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Anxiety and the Big, Scary Dog

Anxiety and the Big, Scary Dog

When I was a small child, my family had several large German shepherds as pets.  I don’t remember the times those dogs jumped on me and knocked me down, though I have been told it happened.  I do remember growing up with an intense fear of large dogs.  Throughout my childhood, when I saw a large dog, my primary instinct was to run away.  

Unfortunately for the young-child-me, dogs enjoy a good game of chase.  By running away, and encouraging the “big scary dog” to chase me, I was reinforcing my own fear: that dogs were scary and should be avoided at all costs.  

Anxiety is often a “big scary dog”.  We feel the discomfort, and seek to avoid it by running away, or avoiding situations that cause anxiety.  When we avoid anxiety-provoking situations, we reinforce in our brains that those situations are unsafe, creating a cycle of fear and anxiety that grows the more we avoid specific situations.  

In order to retrain our brain, we have to confront the big scary dog.  This can be an overwhelming task, so it is important to have tools to draw from.  Three helpful tools are box breathing, positive affirmations, and challenging thinking errors.

Box breathing:

Take a deep breath, filling your lungs completely while imagining moving your lungs in the outline of a square.  At each corner, pause and hold the breath for 4 seconds, then exhale along the next side of the square.  Breathing in this way helps to regulate your nervous system, increasing your sense of calm.

Positive Affirmations:

Words are powerful, and we tend to believe the words we tell ourselves.  A friend recently recounted her experience on a climbing wall.  “I was doing really well, until I looked down.  At that point I panicked and told myself, “I can’t do this”, I sat frozen for several seconds and then let go of the wall, letting the ropes catch me and return me to the ground.”  

If we constantly tell ourselves “I can’t do this”, “This is too hard”, or “My anxiety is too high for coping right now”, we are likely to give up early or avoid the situation entirely.  When those thoughts pop into our minds, we can replace them with a positive affirmation.  “I can do this”,“I am capable”, and “I’m stronger than I feel” are all positive affirmations that can help push back against the anxiety that is preventing us from reaching our goals or functioning in daily life.

Challenging Thinking Errors:  

Thinking errors are irrational patterns of thinking that often come along with anxiety or depression.   As with positive affirmations, we can replace thinking errors by challenging them.  Common thinking errors include all-or-nothing thinking (where we view things in very black and white terms), mind reading (where we assume we know what another person is thinking), filtering out the positive (where we focus entirely on the negative, and ignore anything that might counter our current thoughts), and emotional reasoning (taking our feelings as signs, i.e., I feel scared, so I shouldn’t attend this event).  

Recognizing then challenging these kinds of thinking errors can help us confront our anxiety by reminding our brain that there are other ways to see the world and we do not have to be stuck in our anxiety.  

If you have tried utilizing these tools and need more support in confronting the big scary dog of anxiety in your life, Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy can help retrain your brain to see the dog not as a snarling beast, but as something more approachable.  ERP therapy is effective in treating anxiety as well as obsessive compulsive disorder.  

If you are struggling with these issues, schedule an appointment with Alice in either the Bountiful or Cottonwood Heights office at (801) 944-4555.

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Now or Later

 
Perhaps you are one of those individuals who are constantly asking themselves the question, should I do this now or later?  If your answer to this question is usually later you may have created a habit which can lead to undue stress, anxiety, guilt and shame in your life. It has been said that, “Every day spent procrastinating is another day spent worrying about that thing.  Do it now, and move on with your life.”   
 
In his book “Wait: The Art and Science of delay,” San Diego University professor Frank Partnoy provides another perspective on procrastination, he states, “Procrastination is just a universal state of being for humans.  We will always have more things to do than we can possibly do, so we will always be imposing some sort of unwarranted delay on some tasks.  The question is not whether we are procrastinating, it is whether we are procrastinating well.”
 
Procrastination has been referred to as an active process where one chooses to do something else instead of the task that you know you should be doing. You may find that procrastination is not working well for you because avoidance doesn’t erase anxiety it just delays it.  If you are telling yourself that the reason why you procrastinate is because your are disorganized, apathetic or lazy, most likely you are telling yourself an untruth. Smart individuals are often procrastinators.
 
For some individuals procrastination can be symptomatic of a psychological disorder.  Procrastination has been linked to depression, low self esteem, irrational behavior, anxiety and neurological disorders such as Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  If you are finding that procrastination is impairing your quality of life consider seeking professional help from a mental health provider at Wasatch Family Therapy. 
 
Sue Hodges LCSW
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Managing Loss over the Holidays

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Loss and grief are some of the most powerful emotions we can experience and during the holiday season, symptoms of grief that have previously relented, might suddenly return.  Such is the case with many clients I treat. For some, grief is new, for some their loss has occurred years earlier.  Either way, the truth of loss is that we are never truly finished with grieving when someone significant to us dies.  However, (and my clients challenge this!) there are many ways to live with the loss without suffering from it. Here are some suggestions to manage grief during the holidays:
1 – Create rituals and memorials of your loved one. It is helpful to draw on your personal spiritual and cultural beliefs to guide you in the creation of a meaningful remembrance.  For example, one client put up a “Chicago Bulls” tree in honor of her son, who was an avid fan.
2 – Meditate by intentionally remembering both the happy and sad memories.  Avoidance rarely works and leads to more suffering.  Set aside time and space to do this meditation-either journaling, listening to calming music or looking at fun pictures shared with your loved one.
3 – Draw on your support system. Reach out to friends or others who share your grief and let them know this is a difficult time for you.  Attend an event with them or just spend time with friends as a diversion.  Isolation creates more suffering.
4 – Reconnect with a therapist or former grief group.  Re-entering therapy for a session or two can aid in reminding yourself of tools used in grieving.  Or just simply processing what you are experiencing with a professional can be helpful.  Attending a grief group often helps as well.
5 – Change holiday gatherings to limit painful reminders. Maybe it’s time to gather for a breakfast instead of a traditional dinner that your loved one was the focus of.  Having gift exchanges on a new day or omitting them and volunteering for a charity in behalf of your loved one can be very healing.
Using the above suggesting can decrease suffering.  Of course there will always be a void when someone you have loved so much is no longer seen on
a daily basis, but many have found every year hurts a little less than the year before, and as one client stated ” I try not to focus on my own individual pain and try to focus more on the fact that those I have lost are no longer hurting”. Thinking about it that way can bring more comfort and solace.
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Ask A Therapist: I’m Not Depressed Or Anxious But Prefer Being Alone

I know there have been several questions on this site regarding preferences for solitude, but most of these questions have come from people with diagnosed disorders such as depression, social phobias, PTSD, etc., and the answers provided have been framed in the context of the relevant disorder. My concern is that, despite being depression and anxiety-free, I am becoming increasingly rigid in terms of my willingness to spend time with others, and it is affecting my relationships negatively. I’ve always been a bit of a loner and required a certain amount of time alone, but I’ve also always had plenty of friends and a pretty normal dating/relationship history. However, over the course of the past year or so I have started to really prioritize solitude over spending time with friends, family, and romantic partners to the point of avoidance. It’s not that I’ve become apathetic towards these people or that I’ve stopped liking them. In fact, I still have a strong desire for affection, friendship, and intimacy, but only in VERY limited quantities, and anything beyond that feels like an obligation. To give you an example of what I’m talking about, my girlfriend lives about 100 miles away, so spending a whole lot of time together during the week is not really feasible. Because of this she would really like to drive to my place after work on Friday, spend the weekend with me, and leave Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately I can’t even begin to fathom spending that much time with someone -even someone I love- and so I always have to come up with an excuse for why she would need to leave Saturday morning or afternoon. And to be honest, by Saturday I’m literally counting the minutes until she leaves so I can be alone. I don’t want to be this way. It’s not fair to the people in my life, and I feel like I shouldn’t be in a relationship, even though I am very much in love. Any insight into my problem would be greatly appreciated!

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