6 Ways to Stay Calm in a Scary World

New Awakenings Therapy

Wildfires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, mass shootings, international weapons scares and political unrest. These are common topics of conversation for which clients are coming to therapy these days. They express feeling anxious, terrified, angry, unsettled, as if there is no solid ground to stand on. They speak of being more vigilant when they leave the house, holding onto their children’s hands a bit tighter, feeling more “emotional,” and sometimes even hesitant to leave the safety of their home at all. They want to know how to go on with life as usual when it feels as though the world is crumbling down around them? It is a question many of us are facing currently. And although there aren’t any magic solutions, there are ways to move us toward peace during this time of fear and uncertainty.

1.  Know that you are not alone.

Reach out to friends and loved ones and share your fears about the state of the world. You will find that others are feeling similarly and can also use your support. Connect in a real way, not just on social media, but in person. It is important for us to connect with our community during times like this. If this doesn’t feel like it is enough, if you are struggling with daily functioning or feel paralyzed by anxiety or fear, seek out a mental health professional. They are trained to help you to learn ways to cope with your anxiety in a safe, non-judgmental environment.

2.  Limit exposure to news and social media

Although it is important to have knowledge of what is going on in the world, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of information that is out there. We can experience something called “vicarious trauma” from this constant exposure to the tragedy, which can sometimes have just as negative of an effect as direct trauma. People can experience repetitive graphic images, nightmares and general anxiety as a result. I often tell my clients to take news feeds and social media off of their phone. It is a common habit to pick up our phones for a quick update and soon realize we have been scrolling mindlessly for an hour and wonder why we feel so bad afterward.

3.  Take care of yourself

Find ways to de-stress and relax your central nervous system such as listening to soothing music, watching a comforting movie/tv show or practicing deep breathing. Meditate, pray or seek out religious/spiritual leaders if that fits into your world. Make it a point to take time for yourself and not just keep busy with work. By trying to relax periodically throughout our day, even for a few minutes, we can decrease our anxiety and create reserves for coping when things get difficult.

4.  Take action

For some it feels necessary to take action when tragedy strikes. Donate money or time to an organization that you believe in, that seems to be doing good for the world. It is a natural human response to have compassion and to want to help those in need. In turn, this compassion in action can help us to feel less helpless and anxious. Other actions can be to write to your congress person or perhaps use your energy toward your own or your family’s disaster preparedness.

5.  Practice gratitude

It can be helpful to practice gratitude when we feel helpless and can only seem to think about all of the bad things that are happening around us. We must take time to think about all that is good in our lives and in the world. Perhaps writing in a gratitude journal every day and listing 5 things that you are grateful for. This can shift our attention away from all of the bad to actually seeking out the good, even seemingly insignificant things such as the sound of a bird chirping or a stranger smiling at us in greeting.

6.  Breathe.

Finally, if all else fails, take 3 slow, deep breaths. Close your eyes and fully feel the inhalation and the exhalation. This will slow down your central nervous system, help you to feel calm and relaxed, even if only for a few moments. It can also help to bring some clarity as to what to do next, perhaps to try one of the steps above!

Dr. Christina Barber-Addis is the founder of New Awakenings Therapy and is a mindfulness-based, licensed psychologist in private practice in Woodland Hills, California. She specializes in treating adults with anxiety by incorporating mindfulness meditation into her therapy practice.

Clinging to Happiness Leads to More Anxiety

Expert anxiety counseling in Woodland Hills

Christina Barber-Addis, Psy.D.

I recently visited the island of Kauai for a vacation. It was my first trip to Hawaii and the first vacation I had taken in a few years. I remember throughout those five months after booking the trip, I would think about the trip constantly, dreaming about the fun and relaxation that I would experience. When things would get stressful or overwhelming, I would remind myself that more happiness was on the way, in the form of an awesome vacation. And especially as the vacation neared, I found myself becoming more and more impatient with my current workload and daily tasks, dreaming for my vacation to take me away from it. 

Then I went on my vacation and had a wonderful time. But I noticed, underneath the joy, there was this underlying anxiety and agitation that my vacation experience didn’t compare to my expectation of how I thought it would be. In fact, the first few days of the vacation, I actually felt more anxious than prior to arriving. This puzzled me, but in looking back, I think it was because of my unrealistic expectation of the vacation transporting me away from my problems. My expectation was that my time in Kauai would be life-altering and take all my cares away. Of course, this wasn’t the case. All of my troubles and challenges that I had prior to my vacation, travelled on that plane along with me. 

After returning home, the disappointment continued because life threw its many wrenches at me almost as soon as the plane landed. Work was slow, leading to financial woes and the stress of our bathroom remodel reared it’s ugly head. I remember thinking, “Great, I guess all the good from the vacation is cancelled out since I can’t savor the moment. I’m thrown back into the real world again.” But, is this how it should be? Should we expect the joy from a vacation to last beyond our returning home? Are we then clinging to happiness well past its expiration date?

My biggest realization in all of this was that I wasn’t being present in my experience. The expectations and constant comparisons between “real life” and my time on vacation pulled me away from being fully immersed and present in my experience, before, during and after the vacation. What might my experience have been like if I were to allow it all in, the challenges and the joys, equally? What if I had little expectation, but rather, curiosity about my vacation and allow the joy and fun to rise and pass without judgment? All I know is that clinging to happiness only added to my anxiety. 

So how do we do this? How do we not cling to happiness? It is natural to be excited about an upcoming exciting event or vacation. But perhaps when we notice ourselves pulling away from our present experience, even when it is unpleasant, we can notice this and come back to the task at hand. Although not as exciting as the dreamy expectation of the future excitement, we are potentially preventing the anxiety that will come from the expectation that we will be saved from our present challenges. In turn, we can notice when we are being pulled away from joy by the thought of its inevitable end and just feel it, giving ourselves the gift of being present in our lives, right now, in this moment. 

Dr. Christina Barber-Addis is the founder of New Awakenings Therapy and is a mindfulness-based, licensed psychologist in private practice in Woodland Hills, California. She specializes in treating adults with anxiety by incorporating mindfulness meditation into her therapy practice.

How to Get Unstuck

Expert Anxiety Counseling in Encino

I feel stuck. Things feel slow, unmoving and stale. I want change but it seems that the change I want is just out of my reach. There is a sense of others finding this change or even acquiring the exact thing I want but I can’t seem to make it happen

I have heard many clients express these statements and of course, I have also said them myself. It can cause us anxiety and sometimes depression, to feel stuck, unable to move forward. Often, we are waiting for the right answer or to know a specific path before we make a move. However, it may not be so easy to figure this out or to feel certain about which way to go. 

I just realized that one of the symbols that I have been attracted to for a long time is of stones, stacked one on top of the other, gradually getting smaller as you near the top. I even have an image of them on my business cards. It is funny how we are attracted to certain things and realize that there is a much deeper significance behind the attraction. In the Zen Buddhism tradition, these stacked stones are called cairns. One definition reads, 

Cairns symbolize direction, safety and home for travelers moving along life’s path. 

There is even a zen proverb that reads, 

Move and the way will open

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, one of the things I remind my clients, time and again is when we feel stuck, we should just make some kind of movement, no matter how small. This will often lead to another small movement and then another. So we will often go from feeling stuck to feeling as though we are moving forward. Even if this path isn’t the exact one we want, it will likely help us to find it, just through these small movements.

So when we feel stuck, the task is to think of one way, even if it seems insignificant, to make movement. This movement may even seem unrelated to the bigger change that we desire in our lives. Moving in some way, any way, will likely lead us to the right path. We can even keep images or an actual cairn, somewhere where we can see it as a reminder to keep moving. What small move can you make today?

Dr. Christina Barber-Addis is the founder of New Awakenings Therapy and is a mindfulness-based, licensed psychologist in private practice in Woodland Hills, California. She specializes in treating adults with anxiety by incorporating mindfulness meditation into her therapy practice. 

Reflections on the Death of Michael Stone, a Beloved Meditation Teacher

Christina Barber-Addis, Psy.D.

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I didn’t know Michael Stone personally. Nor had I ever been in his physical or cyber presence through teachings or classes. I had only known of him from a few audio meditations that I had found on my favorite meditation app. When I heard the first meditation, I was immediately hooked. I was struck by his clarity of voice, his impeccable pacing and uncanny ability to cut right to the chase. He had a way of teaching each part of the meditation in such a way that was mind-altering. I remember after that first meditation thinking, Whoa. This guy really knows what he is doing and has lived the meditation experience. He would say things like, Let your legs experience themselves. What the heck does that mean?? He was essentially instructing to feel the sensations of the legs without thinking about the legs. But, who would think to describe it like that? Again, mind blown! By describing it in this way, it helped me to understand meditation on a deeper level. I knew I wanted to learn more from him. I quickly learned that he was a well-known meditation teacher and devoted student of Buddhism who converted an old garage into a meditation gathering place in Toronto, Canada. He had an ever-growing following of students all over the world who flocked to take classes from him in person an on-line. He was a passionate activist, writing and speaking about social, environmental and economic challenges in our world.

What I didn’t know about Michael, and what I learned just after his death, was that he suffered with severe Bipolar Disorder. At one time in his illness he thought that if only he could deepen his meditation and spiritual practice, perhaps it would bring him relief from his symptoms. He is not alone in thinking this. Many in the meditation community think that if you meditate enough and deepen your practice enough, it can heal anything. This is of course a trap, and an understandable one, as meditation can have far-reaching benefits for people with a regular practice. However, those of us in the psychological and psychiatric community know that for people with mental disorders, it is often about changes in brain chemistry. And although meditation and other healthy activities like yoga and exercise can cause significant changes in brain chemistry, and can help us cope with symptoms, it is not always enough. Bipolar Disorder, especially the more severe Bipolar 1 Disorder, usually needs medication in order to stabilize the intense mood swings between the sometimes seductively pleasant highs of mania and the often suicidal lows of depression. Many who have been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder don’t want to remain on medication because it can dampen the creativity and productivity that can come with manic episodes. 

Michael was receiving treatment and taking medication for his illness. However, it seemed that even this wasn’t enough to relieve his suffering. On the day of his death, he had a typical day full of errands in Victoria, Canada, near his home. He also tried to acquire a medication at an addictions pharmacy (like a methadone clinic) as he had heard that a low dose of opiates may be beneficial. He found that he was not a candidate for this treatment, so then acquired opiates on the street. He was found later that day, unresponsive, apparently having overdosed on a mixture of opiates that included the drug Fentanyl. He died a few days later after falling into a coma. 

The news of Michael’s death stirred up so much within me. First, the wave of shock came. It felt close to home, being a part of Michael’s community, even never having met him. What followed the shock were many questions: How could this have happened? Why would he take opiates? How could he do this with a family and a baby on the way? I found my questions starting to have a slant of judgment, when truly I didn’t know this person or his suffering at all. And clearly he was suffering greatly to have taken such a risk.

I realized that what surfaced next for me was another kind of judgment. It was a sense of shock that someone so experienced in meditation, self-compassion and loving kindness could be also going through such intense turmoil. In some ways it mirrored the trap of believing that meditation can be a cure-all for mental distress and illness. In the meditation community and also in the therapy community, our teachers and therapists are often idolized. We have a tendency to put them on a pedestal, somehow believing them to be all-knowing and having surpassed all of the obstacles that we still face. I found in my grief over Michael Stone’s death that I had done the same with him. I had created a story in my mind of him having risen above our earthly difficulties, perhaps finding enlightenment after years of practice. It is such a humbling reminder that we are all just human beings trying to find our way through our suffering. We are all just trying to breathe through it all, moment to moment. 

Even though I will never meet Michael Stone or have the honor of learning from him in his presence, I have learned so much from his final days on earth. I have been touched by his devotion to cultivating a culture of compassion and wisdom amidst his own personal struggles. Michael, may you be free from suffering. May we all be free from suffering.

If you’d like to learn more about Michael Stone and his teachings, 

visit his website at : https://michaelstoneteaching.com/

Dr. Christina Barber-Addis is the founder of New Awakenings Therapy and is a mindfulness-based, licensed psychologist in private practice in Woodland Hills, California. She specializes in treating adults with anxiety by incorporating mindfulness meditation into her therapy practice. 

How to Stop Your Anxious Thoughts

Anxious thoughts

By the time people reach out to see me for therapy, they have been plagued by anxiety that is so severe, it feels as if it is running their lives. They report sometimes having obsessive thoughts that seem to never stop or nagging worrisome thoughts that elevate their heart rate and keep them in an almost constant state of fear. This can sometimes not only cause emotional distress but also physical symptoms such as high blood pressure, dizziness, nausea, digestive issues, and the list goes on and on.

What if I told you that almost 100% of the time, it is our thoughts that are the culprit? Most of our anxiety, even at it’s most severe, begins with one anxious thoughts that builds and builds until it feels as if our mind is filled with them. So then the answer must be that we just need to figure out what that first thought is and get rid of it! Right? Wrong.

Unfortunately, there is no way to get rid of these anxious thoughts completely. I know, that would have been the best, simplest solution possible but it is just not the case. We really don’t have complete control over what thoughts are coming into our mind. I’m sure you have tried to tell yourself, “okay, mind, just have positive thoughts now” or “stop thinking negative thoughts”. How did this work out for you? Not very well, right? It’s just not that simple. A meditation teacher once told me, “our minds create thoughts like our mouths create saliva.” Thoughts are streaming into our minds like a continuously moving conveyer belt, dropping sometimes random thoughts, images, stories and memories into our consciousness. And, as you have probably noticed, they are being dropped into our minds at an alarmingly fast rate. So it is virtually impossible to stop thoughts from dropping. 

Although this isn’t great news, it doesn’t mean that there is nothing we can do to feel better. Our control lives in what we do with the thoughts once they arrive.

So what can we do with these anxious thoughts?

1.  Don’t Believe Everything Your Mind Tells You

We can start with an awareness that we don’t have to believe everything that comes up in our minds, that we don’t have to take it all to heart or allow it to change our moods. As humans, we have the tendency to believe all of the thoughts that come into our heads. But I have to tell you, not all of your thoughts are real or accurate. Sometimes, they are flat-out lies. It’s true, your mind sometimes lies to you! Even our own memories can become distorted or seem to be more negative when we are already in a bad mood. Often, our minds will randomly drop images or thoughts that are incredibly scary or disturbing and again, aren’t really based in reality. But I know from experience, these thoughts and images can stick with me and set off a spiral of anxiety or even depression.

There may be times where it seems impossible not to believe our thoughts. But perhaps if we can remember this just 10% of the time, we can notice an improvement in our anxiety or low-mood levels.

2.  You Are Not Your Thoughts

By putting some distance between ourselves and our thoughts, we begin to realize that we are not what we think. What I mean by this is that we can begin to identify with our thoughts. A good example are unkind thoughts that we all have about ourselves, such as “I am stupid” or “I am ugly”. We can believe these thoughts so much so that it becomes a part of who we are. But actually, these are just thoughts. Just because they come up in our minds, doesn’t make them true, as I explain above.

3.  Come Back to the Moment

Anxious thoughts are always directed toward the future and often begin with “what if…” or are full of possible scenarios, usually of a catastrophic nature. Most of us are not able to predict the future, and yet we try to do it all the time. We have amazing, vivid imaginations, which can be helpful in many creative ways. However, this hurts us when we begin worrying about the endless and sometimes horrific scenarios that may come to be. And in actuality, I have found that 99% of the time, the things that I’m sure will happen, never do. 

When we begin to try our hand at predicting the future, it is possible to disrupt the thought loop by coming back to the moment. Again, we are in the future when these anxious thoughts come up, so it is possible to shift our minds back to the task at hand, which may be our work, time with our loved ones, etc. When caught in these anxious thoughts, our minds often pull us away from our present moment experience which is all that truly exists. The past is gone and the future hasn’t happened yet, thus, the present moment is precious and filled with possibility.

Dr. Christina Barber-Addis is the founder of New Awakenings Therapy and is a mindfulness-based, licensed psychologist in private practice in Encino, California. She specializes in treating adults with anxiety by incorporating mindfulness meditation into her therapy practice. 

4 Steps to Finding the Perfect Therapist

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I’ve had many clients come to see me, expressing their frustration over this process, and how they had many failed attempts before finding me. They discussed using their insurance directory for guidance, only to be left with a list of names that they knew nothing about, leaving them to cold call one therapist after the other, not knowing what to say on the therapist’s voicemail or directly to the therapist. People can feel as though they are flying blind and not sure how to proceed.

So, here is a step-by-step guide that will hopefully make this process a bit easier!

STEP 1: SEARCH FOR A THERAPIST ON GOOGLE

If you have a list of names either from your insurance company or from your primary care physician, or other professional, I highly recommend doing a Google search. Although it can be painstaking, it can help you to weed out therapists that don’t seem to be a good fit. Personally, if a therapist does not have a professional website, I view that as a red flag because a high number of people are searching the internet for their health and mental health needs. It does give you some sense of the person you will be sitting with and telling your life story to and hopefully building a relationship with. If you feel turned off by one’s website or by the fact that they don’t have one, you can scratch that person off of your list. Often therapists will explain their approach and their specialties on their website and this may confirm what you are looking for or prove that they may not be a good fit. Often, they also have a photo of themselves which also gives you an idea of what it would be like to sit with them. 

If you don’t have a list of names, you can do a search for therapists in your area. Perhaps if you are suffering with anxiety, you could search, “Anxiety therapy in Los Angeles”, or “Encino therapists”.

STEP 2: USE PSYCHOLOGY TODAY OR OTHER THERAPY DIRECTORIES

Usually once you start googling, if the therapist is on Psychology Today (a very popular therapist directory), their profile will also pop up in your search results. This is very convenient as you can gather a good deal of information from their Psychology Today profile. Most therapists will list their specialties, types of therapy they provide (individual, couples, group) and types of people they provide services for (adults, kids, older adults). Therapists will also have a blurb about themselves and how they feel that they are unique or how their services are helpful to potential clients.

STEP 3: WHAT DO I SAY TO A POTENTIAL THERAPIST?

I highly recommend that you call several therapists, as some may not be taking new clients or after speaking with them on the phone, you may not want to schedule an appointment. Most therapists have a free phone consultation so take advantage of this time! Many clients ask, “What should I say when I call a therapist for the first time”? Before calling, take some time to jot down some notes about what you would like to know about the therapist. It would be helpful to know what their approach is when working with clients. For example, are they more active in their style, asking a lot of questions and providing feedback or do they sit back and let the client talk more. This is important for you to consider because you may prefer one over the other. Some people would like their therapist to give more feedback and perhaps actively set goals with them. While others find it helpful when they are allowed to talk freely and come up with solutions on their own with little guidance from the therapist. 

You may also want to know if they work with your particular issue. For example, if you are looking for help with a past trauma or PTSD symptoms, you can ask whether they specialize in this, or have experience working with these issues. You might also want someone who is sensitive to LGBT issues. Not all therapists are sensitive or experiences in this are and since this can be a particularly scary subject to discuss, it is important to feel a sense of comfort with a therapist before beginning.

Another important question is whether the therapist takes your insurance or what their fees are. I would recommend getting to know the therapist’s style before asking about fees as you may find that after a therapist answers your questions, you may feel a strong connection with them and want to work with them. This may help you to consider whether their fee is something you can budget for since it has a high value to you. If you ask about fees first, you may decide you can’t work with them prematurely. Obviously you have to consider your financial situation and what works best in your life.

STEP 4: SCHEDULE APPOINTMENTS WITH A FEW THERAPISTS

Talking on the phone with a therapist is an important first step to getting a sense of how you may work with them. However, you will not truly know how you will feel with a therapist until you meet with them in person. Thus, it is important to try on a few for size. You want to see what it is like in their office. Do you feel comfortable? Is the environment a good fit? Is the office in a convenient location? Do you feel a sense of privacy and confidentiality?

Take this time to get a sense of the therapist and whether it feels as though over time, there is a good chance that you will be able to talk about difficult issues and emotions. Keep in mind that therapy is a process and it takes time to drop our guards and begin to trust our therapist, just as in any type of relationship. This is a therapeutic relationship and if a sense of trust or bonding is not created, you will likely not meet the therapy goals that you set for yourself. However, if a strong therapeutic bond is created, there is opportunity for tremendous growth and healing. 

Dr. Christina Barber-Addis is the founder of New Awakenings Therapy and is a mindfulness-based, licensed psychologist in private practice in Encino, California. She specializes in treating adults with anxiety by incorporating mindfulness meditation into her therapy practice. 

 

Starting Therapy is Scary

Anxiety Therapy

Some might say that starting therapy causes us anxiety because there is still a good deal of stigma around mental illness, that there is much misinformation about mental health treatment. I do agree with this. However, I believe there is another explanation, that is likely connected to the power that stigma still holds. I think that we are actually fearful of our own minds and what we may find if we unleash our deepest, darkest secrets not only onto ourselves but to another person. I think that human beings will avoid being with their own thoughts, to delve into the deep recesses of their own minds for fear of what they may find. So perhaps the real question is…

Why do we find our own minds so scary??

More and more I’ve noticed that people coming in to see me for therapy are bogged down by how fast the world is moving. They are struggling to maintain this speed by keeping up with the latest information on the internet and social media. They are finding it hard to put down their phones, even for 5 minutes to be present in a conversation with their dinner companions. Or when they have a few minutes free at work, rather than taking a few quiet moments to themselves, they are picking up their phones to play Candy Crush. There is a constant pull to fill every moment with something, rather than allowing time for stillness and contemplation. And this pull is leading to an ever increasing amount of anxiety because there is so much information to consume and not enough time to consume it all. And a part of this anxiety is that we are being pushed farther and farther away from ourselves.

Often my clients will say, “I don’t know how to relax”. And why would they? They spend much of their time either working or filling their minds with information, images, and other distractions. So then when it comes time to be still and quiet, to get to know what is going on in their minds, as we are apt to do in a therapy session, it is incredibly uncomfortable. And who would want to move toward this discomfort on purpose? Not many! It is much more pleasant to mindlessly scroll through Facebook or check out a friend’s new cat photos on Instagram. 

What might happen if we were to take that 5 minute break at work and instead of picking up our phone, we close our eyes and just feel ourselves breathing? We may notice that the breath slows and we feel a bit more relaxed, a bit more slowed down. But what we also start to notice is how fast our minds are moving from thought to thought and sometimes these thoughts are not pleasant. Often, they are mean and shameful. And what does this mean about us, if we have these mean and shameful thoughts, about others and ourselves? Do we really want to get to know more of this person that has such thoughts?

So why the hell would we want to go see a therapist that will encourage us to look at these thoughts and the self who is having them a little more intimately? That sounds like a horrible idea! It makes so much sense that this idea would repel a person from making that phone call to a therapist to set up an initial appointment. It seems more ideal to move away from this understanding and avoid feeling the discomfort that will come with it. Because, why would we want to move toward the discomfort? 

Is it possible that by moving closer to the anxiety of what is really in our minds, by understanding intimately what goes on there, that we can make positive changes in our lives? Is it possible that this exploration that therapy provides can soften some of those hardened edges and find the relief we are looking for? Let me put it to you this way: have you ever had the experience where you have conflict with a person and you notice that the more you avoid talking to them, the worse you feel and the harder it is to resolve the conflict when you do get together to talk? So much resentment, hurt feelings and anger start to build and sometimes to the point of explosion. However, once you do come together to talk, when you move toward the anxiety around that interaction, you feel relief and less suffering, even if there isn’t a perfect resolution. It is the same with our minds. The more we avoid understanding, the worse we feel. We must attempt to befriend our minds enough to start a conversation. And what can come from this conversation is sometimes scary, often meaningful and never boring.

But this is not a journey that you have to do alone. In fact, I don’t recommend that at all. With the help and guidance of a therapist that you feel comfortable with, the journey to get to know your mind can be just a bit easier, knowing we have a partner through it all. I encourage you to try this out. If you feel it is time to start therapy, perhaps to heal some anxiety or trauma, move toward the discomfort of taking that first step to call a therapist. You may be pleasantly surprised by what happens next.

Dr. Christina Barber-Addis is the founder of New Awakenings Therapy and is a mindfulness-based, licensed psychologist in private practice in Encino, California. She specializes in treating adults with anxiety by incorporating mindfulness meditation into her therapy practice.