Have you ever sat in the moment and noticed the physical sensations you are experiencing when you get stressed? Many people feel such intense physical pain when they are under extreme stress, frequently bringing them to their primary care physician’s office, an emergency room, or the urgent care. When we are anxious, scared, angry, or experiencing any other uncomfortable emotions, our body has a physical reaction. Our brain and nervous system signal to our body to respond physically when we are under stress. It’s part of our nervous system’s innate response to protect us when it experiences something it perceives to be a safety risk (think of our early ancestors trying to stay safe from carnivores while hunting or foraging in nature). Common physical responses to stress include increased heart rate, muscle tension, increased body temperature, or sweating. Any of this sound familiar? When I sit with my clients and we explore their uncomfortable emotions, I ask them, “What do you feel physically while experiencing that emotion?” This awareness helps us to move forward and address physical stress held within the body. Once we have an awareness of our how body is responding, we can implement one of my favorite Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT, developed by Marsha Linehan, 1993) techniques for distress tolerance – TIPP.
Many of my clients identify their goals for treatment as the following: 1. Improve their overall moods. 2. Develop better coping skills. Eventually, many of my clients articulate that they are still struggling with their depression, anxiety, or overall stress management despite trying to utilize these coping strategies. This is where we start to explore their thought patterns to determine if unhelpful thought patterns (frequently referred to as cognitive distortions) are contributing to their depression or anxiety related symptoms.
Aaron Beck developed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in the 1960’s and the basic concept is that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all related and impact each other. If you have more frequent negative or unhelpful thought patterns, you might struggle with regulating your moods and have unfavorable responses to stressful situations. By increasing awareness of these unhelpful thought patterns, an individual is more likely to be able to alleviate their mood and adjust their response to stressful situations.
This year many parents are looking forward to in-person learning for their kids. Maybe you’re also feeling a little nervous with all the unpredictability of the pandemic. I’m with you! We’re talking up first grade to our recently homeschooled kindergartener as well as getting our pre-schooler ready for his first school year. We are pulling out all the stops to help with the inevitable separation anxiety we are likely to face after no child care for 17 months, no structured school schedule, and two self employed parents tirelessly balancing work with our children’s demands.
Clients often tell me that meditation is difficult for them, unhelpful to manage their stress, or they just plain feel awkward implementing it. They say, “I tried meditation when I felt angry, sad, or anxious, but it didn’t work.” This is where mindfulness can be effective to help manage daily stress and improve mental health symptoms as part of one’s daily routine. Mindfulness is a skill that helps us to increase a level of awareness about our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations to help and the situations we are currently experiencing.