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Posts Tagged ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’

English: Black bear in the Canadian Rockies

A program like Planet Earth Live is not one that would normally appeal to me; I find the cruelty that is the circle of life difficult to watch.  However, being in the right place at the right time meant I happened to catch some of the action.  The program mainly focusses on young animals and the struggles they and their mother’s face in order to survive.  Whilst I did find this difficult to watch, I was also left with an air of optimism that some of the struggles we humans face as mothers are natural and part of life rather than due to just being inadequate and lazy – feelings which probably underlie much of my anxiety.

During one of the episodes I watched, a black bear mother, relatively new to her role and therefore inexperienced, was seen allowing her babies to climb trees in the snow.  Even I could see that they needed to be warmed up as they were visibly shivering.  When they eventually descended, instead of wrapping them up close to her, the mother seemed to walk off.  It became clear later however, that she was finding a suitable place for them all to curl up for the night and by the morning all three bears were well and warm.  My immediate reaction after seeing that sequence of events was the realisation that being a parent does not all come naturally.  Now, I know that we are told this, but the underlying message that many mothers actually get is that it should be natural.  On the surface all the advice that you are given about feeding and  sleeping are there to help mothers who are inexperienced, yet the sheer amount of conflicting advice between experts seems to actually suggests that you will know which advice is best for your baby!  What if you don’t? Seeing this family of bears made me realise that generally even if you get it wrong to begin with, eventually you will figure it out.

This lead me on to my second eureka moment with these bears: little mistakes will not have a profound impact on a baby forever.  Again, writing this now, it seems logical, but we are so used to people telling us the problems we have are due to our childhood that I have become obsessed with not making a single mistake incase my little boy becomes a ‘damaged’ adult.  Actually, it is not going to have a lasting effect on him if he is too cold between the car and the house or hungry while dinner is cooking or doesn’t get up and go to bed at exactly the same time every day.

Anxiety is a funny thing because it makes you believe things that, logically, you know are not true.  This is because instead of thinking thoughts, you feel them.  When my sons ‘routine’ is disrupted I don’t consciously think “this is bad” but I feel it because I feel sick or tight in my chest.  Through CBT I have begun to learn not to associate these feeling with negative thoughts but it is hard.  So the actions of the mother bear provides evidence to help me prove what I logically thin; helping me to be that little bit less anxious.  Thanks Black Bear and Planet Earth Live!

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The feet of a tightrope walker.

The feet of a tightrope walker. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About 10 weeks ago I started Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with some trepidation (how far were they going to push me?), with some relief (I had been waiting for a long time), but mainly with an expectation that this had to work because I knew I couldn’t continue down the ever narrowing path that I had got myself on.  Now that it’s over, has it worked?

Certainly, I am no longer avoiding things: I do the food shopping, I drive to and from work, I have had my haircut at a hairdressers, I have even driven on the motorway (something I haven’t done for 10 years).  I experience less panic attacks, and the ones I do experience are shorter and less intense.  From outside it has definitely worked.  In the first two sessions the therapist had me hyperventilating to prove that it wouldn’t hurt me, that I was bringing on the worst of the symptoms myself.  Then we started doing things I didn’t do – she took me to Tesco and on the train.  I had homework every week:  I had to welcome panic attacks without any safety behaviours (see if they were as bad as I thought), I had to not avoid things, I had to record everything down in diaries.  I responded very quickly and I have got my life back.

Yet the underlying anxiety I have hasn’t gone:   I still have knots in my stomach that tell me I have something to fear, or feelings of guilt over… I don’t know.  I still feel tired from the daily effort of coping with anxiety.  I still cannot have a panic attack without some safety behaviours; even though I fight it, there is something in me that doesn’t believe 100% that my panic attacks won’t send me mad or hurt me.  I still have to actively avoid avoiding things rather than just go about my daily life.

From the point of view of my therapist I am a complete success as I am in charge of my anxiety now.  “You were never trying to get rid of the anxiety symptoms, just look at them differently,” was how she reassured me at our last session.  However, from my point of view I feel I am stood on a tightrope and it wouldn’t take much to lose my balance and find myself falling back into avoidance behaviours and round the clock anxiety.  At the moment it takes a lot of energy and guts to keep walking along the tightrope because there is part of me that wants to jump off – in some ways it would be easier.

Despite this, I am going to try my hardest to stay on the tightrope and continue to walk along it albeit slowly because what CBT has done, I believe, is kick-start a recovery.  It has not been a miracle cure I so wanted it to be, but it has given me enough knowledge of my condition to shrink it slightly.  It is now up to me to continue to shrink it further because actually I would like to get rid of the symptoms of anxiety.  Will I always be susceptible to anxiety? Probably.  Will I always have to work this hard at it?  Hopefully not.  Has it worked?  It’s too soon to say.  Would I recommend CBT to others?  Definitely.

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High Anxiety (album)

Image via Wikipedia

Scratching, tensing my muscles, trying to control my breathing (usually by hyperventilating), stamping my feet, blinking quickly, rubbing my eyes, getting out of the situation as quickly as possible. The list of ‘safety behaviours’ are endless – there are probably some I don’t even know I do.   Built up over years of trying to control the anxiety and panic attacks.  Built up one behaviour at a time, as each behaviour proves insufficient against the wave of anxiety so another one must be found to control it further.  Built up until eventaully the bricks have surrounded me and I cannot escape the anxiety or the avoidance behaviours that keep me locked in.

“This week I want you to not do any of these behaviours.  When you feel anxiety, just let it happen.”  These were the words of my cognitive behavioural therapist this week.  It’s that simple.  Yet if it’s that simple why haven’t I done this before? If it’s that simple why have I been wasting my time on these behaviours for years?  Logically, I have known for some time that these behaviours don’t stop the anxiety; that it was probably making it worse, so why didn’t I just stop?

If you’re a councillor and know the biology and psychology it is that simple, or perhaps if you have never had a panic attack it is that simple but the truth is that, despite what I know rationally when I am sitting here now, I also know that when I feel even slightly anxious, I completely believe that what I feel is going to cause me to die.   If you were falling, would you not put your hands out in front of you?  It’s that simple for me!

That is not to say I’m not going to give it a go.  I will try to just let it happen when that nervous feeling whirls around my body. I will try to relax my hands rather than clench them, try to breathe normally rather than hyper-ventilate, try not to twitch, not to scratch, not to fidget or run away.  At best that’s going to take some practice, at worse it’s going to be impossible.  Never the less, I will try as hard as I can – let’s face it –  the behaviours aren’t helping so maybe not doing them will.

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