In this episode, we explore how to manage uncomfortable sensations. Many people do not struggle with intrusive thoughts and intrusive images, but instead, struggle to manage intrusive sensations. My hope is that this will give you some tools to manage these uncomfortable sensations and help you reduce how many compulsions you do to reduce or remove these feelings.
Links To Things I Talk About:
ERP School: https://www.cbtschool.com/erp-school-lp
This episode of Your Anxiety Toolkit is brought to you by CBTschool.com. CBTschool.com is a psychoeducation platform that provides courses and other online resources for people with anxiety, OCD, and Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors. Go to cbtschool.com to learn more.
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This is Your Anxiety Toolkit - Episode 292.
Welcome back, everybody. Today, we are talking about something that I very rarely talk about that I should be talking about more because it’s like 20% of the conversations I have with clients. And I’ll explain to you why in just a second.
First, I’m going to do the review of the week. This one is from Linelulu. And they said:
“Grateful. I am so grateful that I stumbled onto your podcasts. Your soothing voice enhances your messages as I am trying to understand more about anxiety, and panic attacks to be a better support for someone very close to me. Thank you!”
You are so welcome, Linelulu. Thank you for that beautiful review. Please, I know I ask you every single episode. If you benefit from this podcast, this is one way that you can help me. So, if for any reason you feel like you have a few spare minutes, please do go and leave a review.
The last thing before we get talking about sensations is to do the “I did a hard thing” of the week, and this one is from Camille. Camille says:
“I’ve been managing my dermatillomania,” which we also know is compulsive skin picking, “very well. However, I had a very stressful day and picked my skin pretty bad, in my opinion. I had a party to go to that night with a bunch of people. I didn’t know. And I almost didn’t go. But I pushed myself to go and no one said one thing about my skin. I’m so glad I went and got over the fact that my skin needs to be perfect in that instance.”
Camille, this is so good on so many levels, that you showed up and you did the thing that you wanted to do. And ugh, it’s so good. And how wonderful that you had supportive friends. Again, we sometimes were really hard on ourselves and we think people notice everything about us, every flow, but how wonderful that they embraced you and no one said anything. So, thank you so much for Camille for putting in that “I did a hard thing.” I just love hearing you guys doing all the hard things.
Now, why do we do this segment? Let’s just go back and look at that. So, most of you know that the thing I say all the time is “It’s a beautiful day to do hard things.” Our brains naturally default to this idea of like, “No, I shouldn’t do the hard thing. I should do the easy thing.” Marketing keeps telling us don’t do the hard thing, do the easy thing. Commercial advertising is always sharing the easy five-step way to do something. And we want to flip the script because while it’s good to have things be easy, when it comes to anxiety and these kind of conditions that we’re often talking about, it’s often important that you stare that scary, hard thing in the face.
Now, that is the perfect segue into this week’s episode about sensations. Now, at the beginning of the episode, I said it’s crazy that I haven’t done a lot of these episodes because sensations is 20% of the work. Now, why did I say that? In total, the clients that I see and that my staff see in our private practice, they’re coming to us for one of five reasons usually. They either have an intrusive thought that they don’t know what to do with, they have an intrusive feeling that they don’t know what to do with, they have an intrusive urge that they don’t know what to do with, they have an intrusive image that they don’t know what to do with, or they have an intrusive sensation that they don’t know what to do with. Five things.
99.9% of our patients and of the people that we help come with one of those five problems. It doesn’t matter what you call it. They’re coming with, “This is the experience that I’m having.” That’s so overwhelming and difficult and hard that then they go on to do behaviors to try and manage it, and we teach them how to manage those five things in a way that doesn’t require them to do the behaviors that cause them trouble.
So, let me give you a little more information about that. So, when we’re talking about sensations, we’re talking about-- let’s first get a definition. What is a sensation? A sensation is a physical feeling or a perception resulting from something that happens or that comes into contact with the body. So, really what we’re saying is a sensation is an experience you have in your body and it’s very specific. So often when I’ll say to a client, “Okay, how can I help?” they’ll say, “Well, I’m anxious.” And I’ll say, “Okay, tell me about your anxiety.” And they’ll then usually go on to say, “Well, I’m having these thoughts,” or “I’m having these feelings,” or “I’m having these urges. I’m having these images,” or “I’m having these sensations, and I don’t like it. They make me uncomfortable.” And when I have them, I do these again, like I said, behaviors that kept me into a ton of trouble. Meaning they’ve got big consequences.
So, often a sensation we consider to be an obsession, just like an intrusive thought, is an obsession. It’s as relevant. And it’s important if someone has anxiety for us to go, “Okay.” This is a common question. If you were my client, this is a common question I ask. I’ll say, “Imagine that I’m an alien and I’ve never, ever once in my life experienced anxiety, and I want you to tell me what it feels like because it doesn’t make any sense to me.” And often clients will struggle with this because they’ll be like, “Well, I just have anxiety.” And I’ll say, “No, we need to understand what specifically, how do you specifically know you’re anxious?” “Oh, I have tightening in my chest or I have shortness of breath, or I have a lump in my throat or I have these butterflies in my tummy.” So, immediately, once we get that, we’re like, “Okay, now we know what we’re dealing with. Okay, now we have specific sensations and now we can develop tools around them so that when you have them, you don’t either engage in avoidant compulsions or physical compulsions or mental rumination or reassurance or self-punishment.” So important.
Now, let’s slow down here a little and look at what that looks like for many of my patients and many of you. So, this is not scientific, what I’m about to tell you. This is really just coming off of my stream of consciousness and my experience as a clinician, is I’ve broken them down into four main sensations that my patients report to me. Again, this is not a clinical list. So, I want to preface. I don’t want to ever mislead you into thinking this is scientific. But often one of the sensations that people will feel are physical experiences of anxiety, like I listed. It could be butterflies in your tummy, tightness in your chest, as I just said, and I’ve listed them off.
The next one is specific sensations around what we call depersonalization and derealization. I’ve done full episodes on those in the past. So, go back and check them out. But this is the experience of this weird feeling. The sensation is like, everything feels strange. I feel like distorted, like I’m in a daydream. It feels very hazy and strange, or I feel like I’m outside of my body. Now while we have words to describe derealization and depersonalization, they are also at their most basic form of sensation, a basic sensation. So, I put that in its own category.
The next one is similar to anxiety and derealization and to personalization, but I’ve put them under the category of panic. Now, the reason that it’s so important for us to talk about sensations is, people who have panic disorder are very sensitive to the sensations that they have because panic is such a 10 out of 10 anxiety. So, it’s like can’t breathe, racing thoughts, major overwhelmed, dizzy, sweating. These are all sensations. These are all things that we perceive or we experience in our body.
And then the last one is physical pain. This is a sensation too. When you physically have pain, a tummy ache, that’s also a sensation.
Now, let’s talk about why I separated those, because I’ll give you a really perfect example of how this gets messy. Most of you know that I have postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, which is symptoms of dizziness, lightheadedness, headaches, stomach troubles. And often if you stand for too long, you faint. Now, what does that sound very similar to? You guys are probably laughing at me already. Anxiety. It looks exactly like anxiety except the fainting piece, dizziness, lightheadedness, stomach aches, headaches. So similar. And so, when we have, and this is where it gets difficult, when we have a chronic illness or if we have health anxiety, when we experience a sensation, sometimes we can’t figure out whether it’s real pain and real threat or if it’s anxiety.
The thing to remember here is the response needs to be similar. So, for me, when I had dizziness and lightheadedness, yes, of course, I’m not going to push myself to a place where I pass out, but I’m going to first stop and go, “Hmm, let me try to dip into these sensations. Instead of catastrophizing them as this is terrible and bad things are going to happen, I wonder what would happen if I just labeled them as a sensation.”
The thing here is, when we have sensations, and you’re having them right now, believe it or not. It could be an itch. It could be a muscle that’s sore from a workout you had, it could be a stomach ache because you just ate an amazing dinner and you just had a little more than you wish you had, or you’re having anxiety. We all have them. Where we often get into trouble is when we label them as good or bad. So, that’s the main point here first. Are you labeling your sensations as good or bad?
When I would have my POTS symptoms, I get dizzy. At the beginning, I go, “This is bad, this is bad. Bad things are happening,” which would then give me anxiety, which would make it worse. And now I’ve got this hot mess. Massive hot mess. Same for people with health anxiety. They have tightness in the chest and they go, “Oh my God, I’m dying. I’m having a stroke,” or “I’m having a heart attack.” And when we label it as bad, we get more anxiety, which makes it worse, and now we’re in a cycle. If you’re having a panic disorder and you’re starting to notice that small little tingle of anxiety coming up, this like whoosh of anxiety that whooshes over you when we have a panic attack, and you label this as, “Oh, this is bad, this is terrible. I got to get it to go away,” you can bet your bottom dollar, it’s actually going to feed you more anxiety. So, question whether you are labeling your sensations as good or bad.
Now I’m guessing some of you are thinking, “Well, Kimberley, of course, I’m going to label it as bad. It is bad. It’s terrible. I don’t like it.” And I get you. But we’re here to learn. We’re here to grow. We’re here to recover. So, I want you to think beyond that judgment and look at first the judgment doesn’t help you. Whether it’s true or not, it’s not helpful. It makes it worse. So, let’s work at being nonjudgmental about the sensations that we have.
The response we have to your sensations can determine whether you get stuck in a cycle of having more discomfort. Let me rephrase that in a different way to make an even bigger point. The response you have to your sensations can determine whether you have anxiety about them in the future. Because if you treat the sensations today like they’re dangerous and harmful and they require immediate emergency, you’re training your brain to perceive those sensations as scary and bad and dangerous. And so next time you have them, your brain is going to send out a whole bunch more anxiety. So important.
I’ve had my share of panic attacks in my life, but when I have them and if I’m like, “Oh, dear God, please don’t,” I know my brain is going, “What, what, what? What’s wrong, Kimberley? Why are you telling me this is terrible? Okay, it is terrible. I’ll keep sending out anxiety.” But when I can respond by going, “Good one, brain. It’s cool. There’s no amount of sensations I can’t tolerate. It’s fine. I’m going to ride it out.” Again, we don’t know how to bypass it with positivity by going, “It’s great. I love it.” We’re not saying that. But we are saying if we can reframe the sensation as tolerable and manageable, you’re less likely to have anxiety about the sensation tomorrow.
Now, I know a lot of you may be asking, “But how do I know when it’s something to just be uncertain and nonjudgmental about or when I should rush to the hospital and so forth?” Number one, you’ll know. But the other piece, I don’t want to discard you on that one because that’s hard to say, especially if you have anxiety, especially OCD and health anxiety. But the other thing is, for me, if I’m having it and I’ll use me as an example, if I’m having dizziness and lightheadedness, which could be anxiety or it could be my POTS, I just keep on the deferring. I keep on deferring like, “Okay, can I just stay with it nonjudgmental for another few minutes?” If I’m getting to feel really horrible, of course, I’m going to sit down and take a rest. I’m not going to push through and be unkind. But I just keep being curious. Could I it do a little longer? Could I have a little more? Could I be nonjudgmental for another few minutes?
It’s so important because when it comes to anxiety, the way in which we respond to the sensations is as important as how we respond to intrusive thoughts. Particularly like I said, if you’ve got depersonalization, derealization, panic disorder, physical pain, generalized anxiety, health anxiety, so important. If it’s social anxiety, it’s a big one because a lot of people with social anxiety have an aversion to the sensation of being flushed in their cheeks. But if you respond to your cheeks flushed as bad, you’re probably going to get more of it. It’s paradoxical.
Now, here is one other point I want to make before we finish up, which is there is no sensation you can’t ride out. This was a huge one for me because I’ve had anxiety and I’ve had some pretty bad chronic illnesses. If I go into the day telling myself, “I won’t be able to handle it,” I usually have anxiety about the day. Have you noticed that? I know you can’t answer back, but I really want you to consider the question. Do you notice that in your experience? When you tell yourself “I can’t handle things,” does that actually then create more anxiety for you? And sometimes more depression too, if I can be completely honest.
Last week, we did a whole episode on depression. I think it’s really important to recognize that. Even I should say other sensations are like depression, that’s that sinking, dark, gray sensation that goes with having depression. I should put that there as the fifth type because that’s a sensation that can be scary too. Grief can be an experience that-- there are sensations associated with grief that feel intolerable. But when we tell ourselves we can’t tolerate them, we actually then create more anxiety and depression. So, these are things to think about when it comes to sensations.
Now, if you were in an office with me or one of my staff, we are most likely to say, at the end of the day, you’re going to have to say, “Bring it on.” Once you identify the sensation, it really comes to, do you avoid it or do you say it’s a beautiful day to do this hard thing, to experience this hard thing? And so, we would say, “Bring it on.”
Now, in ERP School, we talk about this. I probably should do an episode on this. Let me just actually write myself a note to episode on this. If someone really comes to our office with a stronger aversion to certain sensations, we do what we call interoceptive exposures. We talk about this in ERP School. It’s an online course. But an interoceptive exposure is where we purposely expose you to the sensation that you’re avoiding.
So, examples might be, if you really don’t like dizziness and you’re doing things to avoid dizziness, we would sit you in our chair and we would spin you around 30 times and then we’d walk the hallway ways with you while you’re dizzy.
If you’re afraid of shortness of breath, we would give you a very small straw. One of those straws that you use to stir your coffee with, and we would have you practice breathing through that so that you, on purpose, tolerate the feeling of having shortness of breath.
If you really don’t like the feeling of shortness of breath, like tightness in your chest, we might wrap a bandage around your chest, so tight that it feels like you can’t breathe, just for a few minutes. We’re not here to torture you. But these are examples of interoceptive exposures that we do because not only are we like “Bring it on,” we’re like, “Let’s have more of it.” Let’s practice doing it so we can practice nonjudgment, we can practice non-aversion. We can practice saying I can handle this and learning that we can handle this is cool. So, so cool. That’s the thing.
So, depending on where you are and how severe you are in your aversion to sensations, there are multiple ways you can respond. I want you just to use this episode as an opportunity for you to check in, where are you in respect to your experience with sensations? Do you have aversion to them? How willing are you to feel them? Questions are my favorite, you guys. You know this about me. So, ask yourself these questions. So important.
All right. That is it for sensations. I hope that is helpful. I know I took you on a couple of meandering tangents there, but I hope you stayed with me. I love talking to you about this stuff and I hope that that did give you some clarity on how you may handle it in the future.
All right. I will see you next week. Have a wonderful, wonderful day, and don’t forget, it’s a beautiful day to do hard things. I’ll talk to you later.