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How past experiences can still affect us today

It’s been an established fact by a lot of therapeutic modalities that our past experiences can have a profound effect on the way that we behave, react and relate to others, in relationships. A lot of talking therapies require clients to dig deep into their past to try and explain their present day symptoms or behaviours. This can be helpful for a lot of people and can also assist with making sense of things happening to them right now. However, it’s not always that simple, and it isn’t a good option for people who have no memory of their experiences. A lot of Catriona’s clients have little to no memory of their childhood, their recall can be sketchy or even non-existent. All they are aware of is their repeating patterns of behaviour, or that their reactions to things or people seem to make no sense. They usually find that these behaviours are really hard to change. They aren’t aware of how their past experiences are affecting their lives today.

When Catriona is working with clients, whatever behaviours they are exploring, whether it’s eating patterns, obsessive traits, anxiety about certain things, she always views them with an acceptance. Accepting that at some point in the clients lives, this behaviour was a solution to a problem and it made sense back then. Therefore, if that was a solution, we can then be curious about what it was a solution for. If you have grown up in an environment which was unpredictable or volatile, then a good solution will have been to shrink yourself and be as quiet, still, and invisible as possible. It may have even been the best solution to freeze and be completely still, or to dissociate. These responses don’t then simply disappear when you change your environment or when you grow up, as our coping mechanisms can follow us and play out wherever we go. If it feels like these coping mechanisms or behaviours are no longer needed but still keep happening, they change from being a solution, to something that actually gets in the way or causes problems.

The freeze response might show up again in the present day at any sign of potential conflict, or in a situation that you would have perceived as threatening when you were much younger. Clients will notice that their breathing gets tight and shallow, or they may be unable to move or think about what to do, or even speak to ask for help. They may be completely oblivious to the trigger that’s just come up and just come to the conclusion that there’s something wrong with them. These responses can then very easily get misdiagnosed, or treated with the wrong medication, resulting in no understanding about what’s happening to them and no improvement in their condition.

It’s very hard to just stop behaviours if they are hard-wired into our survival system, even if we can have some success, it usually takes a huge amount of effort. It feels like an ongoing, never-ending battle, which can be exhausting and demoralising.

However, sometimes when we grow up, go to uni, get a job, meet new friends, or get into relationships, these behaviours and coping mechanisms can start to fade and sometimes even stop. But if we then have a new traumatic experience or something happens in our life that reduces our resilience, or triggers any past events, then these behaviours can suddenly reappear. When this happens to us, we always blame it on what’s going in the present and we often don’t recognise that something from our past might have been triggered, as there isn’t always an obvious connection between the two.

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The great thing about working with the body, is that your body will tell your story. When you can learn to notice and track what your body is doing, you can then question why a certain behaviour might have been a really good response in the past. You can then begin to make links to the present and try to make sense of what’s happening to you. Once you can do that, you can explore different resources to find a new solution which allows the body to have a new present-moment experience. If you are in a freeze response, then you can find something that will help you to unfreeze, in a new, safe way. That way, when the past triggers you again, you will recognise the early signs of the trigger, as they will be consistent, and you can then resource yourself so you don’t freeze or shut down. This allows you to be in control and not let past events take over what is happening right now.

Just because you don’t know why you might react in certain ways, we can always assume that there was once a good reason for this, and it was a solution at the time. If you tend to get overly anxious, or you have panic attacks, then you can find some resources to help your breathing and then use them before the anxiety gets a chance to build. This way you can heal from the past without having to go over all the details of what happened to you.

Our past will always be there but the influence it has over us can be massively reduced and we can heal from the past experiences that have happened to us.

Our Body Work Course is a really way to start understanding your body and connections to your past experiences, we put it together to help you learn to understand the different behaviours and messages from your body, to help put you back in control of yourself. You can check out the course here, or send us any questions you may have here.

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Different ways of managing a sensory overload in a world full of instant information.

Sensory overload is something I don’t think that we give enough attention to. The world we live in has evolved massively over the last 50 years, each year seems to accelerate the speed of that change. The more technology advances, the more it speeds up, and the more we then have to run to keep up.

If we go back 50 years, back then we barely had computers. There weren’t any mobile phones or even colour televisions, let alone ‘digital’ anything. The speed at which we communicated with each other was slower, we weren’t looking at bright LED screens. Life was slower, not so bright, maybe quieter in some respects. There were more family businesses and less huge shopping centres. With all change there are different pros and cons, but as humans we have had to do a lot of adapting in a short space of time.

All the information we take in is through our senses, through our sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. This information is what we use to make sense of things, to communicate and to regulate our nervous system. When we consider this, then it’s not hard to see how sensory overload could be a real thing and could affect the way we feel, how functional we are and our general wellbeing. Some fast food chains deliberately use brash colour schemes, which initially looks inviting and attractive but quickly makes customers feel uncomfortable and like they want to leave soon after they finish eating. Specialist autistic schools have only pastel colours in their classrooms, as primary colours are dysregulating for children with autism. This obviously does not stop when these children leave school, but they have to learn to live in a very bright sensory jangling world.

I have many clients who are becoming aware of their own sensory overload. It makes sense when we live with the effects of trauma, as we are used to being on edge, or hyper vigilant, taking in all kinds of information at a high speed. We are likely going to be super sensitive to sensory stimulation. I know how disorientated I get inside shopping centres and sometimes supermarkets. I lose my already poor sense of direction, I go offline and begin feeling very tired and confused, especially if it’s busy.

If we are looking at screens, our mobile phones, our laptops or TV’s for several hours a day, that’s a massive amount of sensory information coming at us. Maybe what we need to do is be more mindful about taking a proper break from these sources of stimulus. With so much amazing technology available, we expect each other to be available 24/7. If we don’t get a text back within minutes, we wonder what’s wrong. It’s almost unheard of to not carry our phones with us everywhere. It’s an immediate world, where we don’t have to wait for anything. We get immediate replies, we can order food in minutes, we get next-day deliveries and can access any information instantly. Time out needs to be the opposite of this so we can give our brains, bodies and our nervous systems a break, and time to just settle, not having to constantly work so hard.

So how can we manage a sensory overload?

In order to slow down and avoid a sensory overload, we need to start doing things slower. Starting with something simple like walking slower, deliberately taking our foot off the accelerator so we can take our time. If we go for a slower walk, it means we can take in more of our surroundings, be more curious and in the moment. We could also try eating slower, or drinking slower and savouring what we are actually eating. That way we can feel the process of eating and pay more attention to it.

We could try looking at only natural things for a while, studying things like the grass around us, or plants, trees, stone, wood or water. We can study them with our eyes and touch them with our skin. We can smell the different smells they bring. Children love playing with water, we could learn something from them and just see what it’s like to swish our hands around in cool water, or put our feet into a bowl of warm water. We can close our eyes and just feel some objects lying around the house, soft things, hard things, cold things and rough things, just to heighten the sense of touch.

If we all gave our senses a 15 minute break every day, it would be interesting to see what affect this would have on us. If we put it at the top of our priority list and made a point of looking after our senses, it might help us to feel calmer, more settled and not in such a rush all the time.

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How to successfully manage your extreme behaviours

I realised recently how much I work on ‘extremes’ with people, managing their extreme behaviours in multiple areas of their lives, a real ‘all or nothing’. One of the areas of extreme behaviours they struggle with is eating. This looks like them either trying to eat a totally clean, organic, healthy diet or finding themselves in a loop of fast food, ready meals and snacks. This can then ramp up to fluctuating between eating practically nothing or binge eating.

Another extreme is exercising, where they really go for it, fitting in as many sessions as possible, or they do the opposite, doing nothing, maybe just thinking about exercising, then watching Netflix instead. Alcohol is another extreme they struggle with, either drinking way more in the week than they were planning to, or going for abstinence. Smoking and any form of drug use also falls into this subject, either doing loads or trying to abstain totally.

There will be all sorts of places in our lives that we can see the same kinds of patterns. If we name the clean abstinence and highly motivated phase as ‘Phase 1’ and the other end of the spectrum as ‘Phase 2’, we can look at how they play out.

The problem with extreme behaviours, is that we end up swinging between the two phases, sometimes slowly but sometimes rapidly. It’s then easy to feel defeated, unmotivated and negative, as we don’t feel like we’re making any progress, or if we do make any progress, we can’t maintain it.

If we are in Phase 1 and we’re really keeping on track with our plan, but then something comes along to interrupt it, it can throw us off course completely. Sometimes one little slip or diversion can send us back into Phase 2. Internally, this might sound like, ‘well I messed up yesterday so I might as well just start again next week’. The more often this happens, the more time we tend to spend in Phase 2. We plan to get out of it but will find various reasons to delay the big shift it takes to move all the way over to Phase 1 again. During this time we’ll be very negative about ourselves. We might be making plausible excuses to tell ourselves and others why it’s too difficult, but we end up just berating ourselves.

So how can we make a change?

Deep down we know that this process isn’t really working, that we’re just going in constant cycles, yet we keep doing it anyway. Most of us have heard things like ‘diets don’t work’, ‘it’s about making changes in our lifestyle’ but it can be really hard to do things differently.

I can relate all these things to regulation issues. Our nervous system doesn’t operate well when we’re in extremes, we work best when we are balanced and in control. Sometimes we know when we need to be more activated and energetic, and then when we need to be more relaxed, we need to recharge our batteries and settle. It’s the same way we go about meeting our needs and managing ourselves. If we know we have a tendency to live in extremes, then we have to be prepared to start building some middle ground, a place where we stop bouncing from Phase 1 to Phase 2, and back again.

To really start to do things differently, we have to be realistic about the things we really want to abstain completely from, the things we honestly know we can’t have moderation with. This is different for each of us, but it requires being honest with ourselves, and it usually includes evidence from our past experiences. We might want to be occasional smokers or drinkers, but if we know that one slip sends us into the extreme again, then we maybe have to accept that we can’t be occasional with it.

We also have to look at what we think or feel about the idea of a middle ground. Could it be that we consider it dull or boring, or not enough? Do we think of it as too easy? That things that are worth having, have to be hard-earned? Do we believe that unless it’s extreme, it might not work? Are we too impatient to build a middle ground? Do we just want fast results?

We have gotten used to a very immediate way of life, we rarely have to wait for anything anymore and can feel quite outraged if we are expected to wait for anything. To create change, we have to know what we really think about building that middle ground, as our thoughts will creep in at any opportunity, urging us to do more or less, telling us it’s a waste of time or not working. We then have to decide what our middle ground will look like, how much flexibility we can have in it, and what signs would be there that tells us that we’re slipping into either Phase 1 or Phase 2. We also have to consider what support we might need to help us build our middle ground, and to maintain it until it feels like the normal. It will be a struggle at some points, but we need to expect that. Regulation takes work, whether it’s keeping us in a settled functional state, or making big changes in our lifestyle. Therefore, we need to know what’s going on in order to help and what isn’t. If we are trying to do less of something, then we need to know what we are going to fill the gap with. We might need to have a bit of structure planned in. If we are forcing ourselves to do something, then we have to accept that it won’t last. Relying on others doing things with us is also precarious, in case they drop out.

The more balance we can get into our lives, the more regulated all round we are going to feel. If we are constantly stressing about not doing something, or doing too much of anything, it’s going to be really hard for your nervous system to keep in balance. A holistic approach is always the most successful and actually, the easiest! Making little tweaks in several different areas can make an overall big difference over time, but we need to be patient and keep an eye on our extreme tendencies. This way we can successfully manage our extreme behaviours.

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Mental health needs more than just a week

Last week was mental health awareness week, but the conversation shouldn’t just stop there, awareness needs to be raised all the time. It’s great that mental health is being given a platform, but things around this subject are slow to change in ordinary, daily life. We all still feel the need to put on a brave face and this is especially true if we are in any position of authority or leadership. The pressure to be fine can be immense, often if we show a crack, people who depend upon us wobble. Sometimes there is an inference that we are not looking after ourselves properly, that we have let things slip if we dare say we are struggling. All of these things need to be discussed openly, honestly and with all the judgment taken out.

For most of us, when we feel overwhelmed, down or anxious, we want to withdraw, we don’t want to be seen. This is a protective measure and makes sense, as this can be helpful sometimes. However, if this is for a prolonged period of time, coming back out into society, work etc, can be really daunting. There is an element of this happening for a lot of us now with us coming out of lockdown and things opening back up. A lot of people are scared, if they haven’t been out for a long time amongst groups of people, it’s all very unfamiliar. Add that on top of all the new rules and regulations we are supposed to know about and follow, as if they are normal. It’s somehow not ok to be seen not having a clue how things work. If we feel as though we are coming out of hiding, the last thing we want is to be told off, shouted at, or called out in front of others. For this reason some people are avoiding getting back out there and staying inside instead. When we feel fearful, we get more hyper-vigilant and scan around for danger. We loose the ability to be curious, take in our surroundings and feel relaxed, this in turn increases our anxiety.

So what can we do?

Firstly, we need to start connecting with things again, opening up our curiosity and feeling a part of things. The theme of this years awareness week was nature, which is brilliant, especially as its spring time and all the trees and plants are emerging, just as we are. Nature gives us the perfect opportunity to be curious, engage our senses, and feel involved. We always know what we will get with nature, it’s not unpredictable or hard to read, unlike the way humans can be. It can really help us to become more mindful in a very relaxed way, by just taking notice of what’s around us. When we plant things and watch them grow we feel involved in the process. We plant the seeds, we water them, and we watch them emerge and grow. We have to nurture them to keep them alive and we feel responsible for them. Planting cress seeds on damp kitchen roll is one of the quickest ways to do this, they begin growing so quickly. When we go out for a walk or into the garden, we can really notice the leaves growing and changing. We can feel them, smell them and notice the difference between the two sides. Touch things, notice textures and scents, listen to the rain falling, or notice the way the wind moves the trees. As you do this, notice the way you are breathing, let yourself really take in the connection, be curious about what feels good and how your body tells you this feels good.

If we practice being really present in nature, it can help our hyper-vigilance stay under control, if we can always find something to focus on, to really allow our awareness to be engaged, it is settling for our nervous system. We can use these skills when we go out amongst people, instead of worrying what might happen, focusing on what is actually around us right now. When we learn to be observant, it can help us feel less like a rabbit in the headlights and more of a part of what’s happening.

We do need a bit of a retraining programme but it’s so important that we connect back with people, isolation is so damaging to us and has a dramatic impact upon our mental health. If we are going to be more aware, then we have to be able to communicate with each other. None of us will open up or reach out if we don’t feel safe, we have to be able to smile at each other, let the people around us know we are there and we are approachable. The more we can make going outside a pleasant experience, the easier it will be for those who feel scared or nervous. Just making the effort to smile at people we interact with helps us and helps them. Smiling is very underrated, it’s more tricky in a mask but people can see the smile in our eyes. If we bear in mind that there are nervous people around us, pretending to be fine, we might remember to smile more and be open to engagement, it might make a huge difference to someone’s day.

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Understanding an ambivalent attachment

Ambivalent attachment is the most common style of attachment I see with my clients. This has led me to believe that’s it’s the one which can cause major issues in everyday life.

It’s how we respond and adapt when we’ve had very inconsistent care growing up, or there were significant changes in our formative years. It can happen so easily, if there is a divorce or separation, a bereavement or any major upheaval at vital times. If our carers were under a lot of stress, or using substances which might have made their behaviour erratic.

Any of these factors mean that it becomes very hard to trust any positive experiences, the fear of loss makes it too hard to invest in things. The pain of our loss can be so great that subconsciously we don’t want to put ourselves in that position again. This inconsistency can have varying impacts on us.

So what does this look like?

Some of the signs to look for are:

  • Extreme indecision, not knowing what choice to make for fear of it being the wrong one. Spending hours/days struggling to make a decision, often just getting stuck or trying to get others to make the decision for us.
  • Mistrusting our own judgement. Once we’ve made a decision, then not being able to fully commit. Constantly worrying if the other one would have been better. Talking about it over and over, going round in circles.
  • Not being able to fully enjoy what’s going on. Having the constant nagging in your head, ‘What are they really thinking about me?’, I’m talking too much/not enough’.
  • Looking for things that are wrong, feeling on edge, not being able to relax & feeling on guard the whole time.
  • If you’ve been out, you’re reflecting on everything you said, worrying that it was the wrong thing. Ringing friends asking for reassurance.
  • Feeling to blame and taking responsibility for everything, ‘It must be me’, ‘everyone turns against me in the end’.
  • Trying too hard to please. Going over the top, offering to do things you later regret, but keep doing them anyway.
  • Never feeling good enough. Judging yourself against others and finding yourself lacking. Not being able to put yourself forward for anything, even though you know logically that you could do it, and even be good at it. Always finding an excuse not to.
  • Having more than your fair share of broken relationships. Feeling unable to fully trust someone, ‘why would they want to be with me?’. ‘It’s only a matter of time before they leave me’. Finding fault with things, even when things are going well. Feeling really uneasy when it is going well, picking an argument. Having some sense that you’re sabotaging things, but not knowing why and not being able to stop.
  • Doing things in the extremes, all or nothing. Going to the gym every day, or not at all. Crash dieting or total indulgence. Being a perfectionist and very particular about the way things need to be done.

All of the above has grown out of uncertainty and control being taken away with painful consequences. The need to be alert for any negative sign means it’s much harder to be present and enjoying the moment. Because you’ve had experiences of your needs being met, when it suddenly changed the loss felt dramatic and very painful.

Knowing where this has come from means we can start to prepare and look after these parts of us. It affects our behaviour without us knowing why. Staying in the moment and learning to enjoy and appreciate little things can be a great re-learning. Experimenting with little choices and decisions, picking one and being curious about what happens, instead of trying to work out if it’s right or wrong. You need to learn to find the middle ground and stay away from extremes, but in a mindful knowing way.

Understanding our own attachment style can be very revealing about why these behaviours happen. Giving us an opportunity to observe ourselves and do something different. Understanding why will help us be more compassionate and empathetic, instead of self-critical. All of these things can change once we understand what’s going on. Consistency is key for this style of attachment, resources that work every time that we can depend upon. Growth and healing starts with little, manageable, consistent steps that we can build on. Don’t aim for the stars, just the first rung on the ladder for now.

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Let’s talk about anxiety

Feeling stressed and anxious is normal for us humans. Normal that is if we know why and the levels of anxiety seem appropriate. However, a lot of people experience almost constant levels of anxiety from the minute they wake up, or at certain times of the day. This kind of anxiety is a different and can affect us in a number of ways. It can make us feel really down, as if there is no end to it and nothing that seems to shift it for any length of time. It can send our head into overdrive, thinking about what is wrong, this can lead to quite catastrophic thoughts. It can affect our behaviour, making us fearful of seeing people, going out, scared that we might have a panic attack and isolating ourselves. 

This type of anxiety affects our emotions, our thoughts and our physical health over time, it sends the head into overthinking. It’s unlikely that talking about it will help, firstly, because we probably don’t know why we are anxious in the first place but secondly, it just makes us think even more.

We need to focus away from our thoughts, stop trying to work out what’s wrong and help our body feel calmer when we do that the head becomes quieter. There are many things we can try, the ones which work need to be noted and practised on a regular basis. If we can try to notice where we feel the anxiety this can be a good measure if some of these things work.

Then try some experiments and notice after each one if anything has changed. Here are some things to try:

  • Squeeze your arms tightly into your body really hard hold for ten seconds then release. You’ll take a big breath automatically then notice what your body tells you, repeat.
  • Press the palms of your hands together in front of you and push them against each other, feel all the muscles working, hold for ten seconds than release, repeat and notice.
  • Link your fingers together, hold them in front of you and pull, feel the different muscles working hold and release. Try and see which one your body prefers pulling or pushing.
  • Sit down and place your hands on either side of your knees, at the same time press in with your hands and push out with your knees, create resistance, hold for ten seconds then release, notice and repeat.
  • Stand with your back against the wall, walk your legs out in front of you so you can really feel your leg muscles working, push down through your feet and press your back against the wall, really notice the solid feeling of the floor and the wall. 

The main thing is to really listen to what your body tells you about each of these experiments. How can you tell which ones work better than others? If some of these work then set a timer or a post it on the fridge and aim to do them two or three times a day. Even if you only get a break from your symptoms for a few minutes remind yourself that you gave your head and body a break.

Noticing is the first step in mindfulness and so important in knowing what helps.