October 28, 2016

Change can be hard and scary. What makes the idea of change so scary? Two words that add up to one big trap: “comfort zone.”

People reside within this invisible zone, and know what to expect while they’re there. People, places, things, events, situations – pretty much everything in our comfort zone – are known to us, and we are able to maintain our sense of security, for the most part. Things might not always be optimal, of course, but small changes can sometimes be made to restore balance within that comfort zone. The best thing about comfort zones is that we know what to expect.

The boundaries of your comfort zone are invisible, and you might not even know what those boundaries are…until they’re challenged. That’s when the discomfort starts. Maybe you start to realize that something isn’t quite working for you. Maybe you know that something has been wrong all along, but you’ve accepted it because you’re still within the boundaries of your comfort zone.

When you realize that you need to change something, the discomfort begins. Why? Because you actually have to step outside your comfort zone for things to change. That’s right, I said it…let me say it again: you actually have to step outside your comfort zone for things to change. I know some of you are shuddering right now, but think about this: if you always stay in your comfort zone, you aren’t actually allowing for change. If you really want to make a change, the first step is understanding where your comfort zone boundaries are and then pushing past them. It’s scary. It’s uncomfortable. It’s necessary for change to occur.

Now think about your comfort zone and your mental health. Maybe you have felt depressed or anxious for so long that you’ve resigned yourself to the fact that you’ll just have to live with it for the rest of your life. I know you might be thinking, “Really? Living with symptoms of mental ill-health is a comfort zone? What’s wrong with you?” but please hear me out. You become so used to living with these symptoms that the thought of asking for help (i.e., stepping outside your comfort zone) may be more frightening than just living with the symptoms. With this in mind, you might actually wait until our symptoms are unbearable to seek help.

There comes a point when increased symptoms of mental ill-health may actually be scarier than the thought of stepping outside your comfort zone and asking for help. However, reaching out for help is the first step. Remember earlier when I said change is both scary and hard? The hard part comes once you’ve found help. Therapists have all sorts of tools that we can give to you, but it’s ultimately up to you to use them. I like to use the following analogy to illustrate that point: Let’s say you start having physical health problems, so you go to the doctor to find out what’s going on. The doctor runs some tests and discovers that you have diabetes. He writes a prescription for insulin. It’s now up to you to take the insulin; the doctor can’t make you take it. Therapy works the same way. You might be experiencing mental health problems, so you go to a therapist. In the same way that a doctor runs tests, the therapist might do some assessments, and is able to give you a diagnosis. He or she then tells you what treatments are suggested for that particular problem and you two decide on a treatment (akin to the prescription written by the doctor). Like the person in the medical analogy, it is up to you to do the work (such as homework assignments tailored to your particular problem) in order for the treatment to be effective; the therapist can’t make you do it.

Yes, change can be hard and scary, but the alternative can be much harder and scarier in the long-run. Once you have made the decision to make changes in your life, reach out for help and make a commitment to reclaiming your life and happiness. It’s worth it.

4 Tips to Help Relieve Your Panic Attack

September 10, 2016

When you are in the grip of a panic attack, it can feel like you are “going crazy.” Things seem surreal and foggy – or even like you are watching them from a distance; you can’t focus; your heart is racing; you feel like you can’t breathe; you feel light-headed, dizzy, and shaky; you’re sweating up a storm; you might even feel like you’re going to die! It’s hard to express to people that you’re having a panic attack, especially if they haven’t experienced one. While other people might have the best intentions, saying things like, “Calm down” or “Take a deep breath” aren’t really helpful and can, in fact, make your symptoms worse. There are several things you can do to help bring you down from a panic attack.

  1. Breathe. No, not the deep breath someone just told you to take. What you want to do is slow your breathing. When things are normal – that is, we aren’t having a panic attack – our body generally gets the oxygen it needs. You’ve heard of “fight, flight, or freeze” responses to danger, right? When we are experiencing a panic attack, our brain perceives that danger is present when it really isn’t. It goes into overdrive to get you ready to fight or flee, and one of the ways it does that is to change your breathing. You end up taking in more oxygen to get ready to fight or flee, but when there really is no danger, this type of breathing is not helpful, and it can send your body into a cycle of perpetual panic. So how do you slow down your breathing and tell your brain that there is no danger? Breathe in normally and breathe out slowly. As you’re exhaling, think of a word that you associate with calmness (the word “calm,” for example), and say that word as you exhale. (You can say it in your head or out loud, depending on your comfort level.) What you want to do is drag the word out through the entire exhale, and once you have exhaled, count to 3 or 4, then take in another normal breath and repeat the process.
  2. Use your 5 senses. When things seem surreal, it’s important to bring yourself back to the here and now, and you can use your 5 senses to do that. Sight: What do you see? What color is it? What shape is it? Focus on anything that you can see and pay attention to the details you observe. Sound: What are you hearing? Is it loud? Soft? Soothing? Obnoxious? Focus on anything that you can hear and try to discern different sounds in your environment. Smell: What are you smelling right now? Car exhaust? Perfume? Food? Does it smell savory? Does it stink to high heaven? Try to pick out several smells in your environment and identify what they are. Taste: What are you tasting right this minute? Is is salty? Sweet? Bitter? Is it some kind of food? Morning breath? Focus on any taste you may be experiencing. Touch: Are you sitting down? What does the chair/couch/etc. feel like underneath you? Are you standing? Imagine actually feeling gravity anchor you to the ground. Touch a surface near you. Is it smooth? Coarse? Slippery? Focus on anything that you can feel with your body (furniture if you’re sitting, the ground if you’re standing, anything you can touch).
  3. Count. And I mean count anything. If you’re outside, count the blades of grass, the number of trees, the number of cars that go by (or narrow them down by color, make, model, etc.), the number of men/women/children that pass by, the number of restaurants or houses. If you’re inside, count carpet fibers, windows, pictures on the wall, the number of individual shoes you have. If you’re a number person, count backwards from 100 by 7s or 3s or any other number you like. The point is, count anything to bring you back to the here and now.
  4. Focus on an object. Similar to counting, this brings you back to the present when things don’t seem real. Find anything you like to focus on, and notice every detail about that thing. Is it big? Small? Drab? Colorful? Square? Round? Frightening? Silly? Make a mental note of every detail you notice about the thing, and then push yourself to notice even more detail. This will help you focus your attention on something and take it off your panic.
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