Thursday, 24 November 2011

Therapy Thursday: Stress-Relieving Tools

We all feel stress sometimes. We all experience occasions when something triggers our Fight-Flight-Freeze response. Our heart pounds, our head feels like it's going to burst, our rational mind shuts down. We feel flooded, saturated, panicky. It's a yucky feeling.

Some people have it really bad, suffering from panic attacks or anxiety attacks that can be truly debilitating. Fear of having such an attack can often provoke enough stress to actually trigger the attack. When the body feels the first familiar symptoms of an attack, the mind panics, releasing more of the hormones that fuel the body response, which leads to deeper panic, and so on.

The following tools will help you calm your body down and hopefully end the negative cycle before it gets out of hand. They can be used together or individually. The more you use them and experience your own ability to calm your body, the less afraid your mind will ultimately become of having a panic attack, reducing the fear that often triggers or exacerbates an attack. In other words, you can turn the cycle in a positive direction. It's all about owning the power and control that tools can bring you.

If you know someone who suffers from panic or anxiety attacks, please share these tools with them. Or send them to me!

Come to Your Senses
Bring yourself fully into the here and now by focusing all your attention on one sense.
This is a powerful way to calm yourself down, and probably the best thing you can do in times of extreme activation, such as a panic or anxiety attack.
We are visual animals, so for most of us vision usually works best.
Try looking around the room and naming every vertical line you can see. Maybe even say them aloud.
If that's not enough, repeat with horizontal lines.
Or name everything that contains the colour green.
Or close your eyes and identify as many different sounds as you can.
If you're prone to panic attacks, try different things, and identify which works best for you.

Get Grounded
Place both feet firmly on the ground and put all your awareness into that connection.
Maybe rock back and forth between your heel and the balls at the base of your big and little toes, really focusing on the connection these points make with the ground. Then gradually slow down the rocking action until you find a perfect equilibrium between the three points of each foot.

Do a Body Scan
The above grounding exercise can flow naturally into a body scan. Having put all of your awareness into your feet, move that awareness up slowly through your entire body, checking in with each stop along the way. Ask yourself how you are really feeling in that place. Is there any sensation that you were previously unaware of? Does the sensation become more clear the more attention you give it? Are you really completely relaxed, or is there some residual tension or holding? If so, what happens if you breathe into that place, send it some love, and ask it to relax?
Move up from your feet to your: calves, knees, thighs, buttocks (if you're sitting, really feel your connection with the chair, just as you felt your feet connect with the floor), stomach, chest, back, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, jaw, face, head. When you've got to the head, check in with your thoughts. Without judgement or effort, see if you can let those thoughts drift gently away, like wispy clouds in a clear blue sky.

Bring all your awareness to your breath. Breathe in and out through the nose.
If you feel panicky, try breathing out as much as you can before breathing in.
If you're really activated, try breathing out through the mouth until you calm down.
Keep the breath comfortable and natural, but try to slowly make in and out breaths longer and slower.
Try to breathe right down into the diaphragm, feeling the chest expand, then the stomach.
Count your breaths in and out, perhaps up to 4. Put all your awareness into the counting.
Try 'square' breathing: Count to 4 breathing in. Hold for 4. Count to 4 breathing out. Hold for 4. Etc.
Try breathing in whatever colour symbolizes for you whatever you need most in the moment. Maybe calm, peace, soothing, light, joy. These might be yellow, green, orange, blue...You decide.
Visualize the coloured breath going through your nose, down your throat, into your lungs, and from there into your heart, which moves the colour through every artery and vein in your body, until every single cell is saturated with that healing colour. If one part of the body is holding stress or tension, breathe your colour deliberately into that area.
Try breathing out everything you don't need: stress, worry, fear, anxiety, sadness, doubt, tension, guilt, shame etc. Maybe visualize this negative stuff as black or grey smoke, breathing it out and letting it go. Then breathe your healing colour into the space from which it came.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Tense each muscle group in turn, hold for 5 seconds, then let the muscles feel heavy & 100% relaxed.
As you focus on this enhanced relaxation, repeat a 'cue' word to yourself, such as calm, peace, love or relax. The more you do this exercise, the more that word will become associated with the sensation of relaxation, until the word alone is capable of triggering that body response. Basic conditioning, folks!
Repeat for each muscle group 2 or 3 times. They are:
Feet and legs
Core: stomach, chest and back
Hands and arms
Shoulders, neck and face

Having calmed yourself right down using the above tools, close your eyes and imagine that you are walking down a path. This path leads to a place that, for you, is the very pinnacle of calm and peace, your own idea of paradise. It could be a place you've actually visited, a composite of different places, a picture you've seen, or something entirely conjured up by your own fantasy life.
Walk down the path to your special place. When it feels right, stop. Sit or lie down if you like.
Have a good look around. Do a full 360 degree turn, taking in all the visual details of this place. Be as thorough as you can: the more detailed the picture, the more real it will be for you.
When your visual scan is complete, fill in all the other sensory information.
Identify all the sounds.
Take in all the smells.
What do you feel? A breeze on your skin? The warmth of the sun? Water perhaps.
Once you've fully arrived, allow your fantasy to go wherever you and it want to go.
Take your time. Enjoy it.
Maybe something extraordinary will happen. Maybe you'll encounter someone who will tell you something very interesting about you. Or who will reveal themselves to be an unseen protector.
Know that this place is inside you, that you can return any time you want.

I introduced this model a few weeks ago. It can be very liberating.
If you're uncomfortable where you are (in your emotions, for instance, or in your mind or body), move your awareness somewhere else. You're in control. You have choices:

Sensations: Where in your body do you feel most uncomfortable? What happens if you really focus on that sensation? Where in your body do you feel most calm? Can you choose to put your attention there instead?
Images: What images, if any, arise spontaneously? Can you let them develop naturally?
Behaviour: What do you (or your body) want to do? How do you feel if you let yourself do it?
Affect: Emotions. What other emotions are hiding behind the dominant one? How many can you find?
Meaning Making: Mind/Thought. Are your thoughts a source of suffering, or is your head a safe place to be, a refuge from emotions or sensations? How much sense can you make of your experience? If you leave the head, go to some of these other places, then return to thought, do things make more sense?
The Witness: Can you step back and watch yourself thinking, feeling, acting etc? What happens to those thoughts/emotions if you do? Does this distancing give you freedom, choices?

I also introduced this model a few weeks ago. Many people swear by it.

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