Anxiety is a broad and widely misused term, and the experience varies from person to person. Because of this, it can be quite difficult to recognize it in ourselves and in our loved ones. How do we distinguish between normal stress, personality traits, and the deep-rooted sense of general anxiety? [Read more…] about Common Misconceptions About Anxiety
May is Mental Health Month. I have to admit, even though it’s been observed in the United States since 1949, this is the first year I’m paying such close attention. What is it all about? Why are we talking about this, and why is Mental Health Month important to all of us?
As the Product Marketing Manager at Therachat, I spent the last few months researching mental health topics, listening to countless interviews with industry experts and talking to therapists and counselors of various backgrounds. I’ve also been self-reflecting because that’s what you tend to do after talking to a bunch of psychologists. It’s a bit like participating in one long therapy session every day of the week for 6 months. The effect of this on my life has been profound. So, let me share some of what I’ve learned in this intensive process.
Sometimes “Mental Health” Just Means “Mental Fitness“
The words “mental health” have a bit of a vibe to them. You know what I mean. It feels serious and, for those who struggle with severe disorders, it is. But for many of us, taking care of our mental health may simply mean forming good mental health habits and working on ourselves to live a fuller life. It’s about internal exercises that help us improve and evolve. Think of it as mental fitness.
The same way we struggle to eat right and commit to the right exercise routine, we struggle to identify and make time for ways to take care of our mental wellbeing. What’s worse is that we may not even realize that it’s necessary. It’s just not something that people talk about. Perhaps it’s because poor mental health habits can be easier to hide than poor physical health habits. As long as we somehow manage to get through the day, the subtle internal damage we cause by neglecting our mental health is not visible and, thus, easy to ignore. But why not just live better? Our mental health deserves the same love and attention we wish to give to our bodies. If living healthy is high on your list of priorities, mental health should be added the equation. It just makes sense.
Therapy Is Not All Talk
Good mental health habits are as important as good physical health habits, but who knows what good mental health habits are? You can certainly do a lot for your mental health by researching the subject on your own and practicing mindfulness (that’s a great start!). But just like with physical exercise, the right coach can help you take your self-care to the next level. It’s not uncommon to go to a nutritionist for nutrition advice or to exercise with a personal trainer. Well, think of therapists as mental health coaches.
One thing I’ve learned from the countless therapist interviews is that they are pretty awesome people, who know things. Things that can help you bring about real, meaningful, positive change. Sure, they are always there to listen, but there’s more to it. Good therapists carry real knowledge that can help you reprogram your own behavior and manage your thoughts. Just think about how powerful that can be. Think of those random, negative thoughts that pop up in your head and derail your day, or think of the occasional, mildly (or not-so-mildly) destructive behaviors that get in the way of your relationships, your work. The right therapist can help you learn to overcome yourself, to change by your own choice instead of some external factors beyond your control. Basically, therapy can help you get in the driver’s seat of your life. It’s worth a try. It’s worth several tries, since finding the right fit can take a few sessions with different therapists.
Self-Awareness is a Big Deal
Self-awareness can help separate our core personalities, the inherent character traits that make us unique, from the behavior patterns we’ve fallen into for whatever reason. It can help align our actions with our true values. It can help us overcome the parts of ourselves that get in the way of the life we want to live, make us better people. That’s a big deal. Maybe that’s why therapists put a lot of emphasis on it. Self-awareness seems to be the key ingredient in good mental health, which may sound like a no-brainer, but there’s really more to it.
The things I’m learning at Therachat from the inspiring, passionate therapists we talk to, are making me a better person. There’s just no denying it. Through self-awareness, I’m learning to separate certain feelings, thoughts, and behaviors from each other. Actually, keeping in mind that that’s even possible is helpful. I’m able to make more conscious choices and reduce knee-jerk reactions, which keeps me out of unnecessary trouble. I’m becoming more selective when it comes to what I allow myself to think, and I pause to question the thought process and change direction. I can live smarter. I try. It’s like a workout for my brain, which is firing in ways it hasn’t before. And it feels awesome!
So this year, I’m all about Mental Health Month. Let’s do this! Let’s talk about it, share our thoughts, compare notes and discuss (respectfully). This month, let’s start making mental health a priority!
Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
Therapy, like many things in life, is a process. It is about taking the steps to grow and apply what is discussed in therapy to everyday life. Kaia Kordic, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist from Humboldt County, California, says it’s like building a muscle.
“I’ll give you an example,” offers Kaia. “Let’s focus on a specific event in a client’s life, an argument with her boyfriend. Two weeks after the argument, we are in a therapy session, and she’s talking about the fight. ‘I wish I had said this instead of this, done this differently,’ and so on. Next time there’s a fight, we’ll talk about it again, we’ll work on it, build that muscle of mindfulness, awareness, and intention. We’ll set the goal of how she wishes to act in that situation. Over time, what I hear from my clients across the board is that they time gap between the event and the realization of how they should’ve act gets smaller. So, it might be like, ‘Yeah, we got into an argument, and a few hours later I thought that maybe this should have gone differently.’” The goal is to get as close to the event as possible and increase awareness to the point where you’re able to choose your own behavior.
Results of therapy
One of the most exciting results therapy can bring about is the ability to break away from harmful, damaging default responses and to learn to choose positive, thought-out responses instead.
“Through therapy we learn to correct course. You know therapy is working when a client thinks, ‘You know, my behavior is actually not cool with me. This is not what I want. How I want my life to look, along with my values, is actually more to the right of my current path in this moment.’ So, we correct course. In therapy, you can learn that,” says Kaia.
Therapy helps you realize that you have choices. You can decide how you want to react to the world you’re living in, to the events in your life, to your emotions. “It is noticing where you have a choice, and then developing processes to make the choice that really feels good to you.”
Making Therapy Work Yourself
It’s no secret that therapy results largely depend on the person’s willingness and readiness to work on themselves. Journaling and self-reflection are some of the most proactive and healthiest ways to practice self-awareness and define one’s intentions outside of therapy sessions. “It helps develop that awareness muscle,” says Kaia. “If the client only reflects on her fight with the boyfriend during the session, progress will take a lot longer. But, if she journals about it or tracks symptoms and conflicts throughout the week, she will become aware of her choices, actions, and experiences sooner.”
A new journaling tool, Therachat, is available to clients and therapists interested in improving therapy outcomes. “Therachat is going to be really helpful for clients who need the self-reflection process in between therapy sessions,” says Kaia. “The insights and analysis available to therapists are also going to be helpful. It is one thing to see someone’s memo on their phone,‘ I’m anxious today, I’m not anxious today,’ but to see their mood patterns throughout the week in a clean format and be able to focus on important topics together is another. I would imagine that people would get better faster.”
Kaia Kordic is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, who splits her time between building her own private practice here in Humboldt County, California and working with the county foster care services. Kaia works with families, children, teenagers and adults who have ADHD, depression, anxiety, and who are going through relationship conflict, break-ups and divorces. She sat down with us to share some common misconceptions about therapy and offer advice to those who may be considering therapy.
Therapy is not a sign of weakness
While many believe that therapy is a sign of weakness, Kaia couldn’t disagree with that assessment more. Therapy is not about something being wrong with you, it’s about courage and personal development.
“All of my patients seek personal growth. They recognized that something in their lives is not going the way they want it to, and chose to do the work to change that. That’s powerful,” says Kaia.
While some may prefer to do it on their own or fail to understand why a loved one would seek the help of a stranger, those who choose therapy are simply utilizing all the best tools available to them. “Therapy IS ‘doing it on your own.’ If you’re cooking a meal for yourself, you’re doing it on your own, but first, you need to get the right ingredients together, figure out the process. Therapy is somewhat similar, but with higher stakes. Clients decide that they need to work on something, so they want the right resources to help them figure out the process,” says Kaia.
Finding A Therapist
Kaia has some advice, “Find somebody who is a good fit and trust the process. It takes a lot to make that first call and even more to make that first appointment, and it’s rarely a good fit on the first call. So, people get discouraged. They give up and miss out on a very important resource. You should keep looking for the right fit. It is worth the effort.”
Once you make a choice and schedule the first appointment, Kaia recommends giving the process a chance to work. “Unless you have a bad feeling, give it three sessions. You may feel unsure at first because you and your therapist are just getting to know each other. If it’s not right after that, continue your search.”
You can try finding a therapist through Psychology Today, your insurance, Yelp, and friends. Kaia says you can even ask your therapist. “You can say, ‘Hey I realize and I appreciate our work together, but I feel like I would fit better with a male or someone of the same ethnicity. Do you have any recommendations for that?’
Visit counselingpotential.com for more information about Kaia Kordic and her practice.
Before San Francisco-based psychotherapist Krishan Abeyatunge chose his current profession, he was helping people heal through his Bay Area practice of holistic medicine. It was during those years that he noticed an ever-increasing number of patients that would come in repeatedly for the same physical ailments or pain because of trauma.
His investigation to identify the culprit behind these chronic maladies led him to discover the connection between our psychological well-being and our physical health. This realization compelled him to make a career change so he could focus on exploring the core source of all our joys and sorrows – our psyche.
Trauma Can Result in Physical Pain
When we fail to work through our trauma, it manifests itself in other ways. Specifically, Krishan points out that psychological trauma and anxiety can frequently manifest as physical pain and illness. He shares an eye-opening experience he had with a former patient – a 275lbs former football player, who survived a car accident that ended his father’s life. During massage therapy, Krishan stumbled upon an old back injury the client suffered in the accident. Unaware of the injury or its history, Krishan applied pressure to the spot, evoking in his client an intense urge to cry. “Just let it out,” offered the doctor and the client did. He began to cry. When they spoke after, it became clear that the trauma the accident survivor has been carrying in that spot extended far beyond physical injuries.
Abeyatunge swears that this sort of physical manifestation of early, sustained or even acute trauma is more common than most people realize. What’s even worse, it can be self-perpetuating.
“If your mind is set to that channel, then there’s plenty to look at that’s not great in the world. We live in the paradox of lots of beautiful stuff and lots of suffering. So, depending on where your channel is set to, you can notice a ton of either,” says Abeyatunge.
He notes that major research institutions like Stanford and Harvard have documented the connection between emotional/mental wellbeing and physical health. Check out this book titled Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine if you’re interested in learning more about the phenomenon.
This week, we sat down with the founder of Huddle.Care, Dr. Maggie Perry, to learn more about living with anxiety and the difficulties in communicating the experience of anxiety to others. After getting her doctorate degree in clinical psychology from Loyola University of Maryland and training at the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland, Dr. Perry has committed her life to helping her clients learn to treat themselves with a balance of mindfulness, self-gentleness, and self-discipline.
So, let’s dive right in.
Communicating Your Struggle to Others
Living with anxiety can be a very lonely experience when those around you struggle to understand and empathize with your challenge. But it’s important to remember that what you’re going through internally may not be obvious to the outside world or even to you! According to Dr. Perry, you must understand your own anxiety before others can begin to get on the same page with you.
Learn it. Do your best to educate yourself on what is taking place inside your brain when you feel the sensations of anxiety. Therapy, books and anxiety-focused communities are all good resources. Try to identify your triggers. How do they make you feel? How do you respond to anxiety-inducing stimuli? What is the brain chemistry behind these feelings? Fully understanding, on every level, what happens when you feel anxious will make it easier to explain your anxiety to those around you.
Do it. Improving your understanding of anxiety alone won’t actively change your brain’s response. As you become more self-aware, it is important to start putting what you’ve learned into practice. This can involve rebuilding your emotional groundwork for dealing with anxiety, working through exposure therapy, and/or simply practicing mindfulness a little more each day. Taking small steps towards facing your triggers will eventually lessen their grip on you.
Teach it. In order for others to understand what you’re going through, it is necessary to calmly and positively relay your experience to others, so the next time you experience anxiety around others, they’ll be able to recognize it and know how to react. As you help your loved ones learn more about your struggles, by teaching someone about your experience you will improve your own self-awareness.
Supporting Someone with Anxiety
Living with anxiety on your own can be isolating, but asking for help can be tricky. If someone close to you struggles with anxiety, simply asking them how you can help can make a huge difference.
Understanding. First, it is very important to understand the problem. Because anxiety is so often confused with stress and regular worry, it is important to set aside your assumptions and listen with an open mind. “The ideal case is that the community would learn what anxiety is,” says Dr. Perry. “Research shows that psychological suffering is not so much about the situation, but how a person is responding to it.” Simply understanding a person’s response to their own anxiety, through research and conversation, is one of the best ways to help that person.
Acceptance. “The ideal way to make an anxious person feel comfortable is to help them keep a willful attitude towards their anxiety. Listen and allow yourself to be taught about what exactly is happening in those situations. Discuss it with the anxious person while exhibiting a relaxed attitude, humility, understanding and even humor towards it,” says Dr. Perry. Humor, in particular, may be the most valuable tool of all. “After a while, it can become a game—a humorous part of life that becomes completely disarmed,” rather than something to feel shame or self-consciousness over.
What NOT to do. While it is essential to understand how to take positive action, knowing what not to do is just as important. It is best to talk about it and establish exactly how the anxious person wishes to be treated. “Both, shaming and reassuring can be confusing for the person and can make them unsure of how they are supposed to react,” explains Dr. Perry. So, attempts to dispel their anxiety by pointing out that everything is ok and trying to make them see the “bright side,” can feel like you’re oversimplifying a complex issue that they struggle with daily and can lead to further alienation and dispair. Remember, if it were that obvious and easy, they wouldn’t be needing your help.
Common Misconceptions About Anxiety
False: “Acceptance” is just another word for “giving up.”
A common misconception that is prevalent among people living with anxiety is that accepting your anxious feelings, rather than trying to fight them, is in itself a passive response. However, this could not be further from the truth. In accepting that you experience anxious sensations in different circumstances, you are consciously—and actively!—retraining your brain to temper its response to triggering stimuli.
“Acceptance is actually a really active stance because you’re telling yourself that the thoughts and feelings you have are actually inconsistent with what you value—they’re not true, they’re not worth acting on, they’re not dangerous to you. You can choose to accept the fact that the thoughts and feelings are there, but you’re still able to do the things you care about,” says Dr. Perry. “Over time, this will eventually teach the mind not to be worried about those things anymore, and eventually the mind will not have that sensation anymore.”
False: You simply need to face your fears.
Exposure therapy is a method that involves deliberately seeking anxiety-triggering situations in an effort to learn how to respond when anxious sensations occur in order to lessen that anxiety over time. For people struggling with anxiety, one of the most common—and harmful—misconceptions is that all you need is a ‘just do it’ attitude. “Many people think, ‘I just have to force myself into situations and then eventually my fear will go away.’ If someone, who’s afraid of bridges, goes over a bridge fifty times but is bracing against her thoughts and feelings the whole time, she’s going to continue to feel afraid. They have to do it in the right way,” Dr. Perry explains.
Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t about the act of exposure to anxiety. It is the willful attitude toward anxiety that will inspire and affect change in the long run. “There has to be a pretty active self-talk because the person will still be afraid,” says Dr. Perry. “The uncertainty and fear are still there, but they’re saying ‘I’m taking a leap of faith—it’s okay for me to have these anxious feelings and still do the triggering behavior because I don’t believe I am actually in danger.”
False: Your anxiety is a character flaw.
Perhaps the most frustrating misunderstandings occur between those who struggle with anxiety and their close circle. Friends and family members may believe that anxiety-fueled behavior is simply a reflection of a person’s personality, just like honesty, friendliness or a sense of humor.
“You are not your anxiety. Anxiety is just something that happens to you,” reminds Dr. Perry.
“Not everyone is taught that anxiety is related to the makeup of the brain, that it’s not necessarily a personality characteristic, even though it may feel that way after they’ve suffered for so long,” says Dr. Perry.
Anxiety Management Tip
Dr. Perry states that quick, in-the-moment journaling can be extremely beneficial to someone with anxiety. She says that “any type of thought record detailing ‘these are my thoughts, these are my feelings, these are my sensations,’ can help see what needs to be done in the moment.”
When inklings of anxiety begin to arise, take a step back, consider all aspects of these sensations and write about them as they happen. This is a good technique for reconciling your anxious feelings with what you’ve learned about your anxiety and what you know to be true. In other words, do not believe everything you feel. Journaling provides an opportunity to examine and challenge your feelings.
“There are other times, like life transitions, in which just having someone write for thirty minutes each morning about what they think and feel about that transition will bring down their stress, bring down their anxiety, and make them more resilient against depression because they are more self-aware.”
Visit huddle.care to learn more about to learn more about Dr. Perry’s work!