One of the primary issues faced by people on the Autism spectrum and those with Asperger syndrome, is coping with feelings of being overwhelmed. These issues often start in childhood, as early as a year old, when children who become easily overwhelmed instinctively react by trying to shield themselves from exposure to excess stimuli. Parents of children on the spectrum can easily relate to stories of children who cover their ears with their hands in response to everyday sounds they perceive as loud and stressful. As the child ages, the coping skills for shielding oneself from excess exposure to environmental stimuli becomes even more subtle but the consequences are the same.
By environmental stimuli, I mean people, places and things which produce overwhelming feelings for the person, causing the person’s desire to retreat to safety until it’s safe again. The consequences are often themed with unfinished work, projects and poorly developed relationships with others. This often leads to unwanted isolation and a lifestyle marked by underachievement.
The solution is easy to understand, challenging to implement and well worth the effort. The solution is to do nothing in response to feelings of being overwhelmed. By doing nothing, you are choosing not to be reactive to your feelings of being overwhelmed, which is to engage in a series of behaviors to prevent yourself from experiencing the emotions you need to experience. Regardless of the specifics of what you do, your being reactive will be an attempt to control, manipulate and/or change your reality to manage your feelings.
Instead, by choosing to do nothing, you are allowing yourself the opportunity to experience the range of emotions you need to feel. Your challenge is to simply accept these emotions for what they are without being reactive. By choosing not to be reactive, you are beginning the process of deactivating your fight or flight response pattern, thereby opening access to your solution focused mind. When people choose to stop responding to their feelings of overwhelm fueled by their fears and worries, they become more insight driven and solution focused.
To the outside observer, who isn’t aware of the changes taken place inside the person, they will often observe someone who is behaving more courageous in their daily affairs. In fact, the person is behaving more courageous, as they are now in the practice of looking past their fears and worries and seeing their issues for the mere inconveniences they really are instead of catastrophes.
In my practice, it is a natural reaction for a client to listen to my take on doing nothing in response to feelings of overwhelm, and then responding with an example of a catastrophe they recently experienced in their life. Often, in processing these incidents with them, it is revealed that said catastrophe began as an inconvenience, which they poorly reacted to, thereby worsening the situation.
Catastrophes do happen in life, whether as an initial incident, or as an incident made worse from an overreaction. Regardless, the most effective response to feelings of being overwhelmed, is to accept the situation for what it is, and accept your feelings for what they are. Once this is achieved, only then can you begin to take a solution focused response.
The process of doing nothing to feelings of overwhelming stress and anxiety, is something that takes quite a bit of effort for a first timer. Specifically, there are evidenced based cognitive behavioral strategies, like the ones found in this CBT workbook, “Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks: A Workbook for Managing Depression and Anxiety,” by Seth J Gillihan PhD.
A person can study and practice these strategies on their own, or with an experienced therapist.
I recently came across an article regarding a neuroscientific intervention for sleep paralysis. What I find fascinating about the article is the heavy reliance of mindfulness and meditation the neuroscientist prescribes for sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis occurs when you find yourself awake but unable to move. This lack of movement can last from several seconds to a few minutes as the sufferers’ experience sheer terror and agony in their inability to move their bodies. In some cases, people who suffer from sleep paralysis also experience hallucinations, most commonly reported is a shadowy presence in the bedroom.
The four steps for regaining control of one’s body during sleep paralysis are:
- Reappraisal of the meaning of the attack
- Psychological and emotional distancing
- Inward focused-attention
- Muscle relaxation
Step 1, “reappraisal of the meaning of the attack” is another way of saying that you should give the attack another label. The idea of waking up from sleep without the ability to move is so terrifying for most people that some sufferers develop extreme anxiety about going to sleep in the first place. For some people they spend the entire experience of their paralysis in a state of fright until they are able to move again. This leads to learned dread and a host of other issues. By relabeling the paralysis, you begin to experience a shift in your perception of what’s going on. For example, if you found yourself in this situation, you could tell yourself that you are experiencing a phenomenon that occurs in 20% of the population and is temporary.
Step 2, “psychological and emotional distancing” means that you should practice adopting an objective view of the situation. Since you have already told yourself that this is something 20% of population already experiences and is temporary, you should readily observe that your feelings of fright and panic are understandable but irrational.
Step 3, “inward focused-attention” this means that you should practice positive thinking. The author of the article recommends focusing on a loved one or a positive event. I would recommend you envisioning yourself getting out of bed and walking about. A mindset that can help with this vision is to inform yourself that while your mind is awake, your brain and your body haven’t yet received the signal to awake and move and are merely playing catch up. So soon you will be out of the bed and walking about.
Step 4, “muscle relaxation” from what clients who have struggled with sleep paralysis have told me, while they may not be able to move, they discover that there are aspects of their body that they can still control, such as their breathing and their ability to flex certain muscle groups. As tempting as it may be, forcing yourself to move only worsens the experience. Instead you are recommended to practice easy breathing and relax your muscles, by doing this you are adopting an attitude of acceptance towards the entire situation, which reduces the likelihood of experiencing a panic attack during the paralysis and shortens the duration of the paralysis.
The more people are able to successfully practice these steps during sleep paralysis, the less dread and anxiety they will have about sleeping, which in all likelihood will reduce the frequencies of the sleep paralysis.
This is the link to the article.
Ugo is a therapistand professional life coach.
“A friend of mine was learning how to swim, when he suddenly felt he was starting to drown. He began splashing wildly about when his instructor told him to stand up. Much to my friend’s relief and embarrassment, he discovered he was okay.”
Anxiety is based on primal fear, and primal fear is based on the idea of not having enough. Not having enough of your basic needs met and perishing before you reach a ripe age, not having not enough social support and being vulnerable, and the list could go on. The point is that when we are struggling with anxiety our mindset operates on the idea of scarcity. When we think from a place of scarcity, we are fearful, we are timid, we are excessively selfish, we are desperate and hurried in our decision making. The mind of the anxious person is irrational, like the story of my friend learning how to swim and pessimistic, picture yourself at noon in the middle of any desert during the summer months with less than a quarter of warm water left in your canteen.
The anxious person does not take any risk, because he operates from a place of what he might lose as opposed to what he might gain. This leads to a self fulfilling prophesy, where like the unfortunate hiker in the middle of the desert, the anxious person is careful about not exerting too much energy, least they might end up losing the little they have left.
By now the answer may have become obvious to you, to rid anxiety visualize yourself having enough of what you need. So once my friend learned that he was in the shallow end, he exercised more courage in his swimming lessons. So in essence, his level of safety was enough. Or you can also practice imaging yourself as a hiker with enough water to last you to the next well or tap.
How the mental practice of visualizing yourself easily getting your needs met, is not enough. This is because people who struggle with anxiety, have experienced anxiety for most of their lives. This means that for most of their lives, their brains have become wired to think in regards to scarcity. So they have become habituated to thinking in regards to timidity, desperation and primitive survival instincts. The good news is that our brains are malleable, meaning that it is never too late to learn new ways of thinking and doing.
There are cognitive behavioral strategies you can learn and implement which would make your practice of visual exercises fruitful. Here’s one, start small. Visualize yourself engaging in a small challenge, which you have passively dreaded due, to your perception of the risk to reward ratio, or your lack of confidence in yourself. Create a plan to follow through with this small challenge in which you create a narrative which consists of the best possible scenario and outcome for this challenge. Then when you are done engage in the challenge.
The mere process of your creating a plan for the challenge, rewires your brain to how you see the situation and increases your motivation to make you overcoming this challenge a reality. It is not uncommon for people to experience some emotional difficulty when practicing this exercise. These are usually due to past traumas. If you are experience difficulty completing this exercise due to difficult feelings you can’t get past, a therapist can help you process these difficult feelings and get you back on track.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and a professional life coach.
It is not uncommon for people to go through a period of difficulty in their lives, in which they find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of anxious thoughts and feelings. They habitually ruminate about what could go wrong in their lives and what is currently going wrong in their lives, with no resolution in sight. A common symptom of this vicious cycle is poor sleep, this is because the brain remains active well into the night ruminating over anxious thoughts, preventing the anxious person from getting a good night’s sleep.
In this post I shall detail a three step process on how to bring an end to your anxious thoughts.
The first step is to write down your anxious thoughts on a piece of paper. This might be problematic since if you have multiple anxious thoughts competing for space in your mind. The solution to this is to start with one thought, usually the most pressing one. By writing down the anxious thoughts on paper, it helps you to put things into proper perspective, and removes the factor of becoming easily overwhelmed.
Now that you have your most pressing anxious thoughts on paper, write down the most realistic worst case scenarios for that anxious thought. It is best to limit your worst case scenarios to three. So take for example, in your place of work, your supervisor just announced that the company will be downsizing, and to make matters more worrisome a few of your coworkers have already been laid off. Your primary anxiety maybe your fear of losing your job. While your worst case scenario may by that you will lose your ability to support yourself and perhaps a family. The problem with ruminating over your fear of losing your job along with your ability to support yourself is that it will negatively affect your ability to fall asleep at night. If you fall into a pattern of getting by on less sleep than you are used to, your cognitive abilities and your body’s ability to produce energy will become impaired. Which may lead to your worst fears coming true due to reduced performance on your job.
The second step is to accept this problem as a part of your reality. Fundamentally this is the most challenging step in the process, as most people have hidden beliefs which dictate that they either “should not” suffer or are “above” suffering. One method of coming to place of acceptance with your situation is to write down on a piece of paper the following statement: “I accept this situation as is, this is my challenge and this is currently where I belong.”
Once you write this statement down, take ten slow breaths, breathing in through your nostrils and slowly exhaling through your mouth. Then pay attention to how you feel about the words you have just written down. If you find yourself still experiencing difficulty coming to a place of peace with these words, then you will probably benefit from working with a therapist to address what your core beliefs about challenges are.
If you find yourself feeling more peaceful with the primary thought which provoked feelings of anxiety for you, then you are ready to benefit from the next step.
Step three is about exploring solutions to your challenges. Notice the language has changed from anxious thoughts to challenges. This change will be seamless in your mind once you come to a place of acceptance about your worrisome thoughts. Now that you have written down your thought along with your worst fears and you have come to accept this as a proper part of your reality, exploring potential solutions is something that occurs spontaneously in your mind. In my professional experience, clients who come to a genuine place of acceptance with the challenges they experience will often come up with reasonable solutions on their own.
For example, reasonable solutions for the possibility of being laid off, is to review your spending habits, cut back on frivolous expenses, while beginning the process of exploring other job opportunities. It is amazing how clear our thinking becomes when we transition from a place of anxiety to a place of genuine calmness. Also, even if you are having a difficult time coming up with some solutions to what you are going through, it is important to remember that there exist people who have experienced the same types of challenges you have experienced before and subsequently found effective solutions to these challenges.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.
I once worked with a client who came into work one day and found himself out of a job. The reason? Two co workers he did not get along with, had fabricated a story about him to their office manager and on a knee jerk, the office manager cleaned out his desk, and had my client greeted by security the following morning.
He was confused about the incident for some time until he received a letter of termination in the mail explaining why he had been terminated. It was only after he hired a lawyer to take his company to task that he was rehired along with an apology letter. What brought my client into my office where his mixed feelings about returning to work, especially since the co workers who had made the false allegations about him where still working for the company.
I began by asking him why he was returning to work for the company, a question he could not answer. I then asked him why he would return to an environment where he was obviously poorly regarded. Obviously poorly regarded because if management was willing to fire him over the words of two people, why would they keep those two persons on staff, after it was discovered that they deliberately given false information?
My client then shot back at me about the need to forgive others and move on with one’s life. No doubt this was an auto pilot response, ingrained into his psyche and reinforced throughout his life. Which led to me have a conversation with my client about the true meaning of forgiveness.
Most people believe that forgiveness is about giving someone who has wronged you in some way shape or form, a “free pass”. Nothing could be further from the truth, forgiveness is about not taking things personal. For example, if I get stung by a bee, it would be silly of me to hold grudges against bees, after all the bee was simply following it’s biological directive in response to a stimulus. My choice to not hold a grudge against bees or the specific hive from which the bee came from, doesn’t mean that I am going to take passive stance towards bees, the next time I come into contact with one again. For example, I would educate myself on how to conduct myself around bees in the future and if I found a nest in my home, I would hire a bee expert to come and remove the nest.
In regards to my fellow human beings, when I encounter people who in some way shape or form visit wrong doing unto me, without provocation, to the best extent possibly, I hold them to account for their actions and terminate any personal relationships I have with them.
Most people will claim to forgive if they believe themselves helpless in being able to hold the person to account for their actions or terminate the relationship for their peace of mind. In the case of my client, he felt tethered to the job, because he was not confident in his ability to find employment elsewhere. While he also felt betrayed by his employers and deeply resentful towards his co workers who lied about him. He desperately wanted to be at a place of peace with the incident, but he was torn inside with his refusal to be honest with himself. Instead of admitting his fear of being unemployed, he tried to convince himself that he should forgive his coworkers, which led him to my office.
Regardless of the types of conflicts we experience, it all comes down to ourselves. How willing are we to be honest with ourselves? How willing are we to engage consistently in the difficult task of practicing self discipline? How willing are we to take adopt to changes in our environment, take on necessary risks and live fearlessly?
The more we live up towards becoming the best version of ourselves, the easier it becomes to let go of grudges and resentments.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.
The most common cause for stress I witness as a therapist is a refusal to adopt to change. Stress itself is not bad. We experience stress when we experience a heightened sense of arousal in response to negative experiences our brains have interpreted as worrisome or a potential threat.
For example, if you are experiencing a bad relationship with a supervisor at work, it is perfectly natural for you to experience stress, in response to your brain seeing this as a potential threat. After all, your supervisor is responsible for rating your performance on the job and in most cases a deciding factor for how long you keep your job. If you are in a position where your job is a sole source of income it is understandable that you may feel threatened if you suspect that your supervisor is not happy with you. If you lose your job, your ability to sustain yourself in regards to your basic needs will become inconvenienced until you find another job.
So what if you find yourself in this position? What do you do? Most people in this position would approach their supervisors and attempt to find out how to remedy the situation. I have counseled with people who have taken this route, only to continue to experience the same negative encounters with their supervisors.
In most cases like these I have dealt with, once the person runs out of options he or she continues to go through a sequence of activities they have traditionally done. Show up for work on time, remain courteous, to co workers and supervisors, address official issues with the supervisor all the while experiencing an emotional breakdown on the inside. In a few cases the person would have made an attempt to find a new job, but after one or two rejection letters they usually give up on this route. All the while, the primary stress-or he or she is experiencing continues unabated.
This post is not meant to discuss work issues per se, it is meant to address why some people deal so poorly with stress. The primary reason? Our beliefs. What we come to believe plays a primary role in how we deal with stress. Our beliefs are like doors to other realities, one belief can open your life up to multiple opportunities, while others can lead to dead ends. So if I were to use the example of an employee experiencing being emotionally stuck as a result of all his strategies to end the problems with his supervisor not working, I would say that the employee is operating on a set of limiting beliefs.
On the surface that belief could be that the current employment he has is the best he can do, and there are no more opportunities out there for him. When people make these statements with me, I dig deeper to learn if this is really what they believe, then the belief changes to people are just refusing to hire. Upon further investigation, once the person comes to realize how irrational this belief is, he later comes to the conclusion that he holds unto the belief that he should not suffer, which has lead him towards playing by a rigid set of rules in his work life and thus, his current situation.
So yes, I am writing in this post, that the common cause for stress is the belief that suffering is intolerable, and therefore should be avoided as often possible. When we come to believe this, we run into dead ends, in our professional and personal relationships. We avoid change because we want to avoid suffering.
Suffering is inevitable, I have found that when clients come to accept and make peace with this fact, they come up with surprisingly simply solutions to the problems they experience.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.
“Deception may give us what we want for the present, but it will always take it away in the end.” -Rachel Hawthone
A morbidly obese client who was working on getting back to a healthier weight, informed me that she only just noticed her obesity a month prior to booking an appointment with me. According to her, while she readily admits that she has always had a weight issue, she informed me that she had no idea that her weight had gotten this out of control.
A teacher who recently received feedback from two of his students. In the feedback, they informed him that his lessons where disorganized, and that he was inconsistent in his punctuality in getting their assignments back to them. This teacher would share with me, how this feedback caught him off guard, especially when other students shared with him that this feedback was accurate. The teacher was caught off guard because he had also prided himself with having very organized lesson plans.
To varying degrees people suffer from the illusion of living their lives as who they believe themselves to be, as opposed who they really are. The primary culprit for this cognitive distortion is our strong desire to feel good about ourselves. Desires to see ourselves in a positive light can subconsciously pull us away from any process of taking accountability. Systems we are aware off which we can use to maintain accountability, such as a weight scales, feedback sheets, daily documentation, etc. can create feelings of negativity in us, which can easily be internalized. People who were raised with the belief system where their self worth was directly correlated with their behavior, are most likely to avoid systems of accountability. If you believe negative or critical feedback means that you are a bad person and you don’t want to feel like a bad person, then why bother? Especially when you could always construct a narrative which you feel good about.
When left unchecked the results of self delusion can be disappointing to devastating, as evidenced from the first two examples above. From the morbidly obese woman, who found herself literally fighting for her life, when she came to a place of acceptance regarding what her health was really like, to the teacher who spent years in a profession stuck on being mediocre. So how does a person protect themselves from becoming self deluded?
The first step is to practice accepting yourself unconditionally. Acceptance of self, is to accept unconditionally, the part of you that is aware or conscious, that is to accept your humanity. You accept your humanity simply because you exist. Your acceptance of your humanity has to be unattached to actions, subsequent accomplishments or failures you experience, you simply accept yourself because you exist.
Acceptance of yourself allows to you to experience negative feelings and not personalize these feelings, instead you come to see feelings are messages. For example, in general positive feelings indicate that there is congruency between what you believe and what you are experiencing and negative feelings indicate that there is a lack of congruency between what you believe and what you are experiencing. Furthermore in other to protect yourself from coming to believing in feelings that communicate false positives and false negatives, you employ systems of accountability, so that you get into the habit of collecting evidence to verify or refute your feelings.
Our ability to deal with negative feelings comes from accepting ourselves unconditionally.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.