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.

 

The November Project for Fears and Phobias?

November Project members run the Harvard Stadium steps early on a Wednesday morning. November Project™ is a FREE fitness movement that was born in Boston as a way to stay in shape during cold New England months. It is now operating in multiple cities across the country. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
November Project members run the Harvard Stadium steps early on a Wednesday morning. November Project™ is a FREE fitness movement that was born in Boston as a way to stay in shape during cold New England months. It is now operating in multiple cities across the country.
Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Have you heard of The November Project?

The November Project gathers people on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings at 6:30am in cities across globe to run stairs, hills, and whoop it up as they meet their fitness goals and create life long friendships.

Reading this article and thinking about my own DIY anxiety support group started my wheels turning – why not create a November Project style group to help people face their fears and phobias? Community exposure work! Imagine showing up at 6:30am on a Monday morning and riding elevators for an hour with a bunch of folks who also feel panicky about elevators.  Or, meeting to walk across that scary pedestrian bridge with 50 new friends who don’t like heights, but are all hooting and hollering “Keep Going!”.  Agoraphobic? How about an urban hike and throwing in a little social anxiety work with conversation at a local coffee shop afterwards.

Let those images sink in. That good exposure work would happen a few times a week, be done in community and finished before you even started your work day. How powerful would that be? This is taking the idea of a DIY anxiety support group one big step further. Imagine the decrease in isolation – people who get it! And the increase in people’s ability to tolerate discomfort and anxiety through consistent work in facing their fears.

I’m going to keep my wheels turning and see what I can create. How about you? Is this a project you could start in your city or home town with the common goal of mental fitness and well being? Without fear standing in your way, imagine the possibilities!

Finding your people – a guide to starting a DIY anxiety support group

Photo by Matthew Sleeper
Photo by Matthew Sleeper

Recently, I posted a page called “Finding Help” which talks about the steps to finding a great therapist. But, maybe you’re more of a self help kind of person and just want a community of people who you can talk to openly about life, including anxiety. Pull up a chair and let’s talk!

***

A few years ago, I invited some fellow Anxiety Girls to work through Reid Wilson’s book “Don’t Panic” and set exposure goals for ourselves. There’s just something about being accountable to someone else that helps with goal setting in any arena. It’s also comforting to talk with people who really get it.  My sister-in-law & I joke that it’s nice to have people with whom you can let your crazy out. Because whether or not you can see it – we all have a little crazy.

We met for coffee every other week, at first, to discuss the book and our goals.  As we got more comfortable and grew in our relationships, we hit the roads to do some exposure work together – highways, bridges, traveling distances were all part of our repertoire.

The group joined me as I drove highway routes and bridges that bothered me.  Another time, we literally drove back and forth across the same bridge for 45 minutes, coaching and cheering on another Anxiety Girl as she faced her fears.

Life has gotten busy, though, and there are times where we don’t meet for months. That’s just the way it goes.  But, it never seems to fail that one of us sends a a catch up email or text.

This past winter, we sat down in the hopefulness of a new year and imagined doing something big like an Anxiety Girl road trip. Laughing, we envisioned a reality show based on our superheroes. Anxiety girls take off cross country in an RV, armed only with a GoPro camera, travel journals and lots of snacks. By the time we got to the west coast, surely we would be anxiety free!

One of us said, “Yes! That sounds amazing – AND – what steps can we take right now to work toward something bigger?  What if we started with a smaller road trip? You know, just for the day? Getting out of town would target highway driving & traveling distances, while we got to spend time together. And maybe we could go for a hike & grab brunch.” A month later, two of us took that trip! We both had moments of high anxiety and had a fabulous time!

In the future, we’re hoping to plan an adventure by plane or train.  Or maybe we’ll take that cross country trip. Who knows? You may find us riding roller coasters & sky diving this time next year. 🙂

***

So, getting back to you . . .

Are you finding yourself facing anxiety alone and wanting community? Maybe it’s time to gather a few friends and start your own DIY anxiety support group.

I’ll be honest, this wasn’t my first attempt. I gathered some folks together many years ago to work through a workbook. It was great at first, but not everyone worked at the same rate. Some folks wanted to talk but not do the workbook.  Others were uncomfortable hearing about other people’s fears.  Life got busy, then it just fizzled. I really hungered for community, though, so I tried again a few years later and it took.

Here are some tips for getting started:

*If a DIY support group is in your future, start by talking to a few people who are interested in getting together to talk about anxiety.

*If you don’t think you know anyone with anxiety (really?), start by trying to open up the topic (when appropriate), step back and listen. Oftentimes you’ll find an “in” and people are relieved to know they’re not alone.

*Invite people to get together wherever suits – go for a hike, head to a coffee shop, meet out for a drink.

*Share what feels comfortable. Listen. See what people are looking for in a support group. Do your expectations match up?

*Maybe this becomes an anxiety book group. If so, check out the list of books in the menu titled “Bookshelf” for inspiration or find a book that works for your group.

*Maybe this is a goal setting group with regular check ins for accountability.

*Maybe folks just want to get together socially and talk with others who get it.

*And maybe you want to go crazy, get out in the world and do some exposure work together.

Whatever you do, go find your people!  It may take time. It may not take at first. It might be just 2 or 3 of you. That’s ok.  Make the time to get together and support each other. A bigger life is out there waiting for you!

Want to read more about DIY anxiety support groups? Check out this great article by Jessica Spires about how she started an informal support group in a pub. If you’re someone who wants something more formal, check out this thorough guideline on creating peer support groups.

Superheroes in Disguise

Back at headquarters, there was an impromptu meeting of the Anxiety Girls! The situation – processing  recent run-ins with the notorious villain Anxiety, also known as “Eunice the Evil”.

Eunice had been lurking around our Anxiety Girls, mostly hiding in the shadows, until recently when she attacked unexpectedly – Kapow! – leaving our superheroes to wonder – how did she penetrate their industrial grade, anxiety proof armor?

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Our superheroes processed events, jotted down ideas and came up with a plan. Here are some notes from the meeting:

  1. Eunice may feel big and scary, but her moves are always the same. Catastrophizing thoughts + physical sensations + backing away = anxiety and panic. Once you’ve experienced a panic attack, you’ve really experienced the worst she can bring. Yes, it’s absolutely uncomfortable, but nothing new here.
  1. The villain Eunice can only survive if we fight back/resist – Whap! Biff! Ooof! – or run away from her/avoid. The harder we push back and the faster we run, the stronger she gets.
  1. To decrease her power, we have to find ways to seek her out – like every day. This is not our favorite piece of wisdom, but it’s true. Face her every day in both big and small ways. Go out for lunch with a new friend, drive a route that’s been bothering you, say yes to that trip where you’ll have to fly, volunteer to present at the company meeting.
  1. Sometimes Eunice hangs around for a while, just out of habit – even if we aren’t resisting and avoiding anymore. That’s ok. Just keep doing life, choosing what’s important to you and she’ll eventually get bored and lurk elsewhere.
  1. When Eunice shows up and we invite her to stick around – “Want to sit in the passenger seat and go for a drive, Eunice? It’s fine that you stay” – she can transform from the villain “Eunice the Evil” to just plain ol’ Eunice.
  1. And when it’s just plain ol’ Eunice, and we’re not resisting, we hear her warnings differently. “Oh, Eunice wants to make sure I’m safe.” We can then take her by the hand, look her in the eyes and say, “Thanks for your concern and vigilance, Eunice, but I’ve got this. Even when I’m terribly anxious, I’ve got this.”

Our superheroes left the meeting with notes in hand, hopped into the Anxiety Girl Mobile, offered Eunice a ride and sped off to their next adventure.

Stay tuned for more adventures of Anxiety Girl!

Finding Help

Finding help can be tricky business, but so is staying stuck. First of all, we people with anxiety are not usually all that vocal about what we’re going through. Finding help has to begin by reaching out and telling someone what’s going on. Yes, you can just hang out on the internet searching symptom checkers and reading blogs, but your best bet on feeling better includes interacting with a live person in real time.

Are you ready?

  1. The best way to start is by making an appointment with your primary physician. It’s important to rule out any physical conditions that could be causing anxiety and panic.
  2. Before the appointment, jot down some notes about symptoms you’ve been experiencing, both physical and emotional, and for how long. It’s easy to forget what we want to discuss when someone in a white coat enters the room.
  3. We all hope that our anxiety is just something physical like a thyroid condition that can be cured with medication. For some people this is the case. But for the vast majority, we will be given a clean bill of health and the green light to go forth and find a therapist.
  4. Finding the right therapist is hard work and takes time but it is worth the effort.
  5. You can look at sites like the ADAA and ABCT but I’ve found them to only generate a few names and never the names of people I know to be amazing clinicians. Still it can be a good place to begin.
  6. Asking family and friends for therapist referrals is a good next step. You’d be surprised at how many people have seen or are seeing a therapist or they’ve heard friends rave about someone who is excellent.
  7. Once you have a few names and numbers, it’s time to be brave and make some phone calls. Think of it as shopping around for a therapist. Ask lots of questions. What is their professional background? Area of expertise? Thoughts on medication? Theory base?  How long do people typically come to see them? Do they assign homework between sessions to keep up the work and momentum? What’s your gut feeling after talking to them? For anxiety, you want your therapist to have experience with and a thorough understanding of cognitive behavioral therapy, the gold standard for anxiety. I would also ask about experience helping clients with exposure therapy. Lots of therapists say they treat anxiety, but make sure it’s their area of expertise.
  8. Schedule an appointment and show up. Expect to feel nervous and show up anyways, just like exposure work.  Give the therapist a few sessions and see how you all connect. If it’s not a good fit, move on and keep trying until you find the right person.
  9. Once you’ve found a great therapist, remember you have to do the work to create actual change.
  10. For further reading, check out a few links:  Wall Street Journal, Anxiety Coach, Huff Post, Oprah.

*More of a self help/support group kinda person? Read this.

Anxiety Superhero: Erin Craig

Today I’d like to highlight Anxiety Superhero Erin Craig. Check out this BBC video of Erin taking on Scuba Diving certification! I love how she talks about not letting her panic disorder get in the way of trying something challenging and way out of her comfort zone. But also be sure to read the post which describes her experiences with travel and anxiety and how she found herself in Thailand in a scuba suit in the first place. Go Erin!

Image from Posieonthelamb.com

 

Scuba-surface

 

 

 

Three books and a podcast

Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire

If you’re a fan of Mrs. Doubtfire, you will love listening to Dr. Claire Weekes in Hope and Help for your Nerves on Audible or CD.  Yes, some of the terminology is a little outdated, but I found the information very relevant and couldn’t help being charmed as she cheered me on.  Little known fact about Claire is that she had anxiety and panic attacks as well throughout her life.

Chronic worriers, Dave Carbonell is at it again. His latest book is called The Worry Trick and follows the popular workbook, Panic Attacks Workbook. I’ve read and enjoyed the workbook and have just begun making my way through The Worry Trick.  You’ll find expert advice inside on how to deal with chronic worry with a healthy dose of skill and humor.  Happy reading!

Do you find yourself backing away when anxiety makes it’s move?  Reid Wilson teaches us the new rules of the game in his latest book “Stopping the Noise in Your Head”. I’ve been reading a little bit every day and find myself underlining something on each page.  If you’ve read about my experience in his weekend workshop, you have an idea of what this looks like.  His style is very strategic, crosses over all anxiety disorders and you’ll feel like he’s coaching you personally along the way.

And finally, have you ever been listening to a podcast while driving home and it’s so good you just sit in your car in front of the house, until it’s over? In this section of This American Life, Paul Ford imagines what if anxiety were an IT problem to be solved?

Ping!

Have a great weekend!

Breaking the Rules

 

Early last week, I took my kids to the dentist for their 6 month check ups.  Afterwards, there was a promised stop at Starbucks for breakfast and we began making our way toward drop offs at three different schools.

High school was closest and our first stop. Then we took the youngest to her elementary school. And, finally the middle and I set off for middle school.  As we got closer, I saw one of our favorite parks.

I got quiet and my daughter instantly read my thoughts. (I do believe that’s one of her super powers!)

“Mom, what are you considering?” she asked with a smile in her voice.

“Hey, do you want to go to Maymont instead of school? I mean, what class are you missing right now? “ I said half joking, half serious.

“Science”, she responded, “but I’m ahead on my work and wouldn’t be missing anything.”

We laughed while I kept driving toward school, but then turned on my blinker and pulled into the park.

We both smiled big and talked about how we used to come here all the time when she & her sisters were little.

“How about we run around for about 20 minutes? That work for you?”

“Yes! Let’s go!”

I let Z choose where she wanted to go. We visited with the donkeys, goats and bunnies.  Walked past the cows, moo’ed loudly to get their attention and spotted deer hiding in the meadow.  The weather was gorgeous, so at some point we kicked off our shoes and enjoyed the feeling of bare feet on the warm ground.

We found the statue that the kids always climbed on when they were tiny, took it upon ourselves to climb it again and took photos.  I sent a picture of Z laying on the park bench to her Dad, saying, “Science class is the best!”

When it was time to go, I got a big hug from my girl.

“This was awesome, Mom!” she said.

“It was awesome. I love getting spontaneous time with my girl – and, well, sometimes you’ve just got to break the rules a little.”

“I’ll remind you of that quote when I’m older! “

—–

With anxiety, sometimes it’s important to let loose and break the rules as well. What kind of rules do you set for yourself?  You know the ones you create in your head to create the illusion of protection:

*I’m safe if I drive in the right hand lane, but might freak out if I get stuck in the fast lane

*Movie theaters are ok, but only if I get the aisle seat.

*Glass elevators are pretty safe, but I take stairs in all other situations, unless for some reason my anxiety is low and I’m feeling particularly confident.

*Yes to lunch dates as long as I can hide in a group.

*I’ll only fly if I have a few drinks ahead of time.

This week, why not experiment with breaking the rules?  Get curious. What happens when you do the opposite of what anxiety tells you to do? Drive in that middle lane. Say yes to lunch with a friend.  Release into the swell of adrenaline instead of tensing up to fight it. Keep going instead of running away.

It’s time to live a bigger life and break the rules. Join me?

 

 

 

Ready

“I’ll try it, but I may turn around and come back down. Don’t try to make me go!” I said with forced speech to my teenagers as we climbed the steps higher and higher. The water slide was in sight, but still about fifty feet away and up.

Minutes before, we were getting ready to go home. Walking past a big slide on the way out, I said nonchalantly, “Oh, that looks really fun. Too bad we have to get home. I’ll definitely do it next time.”

“Mom, there’s literally no line. We should do it right now!” said my older girls.

“Yeah, go on Kris!” added my husband and his best friend, smiling. They knew I hadn’t meant a word I said.  “We’ll wait right here for you.  Give me your stuff & have fun!”

Our eight year old spoke up with passion.  “Mom, you do not have to do this!” She and I had happily spent the day together hitting the lazy rivers and kiddie areas while the others sought drops and thrills.

The teens urged me to give it a try.  Grabbing a raft and heading up the first flight of stairs, I hesitated and looked back.

“Mom, just think of this as exposure work. This is good for you!” said E smiling and making sure I didn’t make a run for the exit.  My 15 year old, who had heard me a million times talk about how exposure work is the very best way to deal with anxiety, was pushing my own advice back in my face.

“Come on Mom, you can do this,” said Z, taking another angle. “You’ll love it. It’s so easy. I was nervous the first time, but it’s fun!”

“It’s just that this is not relaxing for me,” I said, still fretting and considering my options. “The lazy river is just my speed. It’s ok. We all have different things that make us happy.”

“You know, my little brother who is 9 AND my Mom did this ride last year and loved it,” added their buddy, upping the pressure.  “Come on Aunt Kristin, if they can handle it, so can you.”

“Girls, you cannot shame me into riding this water slide.  I’m not embarrassed. I just don’t like being up so very high.”

But I knew that the ride would be smooth and pretty easy once I overcame the anticipation of walking up the high, open air stair case.  Every other minute or so, I imagined what would happen if I panicked on the stairs. Would I run back down? Crawl? Would someone need to carry me?

All ridiculous thoughts, but typical of the anxious brain frantically searching for escape routes and answers to “what if” scenarios.

I also knew that making my way up the flight of stairs was good role modeling for all the girls – both the ones encouraging me to go and the one who also found it scary. Trying to look up and not over the edge, I kept climbing, making the decision to keep going with every step.

When we got to the top, there were four slide choices. The girls were quickly talking about which slide was best and which was the slowest, meaning a good choice for me.  I asked the ride workers (who were maybe 20 years old) which of the 4 slides was the easiest. “I’m a little nervous and this is my first time,” I said.

A young man, with a thick accent and name tag showing he was from Ukraine, smiled and said, “Yes, it is good. You sit here.”  And, with a little push, I was on my way.

I heard the girls cheering as I took off down the slide. It was relaxing and beautiful like they said it would be.  Late afternoon sunlight made it’s way through the tree tops and sparkled on the water.  I found myself smiling, feeling the breeze in my face and leaning into the curves with contentment. Going down the “big” drop at the end was exciting and, all in all, the ride was over too quickly.

Getting out, I received cheers from my family & friends. I was a little shaky from the anticipation, but genuinely happy.

There’s a scene in Lemony Snicket that resonated with me, reading it the day after my ride.

“Are you ready?” Klaus asked finally.

“No,” Sunny answered.

“Me neither,” Violet said, “but if we wait until we’re ready we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives. Let’s go.”

I wasn’t ready to go on the ride or deal with being nervous.  Putting off things like that until tomorrow or the next time or when we’re ready is an attempt to feel brave without action.  But underneath there is a part of us that wants to experience all of life and urges us forward, whispering alongside the fear – yes!

Saying yes to my girls and to life felt good. Saying yes to anxiety and facing it almost always feels very good after the fact. It’s the saying yes part, the feeling of shaky legs and racing thoughts that has to come first.

We walked out of the park as afternoon turned into early evening, hand in hand retelling stories from the day.  Turning back toward the entrance, we saw our friends at the top of the Colossal Curl, a stair case rising 70 feet above the ground, waving like crazy and smiling.

“That was an awesome ride,” my teens said with their father agreeing.  I love that feeling of being both scared and excited, they added.  We all jumped up and down and waved back.  It had been a glorious day just being together, laughing and creating memories. We were good tired, happy and as we hopped into the car, I said, “Let’s go.”

Photo: watercountryusa.com

 

Weekend Treatment Groups

Reid Wilson is getting ready to hold a few weekend treatment groups for people with panic disorder and OCD. Check out his website and get ready for a life changing weekend! You can read about my experience here.

If you live in the Chicago area, Dave Carbonell is also holding a 10 week panic attacks treatment group this coming Fall 2011.

Has anyone else attended either of these groups? If yes, what did you think? Does anyone have other resources they’d like to share?