Art, depression and anxiety

I have talked before about the branch of psychotherapy known as art therapy, where art is used to communicate non-verbally in order to help you understand yourself more and hopefully ease or grow out of any problems that you have encountered like anxiety and depression.

In order to do art therapy you need to visit a qualified art therapist who will be able to guide you and mentor you. This is obviously a time consuming and potentially expensive business.

But you can use art in many ways. It is actually extremely relaxing to do art. Now I know what you are going to say, Van Gogh had severe mental health problems and he was an artist. Well, I am not advising you to be like Van Gogh. In fact the object of the exercise is not to produce "good" art. The object is to relax, forget anxiety and depression and just take your focus somewhere else. In that respect it is like a very simple and effective meditation. One which is much less esoteric than other forms and easier to achieve.

So, all you have to do is take a pen/pencil/crayon/lipstick and something on which you can make a mark and let your imagination go. You can draw something, someone or just make some abstract scrawls.


You can try and draw your feelings; not as crazy as it sounds. You may actually feel much better for drawing what you are thinking. You may find it useful in trying to sort out what’s going on in your head. If this works for you, why not also try with other art forms: photography, painting, or anything.


Other things like DIY and even cleaning can be surprisingly therapeutic, but I think there is something special about art and the way it takes you away from yourself.

New year anxiety and depression

As we get towards the end of the year there is no doubt a bit of sadness for what we didn’t manage to achieve in the previous twelve months. For people who have anxiety and depression it is often a time of particular introspection. At the start of a new year we often tell ourselves that this year we will achieve "X", and then when we realise we haven’t we can feel sad or hopeless.

Well, I just wanted to say a word or two to people with anxiety that are feeling a bit depressed at this time of year. Firstly let me say that making plans for a new year is good, but remember to think about the execution of the plans. If you want to get over a fear of flying then think about positive steps you can take to do that. You could go on a fear of flying course, read some books on the subject, investigate the use of tranquillizer medication such as Valium or Xanax. By thinking about the process as well as the outcome we can foster changes, instead of just dreaming about them. So why not make it your new year’s resolution to move forwards with thought and action, not just with dreams.

Anxiety and phobias, and indeed depression, won’t evaporate on its own. We change something, or something in our environment changes. That is what is meant by "growing out" of something. So make changes, don’t just dream about results.

It can be a good idea to write a list of goals, maybe ten. Then prioritise them and leave them for a few days. When you come back to them check that you feel they are all pertinent still.

If they still feel right, then set about making a plan for achieving each one. This goes against the advice from some other sources. I have heard many gurus say that if you focus on a result you will unconsciously achieve it. This may or may not be the case, but in my honest opinion it is much better to focus on a target and consciously create an action plan.

So all the best for the new year! And let’s not just hope for bigger and better things, but plan for them as well!

Happy and Peaceful and Calm New Year!!

Love Thomas

Christmas Anxiety

I hope you have a very merry Christmas, or, if you don’t support Christmas you have a very relaxing holiday season!

Christmas can also be the most stressful time as family and friends make endless demands on us and our finances are stretched to the limits.

So what happens for those of us that suffer from anxiety? Well, we can drink too much wine and try to forget about it! But better still why not make some space for yourself each day over the holiday period. And if those around you have expectations of what you will be doing for them during that time explain to them that you will not be doing anything for them, you will be looking after yourself, and that they will have to entertain/cook for themselves.

Be firm and harsh if you need to, and don’t let yourself feel guilty. You need space. Why not take a walk, read a book, or speak to a friend. And if the work mounts up switch of the TV and collar your nearest and dearest and make them do some of the work to. You are not a Christmas slave. Anxiety is sometimes repressed emotion, and working when we think others should be helping can make us angry and antsy. This can manifest as anxiety so be sure to allow yourself to let off steam.

Also, at Christmas our diet tends to be bad. Lots of cakes and sugar and alcohol. These blood sugar fluctuations are not terribly good for the anxiety sufferer. Try to balance your diet as much as possible, and if you can slow your eating a bit you will probably give yourself the chance to feel full earlier. By avoiding bloating you may well lessen your anxiety which for me often has digestive roots.

So, please stay calm safe and anxiety this Christmas by watching your diet and taking control when others want you for a slave. As for the financial anxieties, let me just say that in my experience children understand much more than we think about money, and when they have things explained to them they have a surprising ability to understand financial hardship. Admitting to your kids that there is just not enough money is better than getting into debt!

Merry anxiety free Christmas!

 

Tom

Cure Panic Attacks

Before we talk about curing panic attacks let’s get a few facts about them straight.

Panic Attacks are horrendous. They are also a major cause of people presenting themselves at emergency rooms or accident and emergency departments. They are caused by a very primitive part of us that is trying to warn us of danger. That part of us is to a large extent useless in modern society bar saving us from modern dangers such as traffic accidents and the like.

Yes, panic attacks are there to save us. And before you think about curing them you should be aware that they are a natural part of you that helps you, or tries to. It is often hard for people to believe that panic attacks are harmless because they feel so bad, but actually they are designed (by god or evolution depending on your beliefs) to make you sit up and take action. I think you will agree they are very good at that.

So what can you do about it? Well quite a lot. There are of course drug options but they tackle symptoms and not cures. And short term drug treatment using the likes of Valium can lead to addiction if not managed properly. There are therapy options as well, and if you can get them free on your insurance or health service I heartily recommend them.

It can be cheaper, and much more self-empowering to find answers to your problems yourself. I don’t usually recommend online programmes as you never know who has written them, what expertise they have, and whether their claims can be believed.

Of course just reading doesn’t change much…whatever you do to try and cure panic attacks you need to actually DO it, not just think about it. I won’t make rash promises about what will work for you. Nothing works for everyone. But it is when you make a series of changes that your life also starts to change. I believe that change on the inside causes change on the outside and vice versa. Whatever you do to tackle panic, be it talk to your doctor or help yourself, do it today and don’t stop trying to find the solution to panic attacks until you are content.

Insomnia – a personal experience

I used to have insomnia. Now, I am not an insomniac but occasionally I do have trouble dropping off to sleep. This is natural, everyone has problems nodding off at some time or other. Insomnia is common with Anxiety Disorder.

Let us define Insomnia. The medical profession divides it up into three sections. Transient, acute and chronic insomnia. They are categorized thus by the amount of time the patient has been experiencing sleep problems. Transient insomnia comes and goes. Acute insomnia lasts for at least three weeks, and chronic last over three months.

Insomnia doesn’t mean you can’t sleep at all. It means that your sleep is not sufficient.

As an anxiety sufferer my sleep was disturbed by worry, physical tension in my body and a racing mind.

I tried quite a lot of different things to control the worry. Using CBT and writing techniques was quite helpful, but didn’t really deal with the major worries, or the really pressing issues.

I also tried progressive muscle relaxation and autogenic relaxation to relax my body. They did help relax my body but they didn’t necessarily help me sleep.

A racing mind was a hard one to crack. You see when my mind raced it wasn’t with necessarily bad thoughts. Often the were very pleasant daydreams that I didn’t particularly want to stop, until I realised how close it was until I needed to get up.

All in all none of the above quite hit the mark. They key was to relax the mind. I believe that if you relax the mind, the body will follow, but if you relax the body, the mind will not necessarily follow. The mind, for me, is key.

By far and away the best and simplest way I’ve ever found to relax the mind is Mindfulness Meditation. I think that because of this serious insomnia is now incredibly rare. And when insomnia does occur now I think it is because subconsciously I don’t want to sleep, or I want an excuse to get out of the next day’s chores. When tackling insomnia there is some mileage to be had in looking into secondary gain.

Secondary gain occurs when part of you doesn’t want you to get over a problem, because there is some perceived value for keeping that problem. It is more common in all areas of life than many people think.

Anxiety – what to expect from therapy

Increasingly, anxiety therapy is coming back into fashion. After years of SSRI anti-depressants and CBT ruling the roost, good old-fashioned therapy is being accepted again. Many people that suffer from anxiety fear what will happen when they start therapy. Will they have to completely open up to the therapist? Will they become attached to the therapist? Will the therapist have some hold or power over them? Will it cost thousands?

I can only give my own experiences of therapy, and a bit of what others have told me. Importantly, no two patients are alike and no two therapists are alike. And of course no two instances of anxiety are alike.

Firstly, you have nothing to fear from a therapists if you follow a few simple rules. Wherever you are in the world your country will have an official organisation that certifies therapists. More than likely they have a website where you can search for a local therapist and check that they specialise in anxiety (or whatever else you want to speak to them for).

 

You should then, on contacting them, be invited for a chat to discuss how your treatment might work. It is an opportunity for you to meet the therapist and for the therapist to meet you. You should also discuss price and payment schedule. This introductory session should be free and although it may well end with you booking a session for the future, there should obviously be no pressure on you to do so.

You will of course want to know how long the therapy will take before you are cured. I would advise against any therapist that thinks they can give you a timescale, especially early on in treatment. Improvements can be slow and gradual, or rapid, or a mixture of both. Good, experienced therapists know this and don’t make rash promises. They will have seen anxiety disorders before and will know that Rome wasn’t built in a day.

No therapist is perfect and anxiety disorders can be extremely complicated. When you start therapy you should not expect infallibility. They can go wrong, make mistakes, or fail to help you. Some people are not helped by therapy and there are several reasons why this may be. Maybe it is a problem with the sufferer, maybe the therapist took the wrong approach, or may the original cause of the anxiety was not conducive to being dealt with by therapy.

You need to approach therapy with an open mind, and be ready to do or discuss things which might not seem relevant to your anxiety. This is especially true if your therapist uses art to although for communication beyond the conscious level (a process I recommend).

What Causes Anxiety?

What causes anxiety is one of the most common questions that anxiety sufferers ask themselves. It is also not an easy question to answer. One pertinent answer is who cares? After all, what caused it is not as important as what stops it, and the cause and the cure may or may not be linked.

The basic answer to the question though is that anxiety is not caused. It just is. It is an integral part of what it means to be human, or indeed any other animal. Anxiety is part of the system which protects us from danger by making us aware and allowing us to react quickly. It is present in everybody.

Therefore, anxiety disorders are not like diseases that enter the body and cause disruption. They are merely an over reaction of one of the basic parts of the human being. People who “have anxiety” are in fact the same as everyone else but with part of their brain working overtime unnecessarily.

So the question “what causes anxiety?” should be replaced by “what causes unnecessary anxiety?”.

Unnecessary anxiety may be caused by several things. Most people believe that anxiety is learnt, caused by unresolved trauma, or genetic.

As I said earlier, the cause is not necessarily important and looking for it can be an expensive waste of time. But let me say a few words on each of the above three possible causes. In truth, most people’s unnecessary anxiety is not likely to be caused by one individual thing, more likely it will be caused by a combination of the above.

Anxiety responses can be learnt. If as a child you often felt car sick but were travelling with unsympathetic people then cars may well come to have a very negative association that appears as anxiety. There may well be a genetic factor here, as some people may be genetically programmed to learn faster. This can be seen as a good thing in many areas of life. Some people will argue that in this case the best approach is to “unlearn” the anxiety reaction through exposure with cognitive therapy. Others will argue that the traumatic memories may need to be reprocessed. Personally I think both of the opinions are valid and the people who get the best results will do both.

Never let it be said that there is a genetic cause of unnecessary anxiety that can not be cured. This is not true. While genetics may predispose us to something they don’t make it inevitable. If you are genetically prone to feeling a lot of anxiety, you can learn to react to these anxious feelings in a different way. Ultimately the anxiety itself is harmless, and the less you react to it the less you will feel it.

So, don’t worry about what causes anxiety, think about what you can do about it!

See also: Anxiety Causes discussed.

Fear of Heights, Acrophobia, Dizziness, Vertigo

The fear of heights is one of the most common anxieties or phobias in the world. Like most phobias, it has a special name, Acrophobia. Acrophobia is commonly confused with Agoraphobia because of the similarity in names. But Agoraphobia is actually a fear of wide open spaces and areas where an individual lacks control. Interestingly many agoraphobics are also, as part of the same condition Acrophobic or scared of heights. This is probably due to the fact that high buildings and skyscrapers, as well as cliff tops, have limited easy exit routes. This lack of control is often important to the Agoraphobic.

Also, the fear of heights is often called Vertigo. This is completely wrong. Vertigo is symptomatic of inner ear disorders and other medical problems associated with balance. It often includes feelings of dizziness, swaying or spinning and can occur anywhere, not just at height. Interestingly it seems that some people suffering from anxiety disorders such as agoraphobia and panic attacks may be predisposed to balance disorders. In a British Medical Journal (BMJ) editorial entitled: Treating dizziness with vestibular rehabilitation it is stated that "On the other hand, recent research indicates that panic and agoraphobia may often be triggered by an underlying dysfunction of balance." It suggests that the effect of balance issues such as dizziness may lead to anxiety is patients that believe their symptoms are down to brain tumours or other serious health problems. In these cases vestibular rehabilitation (basically exercises to improve the functioning of the balance mechanism) may be beneficial in reducing dizziness and anxiety or panic symptoms associated with it.

Many people have a fear of heights that stops them looking strait down from balconies or directly over cliffs. For the most part this kind of fear is appropriate and normal and does not really infringe on quality of life. When it gets more serious than this, i.e. when people are unable or unwilling to do the things they want or need to do in their daily life (like work in an office block, for instance) some action needs to be taken.

It is worth investigating whether any physical problems exist with your balance mechanism in the inner-ear. It is my personal belief, although not established medical fact as far as I am aware, that looking at things from a height may cause disorientation in people with poor balance mechanisms as there is little with which to reference the height.

Apart from that, if this is a simple phobia, i.e. if this is your only phobia, then a course of cognitive and behavioural therapy will probably serve you best. Graded exposure with healthy thought processes can probably much improve the problem. After all, you are very unlikely actually to be in real danger of falling in an office block!

Other therapies such as flooding exist, but I don’t particularly recommend them!

Exercise, stress, and a new anti-depressant pill

Before I say anything else, I have a little addition to yesterday’s post about exercise, stress, depression and anxiety and how exercise can be used to treat it or at least mitigate against it. Lo and behold today there is an article on the BBC about the benefits of exercise when considering mental health problems like depression. To have a read of this timely article, about new research done at Yale university, click here.

I think the idea of isolating the chemical(s) that can activate certain gene’s (in this case VGF – which is active in the hippocampus) is a good one, and may have many positive effects, but as ever there are possible downsides. I don’t want to be negative and I know there are people out there who dedicate their lives to waging a war on SSRI’s and other anti-depressants, but some points do need to be made.

Firstly, always remember that drug therapy for depression is a crutch not a cure. And there is no suggestion from the researchers involved in this study that this is intended as a cure: a course of drugs that leaves the patient recovered, as per penicillin. However effective it may be, the aim of healthcare professionals must be to get people to live free of any negative conditions like anxiety and depression through healthy lifestyle choices, a good diet, an examination of their cognitive processes (CBT) and analytical therapy where needed. It is very unlikely that a standardised pill can be 100% effective and side-effect free for everyone, that is why other approaches are necessary and often preferable. That said, and new weapon in the arsenal against depression and anxiety is excellent news, and will surely benefit people in real need if it goes on to be licensed and produced.

My second point is more along the lines of ethics. We seem to be living increasingly in a Now Now Now culture, where we expect everything to be at our fingertips. It is as if we have a divine right to whatever we want. We don’t. We have to earn what we want, and we can’t weight for it to come to us and sue someone if it doesn’t. While a pill that produces the same chemicals as exercise might be useful to get someone started, I argue that in the majority of cases the patient would do better (and would to all intents and purposes be side-effect free) if they produced those chemicals themselves by doing some exercise! There is something about "bottling" exercise that I don’t really like. Exercise is free, it should not be a blank cheque for multi-national pharmaceuticals!

Using exercise to reduce stress and anxiety

There are of course many studies into reducing stress and eliminating anxiety. Many of these pieces of research, although peer reviewed, are carried out by the companies that produce stress and anxiety relieving products, such as pharmaceutical companies. Obviously only the research that shows their products favourably ever sees the light of day as far as we, the consumer, are concerned.

It is interesting then that in study after study exercise is found to be "almost" as effective as medication as a stress-reliever and anti-depressant. We have to be careful when rating techniques which reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. The placebo effect and the power of belief hold the trump cards here. But, if it works then it is worth doing, even if its basis is not scientifically proven.

One thing is for sure. Exercise can be an excellent stress reliever which results in less stress and anxiety, better, sounder, longer sleep, better mood and less depression. We can state this as a fact, as doctors and complementary, alternative and quackery therapists are all agreed on it. A very rare thing in the world of health! And best still, exercise is free!

FACT: Self Hypnosis is a great way to reduce and eliminate stress and other negative habits.

Good stress busting exercises are:

  • Walking
  • Swimming (preferably in the sea!)
  • Running
  • Yoga
  • Tai Chi

Let me say a word or too more about those. Walking gives you time to think, burns calories, and has a strange way of calming the mind I find.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that swimming in the sea as often as possible has a profound effect on depression and stress. I would advise caution with respect to weather, tide and temperature conditions. Perhaps this is one to try with a group.

Vigorous exercise like running is definitely good, but I recommend choosing an exercise regime that you can stick to, not one that you will be making excuses to forget after about a week.

Yoga and Tai Chi are both excellent stress relievers. They also claim many other health benefits. Those people who have access to a good teacher seldom look back.

A would like to say a word about punchbags. On the face of it these would seem to be the ultimate stress reliever. You can imagine your worst enemy and beat seven bells out of them. It might well be fun, and good exercise, but anecdotal evidence has also suggested that rather than relaxing you it brings out even more aggression. Something to think about!

Related post: Click here for Exercise and antidepressant pill post.