Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The Tuning Slide: New Comfort

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Anxiety, it just stops your life.
-Amanda Seyfried

No, I'm not going to talk about anxiety as such. I'm going to talk about how we have learned to deal with it. We all know what it is, of course. But here's one definition:
a feeling of
  • worry,
  • nervousness, or
  • unease,
typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.
One of our natural adaptations to the world around us is our response to anxiety producing times and places. When we face a situation of perceived fear or threat there are survival mechanisms that come into play.

Maureen Werrbach, MA, LCPC writes about this:
...your body is responding to a perceived threat. This is called the stress response. The stress responses, fight, flight, or freeze, help us in situations where we perceive physical or mental threat.
Link to Psych Central
Right there they are:
    • Fight
    • Flight
    • Freeze.
They are the things of anxiety that can "stop your life." They are essential responses to life-threatening situations. The problem is that they developed when almost everything in the world around us was a life-threatening situation. That rustling of the leaves in the bush was more likely a predator than a small bird. High-level awareness was a necessity to remaining alive. What is even more important is that these responses occurred deep in the early human brain, beneath consciousness. These responses were, and are, hard-wired into who we are. These initial responses would occur in a fraction of a second before the conscious mind knew what was happening.

We still have that going on. If you are standing on the sidewalk and suddenly a car veers out of control heading at you, your mid-brain response may be as long as .2 to .3 seconds before your conscious brain knows it is happening. You will probably jump out of the way. This will happen before you know with your conscious mind that it is happening.

Two-tenths of a second doesn't seem like very long. But a vehicle moving at even 40 mph will travel about 60 feet (!) in one second. In that .2 - .3 seconds it will travel 12 - 18 feet. That may be just enough time for you to jump to safety. You probably knew that you couldn't fight the vehicle. But you may have some background that causes you to freeze instead of flee, which is fatal.

The kind of threats that our ancestors faced, though, are much less common than they used to be. We don't have wild animals stalking us, for example. Our lives, in much of the world, in spite of what we often feel or hear, are far safer on a day to day basis than they have ever been. As a result we have developed ways of evaluating anxiety-producing situations and easing the fears and sub-conscious responses. Throughout our lives we develop these self-soothing mechanisms. They are defense mechanisms against  things we don't like to feel, don't have to feel, or don't want to feel. When we enter into an anxious place where fear, worry, nervousness or unease bubble up, we all have ways we have learned to cope with these. Therefore, these situations brings old issues up- old ways of finding safety or comfort. Even if they have become counter-productive!!

They are automatic thoughts!

We have all kinds of automatic thoughts going on all the time. They are like the trailer at the bottom of the TV screen during a ball game. While the game is happening on the screen, the trailer is telling you about other games, scores, etc. Our automatic thoughts are that trailer. Which means we don't pay much attention to them unless we have to.

If, in the middle of that ball game, you hear a "ping" or "beep" that is out of place you will most likely see something like a severe weather warning down in the trailer section. The "automatic thoughts" of the trailer are now conscious. You read the warning- and you miss the game-winning touchdown as the clock runs out. In spite of what we think we can do, multi-tasking is next to impossible.

When these thoughts are "negative" and get in the way we refer to them as "Automatic Negative Thoughts"- or ANTs. That can be a way of identifying them and putting them into a more healthy place in our mind.

Every time you are tempted to react in the same old way,
ask if you want to be a prisoner of the past or
a pioneer of the future.
~Deepak Chopra

But these automatic thoughts, negative or positive, are how our brains work. They are finely tuned for survival- and anxiety is a sign that something feels threatening- or at least uncomfortable and we want to change it. Which brings us back to
  • fight
  • flight or
  • freeze.
I have spent years working in addiction counseling and treatment. For some people the anxiety response they have developed over the years is to drink or use chemicals. They are seeking comfort from, ease of the anxiety and fears. It becomes the default response. They are not even aware how it happened or, at times, even why. It has become hard-wired. It is a "flight" response. Escape. Get away.

That is an extreme example, but the way it happens is similar to the many other ways we respond. Here are some other ways:
  • Flight: not taking solos because of anxiety; dropping out of the group since you can't "keep up"
  • Fight: always be a rebel and a trouble-maker; be unwilling to accept what someone else is suggesting because it makes you uncomfortable; passive-aggressive responses can be just as much "fight" as some overt action.
  • Freeze: Not responding to a suggestion, keep doing what you have always done and ignore the ideas. (This can look like passive-aggressive, but is different in attitude.)
When these become habitual they are also chemically wired in the per-conscious mid-brain. Does this mean we are now stuck in these old ways of dealing with these situations and feelings? Fortunately, the answer is no. One of the discoveries of neuroscience is that the brain is quite "plastic," It can "rewire" itself. If it couldn't a person who had a stroke could never learn to walk or talk again. The brain develops work arounds. We can help that process.

Actually, we have to or it won't happen. That is the purpose of physical therapy/rehab after a stroke or traumatic brain injury.  That is the purpose of recovery activities for an addict. These help the brain rewire itself in more healthy ways. Learning anxiety work arounds will help our brains move beyond the ways we have always done it and find new sources of comfort in anxious times.

On the website mentioned earlier, Maureen Werrbach suggested these proven methods (Link to Psych Central):
  • Embrace imperfection. Striving for perfection always leads to stress. Practice replacing perfectionistic thinking with more acceptable, less extreme ones.
  • Identify automatic thoughts. Uncover the meaning of these thoughts and you can begin to replace them with more appropriate thoughts.
  • Become a neutral observer. Stop looking at the stressful situation through your emotion-filled lens. Imagine that your stressful thoughts are someone else’s. You will notice that you can see things more objectively this way.
  • Practice breathing exercises. Focus your attention on your breath. Fill your lungs slowly and exhale slowly for a count of 10. Start over if you lose count. This exercise is meant to reduce your body’s response to stress.
  • Accept and tolerate life events. Acknowledge, endure, and accept what is happening in your life at the moment. Focus on the present and be mindful of your surroundings. Be deliberate about allowing this exact moment to be what it is, rather than what you wish or hope it to be.
Don't expect an immediate, extreme change. Anxiety and stress response habits are as ingrained as any other long-term habit. But as we learn the newer responses and practice them as needed, they will slowly but surely become our new comfort and new normal.

P.S. You’re not going to die. Here’s the white-hot truth: if you go bankrupt, you’ll still be okay. If you lose the gig, the lover, the house, you’ll still be okay. If you sing off-key, get beat by the competition, have your heart shattered, get fired…it’s not going to kill you. Ask anyone who’s been through it.
~Danielle LaPorte

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