INTERVIEW: Dr Sam Akbar, author of Stressilient

An Author Headshot Photography Session in the Studio Teddington

“It’s really hard for all of us to get out of an emotional storm … but you are not your feelings, you are a place where feelings happen,” says Dr Sam Akbar, author of Stressilient: How to beat stress and build resilience…

Words: Emily Jupp

Dr Sam Akbar is a clinical psychologist specialising in treating refugees with PTSD who have been tortured, survived war or sexual violence. Her new book, Stressilient, is a pocket-size mental health first-aid kit, for when you need a bit of help feeling less stressed and more resilient. Hence the portmanteau…

Why did you want to write Stressilient?

There wasn’t anything in this space that sat in an accessible format. This is a light-hearted mental health guide that you can carry in your handbag. I wanted to take all the really good science and put it in an accessible package. Like a psychologist in your pocket, but not in a weird creepy way.

Who is it for?

We are all sometimes anxious, or depressed, or joyous – sometimes all at once. We feel lots of feelings and it’s about navigating that. It is all part of the human experience, there is nothing pathologically wrong with you if you have emotions.

What’s it about?

The book is not about avoiding suffering… we don’t all have to be happy all the time. Rather, it’s about being able to navigate your internal world more effectively.

I love that it is all scientific, in that every piece of advice or tool you offer has a journal citation that backs it up. But also it’s very relatable and humorous, you talk about using the techniques on yourself.

My hobby is overthinking and catastrophising! It’s really hard for all of us to get out of an emotional storm and one thing I do for myself often is to take this idea of having the perspective that you are not your feelings, you are a place where feelings happen.

Yes, you talk about the part of yourself that is experiencing what’s going on and the observing self – you use the analogy of the sky never being damaged by the weather. The weather is your emotions and you are the sky.

Many of my refugee clients like the idea that you can allow your feelings in and make room for them and not be engulfed. It allows you to make more choices about what you do because your feelings don’t control you.

OK, here’s a scenario. I run my own business and I’ve just had a friend lash out on WhatsApp but in two minutes I have to go to a meeting and feel clear-headed and win over a new client. What do I do?

Firstly, hold yourself kindly, then, what I would do is I’d sit on my hands and not send anything back.

The next step is to notice what’s happening in your body – your heart is beating, you’ve had a surge of adrenaline, this is a normal fight-or-flight response. Then I’d do the drop the anchor exercise. (See below).

You talk about clean pain and dirty pain, and clean pain is basically inevitable suffering and dirty pain is how we mask the clean pain with something else.

Yes, to put it into context, imagine you didn’t get funding for something at work and it’s a big deal. It’s normal to feel sad and anxious or disappointed. But if you attempt to CAGE the pain (change, avoid, get rid or eliminate) you’re trying to push it away and in order to do that maybe you drink, eat too much, avoid seeing people, or you zone out in front of the telly, and when those things become habitual and damaging, it becomes dirty pain. Then that is pain on top of the original pain – it works in the short term but in the long term it makes it worse.

You’re using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy principles – especially Cognitive Defusion, which involves this brilliant revelation that we are not our thoughts… We can observe our thoughts and we don’t have to respond to all the thoughts we have.

I was on a plane when I first read that if you can notice your thoughts you can’t be your thoughts and I felt like yelling it out to everyone on the flight; ‘Do you all know this?’ I was peering about like a meerkat… This idea of distancing from your thoughts is useful because it gives you the freedom to choose how much you buy into them.

We all worry about the future or the past and meditation and mindfulness are meant to help, but what if I don’t enjoy doing them or don’t have time?

I used to think I had to get up at 5am and sit on the dewy grass in my garden and meditate for an hour. But I am the laziest person alive, I get up at 5am for no-one.

Mindfulness is really just about being present in your mind or body, it doesn’t have to be for ages, it can be for three seconds or three minutes. You can mindfully dunk a biscuit;
It is not a question of time.

Can you give me a mindfulness exercise?

One interesting exercise is to sit with your phone next to you for three minutes and note how often you have the urge to touch it. What you realise is it’s an addiction.

The reason we come back to these mindfulness exercises is they work. It might be boring, like drinking water, but it works – and it’s easy to do.

‘Drop the anchor’ exercise

You can say to yourself, ‘I notice I feel sadness’ or ‘here is anxiousness’. 

Then notice as well as the pain, there is a body around that pain, a body you can move and control. Notice your whole body and scan through it. Then, look around the room and notice five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. This allows you to refocus.

Stressilient: How to Beat Stress and Build Resilience by Dr Sam Akbar 

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Author: Contributing writer