We All Need To Practice Emotional First Aid

istock0000179371As a mental health professional, I have found myself spending a lot of time trying to convince people that they need to take care of themselves mentally and emotionally. Meaning, I run into people who are working two jobs, taking care of their family and everyone else around them, but are letting themselves go mentally and are getting sicker and sicker over time.

Or, I meet someone who is obviously not dealing with various issues in their lives, probably hoping that ignoring them will make them go away, but all the while they are growing emotionally unhealthy.

It reminds me of when a parent would bring a child in to see me for therapy and it would become apparent pretty quickly that it’s the parent that needs therapy, not the the child. Many times the parent would like at me as if I was crazy. They couldn’t see that their own neurotic behavior, substance abuse or even past childhood issues are creating the “problem” they are prescribing to their child.

It’s easy to tell when someone is physically not doing well, but it’s not always easy to tell when someone isn’t mentally doing well, especially when it comes to everyday things like anxiety, depression and self-esteem. Things we all deal with from time to time.

I have a sister who at one point was working a very demanding job, raising a challenging teenager on her own,  volunteering her sparse free time to multiple organizations and if that wasn’t enough, she was trying to help every friend that called and needed something from her.

On the outside she looked ambitious, energetic, like a true type A-personality. On the inside she was feeling overwhelmed, flustered and fragile.

One night, while having dinner with our family which should have been relaxing, seemingly out of the blue she had what some would call a nervous breakdown. She started crying, hyperventilating and felt as though she was going to lose control of her mind. I could look at her and tell she was having a classic panic attack, but she was too far gone to hear me and was convinced she needed medical attention.

Soon afterwards she was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and was told to cut back on the million and one things she did in her day to day life to take care of other people and to start taking care of her own mental health, something many of us don’t do enough of.

Sometimes I even catch myself too caught up in work, life and everything else and before I realize it I am dealing with some type of anxiety, insecurity or dysthmia. I have to slow down, stop myself and figure out a) where is it coming from and b) how do I take care of it. Often times for me the solution is simple awareness and acknowledgement that something is bothering me. Other times it takes journaling, reading something inspirational or processing my feelings with someone I trust. I’m usually that person for everyone, but sometimes I need someone to be that person for me.

It doesn’t always have to be something major and it doesn’t always take a therapist, but sometimes it does. Sometimes it’s simple mindfulness, meditation, or getting out and having some fun, but many of us have no real idea of what it means to administer emotional first aid to ourselves which is why I included this Ted Talk by Guy Winch: Why We All Need To Practice Emotional First Aid

Defeat Unpleasant Thoughts By Ignoring Them

iStock_000009024892XSmall-300x240I recently read an article on psychologytoday.com entitled Why Our Thoughts Are Not Real. This wasn’t the first time I had read an article that talked about the fallaciousness of our thoughts and how we often misinterpret the information our thoughts give us.

Everyday we are filled with thousands of thoughts, most of them aren’t even real, but we assume and act on them as if they are real and that is what causes us to have many of the feelings and behaviors we have that cause us so much strife.

Our thoughts on their own are just thoughts, they don’t exist in reality, you can’t touch them and they really aren’t anything at all until we make them real by engaging in, dwelling on and trying to do something about them.

I try to explain this a lot when I work with clients dealing with anxiety. They will have a thought pop into their head, such as “I don’t think my shirt matches my pants today and everyone is going to notice and I am going to be walking around looking like a fool and people will be laughing behind my back.”

Consciously the client didn’t chose to have this thought, it just popped into her head and if she ignores it for a while, it will likely fade away and she will forget she even had that thought, but what most people do, especially people with anxiety, we try to do something to get rid of the thought which causes us to pay more attention to the thought which causes the thought to become more real and anxiety provoking.

The person in this case is then more likely to continue wondering if she looks stupid, may go look in the mirror and start scrutinizing her attire even more and may go to a coworker asking “do I look stupid in this” and may feel relieved when the co-worker says “No, you look fine” or may create even more anxiety by saying that her coworker is just too nice to hurt her feelings.

Whatever the case, the point is that because she is thinking about the thought, that isn’t even real, she is making it more and more real and creating more and more anxiety, when if she would have just let the thought enter her brain, allow herself to not do anything about it, including thinking about it, the thought most likely would have left her awareness and she would have went on with her day without being overly conscious about her attire.

When we start given our thoughts attention, that’s when they start to feel real and start to have some control over us because we typically want to do something about it. People with anxiety generally create more anxiety because they attend too much to their anxious thoughts and generally try to get rid of it, by doing something which causes even more anxiety, similar to someone with obsessive compulsive disorder. The same goes for people suffering from depression. They may have the unreal thought “no body likes me” and so they withdraw from people and when they find themselves alone use that as further proof that “no body likes me”.

When it comes to anxiety, I had a client who suffered with anxiety and her boyfriend would break up with her almost every week. When he would break up with her she would have the thought, “If he leaves me I will be alone and miserable for the rest of my life”, that thought would cause her to panic and she would call and text him repeatedly. He wouldn’t respond which would amplify that thought and her anxiety so she would jump in her car and drive fast and recklessly to his house where she would pound on the door and cry until he opened it and they reconciled.

Later she would always be depressed by the frantic and pathetic way she responded, yet the next week she would do it all over again.

I had to help her learn to just sit with her thoughts and feelings and do nothing about them, even though she felt like she needed to. It was hard for her not to call, text and drive to go see him the first few times we worked on this, her anxiety was through the roof,  but when she finally allowed herself to sit with the anxiety, to try to not think about it, she was surprised that after about 20 minutes, the anxiety went from a level 10 to about a 2. It would come back when she thought about it and we had to work on letting it go again, and once again her anxiety would go back down without her doing absolutely anything except not giving it life by attending to it and trying to do something about it.

After a few sessions she was able to sit with her anxiety and not have it cause her whole world to stop or spin out of control and with that, her self-confidence increased and she was able to handle her situations a lot better, without panic, but with a clear level head.

I think this is something we can all practice. Remember that our thoughts are not real until we breathe life until them, and especially when it comes to an uncomfortable thought, sometimes doing nothing about it, including not thinking about it, will allow it to leave our consciousness and fade into nothingness instead of causing us to feel and do erratic and irrational things.

Distraction is a good tool to use when it comes to this. Instead of thinking about the thought, do something to distract yourself. I do it all the time and with practice it becomes really simple. Usually in about five minutes whatever the thought was causing the anxiety, sadness, or whatever, will fade from my consciousness and not have crippled my day or caused me a great deal of distress. This is a simple solution that can help us all live happier, more fulfilled lives.