Kate's Nuggets

Many people are anxious these days. In this episode, Kate explains why anxiety and depression often occur as a cycle and how to break the cycle and use anxiousness as the springboard for increasing our self-actualizing potential.

Combining the five elements of thriving, the theory of posttraumatic growth, and an understanding of the relationship between aliveness, anxiety, and depression, Kate presents a way of thinking about anxiousness and numbness that offers hope. 

She articulates the skills that need to be developed to maximize the growth opportunity and limit the risks associated with intensely stressful experiences.

Whether the intensity is driven by internal or external stimuli, these tools use subjective experience to create a more stable and productive emotional balance.

What is Kate's Nuggets?

Bite-sized chunks of wisdom about self-leadership for you to chew on.

Using Anxiousness as a Springboard for Personality Development
Episode 14

Podcast Opening over Theme Music:
Hello and welcome. This is Kate's Nuggets, the podcast where I share bite-size nuggets of wisdom about self-leadership. I am your host, Kate Arms. I invite you to listen lightly, let these ideas wash over you. Take what you take and let the rest go. You can always come back and listen again.

Kate Arms:
As I am recording this episode of Kate's Nuggets, Ontario, which is where I live, has just declared a state of emergency with regard to the coronavirus. And so, when I talk to people who are here with me, I'm hearing people who are dealing with intense emotions.

Some of the people who are dealing with intense emotions are having anxiousness or a sense of despair as part of their experience of this moment. Some of the people who are feeling anxious are people who have anxiety disorder diagnoses, and many of them are not. Some of the people who are experiencing despair and a sense of overwhelm and procrastination and inability to get things done and a lack of energy and hopelessness have diagnoses of depression, and many of them do not.

I am going to talk about anxiousness and despair, and I may use the words anxiety and depression as synonyms, but I'm going to use them in the colloquial sense, not in the diagnostic sense.

As a coach, over the past 10 years, I have learned that my experience in managing my own history of depression has given me the capacity to work with people who are anxious or have a sense of futility that is different from the way they might get help if they went to a psychologist or a psychiatrist, because I take them as they are and see their anxiousness or their despair as a part of an enormous picture, and I don't try to fix the anxiousness or the despair.

I try to help them solve practical challenges in their lives. Often, however, doing that work on the practical challenges of their lives helps them reduce their experience of anxiousness or depression.

And to the extent that anxiousness or depression is part of trauma response, I have also had success working with people who have post-traumatic stress disorder, and that is because coaching contains many of the elements that are supportive of post-traumatic growth.

So, at this time, when many people are struggling to adapt to rapid changes, I want to give a little attention to anxiousness, despair, and how to achieve the greatest likelihood of post-traumatic growth.

First, a definition.

Post-traumatic growth is positive psychological growth and personality change that is experienced as a result of adversity in order to rise to a more mature and more self-actualizing level of functioning. It's a life-altering shift in thinking and how you relate to the world.

Many people believe that trauma only leads to triggering behaviors and problems, and obviously, it can lead to awful problems, but it doesn't have to. There are people who believe that personality traits are stable once you get to young adulthood, but there's been really good data since the 1990s that personalities develop and change into late adulthood, not young adulthood not middle adulthood, late adulthood.

We continue to be works in progress.

You may have heard the word neuroplasticity.

We continue to develop and adapt and have the potential for remarkable change for our entire lives, and this is what makes the possibility of post-traumatic growth. Factors that are shown to be beneficial for post-traumatic growth are social support, and I'll talk a little bit about why that is when I talk about how to work with anxiousness and despair. Really accepting the situations that cannot be changed, seeing reality as it is, accepting it, and then problem-solving it from there.

Post-traumatic growth is also facilitated by a capacity for trust, altruism, honesty, modesty, curiosity, openness to new experiences, a problem-solving mindset and the ability to grieve.

So, if you want to increase your likelihood for post-traumatic growth and hear one of these words, trust, altruism, honesty, modesty, curiosity, openness to new experiences, problem-solving, ability to grieve, and you go, "Oh, I'm not very good at that." I want to tell you that those are all skills that you can build.

And in fact, there are behavioral habits that I have helped clients develop in each of those areas that change who they are and make post-traumatic growth more likely.

What does this have to do with anxiousness and depression and despair and anxiety and the world in a really challenging situation dealing with this pandemic?

See, here's the thing. Anxiety and depression are responses to how much stimulation we have, how alert we are, how engaged we are with the world, how many challenges we are facing, and how much we are capable of rising to those challenges. For many of us, post-traumatic growth actually comes as a result of our ability to manage our aliveness. That is what is out of kilter when we're anxious or despairing.

What on earth am I talking about when I'm talking about aliveness?

You probably have a sense of what makes you feel like you're really here, you're in it. You might be familiar with the word flow, that you're really engaged in something, you're absorbed, and this is how it is to be who you want to be. This is how you want your life to be all the time.

The elements of aliveness are what I discussed in an earlier episode of this podcast, the five elements of thriving. They are emotions and meaning and relationships and a sense of engagement and accomplishment and energy and getting things done. So, for more detail about those things, go back and listen to that episode. I am just going to leave those there as the components of aliveness, because I want to talk about what happens when the amount of aliveness that we have is either more or less than we need.

Human beings need a certain amount of stress in our lives to come alive. Boredom is a disengagement because there's not enough challenge in our world. And in fact, if we are noticing that our surroundings are boring us, one of the ways that we can come back to aliveness is to just get curious about anything.

Long-term meditators talk about how when they slow down and they focus on really, really simple things, they actually feel more alive because they're actually cultivating their present moment relationship with this little tiny thing. Maybe it's the breath, maybe it's the edge of a leaf. Maybe it's a flickering candle in front of them. Maybe it's the sound of a bell. But these simple sensory stimulations, when you develop enough focus on them and non-judgmental observing of what is really happening right now, engagement with this present moment, with that stimulation, aliveness increases. And we need a certain amount of aliveness to feel good about our lives.

What happens with anxiousness and despair is that if we're anxious, we have too much aliveness in our bodies, in our experiences, in our minds, we can't handle it. We become restless, unstable, obsessed, stressed out, self-conscious, just worked up, on the go, can't stop, must do. We have this adrenaline buildup that we have to do something with, but we don't have places to expend it and we can't focus enough to channel it.

If we want to stop being anxious, we have to build our capacity to experience that level of aliveness, or we need to change our circumstances so that there's less stimulation coming in from the outside so that maybe our insides can settle.

Despair and depression are the opposite. There is not enough aliveness. We feel numb, alienated, isolated, lethargic, don't want to get up and do things, don't have the energy to get up and do things, avoidant. And if that's how we feel, we need to cultivate ways of coming back to life.

One of the things that happens is if we come back to life, we might actually find that we don't have the skills for handling the aliveness that we come back to, and then we get anxious and then we can't handle the anxiousness. We can't handle the aliveness, and so our bodies shut down. We just filter out all the aliveness, because we can't handle the aliveness that we have. And then we go from anxiety to depression, and so there's this cycle that people can get into.

Some people cycle outside the boundaries of what is an amount of aliveness they can handle, and some people get stuck either in the anxious place or in the depressed place. In order to find balance, in order to integrate, to go through growth, there are a handful of things that we can do to increase our capacity to handle aliveness.

We can develop a real inner core where we know who we are and we understand what we stand for and what we believe and who we are that is the same everywhere we go. Not the personas that we put on with various different people, but what is at the core of us, the part of us that is whole, that sees and encompasses all of our possibilities.

We can internalize our sense of being connected to people, whether they are responding to us the way that we want to or not, whether we are present with them or not. We can learn to feel our emotions without being overwhelmed by them. We can learn to wrestle with shame and guilt. We can learn to dance with our fears and our resistance and play on the edge that is between exhilaration and terror. We can learn to accept what is here now, to focus on this moment.

Anxiety is often cognitively manifested as worries about how we got here or worries about how we're going to handle things in the future and where we're going and what's going to come. Learning to be here now, accepting what is and deciding how to take a step forward from here so that you can greet the next moment. And be in the next moment is a way of building your capacity for handling aliveness, and part of that is letting go of the need to be in control of what happens, surrendering your attachment to outcomes, letting go, surrendering your need to get revenge for how you got here. Just letting that go and being here now.

All of those are things that are actually skills that can be practiced.

One of the things that I do with my clients is I help them practice building all of those things in real-world situations, in their relationships with people. When they get up in the morning and decide what's on the agenda for the day. There are opportunities to grow those parts of our personalities.

The other side of things, of course, is that futility, despair, lethargic, apathetic, isolated place, and there you have to practice waking up. You practice waking up by letting yourself get in touch with your body, letting yourself experience your emotions, telling first to yourself and then to other people, the truths that you have hidden from yourself. You tell the truth, the real truth of who you are. You shed the shoulds that other people have given you. You let go of their expectations and you own your own desires. You let yourself move into action. You find the risks that are small enough that you can take them, but big enough to feel risky. You cultivate courage, which of course looks like action and feels like fear.

Nobody ever feels courageous.

We all look at other people and go, "They're so courageous," but what we mean is, if I was doing what they were doing, I would be terrified.

We notice what matters to us in the world and we put our bodies in action and service. We choose to make meaning. We choose to find the people who see the versions of ourselves that we want to be. We find the people who bring us alive. We decide to matter enough to show up, to reveal ourselves. Often we have to reveal ourselves to other people and to ourselves sort of simultaneously. We are often most hidden from ourselves when we are depleted. Eventually, to be a thriving, flourishing human being involves being in this present moment with a sense of our aliveness, and sensing are we verging on too much aliveness? Are we verging on too little?

If we are verging on too little, then we figure out what we need to do to wake up a little bit more, and if we're verging on too much, we have to figure out, do we need to build our capacity here? Do we need to play to grow or do we need to make some changes so that the aliveness dwindles? The problem with all of this is that if we are swinging in either anxiety or depression, anxiousness or futility, we are probably not very aware of what's going on inside ourselves. Or even if we are aware, we can't yet get ourselves out of it. We haven't built our capacity to get out of it. Often, our bodies take care of that balancing itself eventually. I know many people who go through swings of anxiety or depression, who debate whether they're going to go back in and see their therapist when they're happening, because they know that eventually that passes, and they come back out to themselves.

What they need in that moment is somebody who can help them regulate themselves, somebody who can help them, either if they're anxious, build their capacity to handle their anxiety, or if they're apathetic and isolated, come alive a little bit. They need someone who is able to stay regulated, to stay in the right level of stress while the individual is going through their experience. Because if you are anxious and someone is able to be calm and alive and to hold your aliveness, you can actually borrow some of their capacity in a weird body-to-body way, and that borrowing their capacity allows you to figure out what a next step is, and then you can borrow the next bit of capacity.

One of the things that's a challenge is if you rely on a friend for that, they may not be trained to hold that right balance of aliveness, and they may feel like they get exhausted if you borrow too much of it from them because it takes work for them to hold that steady while you are dysregulated.

Also, friendships are based on trading support, and so if you are either anxious or depressed all the time and you can't give that support to someone, it's often better to hire a professional because they don't get resentful the way that friends get resentful if you have no capacity to hold them in response.

We have body-to-body relationships where we can borrow regulation, we can borrow balance. I'm sure you've been around people who just in their presence, you felt calmer, better, happier about your life. That's what I'm talking about. Seek those people out, because those are the people who will help you find your right level of stress and maximize your ability to, when it feels like the world is going crazy, to actually grow and build your capacity to handle it.

End Theme and Credits:
If you're enjoying Kate's Nuggets, please share it with your friends, and please write a review on iTunes so other people know what they would get if they listened too. Thank you.
To dig deeper into the topics I cover on the podcast, follow me at instagram.com/SignalFireKate or at facebook.com/katearmscoach.
To take this work deeper and learn how I can support you personally as your coach, email me at kate@signalfirecoaching.com to schedule a free consultation.
Here's to Thriving! Catch you next time.
Kate's Nuggets is a Signal Fire Coaching production. The music is adapted under license from Heroic Age by Kevin McLeod.