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How to Cope with Intrusive Thoughts

How to Cope with Intrusive Thoughts

Do you know those thoughts that randomly pop into your head and drag you down a rabbit hole? Or those images that flash in your mind? They seem to come automatically and can fill you up with anxiety. Even now as I write about this experience I feel almost overwhelmed. In the therapy world, we refer to these unwanted and distressing thoughts and images as intrusive thoughts.

You can think of intrusive thoughts as random scraps of paper that don’t really have a place to go but your brain tries to file them away. These random scraps have no meaning but your brain tries to stick them somewhere. What makes them distressing is the sense we try to make of them, the meanings we attach, and the fact that these thoughts (and images) tend to stick in our minds. They stick because they’re often fantasies or thoughts about things we find unacceptable and fear we might act on.

Here are some quick tips to cope with these intrusive thoughts:

  1. Allow yourself to have them. Remind yourself that they’re thoughts, not facts. If you think or see an image in your head, but don’t really plan to act on it, that’s completely normal. It’s not harmful, and not something to worry about. Remember that these are automatic thoughts, so it’s outside of your control whether they happen or not. It might be helpful to try to label the thought as intrusive and then carry on with your day.
  2. Check the facts. Ask yourself how likely it is you will act on this thought. (Disclaimer: If you think you might harm yourself or someone else, it’s important to check in with a medical professional for support. You can access a distress helpline or the local emergency room for that immediate support).
  3. Start a mindfulness practice. This will help you notice and let go of intrusive thoughts.
  4. Keep going! Try to continue whatever activity you were previously doing and allow yourself to move on from the thought.

Intrusive thoughts are common. If they start to feel unmanageable, then it could be an indication of an underlying mental health concern, such as anxiety, OCD, and PTSD, to name a few. It’s important to check with your doctor if you’re feeling highly distressed by these thoughts and images.

Strategies for Coping With Panic Attacks

Strategies for Coping With Panic Attacks

Have you been in class and started to notice your heart rate beating faster? Your palms start to get sweaty and you begin feeling dizzy. You’re grasping for air and it feels like you can’t move or breath. You feel like you’re going to pass out and try to figure out what’s going on. You might think you’re having a heart attack and call 911.

Panic attacks are quite common. Did you know that 1 million Canadians experience panic attacks each year? Thus, if you can relate, you’re definitely not alone! Ever wonder why our bodies are reacting in such a way? Let’s break it down.

As human beings we all experience different degrees of stress at times, however we have a limit on the amount of stress each of us can handle. In psychology, we often use the term “somatization” to refer to the body-mind connection. Metaphorically, we can think of it like a kettle. When we think about stress we can think of it as though it is water we are pouring into the kettle.  This could be any form of stress including psychological stress (repressed emotions/thoughts), stress from transitions/moving, stress from the demands of our work, relationship stress, responsibilities of being a parent etc. Some of us might have smaller kettle, middle size kettles or larger kettles. These kettles represent something we call our “distress tolerance”. Thus, some of us can handle more stress than other (having larger kettle), however again we all have our limits. When our kettles are filled with water, it begins to pore over, leading our bodies to send the message that we can’t handle anymore stress. This can take the form of a panic attack. Alternative ways our bodies can send this message if through the development of somatic symptoms (i.e. getting headaches, stomach aches, pain in our body), or perhaps we might snap more easily at our friend or partner.

An example to illustrate the body-mind connection and how it functions would be the following: let’s say you’re at work and have a headache. We’re working on a project and all of sudden your boss comes over and says, “by the way that project is due tomorrow morning”. Typically, what’s going to happen is that pre-existing headache will amplify. Essentially, we just poured a bunch of water into the kettle and now that pre-existing somatic symptom (our headache) will enlarge. Now let’s say we have a friend who’s our co-worker near by and he turns over and says “why would he ask you to do that, that’s just not feasible to get that done so fast; you must be so stressed and anxious”. Essentially, we have a friend providing us emotional support and giving us validation on our experience. We can turn to this co-worker and externalize what we’re feeling, perhaps restating how anxious and stress we are. Typically what will happen is that headache that amplified will mitigate after speaking with our co-worker.

This example illustrates the function of our body-mind connection. Stress can amplify pre-existing symptoms or create symptoms all together including the development of a panic attack.

In order to pour out some of the water from the kettle when it is getting full, here are some practical strategies to help mitigate stress:

1)   Call a Friend or Family Member: By talking with a family member or friend we can externalize how we’re feeling and get emotional support. Referring to the example above, this can be a great way to pour out some water after feeling validated.

2)    Journal: We can write down what we’re feeling as another way to externalize our emotions.

3)   Name Our Emotions Out Loud: We can say out loud what emotions we are feeling to ourselves as another way to externalize them.

4)   Do Self-Care Activities: We could go running or do a physical activity.

5)   Sensory-Motor Psychotherapy: If we go to the gym and take a medicine ball, we can picture within this ball all of our stress/anxiety or other emotions we might be feeling. Then we can throw the ball down as hard as we can as a way to externalize our feelings by releasing/throwing them away.

6)   Use a Stress Ball Similar to the example above, we can take a stress ball and picture all of our emotions inside of it and squeeze it as though we are mitigating our emotions.

7)   Art: We can draw, paint, sculpture or do any form of art to express our emotions and what we are feeling

8)   Music and Dance: We can also use music and dance as other forms of expression.

How to Overcome Your Fear of Flying

How to Overcome Your Fear of Flying

With age, I have become increasingly fearful of flying.

If, like me, you are determined to not let your fear of flying get in the way of your travelling goals, here are some tips and facts that can help alleviate your stress:

In clinical terms, this is described as a phobia, which is an irrational but intense fear or aversion. Flying phobias can be perpetuated by many factors, including claustrophobia, fear of having a panic attack on a plane, fear of heights, fear of a plane crash, terrorist hijackings, or panic at the idea that you don’t have control of the aircraft that’s carrying you.

1. Breathe.

As anxiety increases, breathing can become shallow and breaths can shorten, which perpetuates panic. Deep breathing and mindfulness strategies can be an instant stress reliever. Of course, it’s important to practice mindful breathing beforehand while still on the ground. A meditation app can be very useful for this.

2. Know the Facts.

Knowledge is power. Air travel is the safest mode of transportation. In fact, you are more likely to be struck by lightning than get into a plane crash. It’s important to have the facts to challenge your assumptions. Speak to a pilot and learn about the mechanics of a flight.

  • According to a study at Harvard University, the chances of dying in a car crash is 1 in 5,000 and in a plane crash, it’s 1 in 11,000.
  • Most aviation incidents are not fatal. The National Transportation Safety Board estimates that 95% of people survive after aircraft accidents.
  • Commercial Aircrafts go through extensive testing before they’re sold to airlines. Airlines want planes to fly safely just as much as you do. If they don’t, nobody will buy them.
  • Turbulence is safe and natural! It’s just a plane gliding into an air pocket. If you want to avoid turbulence, try booking flights early morning or close to sunset when the sun isn’t heating the earth’s surface and creating a less stable atmosphere.

3. Small popcorn, please!

It can be helpful to distract yourself while feeling anxious on a flight. Listen to a movie, podcast, or read a captivating book. Immerse yourself in an enjoyable activity.

4. Stay hydrated.

Although the idea of a cocktail or a glass of wine can be appealing on a flight, try to stay away from alcoholic beverages and stick to hydrating liquids. Alcohol can worsen your anxiety and make you feel unsettled.

5. Talk to a professional.

If you have a flying phobia, it can be helpful to seek professional help around 2-6 weeks before your flight. You can then create a “cheat sheet” with your therapist and bring it on the flight to remind you of your coping strategies or “self statements.”

I hope you find these tips helpful before your next journey. Repeated exposure with helpful coping strategies is a key ingredient in making a phobia become more manageable.

Bon Voyage!

6 Ways To Stop Your Brain From Overthinking

6 Ways To Stop Your Brain From Overthinking

Believe me, I know all too well how it feels to go into monkey-mind mode. You know, those times when you literally cannot get out of your head and it feels like you are spiraling deep into a rabbit hole.

How do we stop overthinking? Here are my top 6 go-to strategies for overthinking, that I use to loosen the grip my thoughts have and help get me back into the present moment.

1. The 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique.  

Being able to connect yourself back into your body is important to do when you notice yourself getting stuck in your head. When you are thinking, you are no longer in the present moment. A great mindfulness technique to help you reconnect to the present moment is by using all of the 5 senses of your human body. You can do this simply by:

Naming 5 things you can see.

Naming 4 things you can feel.

Naming 3 things you can hear.

Naming 2 things you can smell.

Naming 1 thing you can taste.

2. Deep Breathing.

Deep breathing is another helpful tool to combat anxious thinking. As soon as you become aware that you are stuck in your head, take 3 conscious deep belly breaths. I love this one especially because you literally cannot think and take a deep inhale at the same time! It’s also a simple strategy for overthinking that you can do anywhere.

3. Worry time

How do we better manage worrying? A helpful technique for worrying is to give yourself a boundary for worrying and only allow yourself to worry during a specific time. Set a timer for 5 minutes and use this time to think, worry, and analyze. Then set another timer for 10 minutes and use this time to write down on a piece of paper all the things that stress you out and give you anxiety. When the timer goes off, rip up the piece of paper and do something pleasurable for yourself. This is a very helpful strategy for managing overanalyzing.

4. Write a Gratitude List.

Sometimes when I get into an over-thinking mode I spend so much of my time and energy focusing on the negative. I find taking the time to reflect on the things that are actually going ‘right’ in my life as a great way to re-shift my focus in the moment to more loving thoughts.

5. The STOP Technique.

This one is one of my personal favorite strategies to help me combat my negative thoughts, especially the ones that lead me spiralling. What I do when I notice I’m totally in my head (and after I make sure no one is around) is literally yell as loud as I can, “STOP!” This is a great way to release some tension and reset yourself. A modification to this one (especially if you are around others) is to imagine a humongous STOP sign and use that imagery to anchor yourself back into the present moment.

6. Mirror Talk.

When you notice you are battling with yourself in your head, turn to a mirror and have a conversation with yourself, preferably out loud. I do this when I am especially critical or angry with myself. There is something about looking into the mirror directly into my eyes and telling myself exactly how I feel, that allows me to access the loving-kind part of me. I almost always end my mirror talks with a heart-to-heart conversation with myself, leaving me feeling really nourished.

Try experimenting with these techniques and see which ones resonate with you the most. We’d love to learn what you notice. We’d also love to hear some of the strategies that you use!

How to De-Stress Student Life

How to De-Stress Student Life

You complete your exams, hand in all of your assignments and then just like that the break is over and a new semester has begun. As a student, it can be difficult to manage the demands of school with work, family, friends, etc. Here are 5 tips to feel less overwhelmed as a student..

1. Know the signs

Many of us know when we have too much on our plate and we are feeling stretched too thin or “not like ourselves.” Warning signs that you’re overwhelmed may include:

  • Irritability and moodiness
  • Anxiety and/or panic attacks
  • Problem sleeping
  • Loss of Motivation/Lack of Energy
  • Loss of focus/concentration
  • Drinking too much, smoking, overeating, or using drugs to self medicate
  • Physical symptoms such as headache, chest pain, stomach problems

2. Find a Balance

It may seem that between all the readings, assignments, tests, quizzes, discussions, classes and studying, you couldn’t possibly have time for anything else. The thing is, it’s important to have a life/school balance. Believe it or not, it is essential for optimal academic functioning. Focusing primarily on academics and neglecting other factors such as sleep, exercise, eating a balanced diet, socializing with friends, etc. can actually lead to a decline not only in academic performance but overall health and wellbeing. Don’t feel guilty about getting lost in a series on Netflix for a while—time for yourself is important. It’s all about balance!

3. Use School Resources

Use your school resources. For example, if you find yourself wondering where to start, learning strategists can help you learn to manage time and address procrastination issues and stress. For some students transitioning from high school or having difficulty keeping up, they can help you develop new strategies, including active studying, reading and note-taking, and exam preparation, improve your research, writing, and presentation skills.

Join a study group! You are not the only one looking for support. Forming an informal study group or joining your school’s Recognized Study Groups (RSGs) can help you connect socially with other students, increase understanding of course material, compare class notes and prepare for tests and exams in a supportive, collaborative environment.

4. Seek Support

Sometimes feeling overwhelmed means something more. Often times, admitting you need help and then seeking the support can be a difficult task. If you are dealing with a disability that is causing barriers to your academic success, find out if your school offers Accessibility Services.  Accessibility Services can support students with a permanent or temporary disability (such as ADHD, ASD, learning disabilities, and/or mental illness) navigate their disability and related barriers, provide appropriate accommodations, facilitate peer support and interactions, and provide various academic and social opportunities.

5. Enjoy yourself!

Have fun! This time will fly by so fast and be over before you know it. Take in the whole experience. Get involved with some clubs on campus, attend social events, and get involved with the school community. This is the time to learn new things both in and out of the classroom.

How to Stay Grounded When You’re Feeling Anxious

How to Stay Grounded When You’re Feeling Anxious

Do you feel overwhelmed juggling school, work and personal life? Perhaps you’re in class and instead of listening, you’re thinking about all the tasks you need to get done for the day including finishing your assignment, studying for your exam, doing laundry, going grocery shopping or squeezing in time to talk to a friend. Do you ever have racing thoughts about how you’re going to get everything done? Think that it’s impossible to finish everything? You may stop paying attention in class, feel your heart beating faster and your palms getting sweaty. It can feel as though your world is closing in.

If you can relate to feeling stressed out about all the demands of life, you’re not alone!

Living in an up-pace society, we are often placed with multiple demands, which can easily make us feel overwhelmed. In turn, this can make it more difficult to be able to focus and concentrate, making getting everything we need to get done for the day that much harder.

Our minds are often racing between thinking about the past or the future. We rarely stop to be present in the moment. If we can begin to learn to center ourselves back to the here and now, we can reduce anxiety and increase concentration by putting the breaks on in our brain.

Here are 10 some simple, easy grounding techniques, which can help to reduce anxiety when we notice it creeping up.

  1. 5-4-3-2-1: Look around the room and name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.
  2. Box breathing: Picture a box in front of you. As you move up the side of the box, take a deep breath in for 4 seconds. Next as you move along the top of the box, hold your breath for 4 seconds. Then as you move down the other side of the box, breath out for 4 seconds, and finally as you run along the bottom of the box hold for 4 seconds. Repeat.
  3. Mindful eating: Take a raisin or other piece of food. Examine it. What does it look like? How does it smell? How does it feel? Slowly begin to chew it. How does it taste?
  4. Counting backward: You can do this several ways, my personal favourite is to count backwards by 7 starting from 100.
  5. Ice cube technique: Take an ice cube and move it along your arm. Notice the temperature, if it melts, how it feels, and what it looks like- again, tap into your 5 senses.
  6. Teddy bear technique (for children): Lie on your back and place a teddy bear on your belly. As you take deep breaths in and out, watch the teddy bear move up and down with each inhale and exhale.
  7. Progressive muscle relaxation: Start with your right hand in a relaxed state. Slowly begin to clench your hand. Notice the tension as you begin to do this, as you transition your hand from a relaxed state into a fist. Next, slowly begin unclenching your hand back into a relaxed state, again noticing the difference in tension. Repeat these steps with your left hand and then move along to other body parts such as your foot or leg.
  8. Naming colors: Name everything in the room that is blue. Now name everything in the room that is red. Now everything in the room that is yellow, etc.
  9. Mindful walking: As you walk, notice the weight of each foot on the ground and how your weight changes as you take each step. If you are outside, notice if it is sunny, hot, cold or rainy. If it’s sunny, notice how the sun feels on your skin. Notice if you can hear cars passing or birds chirping.
  10. Monitoring your heartbeat: Place your fingertips together from both of your hands. Notice your pulse in your fingertips and pay attention to the rhythm of your heartbeat.