In this FAQ series with clinical psychologist Catherine Gallagher, we ask what someone can do to give themselves the best chance to overcome a fear or a phobia.
Anxiety and stress often go hand in hand, although very rarely do we stop to look at any differences between the two. In a world where anxiety feeds off stressful situations and puts us into a loop of perceived threat and uncertainty, it can be difficult to navigate a path forward. Fortunately, there are a few tips and tricks that can help.
In today’s world stress is something we are all familiar with. It comes as a very normal and natural response to a perceived threat, sending hormones through our body that ignite our Sympathetic Nervous System. The Sympathetic Nervous System, more commonly known as our fight, flight or freeze response, activates in order to deal with whatever harmful situation presents in front of us. Previously, such responses may have been triggered by such physical threats as being chased by a predator. In today’s world, however, threats come in all shapes and sizes – such as through emails, conversations or added responsibilities and deadlines.
Anxiety presents differently. Occurring in the absence of any true threat, anxiety activates the same stress response in our body. Our brain kicks into overdrive as we ponder all the ‘what ifs’ or negative past experiences, convincing ourselves that the threat - be it past, present or future - is real and needs to be dealt with in real time.
When experiencing anxiety, it can be easy to get ourselves locked into a negative feedback loop. Our brain conjures up unhelpful thoughts and feelings, praying on our insecurities and making situations appear worse than they may actually be. We catastrophize events in thinking of all the ways they could go wrong, and can often struggle to rationalize our responses or thoughts – instead, viewing the perceived stress as a personal attack, or ourselves as the root of the problem. Such lenses feed into our anxiety loop as our brain solidifies these thought patterns every time they occur.
The more frequently these thoughts occur, the harder they are to shift. We tell ourselves these ‘truths’ so often that we start to believe them as facts, building our level of anxiety every time we are placed in a similar stressful situation and convinced we already know the outcome. So how can we deal with such stress or anxiety? Fortunately, there are a number of tools we can add to our repertoire that can help.
When you feel yourself beginning to creep into that downward stress spiral, a good place to start with is your breath. Focusing on your breathing helps to draw focus away from your thoughts and focus on bringing more oxygen into your body. This helps to pull us out of the Sympathetic Nervous System and encourage us back into our Parasympathetic Nervous System (more commonly known as our ‘rest and digest' response).
One method in particular that can be beneficial for this is diaphragmatic breathing or 'belly breathing'. When we become stressed, our breathing tends to quicken and become shallow. This is the body’s way of trying to draw air faster into the body in order to provide more oxygen to our working muscles as we prepare for our stress response.
Diaphragmatic breathing does the opposite. Breathing deep from down in our belly, this technique encourages us to breathe in deeper through our nose, and exhale longer through our mouth – promoting a deeper in-breath on our next cycle. This allows our system to slow down, helping to settle and reconnect our brain with the feeling of safety and calm.
Incorporating both our breath and direct awareness to our current situation, meditation and mindfulness can both be very useful tools when looking to break out of our anxiety loop. While not suited to everyone, meditation can be a powerful reset to give our brain a break and focus directly on what is around us. Used interchangeably, meditation comes in many forms, with something to suit wherever you’re currently at. Considered by many as just ‘sitting still trying to empty your mind’, meditation can in fact be used for relaxation (i.e. breathing focused), de-stressing (i.e. body scan) or mindfulness/visualization (i.e. changing your internal thought pattern and being aware of your current situation).
When suffering from increased levels of anxiety, mindfulness meditation can be beneficial in helping us to pay attention to what problems are currently occupying space in our brain. It encourages us not to dispel them, but rather to poke around at them, helping us to figure out where they are coming from. Why am I feeling this way? What is causing me to react like this? Do I feel better/worse if I do this or that? If our stress levels are already high, we may not be ready for such an examination. In this case, breathing may simply be enough, or we may like to become mindfully aware of what we are doing to help shift the focus – whether this be meditating, having a cup of tea, or sitting outside in a garden.
Focus on your surroundings and become aware of what you are experiencing. Take in the sights, smells, and sounds as you allow yourself to send alternative feedback to your brain. This change in internal dialogue helps to dampen the negative feedback anxiety loop, reducing our stress response to the situation and helping us to recover and move forward faster.
So where does virtual reality (VR) technology come in then? As with mindfulness and meditation, guided visualization can be a handy strategy for helping to change up our familiar self-sabotaging, pre-determined response to the stressful situations we are continually confronted with. If we can help to change those thought patterns, then, in turn, we can change the way we respond to them. Humans are visual creatures. Through sight, we receive so much stimulus from the world around us, and it is through these images that we formulate our responses and reactions. Imagination and visualization can both be useful tools if we ever find ourselves heading down a less than desirable path.
Using these methods we can consciously guide our mind back out, giving it a safer and more structured path to wander down. Consider what that path looks like for you, and fill in as many details as you can. What does it look like? Smell like? Is anyone there with you? The path can be real or imaginary. The more details you can provide, the more hooks your brain is going to latch onto, sinking it deeper into your mind and anchoring it as a stress response.
With VR technology like oVRcome, we are forcing our brains to work through similar experiences. Just as with our imagination, visualization through VR gives our brain a chance to witness and rehearse situations and scenarios, setting us up to better respond to these in the real world. So while we cannot necessarily change our thoughts, we can, however, change our reaction to them by re-learning new patterns in our brain.
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