Weekend Reads

Photo by Matthew Sleeper

Here are a few weekend reads as we roll into the first weekend of July! Enjoy!

*How are people coping with anxiety in 2017? Meds? Therapy? Distraction? Yes, yes and yes. And, more and more research is revealing that the best way of working with anxiety when it pops up is to acknowledge it and let it be! — accept it and keep on doing what you were doing, shaky legs and all. The more you accept scary thoughts and sensations and don’t react like something terrible is about to happen, the quicker your brain learns that – “Hey, this anxiety response is uncomfortable, but I can handle it”. If you’ve tried exposure therapy before, you know that this approach is simple, but certainly not easy. Check out this article in the New York Magazine which focuses on accepting social anxiety – and this one which says that sometimes embarrassing yourself in public can be good medicine.

*A few weeks ago I posted stories about three superstars who travel the world AND have anxiety disorders. I find them to be quite inspirational and found another one to share with you.  Meet Hilary White whose travel anxiety doesn’t hold her back from globetrotting, even when she found herself panicked in the ER right before a big trip to Europe. She says:

“my anxiety reached heights I never knew existed . . . I was convinced that I simply couldn’t do it . . . I couldn’t get on that plane, I couldn’t be far away from my comfort zone, I couldn’t. Except, I could. And I did.”

*Wrapping up, this is an excellent post from Scientific American on embracing our discomfort, the cultural phenomenon of trying to avoid emotional pain at all costs and a variety of resources and tools you can begin putting to use today.

Enjoy the weekend & Happy 4th to those living in the States!



When King Kong Sits on Your House, Invite Him In

Photo by Kelly Sikkema

So, I have this comic strip image in my head where a woman is inside her house on a beautiful day. The sun is shining through the open windows. As she gazes out, she sees anxiety (personified as a little chimpanzee) lurking outside by the back fence, playing and swinging in the trees. At the sight of him, she’s gripped by fear and begins locking the windows, beads of sweat forming on her brow. Compulsively, she peers out from behind the closed curtains. For a moment, he disappears and all is good again until the chimp (anxiety) opens the front door and playfully taps her on the shoulder. “I’m back!” he seems to say with a smile.

The woman, already hyper vigilant and on guard for any sight of the beast, tackles the chimp to the ground, puts it in a head lock and kicks it back outside. She throws all the locks, as she trembles and shakes, and puts a chair beneath the doorknob to keep it from coming back in.

The more she tries to protect herself, the more frightened she gets. The more she scares herself, the bigger the chimp becomes until it’s as big as King Kong sitting on her house – its eye filling up an entire window as it peers inside.

Finally, after trying everything she can think of to force him to leave (distraction – “Hey, is that a banana tree over there”?, pleading, calling a safe person to rescue her, turning the music up loud, googling expert advice, getting down on her knees to pray), she gives up and opens up the door.

“Come on in”, she gestures with exhaustion.

As soon as the door opens, King Kong shrinks back down to the size of a baby chimp, and jumps onto her lap. The woman strokes his soft fur and smiles. “I’m not afraid of you. In fact, you can stay as long as you like.”

Disappointed and bored now that the game is over, the chimp slips out the back door, swings over the fence and moves to play in the trees next door.

*How are you greeting the chimps playing just outside your window? What are you fighting and resisting that’s growing bigger and stronger as a result? Where can you give up the fight?

*Anyone who is an illustrator and wants to draw this, I’d love to see it!

*Edited and reposted from 6/22/08

Own your story


Musings on a cure

I’ve been thinking about Meredith’s comment from a few weeks ago. She and I have talked back and forth about that stubborn, last little bit of anxiety that doesn’t want to go away and looking for a cure that doesn’t seem to exist.

I’m realizing and working on growing more comfortable with the fact that I may experience more anxiety than I would like to in my lifetime. This will probably be my challenge until I’m an old lady; that there may be no cure, but there is freedom in living a big life not run by fear and avoidance. There is also freedom in accepting all of our emotional states. Later in life, Dr. Claire Weekes was asked if she still experienced anxiety and panic and she responded, ‘yes, but so what!’

My deep learning continues to be the lessons of showing up, experience and compassion. Every time I dread and anticipate an event – certain that I’ll go crazy and make a fool of myself – and show up anyways, I get stronger. Every time I allow myself to feel anxious and not demand that it goes away, it feels a little more manageable. And, every time I am compassionate with myself when I do go down that anxiety rabbit hole and not make it such a big deal in my head, I worry less about having this thing forever.

So, a cure for anxiety and panic? Perhaps not. But freedom is certainly available in every choice we make.

*For further reading, check out Aimee’s post on recovering from social anxiety.

Day 30!!

I started at the beginning of the month with a goal that felt challenging: plan and follow through with at least one exposure practice daily, for 30 days. My anxiety has kicked into high gear this Fall/Winter and I was feeling like something needed to change. That old fear of fear was traveling from one space in my life to the next looking for open real estate, and I was buying with my avoidance.

Overall, I feel like the month went really well. I scheduled daily practices and looked for opportunities to get anxious on purpose. Highways, bridges, public speaking, social situations and free floating anxiety have been my biggest areas of work. I’ve done plenty of exposure work before, but this time I’ve been feeling a bigger shift in my attitude toward anxiety.

It’s not happening all the time. But, more and more I’ve been able to think and believe, “I want this”, “I’m willing” and “I can handle this”. I’m also working hard on being patient with the passage of time. Even tonight, as I was feeling some waves of anticipatory anxiety, it finally kicked in that I might always deal with this issue. I can’t control these genes of mine, but I can control how I respond when they show up.

I also realize that I’ve got more work to do. There are still areas where I feel the strong urge to resist and fight the anxiety as it’s coming on. So, I’m setting more goals to include: more exposure work/living an “exposure lifestyle”, improving my self care (sleep, exercise, relaxation and meditation) and finding ways to celebrate each success. I’ve also been talking to my doctor about medication on a short term, as needed basis for those areas I’m still feeling stuck. I don’t love taking meds, but I’m trying to be open minded to all available resources (more on that in a later post).

So, cheers to a month of taking on anxiety! I’d love to hear how you all are doing and how your personal challenges have been going. Let’s keep our brains in training as we work toward living a big life, anxiety or not.

Travelogue Part Two – In Flight Adventures

So I’ll be honest with you. I was not happy to be sitting on that first plane before 7am in the morning.

As the aircraft sped up to takeoff speed & gradually lifted off the ground, soaring upward towards the clouds, I felt waves of anxiety coursing through my body. I figured that I had two choices: freak out the whole way to the Carribean or do my best to accept that I was going to be 35,000 feet in the air for a few more hours and get as comfortable as possible.

I thought about my tool belt of coping skills and started saying to myself, “I want this anxiety. I want it to get stronger.” And, you know what? It was working. I couldn’t make the symptoms any stronger than they already were.

Then, I thought about Dave Carbonell‘s “Rule of Opposites” – doing the opposite of what feels “safe” in an anxiety provoking situation. So, instead of pulling down the shades & pretending I wasn’t on a plane, I started looking out the windows. I found that I really do like to see the tree tops, little tiny houses, and the outline of roads. Who lives in those homes & what is their story, I wondered.

Something else that really helped was the Truth Based Technique I read about in David Burn’s book. I wrote in my notebook:
*How many times have I gotten so anxious that I ran down the aisle of the plane screaming?
*How many times have planes had to land for me because I absolutely couldn’t handle symptoms of anxiety?
*How many times have I curled up in the fetal position under my chair & cried until it was all over?
Ahem, I think we know the answers to all of the above.

There were more moments with waves of fear and extended periods of time where I felt that pit in my stomach , but it was all manageable & my skills came in handy. Before I knew it, we were in Atlanta & preparing to board our second flight.

For our second flight, the longer flight, our seats were in the back of the plane. I’m not sure why the back of the plane is worse, but I kinda feel more claustrophobic back there. Our flight time was 3 hours & 12 minutes (but whose counting) & in my head I felt like a 2.5 hour flight would be so much easier. Isn’t it funny how our brains make up rules about what’s safe & what’s not?

Once we found our seats, we looked at each other at the same time — we were definitely in the “party” section of the plane. Three babies were in the back with us & some rowdy folks were starting the party early with cocktails. I wondered if some of them were drinking to cope with their own anxiety. A moment before take off, the 5 year old cherub behind me started to giggle & said, “Hey Mom! What if the plane catches on fire & we crash? Wouldn’t that be cool?!”

Hey kid – who asked you? Huh?

Finally, we landed in St. Thomas, USVI – just a ferry & a few taxi rides away from our final destination, St. John. The whole plane cheered & clapped at the successful landing. Steve & I stepped off the plane, walked down the roll away staircase out onto the tarmac & just kept grinning. This was going to be a blast.

So, let’s recap. What helped?

*Showing up & being willing to try something that creates anxiety
*Paradox/Bring it on mentality/Make the symptoms stronger
(Reid Wilson, Don’t Panic – newly revised)
*Truth based techniques (David Burns, When Panic Attacks)
*Rule of Opposites (Dave Carbonell, Panic Attacks Workbook)
*Supportive mate
*Engaging with others/humor
*Being ok if none of these worked

Stay tuned! The next installment will be about our adventures in paradise!

Coping with matters out of our control

Here’s a comment I received a few days ago & the impetus for this current post:

“I would love for you to do a post on the swine flu and how to handle anxiety symptoms related to something that’s so out of a person’s control. I’m having difficulty with it, with the situation in and of itself, but it also brings up symptoms related to the general fear that I’ve got no control over the future.”

What’s an anxiety super hero to do when the world feels out of control and scary and it seems like there’s nothing you can do to protect yourself? And, I don’t mean all the scary scenario’s we regularly create in our brains – rather, things like terrorism, global warming and the swine flu.

I remember hearing about the avian flu a few years back and feeling terrified. Every time I turned on the news, there was another frightening report of how it would spread to a pandemic level. Newspapers printed full page stories about supplies you should have at home in case we all had to be quarantined. Picking up my children from pre-school, the avian flu was a hot topic among parents & many of us felt afraid. My husband & I talked about what we would do if a pandemic were to occur, thinking through how we could keep our family safe. (There’s still a box of unwrapped, protective masks in our basement.)

So what can we do when life feels out of our control? How can we take smart precautions without going off the deep end and building a bomb shelter in the backyard – just in case? How do we sort out the necessary information from the fear messaging so prevalent in our world, threatening to limit and suck the joy out of our lives?

Here’s what I do & some links that I find helpful:

*I greatly limit the amount & type of news I take in. Dr. Andrew Weil writes about going on a news diet in his book 8 Weeks to Optimum Health & I take it to heart!

*When something comes up that’s bothering me, I might freak out a little bit first, to be honest. After I’m done with that, I find a trusted source or two & go to it for information. If I find myself anxiously surfing the web for every little article – any piece of information that might help me protect myself & my family – I recognize that for what it is – a symptom of anxiety. When anxiety arises, you know what to do – check out this & this. Scheduling a worry time each day also helps to decrease that feeling of constant worry weaving through your thoughts day & night.

*I try to plan and take control of what I can. With the swine flu, I talked to my kids last night at the dinner table (in age appropriate terms) and reminded them how important it is to wash their hands before eating, after going to the bathroom, when the come home from school, etc. It’s such an easy, but extremely effective tool for keeping healthy. My husband & I have gone through what steps we could take if this flu became pandemic. Looking fears in the face & finding potential solutions can feel very liberating.

*I try to keep up with the basics — exercise, a good night’s sleep (I’m not so good there), & a healthy diet.

*Meditation, prayer/spirituality, progressive muscle relaxation, & yoga are all essential tools.

*And, finally, it’s easy to take a healthy dose of humor each day when you live with a toddler. I try to laugh with my family, cuddle them up & be as present as I can when I’m with them. Life feels like it’s going so quickly & I don’t want to waste their growing up time preparing anxiouly for the “what if’s”.

I hope that helped as you strive for a balanced response to the craziness in the world. I’d love to hear from readers what works for you, too!

Just see how it goes

I was reading a blog post a few months back & a phrase popped out at me, “Let’s just see how it goes.” What a profound life lesson – why not give it a try, just see how it goes. I hear myself saying this to my 8 year old on mornings when she doesn’t want to go to school. I hear me saying it to myself when I’m trying something new, a new challenge, something that feels uncomfortable. Sometimes we need to cajole the parts of us that demand to know how everything will turn out before taking a risk.

Just try. . . see how it goes. . . watch your life blossom. . .

I heart anxiety

Happy New Year!

I’ve been wondering what to write lately. I thought I’d be bursting with prose after the workshop. The busyness of the holidays hasn’t helped, either, but as I read recently, we all make time to do the things we really want to do. You know, like thinking – if only I could find time to keep my house clean and exercise as I plunk myself down to check email.

I think I’ve been avoiding fully processing what I took in that weekend and what I have to do from this point forward. I know I went in having an unrealistic expectation — the hope that I would drive to North Carolina early that Saturday morning a person with an anxiety disorder and come home Sunday night cured for life. The truth is, as Dr. Wilson said, anxiety disorders span the life cycle – which means, much can be done to cope with anxiety and it’s very treatable with the latest techniques & research, but it will always ebb and flow throughout our lives. That’s not what I wanted to hear. He also emphasized that the best way to conquer anxiety is to choose to enter anxiety provoking situations on purpose; want to get anxious; want the symptoms to be intense; and want the symptoms to stick around for a long time. Basically, you’ve got to learn to love your anxiety. On top of that, you gotta drop all the crutches you use to protect yourself from feeling anxious and just feel it all .

I had a chance to practice this provocative approach when driving to my Mom’s recently – a nice opportunity for regular practice. It was raining cats & dogs & sideways. I thought about taking the back roads, but picked up the girls from school and began driving on the highway toward my favorite bridges in West Point. Adrenaline surged, went away and came back again in concert with tired old thoughts and images of freaking out on the bridges. It’s so easy to ride around in circles on those well worn thought grooves. I just kept chanting in my head, “I want it. I want it.” I didn’t employ my usual crutches of favorite music or engaging conversation – I simply expected the anxiety & tried my best to want it to come, be intense and stick around. I also tried to drop the need for certainty and just reassured myself with, “Whatever happens, I can handle it.”

When I finally approached West Point, I saw the first bridge and crossed with no problem except for anticipating the bigger one. As I came up on the ascent of the second, the rain pounded against my car and, this may sound crazy, but I greeted my anxiety, like Reid suggested, and asked it to make my symptoms stronger (“Anxiety, I’m so glad you could meet me here! I need more adrenaline and pronto!”). I looked straight ahead, added the mantra “More” over and over again & remembered “I can handle this”. It wasn’t easy, but I did feel proud afterwards. A few months before, I wouldn’t even consider driving over these bridges on a sunny day without my cell phone within reach and Stevie Wonder cranking on the stereo. And, now, here I was, crossing them with my 3 kids on a dark & stormy afternoon.

Ok, so maybe this work never gets easy. But whatever happens, I can handle it. And, if you’re reading this and struggle with anxiety – you can handle it, too.

As we step into 2009, I invite you to look at what’s holding you back in your life. How will you work with what ails you, whether it’s anxiety or something else? Who will you share this with and who will walk by your side in community or as support?

This is the year to not let yourself off the hook. Don’t spend another moment living a smaller life than you dreamed.

Door Number Three

Sometimes I start to feel anxious in new situations & wonder, “How did this start?” I wasn’t anxious about this place before.” It’s like, “And behind door number 3 is . . . Social Anxiety! Had you chosen door number 5, you COULD have gotten this fabulous vacation along with the added bonus of OCD!”

When this starts to happen, it’s easy to think, “Why me? It’ll never get better. Just as it gets easier in one arena, something else comes up”. But, this can be a good opportunity to work at the core question, “What can fear REALLY do to me?”

Can it give me a heart attack? Make me faint? Cause me to go crazy?

Of course, the rational answer is always no. But, until I know the answer 150% in my core and through hard earned experience, I’ll continue to have anxiety & get tricked into always trying to protect myself from something “bad” happening, whatever that is.

It’s nice to imagine Bob Barker asking me what door I’d like to choose in the future & I’ll say, “It doesn’t matter – they’re all the same to me.”