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Anxiety and panic disorders can cause ceaseless feelings of fear and uncertainty — and with that suffering often comes comments that are more hurtful than helpful. According to Scott Bea, clinical psychologist and assistant professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, while it usually comes from a heartfelt place, a lack of understanding from others can make working through a panic attack incredibly challenging.
“So many of the things you might say end up having a paradoxical effect and make the anxiety worse,” Bea tells The Huffington Post. “Anxiety can be like quicksand — the more you do to try to diffuse the situation immediately, the deeper you sink. By telling people things like ‘stay calm,’ they can actually increase their sense of panic.”
Despite everything, there are ways to still be supportive without causing more distress. Here are seven comments you should avoid saying to someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder — and how you can really help them instead.
1. “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
The truth is, what you consider small may not be so minute in someone else’s world. While you may be trying to cast a positive, upbeat light on a tense situation, you may be diminishing something that’s a much bigger deal to another person.
“You have to enter the person’s belief system,” Bea advises. “For [someone with anxiety], everything is big stuff.” In order to help instead, try approaching them from a point of encouragement rather than implying that they “buck up” over something little. Reminding them that they overcame this panic before can help validate that their pain is real and help them push beyond those overwhelming feelings, Bea says.
2. “Calm down.”
The debilitating problem with anxiety and panic disorders is that you simply can’t calm down. Finding the ability to relax — particularly on command — isn’t easy for most people, and it certainly can be more difficult for someone suffering from anxiety.
In a blog post on Psychology Today, psychologist Sean Smith wrote an open letter to a loved one from the viewpoint of someone with anxiety, stating that even though there may be good intentions behind it, telling someone to calm down will most likely have the opposite effect:
Let’s acknowledge the obvious: if I could stop my anxiety, I would have done so by now. That may be difficult to understand since it probably looks like I choose to [panic, scrub, hoard, pace, hide, ruminate, check, clean, etc]. I don’t. In my world, doing those things is only slightly less excruciating than not doing them. It’s a difficult thing to explain, but anxiety places a person in that position.
According to Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, your words don’t have to be your most powerful method — offering to do something with them may be the best way to help alleviate their symptoms. Humphreys says activities like meditation, going for a walk or working out are all positive ways to help.
3. “Just do it.”
When someone with anxiety is facing their fear, a little “tough love” may not have the effect you’re hoping for. Depending on the type of phobia or disorder someone is dealing with, panic can strike at anytime — whether it’s having to board an airplane, speaking with a group of people or even just out of nowhere. “Obviously if they could overcome this they would because it would be more pleasant,” Humphreys says. “No one chooses to have anxiety. Using [these phrases] makes them feel defensive and unsupported.”
Instead of telling someone to “suck it up,” practicing empathy is key. Humphreys advises swapping pep-talk language for phrases like “that’s a terrible way to feel” or “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
“The paradox is, [empathetic phrases] helps them calm down because they don’t feel like they have to fight for their anxiety,” Humphreys said. “It shows some understanding.”
4. “Everything is going to be fine.”
While overall supportive, Bea says that those with anxiety won’t really react to the comforting words in the way that you may hope. “Unfortunately, telling someone [who is dealing with anxiety] that ‘everything is going to be alright’ won’t do much, because nobody is going to believe it,” he explains. “Reassurance sometimes can be a bad method. It makes them feel better for 20 seconds and then doubt can creep in again.”
Bea suggests remaining encouraging, without using blanket statements that may not offer value to the situation. Sometimes, he says, even allowing them to embrace their worry — instead of trying to banish it — can be the only way to help. “They can always accept the condition,” Bea said. “Encouraging them that it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling — that can be a pretty good fix as well.”
5. “I’m stressed out too.”
Similar to “calm down” and “don’t sweat the small stuff,” you may be accidentally trivializing someone’s struggle by creating a comparison. However, if you are stressed or suffering from a mild anxiety or panic disorder, Humphreys warns that camaraderie after a certain point can get dangerous. “It’s important not to obsess with each other,” Humphreys advises. “If you have two people who are anxious, they may feed off each other. If people have trouble controlling their own anxiety, try not to engage in that activity even if you think it might help.”
Research has shown that stress is a contagious emotion, and recent study out of the University of California San Francisco found that even babies can catch those negative feelings from their mothers. In order to promote healthier thoughts, Humphreys advises attempting to refocus the narrative instead of commiserating together.
6. “Have a drink — it’ll take your mind off of it.”
That cocktail may take the edge off — but when dealing with anxiety disorders, there is a greater problem to worry about, Humphreys says. Doctors and prescribed treatments are more of the answer when it comes to dealing with the troubles that cause the panic. “Most people assume that if someone has a few drinks, that will take their anxiety away,” he said. “In the short term, yes perhaps it will, but in the long term it can be a gateway for addiction. It’s dangerous in the long term because those substances can be reinforcing the anxiety.”
7. “Did I do something wrong?”
It can be difficult when a loved one is constantly suffering, and at times it can even feel like your actions are somehow setting them off. Humphreys says it’s important to remember that panic and anxiety disorders stem from something larger than just one particular or minor instance. “Accept that you cannot control another person’s emotions,” he explains. “If you try to [control their emotions], you will feel frustrated, your loved one suffering may feel rejected and you’ll resent each other. It’s important not to take their anxiety personally.”
Humphreys says it’s also crucial to let your loved ones know that there is a way to overcoming any anxiety or panic disorder — and that you’re there to be supportive. “There are ways out to become happier and more functional,” he says. “There is absolutely a reason to have hope.”
Did we miss any? What’s one thing you shouldn’t say to someone suffering from anxiety? Share it with us in the comments below.
Finding that time to relax –whether you’re the president or climbing the corporate ladder — isn’t only a perk, it’s crucial. Mental fatigue and workplace burnout threaten numerous professionals in high-pressure, high-strung jobs, causing serious stress and health risks.
Research has proven that planning a vacation and prioritizing work breaks are key to well-being — and no one understands that more than our nation’s leaders. Below, check out some of the relaxation habits of our former (and our current) presidents. If they can make the time to unwind, then we certainly can, too!
Barack Obama’s best relaxation tool is his family.
In a 2009 interview with the BBC, Obama said that taking a few moments to step out of the chaos and into a place of normalcy is the best way to refocus. “Nothing is better at pulling you out of your world than having a couple of children,” he said. “I’m grateful I have such a wonderful wife and kids. That’s my main form of relaxation now.” The current commander-in-chief also said he enjoys a game of basketball or diving into a good novel during downtime.
Abraham Lincoln found solace in a secluded cottage.
Leading a tumultuous country in the midst of a civil war and suffering from personal losses was more than enough trauma for one president. When Lincoln needed some space from stress, he’d often escape to the Soldiers’ Home in Washington, D.C. America’s 16th president lived at the location, now known as Lincoln’s Cottage, for part of his presidency and would actually commute to the White House.
Dwight D. Eisenhower cultivated calm by working on his golf swing.
Known as one of the top golfing presidents, Eisenhower liked to de-stress on the green. He played more than 800 rounds of the game during his terms, and under his direction, the White House installed a putting green on the South Lawn in 1954. Since then, other golfing presidents such as Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Obama have all used the putting green as a way to unwind.
Herbert Hoover unwound with his fishing reel.
Hoover relaxed from the pressures of a presidency during times of economic duress by fishing. He enjoyed spending time out on the water from the time he was a boy. “When all the routines and details and the human bores get on our nerves, we just yearn to go away from here to somewhere else,” Hoover said in a 1951 speech. “To go fishing is a sound, a valid and an accepted reason for an escape. It requires no explanation.”
John F. Kennedy blew off steam by sailing.
Growing up spending summers on the water, Kennedy learned how to sail at a young age. His love for the sea transcended his short life and presidency, and he was photographed numerous times de-stressing on the boat with his wife and family. In his remarks at the Australian Ambassador’s Dinner for the America’s Cup Crews in 1962, Kennedy poetically described his love for the ocean:
I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it’s because in addition to the fact that the sea changes, and the light changes, and ships change, it’s because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have, in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea — whether it is to sail or to watch it — we are going back from whence we came.
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In 2012, comedian Mindy Kaling nailed the ever-festering fear that has emerged with the ubiquity of social media with the title of her memoir: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
The truth is, a lot of the time, yes, they are. Unless you’re hanging out with every person you know all the time (which, in a way, is what Facebook is). Now that you have access to your friends’ (highly curated) feeds, you won’t just wonder anymore; you’ll be quite clear on what great party or event you missed out on, or where someone went to brunch, without even thinking of inviting you.
The famed “fear of missing out,” or FOMO, keeps you glued to your phone or tablet, feeds that fear, while turning us all into voyeurs, watching everyone else’s lives go by. (You can see why this isn’t necessarily great for mental health.) You may feed into this on the job, too, checking your work email over the weekend, just in case you miss something “big” on a Sunday, even though no one’s at the office at all.
At meQuilibrium we’ve long believed that unplugging from devices, and the dizzyingly busy world they keep you connected to, is crucial for your peace of mind. And according to a recent report here on The Huffington Post, trend watchers predict that mindful living — a careful choosing of how, where, and with whom you spend your time — will be a top priority for many people in 2014. But turning off thoughts is a lot harder than switching off your phone. How do you unplug your mind from the fear of missing out all things social or work? Here are three ways to start.
1. Reframe the fear.
A few years ago, tech blogger and entrepreneur Anil Dash coined the acronym JOMO: the joy of missing out. Instead of focusing on the many, many events and happenings he couldn’t be part of, he honed in on the pleasure of mindfully choosing from the many options exactly what he wanted to do. And that included staying home with his family, or reading a book.
“Being the one in control of what moves me, what I feel obligated by, and what attachments I have to fleeting experiences is not an authority that I’m willing to concede to the arbitrary whims of an app on my mobile phone,” Dash wrote in a blog post at the time. “I think more and more people are going to retake this agency over their feelings about being social, as well.”
Try this: Flip your focus. Rather than wonder what everyone else is doing on Friday, consider what it is you really want to do. Maybe it’s meet a friend out for Thai food, see a movie, or maybe, just maybe, you don’t feel like doing anything at all. Instead of chastising yourself for not doing “enough,” or worse, posting on Facebook what a loser you are, make the decision for yourself and own it. In fact, if you’re feeling really bold, cancel plans that you don’t want to do, and give yourself what you want most: A night at home.
2. Start sitting still.
Meditation must be the most counterintuitive approach to managing crazy-making thoughts. How can sitting still, with those thoughts racing through you, possible help? (And when do I find time?)
Simple meditation practices work because you actually interrupt those thoughts by consciously putting your attention elsewhere — on your breath, on a repeating phrase, on an object. When you do so, you engage your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you relax, get perspective, and have the presence of mind to draw the boundaries you need. And meditation doesn’t need to take much time; often ten minutes a day is enough to reap the benefits.
Try this: The 60-second breathing exercise is one of my favorite simple meditation practices. On an inhale, fill your lungs fully, hold for a second or so, and then exhale in a relaxed way. Continue for 60 seconds. It’s that simple, and the science behind its effectiveness is sound. (Find more easy and effective meditation practices at meQuilibrium.)
3. Know thyself. Or, get to know thyself.
This was good advice when the Ancient Greeks gave it, and it’s good advice now. You can’t choose where to spend energy in your social or work lives unless you know what you value. Yes, you will have to make choices. Some things will go by the wayside and you may not meet everyone’s expectations every time. But an authentic, value-driven choice will give you the confidence to miss out joyfully. (Find out what 3 things top business leaders do to make authentic choices.)
Try this: Reflect on your defining moments. One way to identify your values is to reflect on those moments in in your life that made such an impression on you that they underscored and helped define what it is you care about most. Psychologist Ryan Niemiec, Psy.D., writes for PsychCentral that “bringing a careful attention to the important moments in our lives can help us not only better understand ourselves, but help us realize we can take an active role and impact our life for the better.” (Read more on how to use defining moments to understand your core values.)
You will never be able to be in all places, with all people. But you can strive to choose to be where you want, when you want, with whom you want. That’s not missing out — that’s the definition of a life well lived.
Want to dramatically reduce your stress? Take our 28-day challenge.
Jan Bruce is CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, http://www.mequilibrium.com, the new digital coaching system for stress, which helps both individuals and corporations achieve measurable results in stress management and wellness.
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I have found the most challenging part of mindfulness trying to carry over the benefits of practice to my hectic daily life. It is not difficult to reach a feeling of balance and peace on a beautiful retreat, or during a quiet meditation hour. While such dedicated practice is useful, too often it does not carry over to our daily lives as thoroughly as we’d like.
Luckily, mindfulness is natural. It is not a state or a level you have to unlock. It is very accessible. Small steps get you a long way. Those small steps help you break down the barrier between a time of balance and a time of stress — and this time around for the better.
Here are five methods I have found useful, collected from personal research, experience and practice of different techniques. You can apply them anywhere: sitting on the train, waiting for an appointment, standing in the elevator. You can use them to create small moments of mindfulness in your daily life. Not all of them may work for you. Feel free to make up your own.
1. Scan through the entire body for sensations.
You may have a sore back or a headache, but what do you feel in your left shoulder right now? Your abdominals? Your hips? Go through your body, in whatever order you like, observing what you feel in different parts. Leave nothing out. Every sensation, no matter how small, is equally important. Try not to jump from one strong sensation or ache to the next. Why would some parts deserve more attention just because they are sore? You’ll get there eventually (use common sense though — don’t attempt to ignore severe pain that you should treat). The goal is to just be aware, and then let that awareness pass. Both are equally good.
2. Concentrate on the breath.
A classic meditation technique, observing the breath is an easy way to root yourself, to calm down and to become aware of your state. Your breath is always there. When you concentrate on it, don’t try to moderate it. Observe it the way you found it. You may count your breaths but you don’t have to. You can concentrate on the movement in your abdomen and lungs, or in your nasal passages (and potentially your mustache, a highly useful meditational aide).
3. Isolate your senses.
Concentrate your attention on one sense at a time. You can start anywhere. Attempt to catch discrete details. Look at a tree: see leaves, twigs, branches, trunk, roots. Listen to a train: hear the low rumble, the clanking, the high-pitched screeches. Feel your body: a tingle on your skin, texture of your clothes (if applicable), pressure of a position. Use taste and smell, too. Attempt to catch as much of reality with any one sense as you can. Rest assured that you will never catch everything — it will simply flow through your senses. That’s how it goes, and that’s fine.
4. Practice simultaneous sensory perception.
This works well in connection with the previous method. Attempt to capture as much of reality as you can with multiple senses at the same time. Start with two — the easiest are sight and sound. See and hear at the same time, being equally aware of both senses. It is easiest when most of the sound comes from what ever you are looking at. Then, pay attention also to sounds coming from outside your visual focus. Next, broaden your visual focus and try to see and hear as much as possible at once.
Combine other less dominant senses with the more dominant ones. Try to listen and feel physical sensations at the same time (closing your eyes will help). Try to see and taste at once, even if what you are tasting is not in your visual focus. Later, combine more than two senses into your simultaneous focus. Do not be discouraged if you find this overwhelming. It is not easy. Importantly, be aware of what senses you want to focus on, and sharpen your focus on only them.
5. Observe moments of non-verbal thought.
The last tip is a simple version of clearing your mind. There is interesting recent research and evidence about all human conscious thought happening “after the fact.” To simplify the theory, it seems we have an internal narrative that creates rational justifications for what we do in a moment. This internal narrative gives us the illusion of ourselves as rational, consciously behaving individuals. The narrative necessarily happens after our behavior — not only in the case of nearly automatic behavior like driving a car, but also in the case of such seemingly highly rationalized decisions like which stock to buy. Even the decisions that we would swear are the result of rational thought could in fact be verbally rationalized after the decision. We do plan our behavior, but even in this case we make small decisions (heuristics) as we plan, and this is what our planning consists of. Our private narrative makes up for this, creating a picture of conscious thought. Why this is is up for speculation. I suspect it works to support our concept of a continuous, persistent individual personality.
Now — if you are still with me — you do not have to subscribe to such radical philosophy of mind to benefit. It merely adds weight to relinquishing your internal narrative at least temporarily in order to truly live in the moment. There are moments when you do not think in words. Observing and attempting to lengthen such moments can require tremendous concentration. It can also be a valuable exercise.
All the previous methods provide you with a basis of focus for this method. With your focus on a sensation, on your breathing or on multiple senses at once, observe a lack of verbalization. There is no explanation in your mind, no description of what you are experiencing. You do not need one to experience what you are experiencing. Try to catch and observe that moment. Linger on it if you can.
Mindfulness is a state. Like all human states, it is not a static goal, but a dynamic process. More important than starting in the right place, or with the right technique or the right teacher — is just starting. Start anywhere. Happy travels. Let me know how you get along.