Many of the people I see in my practice are people struggling with anxiety, hands down, across the board. Adults, children, teens, parents, and couples are seeking help to cope with pressures that are causing them to feel unsafe and overwhelmed. People’s nervous systems are on high alert, and stuck in survival mode. In a nutshell, their nervous systems are dysregulated and they are running in survival mode all or much of the time.
Gifted people often have heightened emotional sensitivities which make them more vulnerable to anxiety, and high achievers may have high functioning anxiety that is at least partially behind their incredible drive. If you are the parent, spouse or loved one of one of these people, there is a good chance you have your own anxiety being triggered by the demands of that come with supporting them.
Anxiety is different from the occasional nervousness that creeps up in response to a situation, like meeting a new person, going to a new school or having a job interview. It is a chronic condition that for some is incapacitating.
One way I address anxiety with people is through the practice of orienting to pleasure. I employ this principle with clients of all ages, in couples therapy and working with families. It is a powerful practice that helps people calm themselves, and increases their ability to connect with others.
What does orienting to pleasure mean exactly? It’s participating in pleasurable activities with awareness, and purpose. It’s more than doing fun things and thinking positive.
Here is an activity you can do, and you can do with your child, that demonstrates orienting to pleasure.
Try to remember the last time you really enjoyed yourself? What were you doing? Who were you with? What did having fun feel like? Now, stay there in your mind for a minute and feel it in your body. What was that like?
If this exercise was difficult, chances are you may feel overwhelmed or, have trouble feeling connected to others. There are a few things happening here. First, we are wired to remember negative experiences and worry about possible threats to our safety (both physical and mental). This has likely kept us alive since the dawn of man.
Second, our culture tends to focus on the negative. How often does someone ask you, “What’s wrong?” There are a few problems with this habit of focusing on what is going wrong. For example, if you have told your story over and over, you know focusing on the pain often causes you to relive the painful experience and drudges up old feelings. Maybe it’s not a past experience, but something that is worrying you, causing anxiety and the more you think about it.
I’m not saying talking about problems is a bad thing. I’m simply saying needs to be balanced with feelings of strength, empowerment and enjoyment. This is important for children as well as for adults. A shift toward orienting to pleasure some of the time, leaves us feeling like we can better handle emotions, stress and feel competent in our lives. It is different than thinking positive, it is actually feeling more positive. Rather than telling ourselves something we may not believe or be able to buy into, practice feeling and observing enjoyment and pleasure. It is absolutely possible for you to do this, and it is important to learn how to make this connection. Connecting to healthy pleasure reduces the effects of stress, makes us more resilient, increases physical health and increases our quality of life.
Healthy pleasure is simple, and all around us. Here are some pointers on how to access and benefit from the enjoyment of pleasurable activities.
It requires being present in your life. This means, notice what you are doing when you are doing it. Don’t let your mind wander on to other things.
Allow yourself to connect to the sensation of pleasure in your body.
If you are in the presence of something pleasurable, be an observer. Notice what you are doing, and then notice how you feel in your body. Try to focus on the sensation of pleasure in your body for at least 30 seconds. An example of this is, many people feel warmth in their chest when they feel happy. It may be different for you.
If you practice these things, it will help you to hold on to the feeling of pleasure longer, notice when you are experiencing something enjoyable, and with practice over time, you will notice you are enjoying more of your life and your experience of stress and pain will have diminished because you have gained a greater capacity to manage those things in your life.
Some examples of pleasurable activities you or your child can do:
going for a walk in nature
swinging on a swing
taking a warm bath
looking at beautiful pictures
listening to music
talking to friends
pursing an interest
having a creative outlet
playing with a pet
I often recommend to my clients to track their pleasurable activities on a pleasant activity calendar for a week or longer until noticing pleasure becomes a habit. I ask people to write down at least one pleasant activity a day, how they felt emotionally and physically before, during and after the activity, and any thoughts connected to the activity afterward.
It’s good to have fun. All of this helps regulate your nervous system and reduces anxiety.