“Intense anxiety is not in itself a problem”

I know, did we read that right on page 60? Isn’t that what we struggle and fight not to feel, worrying that we’ll be washed away in all that misplaced intensity?

Let’s look at that again: “Intense anxiety is not in itself a problem. Many people experience intense anxiety, even panic attacks, in their daily lives and continue to do what’s important to them.” ” Intensely felt emotions need not be a barrier . . . they can be welcomed in as a vital part of you.” (p. 60)

We know from research that when people accept or even invite their anxiety, it often dissipates. But this takes that notion one step further. Is it possible to welcome anxiety as a vital part of ourselves? Is there value to our anxiety that we’re overlooking? Anxiety, energy and excitement are so closely related. Some even say that anxiety might be linked with their energy source and, used with intention, can be useful.

The other morning I woke up feeling tense and anxious. I started thinking “what if I used my adrenaline to my advantage – you know, jump into my high energy tasks and/or exercise when my engine is already revved up?” I remembered watching PBS’s “This Emotional Life” a few months back. During episode two, there was a writer who said that his anxiety started getting better when he realized it was something he could learn to use; his anxiety was like his own personal caffeine pump. Accepting what is and making anxiety work for you – now there’s a concept!

Something I’m enjoying about this read is the way the authors are turning old, stubborn beliefs onto their heads. If intense anxiety is not a problem or a barrier to doing what’s important to you, imagine the possibilities!

Day Ten – Interesting Interview

After seeing David Barlow on This Emotional Life, I googled some of his articles and found this interview. It’s really interesting — for example, did you know that 10% of the population has non-clinical panic? These are people who experience the same physiological symptoms of a panic attack, but don’t label it as such. An aspect that makes panic disorder a disorder is fearing more attacks and avoiding situations where panic may present. People with non-clinical panic might have the symptoms and chock up the feelings to a stressful day or something they ate. I find this fascinating! He also speaks to why some people develop an anxiety disorder and others don’t, even with a biological predisposition. Read it if you get the chance and tell me what you think!

Day Four – Brain in Training

I remember sitting in the weekend workshop last fall and hearing Dr. Wilson say, “Getting rid of resistance is one of your biggest goals.” Even though we know intellectually that nothing dangerous will happen when anxiety and panic arise – we do know that, don’t we? – it’s so easy to get caught up in the what if’s and feel like, “I can’t do exposure today. I feel too anxious. That means something bad will happen. Maybe I should wait for another day”.

In This Emotional Life, David Barlow, Ph.D. said something I loved about our thoughts and catastrophic predictions. He said, “Don’t believe everything you think!” Even if they’re not true, we tend to believe these thoughts because we’re the ones thinking them.

Sitting at the computer on day four, I’ve completed 4 driving practices so far, 1 social practice and relaxation every day. Here’s a quick update!

Day two – I woke up feeling anxious, kind of raw and tired. You know those mornings when you just don’t feel like going out there and doing the work. I’m having lots of those as I work through this resistance. Pushing myself, I drove the bridge loop again and made it longer, adding another exit with a smaller bridge that used to be my nemesis!

Feeling really anxious before even starting, I found myself both asking the symptoms to increase and hoping them away at the same time. The first loop was pretty good, but here’s something interesting. Because I was feeling so raw, I thought during the second loop, “it’s ok if I turn on some music to keep my mind a little distracted. I just need it today. It’s no big deal.”

Well, that small act of adding a safety behavior sent a message to my brain that this was more dangerous than previously anticipated. I got to the mid-way point, turned around at the exit and boom, big waves of anxiety were pulsing through my body. My automatic thoughts were, “Uh oh. I’m in trouble here. I’m feeling really bad, I’ve got my child in the car & I’m going to have to call someone to pick us up on the side of the road.”

Then, I remembered the truth. In 14 years of dealing with anxiety, nothing bad has ever happened and fighting only makes it worse. Knowing it was the only way to go, I said again out loud, “Hit me. Come on anxiety – come and get me. I’m not even fighting back. I want to feel adrenaline coursing through my body by the time we hit the bridge.” I dropped my shoulders again and even put my right hand out, as if to say, “I give”. What else was I going to do?

Making my way across the bridge, looking over the water and city skyline, I continued to feel strong physical sensations, like I was buzzing with adrenaline. However, when I dropped my guard, I was able to step back and notice that even though it was uncomfortable, the symptoms weren’t getting worse, I was driving very well and everything was alright. I felt like this was good practice, what I need to be doing every day.

At this point, I really should have done a third loop to cement the learning. And, this sounds like an excuse, but my 2 year old was getting a little tired of looking for trucks and birds as we went “Sunday driving”. This is one of the challenges of finding ways to fit this work into our daily lives.

I tell you what . . . this feels like I’m training for a marathon some days. We are biologically wired to protect ourselves from these feelings, even if they are irrational. Dropping the resistance and choosing to feel it all is exhausting work. When I did my first triathlon, I competed while wearing my “Team in Training” singlet. I think those of us out there doing exposure work should be wearing a team shirt that says, “Brain in Training”!

If you’re joining me for 30 days of exposure, here’s a great read (very short) about how to know if you’re succeeding. I know that I’m not doing all these things regularly, but it’s a good reminder of where to set our compass.

“This Emotional Life”

PBS is coming out with another amazing series that you won’t want to miss – “This Emotional Life”. It begins airing Monday, January 4th, 2010 (just in time for the challenge!). Check your local PBS station for times.