Overcoming Anxiety

Presenters at the Anxiety Super Conference reinforced the view that adverse childhood experiences provided the foundation for anxiety in later life.  The early childhood experiences could involve sexual and/or physical abuse, psychological control, cruelty, demeaning words and actions or any other form of adversity that undermines a child’s self-esteem, sense of self-worth and security.  The effects of adverse childhood experiences are long-lasting, sometimes a whole lifetime.  I find it amazing that in my seventies, I am still anxious in confined spaces, especially lifts.  I track this anxiety back to 18 months of confinement in an orphanage when I was 4 years old and separated in the complex from my younger sister.

We are told that there is wisdom in anxiety and it can be good for us, e.g. warning us about an unhealthy situation, either self-generated or other-generated.  It can also be useful when it activates focus and energy when pursuing our goals, whether at work, in sport or in our homes.  Anxiety is counterproductive when it undermines our confidence or causes us to freeze, dissociate or engage in destructive, addictive habits.  However, the path to overcoming debilitating anxiety does not lie in avoidance or denial, but in truly facing up to anxiety and related fears.   The presenters at the Anxiety Super Conference provided ways to overcome anxiety, many of them embedded in the body, such as Restorative Yoga offered by Adelene Cheong.

Anxiety Loops

Amber Benziger, who spoke at the Anxiety Super Conference, provides a short video on the nature of anxiety loops that potentially generate escalating fear.  She suggests that experiences like the pandemic can intensify uncertainty around day-to-day activities like getting the children to school, retaining a job or maintaining physical and mental health.  The uncertainty can provoke anxiety about how to handle the resultant disruption and disconnect with established routines.  This, in turn, can lead to physical manifestations of heightened anxiety such as increased heartrate, headaches, or pain in the arms , legs, neck or back (through tightened muscles and constriction of blood flow).  The physical symptoms can activate negative thoughts such as, “Why haven’t I prepared for this?” “I am not a good parent/spouse/colleague”, “Why can’t I cope with this disturbance when other people seem to be coping?.   Amber suggests that, over time, the uncomfortable feelings intensify, negative thoughts become reactionary and excessive and anxiety can be experienced as a panic attack or burnout.

Breaking the anxiety loop

Amber’s suggestion to break the anxiety loop is to first validate the true nature of the external stimulus, e.g. acknowledge that it is a global pandemic and certainly a challenging time that is causing uncertainty and worry for many people.  Then, asking yourself a number of questions relating to control (which appears to be the thing we experience as most under attack), e.g. “What can I actually control?, “What is in my power to do now to prepare, protect and provide for myself and others?”  She encourages us to check in to our bodily sensations via processes such as a body scan and progressive releasing of tension.  At the same time, she encourages us to challenge our negative thoughts and underpinning assumptions.  Amber asserts that in the final analysis, “feelings are not facts!” and we should question why these feelings are arising  – just as Jon Kabat-Zinn asserts, “We are not our thoughts!” and we should use diffusion strategies to minimise their impact.

Amber is the creator of The Anxiety Lab which is a membership site for women who want to overcome anxiety and restore control in their lives.  Besides social support provided by members, Amber offers resources and workshops to enable participants to develop mechanisms for coping with anxiety.  As a trained counsellor and clinical therapist, she also offers counselling for individuals and families as well as group therapy and teletherapy.

Anxiety can be compounded when we take on new roles such as that of a leader in a community organisation or a manager in a commercial enterprise.  Our inability to cope with anxiety can be more public and open to scrutiny in these roles and environments.

Managerial anxiety

Managers can be anxious about the decisions they make, their impact on the welfare of staff, their ability to properly represent the organisation and its goals, their capacity to observe legislative requirements or meet any of the multitude other demands of a manager in this day and age (including coping with new technologies and industry discontinuities).   Managers can be concerned about how they are viewed by their hierarchy, their staff, their colleagues or their clients. They can be anxious about meeting targets, avoiding budget overruns or achieving the required organisational growth.  Managers, whether executives or managers lower in the organisation, can be captured by expectations, those of others as well as their own unrealistic expectations arising from a perfectionist tendency.  This anxiety can lead to overwork and an inability to create boundaries between work and home (particularly in these days of hybrid work).

During the Anxiety Super Conference, Moira Aarons-Mele raised the issue of leadership anxiety and explained that it is different for every person.  She stated that because of our nature as “human relational creatures”, we worry about how we are viewed by others, “ping” off others’ anxiety and take on others’ urgencies.  She maintained that this anxiety-related behaviour is aggravated both by email (where we worry about the communications we initiate and our response to others’ communications) and online meetings.  Meetings via platforms such as Zoom, can be draining not only because of the level of concentration required but also the fact that we are “performing under lights”.  Moira suggests that the “energetic output” required for a series of Zoom sessions is excessive and in a TED Talk, she offers 3 steps to stop remote work burnout.

Moira self-identifies as “an extremely anxious overachiever” who is working to bring some normality to her life.  In pursuit of this purpose, she created The Anxious Achiever Podcast – a series of podcasts in which she interviews experts in the field of anxiety management including those who propose writing as therapy, adoption of the Acceptance and Commitment (ACT) therapy and dealing with the “imposter syndrome”.  One of her interviewees, journalist Priska Neely, explains why managing is the hardest job she ever had.

Overcoming managerial anxiety

Moira offers a number of ways to overcome managerial anxiety.  She suggests that one of the first steps for a manager is letting go – stop micromanaging and empower others through mindful delegation.  Associated with this, is the need to adopt healthy work habits that become new norms by way of modelling desired behaviour.  Sometimes this involves changing the expectations of staff that have arisen as a result of the previous behaviour of the manager, e.g. arriving early and leaving late. 

Moira also recommends talking about the work situation and the stressors involved and working collaboratively with staff to develop ways to cope effectively – e.g. introducing a wellness program or a morning exercise routine.  This self-care and other-care approach could involve checking in on oneself as well as staff experiencing distress.  Moira also strongly recommends setting boundaries , both at work and at home, ensuring there is a clear divide between work life and home life (avoiding endless spill over, a trap for the unwary when working from home).   Moira, like Ginny Whitelaw, encourages movement and bodily awareness to enable leaders to let go of tension – otherwise, their tension contaminates the mood of everyone else they come into contact with (bosses, colleagues and staff).

Reflection

There are many paths to overcoming the anxiety that negatively impacts our health, productivity and overall well-being.  We have to start, and persist with, the journey into our inner landscape.  This can be a lifetime pursuit but the rewards are great as we begin to break free of expectations and the other ties that bind us.  As Janine Mikosza writes in her novel, Homesickness: A Memoir, “your past doesn’t have to be your future”.

If we adopt mindfulness practices such as Tai Chi, yoga or meditation, we can find that over time as we grow in mindfulness we begin to develop heightened self-awareness, the courage to change, the creativity to develop new ways of being-in-the-world and the resilience to maintain the journey.  In the process, we will positively impact others whom we interact with at work, at home or during our everyday endeavours (such as sports or social events).  

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Self-acceptance and Overcoming Negative Thoughts

Tami Simon of Sounds True interviewed Professor Steven Hayes co-founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).  In the interview podcast, Steven focused on Self-Acceptance and Perspective-Taking.  Fundamental to the ACT approach is the capacity to “step Back” from the inner critic, notice the negative thoughts that are being generated and listening to those thoughts with a sense of curiosity to understand what is going on.  It involves being vulnerable to, rather than hiding away from, the hurt entailed in negative self-evaluation.  Added to this facing up to the inner critic are defusion techniques, such as perspective-taking, designed to create distance from the thoughts by seeing that they are not facts, only “streams of words” or momentary sensations.

Acceptance of thoughts and sensations

Steven explains that “acceptance” in the context of ACT involves acknowledging these negative thoughts as a gift to be explored, not something to be accepted passively or tolerated as if they were true and readily verifiable.  It involves recognising the wisdom embedded in our difficult emotions because they serve to illuminate something that we care about deeply. 

This involves the flexibility to acknowledge the gap between our thoughts and our inner awareness of them and the capacity to take what is useful in those thoughts to motive us to act on them to achieve a positive outcome that we value.   It is about regaining control over our inner world so that we can live our life “with meaning and purpose” – the core theme of Steven’s latest book, A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Towards What Really Matters.

Steven illustrates this acceptance approach by discussing negativity around body image and how to turn this into effective problem solving – rather than being trapped in the unfounded message of the inner critic that relates body weight to ugliness or lack of attractiveness.  He suggests as a starting point to revisit your past to see where the mental connection between body weight and ugliness originated, e.g. it might have had its origins in bullying at school by other students who were jealous of your academic or sporting success.  Following this exploration, you can use one of the many defusion strategies in ACT that can take away the power of this autosuggestion.  Russ Harris, ACT practitioner, provides a great set of defusion strategies in his humorous, illustrated book, The Happiness Trap Pocketbook – a very readable and accessible guidebook for personal change. 

Perspective-taking: a defusion strategy to create space and disempower the inner critic

Steven highly recommends “perspective-taking” as a defusion strategy to enable you to step back from negative thoughts and create enough space to disempower them.   There are many ways to undertake perspective-taking.  Steven describes one process in his interview podcast that he asserts will work even when you lack knowledge of mindfulness, ACT or any other related modality.  The steps he describes are as follows:

  1. Picture yourself struggling with the negative critic you are confronting (with your eyes closed or looking downwards to reduce distractions)
  2. Notice that it is a part of you that is noticing your struggle
  3. Now take that part of yourself that is noticing and tune into your body seeing yourself watching the struggle (you can even tune into the earliest occurrence of these negative thoughts) – in the process show self-compassion towards yourself
  4. Then ask yourself, “Is this person loveable, wholesome or empathetic?’ 
  5. Picture yourself sitting there observing this loveable, wholesome person from a short distance – as in a movie
  6. Imagine remembering 10 years from now how you looked as you struggled with the inner critic – picture yourself sitting in a chair or on the floor still struggling the same way
  7. You can ask yourself then, if you were observing this struggle in this future time, “What words of wisdom would you offer yourself?”
  8. Then bring yourself back to the present by grounding yourself in your body.

In this interaction, your wisdom will emerge, and you can offer yourself encouraging words such as “you can move on”.  According to Steven, research shows that “human intelligence in inherently self-compassionate” – the thought processes above enable you to tap that self-compassion.  He maintains that this form of perspective-taking is itself “very healing”.

Reflection

We can become overwhelmed by our inner critic if we give it free play, without challenge.  So often, we avoid facing up to what is painful.  The Inner MBA, developed by Tami Simon and colleagues, provides one avenue to explore our inner landscape, and defusing strategies offer many ways to break the hold of our inner critic.  Mindfulness practices provide a further avenue for facing up to our negative thoughts and related disabling beliefs.

As we grow in mindfulness through these processes, we can break the hold of the inner critic, gain a truer self-awareness, embrace self-compassion and emerge with a sense of freedom and alignment with our life purpose.

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Image by NickyPe from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): A Specialised Mindfulness Approach

In this blog I have been discussing different approaches to mindfulness and mindfulness meditation that are self-initiated and self-directed in the main.  Some of the approaches to mindfulness discussed entailed the involvement of a teacher or mentor to guide the participant through various forms of meditation.

One such approach is provided by the Power of Awareness Mindfulness Training conducted online by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach.  Even in this course, led by teachers and mentors, there is ample scope for participants to pick and choose what types of meditations and mindfulness practices they will focus on – the choices are not individually focused or directed.

What is different about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT as the name suggests is an approach that provides therapists with a structured approach to mindfulness development for their clients.  This approach is therapist-led with a defined sequence of exercises designed to enable clients to move from the entrapment of destructive thinking to taking effective action guided by their values (committed action).  Colleagues vouch for the fact that ACT often achieves the desired results in therapeutic situations.

ACT aims to enable clients to experience a full, rich and meaningful life that is built on internal and external awareness.  The approach actively discourages ineffective avoidance strategies and encourages acceptance of pain as a natural part of a life that is lived fully.    Just as mindfulness trainers are exhorted to deepen their mindfulness practice, so too ACT therapists are encouraged to practise the ACT approach and exercises to be able to act more consciously and effectively in therapy sessions.

The ACT approach to mindfulness

Mindfulness in the context of ACT is defined by Russ Harris, author of ACT Made Simple, in terms of the quality of paying attention:

Mindfulness means paying attention with flexibility, openness and curiosity.

In this definition, mindfulness is explained in terms of three key elements – awareness through paying attention, an open attitude and flexible attention enabling a narrow or wider focus or a focus on the internal or the external.

ACT incorporates six core processes as part of its therapeutic approach:

  1. Being here now – consciously focusing on the here-and-now, including our inner and outer worlds.  Fundamentally, it is about being present in the moment, rather than lost in thought.
  2. Watch what you are thinking – this involves standing back from your thoughts and observing them in a detached way. It means not entertaining them and being caught up in them as if they are reality.  Mindfulness expert, Kabat-Zinn suggests that we view our thoughts as bubbles in boiling water floating to the surface and bursting.  He provides the liberating idea that “we are not our thoughts” nor should we be captured by the “narratives” in our head.   In ACT, the process of observing our thinking is called “cognitive defusion”.
  3. Accepting and being open to painfulness – Russ Harris describes this process as “making room for painful feelings, sensations, urges, and emotions”.  ACT provides exercises to develop this acceptance.  In our mindfulness discussions, we have offered mindfulness practices such as forgiveness meditation to address this pain and suffering.
  4. Observing yourself – ACT encourages awareness through getting in touch with the “observing self” rather than the “thinking self”.   Russ Harris describes the former as “the aspect of us that is aware of whatever we’re thinking, feeling, sensing or doing in any moment”.  Mindfulness practitioners encourage meditation practices like somatic meditation to develop this awareness.
  5. Knowing what matters – getting in touch with the way we want to be in the world (our values).  Values guide behaviour, give meaning to our lives and facilitate decision making.  Consciousness about our values can enable us to lead our lives with energy and vitality and provide mindful leadership for others.
  6. Doing what it takes – this involves doing what it takes, despite pain and discomfort, to live out our values in daily life (described as “committed action” in ACT).  It requires congruence between our words and actions and a readiness to commit to “valued living”.

ACT is a therapeutic approach that aims to help clients grow in mindfulness in order to lead a life that is richer and more meaningful, while reducing the impact of harmful thoughts and narratives and pain-avoidance.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.