Engaging with the power of imagination

creative imaginationOur  ability to engage with imagination is what distinguishes us from all other species. But it is something we have rarely been taught how to work with. Our ability to compute and to analyse (the typical left side of the brain functions) have been well developed in our education systems, but not our capacity for imagination.

If we think of this in terms of the elements, then air, and perhaps fire, have traditionally been the dominant elements in our socialisation. Air encompasses intellect, computing and analysis whilst fire brings confidence and risk-taking. These are all great qualities and have served us well in creating everything that surrounds us. The trouble may come when we are not balanced as individuals. The ability to have grounding experiences (earth) and to process our feelings and emotions (water) have largely been left to extra curricular activities. Meditation and yoga practice are now everywhere, admittedly, even in primary schools, but there is still a long way to go before we can begin to see a more holistic approach to teaching and learning in the education sector.

Here is an exercise on trying to engage with the active imagination. A preamble for working this way would involve taking some mindful steps in becoming receptive by undertaking some deep breathing exercises. The following questions could act as a guide:

1. What are your current main stressors?

2. How does this affect your body?

3. It is like ……?

4. Is there a memory where you felt like this before?

5. If this symptom was a friend what might it say about your life?

(This exercise might not, however, be suitable for people who might be experiencing psychotic symptoms).

Seeking to engage with an exercise like this can help to produce images and symbols which can help bypass mental defences, when the thinking function is dominant. So often we can feel stuck in our minds, whether it is worrying about things that haven’t happened, or tiring ourselves out by searching online for more and more explanations to questions that are hard to answer.

For more on this topic see my latest article on Engaging with the power of imagination to help ease anxiety.


Anxiety and how to deal with it

Anxiety symptomsDo not suffer in silence if you are feeling anxious.  Anxiety can be a really normal response to something challenging  – we’ve all been there. Often, it’s just a sign that you’re standing on the edge of your comfort zone and about to do something really brave. Sometimes though, it can be more than that.

The most important thing to do if you suffer from anxiety is to reach out and seek help.  Whether you have experienced mild anxiety for 10 minutes or 10 years the crucial thing to know is that it is treatable and that your mood can improve.  Anxiety is a universal experience that has probably affected all of us at some point in time in our lives and in different conditions, albeit to a varying degree.

Anxiety only becomes a problem if the feeling of anxiety is more intense than you are used to or can tolerate.

The common physical symptoms of anxiety are: sweating, heart pounding, muscle pain, headache and tension.  The emotional symptoms can include: a feeling of impending doom,  feeling as though  you are losing control and feeling like you are about to do something out of the ordinary.

Do not suffer in silence if you need help and feel like you cannot cope – anxiety is very manageable. There are so many people who struggle with anxiety, so you certainly aren’t alone.

Anxiety feels awful. It can feel like you’re dying or losing your mind – you’re not, but it can definitely feel like this, which can make the symptoms worse. For this reason, one of the keys to managing anxiety lies in understanding where it comes from.

When the brain senses threat, it surges your body with oxygen, hormones and adrenaline to give your body the physical resources to keep you safe, either by fighting for your life or running for it. Here’s how that works:

  • breathing changes from slow and deep to fast and shallow to get oxygen into your body (this is why you might feel short of breath);
  • heart rate increases to get the oxygen around your body (if the oxygen isn’t spent by fight or flight, carbon dioxide drops which can cause dizziness or the feeling that you’re having a heart attack);
  • blood pressure increases to get blood to the large muscle groups – arms to fight or legs to flee (which is why your muscles might feel tight or trembly);
  • your body sweats to stop from overheating (you might feel clammy);
  • digestion shuts down to conserve energy (this is why you might get butterflies, a dry mouth or feel sick.)

As you can see, the symptoms of anxiety are a completely normal physiological response. The response is instinctive and automatic and will be triggered before you’re even aware that there’s anything to be worried about.  When the threat is real, this response is perfect, giving us strength, speed and power to get ourselves out of trouble. The brain can’t always tell the difference between a threat to physical safety and one that might be more psychologically harmful (such as shame, humiliation, embarrassment or rejection) so it surges the body with oxygen, hormones and adrenaline anyway.

Anxiety about anxiety

Here’s the problem though. Sometimes the brain’s threat radar is super-sensitive and a little over-reactive and will be triggered even when there’s no real threat. This is when anxiety can cause trouble. When there’s no need for a physical response (no reason to fight or flee), the oxygen, hormones and adrenaline build up and carbon dioxide drops. This increases the physical symptoms, which is why anxiety feels the way it does. Eventually, this can lead to ‘anxiety about anxiety’, when the trigger for an anxiety attack becomes the anticipation of the anxious feeling itself.

How to manage your anxiety

There are many ways to manage anxiety that don’t involve medication. In more severe cases, it might be warranted. Your first port of call should be your GP or a counsellor who can advise you of your options.  Your GP can advise about psychotherapy, although psychological treatment on the NHS will be time limited.  Combination treatment (drug and psychological treatment) is often recommended by clinicians for those feeling most at distress, and at most risk of relapse. Once the psychological work has been done, medication can often be tapered down, although this needs to be done under close supervision as stopping the tablets could trigger relapse.

Your self-care regime should include exercise as part of good general health as well as adhering to sound nutritional advice.  You could explore joining support groups for anxiety as well as learning to practice meditation and ensuring that you get a sound night’s sleep. The most crucial thing is that it is recognised in the first place for what it is and help is sought. Do not suffer in silence as isolation and secretiveness may only intensify your feelings of anxiety.

Read about Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

To see Noel Bell for counselling and psychotherapy in London call 07852 407140 or email noel@noelbell.net