things I learned in therapy

I spent about a year and a half getting my anxiety and co-dependency issues under control. To this day, I am still “practicing” the things I’ve learned, trying to turn positive thinking into a life-long habit.

1. Know your triggers
A time of day, a time of month, when I’m very tired and just need a good night’s sleep… sometimes my anxiety or stress is actually just caused by one of these triggers, and once they are gone, so is the problem. You can’t always help the fact that you’re PMSing, or that you still have an hour until bedtime, but you can remind yourself that this is a trigger time, and that’s all it is.

Half of the challenge of anxiety is being able to tell yourself that everything will be ok, and believe yourself!

2. Stay busy (or know your need for downtime)
This goes along with knowing your triggers. If I don’t have a busy schedule, I get restless, bored, and depressed. I gotta have a reason to get up and get going, or I linger in bed or on the couch, and before you know it, I’m in a funk.

3. Get some perspective
Our personal problems always seem smaller when we get out of our heads and little bubbles. Sometimes it just means taking a day hanging out with family or friends. Other times, for me, it has meant packing a suitcase and leaving the state or country. It can also be reading a book that makes you realize that you don’t have it so bad. (I just read a great book, for example, about an expat working with Chinese orphans. Talk about realizing how good you have it!)

4. Work on personal goals
If part of your problem is codependency (which mine was), and even if it’s not, focus on goals that you can work on and realize. Fostering was one of mine, and boy did it change my life! Learning a language provided me with a great goal, as I met lots of new people through classes and had a lot of reading/writing material to distract me. Home projects, yard projects, fitness goals… whatever you love, whatever motivates you, is what you should be focusing on!

5. Escape
When you’re in one of those “trigger zones”, and you can’t get out at the moment, distraction is important! Taking a walk (exercise changes the chemicals in your body), escaping into a movie, book, or TV show… whatever you have to do. I spent hours in bed watching Game of Thrones when I was grieving the loss of my daughter and couldn’t sleep any more. It was an ok and appropriate way to escape at that time.

6. “This too shall pass”
Remind yourself of all that you’ve been through before, things you thought you couldn’t get through. Or just remember that you’re having a bad day, a bad afternoon, whatever it is. And that’s all it is.

7. It’s ok to feel this way
Treat your emotions with some respect. Feeling angry because someone cheated on you, for example, is ok! You should feel angry, and you should validate the part of yourself that is hurting. You should write about it (NOT email it to the person, just write it down), listen to angry music, punch a pillow, get in your car and scream, cry for a while, or whatever helps that emotion come out. Talk to someone else who has been through it. Same goes for grieving, for frustration, feelings of loss, feelings of worry. So many of us look at these emotions as wrong or inappropriate. They aren’t! It’s when the feelings control you, and dictate your actions, that you have a problem. It’s when you get used to these feelings and start seeking them out, that you have an even bigger problem. The point here is that you shouldn’t ignore the feelings, nor crucify yourself for feeling them. Like a cloud, let them pass over the sun for a time. Let them be. But don’t let them get you into situations that you will regret, such as yelling mean things at someone, getting into trouble with substances or the law, or making a fool out of yourself at work or in public. Emotions of any kind are ok, but they are private. Choose only those closest to you who don’t judge and who are impartial to the situation to share your most extreme emotions with. And look to some of these other points, such as escape, getting perspective, and focusing on goals, to help you deal with these emotions in the long-term. If the emotion is really extreme, such as grief over a loss, you may need to take some time each day to express the emotion. Putting on songs that make you feel deeply, and letting myself cry, is what I like to do.

8. Make gratitude a habit
A lot us pause to think about the good things in our lives every once in a while. But it’s important to make gratitude an actual daily habit, so that as soon as a dark or anxious mood descends, your mind automatically shifts into thoughts of what is going right, instead of what is going wrong. It doesn’t come naturally for most of us, and it takes years of forcing yourself to think this way before it starts becoming automatic. Sometimes everything really IS going wrong, and the best you can do is think, “well, I’m not in any physical, bodily harm right now” or “I still have a job” or “I am not dying of cancer, neither is anyone else I know, right now” or whatever. Eventually you find yourself automatically thinking about how lucky you are, all the time, to have the good things in your life that you have, rather than focusing on what is currently wrong or upsetting.

9. Act, don’t react
I still struggle with this one. It’s important not to say/text/email anything when you’re upset! If there’s a rolling ball of nerves, or anger, or sadness, or whatever in your stomach, you need to take time and do some self-care before you delve into conflict with anyone else. This is easier said than done! Sometimes you’re so upset that you can’t even imagine not telling that other person to go f*#& themselves, but if you just wait for the moment (or moments) of extreme irritation to pass before you do anything, you won’t regret it, and you’ll probably have prevented extra conflict, not mention the things you might’ve said that you didn’t really mean (or want to say outloud).

10. Surround yourself with the right people (or situations)
You might love someone dearly, but being around them makes you constantly anxious, or tearful, or upset. This person is a trigger, and it’s best to keep them at a distance. No one follows this advice until they’ve been down this road a few times, but once you’ve eliminated these types of people from your daily life, it’s amazing the space that is opened up for people who fill you with peace and comfort. You had no room in your life for these people before, because the one or two people who caused chaos were taking up so much space. When you have friends or loved ones who center you, make you like yourself when you’re around them, or who fill you with a sense of calm and comfort, keep them close to you and fill your life with them. Be on the look out for the types of people who make you feel nervous, uncomfortable, insecure, or upset. The feeling might be familiar, and that might be comforting, which is why you’re drawn to this person in the first place. But now you know better, so you can do better… keep your distance, and keep your sanity.

11. Seek help when you need help
There’s no shame in seeing a therapist, or switching therapists 100 times until you find the right one, or taking (prescribed) medication, in order to start feeling better. Situations that seem impossible to navigate are not impossible, but they certainly can be complicated and difficult to extricate yourself from. Family and friends don’t always understand your struggles with anxiety or codependency, but the right therapist can feel like an ally and a resource. They can point out books and programs that will give you strength. They can inspire you and hold you accountable. And medication can take the edge off of your frayed nerves. No one can take control of their lives when they are suffering from debilitating panic attacks or mind-numbing depression. These are conditions that can benefit most quickly and easily from professional help.

Since “graduating” from therapy, I continue to take stock of what I learned, not only from the therapist but from the books I read, the programs I watched (Oprah’s first season of Life Class, for example) and from the insights I had on my own. I remind myself of them whenever I start to feel like a dark mood is descending, or something is triggering me. And if I found myself struggling again, I wouldn’t hesitate to go back to therapy right away! Nothing is worse than living with out-of-control emotions, feeling that every day is a vomit-inducing roller coaster. Things can be so much better, and I’m grateful every day for the lessons I’ve learned and for living a better life today!

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Categories: mindfulness

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