Saturday, 23 September 2017

Practical Anxiety Management Techniques.

Practical Anxiety Management Techniques - let's talk about some of the things that you might consider trying in order to feel more in control of your anxiety. We talk about what anxiety actually is, how it works and how you can work on reducing the impact it has on your life in order to promote positive health and wellbeing.

Anxiety is something that can easily make you feel completely out of control. It might start off small, but it has a knack of worming it's way into your life and taking up far more space than it should. It also has a habit of spiralling, catastrophising and making you feel generally awful about even the smallest of things. 

We all need anxiety. It's built into our DNA. Anxiety is a safety mechanism, it tells us not to do certain things because it knows that there might be risk involved that could potentially put us in a dangerous situation, for example, walking out in front of a car. But anxiety can also get a little bit too big for it's boots. It can get good at convincing us that there's danger ahead, when really there isn't. Well, certainly not life threatening danger anyway.

So how do you take control back from your anxiety and start feeling more like you're in the driving seat again? Well it can be really tough and don't get me wrong, it's not an overnight job. Anxiety management takes work and commitment on your part. And it may be that your anxiety continues to live with you, but more in a way that serves you, rather than limits you.

First of all, let's take a minute to look at the physiology of anxiety.

When something triggers anxiety your body kicks your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) into action which sets off the fight or flight response. The sympathetic nervous system is generally an all or nothing response, so when it kicks in it really kicks in.  It sets off  the release of adrenaline and other hormones which increase blood flow to your heart and limbs and increases your heart rate, blood pressure and respiration rate. It also increases sweating, reduces saliva production and diverts blood flow away from digestion which can cause that uneasy feeling in your gut.

Because your body is a clever little bean it, of course, has a system in place to counteract the SNS's fight or flight response - the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS aims to restore order and calm. It's always there to stop the fear response, which means the feelings you experience with anxiety will not continue forever. The two systems can't function at the same time and so activating the PNS ceases the fight or flight response from the SNS. The PNS slows down your heart and respiration rate. It also redirects blood flow away from the limbs and back to your internal organs. It basically has the total opposite effect of the SNS.

The experiences happening in the body when the fight or flight response is triggered can often cause an individual experiencing this to become even more anxious and panicked by the sensations. This can then fuel a vicious cycle of fear which keeps the SNS firing and can make you feel really out of control. And so an important aspect of anxiety management is looking at how you can switch on your PNS in order to reduce your anxiety

So what can you do in an attempt to take control back from your anxiety? Here are three practical techniques to get you going.

Practical Anxiety Management Techniques - My General Life

Breathing is an automatic response, something which requires zero conscious effort. But are you breathing in the most effective way?

Many people actually breathe more shallowly into their upper chest without even realising it. The fact that you're breathing this way can actually induce anxiety, as your body can recognise the shallow breaths and likely increased respiration rate that goes with this as mild hyperventilation, something which comes as part of the fight or flight response from the SNS.

Breathing with the proper use of the diaphragm (also known as diaphragmatic or belly breathing) allows more air into the lower part of the lungs, which means that full oxygen exchange can take place. It also induces the PNS to spring into action and take the control back from the SNS. Because remember, only one of these systems can function at any given time. And so, if you can't do anything else, trying to take control of your breath by retraining yourself to use diaphragmatic breathing is one thing you have within your power to aid you in managing anxiety.

The way to start with altering the way you breathe is to practice at times when you're not in a heightened state of anxiety. Place one hand on your tummy and one hand on your chest. As you begin to inhale through your nose, focus on expanding your stomach as if it were a balloon. You should notice that your stomach moves ever so slightly before your breath actually starts, this movement is what creates the space for your lungs to begin their expansion. You shouldn't be feeling any movement in the hand that's on your chest - this breathing technique is for normal, everyday breathing and the aim isn't to consciously breathe deeply - that's more for relaxation which we'll come onto soon.

Aim to practice belly breathing regularly throughout the day. You could set yourself a goal of trying to practice it every hour, or every other hour, just for a minute or two whilst you're going about your day to day activities. Try not to stop what you're doing in order to practice, as the aim is for breathing into your abdominals to become a natural and automatic way of breathing so that you're actively encouraging the PNS to stay in control.

Practical Anxiety Management Techniques - My General Life

This is not a case of someone telling you to "just relax" because that isn't going to fly. But relaxation, when practised regularly, can be a fantastic tool to have in your anxiety management toolbox for maintaining the function of the PNS over the SNS. But the key is in the practice. Because the more you practice, as with most skills, the more effective you will be at implementing the relaxation when you really need at - at times when you're anxious.

We've already talked in detail about the breath and it's ability to set off the PNS. But the breath is also a great tool for supporting relaxation, as it's something that you will always have with you to use as a focus point. If you want to practice some deeper diaphragmatic breathing, you should notice that after your belly has risen, as you continue to take a deeper breath your chest will then rise slightly as your lungs fill up right to the top.

A relaxation technique that can aid in anxiety management is muscular relaxation. This involves tensing and releasing your muscles in order to physically encourage them to relax. You see, when the SNS is activated, your muscles become tense because they're getting prepared to either fight or run away. If your SNS is running the show for a prolonged period, this tense feeling becomes normalised so you're less likely to notice it. And so actively tensing and releasing individual muscle groups can help you physically feel more relaxed alongside reminding you what it's like not to be tense all the time. You can use this method alongside a body scan, which encourages you to pay attention to how your body is feeling and notice areas that are feeling more tense than usual and could use some physical relaxation.

You may also find that visualisation techniques can help you tap into your PNS as you can visualise being in a safe space that allows your body to recognise that that it not longer needs the SNS to be active. I have gathered up a collection of relaxation spaces over on my Pinterest which might provide some inspiration for visualising a safe haven that you can escape to as you relax.

I can't reiterate enough how important it is to practice. Why not set aside 5-10 minutes each day to dedicate to relaxation? Start at a time when you feel reasonably calm in order to make it easier to begin with and allow you to feel more confident in your technique. Try not to judge yourself if there are occasions when you find it more difficult, but be consistent and keep trying. 

You might find that having someone guide you through the process of relaxation is helpful initially. There's lots of relaxation resources available on Youtube, plus many free apps that you can download. I personally enjoy Calm and Stop, Breathe & Think, both of which have many different relaxation techniques that you can explore in order to find what works for you.

As your practice develops, you can start to try out relaxation alongside your breathing techniques at times when you're more anxious, which will allow opportunity for the relaxation to work it's magic on your PNS and provide some positive feedback and reinforcement. 
Practical Anxiety Management Techniques - My General Life

Graded exposure is a process of gradually introducing yourself to anxiety provoking situations, environments or objects in a gradual, more manageable manner that aims to reduce experiences of overwhelming anxiety.

Many people use avoidance or leaving an anxiety provoking situation as a means of managing, as when the SNS fires up it's about fight or flight, so it's natural to want to remove yourself from the perceived danger. But this doesn't help you work through the anxiety and the reasons you might be experiencing it. This means that the next time you're in that situation or environment you will experience just as much anxiety as you did the previous time.

Remember, the PNS ceases the fight or flight response. Although anxiety and the SNS in itself is a safety mechanism, the PNS is an extra safeguard to prevent the SNS from causing harm or wearing out. This means that no matter how awful you feel, your body isn't going to break as a result of the anxious response and your PNS will kick in at some point in order to protect you.

The purpose of graded exposure is to take gradual steps towards the anxiety provoking situation that allows you to experience just enough anxiety and to remain in the situation for long enough for the anxiety to subside, which it will do because your PNS will kick in. Your body cannot maintain high levels of anxiety for prolonged periods, and so in time, your anxiety level will come down on it's own.

Graded exposure is not an easy out, it requires hard work and determination because as part of the process you do have to face your anxiety head on and ride it out. But it works on breaking down the anxiety, retraining the SNS and PNS response to whatever is triggering it and making the process feel far more manageable than just chucking yourself in at the deep end.

These techniques are by no means an exhaustive list. It's important to explore what works for you and remind yourself that everyone is an individual, so what works for one person might not work for another. Most importantly, treat yourself with compassion, always.

Let's start a conversation:
If you experience anxiety, I'd be really interested to hear what your management techniques are? Why not leave a comment below, or drop me a tweet @_hellojordan?

DISCLAIMER: none of the information in this article is intended to be medical advice and is for information purposes only. It aims to encourage people to take controls of their health and wellbeing and make positive choices around this. If you are struggling, please seek the support of the appropriate professional.

Practical Anxiety Management Techniques - let's talk about some of the things that you might consider trying in order to feel more in control of your anxiety. We talk about what anxiety actually is, how it works and how you can work on reducing the impact it has on your life in order to promote positive health and wellbeing.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Reflection as a Tool for Self Development.

Reflection is a great little tool to help you on your self development journey. In this post I talk a little more about what reflection is, plus the process that comes with it alongside sharing 5 tips to help you utilise reflection more effectively in order to guide your self-development.

Reflection as a tool is something I started using during the very early days of my occupational therapy training. During the process of the degree you’re required to use reflection as a learning process to develop skills and clinical reasoning and to learn from experiences.

Initially I saw it as a necessary evil. I felt like I was, at times, reflecting for the sake of reflecting. And it’s true, I was doing that, particularly in the early days when I would write a reflection on any old thing. At that point, I hadn’t really twigged that the purpose was to reflect on something useful and relevant that would enhance my thinking, learning and benefit my practice. Well that penny did drop eventually, and reflection suddenly became a whole lot more meaningful.

So, what is reflection? Well in an informal sense, it’s something I’m sure we all do on a regular basis. We reflect on our day, reflect on situations and how they might have gone differently, reflect on our behaviour and the behaviour of others. It’s a process of evaluating your experience and learning from it. For me, this kind of reflection is done in my head, or maybe out loud on occasion, but usually in my head.

And then there’s the more formal reflective methods that I would use as part of my professional development. It’s not always written, but it’s usually guided by some form of reflective model and involves drawing in the evidence base in order to ensure that you’re critically analysing your activity against what the evidence reports. There are several reflective models, including Kolb, Gibbs and my personal favourite Borton. The reason I like Borton over the others is because it’s so simple, consisting of just three questions; what, so what and now what.

For me, the simplicity allows for flexibility and honestly, I personally find that far easier when guiding my reflective process than a more complex model like Gibbs. I find that the simplicity also lends itself well to being able to implement reflection whenever I need to, even if it’s just in my own thought processes. But, it’s important to remember that everyone is different and so what works for me might not work for you. I’d recommend, if you’re interested in reflection, that you spend a little time researching the different models out there and considering which one might fit better with your mindset and goals.

So how can reflection help on our self-development journey?

Reflection aids self-awareness. It encourages awareness of our own behaviour and actions, of how we respond and where we’re at in our journey. Self-awareness helps keep you accountable when working towards your goals. It allows you to know where you are, consider where you want or need to be and allows you to start to make positive steps in the right direction. Without self-awareness, you can’t acknowledge where you’re at now and what you feel needs to change. And in order to gain greater self-awareness, you need to reflect.

In the pursuit of self-development, the use of reflection isn’t always going to be pleasant. It might highlight particular circumstances where your actions or attitude didn’t align with where you want them to be. It’s important to be honest with yourself, although that might feel a little uncomfortable, but you have to work through those more negative feelings in a non-judgemental way as part of your journey. The purpose of reflection is to evaluate and then question “now what?”. What will you now do differently in order to ensure that your actions next time align more with your beliefs, values and future goals? And that, ladies and gents, is the start of self-development.

And so, the question is, how do you start to make reflection part of your regular routine?

1. Identify a method of reflection that works for you.

As I mentioned earlier, everyone is different and so in order for reflection to be meaningful it’s important to do a little work around the best method for helping you achieve your goals. Also consider whether you would prefer to reflect in your own head or maybe write it down – go with whatever helps your thought processes the most as ultimately this will be more beneficial when it comes to development.

2. Know your goals.

What is the purpose of your reflection. What are your trying to develop or work towards that would benefit from increased self-awareness and a reflective guide?

3. Set aside time.

Particularly in the beginning. It could be daily, weekly or even monthly depending on your goal and your journey. From experience reflection can easily fall by the wayside if you’re not actively making time for it as part of your regular routine.

4.  Be honest, open and non-judgemental.

If you’re looking to develop and increase self awareness then it’s likely you’re going to get uncomfortable at times. But that’s OK, it’s all part of the process. Allow yourself to be open to change and growth and try your best not to judge yourself. Remember, it’s a journey.

5.  Enjoy the process.

Reflection is all about learning. Through reflection you are growing and inching ever closer to where you want to be. And if that’s not a wonderful thing then I don’t know what is. Like I said, it won’t always be easy, but I’d like to hope that it’ll be worth it in the end.

Let's start a conversation:
Do you intend to bring more reflection into your life? If so I’d love to chat about how you want to go about it – leave your thoughts either in the comments below, or drop me a tweet @_hellojordan

Reflection is a great little tool to help you on your self development journey. In this post I talk a little more about what reflection is, plus the process that comes with it alongside sharing 5 tips to help you utilise reflection more effectively in order to guide your self-development.