anxiety

Atlas Complex: The Weight of the World

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Have you ever felt like the weight of the world was on your shoulders? Like you have to take on all the projects, help everyone around you, just to maintain a sense of order? By modern standards, this experience is identified and defined as the Atlas Complex, thus describing a need to take on all the responsibility and all the stress of the world as you navigate through it. Why would one experience the state of mind that they must take on the world? There are many reasons that encourage the behavior of being responsible for everything around us, including internal and external factors that drive us to action in search of relief.

 

Need to be Needed

One external motivation for taking on the world can be our relationships. For some, the avoidance of conflict by saying yes to others’ needs is enough of a reason to take on more than we can handle, and to make do for the sake of friendship, approval, or respect. Connecting and helping others isn’t all negative, however when our own needs are sacrificed for others with no opportunity for self-care, resentment, burnout, and poor mental health can follow. So how do you know if you are experiencing symptoms of the Atlas Complex in the scope of relationships and boundaries? Below are some questions you may ask yourself:

  • Do you secretly resent the request to help but feel you can’t say no?

  • Do you feel like you are the only one who can help, so you say yes?

  • Do you feel like you have to say yes out of avoidance of conflict or judgement?

  • Do you fear disappointing someone if you don’t take on their request?

  • Do you need to be needed? Do you feel most worthwhile when helping others?

It isn’t uncommon to identify with one or more of the questions above when connecting with others. One way to check in with yourself around your boundaries is to explore how you are helping yourself in addition to others. Remember that you can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself first. Similar to the airline directives about oxygen masks, you must first put on your own oxygen mask before helping others, implying you are no good to them or yourself if you aren’t conscious from lack of oxygen in trying to address others’ needs before your own.

 

Escalating Anxiety

Having solid definition of your boundaries with others can be important in having quality relationships and can also improve expectations of what you are able and willing to do to help. You may feel anxious enforcing new boundaries when they weren’t present before, especially if loved ones’ question or push back against new boundaries out of confusion around the change. Change itself can also be a trigger for anxiety. The Atlas Complex can be present out of a desire to control something because you feel out of control in other areas. For example, if you feel like you can’t control the declining health of your parent, you may find yourself controlling your living environment, cleaning compulsively, and snapping at your partner when small messes are left in the kitchen. This increased irritability and urge to control several things at once manifests in response to internal anxiety that isn’t as easily controlled, making things more difficult in your relationships, work, and home life.

Awareness of your anxiety can be a first step in addressing it in healthy ways. By being aware, you can track patterns and make changes in your thoughts or behaviors, which can then have a positive effect on your emotions. Below are some ideas of what you might say or do to address the anxiety you feel:

  • Change the scene. Try getting out or away from an area that aggravates anxiety to gain some relief or perspective on what’s happening in your life.

  • Move your body. Movement can help reduce anxiety in the form of exercise. Take a walk to think things through, which helps anxiety by both serving as light exercise and as a processing tool, giving you time to explore what’s happening that stresses you out.

  • Think happy thoughts. Studies show that how we interpret a challenge can impact our anxiety.  For example, if we think, “nothing will ever change,” our emotional reaction will feel heavier and more helpless than if we think “this is temporary, I can do this.”

  • Try coping skills. Taking a drink of water, breathing, listening to music, or healthy distraction can help address the anxiety you feel to make it more manageable.

Managing the Atlas Complex and all it represents can have positive effects on your mood, relationships, and life. Check in with yourself frequently to determine the motivation behind urges to hold the world on your shoulders and you may just find that the world looks and feels lighter than it once did.

“Optimism is a happiness magnet. If you stay positive, good things and good people will be drawn to you.” Mary Lou Retton

The Misjudged Millennials

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We’ve been labeled by previous generations and these stickers have unrecognized negative implications. When we hear lazy, delusional, insincere, pampered, or even narcissistic, it not only diminishes the authentic experiences of Millennials, but creates an overarching stereotype that spreads ongoing divide. 

There are clear cultural and normative distinctions between Boomers, Gen-X, and even our most recent Gen-Zers. The beauty of specific generations are their unique values and attitudes about themselves, others, and the world. Every generation receives feedback and criticism; however, it seems that Millennials are gaining a fascinating reputation.

Millennials embody particular characteristics that perpetuate internal struggle especially in a world that operates quite differently than Millennials expected. That being said, its crucial to walk through some of the positive attributes and then segue to the misconstrued experiences of Generation Y.

It is shown through research that Millennials are mindful and filled with awareness regarding health, social, economic and environmental issues. Millennials are shaking our current system and showing up as critical thinkers.

Millennials embrace balance and hold a strong desire for career flexibility and self-care. These individuals are authentic, transparent, broadminded, and exploratory. Millennials promote individualism and believe in the importance of “doing whatever makes you happy.” Lastly, Millennials don’t accept existing conditions because they know improvements can be made and innovation is the golden ticket. 

Some of you reading will find what I’ve described above to be beneficial and helpful to our planet, however, there will be plenty of folks who may interpret it with a different twist. Nevertheless, the above narrative is paired with intense distress. 

Millennials endure higher levels of stress, emotional discomfort, anxiety, depression, and choice-overload compared to previous generations. These researched statistics are not only misunderstood but translate into the negative labels attached to the generation. Stress is labeled as lazy, critical thinking is stamped as delusional, and self-care is marked as narcissism.

Let me be clear that there are plenty of individuals in the generation that may be in fact lazy, delusional, insincere, pampered, or even entitled, however, creating a generalization is not the solution to the genuine troubles of 18-38-year olds.                   

Instead we need to view these researched issues as valuable and give Millennials the skills to thrive and flourish. We need to teach Millennials how to cope with disappointment, emotional discomfort, and instill realistic expectations.  These tools alone would allow Millennials to better manage stress, anxiety, and depression, and in return, show up as more productive, dynamic, and constructive individuals.

Additionally, we need to guide Millennials in finding what is important and meaningful in their lives. By promoting this type of exploration, we will help to support, enthuse, and motivate Millennials to set goals, achieve those goals, and enhance their lives.

In conclusion, I invite you to absorb this information with curiosity and surrender to some of the currently held beliefs that you may be gripping tightly. Remember that Millennials are currently the largest generation and we need them to create a future generation that blossoms. In order for this to occur, we need to support Millennials RIGHT NOW and by setting aide embedded judgment, we can begin that process.


Guest post written by Paulina Siegel, MSW, LCSW, CAC II

Guest post written by Paulina Siegel, MSW, LCSW, CAC II

Paulina Siegel, MSW, LCSW, CAC II is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Certified Addiction counselor (CAC II) and master-level trained in mindfulness practice through Be Mindful. Paulina has extensive clinical experience working with teens and millennials struggling with dual-diagnosis, and had the privilege of working with these individuals throughout her community mental health journey (2012-2017). Paulina recently launched her private practice in the Wash Park neighborhood (Courageous Paths Counseling) and exclusive serves teens and millennials (15-38 years of age). Lastly, Paulina is a Gen-Z and Millennial researcher and speaks about the literature in the Denver Metro Area specifically focusing on generational issues. https://courageouspathscounseling.com

Mastering Mindfulness: Supporting Positive Coping

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“I want to turn off my mind, catch my breath, feel less tension, sleep better.” The techniques of relaxation and mindfulness have been around for centuries, both in definition and in practice in various cultures. For some, the process of mindfulness describes being aware of your surroundings and slowing down your mind to remain in the present moment. For others, it has become a vital coping skill for anxiety or distress to allow grounding, emotion regulation, focus, and a sense of calm in otherwise difficult situations. So how does one present the ideas of grounding, mindfulness, or relaxation to clients in meeting their individual needs?

 

Explore the History

For many, the concept of feeling relaxed or calm is experienced rarely due to elevated anxiety or trauma triggers in everyday life. Perhaps you start a session with exploring the times they’ve felt more at peace or relaxed. Even if it were years in the past, this exercise can provide helpful insight into situations or context that allow your client small shifts or temporary relief from discomfort or anxiety.  Questions that might help you explore this with your client include:

  • Can you remember a time when you felt calm and relaxed? Can you tell me more about it?
  • How does it feel in your body to experience calm or relaxation? What sensations do you experience?
  • What has helped you before in feeling calm or relaxed? What makes that different now?

 

Become Body Aware

Exploring the history of times a client has felt calm or relaxed is but one piece of the puzzle. Depending on the client’s background, trauma history, or the impact fight/flight/freeze reactions, their body may have adapted to the increased stress and cortisol levels in interesting ways.  Some clients will express increased anxiety or panic in response to relaxation, as it feels vulnerable or uncomfortable in their current, adapted state of functioning.  For others, a numbness may exist where they cannot feel their body with possible contributing factors including depression, hypoarousal/freeze response, or desire to maintain self-preservation. Lastly, clients may easily drop into intellectual conversation about their symptoms but avoid experiencing any sensation in their body due to anticipated discomfort or negative arousal.

Keeping client limitations and comfort in mind, it can be helpful to encourage clients to gently become more aware of their body through various therapeutic activities. It is suggested to start with neutral areas of the body and move quickly from one area to another to prevent exacerbation of sensation that would prevent progress or cause a client to retreat from noticing their body out of fear or discomfort. By engaging them in the following activities, you can support a client in building body awareness and distress tolerance in ways that feel safe.

  • Body scan-start at your feet and notice any sensations as you move gently upward to your calves, thighs, hips, waist, etc.
  • Concentrated body scan-have the client identify neutral or safe areas that aren’t associated with negative sensation like hands, knees or feet.  Have them focus on one area in detail, asking questions about temperature, sensation when touched, and encouraging the client to engage in use of textures and varying touch to explore sensation.
  • Colored Glasses-our new favorite intervention from Dr. Dan Siegel in his book Mindsight, obtain or create colored lens glasses for clients to explore varying perspective of objects around them, insight into sensation in low-risk ways, and connection to memory that all support the practice of mindfulness.

 

Use all Five Senses

All of the above exercises support experiential learning in session. Another favorite tool that can support a client who experiences any negative sensation or experiences hyperarousal or flooding during a therapeutic exercise is to move their attention outside of themselves and into the room as a grounding technique. To do this, you can ask the client to become more aware of the chair underneath them or their feet on their floor.  A few of our favorite tools are listed below that can be helpful in engaging a client outside of their own body.

  • 5-4-3-2-1: What are five things in the room that are blue? Four things you can touch? Three things you can hear? Two things you can smell? One thing you can taste?
  • Four Elements by Elan Shapiro: 1) Earth/Grounding: what do you see/hear/smell, 2) Air: Take measured breaths, inhale for four counts, exhale for four counts, 3) Water: Take a drink of water, use gum/mints or think of your favorite food to generate saliva, which serves as a calming agent to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and relaxation response, 4) Fire/Light: think of a place real or imagined that makes you feel calm or safe. Can you describe it using your five senses?
  • 5 Minute Mindfulness: have the client pick an object to focus on, either in their hands or within sight. Gently direct them to notice all qualities of the object including temperature, texture, color, height, etc. for five minutes duration.

 

Modeling of Mindfulness

In addition to the mindfulness exercises listed above, it can also be helpful to create a coping kit of objects that can be engaging and cater to all five senses for client use within your office. Many therapists utilize objects such as essential oils, lotion, touchstones, magnets, putty, carved wooden objects, fur, water, and sand to engage clients in mindful practice. As your client discovers which objects are effective for them to practice mindfulness, you may encourage them to purchase and utilize these objects outside of session as well.

Regardless of which tools or techniques you elect to use in support of your clients, it can be even more helpful to notice your own body and energy in the room. By becoming aware of your breath, posture, and energy levels, you can support client in feeling safe or supported to do this work. By practicing alongside your clients, you model what it means to feel grounded or mindful, which is beneficial not only to your client seeking relief, but to yourself as the clinician mindfully engaging each client in their meaningful work and progress towards health.