, to feel what it feels to be you at that moment. All without judgement. All without having to do things a certain way (like having to follow a stereotype of “me time”, as in lying in a hot bath seeping a glass of red wine or eating a huge bar of chocolate while binge watching a TV series on Netflix. If any of those things happen not to be available… well, then you are stuck with that bad feeling!).

Mindfulness can help you feel at one with yourself without having to get out of your way in search of something elaborate to reach that peace of mind. Just taking little time to focus on your breathing can allow you to reconnect with your body, honour that moment and the sensations that make you whole, attending to the whole you. You do not have to be a Buddhist to practice it, or a great connoisseur of Eastern philosophy to master it. Mindfulness in already part of you – that unique ability you already possess to use thought to focus on yourself and observe your own thinking, feelings and behaviours.

If you feel under stress and would like to give mindfulness a try, below you will find 2 simple mindfulness exercises to help you cope with pressure:

1- Grounding yourself

Sitting on a chair in an erect yet comfortable position, take a couple of minutes to bring the focus of your attention to your breathing. Observe how your chest expands at each in breath, filling your whole body with air and, at the out breath, giving that natural feeling of relaxation. When you feel yourself relaxing as the mind reconnects with the body, let go of the chest and bring the focus of your attention to your feet. Attend to the sensations of contact between the soles of your feet and the surface on which they are resting. Feel how the whole you, your legs, torso, arms and head are connected to that surface. Feel yourself as a unit, as a body sitting in that position. Examine the sensations that intensify your perception of what it means to be that body at that moment, like feeling the hard surface of the chair against your skin or noticing feelings of heaviness or lightness in the limbs. Then remind yourself of where you are, what day of the week and time of the day it is. Own that moment by feeling fully there in the present, mind and body, all in one sitting on that chair and just being yourself at that precise time and space.

2- Stress relief

Sitting on a chair in an erect yet comfortable position, take a couple of minutes to bring the focus of your attention to your breathing. Observe how your chest expands at each in breath, filling your whole body with air, and at the out breath, giving that natural feeling of relaxation. When you feel yourself relaxing as the mind reconnects with the body, let go of the chest and bring the focus of your attention to your whole body. As you search for the sensations present in that moment, identify the one that makes you feel crushed. That sensation may be a feeling of pressure around your chest, a tightness of the neck or jaw or feelings of heaviness, pain or pressure in the abdominal area, for instance. As soon as you connect to that part of your body, dedicate a couple of minutes to focus your attention on that region. Take time to attend to the bodily sensations that reflect that negative emotional state. Notice how stress is felt by you in that particular region. Fully attend to the source of your discomfort. As your thinking starts to process those sensations, notice what happens when they start to dissipate into the rest of the body as flowing energy. Feel a shift in those sensations as they disappear from awareness. Enjoy that feeling of relief and reconciliation as your attention claims back your entire body.

Whenever you feel overwhelmed or disconnected, as if you were running on autopilot, take a few minutes to practice one of the above. Both exercises will allow you to feel refreshed and centred. It is vital to your general psychological and emotional wellbeing to attend to those negative feelings as soon as they arise. Letting them build up as if they were not as important as whatever you are doing at that moment has the potential to result in mental health complications later on, such an episode of burnout or depression, or even a full-blown anxiety disorder. Get your priorities right by learning how to love and respect the whole you, body and soul.