Monday, March 19, 2018

Challenging Catastrophic Thinking to Reduce Fear and Anxiety

According to Terror Management Theory (TMT), we human beings go out of our way to avoid the reality that we will all, eventually, die.  Much of our everyday anxiety can be traced to this fear and the avoidance behavior that follows.  In fact, you've probably already felt unease by this photo of the famous sculpture, The Kiss of Death, which has a tendency to have mixed responses from viewers who are either drawn to it or repulsed.

Our fear of death can drive us to perform a lot of avoidance behaviors in life.  From avoiding a drive on the street closest to the cemetery, to drinking or using other substances to numb out from the reality that life has limitations and will not go on forever.  A healthier approach to the reality of death is to come to terms with it in a way that allows you to live your life as fully and meaningfully as possible without denying its eventual end.  Extreme avoidance of this reality can lead to delusional, faulty, and catastrophic thinking.

Many of the more common anxieties among humans stem from this typically unconscious fear of death, including the fear of traveling over bridges, the fear of heights, the fear of traffic, and the fear of dangerous animals.  But what really happens when fear takes hold is a faulty thinking style called Catastrophic Thinking.

In Catastrophic Thinking, people tend to leap from a first thought, such as, "What if the bridge collapses?", to a rapid set of thoughts that are unconscious, and which trigger each other like dominoes falling one on the other.  As the fear thoughts are triggered, they eventually end in a catastrophic thought such as, "I'll die", or "I'll be injured or unable to survive", or "I won't be able to handle it, and that  will be the end."

Catastrophic Thinking can be approached with a couple of coping skills.  First, we can practice something called Positive What Ifs, in which we rethink the fear thoughts and trigger a whole new set of feelings.  For instance, we might consider "What if the bridge does not fall?  Then what?"  This question promotes a new set of thoughts that like before, trigger each other like dominoes falling, but the end result is a thought such as, "Well, then I'd just walk across it and go on with my day."

Another approach to tackling Catastrophic Thinking is to use a scaling question in which a scale from 1 to 100 is used to rationalize the thinking.  On the scale, 100 represents the chances that the event will actually happen.  If you are 100% sure an event will happen, then you would rate the fear thought at 100%.  But if you use some rationalizing, then you would first ask questions such as, "If the bridge has been there for years and has never fallen, then the chances of it falling today when I walk over it are about 5% or less."  Realizing the rational helps lower fears and reduce the chance of catastrophic thinking, as well as the anxiety that would follow.

The thing to remember is that our brain is wired to be on the lookout for dangers because we have a survival instinct and fear death, but we can sometimes over-do it with our worry and begin to think our way into fearing death a little too much.  To believe that things are more dangerous than they really are is a form of faulty thinking, but we can reduce or minimize unnecessary faulty thinking by practicing our rational exercises and disputing negative thoughts.

Thanks to feistytortilla for the great photo

Monday, February 19, 2018

Stress and Learned Helplessness: Solutions in the face of Mass Shootings

Since the recent mass shooting in Florida, I am hearing a general sense of hopelessness and helplessness expressed among those I talk to.  There is an expressed feeling that, "It's never going to stop", or "It's just getting worse."  I'm hearing from people the belief that there is nothing that can be done to stop this growing problem or to change things, but these conclusions stem from the belief that we are powerless and helpless over the situation.

The research that was done by Martin Seligman in 1967 on Learned Helplessness taught us that we are capable of believing that we are helpless when, in fact, we are not.  Once this belief sets in, depression can take root as people gather a sense that there is no hope.

What Seligman's research taught us as well, was that once this belief sets in, we can become a bit blind to any actual solution or path that leads out of a seemingly hopeless situation, and the result is that we begin to give up trying to find a path out.

The solution, of course, is to become aware of the open doors and paths that can lead back to a sense of grounding or footing that feels even the slightest empowering, inspiring, and motivating.

When I asked people recently what they themselves could do to try to bring change to the world regarding mass shootings, many felt powerless to find an answer.  It seemed some felt their answer would not be good enough, and others seemed to worry that something might be expected of them if they suggested a possibility.  The sense of powerlessness also resulted in expressed anger that many have directed at various targets.  The NRA.  The politicians.  Child rearing practices.  Men.

These feelings are understandable as each individual tries to sort out for themselves what the problem could be.  It's very human of us to try to identify the problem so we can resolve it somehow.  But if we feel overwhelmed by the problem, and not fully sure of the solution, we may begin to slide into that abyss of helpless feelings that lead to depression and surrender.

One of the keys to this problem for each of us, is to search within ourselves to try to determine what we personally can do to move society as a whole toward a remedy of the problem.  Even if it seems like just one small step onto the path that leads us all toward a solution.  There are small things each of us can do now to try to help.

For one thing, check your own passive-aggressive behavior at home and in the workplace.  Be the non-violent role model you want to see in the world.  In addition, become comfortable with your own sense of human anger so when others express theirs, you don't shut them down or stop listening because you are so uncomfortable with the emotion.  Unheard anger gets stuffed and ends up coming out in ways none of us want to see or experience.

There are lots of people right now making attempts to create change regarding our growing history of mass shootings.  If you are having a hard time coming up with an idea or solution to champion, then get on board with someone elses' project to raise funds for metal detectors, or raise awareness for changing gun laws, or parent-child conflict skills training, all of which move us down the path that does exists for reaching a solution.  Don't assume that someone else will take care of the whole thing or that someone else "should" take care of it for you.  Get involved and be a part of the energy for change.

It's very important to look most strongly in the mirror at yourself and what you personally can do to participate.  From protesting to writing letters, from making a call to making a donation, from writing a blog to volunteering.  There is a path out of this, but it's not something that each of us is helpless to.  It's also not something that only everyone "else" is going to do.  The reality is that you are not helpless.  Each one of us can do something and if everyone of us does something, the whole of our society moves along the path one step at a time towards the solutions that do exist.

Thanks to Brenda Clarke  for her wonderful photo

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Stress Reduction and Hot Springs Mineral Pools

A popular way to relax and unwind is to soak in one of the many natural hot springs pools from around the world.

These thermal springs have water temperatures higher than the air temperature in the surrounding area.  The water has been heated by shallow areas of molten rock.

The water found in these springs contains many different kinds of minerals, which have been found to improve blood circulation.

Soaking in the warm mineral waters can sooth sore muscles, relieve pain, help with skin problems, and reduce joint pain.  All of these combined lead to a more relaxed body and mind.

If you are a resident of Colorado, you are in luck because we have plenty of hot springs in the area.  Here is a list of 30 different springs in the area you can try:  

There are some rules to follow when you visit one of these locations in order to make sure you don't over do it.  First of all, RELAX.  Take your time and remember to go with the full intention of relaxation.  Be sure to take water with you!  Drink water 15 minutes before entering any hot springs pool, and after soaking in limited intervals, drink more water during breaks.

While soaking, practice your mindfulness meditation.  Relax the body, relax the mind.  It's a time to put your worries away and not try to solve life's problems.  Let the warm mineral water heal and re-energize you.  There will be plenty of time to work on life's issues another time.

As they say in the Lion King... "Hakuna Matata"  (No worries).

Thanks to Chi Tranter for the great photo of Snow Monkeys

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Reducing Stress during the Holiday Season

Though they are advertised as the most pleasant seasonal events of the year, the holidays can actually be some of the most stressful times for many people.  Much of the media during these times insists that everyone feel jolly, happy, joyful and thrilled to no end about spending money they don't have in order to satisfy the gift-giving season.  Unfortunately, this expectation is unrealistic for those who find the holidays (and the time of year) depressing and difficult.

That's why self acceptance is very important during the holidays.  If you don't feel all that thrilled about the holidays, you don't have to hide it, but you can find ways to try to make the very best of a time when your emotions are not in alignment with the external world's demands.

First of all, stop to think about what it is you personally need during the holidays.  Is it just relaxation?  Time with your family?  Some kind of traditional event that makes things feel right for you?  Sometimes the holidays get even harder when we feel pulled in all directions by the demands of others who are trying to get their needs met as well.  It's important to find a balance and make sure you are not getting spread too thin.  Saying no to some things is okay, and saying yes to your own needs can be a part of the formula for a good holiday.

Money is always a stressful factor during the holiday season as well.  It's okay to make it clear to others that you need to limit your spending, so be sure to speak up.  Suggesting that the family or office crew draw names to reduce the number of gift spending is always wise and helps reduce financial worries.

If the holidays aren't your thing, try to plan some events that feel more in tune to what you need, be they non-holiday themed movies, concerts, trips, books, socials with friends or just solo getaways that reduce your exposure to the media hype and promotions.

Don't be surprised if there are others out there that feel the same way and would love to get together with you to do something "non-festive".  Check in with some of your friends and family and see if any are up to the task of finding something that can remove you in any small way from triggers that contribute to your depression and stress during this time of year. 

Here are some ideas of things you can do to cope with your stress and anxiety during the holidays:

*Go hiking or snowshoeing which pulls you into nature and away from media hype
*Go see a non-holiday themed movie during the day when crowds are low
*Go for a walk or bike ride where festive decorations and music are not heard
* Limit your spending by announcing to others you plan to give limited gifts this year
*Say no if you need to when others demand you fly or travel to see them for the holidays
*Be sure to share and delegate shopping and other tasks to your spouse or other relatives
*Explain to children you are not made of gold and they can't have everything they want
*Above all, take time to sit down now and then to relax and take a breath.

Thanks to William Brawley for the lovely holiday photo

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Finding Solitude helps Reduce Stress and Anxiety

We can't always get away from this big world for rest and relaxation, but making an effort to find pockets in our schedule for solitude and rejuvenation is key to keeping a balanced life.

"I'll do it after the first of the year," you say, or "when the kids finish school."  But the truth is, those times are always in the future and the need for balanced relaxation in our lives is now.

If you aren't able to find a hut in the middle of nowhere to find peace and quiet, then try for a smaller, more reachable goal.

One woman finally insisted with her family that they must all arranged to cover for her so she could get away to the local Barnes and Noble once a week to sip some coffee and peruse the magazines and books for a couple of hours.  Another asked friends to watch her kids so she could go sit in a hot tub at the local recreation center now and then.  One man began taking that lunch hour he once worked through to go meditate at a facility he'd found in his area.

It doesn't have to be complicated or involve expensive trips away to even more expensive retreats in the mountains, which take time away from work, family, jobs and typically end up being even more stressful.  It's actually the little pockets of time, and little bits of relaxation during our day to day activity that add up to a more balanced life of stress versus relaxation.

Here are a few simple ideas for getting away for short periods of time:

*Find a local park and visit it during your lunch hour to eat or just walk or sit.
*Utilize your own back yard now and then to sit and watch the birds or clouds
*At home, run a hot bath and soak while listening to gentle music and/or using gentle aroma candles
*Go for walks in your area to relax the eyes from all the electronic stimulation
*Go visit your local library on a day when all the kids are in school.  They are fairly quiet places.
*Visit a Day Spa and get a massage in your area

Be creative and remember to listen to yourself.  When you find yourself saying "I'll do it later", you can be sure it's because you think it's too big of a task to get to right now.  Making the task smaller makes it reachable and doable.  You  can't put off your need for relaxation forever.  Your body and mind will eventually catch up with you and the stress by then will take so much longer to correct in order to bring balance to your life.

Thanks to Lain Merchant for the great photos

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Reduce stress: Stop wanting things to be other than what they really are

In the forest, when a hunter fires his or her weapon, the shattering blast explodes in the silence of the gentle trees and streams.  The animals are startled and some stand frozen in place, wondering what danger has entered the boundaries of their otherwise safe and quiet home.

And so it is among us humans when another mass shooting has taken place.  Our modern "forests" are much louder, busier, and hectic; but we freeze all the same when the explosion of danger has entered the arena of what we had taken to be a safe and enjoyable surrounding.

So too, with the newest of public shootings occurring in Las Vegas, we can't help but be like the animals in the forest--startled, hyper vigilant, confused and afraid.

Yet, the reality of these events is something we cannot turn away from.  More than ever it's important for us to look even closer at what the problem could be and what we can do to try to remedy this increasing phenomena--which statistics show is now occurring more frequently and more severely with each new event?

If we are to help put an end to such events in the world, we have to begin within ourselves and deal with the issues festering inside each one of us.  Of the many suggestions that are sure to flood the stage in the aftermath of this event, I start by offering the suggestion that  we each try on this idea:


Look at your own life and ask yourself what things you personally are frustrated with because they just aren't going your way.  The boss "should" act a certain way, and isn't.  The kids "should" be more respectful, and aren't.  The traffic "should" roll more smoothly, and doesn't.  You "should" be getting paid more and fairly, and aren't.  The list is endless.  Whatever it is, you believe it should be going some other way than it is, and if it's not, then frustration sets in.

On a small scale, these are the seedlings of emotion that, when ruminated upon, can lead to violence that is expressed outwardly and into the world where others can get hurt.  If someone wants the world to go a certain way, then when it doesn't, frustration grows into anger, and anger become rage.  When an individual can't control how things are going in life,  they might try to find ways to gain control by any means.  That's why it's important that we teach the children of our society what tolerance is, and not just tolerance for others, but also for disappointments and let downs that are an inevitable part of everyone's life.

Both anxiety and depression can also be reduces with a focus on this task.  To believe that life will never have anxiety or depression is completely unrealistic, but knowing that life will have it's ups and downs, and that when things don't go your way, you can cope without feeding the fire by ruminations that convince you that life should be something other than what it really is at the moment.

Learn what you can "reasonably" change (non-violently), and never ever convince yourself that if you can't have what you want in life (i.e., if life is not going the way you want it to), that you must destroy something to show the world the magnitude of your frustration.

Thanks to jseliger2 for the great photo - frustration

Thursday, September 21, 2017

All Things are Impermanent

The changing seasons are always a good reminder that nothing ever stays the same.  Everything changes.  When it's Summer, you can be sure, it won't be Summer forever; and when it's Winter, you can also be sure, it will eventually change into Spring.  And just as the seasons change, so does everything else.  Including our moods.

When Fall changes come and the days seem shorter as the number of hours of daylight decrease, many people fall victim to bouts of depression.  It's easy to get trapped into the belief that when in a depressed mood, one might never escape.  "I've been like this forever."  "Nothing ever changes it."  "It'll never get better."  But typically, moods change and you realize that episodes of depression don't last forever.  Depressions lift, moods change, and others will replace them in time.

These consistent human changes are true for anxiety as well.  When anxiety surfaces, it can be accompanied by over-generalized thoughts that include word descriptions of "permanence".  Such as, "this feeling will never stop", or "I'm always going to be this way."  They include words such as, "never", "always", "forever" and "never-ending".  But in reality, episodes of anxiety are also not permanent and in time, will change to something else.  When experiencing them, you can ease some of your cognitive suffering by reminding yourself, "This won't last forever", "It's not permanent", and, "This feeling will pass or change", etc.

Learning to sit through the discomfort of seasons (or moods) that are not particularly your favorite, is part of accepting reality as it is.  Does that mean you should never take medication for depression or anxiety?  Not at all.  That would be like saying you should never choose to use a blanket in the winter when the temperatures drop.  Medication, like a blanket, is a matter of choice, and sometimes survival.

The point is, to try not to get trapped in hopeless internal self-talk in which you convince yourself that whatever discomfort you may currently feel will last forever and that you will be a hopeless victim to it.  Just keep in mind that -- like the seasons -- all things change in time.  Including your current mood.

Thanks to Bernard Spragg. NZ for the great photo