Instant Life Story

One of my clients shared this strategy to reduce anxiety in unfamiliar situations…

When you are in an anxiety provoking situation, take a look at the individuals around you and play the game of Instant Life Story. Pick one person at a time and make up a life story for that person.

For example… on an airplane with many strangers… you see a mean looking man with a scowl on his face boarding. To shift from a fearful/anxious reaction to him, make up his instant life story…

Perhaps he’s scowling because he’s just been dumped by his girlfriend and now he has to take this vacation alone.

Perhaps he’s angry because he’s been bumped 4 times from other flights and exhausted because he hasn’t slept in 36 hours.

Perhaps he’s in a witness protection program and was told not to look anyone in the eye.

Perhaps he just lost a loved one.

See how making up a possible alternate life story can change your reaction to him and the situation? Give it a try!

Can You Stop Anxiety Permanently?

Here’s a great question I got from a new subscriber to my newsletter:

“…if we are able to get me to the point where my anxiety is gone…how often does the anxiety come back?”

This is a fantastic question because so many people have been told you’ll have anxiety for your whole life… and you’ll have to take medication for your whole life.

That’s not what I tell my clients. Here’s what I see in my practice: People are often times able to eliminate anxiety and sometimes it never comes back.

If you’ve been told that medication is required for your anxiety, or that you’ll need it your whole life, you may like this article on my blog: Drug-Free: Is it possible for you?

I have plenty of clients who got rid of their anxiety and it is gone forever. If not gone forever, it is very possible to reduce it to such a level that you are confident and able to manage small waves of anxiety that may come up. How is all of this possible?

1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) rewires your brain to respond differently to situations that previously caused anxiety, thus preventing future anxiety. You learn how to think differently, and this trains your brain how to think differently in the future.

From a neuroscience perspective, CBT changes the neural pathways (the pathways of repetitive thoughts). Repetitive anxiety thinking creates an “automatic pathway,” meaning that when you encounter situations which created anxiety in the past, your brain learns to automatically go down that anxiety pathway in the future. Your brain takes you into an anxiety reaction “automatically.”

You must learn how to break that pattern and train your brain how to create a different “automatic pathway” of non-anxiety thinking. In this way, CBT helps you regain control over your reactions and reduce or eliminate anxiety.

2. Holistic “In-the-moment” Tools

I teach holistic tools and techniques so you know what to do as soon as you start to feel anxiety coming on. Having tools in your back pocket helps you gain control of the anxiety instead of the anxiety having control over you.

There are many tools that can be used right in the moment of anxiety to immediately reduce anxiety symptoms. Some of these are so powerful that they can actually stop anxiety, and even panic attacks, in their tracks.

One size does not fit all in this regard. Since we are all unique individuals with unique life experiences, it is usually a unique combination of tools and strategies that works for each person. Building the right tool kit empowers you when anxiety creeps in.

3. Reduce the Baseline

You probably need to learn strategies for reducing your day-to-day stress and anxiety levels. I call this reducing your baseline. When your baseline level of stress and anxiety is too high, then you become easily overwhelmed. One “little” thing can put you over the edge and trigger anxiety.

Of course this all depends on you and your situation. My approach works! But it requires active participation. By that I mean…

• Being willing to learn new ways of thinking
• paying greater attention to your thoughts
• regular practice of the new tools and techniques
• willingness to possibly make some lifestyle changes to decrease your baseline level of stress and anxiety

People who get the best results are those who are most committed to the process, willing to learn new things, and willing to make changes.

Soft Breathing

This technique to help combat stress and anxiety is from Dr. Mark Hyman from his book, The UltraMind Solution:

Step 1. Put your hand on your belly and allow your abdomen to relax.
Step 2. Close your eyes or soften your focus and look at the floor a few feet in front of you.
Step 3. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
Step 4. Breathe deeply into your abdomen and feel it expand as you count to 5.
Step 5. Pause for a count of 1.
Step 6. Exhale slowly to a count of 5, allowing your body to relax and release tension.
Step 7. Repeat for 5 breaths or until you feel relaxed.
 
Set an alarm on your phone to do this five times a day, every day—upon waking, before every meal, and before you go to bed.

Essential Oils: Try lavender, ylang-ylang, marjoram, and neroli

In a recent study, 83 participants with high blood pressure were tested to see whether essential oil inhalation would have an effect on blood pressure and cortisol levels (cortisol is the most common “stress chemical” that can be measured).

Participants were asked to inhale an essential oil blend of lavender, ylang-ylang, marjoram, and neroli with the following ratio (20 : 15 : 10 : 2).

The study group experienced the relaxation effects of this particular blend of essential oils leading to:

• significant decreases in cortisol levels
• reduced blood pressure
• stress reduction

Favorite for Anxiety: Mindful Belly Breathing

Believe it or not, the number one best way to ease anxiety is to BREATHE…as long as you do it the right way.

What I’m talking about here is learning a specific technique of conscious breathing, which is quite different from what we do moment-to-moment as part of our daily living.

If you take a minute to become aware of your breathing right now, you’ll find you are probably breathing short, shallow breaths into your lungs. This is how most of us breathe most of the time – unconsciously.

When you’re feeling anxious, you tend to unconsciously “overbreathe” with shorter, faster breaths into the lungs and chest.

This creates an imbalance between oxygen and carbon dioxide which can result in symptoms including:

racing heart, breathlessness, dizziness, hot flashes or chills, and distorted thinking such as fear that something terrible will happen.

The Deep Breath Myth

There is a common misconception that taking a “deep” breath is the key. While the deep breath may be useful for some purposes, it is not the best for calming anxiety.

When you take a deep breath, you are making a sudden and significant change to your breath. Your amygdala (the “caveman” part of the brain that regulates the fight-or-flight response) does NOT like sudden change. Instead of relaxing, your brain goes on high alert when there is any sudden change because your amygdala wants to make sure there is no sabretooth tiger coming to threaten your safety.

Your brain can relax when breathing is calm, even and predictable, without sudden change.

Master the specific technique

The specific form of Mindful Belly Breathing described here is designed to reduce anxiety by calming your brain AND creating a real physiological change for your nervous system (activating the parasympathetic nervous system).

This can only be done by using the proper technique consisting of 2 parts:

1. lowering the focus of your breathing to the belly/diaphragm area (diaphragmatic breathing)
2. controlling the pace and size of each inhale and exhale (respiratory control).

This breathing technique is Mindful due to the addition of respiratory control. Diaphragmatic breathing alone can be helpful for many things, but what makes Mindful Belly Breathing so effective for anxiety is the combination of Mindful respiratory control + Belly Breathing.

Mindful Belly Breathing can be done anywhere, anytime! I teach this to most of my clients and literally every single client has reported a benefit from Mindful Belly Breathing.

How to do it:

1. Place one hand on your belly.
2. Inhale and exhale through your nose only, with each breath “normal-sized” and comfortable for you.
3. Lower the focus of your breathing by slowing pushing out your belly/diaphragm as you inhale and slowly pulling in your diaphragm as you exhale. Imagine a balloon in your belly that fills with each inhale and deflates with each exhale.
4. Notice the movements of your hand: you should see your hand moving up and down on your stomach as you breathe.
5. Now pace your breathing in a predictable and even way by silently saying to yourself:

“Inhale – 2 – 3 – Relax… Exhale – 2 – 3 – Relax”

Want help learning Mindful Belly Breathing?

You may like my downloadable Less Stress Now CD.

How you know it’s working

Here’s a little test to show you what a big difference Mindful Belly Breathing makes:

1. Stand up and just breathe normally
2. Look into a full-length mirror. Look sideways so you can see your profile. Go ahead and suck in your stomach to look your best (yes, we all do that sometimes!).
3. Now breathe while still holding your stomach in. Notice that only your chest is moving up and down with each breath. This is more or less what happens when anxiety kicks in. Notice how the airflow is restricted. Notice the pace of your breath. Does this create any feelings of anxiety or discomfort?
4. Let your stomach relax now and re-start your Mindful Belly Breathing. Notice how much more air you’re taking in now. Notice the sense of calm this brings.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Like any new skill or tool, Mindful Belly Breathing requires practice. You want this tool available to you in times of extreme anxiety, right?

Well, in those moments of anxiety your ability to think straight and remember what to do next can be very limited. In order to break that cycle, you need to be able to start Mindful Belly Breathing automatically – your body will remember what to do only if you’ve practiced regularly.

Make Mindful Belly Breathing a daily habit and it’s an investment…you’ll be able to use it anytime, anywhere to help you break free from anxiety. Regain control of your breath, your clear thinking, your physical/body sensations, and your life!

 

Which Thought Would Feel Better?

Thoughts create feelings. Anxiety thoughts create anxiety feelings. So when you’re feeling anxiety, you can be sure that you are having anxiety thoughts.

Ask yourself: What thought am I having right now that could be related to this anxiety? Write it down.

Then ask yourself: What different thought might feel at least a little bit better than that one? Write it down also. If fact, you might find multiple different thoughts that feel a little better.

Work on intentionally focusing on the thoughts that feel better. With practice, you will think better AND feel better!

What You Think About Stress Could Kill You

30+ years ago: Nobody ever connected stress to any physical issues. How could stress in your mind or your emotions ever effect your body? Don’t be silly.

More recently: Now we hear that stress contributes to (and exacerbates) MANY physical illnesses. And lots of research proves that.

2013-present: Emerging research is showing that your mindset about stress (in other words, what you think ABOUT stress) is really what causes the stress-illness connection.

UW-Madison study: Beliefs about stress matter most!

Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist and researcher at Stanford University, did a famous TED Talk in 2013 called “How to make stress your friend.”

She talks about a large-scale study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison of 30,000 participants who were followed over an eight-year period.

They asked people to rank their level of stress as low, moderate or high. They also asked the question: Do you believe stress is harmful for your health?

Then they used public death records to see which of the study participants actually died over the eight year period.

Bad news: Participants who had a high level of stress had a 43% increased chance of dying.

Surprising news: Here’s the kicker…. The 43% increased risk of dying was only true for people who believed that stress is harmful for your health!

• Participants with a high level of stress but who did not believe that stress was harmful to their health, had the lowest likelihood of death of anyone in the study (even lower risk than the people who reported the lowest levels of stress)!

What you think about stress matters! In fact, it matters more than your stress level itself!

What is your Stress Mindset?

What if you could think of stress as your body helping you rise to new challenges? What if you could think of physical symptoms of anxiety, such as changes in heart rate and breathing, as helpful to you?

Stress Mindsets are general beliefs about the nature of stress.

• A “stress-is-enhancing” mindset means you tend to believe that stress has the effect of enhancing performance, health and well-being.
• A “stress-is-debilitating” mindset refers to the belief that stress is dangerous, and should be feared because one may not have the internal resources to meet the external pressures.

People with a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset see day to day life stressors as challenges for which they have adequate resources to meet expected demands. Stressors can be seen as opportunities to grow, learn or step up ones game. Stress is seen as a challenge instead of a big problem to be avoided.

A 2013 study of employees at a large financial institution showed that those who had a stress-is-enhancing mindset enjoyed:

• greater life satisfaction
• reduced anxiety
• less depression
• increased optimism
• increased resilience
• increased mindfulness

What do you think?

Recent research suggests that your attitude and beliefs matter a lot. This is not to say that too much stress is somehow healthy.

Can you change the stressors in your life to achieve more happiness? If you think you can’t change the stressors in your life, I challenge you to challenge that assumption. Often times you do have more control over stressors than you think you do.

However, if you’re clear that you can’t change the external… you CAN change the internal – your own mindset about stress. Why not give it a try?

How To Do Mindfulness

Have you been hearing a lot about Mindfulness lately?

It’s gaining in popularity as a way to reduce stress and anxiety and increase happiness.

Wellness Counseling with Di PhilippiMindfulness is a way of being. It involves focus and attention on only what is happening in the here and now. It’s about attentive awareness of the present moment without judgement.

You’d be surprised how many moments of your day go by WITHOUT your conscious attention to the here and now.

Ever had a time when you were driving and suddenly realized you missed or almost missed a turn? Or that you were further along the road than you realized because you were driving on auto-pilot? At times like that, the body and the mind are doing two different things. Mindless.

I like to think of Mindfulness as your Mind and Body in same place at same time doing the same thing. Your body can only be in the here and now; but your mind can be all over the place.

How to do it?

People often ask me how to “do Mindfulness”… is it meditation or what?

While there are mindfulness meditations you can do, it is a way of being so you do not need to meditate to be mindful. You can start with mindful awareness of your sensory experiences. You can use your senses of: Sight, Hearing, Taste, Smell, Touch.

Here are just a few strategies for beginners to get an experience of mindfulness:

Eat a Raisin

Here is one simple way to experience and practice mindfulness using your mouth and your sense of taste:

Eat one raisin…mindfully. Take 4 minutes to pick up, look at, eat, taste and mindfully experience that raisin. Try to chew it at least 250 times! It is possible!

Notice everything you can about that raisin-eating experience… taste, texture, saliva production, how your tongue and teeth move, how you swallow, etc.

Mindful Listening

1. Sit still and bring your attention to what you can hear right now. You’ll probably notice that one noise jumps out at you – perhaps the loudest or most annoying.

2. Now, listen hard for what else you can hear at the same time. Closing your eyes can help. Do your best to divide your attention equally between every noise that you can hear. This will probably be challenging at first.

3. Notice when one particular sound has taken up your full attention, or when your mind simply wanders. Bring your attention back to all the noises and focus again on dividing your attention among all of them equally.

Do this for a few minutes and then notice how you feel compared to when you started.

Sitting Mindfulness Meditation

Science shows mindfulness and meditation help reduce anxiety. There are many, many techniques. This one is from Dr. Mark Hyman.

Instructions:

Meditating - Di Philippi, Holistic Anxiety Therapist, Wellness Counseling Milwaukee

Be aware of your posture!

Sit in a comfortable position. Try to sit in the same place each day. Avoid positions that you might fall asleep in.

a. The back is long and supports itself.

b. Shoulders are relaxed downward, the neck is long, and the chin is pointing neither up nor down.

c. The face is relaxed.

Begin to breathe (preferably through the nostrils). Feel the belly rise, the ribs expand, and the slight movement in the collarbones and shoulders as the breath moves upward. Feel the exhalation.

Focus on one aspect of the breath.

a. The movement of air in and out of the nostrils.

b. Or the lifting and falling of the belly.

Watch that one aspect of the breath.

a. When the mind wanders, gently bring it back to the breath and the aspect you have chosen to watch.

b. Do this as many times as you need to.

c. There is no such thing as a good or bad meditation. (Good and bad are judgments, events in the mind – just note them and go back to the breathing.)

Start with 5–10 minutes and then increase the time until you can sit for 30 minutes.

OCD Interview

I was recently interviewed by a local university for an article about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). This Q&A explains the basics of OCD and the effective, non-medication treatment that works for OCD.

Question 1: What is the biggest misconception you’ve heard and/or seen about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

Misconception #1: Many people believe OCD has to include compulsive behaviors like hand-washing or excessive cleaning. Truth be told, I actually see more OCD in the form of obsessive and intrusive thoughts than I do with the classic compulsive behaviors.

Misconception #2: There’s a misconception that people must live with anxiety their whole lives, or that they must take medication for it for their whole lives. That is not true! [READ MORE HERE]. The neural pathways in the brain which create anxiety and obsessive thinking can be changed. Thus, the root cause of anxiety can be addressed and resolved.

The answer: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can provide long-term, preventative relief from anxiety/OCD (see Question 6 below).

Question 2: From your experience with treating OCD, what seems to be the biggest trigger for the people who suffer?

OCD can look very different for different people so it is difficult to generalize. People with OCD suffer from repetitive (and often disturbing) thoughts that they can’t seem to get out of their heads – these are Obsessions. These thoughts, and the inability to “let it go,” can cause a lot of anxiety.

Sometimes that anxiety creates an urge for people to repeatedly perform certain behaviors or routines – these are Compulsions. The urge to do the behaviors is an attempt to try to ease their anxiety.

Some people with OCD have obsessions only, while others have both obsessions and compulsive behaviors.

Most people who have OCD are aware that their obsessions and compulsions are irrational, yet they feel powerless to stop them which actually increases anxiety.

Common obsessive thoughts include:

• fear of a detrimental error by overlooking something
• worry about things being in proper order
• fear of harming someone
• feeling over-responsible for others
• worries about germs or illness

Common compulsive behaviors include:

• hand-washing
• counting
• arranging things
• cleaning
• checking and re-checking things (like did I forget anything?)

Question 3: OCD is often labeled a “mental illness.” Do you agree with this label?

I hate the label “mental illness” because some people attach a stigma to it…and that causes people to avoid getting treatment that could lead them to a happier life. At least 40 million American adults suffer from anxiety, but only about one-third of those seek help, even though anxiety is highly treatable without medication.

Like other types of anxiety, OCD involves what I call “a thinking problem” or “anxiety thinking.” There is a problem with the thinking process and in that respect it could be considered mental as opposed to physical illness.

The great news is that thinking problems can be corrected! Neuroscience research shows that the brain can reconfigure itself and learn new and more effective ways of thinking when trained to do so.

Question 4: Do you believe that people are born with OCD, or is it something that develops over time?

Research supports the understanding that OCD involves problems with the brain circuitry that causes anxiety thinking. No one knows for sure all the factors that could be involved in development of anxiety/OCD. Possible factors include perhaps genetic predisposition, perhaps learned behavior when kids grow up in a family where adults have anxiety, perhaps an illness, or even ordinary life stressors.

Question 5: How are patients diagnosed?

During an assessment, I look at whether a person has obsessions and/or compulsions, but the biggest factor in diagnosis is whether these thinking problems and behaviors cause a real problem in the person’s life.

I always say there’s not a problem unless there’s a problem. I’m looking to see whether the thoughts and/or behaviors are creating a problem with the person’s daily routine, job, school, relationships, social activities, or other activities the person values.

Question 6: What types of treatments are available to patients who suffer from OCD? Is there one particular treatment that seems to be more effective?

Extensive scientific research and my own clinical experience demonstrate that the most effective long-term solution for anxiety/OCD is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

CBT is a very specific sort of non-medication treatment that is focused on correcting the anxiety thinking that is underlying the obsessions and compulsions. It helps people learn different and more accurate, effective ways of thinking – this can significantly reduce or eliminate obsessions and compulsions.

CBT is very focused on teaching people new tools and techniques for changing old thinking patterns and old behavior patterns. To address the behaviors associated with OCD compulsions, exposure treatment is often included in CBT.

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) is a systematic way of gradually exposing people to the things/situations that cause anxiety while teaching them new ways to respond (eliminating the need for compulsive behavior).

Question 7: Do you think OCD can be cured?

The concept of a “cure” really means correcting the thinking problems and the anxiety thinking that are underlying the obsessions and compulsions. Yes! These thinking processes can be successfully changed with CBT.

Question 8: How did you become a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders such as OCD?

I decided to specialize in holistic solutions for anxiety because so many people have been told they have to live with anxiety for their whole lives…or that they have to take medications for their whole lives. It is my mission to dispel this myth!

People don’t realize that is completely possible to get rid of all kinds of anxiety. They haven’t been education to understand that anxiety is caused by processes in the brain that they can learn how to change. They just need to learn the effective tools to use. I’ve seen so many people literally change their lives with CBT and holistic tools and techniques that treat anxiety.

Notice You’re Alright Right Now

This strategy was adapted from Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist and author of the best-selling Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom.

Take a close look at this moment, right now. You are probably alright.

Anxiety is always about either:

a) the future (worries and “what if” thoughts), or

b) the past (dwelling on what happened, second-guessing, etc)

Reduce anxiety by intentionally dwelling on the NOW. In this one single moment, are you alright? It may not be perfect, or ideal. You may feel some pain in the now (physical or emotional). But are you safe and OK and basically alright just for this one moment of now?

You are probably alright. Right now. Use this strategy many times throughout your day to bring yourself back into the peace of the present moment.