Ask a Therapist: Mindfulness for Anxiety Insights from Stephanie Perez, LPC

September 25, 2020

Stephanie Perez completed her Master’s in Counseling at Colorado Christian University, where she studied the practice of therapy from a biopsychosocial-spiritual frame.  Stephanie works to help individuals and couples learn to find freedom from their struggles and discover better ways to love themselves and others.  I recently sat down with Stephanie to explore how she utilizes mindfulness to help people overcome anxiety, one of the most common reasons people come to therapy.

To learn more about Stephanie, check out her clinician profile.

To sign up for her psychotherapy services, contact us today.

 

Q – First, tell us a bit about yourself.  What brought you to Deep Eddy Psychotherapy?

Stephanie: My story started out in Southern California, and I remember even as a kid having a dream of being a therapist.  I love working with people, forming authentic connections, and learning about their journeys.  But sadly, I was growing up in a world that told me I wasn’t good enough, that I should set my sights lower.  After all, becoming a therapist meant graduate school, which was something that felt outside my reach.

So, I joined the U.S. Air Force at age 18 where I served as a dental technician for almost a decade.  While I enjoyed the role as a dental technician, I found myself loving the relational aspect of the work the most.  It was the people, not the practice, and I particularly enjoyed being a calming presence for those with anxieties and fears of seeing the dentist.  It tore me apart as a kid to know that I wanted to be a relational healer, but the world told me to play it safe and stick with what I had.

But finally, I decided to take the leap and begin my journey into psychology.  My service allowed me to get my bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and after discharging went on to get my Master’s in Counseling while being a single mother.

After I graduated, I moved my family to Austin, where I landed my first job as a counselor at a methadone clinic.  I worked alongside the medical team to help people overcome difficulties with drug abuse.  This was supposed to be my big chance to do the work I dreamt of doing – but the problem was, I wasn’t really able to provide therapy in the way I wanted. The need was high for case management, but not for diving deeper into the client’s world.

That’s when I met up with Deep Eddy Psychotherapy, and it felt like an instant fit.  I get to work with some incredible people and be part of a team of highly compassionate, intelligent, and relationally oriented therapists.  Finally, I was able to find my place of impact and do the work I’ve always wanted.  It’s so awesome that I have the freedom to practice the way I want to, and whether it’s IFS (Internal Family Systems) or mindfulness, I’m passionate about bringing healing to our community in Austin.

Q – What is “mindfulness?”

Stephanie:  I have asked this question many times during session and find that most people typically associate it with Eastern types of religions, or philosophies, that seem “new age”.  But, when they do that, they tend to “other” it from themselves.  They assume that it’s a practice that doesn’t align with who they can be because it feels foreign or different.

But mindfulness is a basic part of wellness and what it means to be human.  It’s just a deeper way of thinking. It’s the act of directing attention to one’s own experience.  Just paying attention, being observant and present (body sensations, feelings, thoughts), and trying to notice what is going on in the mind.  From that seat of observation, you get to witness it rather than be absorbed in your experience.

There are two routes of experience.  The first route is the direct experience network, which is the processing of current, present information.  We use all of the brain for processing, but direct experience is specifically related to functioning in the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex, both of which have to do with the integration of information and attention.  Direct experience comes from just focusing on what is happening around you – what it’s like to be you, to be in the moment right now.  How it feels to breathe, what you see with your eyes, the feeling of your feet against the floor, or the sun against your skin.

The second route of experience is what we call the default network, which is embedded in the medial prefrontal cortex in the brain.  It deals with a person’s interaction with themselves and others, their interpretation of the world.  The default network is all about the narrative you tell yourself about what is happening in and around you.  It’s your higher-order thinking – being able to make beliefs, assumptions, and predictions about the world.

While the default network is useful, it detaches us from the here and now.  Humans are organisms designed for survival, and because of this, we often focus on the past and the future.  Fear can pretend to be survival’s biggest advocate, however it actually tends to poison us with unnecessary anxiety.

Q – What are some of the benefits of mindfulness?

Stephanie: The research on mindfulness for anxiety has found so many benefits, more than we have time to talk through today.  But some of the big ones include bringing in more focus and awareness of the self, reducing implicit biases and obsessive thoughts, increased control of one’s focus and behaviors, and feeling more connected with oneself and others.

When we forget to be mindful and live life in the default network, we live sort of “mindlessly.” People tend to notice themselves getting caught up in their thoughts, feeling lonely or disconnected, and out of control.  Some people experience physical (or somatic) symptoms, such as increase blood pressure, aches and pains, indigestion, and more.  And, of course, they experience things like anxiety.

Q – How can mindfulness help with anxiety?

Stephanie:  Ask yourself: what would cause a feeling of anxiety?  It’s a fear of what could happen in the future.  It’s a doubt about one’s ability to do something.  It’s a physiological arousal in preparation for future feared events – tossing and turning, heart pounding, etc.

All of these things come from being caught up in the default network.  We think and plan ahead.  We worry and anticipate and try to guess what might happen.  We toss and turn at night because we can’t stop thinking about the “what ifs.”  You could be sitting at a fancy dinner party with all your best friends, but you wouldn’t be able to enjoy it if you are focused on what work will bring tomorrow.  We push our minds into the default network to the point of suffering and total disconnect from the present moment.

So, I use mindfulness to help people recenter and refocus on the present moment, thus bringing them back to the direct experience network.  I use a combination of mindfulness-based modalities such as Somatic Experiencing and IFS to help clients notice and identify the different parts of themselves that create and respond to fear and anxiety.  We curiously ask where the anxiety comes from, why it pulls you away from the present, and when it tends to show up.

As clients tell anxious stories in session, I try to bring them back to the present to sit with themselves.  How are you feeling as you think about this anxious thing?  How does it feel in your body?  The more someone can develop an awareness of what is going on, and they are able to notice what is happening with a nonjudgmental awareness, the more they have the flexibility to change.  Of course, it isn’t always easy – but that’s what the work of therapy is for.

Q – Is there a mindfulness exercise that people can practice outside of therapy sessions?

Stephanie: People tend to make this overly complicated.  They go online, and they search for the “best” mindfulness activity or the “right” way to be mindful.  But it really doesn’t matter how you practice it as much as that you are putting in consistent effort.  Consistency and practice make all the difference – it’s like a muscle that you build up over time.

All you have to do is make a conscious choice to redirect your focus to the present moment.  You can be doing anything – walking, drinking coffee, watching a show, you name it – anytime you can be aware, you can be mindful.  Take a moment to be as aware of your present experience as possible.  Ask yourself simple questions – what does it feel like to sit here?  What are the sounds that I’m hearing?  What am I smelling at this moment?  Ask yourself about all five senses.  Pay attention to the details around you – colors, shapes, textures.

What always tends to happen is, the mind tends to wander.  It tends to go back into the default network of thinking ahead to the to-do list and the “what ifs.”  The mind wants to wander off to other things, other thoughts, and that’s okay.  And all you have to do is notice the wandering, not be critical or judgmental, and come back to trying to notice the present moment.  It’s natural and normal to be distracted.

If you can make a commitment to yourself to practice this every day, even for just a minute, you’ll start to notice the benefits.  And of course, if you struggle with practicing mindfulness or simply want extra support as you deal with life’s many stressors, therapy can help.  If you struggle with self-doubt, insecurity, and fear about the future, I am here for you.  You don’t have to do this alone.

Interested?  Contact us today!

We would love to hear from you.  If you would like to learn more about our services or schedule to begin your first therapy session, check out our Contact page!  Our team of compassionate providers is dedicated to providing you with the utmost quality of care for your mental health needs.

 

The Deep Eddy Psychotherapy Ask a Therapist series is written by Dr. Kyler Shumway.

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