Look for the Helpers

mr rogers billboard




Children of the 70’s who grew up watching Mr. Rogers Neighborhood know that he famously encouraged us to look for the helpers in times of crisis and suffering. Spotting the helpers meant we were not alone – that we could trust in a basic sense of goodness in humanity.

Now, you and I both know that he was talking about real life crises – natural disasters, poverty, war. But one day his words hit home for me as I was taking a little drive.

Let me tell you a story.

A few years back I was doing exposure work on this one particular bridge/highway combo. It was just one of those spots that seemed to remain difficult for me no matter how many times I drove it. Because it was a challenge, it became my “go to” route for exposure whenever I would feel my overall anxiety popping up.

Three times a week, for about a month, I drove this loop over and over again, 45 minutes at a time. Students of anxiety will tell you that exposure practice needs frequency, intensity and duration to be effective.

One day while I was driving, I started to get that scrambly, panicky feeling as adrenaline coursed through my veins. I was having a hard time remembering that in all my experience driving while anxious, I’ve never had to pull over because it was too intense. Not once. I worked on simply saying,”Yes! I want this discomfort!” but the part of me that wanted to escape quickly was gaining strength.

Just at that moment, I noticed there was a crew of workmen on the side of the road and a sizable pull off just before the bridge began. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? If I really needed help I could simply pull over and ask those guys!

It was like the heavens opened up and the universe provided me with my own highway support crew! I laughed out loud and decided to view their presence as a little gift. Each time I passed by the pull off and gathered strength to cross the bridge, I said, “Hey Fellas! Thanks for being there for me!”

A little while later, I passed by a police officer hiding amongst the trees, looking to catch people speeding. Instead of rationally checking my speedometer to make sure I was within the limit, I smiled again. “Wow, there are helpers everywhere today!” I later texted the story to my husband who noted that most people get anxious when they see a cop on the side of the road. I responded with, “Well, you know, one persons speed trap is another persons ride home!”

It’s kind of amazing how significantly my levels of adrenaline dropped as I utilized the combination of humor, paradox (seeking out anxiety on purpose), gratitude and was distracted by my imagined “out” – the ability to pull over with support. Was the imagined “out” a crutch? Absolutely. But, it also gave me the boost to keep going while saying yes to the anxiety for another few rounds that day.

This isn’t news, but it’s amazing how our beliefs and imagination have the power to either turn on or turn off physical sensations. It works both ways – our beliefs and our imagination can either send us reeling with panic & anxiety or strengthen us with the knowledge we can handle whatever comes up.

Sometimes you just have to find a way to keep going, to stay and linger with your fears and sensations a little bit longer. The best way is to experiment with acceptance and even asking for more. But in aiming for perfection we sometimes wait and wait and never get out the door.

So, today, do whatever it takes to make your world a little bigger. It turns out there are helpers everywhere. We are rarely alone in our pursuits and challenges. But the most important help we will find is right there waiting, inside of ourselves.


Day 19 – Furnaces, Bridges and Haircuts – Oh My!

Here we are on Day 19! So far, this week has been a good mix of a couple great practices (meaning I felt super anxious and welcomed it) and lots of stress management over buying a new furnace – ouch! Over the weekend, I got a chance to drive over the Enon bridge. Even on the way there, I said once or twice, “You know, I might choose to just be a passenger. OK? It’s alright if I choose that.” And then, as we approached it I thought, “OK, I can do this. I want this,” and it wasn’t so bad. Such was the case with other practices, like getting my hair cut and highlighted. Even as I moved forward, ready to show up, I had worries about getting panicky and feeling embarrassed. I’m really working on dropping the critics voice that says I should be ashamed of having anxiety in everyday situations. I’ve been fighting that internal battle for too long and getting nowhere. It turned out that I handled the few big waves of adrenaline, accepted that my face was red and thoroughly enjoyed the pampering afternoon!

Day Thirteen – Today’s challenges

Todays challenges:

*Take my girls skating about 30 minutes from our home.
*Drive over the very evil Enon bridge
*Drive to my Mom’s house and cross another two (big, but not so evil) bridges
*Continue to work on wanting that free floating anxiety/agitation that seems to stay with me some days and not resist it so much.
*Stop obsessing about whether 150 feet above the water will feel too high and work with the feelings it brings up. 🙂

Day One – Getting Started

Today’s practice was a 10 mile loop over the downtown bridge and back, which I did three times in a row. The practice was pretty typical: I felt most anxious the first time and was almost bored with it by the third. What helped the most were the paradoxical techniques of asking anxiety symptoms to increase, purposefully repeating anxiety provoking phrases, and dropping my guard. Knowing intellectually that nothing bad ever happens, I physically dropped the tension in my shoulders and said outloud, “Hit me. Come on. Give you your best shot. I can handle it.”

I felt hopeful as I finished up that practice, the sun was shining and I thought of all the opportunities in life when anxiety does not rule decision making. I love that dreamy space where everything is a possibility. I even dreamed of the article I’d write after these 30 days are over when I’m feeling so much better.

As evening finds me anxious and tense again, obsessing on how I’m always going to feel this way, I’m trying to remind myself that this is what I expected. There would be no challenge if it was easy from the beginning. Long term conditioning will take a while to reverse. It’s normal to be worrying that tomorrow and the days to follow won’t be as smooth; that I won’t be able to take on harder challenges. But, that’s ok. I expected that and can handle whatever arises.

Looking forward to stirring up more trouble for myself tomorrow.

I’ll be checking in a couple times per week — see you soon!

Face it Fridays!

Good morning! So, I have to admit that I did my face it friday challenge yesterday. We’re heading out of town for a few days & I knew there would be no time today. Although, I should count (mostly) keeping my cool while we try to pack up the mini-van; negotiate. . .you know, who’s way to pack is the “right way”; and three gorgeous, but wild and excited, children scream & run through the house.

“Mommy – she hit me! Mama – look at my slip knot – woohoo, I’m a cowgirl! Mom – did you pick up the 3rd Percy Jackson book yet? I can’t clean that up – I’m too tiiired!” Thank God for a little PBS Kids in times like these!

Alright, so yesterday I chipped away at that bridge/roller coaster exit some more. I crossed the downtown bridge, took the first exit, came back across & then jumped onto the downtown expressway exit. I should videotape that for you – it really is a silly design – all loopy & rollercoastery right over our downtown area. Who thought up that design?

With exposure like this, I like to repeat it over & over & over again until I’m not getting rushes of adrenaline. Yesterday, I went in reminding myself of the attitude “I want this anxiety” & tried to increase symptoms. Turning around on the exit, I noticed that I, um, really didn’t want to be anxious after all, and had to talk to myself again when the rushes came back, “I do want this anxiety. This is how I get over it. I can handle it.”

I hope you have a wonderful weekend & take some time to get out there & stir up some trouble for yourself!

Face it Fridays!

We’re off to our second Face it Friday!

Even though it wasn’t Friday, I’ve been up to some exposure this week – driving some fun interchanges & working on telling people that I’ve been feeling worse lately. You know, being open about what I’m really feeling. For you non-anxious people out there, this might not seem like such a big deal. But, for the anxious person who really doesn’t want to talk about what’s bothering her & would rather sweep it under the carpet . . . it’s big. Personally, I count that as interpersonal exposure. And, you know what? When I talk about how I’m feeling, it makes me feel better. Novel, right?

Alright, enough resting on my laurels. Today’s challenge & moving into the weekend:

*Driving: Crossing the downtown bridge, taking an exit, turning around & coming back on over.
*Interpersonal: Whenever appropriate, sharing what’s going on in regards to my anxiety. Not making a big deal of it, just disclosing.
*Professional: I’m teaching this weekend – working with whatever comes up during this time.

Something that’s really important about exposure is that success does not mean entering a feared situation (or working with fearful thoughts) and not feeling anxious. Success means showing up and accepting how you feel, maybe even inviting more symptoms. Whatever happens, you can handle it.

So, I had a nice drive across this bridge this morning. This is the second time in a week that I’ve done this route & it felt much better this time. I did use one crutch by calling my husband beforehand. We had a nor’easter here the night before, and I (rationalized) thought it only appropriate to call & make sure nothing was flooded out downtown. And, just in case you were wondering, the bridge was bone dry & the flood wall seemed to hold up just fine.

I’d love to hear if you’ve been inspired to do any exposure work! Have a great weekend stirring up trouble for yourselves!

Face it Fridays!

I’d love to say that I’ve been conquering my every fear these days, super hero cape flying in the wind . . . but truth be told, I’ve taken to struggling with my anxiety lately & even feeding that sly little gorilla when no one is looking these past few weeks.

I know, struggling and resisting and avoiding (oh my!), make anxiety SO much worse.

So, when I start feeling like I’ve slid down that slippery slope & am looking at an uphill battle I do one of two things. Sometimes, I jump right into lots of exposure & it makes me feel worse at first & then so much better as I realize that I’ve been tricked by fear again. What we fear might happen – our worst what if’s – never truly come to light. And, even the uncomfortable stuff, is still manageable.

My second route is to hide it, don’t tell anyone & quietly freak out a little while going on with my life. Sure, I’m still showing up, but all the while hoping that anxiety stands me up. People with anxiety frequently have the super power of an amazing imagination & this can get us into trouble as we see and feel the terrible things we are SURE will come true.

After I’ve felt bad for a while, I start opening up and talking to people, and, slowly, it doesn’t seem so terrible. Then it’s time to do some more exposure work.

So, what a perfect opportunity to begin “Face it Fridays!” Every Friday I’m going to set an exposure goal for myself, write about it & hope that others will join me for the adventure!

Today I chose a driving exposure goal — to drive downtown through harrowing interchanges, take a bridge-like exit onto the expressway & come out alive on the other side! This is not part of my daily driving life & I really don’t like how this particular exit feels like a roller coaster. So, first thing after dropping my older children off at school, my toddler & I set off for adventure. I wore my cowgirl boots for added spunk & confidence. As I approached the exit, I did feel my heart beating faster & a rush of adrenaline. I remembered Dr. Wilson’s advice of asking your anxiety to make your symptoms worse. “Come on anxiety, give me your best shot!”

The excitement was short lived – the exit was no big deal & I wasn’t able to physically make myself more anxious. I called my husband to tell him the news.

Me: “Babe, so I just drove over the roller coaster exit & I lived to tell the story.”

Him: “Seriously? You made it out alive?”

Me: “Yeah, and I know this may come as a surprise, but it was really no big deal at all.”

Him: “Wow, that’s shocking.”

So, maybe my superhero cape was flying a little bit today and maybe, just maybe I’m really an adrenaline junkie at heart.

I’d love to hear about how you’ve been inviting your fears this week!

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.

Living an Exposure Lifestyle

One afternoon I was talking to my friend Michael who co-directs a university anxiety clinic. We had gotten our families together to go down to the river, jump around on the rocks and enjoy a beautiful day together. To get to the river and rock jumping, however, we had to walk over a suspension bridge. To say that I don’t like crossing this bridge by foot or any other form of transportation, would be an understatement. I see people casually riding their bikes over the bridge, walking dogs and allowing children to peer over the railing and shudder. It feels like it’s a good football field above the water and is suspended under a canopy of concrete highway.

“Oh man, I did NOT like that crazy bridge. But, if I don’t walk over it now & then, it gets harder, so I gotta do it.”

“That’s good exposure lifestyle, Kristin,” Michael said.

“What did you say?” I asked.

“Exposure lifestyle. . .My colleague & I tell people that once they’ve graduated from therapy, it’s important to go on living an exposure lifestyle . . .purposefully doing things that make them feel anxious in their daily life so that anxiety doesn’t get the upper hand.”

“That’s fantastic!” I responded, getting excited. “That should be everyone’s mantra. What a great phrase! Living an exposure lifestyle.”

I’ve thought of that clever term often as I approach situations in my daily life that make me wonder, “Will I get anxious here?”. It’s a new addition to my coping cards along with some of my favorites “Stir up trouble for yourself“; “Is this Discomfort or Danger“; and one I got from my sister-in-law “Don’t live a small life”.

How do you live an exposure lifestyle & not allow anxiety to limit you? Are there ways that you incorporate “exposure & practice” into your daily life? — Times when you take the elevator just because it’s good for you to do so; volunteer to present at a meeting even though you’re afraid; take the highway, even when no one would know if you took the back roads? I look forward to hearing from you!

A Trip to the Zoo

“This bridge freaks me out, Mama,” says my 6 year old as we get ready to enter the National Zoo.

“I know baby. Sometimes I get nervous on bridges, too. What’s going on?” I ask.

“It makes my legs feel funny. It feels like we’re high up in the trees and the water is so far below,” she explains.

“You know what’s cool about that? I ask, getting her attention, “Your body is real smart & that’s your body’s way of asking – Is this safe?

And, what’s cool is that you can look around, make sure you’re safe & give your body an answer.

So, what’s the answer? Are you safe?”

My big girl looks at me, and then all around. “Yeah, but I still feel funny.”

“Let’s look at the bridge,” I suggest. “Hmm – looks strong – lots of people are on it – cars, too.

Let’s check the railing (we try to shake it). Nice and sturdy.

What can we tell our body now?”

“It’s ok body. I’m safe,” she tells herself out loud, smiling.

“That’s right & that funny feeling in your legs & tummy will slowly go away. Maybe it has already. And, if it doesn’t for a while, that’s ok too.”

“It’s gone already,” she tells me.

“Alright, baby. Let’s go to the zoo!”

“Yeah! I want to go see the monkeys!”