Discerning the Difference between Danger and Discomfort [a tool to calm anxiety]

Discerning the Difference between Danger and Discomfort

Orlando Counseling Providing Anxiety Therapy

Your heart is pounding, your throat feels constricted, and your mouth is dry. Your system is geared up and ready to respond as if you’re actually in danger. You know there is no real threat, but you can’t seem to get your brain to calm down and stop acting like you’re being attacked by mountain lion. You’re exhausted from feeling all revved up and on edge.

As an anxiety and trauma therapist in providing counseling in Orlando, I help clients ditch the anxiety so that they can enjoy their relationships, their work, and experience joy again. In the beginning of therapy, I teach my clients to calm anxious states through grounding and mindfulness. After grounding and mindfulness are established, I use various approaches that go beyond traditional talk therapy to heal the root of anxiety and trauma.

In my last post, I introduced how simply becoming aware of your thoughts, emotions, and body sensations through mindfulness will soothe anxiety.

In this post, I will walk you through a mindfulness practice that will begin to retrain your brain to respond to normal daily occurrences without surges of adrenaline, so you can settle and feel more comfortable in your skin.

Let’s mindfully explore your immediate environment, the people around you, and your internal world so we can reorient your nervous system to register disturbances, as disturbing, rather than as dangerous.

The purpose of this exercise is to reduce an exaggerated anxiety response and to expand your ability to tolerate disturbances, not to ignore true danger signals. If you believe you are in a dangerous situation, do not do this exercise.

When doing this exercise for the first time, I encourage to be in a calm, quiet, and safe environment. Thoroughly go through this exercise. After you’ve slowly and mindfully done the exercise a few times and you are able to achieve a felt sense of safety during the chaos of life happening around you, you can use a faster version of this exercise I created called, The NEST Method. I will explain NEST in my next post.

Environment

Scan the room for anything that is dangerous. If everything is truly safe, then continue.

Look around the room. Notice things in the room that feel nice, calm, pleasant, or in some other way positive. Notice how your body feels when you focus on the things that feel nice in the room. You might notice a nice big inhale and exhale or the tension in your shoulders relax.

Next, bring your awareness to include things that feel less than settling, or in other words, disturbing. You might notice a pile of mail on the shelf, shoes in front of the couch, or laundry in the corner. Allow your system to orient to these things in the room that don’t feel ‘just right.’

While looking at these things, say to yourself, “I may not like the messy laundry. As a matter of fact, it is disturbing. Just because something is disturbing, doesn’t mean that it is dangerous. I can still feel safe even when I notice this disturbance.“

People

Next, think of one person in your life that is a safe confidant. This might be your partner, a trusted friend, or a family member. First orient to the things that feel good about this person, like their smile, scent, or a recent warm exchange. Notice any settling sensations with your breathing or heart rate, or perhaps a release of tension in your body, as your bring your awareness to the positive aspects of the person.

Next, allow your awareness to include anything that feels slightly agitating about this person. Notice how your body reacts when you shift your focus to the negative. As you are becoming aware of the disturbing things about this person or the relationship, say to to yourself, “I may not like these things about them. As a matter of fact, they’re annoying. Just because something is disturbing, doesn’t mean that it is dangerous. I can still feel safe when I feel this annoyance.“

Inner World

In session with my clients, I spend a great deal of time exploring my client’s inner world through mindfulness. I go more deeply into the discussion of using mindfulness to soothe anxiety in another post. For the purposes of this article though, I will simplify things and ask you to view your inner world in terms of thoughts, emotions, and body sensations. In an anxious moment, I’d like you to take snapshot of what your thoughts are saying, what you feel emotionally, and any particulars body sensations.

An example might be:

Thoughts: I keep thinking of all the stuff I have to do.

Emotions: I feel a little anxious.

Sensations: I notice a little tension in my neck and shoulders.

Just as we did in the above exercises, I’d you to acknowledge any disturbances you noticed.

Putting it all together

An example of that would be:

Thoughts: “Even though my thoughts are telling me that I have a bunch of stuff to do, my thoughts are just thoughts. These thoughts may be uncomfortable, but they are just thoughts. These thoughts aren’t dangerous. These thoughts are just uncomfortable.”

Emotions: “I may not like this feeling of anxiety. As a matter of fact, this feeling is uncomfortable. Just because something is uncomfortable does not mean that it is dangerous. I am still safe even though this feels uncomfortable.“

Sensation: “I may not like the tension I feel in my body. As a matter of fact this feeling is uncomfortable. Just because something is uncomfortable does not mean that it is dangerous. I am still safe even though this feels uncomfortable.”

By doing this exercise slowly and mindfully, you are telling the alarm center in your brain that you can experience something disturbing without being in danger. You can dislike something and be safe at the same time. Allow your system to orient to the bothersome things as annoyances.

Like any mindfulness practice, we get better over time. As has been discovered in neuroscience, “Neurons that fire together wire together,” meaning that in order to retrain the brain, we need to continue to give the brain this experience of safety through daily practice.

If for some reason, you have trouble establishing a felt sense of safety when you are, at the same time, experiencing a disturbance, I encourage to seek the support of a trauma or anxiety counselor that can help you sort out what is preventing you from feeling settled.

In my next post, we will explore how an overactive amygdala in the brain can have you in a constant state of anxiety, which leads to responding to disturbing or uncomfortable things as if they are actually life-threatening. I will introduce a simple practice I created called NEST that builds on this practice. Essentially, it is the quick version of this practice and works well after you’ve practiced this exercise a few times. Practicing NEST sends the signal to your brain that disturbances aren’t life-threatening, so you can move through your day with a decreased stress response.

Would you like to read more on using mindfulness to calm anxiety? Check out these articles:

Anxiety Much? Mindfulness to the Rescue

Anxiety? Use this Quick Tool to Tame the Runaway Train

Orlando Counseling for Anxiety

If you’d like more information on anxiety counseling in Orlando, click this link to my page on anxiety counseling.

*Giving credit where credit is due, this practice was adapted several times. The practice originated from Katie O’Shea’s, LCPC work in EMDR. It was then adapted by Catherine Lidov, MSW to fit an EMDR and somatic approach. Hillary Bornstein, LMHC, a trauma counselor in Orlando, condensed Catherine’s approach and presented it an Orlando EMDR study group. I have since adapted it a bit, as well, to fit a mindfulness and somatic approach. :)


Lauran is an anxiety and trauma therapist providing counseling in Orlando, FL. She also specializes in helping people heal old broken relationship patterns that keep them from finding, creating, and keeping healthy relationships with partners, friends, and family. Lauran uses a down to earth approach infused with cutting-edge therapies that go beyond traditional talking to help clients feel calm in their body and mind and find peace within themselves.