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.
From blog posts, video logs to headlines news stories, most of us as inundated with stories about “bad” people and how these people affect our lives. The idea of someone or a group of people doing bad things to us can be emotionally triggering, to the point where you can lose yourself playing the role of the victim. You then find other people who can either relate to your story of victim-hood or at least sympathize with you on how you have been victimized.
The problem with this mindset is that, if you are indeed experiencing any degree of victimization at the hands of another person or group of people, you will continue to be victimized until you recognize your role in the story. While it is true that good people from time to time do experience bad experiences and sometimes at the hands of other people, a majority of the time when we have recurring bad experiences it is a result of the role we have unintentionally played in keeping the bad experience alive and well.
The ego can be fragile, it is an instinctual source we turn to, to find a sense of confidence in regards to how we navigate through life. However primary reliance on the ego to get you through challenges in life is a mistake. You need to be able to identify your flaws and weakness and the role they play in your recurring bad experiences or victim-hood, specifically in your relationships with others.
From personal to formal relationships in order to change our daily experiences for the better, we need to recognize the bad things we ourselves do and change them for the better. Seldom can you truly be absolved of all guilt during conflicts with others. In cognitive behavioral therapy, the client is introduced to the standard format of experience + behavioral response = natural and logical consequences. With the behavioral response being the most important variable in that simple equation. This is because, while you cannot control what other people do to you to include other experiences caused by other sources, your response to your experiences determines just how manageable your life is going to be.
In short, worrying too much about what others might do, does nothing to facilitate growth in our lives.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC.
If you suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder, (OCD) and you are experiencing difficulty in getting yourself to adapt healthier behaviors in your life, there are no easy solutions. However, there is a solution, the solution is three part, defining what the problematic behavior is and picking an alternative and healthier behavior, understanding the genesis of the problematic behavior and learning and practicing how to get past your difficult emotions so you can practice your new behavior.
Defining what the problem is.
Let’s say you have a ritual with touching door knobs three times before entering any room. This is a problematic behavior because it is an oddity and people around you are bound to notice. Furthermore, the stressful urge that pushes you to engage in this behavior puts you in an anxious and stressful mood any time you enter any room, especially a room with a person or persons that you are required to engage with. Furthermore, it is also problematic as the obsession with performing this ritual prevents you from being present with others. So it stands to reason that the solution for this problem would be the opposite of what you are doing which would be two part, first that you no longer go through the awkward ritual of touching door knobs three times before you enter any room. Secondly, that you relive yourself from the strong mental urges to engage in such a ritual.
Understanding the Genesis of the problem.
From my experience in treating obsessive compulsive disorders, a commonality is usually a stressful childhood. The sufferer’s childhood was either blatantly abusive, such as physical abuse or covertly abusive, such as emotional abuse. Usually when someone suffering from OCD or any other type of mental health issues insists that they had a great childhood, they often will immediately contradict themselves in reporting on stories and experiences that the average person would consider to be terrible. Regardless, when an adult or child is chronically exposed to a stressful situation for which they lack the cognitive skills to properly address, the consequence that follows is usually the development of some type of mental health illness. Clinical evidence of this can be attributed to a research study where University of Berkeley researches showed that chronic exposure to stress leads to long term changes in the brain which the researches argue predisposes people to mental illness. Regardless, from a place of understanding and forgiveness, it is beneficial to explore any and all past traumas, big and small and understand how they have shaped you and influenced your problematic behaviors.
Practicing how to get past your difficult emotions.
So now you have defined what the problematic behavior is, and you have successfully explored how you came about developing this maladaptive behavior, there remains one major problem. This problem is getting past your strong urges and feelings of anxiety to engage in the problematic behavior in this first place. OCD is the result of brain damage, primarily to the basal ganglia. While biological infections have been known to cause damage to the basal ganglia, a common cause for such a damage would be atypical neurological wiring. Such atypical wiring can be attributed how a person lacking the cognitive skills to deal with a prolonged stressful situation, adapts with unhealthy behaviors which work in the short term.
A good example would be learning to read others for signs of anger, irritation or moodiness. This leads to a belief fallacy that the person can control others based on their astute observations of others and it also leads to an underdevelopment in assertiveness skills, in which the person unintentionally recreates familial stress in their lives by walking on egg shells around others and getting into personal relationships with difficult people. In most cases, people who suffer from OCD report a false feeling of having control over the situation when they engage in their rituals.
Regardless, having become armed with the knowledge of how their daily behavior influences their neurological wiring, most suffers from OCD become motivated towards practicing their alternative and desired behavior in response to emotional urges to engages in old rituals. For best results I would recommend OCD suffers to work with an experienced cognitive behavioral therapist.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC.
We all have them — those days or nights when the brain simply won’t shut up. Round and round it goes, generating worries and destroying your concentration. Called rumination, it’s as though your brain is stuck in gear and overheating. You can learn to help it slow down and cool off, however. To turn off your brain, you must learn to take your focus off the worry.
Practiced regularly, these techniques can help eliminate rumination. Remember, it’s not the worry that’s the problem; it’s the brain latching on like a dog with a bone and chewing it to pieces. To change the process you must interrupt the rumination and turn it off. Two additional strategies are to worry once, then let it go, and to plan instead of worrying.
Stop Worries in Their Tracks
Whenever you catch yourself ruminating, stop the thought. Simply picture the ubiquitous red octagon sign and tell yourself, “Stop!” As soon as the thought stops, tell yourself something reassuring, assertive or self-accepting. You can create a list of these and practice: “I am a competent, confident individual.” “I am in control of my thoughts.” You can also use this technique to worry well but only once. Set a timer and spend 10 to 20 minutes intensively worrying about something or about all your worries at once.
Don’t do anything else, just worry. When the timer alarm sounds, use the stop command. If you’ve identified a worry that needs to be addressed within the next day or two, write it down on your to-do list or calendar. Now, whenever that thought tries to pop up again, you can say “Stop! That worry has been taken care of,” and focus your attention on something else.
Give It a Rest
Just as a machine will wear out if it runs constantly with no maintenance, your brain needs to take a rest from rumination. The ‘turn it off’ strategy allows you to shut down the rumination so your mind can calm down. Sit or lie down with your eyes closed. Imagine that you hold a beautiful vase or decorated container. As each worry comes into your mind, imagine putting it into the container. When you have the container full, imagine closing the lid and put it on a shelf. Now that you have those thoughts neatly packaged, invite a different thought into your mind. If you do this just before bedtime, you can invite a peaceful, pleasant image or thought into your mind as you drift into sleep.
Don’t Worry, Plan
Having a plan can decrease your anxiety and allow your ruminating brain to relax — if you can keep it from thinking of the plan as just something else to worry about. A good plan may need to be tweaked occasionally, but it doesn’t need constant fretting. To make a plan, identify the problem, list possible options to solve it, pick an option and write out a plan of action. Having a plan allows you handle rumination more easily, as you can use it as part of the thought-stopping command. It can also help you break down what seems like an overwhelming problem into small, manageable parts.
Remember, changing habits takes time, and constant rumination is a habit. Don’t be too hard on yourself if it takes weeks or even months. Be patient; you will gain a sense of power and mastery over your own thoughts.
Do you habitually struggle with following through on some tasks and commitments you know you should take on and complete, but can’t? More importantly, do you struggle to understand why you can’t engage in something you know will benefit you but you can’t make sense of it?
You are one of millions of people who struggle with this phenomenon, and the reason for your struggle is low mental energy. Keep in mind that energy comes in all forms, so the energy required to power your coffee maker is radically different from the energy required to power your automobile, with significant overlap. The same situation can be observed with human beings. The energy required to power your physical being is radically different from the energy required for you to engage in cognitive complex tasks that require concentration, specifically tasks that you don’t like doing. This energy is very fragile and for most people exists in low quantities. Ideally, over our lifetime starting from our early life experiences, we learn and employ cognitive strategies towards increasing the resilience and duration of this energy.
This is why people can consume media over long periods of time, engage in physical activities they find satisfying and still come up short when it comes to engaging in needed tasks. The activities they enjoyed required a different type of energy and sometimes a lesser amount of that energy. A concrete example would be someone who spends several minutes a day, typing messages and comments on facebook, but procrastinates when it comes down to typing up a needed report for work. While both activities involved concentration and the physical operation of typing, the first activity stimulated the emotional and social mind, as well as the immediate reward of engagement by social peers online. While the latter stimulated the more analytical mind, with the reward for engagement in this activity being delayed.
The good news is that it is possible to increase your self control, the process involves increasing and improving the sustainability of your energy for self control. In order to accomplish this task, you first have to understand how self control energy is depleted.
Food and Diet.
The food you eat is very important, in these posts, 1, 2, and 3 on anxiety and depression, I discussed how some neurotransmitters are produced in the stomach, primarily serotonin. I also discussed how the quality of these neurotransmitters are influenced by the quality of food we eat. So foods of low quality nutrition, leads to the production of low quality neurotransmitters which leads difficulty in our ability to regulate our moods. Mood swings take up a lot of mental energy, primarily in the areas of concentration. When we experience mood swings we are either constantly focused on maintaining a facade, in order not to damage relationships, or we are focused on recurring conflicts with others, based on how our bad moods influenced us to treat them. Another aspect of food, as it relates to self control energy is that research has shown that people who skip breakfast, were more likely to experience physical and mental exhaustion when compared to those who did not skip breakfast.
Research has suggested that we process the day’s events during our sleep. Specifically, the right and left hemispheres communicate with each other through the corpus callosum in our sleep with each hemisphere sharing with the other their unique perception of the same experiences. Specifically, the right hemisphere processes information from an emotional perspective while the left hemisphere process information from an analytical perspective. Researchers have come to believe that this process promotes learning. I would take it a step further and state that this process is akin to a body builder’s muscle repairing itself after a workout. Suffice to say, lack of sleep or poor sleep reduces learning of daily experiences, which increases the likelihood of the same mistakes being made habitually, which increases stress, which leads to low mental energy.
Beliefs and Values
Our beliefs and values can set us up to either thrive or struggle in our lives. This is because some beliefs help to recharge our mental energies, thereby increasing our ability to exercise self control, while other beliefs deplete our mental energies, thereby decreasing our ability to exercise self control. This is by far the most important variable in regards to self control, because what you believe in and subsequently find value in influences what your priorities, regarding what you choose to focus your mental energies on. So therefore, your beliefs and values can influence your quality for sleep and your diet.
For example, what if you believed that you shouldn’t go through any struggle in life? Or more specifically, you believed that you were not capable or resilient enough to go through any struggle in life and so therefore you shouldn’t go through any struggle in life? If this is a belief you hold unto in any degree, it stands to reason that you will find value in anything that represents an easy life. The end result would be a mindset conditioned to resort to avoidance when challenges present themselves. Which results in chronic under achievement, feelings of low self worth and addictive behaviors to escape such feelings. In the event of addiction, the addiction may overshadow the person’s life, due to low mental energies resulting from lack of discipline in responding to life’s challenges.
Some people may read this and declare that they do not hold unto beliefs and values that are detrimental to their well being. However, ninety percent of the beliefs we act upon are beliefs that exists in our minds beyond our level of consciousness. In most case, a psychotherapist can provide expert help in helping you understand yourself and recognize your true motives.
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.