As many of you may have seen, last Wednesday was World Mental Health Day. And if you did see the myriad of social media posts, perhaps you, like me, fully experienced just how common mental health struggles are. Here are a few stats from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (1) just to show how many people in the U.S. alone are experiencing mental health challenges:
And I don’t know about you, but sometimes, maybe because they are so commonly reported this way, or I am distractedly reading them, these stats roll by me without my really realizing their full impact or how they might relate to my own experience. So just take a moment to let that fully sink in. And in case you still feel a disconnect, allow me to share an abbreviated criteria from the DSM 5 for Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) (2), which reportedly affects 6.8 million U.S. adults each year (1):
As you read these, can you relate to any of them? I am willing to bet that for many if not most of us, there are heads nodding and a resounding “Yes!”. Perhaps some of you are thinking, “Oh my gosh, do I have anxiety!? Is there something wrong with me!?” And that’s what I want to address. Because it is so very COMMON, NORMAL, and HUMAN to experience mental and emotional discomfort. And I am willing to bet that these statistics, though higher than I’d like, are HEAVILY underestimated due to under-reporting. Why? Because none of us wants to feel like there is something “wrong” with us; none of us wants a label that means “bad, wrong, different, faulty, or other”. And, historically the way that we have addressed mental health makes suggestion that we shouldn’t be feeling this way, that it’s not "normal” and if we are, then we are “under-functioning” in some way that needs to be “fixed”. Let’s look at movies alone; how has mental illness and the support available been portrayed? It plays like a horror movie! And I’m not even going to address the health insurance aspect of this conversation! Thankfully, it has become part of pop culture to speak up about mental health awareness; but sometimes hearing it from a celebrity can still feel far removed from our own experience.
So, I felt like it was about time that I share my own experience with it. Because despite being a strong advocate for mental and holistic health, and have two degrees in psychology, I realized I haven’t openly shared about my personal experience with anxiety, panic, and depression. And despite being a strong believer in the field of psychology, in therapy, and receiving mental health support, something that I prioritize in my life to this day, I still very much felt the stigma and the discomfort of reaching out, asking for help, and talking about it openly for a long time. I wasn't aware of it, but subconsciously I held the belief that this meant there was something “wrong” with me. That I was “different” than others and “inadequate” in some way. That because I had studied it, I should somehow be “immune” to experiencing it. But I wasn’t and I am not. None of us are- AND THAT IS OK!!!
I experienced my first panic attack midway through my first semester of college. It was significant and severe. I couldn’t breathe. My heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest. I had tunnel vision. My ears were ringing. My whole body was cold, tense, and trembling. My mind felt like it was splitting into a million pieces. I thought that I was simultaneously having a heart attack and “going crazy”. Although I had the personality of a planner and a perfectionist, and college was a big lifestyle adjustment for me, it felt like the attacks came out of nowhere. As a result, I became hypervigilant; tensely anticipating when it would happen again. I felt completely out of control. Being out in public felt excruciating as I didn’t know if I would be able to run and hide if a panic attack hit. I began to get to class earlier just so I could pick a desk near the exit, if I needed to run. I stopped wanting to socialize. At at a low point, I experienced intermittent panic that left me sleepless for three days. I couldn’t eat. I was losing weight. I was exhausted. And I remember feeling like a total failure when my mom asked, “do you need to take a break from college?”.
The fear of “being” seen as inadequate and not able to handle college actually motivated me to take action. I saw a GP on a trip home and within about 10 minutes I was diagnosed with GAD with Panic and Depression and prescribed three different pharmaceuticals: an antidepressant, and two anxiolytics, one for general anxiety and one to take as needed when I felt panic coming on. Due to the potential side effects of the antidepressant, I was required to see an on-campus counselor as well. I actually don’t remember any of my counseling sessions, not uncommon for the level of stress my system was under. I do remember crying a lot. Sharing a lot. And very gradually, beginning to feel a bit lighter as the semester went on. The anxiolytics, especially the one that I took as needed for panic, did give me at least a semblance of control. However, I also felt mostly numb. I felt like a walking zombie. It took every ounce of clinging to my “good student, good girl” identity to show up for classes. I remember lying in bed next to my boyfriend at the time and feeling nothing- not my body, not the bed beneath me, nothing. And I thought, “THIS is not normal. Feeling nothing, is not normal.” In that moment, I resolved to do the work to wean off of the medications and to find ways to be with and feel my feelings. And I did. (Personal choice and I completely respect those who choose to thrive with medication)
After therapy, exercise was my first coping mechanism. It was actually my counselor who recommended that when I felt a panic attack coming on, to find the nearest stairs and to run up and down them, to show my mind that I wasn’t having a heart attack. And it worked! So exercise took on a whole new meaning and significance in my life.
A couple of years later, when I began to experience severe anxiety (the symptoms of which were completely different than my first go around) in grad school, I began to practice yoga. At first, slowing down that much felt terribly uncomfortable. My whole system wanted to scream and run away from the thoughts and feelings I’d shoved down for so long. Thankfully, I had an amazing teacher and I stuck with it. And my whole demeanor and life began to transform. Truly! How I ate, moved, breathed, and interacted with others changed. When I went home for visits, people noticed that I was “different” and “calmer”. I was!
And years after a dedicated physical practice, I began to focus more on breath and meditation. I’ll never forget sitting in the yoga room at a yoga and meditation retreat in India, when our teacher said, “you are not your thoughts”. Perhaps I had heard it before, but in that moment it REALLY sunk in! The thoughts running through my mind, are not me. I choose whether to believe them and if I want to respond to them. And when I witness them with that awareness, their impact COMPLETELY changes. It’s not as strong. I don’t feel as reactive. How could I have gone through most of my life without knowing this? Why are we not taught this amazingly accessible, free, and potent coping mechanism early on in life!?
And that is why I am so passionate about awareness practices, including meditation, as a coping mechanism, and a part of everyday thriving. The tendency to distract and numb out in our society is ultra high and readily accessible. But until we look at the uncomfortable thoughts, beliefs, and patterning square in the eye, I believe they will continue to show up as discomfort and dis-ease in our systems. Additionally, creating the capacity to BE with whatever arises reconnects us with this amazingly powerful source of inner strength, that is inherent but often underutilized.
I won’t say that I never experience anxiety or even panic anymore. Anxiety is 1) a NORMAL and informative feeling, and 2) complex and multi-faceted- it can occur due to thoughts, life events, our diet, external toxin exposure, co-occurring physical states in the body such as hypothyroidism (1). And as I have learned to be with it, I have learned more about how each of these pieces played into and influenced my own experience- hello blood sugar regulation!! Yet now, my relationship with anxiety and uncomfortable states in general- sadness, anger, guilt, shame- is completely different. Rather than moving faster, distracting, and numbing with food, exercise, social activity, or social media, I slow down and let it take center stage. I ask it what it has to show me. I listen, gently, and compassionately. And as the waves of the discomfort wash over, I am simply a WITNESS to it. I keep in mind that I am NOT THIS, I am an OBSERVER of this. I remember the TRUTH of who I am. And I feel simultaneously empty and full. Peaceful and strong. (Afterward! I doesn't ever stop being uncomfortable, at least not for me)
I hope that my sharing this serves you, and if you have any questions or would like support, please, please reach out! We are all in this together. As I like to say, “no one goes unscathed by life”. Mental and emotional discomfort are a NORMAL and I'd say healthy part of that. They are simply part of our warning system that something feels misaligned. It is our job to listen and respond.
With big love,
P.S. If this message resonates with you, and you'd like my support on your health journey, please schedule a FREE discovery call HERE to so we can connect and see if now is a good time for us to partner together!
***ALL INFORMATION PROVIDED ON THIS BLOG IS INTENDED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY; PLEASE CONSULT WITH YOUR HEALTH PRACTITIONER BEFORE MAKING ANY CHANGES***
“Meditation? Oh, I’ve tried that. I don’t think it’s for me!”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received this response from clients, friends, and family, when asked what to do to relieve stress.
The truth is, there are MANY ways to approach stress reduction in daily life, but for me, meditation has made such a difference that it is THE ONE PRACTICE I return to, again and again. Waking up to my morning sitting practice is something I look forward to NOW… but it definitely wasn’t always that way and it DEFINITELY doesn’t feel peaceful, deep, or profound each time I sit down.
The biggest misconception about meditation that I hear is that “to do meditation ‘right’ you must completely empty your mind and be silent and still the whole time”. SO not true, and for most of us (if we’re not living alone in a cave dedicating our whole lives to the practice), near IMPOSSIBLE! So take some pressure off of yourself right now if you’ve tried meditating and this was not even close to your experience!
Meditation is often described as a PROCESS of stilling the mind-meaning it happens little by little over time; but in our achievement-driven society, we often feel like we should “get it on the first try”. The truth is, there's really nothing to "get". We may or may not ever experience a meditation of complete silence, but consistent practice with intentional focus WILL help us calm our systems, deepen our breath, and at least become aware of the thoughts and beliefs that are driving us, perhaps to places we'd rather not continue to go. From there, it is up to us whether we question and release some of these patterns or not.
In using meditation with my clients here’s the approach that I take:
Meditation is the process of completely being with yourself and all that is going on around and within you, and slowly but surely, increasing the space and capacity to be with it, without distracting, numbing or running away from it. We first learn to be with it, whatever ‘it’ is in that practice. We begin to notice the thoughts and beliefs that often circulate in our minds, our habitual patterns of responding. We allow them to arise WITHOUT reacting to them as we usually would. We simply breathe, and let be.
In this way, meditation is more of a practice of becoming AWARE. Becoming aware of our default responses of the mind and body to situations. That’s the first and perhaps the BIGGEST step. Simply becoming aware, conscious of the way in which we are responding to life. Because the pace of our lives tend to be rapid, and the tendency to multitask and to distract is ultra high and accessible, it can be HELPFUL to begin a practice in a dedicated space free of external distractions- it’s not required- it just offers you the gift of removing a couple of external obstacles, so we can better be with the internal ones ;).
With this reframe of meditation being a practice of increasing awareness, rather than complete silence and emptiness, there are, again, many approaches! The one that I practice myself and often utilize with clients is one of being with the self, in a relatively quiet and peaceful place, focusing on the breath.
I suggest starting with the breath awareness for many reasons, including:
This practice is enough. I cannot say that enough! You can simply sit, and continually bring your attention back to your breath. This is the practice I return to daily, especially when feeling challenged. Depending on what I or a client is working on, I may also incorporate some stress reduction techniques like ambient sound, guided visualization, positive affirmation, and progressive neuromuscular relaxation (PNMR).
You’ve likely heard of many of these; but maybe not the last one! It’s actually just a fancy word for the process of becoming aware of tension in the body, and giving it permission to release. Often, chronic pain and headaches can be a result of a holding pattern in our bodies. Just pause for a minute right now- notice how you are sitting- are you holding tension anywhere? Jaw clenched? Shoulders lifted? Glutes clenched? Thighs crossed and squeezing? Abdominal muscles drawn in?
You’re not alone! These are common areas of holding for many of us, and what PNMR gives us the opportunity to do is become aware of these holding patterns and to release them, either actively or passively. If someone doesn’t feel much sensation in their body, and has a history of ignoring the body’s signals and forcing through, I might suggest active PNMR. In this practice, you actively tense and squeeze certain muscle groups, hold, and release as much tension as possible on the exhale. This offers training in becoming aware of what tension/holding feels like in the body and what relaxation feels like.
If I am in a session with a client, and they are already experiencing or are sensitive to pain or discomfort in their body, I often opt for passive PNMR, in which we still scan through the body, muscle group by muscle group, and become aware of the tension; but rather than actively tensing and releasing, we practice bringing awareness to that particular place, breathing into it, and give it permission to release when it’s ready.
So if this reframe of meditation has you curious and you’d like to give it a try, let’s craft a practice:
I hope that you found this topic helpful; it truly is one of the most simple and profound practices for healing the patterns that create chronic stress in our body/minds.
If you are interested in PNMR, I’ve recorded a guided body scan and golden light visualization meditation and I would LOVE to share it with you! Simply email me : firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “I AM CALM” and I will add you to my email list to send it your way!
Additionally, if you are really focused on reducing stress in your life to heal from chronic or autoimmune illnesses, and you’d like to receive support through your journey, I would LOVE to support you! I currently have 1 spot open in my private coaching practice, so if this is coming at the right time for you, please schedule a FREE 30 minute discovery call with me here, so we can chat, learn more about one another, and see if we are a good fit for partnering on your current health focus!
Until next time, deep, deep breaths.
A few weeks back, I shared with you that many people will receive the advice from their health care practitioners at some point in their health journey to “reduce stress”. But what does that actually mean, to “reduce stress”? Is it just saying sayonara to our lives as we know them, moving to an island, and never looking back?
For some of us, maybe! But for many of us, it will look more like changing the WAY in which we RELATE to the life we are living, right here, right now. Thankfully, there are many tools that can help us do just that!
As we discussed last week our bodies fight or flight response is a complex cascade of events that involves many of our organs, glands, and hormones! It begins in the brain; more specifically, processing the perception of threat begins in the “limbic” region of the brain, which is heavily involved in emotional processing and memory formation. This is important, because we are habitual creatures, so if we remember something to be stressful, we continue to create that pattern and relate to it in that way.
CHANGING STRESS PATTERNS
The good news is that our neuropathways, the pathways in our brains that translate into our thoughts, behaviors, and experiences, are actually quite PLASTIC- meaning they are malleable. What this means is that, when we begin to intervene via becoming aware of and changing the way we think about something, the way we act about something, or set an intention to experience something from a new perspective, our neural pathways respond. It can take some time (CONSISTENCY IS ESSENTIAL) to build and strengthen these new pathways. One way that I’ve heard it explained is like sledding in fresh snow. The first time you go down the hill, there’s no pathway, so whatever is beneath the surface: rocks, uneven ground, and ice, may make for a bumpy ride. As you look back after that first ride, though, you can see a slight pathway forming. And if you trudge up to the top of the hill, and go down that same pathway again, a groove begins to form, its a bit smoother, and you slide down with greater speed and ease. This is actually a pretty good analogy for shifting the patterning in our brain, and how we experience both the pull of old habits and the clunkiness of new habits as a result.
But if you’ve ever made a dedicated change, whether that be getting up at a certain time every morning, drinking a certain amount of water, making dietary, exercise, or self-care changes, you’ve likely already played this out. At first, you may ride the waves of newness and motivation, so it feels really good. Then, as the newness wears off, it may begin to feel hard, heavy, or more effortful (as the neural pathway to the old habit is still stronger than the new). Yet, if you stay the course, and stay consistent, the activity likely becomes less effortful, physically, emotionally, and mentally, and you may (or may not) look back a few months later to realize that it has now just become a part of your routine. If you’ve never done so, PAUSE READING THIS AND SAVOR A MOMENT OF RECOGNIZING THAT YOU TOTALLY CHANGED THAT HABIT AND THE NEURAL PATHWAY IN YOUR BRAIN! HOW COOL!
DEFINING "STRESS" & CHANGING BEHAVIOR
Ok, now how does this relate to reducing stress? Well, first, let’s take a look at a definition of “stress”; for our purposes, let’s define it as anything that is currently triggering your sympathetic nervous system to stay on, chronically, or with a consistent frequency. This could include physical stressors: foods that are inflammatory to your system, or create drastic shifts in your blood sugar (see last week’s episode for more on this), over or under-exercising, exposure to toxins in your home/work/commute environment, lack of time spent in nature, or lack of quality sleep. This could also include emotional stressors: finances, relationships, major life transitions, illnesses in you or those you care about, caring/providing for others. Then there are mental stressors: the way we think about and relate to the other stressors, for example, feeling stuck, like a victim, helpless to changing our circumstances. My own definition of stress also includes spiritual stressors, such as misalignment of daily life with core values, beliefs, and worldviews, as well as the meaning we ascribe to the events of our lives.
So our first step then, is to set aside some time and space for ourselves to become aware of the stressors we might be experiencing currently in each of these areas. YOU’RE ALREADY HERE, SO WHY NOT DO IT NOW:
That’s it, really. That is the process for shifting our experience. That is the process for getting the body out of sympathetic dominance and into parasympathetic dominance. That is the process for creating new neural pathways in our brain that make our desired way of responding our DEFAULT! And I can tell you from research, from my own practice, and from working with clients, the scale of the behavior is not the key. It doesn’t have to be a big, grand, sweeping behavior change, and at first, it’s likely best if it’s not. If it makes sense, you may even opt to break down your top stressor into smaller chunks, and address one chunk at a time in the way described above.
EXAMINING WHAT'S GETTING IN THE WAY
Living in the “pill for every ill” society that we have created, this may not resonate for you. You may even notice resistance coming up: “I’m really sick! I have a real disease/illness. This won’t work for me. I’ve tried this already and it doesn’t work!”. If you are feeling this, I completely understand. Feeling unwell gets old fast; it’s painful and scary and brings up a whole lot of uncertainty and change. It takes mega bravery and self-compassion to stay open, to FEEL what you are feeling, and to try something new without knowing what sort of impact it will have. We can be such habitual beings as humans that sometimes, it feels easier to opt for the painful but familiar way of being, rather than risking change that may translate into even bigger change and letting go and stepping into. Trying something new also often brings up perfectionistic tendencies and along with it, our desire to be in control; we risk being seen as “not having it all together” or “being at our best” and that is uncomfortable for many of us (I know it is for me!). Finally, staying stuck in “sick mode” may be affording us certain niceties (e.g., love, care, and affection from others) that we may fear we will lose if/when we get better. When we can’t hide behind our illness anymore, it’s just us. And we have to take full responsibility for it. And that can feel really, really scary. When it’s no longer the scapegoat, we actually have to ask for what we need, set boundaries, and say “no” because it simply doesn’t work for us.
So believe me when I say, I KNOW THAT BEHAVIOR CHANGE IS BIG WORK. It’s the biggest work. It has the potential to impact everything about us and the way we experience our lives. The good news is that YOU ARE IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT. You call the shots. You decide the pace and intensity. IT’S YOUR LIFE VISION, and you can create and re-create what you want it to look and feel like. The perhaps less comfortable news is that you can’t stay standing right where you are to get to where you want to be.
And if you’d like to receive SUPPORT on that journey, if you’d like some help sifting through your stressors, the way you relate to them, and creating a vision and action plan for the life vision you hold, PLEASE REACH OUT! I currently have one open spot in my private coaching program, and I would love for it to be you! You can schedule a FREE 30 minute discovery call with me here: to see if we are a good fit for beginning this work together. Either way, I so honor you for showing up and doing the work rather than remaining on autopilot. Thank you!