Coping with COVID-19

Security, attention, autonomy, connection, status, privacy, achievement, a sense of meaning and purpose: these are our 9 emotional needs. When our needs are met our stress levels stay low and our immune system stays strong.
How do you get your emotional needs met? We all find different ways of making our lives work, with varying levels of success during different periods.
When circumstances change it can be a challenge to get all our needs met in a balanced way – especially during a crisis.

With the whole world now affected by the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus), we are, of course, all thinking about how best to protect our physical health. But we must also consider the impact on our emotional health and well-being.
As schools and workplaces close, gatherings and travel are curtailed, and family, friends and neighbours require our help, our coping resources may be stretched to the limit. Our routines, supports and finances in many cases are being disrupted and we don’t know for how long.

With so much scare-mongering around and the constant flow of alarming statistics on the news, it is vital that we take action to ensure our safety and security and our sense of autonomy and control – otherwise we will feel vulnerable and helpless.

Why Worry?

The best antidote to worry is action. This doesn’t mean running around like a headless chicken being busy – that gives a false sense of doing something but does not relieve stress. It means taking positive action steps to address the cause of the worry and letting go of those things we cannot control.

We can follow the advice given by the professionals in order to maximise our protection from infection. We can look after our physical health to maximise our resistance to infection and build up our immune system i.e. by eating healthily, staying hydrated, getting enough quality sleep, getting plenty of exercise, (ideally in nature) etc.

During this challenging time consider perhaps just pay attention to your stress levels and notice how you are feeling. Name it, even writing it down can help. Reflect on what is missing, what you need and how you might get that need met in some new way.

Look to the Positives

Interruptions to our work and school regimes might be an opportunity to spend more time in nature, enhancing health and fitness, both physical and mental, more time to begin or catch up on those projects that have been on the back burner, more time to read a good book or get creative, recharge the batteries, learn something new! . . .
Take advantage of any unplanned extra time this provides … don’t miss the opportunity!

People often look back on a crisis and think – that was the best thing that ever happened to me – if that hadn’t happened, I would still be …. (fill in the blank). You may find yourself looking back with gratitude at the learning and opportunity provided.

Crises shake us up, shock us, we are compelled to change our behaviour – and we build our resilience as we survive.

Stay Calm

So Covid 19 is here and spreading. A big scary fact!

Chronic worrying is destructive and harmful – when we worry we generate stress hormones (cortisol) and this affects blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, immune function and so on.
This arousal – emotional and physiological, affects our sleep. We have disproportionately more REM (dream) sleep to deactivate the arousal and therefore wake up feeling tired.
This can become something else to worry about and so the cycle continues.

So how do we take back a sense of control and dissipate the worrying?

Practice Staying Calm

  • Relax – build relaxation time into your daily schedule – whether it’s meditation or movies, push-ups or poetry.
  • 7:11 breathing – learn and practice this powerful stress busting technique
  • Exercise – flushes out those stress hormones and stimulates production of endorphins (the feel-good hormones)
  • ABC – Aware, Block, Challenge those worrisome thoughts (which are a misuse of the imagination)
  • A good nights sleep – sleep improves when you are calm and relaxed as much as possible during the day, especially before bedtime. Regular sleep time and getting up time helps too.
  • Eating well – a healthy diet maximises energy, hunger causes stress
  • Be careful who you listen to and what you read – it’s not all accurate!
  • Take control of your own safety strategy. Don’t feel helpless.

We need to let go of things we cannot change and accept them.
We need to learn to trust our own amazing ability to deal with problems. Our problem-solving capacity works best when we can stay calm so we can think clearly.

Why worry? – as long as we do what we can do, what will be will be!

Are you Tormented by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

What is OCD?

OCD is a condition where a person experiences powerful, intrusive and distressing thoughts or images, usually connected with an imagined disastrous event (e.g. that their house will burn down) and devises rituals designed to prevent that from happening or to compensate for having had the ‘bad’ thought. Typically, the more the rituals are carried out, the more the thoughts recur, requiring yet more rituals.

The condition arises from raised stress levels, often as a result of trauma, illness, worry, lack of sleep, or some personal crisis. For example, someone who develops a compulsion to wash their hands and who may spend many hours each day hand-washing, may have been very anxious about their health and then this developed into a fear of germs. Critically an essential emotional need is not being met – in this case the need to feel safe and secure.

Rituals can be extremely varied and numerous. They may involve counting, checking or clapping a set number of times, or a precise set of movements which must be carried out in exactly the right way, otherwise the whole sequence must be begun again. People with OCD are convinced that something dreadful will happen if they don’t complete their rituals, whatever number of times they are required to do them.

Many people with OCD succeed in hiding their condition and suffer alone.

What’s going on in the Brain in OCD?

What happens in OCD is that a primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, which is our emotional alarm system, starts to associate the thinking of the OCD thought with danger, triggering a stress reaction which leads the person to carry out the ritual to avert the danger and reduce the stress. When they are caught up in this thinking and carrying out the rituals, they are in a trance state, just like a dream. And, just as our dreams seem totally real and believable when we are in them, so the trance state of OCD is equally compelling and believable to sufferers. They are, therefore, absolutely terrified about stopping their rituals.

The more that the person with OCD does not carry out the ritual after experiencing the thought, and realises that nothing terrible does happen, the more the rational part of the brain can override the messages from the amygdala. As time goes on, and the messages continue not to be acted on, the thoughts start to fade, lose their power and eventually stop altogether.

If you suffer from OCD

OCD can usefully be thought of as a “bully”. This externalises it – it is not a part of you but an enemy. Although it is very frightening for someone with OCD to not perform the ritual, the more you stand up to it the more you diminish the power of the bully.

OCD thoughts need to be recognised as different from normal thoughts. (emotionally generated, not reflecting reality). Distraction is a useful technique i.e. whenever an OCD thought pops up, to have a variety of different activities lined up as options that can be switched into instantly e.g. singing, dancing, calling a friend, going for a walk, doing a puzzle.

Human Givens therapy can be very effective in treating OCD so contact me today. I can help you in a structured way to defeat the OCD by setting mutually agreed goals and providing the understanding and techniques you need to retake control of your life.

If the worrying thought is related to a trauma I can help by using an effective Human Givens technique to remove the powerful emotion attached to the traumatic memory.

As a Human Givens therapist I can also use deep relaxation techniques to enable you to visualise yourself experiencing the frightening thought but not carrying out the ritual and calmly doing something else instead, such as making a cup of tea or doing the washing-up. Going through this, in a calm state, in the imagination helps instruct the brain to respond this way in reality.

It is not unusual for people with OCD to have had their lives taken over by the OCD rituals with little time left over for other meaningful activities. As a Human Givens therapist I will also help you to identify what is missing in your life and help you to get your needs met in fulfilling ways.

If you are struggling with OCD, let me help you take back control. Contact me today.

Anxious, stressed, angry? How to calm down quickly

Person in state of high emotion

There is a simple and highly effective technique for controlling those powerful emotions.

You have probably heard of the “fight-or-flight” response (activation of the sympathetic nervous system) which is switched on whenever we feel under threat. What happens here is that once the threat is perceived, the stress hormones (e.g. cortisol and adrenaline) are released and these activate the following bodily changes to prepare us for action, enabling us to run or fight:

  • Increased heart rate – this can feel like palpitations
  • Increased blood pressure – this can feel like the heart is pounding
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth and/or digestive issues (as the blood is directed to heart, lungs and muscles and away from the digestive system)
  • Faster, shallower breathing – just like when we are exercising strenuously
  • Muscles tense – ready to run or fight
  • Pupils constrict
  • There may be an urge to urinate or defecate – as the sphincter muscles relax
  • We cannot think clearly and rationally, our thinking becomes black-and-white – as the neural pathways to our thinking brain are cut off.

Certain breathing techniques, like 7:11 breathing, stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the opposite to the fight-or-flight response and it allows us to “rest and digest”. The bodily changes, which allow us to calm down, are the opposite too:

  • Heart rate slows down
  • Blood pressure drops
  • Saliva is produced and digestion is stimulated
  • Breathing is slower and deeper
  • Muscles relax and tension is relieved
  • Pupils dilate
  • We can think more clearly – as the neural pathways to our thinking brain (neocortex) are re-established
meditative calmness

How to do 7:11 Breathing

It is the out-breath that stimulates the relaxation response – so any breathing technique with a longer out breath that in-breath will therefore be effective in calming the body and mind.

  • Breathe in for a count of 7
  • Breathe out for a count of 11

Make sure that when you are breathing in, you are doing deep ‘diaphragmatic breathing’ (your diaphragm moves down and pushes your stomach out as you take in a breath) rather than shallower higher lung breathing. (You can check this by placing your fingertips together on your tummy and feeling them move apart as you breath in).

Counting to 7 on the in breath and 11 on the out breath works for most people. However, for some people this can be difficult and if so, it is just as effective to use 3:5 or whatever works best as long as the out breath is longer than the in breath.

Continue for 5 – 10 minutes or longer if you have time and enjoy the relaxing benefits it brings.

If you carry out 7:11 breathing several times each day this will help lower your anxiety levels generally and the counting action is also a good way to distract yourself from negative thoughts or worries.

When your Comfort Zone becomes a Prison

when your life feels like a prison and you need to break out

Ever felt you are stuck in a rut? Bored with the same old routine day in day out – same rituals each day at work, same issues over and over again, same TGIF feeling every Friday then the week-end goes by in a flash and you’ve done nothing really enjoyable, then same old Monday feeling and it all goes round. All very predictable.

We’ve all felt life could be more exciting, challenging, interesting, but let time drift by and not done anything to change it.

It’s a basic human need to want to feel secure and in control, but sometimes a safe routine can start to feel more like a prison – a life sentence of boredom.

When this happens, the desire for excitement might just spill over into driving too fast, taking risks, having an affair, getting high on drugs or alcohol.

If you recognise this scenario it might be time to tap into your creativity and start working away on a project that’s important to you.

Set yourself a new challenge. Maybe there is something you always wanted to do but life got in the way? Imagine yourself doing this and hold on to that dream. What is the first small step? Don’t think of all the reasons why not, just do it!

When babies take their first small step and fall down they get up and do it again. They don’t feel embarrassed or defeated, they feel excited and joyful to be learning something new and keep at it until they are fearlessly running and climbing.

Are you taking risks or so bored you feel tempted? Feel something is missing in your life and don’t know what to do about it ….. contact me if you need help with finding your way to escape your prison.

Top Tip for Staying Calm at Christmas

Stressed at Christmas

Love it or dread it, Christmas season is here again. Isn’t it a shame that it can be such a stressful time for so many people – obligations, expectations, family tradition and so on.

There is pressure to overindulge – food, alcohol, presents, overspend, over-party, be happy and excited, be organised, generous and welcoming.

It is difficult to get our own needs met when obligations become deeply entrenched and breaking tradition can mean disappointing others and feeling selfish.

No wonder we can end up feeling stressed, irritable or exhausted and still feel like we must keep going.

Does this sound familiar? If so, next time you feel frazzled, anxious, irritated or ready to explode, try this wonderfully easy to learn calming technique.

Breathe in to the count of 7 and breathe out again to the count of 11. That’s it!

Try to breathe out slowly as if breathing through a straw.

Breathe deeply from the diaphragm (you should be able to feel your tummy expand as it fills with air and deflate as you breathe out).

You will feel a difference after a few breathes but if you can spare 5 -10 minutes that is even better.

Breathing techniques work by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. You may have heard of the ‘fight or flight’ response, the Parasympathetic Nervous System is simply the opposite of that (‘fight or flight’ is the term for the activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System when we perceive ourselves to be under threat). 7:11 breathing lowers blood pressure and heart rate slows – emotions are calmed in the process.

It is the out-breath that stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, so that any breathing technique with a longer out-breath works more effectively in bringing about relaxation.

Practising 7:11 breathing a few times a day will lower your overall stress levels in the long term.

Use this simple breathing technique to become an oasis of calm, no matter what storms Christmas season blows your way.

Post-traumatic Stress & Phobias Demystified

Fear, phobia, trauma, panic

The brain has an emotional alarm system designed to keep us safe. When people suffer from panic attacks, phobias or post-traumatic stress, it is because the system has gone into overdrive.

What happens is this. There is a small, structure in the brain, known as the amygdala (Greek for almond, which is its shape), that has access to our emotional memories and learned responses. It evolved in the distant past and its job is to match new circumstances to what is already in the store and alert us to anything that previously represented a risk and might do so again. In the distant past, this might have been a movement or flash of colour that could have signified an approaching predator. The amygdala would then have triggered changes to help the body get ready to fight or flee the danger – pounding heart, racing pulse, quick, shallow breathing, etc.

Now imagine this. A young woman, who has had a highly stressful day, is waiting in a long supermarket queue, worrying whether she’ll be out of the shop in time to catch the bus to school to collect her little girl. It is one pressure too many. The amygdala responds as if she is under threat and she starts to feel her heart pounding strangely and her breathing quickens. She becomes terrified that she is having a heart attack and that makes the symptoms escalate – her palms sweat; her chest feels as if it is bursting and she struggles to breathe. Soon she feels overwhelmed and may collapse or run out of the shop. The amygdala, fearful that this could happen again, files away the fact that there were bright lights and lots of people queuing when the ‘threat’ occurred. Then, when the woman is queuing in the post office the next day, the bright lights and queue may be sufficient for the over-vigilant amygdala to trigger another panic attack to deal with the new ‘threat’.

Phobias start the same way – the amygdala makes associations with what was going on when a person first felt threatened, not all of which may be relevant. So, while it is understandable that someone who is attacked by a vicious dog may well develop a fear of dogs generally, it could equally be the case that someone develops a fear of broken glass because, on a previous occasion, when they had had a panic attack, there was broken glass lying near to where they collapsed.

Agoraphobia develops when someone is too frightened of panic attacks even to leave the house.

In the case of post-traumatic stress, someone who was in the back seat of a car when a collision occurred may find it frightening to travel in the back seat again but there may be other, unconscious, connections with the accident too, such as the smell of petrol. So the person may experience seemingly inexplicable panic when filling up their own car with petrol.

Fortunately, Human Givens therapists are taught a simple and effective way to deal with all these circumstances. If a traumatic memory is causing panic attacks, phobias or post-traumatic stress, they can use a powerful, painless visualisation procedure, known as the rewind technique, to take the emotion out of the memory and enable the memory of the event to be stored away as history, instead of as one that continues to intrude on the present. The memory remains, and always will remain, a deeply unpleasant one but no longer is it emotionally arousing. This method can work swiftly and reliably even in the most extreme of cases.

If you are trying to deal with post-traumatic stress, a phobia or panic attacks, call text or e-mail me to book a session, for an informal chat or further information.

5 Tips to Help Beat Insomnia

How to beat insomnia

1. Routine. Decide what time you need or want to wake up each morning – if it’s 8.00 for example then to get 8 hours sleep you will need to be asleep by midnight. So you might want to go to bed at 11.30 – every night, including weekends and set your alarm too.

This trains your brain to expect to go to sleep at that time and to get up at that time, it will get easier.

No napping during the day. With a regular routine your brain will learn when to expect to switch off.

2. Relax Before Sleep. Decide on a pre-bedtime wind-down routine – for example 2 hours before bedtime no physically or emotionally arousing activities – that means social media, worrying, arguing, exercising.

Do something relaxing – a bath, listen to calming music, engage in a hobby or something creative, practice meditation or 7:11 breathing, read or watch TV for a while.

3. Wrap up those worries. Worry is probably the most common reason for insomnia.

Worry seriously interferes with  sleep quality by causing an increase in REM sleep (dream sleep) at the cost of less slow wave sleep (restorative, recuperative, restful sleep).

If you are worrying a lot you need to put those worries to bed too at bed time or before. Try writing down the worries, then what action you can take regarding each one (if there is genuinely nothing in your power that can be done, then acknowledge that and let the worry go).

What can you do tomorrow re each of the worries, note it down and THAT’S ENOUGH. No more worry thoughts …focus instead on how good it will feel to have done that thing that you need to do, the relief from passive worrying to taking a step toward resolution.

4. Food and Drink. Be aware of alcohol’s effect on sleep.

A drink at bedtime might help you get to off to sleep more quickly but alcohol can affect the quality of your sleep, disturbing the sleep cycle leading to tiredness in the mornings. It tends to disrupt sleep – waking up in the night, trips to the bathroom, and dehydration.

Avoid caffeine in the evenings – a hot milky drink is warming, comforting and gentle on the stomach.

Think about the timing of your evening meal. An empty stomach will keep you awake as will indigestion or heartburn.

5. The Sleeping Environment. Avoid creating an association between lying in bed and sleeplessness.

If you find you can’t sleep, get up, do something else (preferably something dull and boring so you won’t want to stay up all night) and then go to bed again when you feel sleepy.  

If you spend weeks or months fighting insomnia in the same space your brain will have learnt to associate this space with lying awake unable to sleep. You need to break this association.

You might want to try sleeping somewhere else for a few nights if possible. Or you could rearrange your bedroom furniture around or change the décor.

Keep your bedroom for sleeping – not for work or TV or studying or workouts.

Is your bedroom a relaxing space? Your bedroom should be cosy, comfortable, soft light, soft colours. The temperature should be not too warm and not too cold.

Production of melatonin (a natural hormone released by the brain) is stimulated by darkness – so keeping the bedroom dark during sleep time is important. No screens – the blue light emitted from screens reduces melatonin production, so prolonging wakefulness.

There are numerous apps available that will play your choice of soothing sounds – designed to aid restful sleep, which some people find very helpful.