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Is There Something Wrong With Me? (Part 4- Intentional Practices)

Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended as medical or psychological advice, but rather as personal opinion and educational information.

Blog Image by Liza Summer via Pexels

First Things First

Welcome to the last installment in the series entitled “Is There Something Wrong With Me”? Today we will focus on intentional strategies to help us care for our mental health when dealing with worry/anxiety and sadness/depression. 

Did you read the previous post introducing the concept of mental health coaching, and the posts on anxiety and depression? Those are a very detailed exploration of how counseling and coaching approach the topics separately, but with equal importance. I highly encourage you to read them before continuing with the post on intentional strategies for mental health and wellness. 

There are many, many other categories of mental health disorders that I have intentionally not touched on in this series simply because they are quite complex and not topics addressed in the realm of mental health and wellness coaching. (*A comprehensive list of other disorders that would need a professional diagnosis and therapeutic intervention can be found at the bottom of the newsletter.)

Normal emotions that may evolve into to a clinical diagnosis (like sadness becoming major depressive disorder or worry becoming clinical anxiety disorder) are disorders that are often encountered within the realm of coaching. Others, like obsessive compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, are more severe and would need professional diagnosis and therapeutic intervention.  

To ensure my clients are receiving the most appropriate mental health and wellness services, Well Soul Studio’s Discovery Session and Intake Process include a comprehensive mental health disclosure. This confirms that a client has had the opportunity to share any previous, or current, diagnosis with their coach so that they do not inadvertently substitute coaching for counseling, psychotherapy, psychiatry, substance abuse treatment, legal advice, medical advice or other professional support.

I also remind clients that though I am educated and trained a a counselor, and previously worked in trauma therapy, I am not offering those services because Well Soul Studio operates solely as a coaching practice. A few examples of how I collaboratively work with anxiety and depression in coaching, and situation in which I would refer to another professional, are below.

Quick Take:

  • Occasional, temporary worry, anxiety, or spinning thoughts? Yes, we can work on that together. Clinical Anxiety Disorder or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? No, that would be referred to a licensed clinician. 
  • Occasional, temporary sadness, melancholy, or mild depression? Yes, we can work on that together. Major Depressive Disorder or Bipolar Disorder? No, that would be referred to a licensed clinician. 
  • Learning how to find joy after a season of loss or processed trauma? Yes, we can work on that together. Overwhelming Grief or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? No, that would be referred to a licensed clinician.

Affective States

When you experience anxiety, it is an affective state of fear. When you experience depression, it is an affective state of sadness.  Anxiety and depression are both affective states, meaning they are a secondary underlying emotional state an individual experiences after feeling a primary emotion.

What are the primary emotions? There are numerous feelings charts and emotional wheels online. Each have slight variations in the labels they utilize for primary and secondary emotions. Such an example is (​Feelings Wheel 2.pdf​). However, most researchers agree on the six primary emotions: Happy, Sad, Anger, Fear, Surprise and Disgust. These are the foundational emotions that most people can recognize in themselves and others. (And familiar to anyone who saw Pixar’s Inside Out).

Why is it important to understand primary emotions? An individual who is purposeful about feeling, processing, and creating intentional practices around managing the primary emotions has a capacity to engage with a wide range of emotions effectively. Developing a toolbox with intentional practice to to address a variety of emotions ensures you are processing the emotion you are experiencing in a healthy way rather than getting derailed by them. Our emotions impact our mind, body, and heart and therefore it is important to address each avenue through intentional practices.

INTENTIONAL STRATEGIES FOR NAVIGATING MILD AND TEMPORARY EXPERIENCES OF ANXIETY

Anxious thoughts can occur in our amygdala and our cortex. Amygdala based anxiety is a reaction in our sympathetic nervous system as a result to the body’s response to a perceived threat. In less than a tenth of a second, our body is determining if a fight-flight-freeze response will aid in our survival of a perceived threat. To calm that anxious response of the amygdala, we need to calm the body. 

Anxious thoughts can also originate in our cortex from our runaway-spiraling-out-of-control-thoughts. When these neural pathways are well worn and highly activated, they recruit the amygdala. Essentially the amygdala hijacks the cortex, taking our logical brain offline, which is why we cannot think our way back to calmness. Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux describes it as a “hostile takeover of consciousness by emotion.” To calm the anxious thoughts that originate in the cortex, we also need to calm the body so our cortex can come back online. If you have kids, hopefully this can provide some context for why when our kids lose it, no amount of rational conversation will calm them down in that moment.

The good news? Neuroplasticity can change our brains. Where attention is focused neurons fire and wire together. When we repeatedly focus on anxious thoughts, those neural pathways get stronger. When we intentionally choose alternate responses to stress and anxiety provoking situations, we can rewire our brains towards calm. By changing our behavior, we can change our brains! It takes approximately four weeks of intentional focus for new neural pathways to develop, so practice and repetition is important.

So, what intentional strategies can we incorporate to engage our parasympathetic nervous system to experience peace (lower stress hormones, increase our calm, rewire our brain)? Counselor and author Sissy Goff shares five things that are important in attending to your anxious thoughts: Listening To Your Body, Breathing, Grounding Exercises, Mindfulness and Self-Care. Many of these will already be familiar to my clients and newsletter readers!

1) Listen to your body
Renowned psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps The Score, writes, “Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.” What does that mean for us? Increasing our awareness of the symptoms we experience before the alarm bells go off and our body is highly activated by our sympathetic nervous system is key to to changing our behavior. 

Practical Application: Do you struggle to know what you are feeling? This is very common for individuas raised in a family that suppressed feelings and expression of emotion. Reference a feelings chart, or use a felt sense worksheet, to really discover what you are feeling inside. Feeling stuck and need some help? If offer Somatic Therapy in my coaching sessions which is a critical step in identifying what you are feeling (vs what you are thinking), understanding your body’s ladder of escalation, and learning your triggers.

2) Breathe
Inhale deeply and slowly through your nose (as if you were smelling a bouquet of flowers). Notice the cool air entering your nose on the inhale. Allow the breath to fill your lungs completely al the way down to your diaphragm. Allow vour upper chest to remain still. Hold for a moment. Empty your lungs fully by exhaling through your mouth (as if you were blowing out a candle). Notice the warm air leaving your mouth on the exhale. Repeat a few time using a slow and steady rhythm. If distracting thoughts enter you mind, just let them float away and focus on your next breath.

Practical ApplicationIf you subscribed to the newsletter, recall that you received Breathwork Basics downloadable guides for five different breathing techniques during the first series. These included guides on Breathwork for Beginners, 4-7-8 Breathwork, Square Breathing, Guided Visualization Breathing, and Breath Prayers. Why not revisit those resources and incorporate them into your daily routine? Not a newsletter subscriber? ​Sign up​ now!

3) Grounding exercises
There are many grounding exercises you can use to bring yourself to the present moment. When you are lost in thought ruminating about the past, or worrying about the future, grounding exercises can help you reconnect to the present. Ideas include: name everything you can see around you that is the same color, count backwards from 100 by fives, run cold water over your hands or splash your face, repeat lyrics to a favorite song, recite a beloved bible verse, name five things you are grateful for, go for a walk and notice with all of your senses, say three kind and encouraging comments about yourself to yourself. The list can be endless so use your imagination.

Practical Application: If you subscribed to the newsletter, you will remember that the very first download you received was the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique. Why not revisit that resource and incorporate it into your routine? Not a newsletter subscriber? ​Sign up​ now!

4) Mindfulness
Mindfulness is simply an intentional practice of focusing on the present. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in the 1970’s to help hospitalized patients “relieve suffering by focusing our attention on the present moment, as opposed to rumination on our past or worrying about our future.” In the years that have followed, countless research studies have been done to prove the profound effect mindfulness has on our our body, mind, and soul. Meditation, prayer, and memorizing scripture are all ways to be practice mindfulness. 

Practical Application: Consider taking a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class locally or online from a certified teacher. Additionally, the creator of MBSR, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, offers a self-paced online class through Master Class. Watch the ​trailer​ for a sense of what MBSR is all about. There are also many books and workbooks available on the subject by teachers in the field of MBSR. Two books that are an easy entry in to learning MBSR include ​Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: The MBSR Program for Enhancing Health and Vitality​ and ​A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook.​

5) Self-Care
Taking care of yourself is simply prioritizing the necessary components of sleep, eating nutritious food, drinking water, exercising, enjoying hobbies, engaging in life giving relationships, and tending your soul. I often remind my clients “soul-care is self-care” so they remember a wholistic approach to self-care includes body, mind and soul.

Practical Application: Take some time to think through your health and wellness practice. Where do you see strengths? Where do you notice areas that need improvement? Consider making a map, chart, or list of self-care activities you currently engage in that intentionally promote wellness in your body, mind and heart. Then do the same for areas you need to be more intentional about focusing on. Give yourself grace for the areas that need improvement. When we know better, we do better.

INTENTIONAL STRATEGIES FOR NAVIGATING MILD AND TEMPORARY EXPERIENCES OF DEPRESSION

Depression is a stable state in which the body and mind will remain in this state of melancholy, sadness, and depression unless an individual intentionally creates pathways out of this affective state. Our emotional circuits are more easily activated by negative experiences and we focus more on negative experiences. Negative bias means our negative experiences seem to carry more weight than our positive experiences in the long run. “Our brains are biased towards pain, loss, and the emotional toll of mistakes which often distort memories of the past and expectations of the future” says neuroscientist Dr. Alex Korb, PhD. 

The good news? Once again it’s neuroplasticity! Dr. Korb states that an upward spiral of “positive life changes actually cause positive neural changes in the brain’s electrical activity, its chemical composition, even its ability to produce new neurons” which can “alter your brain’s circuitry” to “reverse the course of mild depression.” To combat pessimism, we need to be intentional about strengthening the brain’s circuits for optimism. This involves taking intentional steps to engage in activities that increase the neurotransmitters that play an important role in noticing positive things and having an optimistic outlook. 

So, what intentional strategies can we incorporate to create the optimal environment for our neurotransmitters and neural pathways? An influential system of chemical neurotransmitters in the brain (serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, oxytocin, GABA, melatonin, endorphins, and endocannabinoids) can be activated by intentional pursuit of the following activities which improves mood and reverses mild depression.

1) Exercise
Physical exercise impacts your brain by improving your energy, improving your mood, improving your sleep, improving your appetite, improving your mental clarity and focus, and improving your overall physical fitness and health which impacts your view of yourself. Exercise, especially when learning a new sport, skill, or form of recreation, activates neural pathways and neurotransmitters that promote optimism. 

Practical Application: If a formal exercise routine seems like to much to start with, begin with simply walking everyday. Consult a personal trainer or take a fitness class if your want to set fitness goals to work towards.

2) Develop Quality Sleep Habits
Much has been written on sleep hygiene or sleep architecture, which is a combination of the environment and actions that promote, or potentially interfere with, quality sleep. Variables such as room temperature, level of noise, amount of darkness, comfort of mattress, use of blue light technology or television in the hour prior to sleeping, food or beverage consumed three hours prior to bedtime, regular schedule for sleep time and wake time, only using your bedroom for sleep related activities, establishing a sleep routine prior to bedtime to cue the release of melatonin, etc. all contribute to whether an individual is getting refreshing and restorative sleep. 

Practical Application: Start with one small change each week and build up to a better nights sleep.

3) Reduce Stress And Attending To Anxious Thoughts
Revisit the section on “intentional strategies for navigating mild and temporary experiences of anxiety” above.

Practical Application: Revisit the downloadable resources from the Grounding Exercise or Basics of Breathwork series. If you don’t have these resources, access the downloads by subscribing to the newsletter.

4) Self-Affirmation
Become conscious of the way you speak to yourself internally. Each time you catch yourself saying something negative, consciously choose to combat negativity bias by saying three to five positive things about yourself. 

Practical Application: Why not start right now? 1) “I am proud of myself for making the time to read this article. 2) Self-affirmation is new to me, and makes me a little uncomfortable, but I will benefit hearing good things about myself. 3) I am taking steps to make small changes in my mental health.” Now it’s your turn. Add a few more positive thoughts that are affirming.

5) Gratitude
Creating a daily habit of acknowledging things, and people, you are grateful for will train your brain to look for the good around you. Extra benefits for writing them down in a gratitude journal so you can reflect on all the good things in your life when you are having a difficult day. 

Practical Application: While there is evidenced based research that proves the value of daily gratitude, the only way to find out for yourself is to give it a try. Find a beautiful journal and start, or end, your day journaling 3 things that you are grateful for in your life. Every day. If you prefer, you can draw pictures or take photographs to intersperse with the writing. When you have a particularly challenging day, review your previous lists of things, people, and experiences you are grateful for.

6) Sunlight
Daily sunlight is important in your production of vitamin D as well as establishing your circadian rhythms. For those of us impacted by reduced sunlight in winter months, light therapy is an evidenced based way to combat seasonal affective disorder. I personally recommend the ​Verilux Happy Light​, but there are many brands that offer light therapy with the correct intensity to mimic daily sun exposure. 

Practical ApplicationAre you able to go for a walk outside? Sit by a sunny window? Drink your morning coffee or read by a light therapy box?

7) Remember Happy Memories
Looking at photographs or videos of loved ones, memorable trips, and important milestones as well as retelling stories of happy experiences or accomplishments with family, friends, or coworkers is a significant way to activate neural pathways and neurotransmitters that promote optimism.

Practical Application: Make a plan to look through a photo album or watch old home movies. Take advantage of shared memories and ask family and friends to share their memories around a favorite trip or milestone the next time you get together, chat on the phone or FaceTime/Zoom.

8) Set Long-Term Goals
“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how” stated the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Having a long-term goal provides a why. Keeping your brain active and engaged in a pursuit of a goal, and all the decisions and learning that occur along the way to meet that goal, activates neural pathways and neurotransmitters that promote optimism.

Practical Application: What do you want to learn? Any goals you may have set aside that you would like to dust off and pursue?

9) Physical Touch
Appropriate physical touch is crucial in activating neurotransmitters that promote optimism. Whether it’s hugging a loved one, petting a beloved pet, receiving a professional massage, shaking a person’s hand when introduced, or patting a coworker on the shoulder, all physical touch is crucial to thriving. Research has shown that individuals in long term care facilities, orphanages, institutions, medical facilities, as well as individuals who live alone who do not receive appropriate physical touch have a higher rates of depression. Giving and receiving physical touch is literally life giving.

Practical ApplicationCan you recall when was the last time you intentionally gave, or received, appropriate physical touch? Even just thinking about it is good for your mood!

10) Social Connection
Finally, social connection activates neural pathways and neurotransmitters that promote optimism. Being known by others, having a sense of community, being cared for, and caring about others are crucial for our mental health. The size of your community is less important than the quality of your relationships. People who are deeply known, and accepted, experience higher levels of mental health and wellness.

Practical Application: Schedule a get together with family or friends. Looking for new connections with like minded people? Join a book club, participate in a bible study, attend a fitness class, pursue a new degree, take up a new hobby.

Final Thoughts
When we are stressed and feel worried, anxious, melancholy, or depressed it is easy to feel stuck and difficult to imagine anything changing. I do hope you will be inspired and empowered to take intentional steps to proactively protect your mental health so that you do not end up feeling stuck. Additionally, if you are concerned you may be experiencing a major anxiety or depressive disorder, I would encourage you seek professional help from a a trusted medical doctor who can give you a referral to a psychiatrist, psychologist, our counselor to help you on your journey to better mental health and wellness.

(NOTE: I only recommend books I have actually read, and resources I actually use. I do not include affiliate links. Why? Affiliate links give an influencer, blogger, or creator a financial payback for recommending an item, which I believe creates bias. If I personally recommend a book or resource to you, my trusted blog readers and clients, it’s because I think it is valuable and not because I will be financially rewarded for recommending the item.)

I’M GRATEFUL YOU TOOK THE TIME TO READ THIS POST. DID YOU FIND IT HELPFUL? IF SO,I WOULD BE HONORED IF YOU SHARED IT WITH A FRIEND.
Bethany Grace

*The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-TR) categories noted below are not disorders that coaching clients would be exploring when entering a coaching relationship. These are left to the realm of a licensed psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist specializing in these disorders.

  • obsessive compulsive disorder (though anxiety is one trait within the disorder)
  • bipolar disorders (though depression is one trait within the disorder)
  • trauma and stressor related disorders
  • dissociative disorders
  • eating disorders
  • sleep-wake disorders
  • impulse control and conduct disorders
  • substance related and addictive disorders
  • neurodevelopment disorders
  • neurocognitive disorders
  • personality disorders
  • psychotic disorders
  • gender dysphoria disorder
  • sexual dysfunction disorders
  • paraphillic disorders

Get Coached

Do you need an intentional space so you can embrace your authentic self, tend your soul, and thrive in your one precious life? I’d love to help!

Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended as medical or psychological advice, but rather as personal opinion and educational information. Though Well Soul Studio, LLC was founded by a clinician with a master’s degree in counseling, the scope of this practice is limited to certified embodied coaching, somatic therapy, and enneagram discovery. If it is determined a client’s needs would better be served by a licensed mental health professional such as a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist, Well Soul Studio, LLC will always make that recommendation. A client’s mental health and well-being are always a priority at Well Soul Studio, LLC. 

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