Living with Anxiety: 5 Suggestions to Thrive

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“Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.” -Leo Buscaglia

We all experience some level of anxiety from time to time. In fact, anxiety is a completely normal reaction to a stressful situation. The cold sweat of anxiety is the fight or flight response that kept our ancestors safe from grizzly bears and other dangers. That adrenaline rush still serves us well under some circumstances today; anxiety can even be helpful in certain instances! We worry about the common things in our lives–like finances, work, friends, and family–and this worry has the potential to help us make good decisions in these areas. Anxiety can motivate us, prepare us for things we have to face, and even give us energy to take action when we need to.

It is very possible, however, for anxiety to have an unmistakably negative affect. Serious anxiety may mean procrastinating to the point of being afraid to take a step at all. You may be so nervous about going to your child’s school to talk to the teacher that you do not go at all–you miss the appointment altogether. Your anxiety becomes so overwhelming that it interferes with day-to-day activities, it keeps you from going places, and from doing things you need to do. If you are experiencing worries that are excessive, uncontrollable, or irrational, and have been experiencing these worries for an extended period of time, you may be suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder, or GAD.

Regardless of the level or intensity of anxiety you are experiencing, it is important that you manage it properly. Anxiety can take a serious toll on your mind and body. You may have trouble sleeping, eating, and concentrating. You may get headaches or have an upset stomach. You may even have a panic attack, a pounding heart, and/or a feeling of lightheadedness. So what can you do when you are feeling anxious? Here are five simple suggestions that you can do anytime, anywhere:

  1. Label your emotions. Figure out exactly what is bothering you by giving a name to what you are feeling. Naming an emotion is the first step in being mindful of it. This activates your prefrontal cortex and can help you balance and self-regulate by creating a relationship with the experience.
  2. Drop the story. Emotions are often driven by the stories you tell yourself. For example: You have an important presentation in class. Your anxiety escalates this assignment into a fantastically worrisome story where you mess up, everyone laughs at you, you fail the class, never graduate college, have to live with your parents forever… and on and on. My suggestion here is to drop the story. Separate the real risks and dangers that a situation presents and those your imagination is making worse. Cut out negative thoughts. No need to worry unnecessarily!
  3. Focus on the task at hand. What can you control? In the class presentation example, what you can control is your preparation and delivery. Try not to stress about peripheral factors–like how others may react or respond. It is a twist on the old adage: “Take control of the things you can, and accept those you can’t change.”
  4. Relax. Stop what you are doing and take deep breaths. Meditate. Do yoga or get some exercise–this is a terrific outlet for anxiety! As you focus on calming your mind and body, you will become more proficient with managing ongoing anxiety.
  5. Be kind to yourself. Feeling anxious is uncomfortable. A good dose of self-care can go a long way to bringing relief and perspective. This may mean practicing a hobby like painting, hiking, singing, baking, exercising, reading, taking a long bath or even sleeping. Whatever self-care looks like for you, make the time to take care of yourself.

Very often, it is possible to get past an anxiety cycle with the help of friends or family to help you sort out your problems. But when anxiety becomes overwhelming, it may be time for you to consider seeing a therapist, taking medication, or both. Anxiety is the most common mental illness among American adults–with women experiencing it at roughly twice the rate as men–and only half of those affected receive treatment.  Please do not be part of that statistic. Get the help you need and deserve in order to find happiness. Many of my clients face some form of anxiety, and I have been able to help them overcome the negative effects that come with this mental illness. If you or someone you care about could use help living with the effects of anxiety, please contact me today. Additionally, you can click here to schedule a session.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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I Don’t Have Trauma…or Do I?

I Don’t Have Trauma...or Do I - Cluff Counseling - North TX Couples TherapistMost people associate trauma with terribly difficult and disturbing events like war or a natural disaster. Because of this, you may think you have never experienced something traumatic. However, any distressing event that falls beyond your normal scope of human experience can be considered traumatic! Odds are high that you HAVE experienced trauma. How have you dealt with it?

I was recently talking with a friend who told me she had never been through anything traumatic in her life. Although I knew she was referring to the fact that she had not experienced a death of a loved one, abuse, an accident, or something of like nature, I silently disagreed with her. While those experiences are incredibly traumatic for any individual who faces them, trauma is not limited to life-changing events like those. Trauma can happen every day in the normal course of your day without you realizing what you are up against. In this post, I will focus on the two different types of trauma and how we are all affected by trauma’s expansive reach.

Let’s start by defining trauma. What is it really? At its Greek core, trauma means to wound or to pierce. A search for this word will yield a definition much like this: “A disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury; an emotional upset, an agent, force or mechanism that causes high distress.” Basically, trauma is intense emotional distress resulting from stressful life experiences. Oftentimes when describing trauma, it is divided into two major categories: Big “T” and little “t” traumas.

Big “T” trauma

Big “T” trauma, or complex traumas, are events that involve physical harm and/or a threat to life or physical safety. Big “T” trauma is trauma in its most severe form, and can often result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Examples of big “T” trauma include being in a combat/war zone, a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, immigration, rape, sexual assault, abuse, death, sickness, moving, financial stress, a car/plane accident, etc. These are extraordinary and significant events that leave us feeling powerless, helpless, and as if we have little or no control in our environment. This element of helplessness is a key difference between of big ‘T’ traumas and little ‘t’ traumas–feelings of helplessness being much greater in big ‘T’ traumas. These events can forever alter a person’s life, and may influence our ability to make/maintain relationships, and function later in life. One big ‘T’ trauma can be enough to cause severe distress and interfere with our daily functioning–which is intensified the longer treatment is avoided.

Little “t” trauma

Little “t” traumas are life events that are more common experiences that, although upsetting to an individual, are less severe or dramatic than big “T” traumas. A few examples of little “t” traumas include being teased in elementary school, always being picked last for a team, divorce, death of a beloved pet, losing a job, or losing friends by moving from school to school during childhood.  It is not necessarily the event that determines whether something is traumatic to someone, but the individual’s experience of the event. If an individual experiences an event as life-altering or upsetting in such a way that it changes the way they think about themselves or others,  it is likely a little “t” trauma.

The term little “t” trauma does not imply, however, that the emotional impact of such an event is insignificant compared to big “T” traumas. The emotional wounds can be as lasting and severe as big “T” trauma wounds!

Trauma’s reach

Everyone has endured some sort of trauma in their lifetime. Both big “T” and little “t” traumas have a strong influence on our view of the world and shape how we cope in life. For example, the little “t” traumas of being teased by peers and being picked last for the team can leave us feeling inadequate or insecure amongst our peers. Big “T” traumas may leave us orphaned, severely dissociated, or less physically capable than we may have previously been. The four core signs of trauma include the following:

      • Hyperarousal: These symptoms can be difficult to manage and can vary from person to person. In general, hyperarousal includes having a difficult time falling or staying asleep, feeling irritable or having outbursts of anger, having difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance (constantly being on guard), and being jumpy or easily startled
      • Dissociation of body and mind: This includes feeling disconnected from oneself, problems handling intense emotions, sudden/unexpected shifts in mood, depression or anxiety problems, derealization (feeling as though the world is distorted or not real), memory problems, concentration problems, and significant memory lapses.
      • Constriction of body and perceptions: Which may include the skewed notion that the individual was responsible for causing the trauma.
      • Feelings of helplessness: The inability to act or think for oneself, or to act effectively.

When symptoms of trauma continue for more than three months, it is considered PTSD or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Fortunately, all symptoms are not permanent if addressed properly–which means that healing for both little “t” traumas as well as big “T” traumas are completely treatable. Receiving treatment can truly reshape the way we view both the world and ourselves!

Trauma is treatable

Treatment for trauma consists of specialized counseling techniques and practices that will help you cope and deal with trauma and its effects on your life. I use EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) , as well as Pia Mellody’s inner child framework to treat trauma. Because trauma contributes to negative thinking, negative behaviors, and difficult emotions, counseling for trauma can help you change your thinking and behaviors, which will, in turn, impact your mood. Counseling with me is a safe place where you can explore some very difficult issues that are hindering you from the life you want to live or the person you wish to be. If you think you may struggle with trauma, please reach out to me! Untreated trauma can lead to serious life consequences, the longer it is left untreated.

As always, the take away that I want you to remember (and cling to) is that treatment is available. Healing is possible! No matter where you have been, I can help you get relief from your trauma symptoms. Remember that everyone responds to traumatic situations differently; you may be experiencing only a few of the aforementioned symptoms, or you may be experiencing many. The severity, frequency, and duration of symptoms vary depending on the individual and his/her specific trauma event. What may affect one person may not affect another person in the same way. Counseling can help you explore your trauma and find the healing you may still need. Please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have.  I look forward to working with you!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Are You Are Just A Worrywart or is it Something More?

Are You Are Just A Worrywart or is it Something More - Cluff Counseling - Denton TherapistAnxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric illnesses affecting children and adults. An estimated 44 million American adults suffer from anxiety, and–even though the disorders are highly treatable–only about one-third of those receive treatment!

Do you get the jitters when you have to speak in front of an audience, take a test, or talk with a superior. To a degree, this is completely normal. But for those with an anxiety disorder, these feelings are persistent, seemingly uncontrollable, disabling, overwhelming, and excessive, to the point where they can be filled with irrational dread of everyday situations and it interferes with their daily life. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time.

If this is you, listen to me–there is no shame! Many people suffer from one type of anxiety disorder or another…even I used to! When I was little, I would fret over everything to the point that my parents coined Bob Marley’s famous beat as my theme song: “Don’t worry, be happy!” The best news of all is that help is available. My hope with this post is twofold: First, to offer a couple signs to help you differentiate between everyday anxieties and an actual anxiety disorder; and second, to eradicate the false notion that having anxiety or a “disorder” means that you are broken.

Let’s start by giving anxiety disorders a face. Anxiety disorders are real–just like physical disorders such as heart disease or diabetes. Anxiety disorders are the most common and pervasive mental disorders in the United States, and they manifest themselves in many different forms including the following: Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic attacks, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression.

I am certain that all of us have either experienced or heard of some of the above conditions. But does that mean you have an anxiety disorder? Although the distinction between an official diagnosis and “normal” anxiety isn’t always clear, here are some signs that may indicate your worries are clinically significant:

  • Sleep problems. You struggle falling asleep or staying awake (this is more than just tossing and turning with anticipation the night before a big speech or job interview).  I mean that you routinely find yourself lying awake, worried or agitated—about a specific problem or even nothing in particular.
  • Stage fright. Sure, most everyone get butterflies before addressing a group of people or being in the spotlight. But if the fear is so strong that no amount of coaching or practicing will placate it, or if you spend an excessive amount of time thinking and worrying about it, you may have a form of social anxiety disorder. Those with social anxiety will worry for days or even weeks leading up to a particular event or situation, and may consider extreme methods to evade said responsibility! Even if they do manage to go through with it, they tend to be incredibly uncomfortable and will dwell on their performance for a long time afterward, worrying about how they were judged.
  • Self-consciousness. We are all self-conscious about how we look or appear to others–especially when we are in the limelight. This symptom may be an indication of an anxiety disorder when your self-consciousness is provoked by everyday situations such as making one-on-one conversation at a party, or eating and drinking in front of even a small number of people. In these situations, people with social anxiety disorder tend to feel like all eyes are on them, and they often experience blushing, trembling, nausea, profuse sweating, or difficulty talking. These symptoms can be so disruptive that they make it hard to meet new people, maintain relationships, and advance at work or school!
  • Muscle tension. Near-constant muscle tension (from clenching your jaw, balling your fists, or flexing muscles throughout your body) often accompanies anxiety disorders. This is the sort of tension that even regular exercise and stretching cannot abate. (Muscle tension of this severity can be so persistent and pervasive that people who have lived with it for a long time may stop noticing it after a while!)
  • Chronic indigestion. Anxiety may start in the mind, but it often manifests itself in the body. A common example is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), in which the individual experiences near constant stomach aches, cramping, bloating, gas, constipation, and/or diarrhea. This is basically anxiety in the digestive tract! (A note: IBS is not always related to anxiety, but the two often occur together and can make each other worse.)
  • Panic. A panic attack can be a sudden, gripping feeling of fear and helplessness that can last for several minutes and be accompanied by scary physical symptoms such as breathing problems, a pounding or racing heart, tingling or numb hands, sweating, weakness or dizziness, chest pain, stomach pain, and feeling hot or cold.  It is possible to be diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and have panic symptoms, but not be diagnosed with panic disorder. Not everyone who has a panic attack has an anxiety disorder, but people who experience them repeatedly may be diagnosed with panic disorder.
  • Flashbacks. Reliving a disturbing or traumatic event–like a violent accident or the sudden death of a loved one–is a hallmark of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which shares features with many anxiety disorders. (In fact, up until very recently, PTSD was seen as a type of anxiety disorder rather than a stand-alone condition.)
  • Perfectionism. This prevalent and obsessive mindset goes hand in hand with anxiety disorders. This is where you are constantly judging yourself, and have relentless anticipatory anxiety about making mistakes or falling short of your [unattainably high] standards. Some individuals with perfectionism even see fit to punish themselves through publicly slandering themselves or taking on extra responsibilities when they fail to reach the high standards they have placed upon themselves.
  • Compulsive behaviors. In order to be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a person’s obsessiveness and intrusive thoughts must be accompanied by compulsive action or behavior. This may be mental (like repeatedly reminding yourself that things will be okay) or physical (like excessive hand-washing, not leaving home until your makeup is perfect, hair plucking, or repeatedly checking to ensure the oven is off).

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 19 percent of American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder each year, and it is more prevalent in women, in people under 35, and in those who live in North America or Western European countries. According to these statistics, many people experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime!

As I have said previously and will continue to emphasize, having a mental illness like an anxiety disorder is not a life sentence. You are not damaged goods. There is nothing inherently wrong with you. If we are going to take the stigma out of mental illness, we need to believe it ourselves first! This will happen as you recognize your worth and find the courage to accept help. Just a friendly reminder that help is readily available for those with anxiety disorders. There are a myriad of medications and treatments–including therapy from a licensed, experienced therapist–that can help you or your loved one control anxiety. Help is one click or phone call away. Please contact me today!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Doing the Things You Enjoy Can Help Your Anxiety

Cluff Counseling, DFW Marriage and Family Therapy - Hobbies for Anxiety ReliefLife is stressful. Whether it is deadlines at work, final exams in school, a breakup with a significant other, or simply the daily rig-a-ma-roll of life, chances are high that you feel anxious from time to time. Anxiety is a normal part of life in our society; everyone experiences it in some degree or another. In fact, 40 million American adults deal with an anxiety disorder of some kind! The question is not if or when you will feel your heart palpitating, have weak legs, or feel queasy about an impending event… the real question is how you will deal with your anxiety when you experience it. In this blog post I will share 6 hobbies that can help keep that anxiety at bay…or at least keep it at a manageable level.

It is not uncommon for my clients to deal with anxiety–I would say 4 out of 5 struggle with a degree of anxiety in some area of their life. In most cases, my clients simply need guidance for managing their anxiety. Some of my other clients, however, have more severe anxiety, and I may recommend medication in order for them to find and achieve balance and equilibrium. I often tell these clients that life with severe anxiety without medication is like drowning… you are disoriented and cannot tell up from down, as you struggle for breath.  On the other hand, life with severe anxiety with medication is like swimming with your head above the water… you are in control, you have air in your lungs, and you can see clearly. Medication will not take your anxiety away; instead, it will help you cope better and be in control of your life. Such cases where medication is needed require a diagnosis from a certified individual, like me, a licensed therapist. Optimal results come when medication is coupled with counseling and self-care.  If you feel you have chronic anxiety, come see me for an assessment and to begin creating a plan to address your anxiety.

Certain hobbies have been found to naturally help clients overcome and alleviate anxiety. When participating in hobbies to help combat anxiety, you are in control. Choose something you like and you are interested in. Here are six suggestions to get your started:

  • Paint or write in a journal. Take a break from the endless social media scrolling, and release your inner artist. There is something so therapeutic about creating with paint and/or words!
  • Joy read or watch an engaging TV show. Escape your own troubles momentarily by losing yourself in other people’s stories.
  • Get outside. Barrie Sueskind, a therapist specializing in anxiety, says this is her go-to: “Fresh air and sunlight are proven mood boosters.”
  • Practice mindfulness. This is all about quieting the madness in your head while still being present. Yoga, meditation, or even a quick walk can steady those racing thoughts.
  • Work out. No secret here–exercise is great for curbing stress, depression, and anxiety!
  • Take a self-improvement class. Yes, you are experiencing anxiety because life is busy and stressful… so adding an extraneous class to the mix may seem counter-productive. However, improving your cooking skills, learning a language, or learning a new hobby is an incredible way to focus on the present and not worry about the future!

Remember, these are merely suggestions. You are in the driver’s seat and can control what and how much you do to ward off those feelings of anxiousness…because they will come! If you have questions, or feel your anxiety is interfering with your ability to enjoy life, contact me today.

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Self-care: Is it Selfish?

Self-care | Cluff Counseling, Dallas Marriage and Family TherapistLife can be draining. We are constantly surrounded by a barrage of common, everyday stressors like financial strain; employment, unemployment or deployment; addiction; sickness; or familial discord. If we are not careful, life’s demands can overwhelm, frustrate, or discourage us. Self-care is a tried-and-true method prescribed by therapists, and other professionals, to help clients improve their overall health. In this post, I will explain how self-care is not a selfish use of time, but actually one of the best ways to improve your overall health. Keep reading and I will give a few ideas for how you can improve your self-care today!

Any string instrumentalist can tell you the importance of loosening the strings of your instrument when it is not in use. When a violin, viola, cello, or double bass is put in its case to be stored, the strings need to be loosened; then, when it is time to play again, the musician will tighten the strings and adjust the tuneage. This ensures that there is not constant, damaging pressure on the strings or the instrument itself that would impede it from playing optimally. Self-care is to humans what “loosening the strings” is to a string instrument–a rest, a break, a reprieve. It is not selfish, self-indulgence or self-pampering. It is care provided for you, by you. It is taking the time to do some of the activities that nurture you. It is about identifying your own needs and taking steps to meet them. Self care is about taking proper care of yourself and treating yourself as kindly as you treat others. It is vitally important to our overall health, yet we often fail to make time for it.

Most of us, myself included, could improve on how we take care of ourselves. We run ourselves ragged fulfilling our responsibilities and obligations at work, at home, at church, or with our family and friends. We neglect ourselves! When we do this, we see the things that are most important to us–such as our health, our relationships, our career and our life goals–negatively affected. When we live a balanced life, we are able to accomplish our to-do list and not feel emotionally drained, depleted of energy, and lacking in motivation at the end of the day.

So how well are you treating yourself? Use the following questions to identify areas of self-care you are successful in and areas you could improve in:

  • Am I getting between 6-8 hours of sleep a night?
  • Am I eating 3 balanced meals a day?
  • Am I saying “no” to extraneous responsibilities (when applicable)?
  • Am I exercising 2-3 times a week?
  • Am I making and maintaining meaningful relationships with those in my circle of support?
  • Am I making time for hobbies?
  • Am I taking time to relax?
  • Am I keeping my mind sharp by reading good books, playing word puzzles or seeking to educate myself further in areas that interest me?
  • Do I know what triggers my bad moods and am I actively working to remove those triggers?
  • Do I know how to express my emotions in healthy ways that don’t hurt myself or others?
  • Have I established spiritual or religious practices and do I practice them consistently?

If you were able to answer yes to the majority of these questions, then you are well on your way to practicing good self-care. If you answered no to any of them, you know where to start. Be intentional about your self-care–literally schedule it into your day! And please, start small with behaviors you can reasonably implement without overwhelming yourself. Remember, self-care should leave you feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, not more stressed with one more thing on your plate!

I have seen clients make remarkable progress in their sessions with me when they correctly and consistently practice self-care. If your figurative strings are loosened at the appropriate times, you will be able to perform to the best of your ability when you need to. We can all improve our self-care. Let’s start today and give ourselves a little bit of a break from the rigorous lives we lead.

If you have any questions on how you can implement self-care into your life, please feel free to contact me. Similarly, if you would like help formulating an effective and personalized self-care plan, schedule your first session with me today!

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