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The Psychology of Panic Buying

Panic buying is currently big news, resulting in big queues.  Fears about fuel and food items shortages have resulted in shoppers stockpiling in a phenomenon that’s been labelled “panic buying”.  In this article we consider some of the psychological drivers at play with panic buying, how this relates to other forms of panic and anxiety and how we can remain calm and grounded in the face of panic buying news reports.   Throughout, this blog aims to take a non-judgmental approach to panic and panic-buying in order to make meaning of panic and panic-buying. 

What is Panic?

The word panic originated from the Greek panikos, which includes the name of the god Pan: noted for causing terror.  Greek myths frequently blame Pan for causing woodland noises that strike terror and anxiety into the heart of other woodland beings.  This origin of the word panic helps us to better understand something of what panic feels like:  panic can be defined as a sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety that can result in unthinking or reactive behaviour.  And, it is that sense of fear and anxiety and then a reactive behaviour of stocking up and stockpiling that is being termed “panic buying”.  If we were to distil panic buying into an equation, it would look something like this:

Reports of shortages + fear of future scarcity = reactive behaviour of stockpiling.

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Panic is not a new phenomenon.  Many people come to therapy to seek support after experiencing symptoms of anxiety and, with more severe forms of anxiety, panic attacks.  A panic attack can be extremely distressing and frightening and includes symptoms of:

Panic Attacks 

  • A racing heartbeat
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • feeling faint, dizzy or lightheaded.
  • feeling that you’re losing control.
  • sweating, trembling or shaking.
  • shortness of breath or breathing very quickly.
  • a tingling in your fingers or lips.
  • chest pain
  • hot flushes
  • chills
  • dry mouth
  • a need to go to the toilet
  • ringing in your ears
  • a feeling of dread
  • a churning stomach
Panic Attacks can be extremely distressing and debilitating

What do Panic Attacks and Panic Buying Have in Common?

Whilst panic buying at the forecourts and in supermarkets may not mirror the typical symptoms of a full-blown panic attack, similar psychological processes are behind panic buying and a panic attack.  Both are essentially a mental, emotional, physical and behavioural response to fear.  Both are about perceived loss of control and anticipatory fears about what might happen.  Panic attacks can be triggered by particular situations and scenarios and the beliefs and expectations a person has about that situation.  Panic buying is, ultimately, fuelled by an anticipatory fear of scarcity:  that we will be left without food, without fuel and struggling to get by.  Such fear prompts a responsive action to stockpile or hoard. This is something we feel we do have control over, and helps – in the short term- to reduce feelings of anxiety and panic associated with fears of scarcity.  However, in the long term, panic buying behaviour can disrupt the supply chain and lead to issues with supplies in stores.  Even when we are told rationally to simply shop as we usually would, there is some inner drive that can override this advice, leading us to stockpile.

Panic Buying and the Role of Perceived Scarcity

Research shows that the perception of scarcity is strongly linked with the panic buying behaviour.  We fear running out, not having enough, going without.  That is a real and understandable fear.  As an infant, we cried when we were hungry.  Even at that young age, we were driven by a survival instinct that equates food with survival.   News reports and overheard conversations about empty shelves, therefore, fuels our perceptions of scarcity and is likely to increase panic buying.   Our brain moves into the territory of survival.  The feeling of insecurity that arises when we fear we will not have enough food or fuel activates the desire to respond and react by stockpiling.   Buying fuel and food sooths our personal anxiety around scarcity in the short term.  We can consider stockpiling and panic buying as a form of safety seeking behaviour. 

The Limbic Brain and Panic

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With any form of panic or extreme anxiety, our limbic brain – that is, our emotional and reactive brain that is responsible for keeping us safe from danger, begins to work overtime.  The pre-frontal cortex part of our brain that makes rational decisions and weighs evidence before responding is less likely to be functioning and collaborating with the limbic system.  Dan Siegal, clinical professor of psychiatry, calls this “flipping your lid”.  Therefore, if we find ourselves stockpiling as a reactive behaviour, rather than a calmly thought out and reasoned response to a challenging situation, it is likely that we are acting out of panic and without the full use of our pre-frontal cortex.  Just as with a panic attack, grounding exercises and self-regulation support can help us to calm any sense of panic and allow our limbic brain and our pre-frontal cortex to work together and make rational decisions rather than reactive and impulsive actions. 

Grounding Ourselves to Help Manage Panic

Feeling calm and grounded allows us to be more capable of making calm, rational decisions that respond (rather than react) to challenge

Grounding exercises and self-regulation support are an important tool for managing anxiety and panic – and these will be considered more in a future blog.  However, anything that helps to calm our nervous system can be considered a form of self-regulation and grounding.  For some people, this takes the form of meditation.  For others, calm and mindful breathing.  For others, sensory awareness.  The key here to all of these techniques or exercises is that they allow some sense of control or feeling of mastery over our own responses and our reactions.   They can be very helpful for managing emerging feelings and sensations indicating a panic attack.  They are also useful tools to consider when we feel disturbed, anxious or ill-at-ease about panic buying reports. 

Herd Instinct and Co-Regulation:  The Impact of Others Upon Our Sense of Panic. 

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One final consideration that is relevant to the psychology of panic buying is that humans are social beings.  We cannot help but be influenced by the reactions and behaviours of others.   This has been labelled the “herd instinct”.  We often find that we look to others as a means of comparison and to gauge our own responses.  As social creatures, our brains and emotional states are impacted by that of others in a phenomenon called “co-regulation”.  My state of emotional and psychological regulation can be impacted by that of another.  In this way, panic can be contagious.  Seeing news reports and also speaking with others who are feeling panicky as a result of perceived scarcity can result in us also feeling a sense of anxiety and panic. 

So – panic buying, like other forms of panic and anxiety is essentially a fear-based response that emerges from a perception of danger or risk.  Panic buying, like other forms of panic and anxiety, can be a reaction resuting from our limbic systems response to perceived danger.  News reports and being with others who are experiencing panic can also fuel our own feelings of panic.  Grounding and self-regulation that helps us to allow our limbic system and our pre-frontal cortex to work in an integrated and unified way is one way to help respond to panic.  Grounding exercises – explored more in a future blog – are ways in which we can regain some sense of control in a world that sometimes feels out of control.

This blog has aimed to unpack something of the psychology of panic-buying in a non-judgemental way.  It has aimed to make meaning of panic and anxiety and the feelings of being out of control.  For many people, therapy offers a space to explore in a non-judgemental context, what panic, anxiety and feeling out of control is like for them – with the ultimate goal of making meaning of their experiences.  If you feel you’d like to find out more how therapy can help with panic and anxiety, please do get in touch for a free initial phone consultation. 

Therapy can help you to make meaning of your own experiences of panic, fear and anxiety.

References:

Arafat, S., Kar, S. K., Marthoenis, M., Sharma, P., Hoque Apu, E., & Kabir, R. (2020). Psychological underpinning of panic buying during pandemic (COVID-19). Psychiatry research, 289, 113061. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113061

Wilkens J. The San Diego Union-Tribune; 2020. Why We Hoard: Fear at Root of Panic-Buying, Psychologists Say.https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/health/story/2020-03-22/hoard-fear-panic-buying-psychology

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Breathing Support for Anxiety

Breathing is our basic support system. In times of stress and difficulty, simply focusing on breathing can restore a sense of inner capability and calm. It’s for this reason that my eye was drawn to two recent books on the topic of breathing: Breath, by James Nestor and Close your Mouth by Patrick McKeown, founder of the Buteyko Clinic

I’ve enjoyed sitting down to read both of these accessible books. It’s felt relaxing and strangely productive at the same time. And, based on a resting respiratory rate of 12 breath cycles per minute, I’ve taken somewhere close to 72,000 breaths as I’ve read. It’s caused me to be far more aware of my breathing, moment-to-moment, and has got me thinking about the role breathing plays in emotional and neurological regulation, particularly when experiencing anxiety. 

Breath Awareness: A Powerful Tool

Become more aware of our breathing in any given moment provides valuable data about our experiencing within and our relationship to the world around us. For anyone who wants to build breath awareness into daily life, it can help to try sitting and tuning into what you experience in the present moment. Aim to narrate or describe what it is you experience about your breathing.   Begin each sentence with the phrase, “right now, I’m aware that…..” 

Questions that can support this awareness exercise include:

·      What word describes my breathing right now? Is your breathing laboured? Smooth? What other word(s) express the felt sense of your experiencing? 

·      Consider the pace of your breathing: fast, slow, gradually increasing or decreasing in pace?

·      Consider the depth of your breathing: shallow, light breaths or somewhere closer to deep breathing? 

·      Consider anything you notice about the outbreath as distinct from the inbreath. How does your exhale differ from your inhale?  

·      Consider where in your body you sense the breath as it moves within your system. Which muscles move as you breathe? Does your breath change with your increasing awareness? 

Having greater awareness allows us to notice thought patterns, breathing changes and tension in our body. Our breathing patterns can be signals of anxiety building and allow us to choose to respond in a way that is self-supporting and self-caring. 

Breathing and the Autonomic Nervous System

When we experience anxiety, or face some stress or threat, our autonomic nervous system prepares the body for fight or flight in response.  Our heart rate increases, muscles tense and our digestion slows. Most aspects of our nervous system cannot be consciously controlled.  Breathing is unique in that, through conscious breathing, you can regulate your nervous system. 

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the way our body regulates processes for rest and activity, and this process happens automatically. It consists of 2 main branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic branch of the ANS stimulate the body’s fight or flight response. When faced with a danger, or potential danger, the sympathetic system causes changes in our heart rate, rate of respiration, digestion and muscle tension so that we are physically prepared to fight or flee. This happens as soon as our brain detects threat, even if the brain is mistaken. For example, on seeing a coil of rope from the corner or your eye, your heart may begin to beat fast and your breathing rate will automatically increase.  Your brain has read the sensory data as “snake” and responded in much the same way as it would if you saw an actual snake. This process is extremely useful to our survival. However, when we remain in a state of heightened sympathetic stimulation, our body remains tense, on edge and anxious. 

The parasympathetic branch of the ANS is focussed on restoring calm and balance to our bodies after sympathetic stimulation. It prevents the body from overworking and brings our breathing, heart rate and muscle tension back to a more regulated state in order to facilitate rest and recovery. Breathing has a vital role to play in kickstarting the parasympathetic response of calm and balance. It’s been shown that deep breathing can activate the parasympathetic branch of the ANS and decrease levels of the cortisol stress hormone. Consider building in helpful slow and deep breathing practice, particularly focusing on the releasing exhale breath, when you sense your nervous system would benefit from calm and balanced regulation.

Sunlight on water
Like the ebb and flow of the sea, breath comes in, breath goes out.

I’d like to share with you three simple breathing exercises that I’ve found beneficial for tapping into the power of the breath to aid emotional and neurological regulation. 

Attend to Posture

Aim for posture that is supportive of breathing by allowing space and expansion of the respiratory muscles of the diaphragm. Allow your body to do what it naturally does: breathe. Brething can be well supported when your posture allows your spine to extend, with your shoulders back and without tension. Aim to notice ease in your body and to allow your posture to support efficient and effective breathing.

Slow Down

When we are relaxed, our breathing slows down. By slowing down your breathing, you can affect other bodily systems so that heart rate decreases, and cortisol levels drop.  

·      Find a comfortable sitting position, and place your feet flat on the ground. 

·      Let your breath flow as deep down into your belly as is comfortable, without forcing it.

·      Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.

·      Breathe in gently and regularly. Some people find it helpful to count steadily from 1 to 5. You may not be able to reach 5 at first.

·      Then, without pausing or holding your breath, let it flow out gently, counting from 1 to 5 again, if you find this helpful. In time, you can begin to slow down and extend the outbreath. 

·      Keep doing this for 3 to 5 minutes.

Square Breathing

This technique requires us to concentrate on our breathing and can bring a greater sense of balance and harmony. 

·      Begin by slowly exhaling all your air out.

·      Then, gently inhale through your nose to a slow count of 4.

·      Hold at the top of the breath for a count of 4.

·      Then gently exhale through your mouth for a count of 4.

·      At the bottom of the breath, pause and hold for the count of 4.

Killer whale breathing
Find freedom from anxiety with breathwork

Take a Moment to Breathe and Put it into Practice.

So, in these times of economical uncertainty and elevated tension, attending to the breath can be a cost effective (i.e., free!) form of self-care and self-support, equipping you to find greater ease, calm and balance in your daily life. I’d love to hear if any of the suggestions here free you up to catch our breath, and breath a sigh of relief during an otherwise hectic world.  And if you are curious to know more, I’d certainly recommend Nestor’s and McKeown’s books.

References:

·      Gerritsen, R., & Band, G. (2018). Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 397.

·      Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., Wei, G. X., & Li, Y. F. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 874.

·      McKeown, P. (2004). Close Your Mouth. Buteyko Books: Moycullen.

·      Nestor, J. (2020). Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. Penguin Books: London.

Work-Related Stress and Anxiety

2021 has seen huge changes in people’s work patterns and habits, with many people adjusting to blended working, returning to face-to-face working and working in very different circumstances that pre-Pandemic.  Whilst change is a part of life – it can also be a trigger for anxiety and a cause of work-related stress.  This blog looks at the ways work can impact our sense of wellbeing, and how work-related stress and anxiety can steal our serenity. We will also consider some practical self-help strategies that can support your psychological health if you feel impacted by work-related stress and anxiety. 

The Impact of Work-Related Stress and Anxiety

Work is a key part of so many of our lives.  Whether that’s in the form of paid employment, voluntary work or laboring at home to keep on top of chores and the tasks of life.  On average, a third of our adult lives are spent at work if we’re working full-time.  And, part-time employment does not necessarily mean part-time work, as anyone who juggling non-paid work, including caring for children and other family members, alongside paid employment knows.   Even if we are not currently employed, the toll of looking for work can take up significant amounts of focus.   Therefore, if work leaves us feeling stressed and anxious, then a big chunk of our life is impacted.  Feelings of tension, stress and anxiety can spill into other areas of our lives as we take the anxiety with us outside of our workplace.  Work-related stress and anxiety affect our personal relationships, leisure pursuits and rest, spreading and contaminating our non-work life.  The utopian vision of the 19th Century reformer, Robert Owen, who campaigned for “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” seems pure fantasy when you find yourself lying awake, anxiously ruminating about work. 

The Satisfaction of a Job Well Done

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Work, in whatever form it takes for us, can provide both income and industry.  Paid employment not only helps pay the bills, but also provides a potential sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.  Research shows that being under occupied can be detrimental to wellbeing, and this helps to explain why retirement or redundancy, or even being not-so busy at work can also feel stressful.  It helps to make sense of the anxiety that can come from self-employment in a changing economy and ever shifting market.  Not only do people fear for their livelihood, but there’s also a worry about what an empty order book might feel like.  No orders = no income + lack of accomplishment.  That’s certainly an anxiety provoking equation.   

Work-Related Stress

So, what do we mean by work related stress and anxiety? Stress is the term we use to describe our reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure.   In the short term, stress focuses the mind and the body to meet demands – to get the report to your boss ahead of the deadline, or to process a sudden influx or orders.  However, when sustained over time, stress is detrimental to physical and mental health.  We tire, mentally and physically when we are under duress for too long.   If we assess that the demands outstrip our ability to cope, feelings of hopelessness and threat emerge.

Work-Related Anxiety

In a similar way, work-related anxiety is the feeling of dread, fear or apprehension about some aspect of our work.  It may be experienced as physical symptoms of tense muscles and difficulty breathing.  It may be felt as a panicky sensation in our stomachs.  It can also take the form of troubling thoughts and feelings that cause real distress.  Whilst some level of anxiety can alert us to action, – for example, by prompting us to take a look at our situation and environment and make changes as needed – too much work-related anxiety can be paralyzing.  Anxiety causes our body to release adrenaline and cortisol and our hearts beat faster so that blood can quickly reach the parts of our body needed to run or fight the threat.  This can lead to feeling shaky and breathless as a result, and may culminate in a panic-attack. 

Causes of Work-Related Stress and Anxiety

So, let’s consider some of the common workplace threats and pressures that can trigger work-related stress and anxiety.  Threats in the workplace can take the form of the passive-aggressive email that leaves us feeling under threat.  It may come in the guise of a colleague who is ever critical and has zero tolerance for imperfection.  Overheard rumors of lay-offs and redundancies can be a significant workplace threat, as can news reports about downturns in the economy.   Needing to adapt quickly – perhaps with inadequate training – to new work patterns and remote and digital ways of working can feel unsettling.  Being asked to work in areas and ways outside of our comfort zones can feel threatening.  For anyone on a zero-hour contact or where pay comes in the form of commissions, there can be anxiety and stress associated with the uncertainty. 

Increasing Awareness and Regulation Strategies

There are steps employees and employers can take to prevent and manage workplace stress and anxiety.  Awareness is a powerful tool here – being able to name and describe different stressors and challenges allows for an objective view of the situation which, in turn, invites an audit of the skills and resources available in response.  Such logical and objective thinking can be difficult when we feel overwhelmed by difficulties at work.   Having some strategies that help with regulation of emotions and sensations is helpful.  These allow your nervous system to calm so that you are able to respond in a considered way. We will cover a range of regulation techniques in later blogs.  Two  of the many useful regulation and calming strategies are Mindfulness and Slow Breathing techniques, and research has demonstrated that both Mindfulness and Slow Breathing Work can reduce experience of work-related anxiety (Zaccaro et al., 2018; Janssen et al., 2018).   

Resources for Mindfulness and Slow Breathing Work

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For busy workers who want to find ways to learn more about Mindfulness, there are some excellent Apps out there that can support Mindfulness practice.  Headspace provides easy to access Mindfulness exercises.  For people interested in finding out more about the theory as well as the practice of Mindfulness, Sam Harris’ Waking Up App may be of interest. 

And Slow Breathing Work can take many forms.  We’ve covered some of these in a previous blog.  Other resources that may be of interest include Tom Granger’s Draw Breath book and the NHS Every Mind Matters video.   

Calming, regulation strategies, then, are helpful in helping with gaining a sense of perspective upon the issues that are impacting work-related stress and anxiety.  Having a clear sense of what the issues are and how they impact you allows for supportive conversations with others.  It may be that speaking with a line-manger can help.  You may find speaking with a friend helps.  And, for many, speaking with a counsellor to explore issues of work-related stress and anxiety is a helpful outlook that can result in increased self-awareness and lasting change. 

References:

Eklund, M. & Argentzell, E. (2016) Perception of occupational balance by people with mental illness: A new methodology in Scandinavian journal of occupational therapy, 23:4, 304-313.

Jasssen, M., Heerkens, Y., Kuijer, W., van der Heijden, B., & Engels, J. (2018). Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on employees’ mental health: A systematic review. PloS one, 13(1), e0191332.

Zaccaro, A., Piarulli, A., Laurino, M., Garbella, E., Menicucci, D., Neri, B., & Gemignani, A. (2018). How breath-control can change your life: A systematic review on psycho-physiological correlates of slow breathing. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 353

Preventing Burnout

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This is the final of three blogs unpacking the impact of burnout.  Many clients speak about the way that stress and sustained pressure take their toll and result in depletion, exhaustion and overload that can be labelled as “burnout”.  In previous blogs, we’ve explored what burnout is and some of the typical symptoms of burnout.  We’ve also looked at practical steps that can be taken to help recover from burnout.  But, mindful of the old adage, “prevention is better than cure”, here we take a look at strategies that help to prevent and safeguard against burnout.   

Burnout:  Keeping your Vehicle on the Road. 

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Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.  Think of it like a vehicle that’s driven too fast for too far without stopping to re-fuel.  Once you’ve got to that point, it is a slow and difficult trek to the nearest petrol station to purchase a canister and fuel, and then a hike back to put the few litres, (gallon in old money!) into the tank.  Either that, or an expensive callout to a roadside assistance provider.  With this analogy, its fairly easy to see what preventative action to guard against burnout involves might look like.  Regular “filling the tank”, stopping to replenish and refuel before we become exhausted and overwhelmed.  Keeping a close eye on the measuring gauges and dashboard indicators that tell us about the status of our vehicle.

So, preventative action to guard against burnout includes self-awareness: noticing and recognising our own indicators and early warning signs that we are facing stress and pressure and that our coping reserves are dwindling.  It involves responsive action to then find ways to stop, rest and replenish.  At its heart, preventative action to guard against burnout is being serious about a robust self-care routine.   

Finding balance is an important aspect of self-care routines

Self-Care Routines

It’s tempting to think of self-care as luxurious trips to day spas or holidays on exotic beaches.  Of course, these things can be part of a self-care routine, and it’s great to have a bit of pampering and take a holiday every now and then.  But, in terms of burnout prevention, self-care is very much about the regular things that help to replenish and restore.  That can be staring the day with a healthy breakfast, a weekly phone call to a friend, attending to medical appointments and taking time each day to enjoy a lunch break away from your desk.  It could even include weekend hikes and getting out into nature.

A self-care (very cold!) hike

Another way to think of self-care is to consider the various domains of your life, and to consider what actions and strategies you can implement to ensure you are taking care of yourself in each domain.  For example, you may consider some of the following domains to be important areas of your life where you can consider appropriate self-care:

  • Physical self-care
  • Psychological self-care
  • Emotional self-care
  • Spiritual self-care
  • Study related self-care
  • Work related self-care. 

Let’s think about some practical self-care examples for some of these domains.  A work-related self-care activity could be to ensure that you do leave work on time.  Or that you book in with your line-manager to discuss any concerns you have before they escalate. 

Physical self-care can be to drink enough water each day and remember to stretch and move if you feel tension in your body.  It can also include taking medication as prescribed, eating well and attending to sleep hygiene to help get a restful night’s sleep. 

Psychological self-care can include considering and implementing appropriate boundaries:  saying no to an extra commitment when you feel you don’t have capacity.  Considering self-talk can also be a key aspect of psychological self-care.  If you find yourself berating and berating yourself up for perceived failure or not achieving what you feel you “ought” or “should”, it might be time to attend to kind and compassionate self-talk:  telling yourself that you did the best you could with the resources you had. 

Each of these domains are worthy of our awareness and attention.  Each domain contributes to our overall sense of wellbeing.  When we are lacking in appropriate self-care in any domain, its likely we begin to feel a bit “lopsided” and out of sorts.  When we allow that situation to continue, it begins to take its toll and we risk burnout. 

Resistance to Self-Care

Perhaps you are reading this and feeling some resistance, or irritation?  If so, good spot! That irritation may have something useful to tell you.  I know that for many clients I have worked with, talk of self-care and self-nurture can feel cloying and uncomfortable.  I am interested and curious about the unique meaning of this for my client. Yet, I also notice that there are some common themes in resistance to self-care.

Photo by Alex Green on Pexels.com

For some, self-care feels indulgent and almost frivolous.  Perhaps you’ve never had important and significant people in your life model self-care, and it feels alien to you?  You may have grown up with the encouragement to be strong, tough and to keep going.  To ignore any warning signs that you weren’t managing and instead “try harder”?  Perhaps self-care feels too much like self-pity and you’d rather focus on the things you can do now?  For some people, they become aware that much of their self-image and self-identity is tied up in doing, or even giving to others.  To stop and “be”, or to attend to self may therefore feel selfish, or a waste of time.  Stopping the busy-ness of life might just open up the chance for self-reflection and that can feel daunting.  In which case, staying busy can seem preferable.

So, if you are aware of any resistance, its worth noting and being curious about that, and what meaning it holds for you.  Therapy can help with this self-discovery process.  Once you are aware of any resistance, you have choice.  The choice to remain resistant, or to consider other responses to self-care. 

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Challenging Self-Care Resistance. 

Let’s look at one possible response for someone who is committed to experimenting with challenging resistance to self-care:

Consider someone that you care about:  this could be a friend or a family member.  Now think about what you’d love to do for them on their birthday, to show them you care?  If money weren’t a barrier – what gift would you buy them?  What words would you write in a card?  Where would you like to take them to celebrate?  What would you want to say to them face-to-face to show that they matter to you?  And, how might you respond if you also knew that they were finding this particular birthday really tough as things had been hard for them lately? 

When we care about someone, we like to find ways to show our love, care and kindness.  This is especially the case they are in a time of need or crisis.  It’s unlikely that in this scenario, you’d tell your loved one to just put-up and shut-up, or chastise them for finding things tough in the first place. 

It’s strange, therefore, that it can be so hard at times to be a friend to self, to care for yourself.    Beliefs and established ways of being and doing can get in the way of being a friend to ourself. 

Being a friend to ourselves means offering compassion and kindness as if we were our own best friend.  It means avoiding self-criticism and self-attack.  It means choosing to show ourselves kindness and love and making sure we build in self-care activities into our daily schedule.  Self-care means an appreciation of one’s own worth or value.  Those very times are when we might feel like we don’t deserve care and compassion.  Our inner critic can be quick to say we are being extravagant or indulgent.  However, when that voice surfaces, it’s the exact time when self-care is needed. 

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Self-Care:  Attend to Your Own Mask First

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COVID means it may be hard to remember the specifics of the last time you flew on an aeroplane.  However, any flight always includes the safety briefing, when the flight attendant instructs you to “put your oxygen mask on first,” before helping others in the event of an emergency.   It seems almost counter intuitive to look after yourself before helping children or other people.  But if you run out of oxygen yourself, you can’t help anyone else with their oxygen mask.  The same principle applies to so many situations in life.  If we only ever care for others, and pay no attention to our self-care, we will burn out and be of no use to anyone. 

Burnout Audit

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If you aren’t sure if you are at high risk of burnout, then its good to take time to take stock of how things are for you at the moment.  What stresses and strains might you be under – and what helps you cope?  We can think of this as an audit.  One that is likely to result in some change to your routines around self-care, as you may identify some areas where you’d benefit from taking action.  Such an audit can be as simple as having a think through the sorts of self-care and also the stresses and pressures you face in the various domains of life at present.  You may also be interested in more formal diagnostic and audit tools around burnout.  There are various evidence-based measures, including the Maslach Burnout Inventory

To return to our vehicle analogy, a regular self-care / burnout audit allows you to have a bit of an MOT, or a Service.  A great way to spot and then respond to any minor issues before they escalate.  For many people, a self-care audit every couple of months seems a helpful tool in preventing burnout.  This can then lead to the development of a self-care plan that includes action points in each of the life domains that are significant to you.

So, prevention is better than cure when it comes to burnout.  There is only one unique you, so it makes good sense that you do take looking after you seriously – which also includes having fun! 

If you do feel that any of the issues raised in this blog have left you curious or unsettled, please do get in touch. I’d be happy to discuss how counselling can support you with any self-care or burnout concerns you may have. 

Recovering from Burnout

Counselling for stress and burnout
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This is the second in a series of three blogs exploring burnout.  In the previous blog, we considered what burnout is, the signs and symptoms of burnout and who is at risk.  Here, we cover practical self-help strategies you can employ to help manage burnout if you feel you are beginning to suffer from or are firmly in the grip of burnout. 

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Burnout:  No fuel left in the tank

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.   If you’ve begun to spot some of the physical, emotional, mental and behavioural symptoms of burnout, then it’s time to take action.  Self-care and self-help for recovering from burnout are essentially about taking steps to reduce stress and to find ways to re-resource.    Burnout is a diagnosable health condition resulting from continuous and long-term stress exposure (ICD-10 International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 10th Revision).  And, as with any health condition, a return to good health can take time and comes after rest and active treatment. 

Reduce Your Exposure to Stress to Tackle Burnout

Stress and pressure can lead to burnout
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At the point of burnout, we’ve borne the brunt of stress and pressure for too long.  The depletion of burnout comes after exposure to stress and suffering, causing us to remain in a state of flight or fight – on high alert, for too long, without sufficient respite.  Therefore, once you recognise that you are experiencing burnout, it is essential that you reduce your exposure to stress.  Your brain and body need chance to regulate and recover. 

A significant aspect of self-care and self-help for burnout is taking a long hard look at what you can do to reduce stress and pressure in your life.   Do you need to take a break for a few weeks?  It may be prudent to book in annual leave as a matter of urgency to give yourself a total break.  For some people, burnout means that they are not well enough to work and require a break from the pressure and stress of work.  In which case, speak to your GP.  Remember, burnout is an accepted health condition.

Consider, too, the various commitments that add to your daily or weekly load.  What can you pause or take a break from in order to reduce your exposure to stress?  Perhaps it would help to hire a cleaner for a couple of months to reduce any household pressures.  Or, at least accept that – for this season at least – some jobs will just need to remain undone.  Step back from volunteering for a while.  Learn the art of saying “no”.  The last thing you need right now is more commitment.   However you manage it, it is essential you have a respite and reprieve from stress and pressure for a while. 

Filling the Tank After Burnout. 

As well as reducing your exposure to stress, it’s also important to find ways to replenish after experiencing burnout.  If we take the analogy of a fuel tank, reducing our exposure to stress helps to cover the “hole” in the tank that’s been leaking fuel.  But there is a need to now refuel and restock your energy levels. 

How to refuel?  Take a long hard think about what it is that gives you energy and gives you life.  What makes you feel alive, feel engaged, feel like “you”?  Dancing?  Meditation?  A yoga class?  Time alone to read, relax and create?  Socialising with precious friends?  Walking in nature?  Watching your favourite film or show?  You’ll know yourself what helps you to feel energised and enlivened. It’s different for each of us, and only you really know what feels a perfect fit for you and your own needs.   It is important that you schedule plenty of opportunities to do the things that help, that bring you joy.  These things are a powerful antidote to burnout.  Make space in your diary and prioritise these activities to fill the tank and refuel after burnout. 

Give Yourself Time

Take time to recover from burnout
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Consider that burnout often takes months to take a hold.  Burnout occurs after the prolonged exposure to stress and pressure.  Therefore, you need to allow time for recovery from burnout.  Give yourself time and aim to adopt an attitude of self-compassion and patience with yourself as you slowly recover from burnout. 

Take time to make changes to your daily, weekly and monthly routines so that you are in a position to recover from burnout.  Give yourself time each day for some relaxation, and rest and chance to replenish.  Re-evaluate the expectations you place upon yourself about what you can cram into each day, each week, each month.  Build in time to rest and time to recover.  These are lifestyle changes that will help you to recover from burnout but will also help you to safeguard against future burnout. 

Seek Professional Help

Counselling for stress and burnout in Preston
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Many people seek therapy and professional counselling or psychotherapy as space to explore how they feel about the experience of burnout.  Burnout can trigger a range of feelings and responses.  For example, some people feel ashamed that they have reached a point of burnout.  They are suddenly faced with their own vulnerability and fragility and may feel shocked and shaken at this recognition.  The experience of burnout may also challenge self-beliefs and personal constructs. For example, if we hold a “be strong” mindset, the experience of burnout may lead us to question our own identity.  Perhaps we are someone who has gained our sense of self-worth from doing, and from helping others.  Burnout can challenge that and leave us questioning whether we are worthy or okay as a person.  Therapy is a place to explore and examine our own beliefs and feelings about ourselves, as well as offering opportunity to consider alternatives that can help towards recovery from burnout. 

Burnout….. so what?

We’ve explored some of the important aspects of recovering from burnout.  Recognising burnout is a first step towards recovery, that takes time and deliberate and active action to helps us towards a healthier future. 

The final blog post in this series will explore how to take actions to protect yourself from burnout in the future. 

Let me know what works for you in terms of recognising and managing burnout in your own unique circumstances.  And do get in touch if you’d like to discuss how counselling can help you in your recovery from burnout. 

Free to be Counselling offers professional counselling in Preston for anxiety, depression and self-esteem.
Counselling in Preston for anxiety, depression and self-esteem

What is Burnout?

Stress and sustained pressure can take its toll upon people.  Whilst it might be possible to cope with stress and pressure in the short term, over the long term, we’re at serious risk of burnout.  In this first blog in a series of posts, we’ll look at what burnout is, who it affects and what the signs and symptoms of burnout involve.  Future blogs will cover how to take preventative action to avoid burnout and how to recover from burnout. 

Burnout:  No fuel left in the tank

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.  A vehicle’s fuel tank is a good analogy here.  If you drive for too long, too fast without stopping to re-fuel, eventually your vehicle grinds to a halt.  You need to take time to find a source of fuel, and then re-fuel the tank before you can carry in.   For many people, the various stresses and strains of life mean that they’re driving too fast, for too long.  That’s not sustainable in the long-term and places a person at risk of burnout. 

And, its worth mentioning, that burnout can also involve the slow and almost imperceptible depletion of energy and resources to cope with the pressures upon us.  We can think of burnout as also being about a hole in the fuel tank.  Without remedial action to stem the flow, there’s a gradual leaking of fuel from the tank which, eventually, results in the vehicle grinding to a halt. 

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What is burnout?

Burnout was first identified and described in 1974 by clinical psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, in his study of nurses.  He noticed that pressures of work led to nurses becoming depleted.  Affected medical staff began to show signs of disengagement, feelings of helplessness and emotional exhaustion.  Now, burnout is widely recognised as a health condition that impacts significant numbers of people every year.  The ICD-10 (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 10th Revision) includes burnout as a diagnosable health condition resulting from continuous and long-term stress exposure.  And the World Health Organization recognises burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon’. 

Signs of burnout encompass emotional, physical, mental and behavioural symptoms.  Let’s look at some of the different signs and symptoms associated with burnout:

Emotional symptoms of burnout:
  • Depressed mood
  • Irritability
  • Sense of hopelessness
  • Disillusionment
  • Detachment
  • Resentment
Physical symptoms of burnout
  • Tired
  • Rundown
  • Sleep problems
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Stomach complaints
Mental symptoms of burnout:
  • Finding it hard to concentrate / make decisions
  • Persistent thoughts about patients / clients
  • Intrusive imagery of work-related issues 
Behavioural symptoms of burnout:
  • May exhibit robotic actions,
  • Impaired practice with questionable ethical actions and increased errors
  • Jumpy / restless
  • Greater use of alcohol / other drugs. 
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Our brains on burnout

The human brain is equipped to respond to short bursts of periods of stress. The adrenaline that is released under pressure helps us to perform.  That’s useful when we need take prompt action in response to a stressor.  Our brain begins to release the stress hormone, cortisol, equipping us to stay alert in the face of challenge.

However, when pressure and stress are prolonged, our brain is flooded with cortisol and we remain for far too long in a flight or fight states, on high alert without sufficient respite.   In time, the brain begins to struggle to produce cortisol leading to adrenal fatigue.  Over time, the drip-drip effect of prolonged pressure and demands mean our brain is less efficient at regulating our stress response and we find we are less equipped to manage stress.  We label this experience burnout.    

Who’s at risk of burnout? 

The short answer is, anyone and everyone. A recent Gallup survey revealed 76% of employees occasionally experience symptoms of burnout, and 28% say they are burned out “very often” or “always” at work.  Life in the 2021 is stressful and there’s a great deal of pressure on most people. 

However, research also points to people withing caring professions as being at particular risk of burnout.  Recent estimates suggest that up to 40% of UK Doctors may be experiencing burnout.   A European study in shows that 42% of UK nurses report burnout compared with a European average of 28%.  We know that people engaged in the care professions, and where work involves a significant degree of interpersonal contact and exposure to other people’s suffering, are at greater risk of burnout.  That means people engaged in “high touch” (as opposed to high tech!) employment are at greatest risk of burnout.   Social workers, teachers, medical professionals, carers (paid and unpaid), police, firefighters, aid workers, counsellors, members of the clergy…. the list goes on.  Anyone in these roles is at risk of burnout.  Charles Figley, a key researcher in this area speaks about the “cost of caring”:  the empathy and compassion that make people in caring roles so good at their job is what can lead to burnout in the long-term. 

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Burnout….. so what?

We’ve explored what burnout is, the signs and symptoms of burnout and who is at risk of burnout.  So, how can you use this information to help you?  Well, many people do seek therapy to explore their relationship with burnout and to have space to find freedom from the negative impacts of burnout.  Some enlightened workplaces offer access to EAP and other wellbeing support, which can help employees at risk of burnout to access counselling. 

In my next blog, we’ll look at some practical self-help strategies you can employ to help manage burnout. A final blog post in this series will explore how to take actions to protect yourself from burnout. 

Let me know what works for you in terms of recognising and managing burnout in your own unique circumstances. 

Finding Freedom from Anxiety

“It’s a little Anxious,” Piglet said to himself, “to be a

Very Small Animal Entirely Surrounded by Water”

A.A. Milne

Piglet, companion to A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, is familiar with the feelings of fear, dread and apprehension that we label as “anxiety”.  Piglet is aware of danger and threat and easily connects with thoughts and imaginings of “what if….” when facing the challenge of the water.  He anxiously begins to ruminate and contemplate what may happen, and concludes:

“Here am I, surrounded by
water and I can’t do anything”.

In this blog, we’ll take a look at what anxiety is, and the purpose it serves for us as humans.  We’ll consider ways to find freedom from the unpleasant and sometimes life-impacting consequences of anxiety.  For many people, working with a therapist to find ways to understand and manage anxiety can be powerful.  There’s also a lot of self-help ideas and techniques that can be useful in finding relief from anxiety.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is the unpleasant feeling of fear, worry or dread.  It’s thought that the word “anxiety” stems from the Latin word “angō”, which means “I cause physical pain” or “I torment or distress”. Alternatively, the English word anxiety may also have developed from the Latin ‘angere’, meaning to choke, or strangle.  Either way, the etymology of anxiety helps us to have a sense of what anxiety feels like and how it can impact a person’s life.  Anxiety can cause physical discomfort and pain, leading to tense muscles, difficulty breathing and tension headaches and digestive issues.  The troubling thoughts and endless rumination often associated with anxiety can really feel like torment or torture, especially when such thoughts disturb sleep or rest. There is not doubt about it, anxiety can cause real distress. 

Anxiety is defined by the NHS as a “Common Mental Disorder”.  Research shows that 5.9% of UK adults experience Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) within a given week.  Other anxiety-based conditions such as phobias, OCD and Panic Disorder means that over 10% of UK adults have symptoms of anxiety that may or may not be treated and managed. 

Counselling for anxiety

As a Psychotherapist, I’m interested in finding out what a person’s own relationship to their unique experience of anxiety. I’m curious about what your anxiety is like for you, and what purpose or meaning it may hold for you in your unique environment and situation.  I certainly don’t want to treat you as a medical diagnosis, or presume your experience of anxiety has one simple cause and one simple solution.  You are far more than a label, and far more that “a person with anxiety”.  

Most people feel anxious or scared at times, and it’s natural to feel anxious when facing change and stressful life events.  In terms of evolution, a certain amount of anxiety is useful to humans and other mammals.  An anxious response to some perceived danger or threat results in the release of certain hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones alert us to be responsive and attuned to threat so that we can act.   For example, heart rate increases to carry blood quickly to reach the parts of our body needed to run or fight the threat and that can result in feelings of wobbliness and breathlessness.    This response is useful when we need to take prompt action to ensure our survival.  However, for some people, the warning and action system of anxiety remains on high alert when a threat has passed, or the threat is assessed by others as “minor”.  It’s easy for others around us to dismiss you as “over-reacting” or that you are “too sensitive”.  Yet, such responses risk shaming and blaming. 

I wonder what sort of beliefs and messages you carry about your own sense of safety in the world?  I wonder what might have happened to you that has resulted in feelings of fear and anxiety in the present? In what ways do you feel, and have you felt, out of control and unsafe?   I am also curious about the messages you tell yourself when you experience anxiety.  I’m interested in discovering what we can learn together about your own needs and wants.

Freedom from anxiety

Whilst anxiety, with all its various symptoms can impact on a person’s day-to-day functioning and quality of life, and positive news is that, with support, you can can find ways to better understand and then make choices that can help you to find relief from debilitating anxiety. 

The NHS recognises a range of responses can help manage anxiety.   These include education about anxiety, Talking Therapy and psychological approaches, self-help and medication.  Therapy can sometimes explore practical self-help approaches and allow space for consideration and discussion of self-help approaches.  In this blog, we’ll take a look at 3 well-known self-help approaches for anxiety that you can consider using, whether that’s to complement or as an alternative to counselling for anxiety.

Mindfulness & meditation for anxiety

Mindful meditation can support in finding balance

Mindfulness and Meditation are ancient practices that have received a great deal of attention and interest in recent years.  Recent research points to mindfulness as an effective tool for promoting mental health for many people.   Mindful meditation is essentially a way of paying more attention to the present moment and to your own thoughts and feelings and well as to the world around you.  Mindfulness and meditation practices encourage awareness and noticing.  Whilst mindful meditation may not be everyone’s cup of tea, or indeed may not be effective for everyone, mindfulness for anxiety is a accessible tool that requires zero financial investment.  There’s simple mindful meditations available online.  For example, the HeadSpace App provides a range of free resources via the HeadSpace YouTube channel.  There’s also the Waking Up App, developed by neuroscientist, Sam Harris, which combines mindfulness meditation theory and practice in accessible chunks with free access to a range of resources. 

Step-into-nature to manage anxiety

Nature encourages a live-in-the-moment experience

Time in the natural world can help relieve stress and anxiety and boost overall wellbeing.  Taking a walk outside, cultivating nature in your garden, or a trip to the coast to watch the waves are all ways you can benefit.  And, even if you can’t get outside you can still find ways to benefit from nature.  A recent study showed that visualising natural scenes helped in reducing anxiety symptoms. 

Eat your way to freedom for anxiety

A diet rich in vegetables can help mental wellbeing

We know that certain foods or drink can increase anxiety levels.  Excessive caffeine, alcohol and refined sugars are commonly cited triggers for anxiety.  A healthy diet can, by contrast, support both our physical and mental health.

A 2018 research study demonstrated that a Mediterranean diet, high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, cereals, grains, fish, and unsaturated fats, can support mental wellness.     

A study in the journal Psychiatry Research  has shown a possible link between probiotic foods and a reduction in symptoms of social anxiety. Eating probiotic-rich foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, and kefir was linked with fewer symptoms.

So, if you feel a little bit, or even a lot, like Piglet at times, have hope.  There are many accessible self-help strategies out there that you can consider.  Psychotherapy and counselling are effective ways to find freedom from anxiety.  I’d be interested to hear from you about what has helped you with any experience of anxiety that has impacted you.  Feel free to comment below……