Can Anxiety Have a Positive Side?

May 23

Anxiety isn’t something people often embrace as positive; indeed, people tend to go to great lengths to eliminate if from their lives. That said, very few things are either all good or all bad (that’s part of all-or-nothing thinking that contributes to anxiety, depression, and more). Anxiety can actually have a positive side, and seeing the positive actually works to pull you up and move you forward.

Recently, I had an online conversation about this very thing with a woman named Kay who lives with anxiety and seems to have had experiences similar to my own. We agreed that looking only at the negative is dangerous for our mental health and wellbeing. To be sure, negativity exists and anxiety does have it’s share of negatives; however, anxiety has a positive side, and discovering it can be very helpful in shaping how we see ourselves and the world. Not only does anxiety itself have positive aspects, so do the people who live with it. (Five Character Strengths of People Living with Anxiety).

Kay wrote an article about the positive side of anxiety. It’s great to be able to share her perspective on the fact that being anxious isn’t always a curse.

 

Anxiety Isn’t All Bad

By Kay*

 Anxiety has many negatives, but it has positive aspects, too. Discover examples of anxiety's positive side. Anxiety might feel like its ruining your life, but is it all bad? I have suffered from anxiety since I was a child—I just didn’t recognise it. I thought it was normal to see catastrophe at every turn, to feel like all my nerve endings were on alert, and to be overly sensitive to everything. Perhaps it is “normal,” as there are certainly a great many people who feel the same.

As time passes, we may recognise that anxiety greatly influences our lifestyle. The choices we make when we feel frightened may be different to the ones we make when we feel confident and optimistic. We may choose the same college course as our friends rather than the course which suits our interests. We might remain in unsuitable relationships because we don’t want to be on our own. We are more likely to stick around in dead end jobs because we are too anxious to try something different.  And that’s just the big things in life!  Anxiety may also influence the smaller, day to day decisions and limit our opportunities to enjoy life.

Focusing on the negative impact anxiety has on our life can really get us down. But have you ever looked at it through different coloured glasses? In other words, have you ever considered that there may be positive aspects to your anxiety? And positive aspects to you yourself? Anxiety doesn’t necessarily say negative things about you.

Anxiety’s Positive Side

I’ve Rarely Met an Anxious Asshole

People who suffer from anxiety are often kind and compassionate by nature. We may feel things deeply and be sensitive to other people’s emotions. We want (need!) everyone to be happy, so that is often motivates our interactions. We tend to play the role of peacemaker because conflict increases our anxiety. You may be riddled with anxiety, but chances are you are a nice person with a good heart. Pull that bit up to the surface!

We See the Negative but We Keep Going

Anxiety creates many automatic negative thoughts that plague us day and night, such as catastrophizing situations and seeing the bad before the good. That said, those of us who suffer from anxiety can be strong and keep going despite being anxious. How else would we talk our way down from whatever dizzy, anxious heights we have reached? To do so, we consider the positives in the situation, or the good that will come from continuing on. Next time you are catastrophizing, rather than focusing on how your mind reached the catastrophe, concentrate instead on how you have been able to move it back down a gear.

Our Anxiety can bring Achievement

You might think that being a high achiever brings high anxiety, but what it if works the other way? If anxiety means you can never sit still, or your brain never stops whirring, then you may be in a great position to channel this into your goals. If your employment prospects have suffered at the hands of anxiety, could you turn this around? Could anxiety drive your potential? Overthinking can be a terrible affliction but it might also mean there is a genius in there. Sweating over the small stuff might mean you have a great eye for detail. Your anxiety could lead you to achievements, and you just might find that your achievements help to banish anxiety.

Being Anxious Can Involve Being Caring

There is no question that anxiety may have a negative impact on your relationships with other people. But remember that it can also mean you are a great person to have around. If you’re emotional, you might be more open and loving towards your nearest and dearest. We can use our sensitivity as a strength and reach out to those around us. Experiencing anxiety can help us help others understand themselves. Further, our sensitivity can help us respond positively to the needs of others, be they human, animal, or plant. We may be full of worries and “what-ifs,” but that often equips us to care for other people, other things.

So there you have it!  These are just a few examples showing the upside of anxiety. Think of it this way: anxiety might rule your life, but it doesn’t have to ruin it. There’s always a flip side so don’t focus on what your fears do to you; ask yourself what they can do for you.

*Kay considers herself to be a professional worrier – not because she gets paid for it but because she is so good at it! She is ‘mid forties’ and lives in Scotland where she runs her own online business.  It has taken her a long time to recognise her anxiety disorder but, now that she has, she’s happy to share.  Her survival technique has always been to look for the upbeat aspects of anxiety and to see the funny side.  That is the basis on which she has started her own blog – “Worried Sick”.  You can find it at www.worriedsick.co.uk 

Anxiety has many negatives, but it has positive aspects, too. Read some examples of anxiety's positive side.

Feeling love and a desire to move forward for loved ones is a big positive.

 

 

 

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Stranger Danger! Reduce It, Reduce Anxiety, Improve Your Life

Jan 10

Mental illness messes with people and interferes in their lives in numerous ways. Each mental illness has a list of symptoms people experience, and beyond that, mental illness inserts itself in sneaky, obnoxious ways. Something many, if not all, mental illnesses do is put people on red alert for stranger danger.

Parents warn their children not to approach strangers, people they don’t know. Instilling this caution in appropriate ways is healthy because it makes children aware of their surroundings and realize that not every person they will encounter is a trustworthy human being. This is healthy awareness of stranger danger.

Mental illnesses take stranger danger in a different direction and to an entirely new level. Mental illness can turn someone into his or her own stranger. This isn’t a stranger that is a threat to others. Not at all. Instead, this is a stranger that can be anxiety-provoking for the person him/herself.

Mental Illness Can Make Someone a Stranger to Himself

Imagine being an outsider in your own mind. This is what Isaac Bittman must face in the novel Twenty-Four ShadowsHe’s been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, what used to be called multiple personality disorder. Isaac perpetually feels like a stranger in his own mind, and to him it’s frightening because he doesn’t understand it.

  • * Isaac has twenty-three alternate parts of himself (called “alters” or “parts”), but he doesn’t know them. He thinks of these strangers as things, which causes problems.
  • * Isaac doesn’t know what his strangers are up to, and that causes great anxiety.
  • * Isaac now feels like a stranger in his own family. He watches his wife, son, and best friend be “normal” and feels suddenly estranged from both them and himself.
Mental Illness Can Make Someone a Stranger in the World

Living with mental illness can be isolating. Mental illness isn’t a wrong way of being; instead, it’s a different way of experiencing the world. Still, someone’s symptoms (which differ for each diagnosis), can make him or her feel separate from the rest of the world.

In My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel, Brian Cunningham has such severe social anxiety that he is diagnosed with avoidant personality disorder. He wants to be able to connect with people, to have friends, but he is too afraid. He feels like he doesn’t fit in because he’s a complete stranger in the world.

Reduce Stranger Danger

This stranger, the stranger that is the self and the world, is quite hard to deal with because there is no real escape, at least not in the traditional sense. That’s okay, because escaping is just avoiding, and avoidance doesn’t work.

Avoidance consumes a lot of time and energy, and it greatly interferes with the ability to live a purposeful, valued life.”   — Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 Steps 

If avoiding the stranger danger, the fear and anxiety that comes, legitimately so, from feeling like a stranger to yourself, the world, or both, doesn’t work, certainly there must be something that does. There is indeed something that works to reduce the sense of stranger danger within you and around you. Actually, there are three somethings:

  • * Accept what feels like a stranger. It’s part of your world, and struggling against it only wears you out and   increases fear, anxiety, and stress. Isaac can acknowledge the presence of his alters. Brian can acknowledge that the world isn’t going to go away.
  • * Define your values, your purpose. What do you want in your life? How do you want to become familiar with your inner and outer worlds so you no longer fear stranger danger? What will your life look like when the stranger danger is gone? (Well, the situation might not actually be gone, but the anxiety, fear, and sense of danger will be gone because you’ve replaced it with something else.)
  • * Decide on an action plan. Taking action is the most powerful way to replace a sense of stranger danger with one of familiarity. Taking action, even small steps every day, gives us a sense of power over what’s bothering us and stomps on fear and anxiety.

Mental illness plays all sorts of nasty little tricks, including making people feel like strangers within themselves and within the world. This can create extreme anxiety and fear, causing a sense of stranger danger. Acknowledge exactly what feels like stranger danger and accept it’s presence. Know what you want to replace it with, and create a plan of action. These steps will help you reduce stranger danger and replace it with familiarity and content.

Sign up for my free monthly newsletter, Wellbeing & Words. Each issue is packed with useful tips for enhancing mental health and wellbeing, reading-related tidbits, and updates about my own mental health writing and activities. (I never share e-mail addresses with anyone.) 

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Panic Attacks: Can There be Calm Instead of Storm?

Jul 13

Panic attacks are nasty little–no, nasty huge–storms that can hit suddenly, and tear through the mind and body like an F5 tornado, the strongest type of this destructive storm. In describing tornadoes, Enchanted Learning says that their intensity is difficult to measure “because a tornado usually destroys local measuring equipment, and also because tornadoes only exist for a short time at random places and they are gone before meteorologists can study them.”

That description sounds a bit like panic attacks, doesn’t it? Panic attacks sometimes destroy our “measuring equipment,” the tools we are trying to develop and use to predict them and stop them before they start. Additionally, panic attacks also exist for a short time (they typically peak within 10-20 minutes, but sometimes they do last longer) even though it doesn’t feel short when we’re in the throes of one.  And like tornadoes, they often leave us feeling flattened and defeated.

They’re also painful, physically and emotionally.

My heart is trying to match the speed of light, and it’s beating so hard my chest hurts. There’s a loud crash. I jump. I need to leave I need to leave I need to leave I…

“Hey dude! You here for the trivia challenge?” Bigfoot dressed in human clothes growls at me. Or maybe it’s just a a man with a shaggy beard. I try to answer whatever it is, but I can’t breathe. I cram my hands into my pockets so the waiter doesn’t see them tremble, but the tremor is so intense I bet he can see them anyway. This thought makes me feel worse, and now I’m sweating. My lungs cough in an effort to breathe better. 

“Hey man, you okay?”

I can’t answer. I just nod my head as if my behavior right now is perfectly normal, then before the walls close further in on me, I turn to leave. Unfortunately, the floor has begun to wave, buckle, and slant, and I can’t move quickly enough. I still can’t see correctly, and I stumble right into a throng of people flooding in. I hear, “Hey! Watch it!” and “Pay attention to where you’re going!”

I’m trapped. My chest constricts even more, and I’m suffocating. I feel like I can’t get enough oxygen, and my lungs spasm again in a loud cough. Now that I’ve started coughing fully, I can’t stop. In a frantic attempt to get out, I push forward and burst out onto the sidewalk. I manage to cough and stumble my way over to my bike, reach into the saddlebag, and pull out one of my paper bags. My fingers aren’t working right because they feel quivery and tingly, but I’ve grown to be an expert at this and eventually shake the bag open. I raise the bag to my face and begin to breathe into it. It works, and my breathing gradually calms down. My heart slows down again, and my vision returns to normal.

Panic Attacks: Can There be Calm Instead of Storm? Brian Cunningham of My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel lives with debilitating anxiety. He’s crippled by social anxiety, generalized anxiety, and panic attacks (but because his panic attacks, sometimes called anxiety attacks, occur in the context of other anxieties and stressors, he doesn’t have panic disorder).  Because of all of this, he has developed avoidant personality disorder. If merely trying to walk into a restaurant, as he does in the above scene, gives him so much anxiety and pain, of course he tries to avoid such things.

Tornadoes, the weather phenomena, develop suddenly and seemingly without warning, as do panic attacks. Kind of. It does seem as though we get blindsided by both the wind storms and the anxiety storms. Both of these terrible storms do actually have warning signs.

With panic attacks, before the physical symptoms even begin we have signs of an approaching storm on our radar. The signs? Our own thoughts and interpretations of our world. As Brian approaches the restaurant, called Little Bohemia, his thoughts are whirring and spinning out of control. He’s very upset with himself because he had been ordered by his boss to take a dinner break.

I’m a complete and total idiot. I’m a clumsy moron who has to be ordered to go eat because I forgot to bring food to work. I feel like I’m seven instead of thirty-seven. What must Mrs. Clark think of me? I bet she thinks I’m less capable of taking care of myself than the kids at the school are. Oh good lord. What if she thinks I’m irresponsible in everything I do? What if she’s upset that she had to order me to go eat and that I actually listened to her and left the building when I should be working? What if she puts this in my file? What if she puts all of the supid things I do in my file and then when it’s time for my review I get fired? I can’t get fired. I like my job. What if I can’t find another one? Or what if I do find one but I have to work during the day when there are lots of other people around? I can’t do that. But I need money to live. What if I lose everything? I don’t have anywhere to go, and I don’t know what I’d do.

Now my heart is pounding again. I’m dizzy. I have to get off this bike. 

The “what-ifs” of generalized anxiety disorder race through Brian’s brain and feed off each other, making his anxious thoughts increase in intensity until they begin to cause physical pain, just like a tornado.

With his current, very anxious, mindset, his perspective on the world is altered. Rather than seeing a simple restaurant, he sees this:

I’m near a joint called Little Bohemia. The place sits between a second-hand clothing shop and a tobacco bar in a four-story brick building. Elaborate batik tapestries cover both of Little Bohemia’s large windows, concealing the danger that lurks within. The mini lights strung around the tapestries warn rather than welcome; their nearly imperceptible flickering sends a code carrying a simple message: run away as fast as you can. 

Brian’s thoughts are so anxious, increased in intensity by his ‘what-ifs,’ that they cloud what he sees. His senses take in the same restaurant that others experience, but his interpretation of the building and the atmosphere are shaped by his thoughts. He becomes increasingly anxious until the brewing storm explodes into a full-blown panic attack.

I’ve had panic attacks. Looking back on them, I’ve realized that I did have warning signs before they occurred. The signs were my own thoughts, my own interpretation of what was happening, my what-ifs, and my fears of what might happen. It didn’t seem so clear at the time they were occurring, of course. It took a great deal of self-reflection, of identifying my fears and faulty beliefs, of becoming mindful of the present rather than swirling away into the past or future. Once I became cognizant of my self-talk and my specific anxieties, I was able to recognize them and confront them, countering them with thoughts and beliefs that were more realistic.

In both our minds and in nature, there are storms. Fortunately, we can become aware of them, predict them with reasonable certainty (nothing is 100% certain), and take measures to minimize the storm’s impact or even get out of the path of the storm altogether. Then, our lives will be more about the calm before a storm than the storm itself.

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Beating Anxiety with Passion, Purpose, and Even Fun

May 27

Anxiety can control us, but we can beat it when we find passion, purpose, and a sense of fun.Until a year or two ago, I lived my life in fear of doing things wrong or just not good enough so that I would fail at every endeavor. I also worried about being judged negatively by others. This anxiety is a mixture of generalized anxiety (“what if I’m not good enough?”) and social anxiety (“what if I say the wrong thing or don’t say the right thing or do something so ridiculous that others think I’m totally incompetent and inferior). Indeed, there is a strong link between anxiety and perfectionism.

I was recently invited to speak to a creative writing class at a local high school. Despite the fact that I’ve been a high school teacher and counselor, the old me would have been highly anxious, probably to the point of physical illness and great misery. The very first time I gave a presentation on mental illness and a reading from my novel Leave of Absence, I was so anxious I experienced derealization (the sense that the world around us isn’t quite real, is often flat and colorless and distant) off and on during the two-and-a-half hour drive from my house to the venue. My editor happens to live along the way and invited me (read: ordered me) to her house where she showed me her elaborate garden and served me chamomile tea in order to calm me down. It worked. Sort of. Physically, I felt calmer, but my anxious mind still raced with worry and fear.

That was two years ago. When I spoke to the high school students the other day, I wan’t anxious. Well, I had a degree of anxiety, but that’s healthy. Some anxiety keeps us alert and on our toes, ready and engaged. I did not experience debilitating anxiety that dominated my experience. So what happened? Why the change from anxious to calm in a very similar situation?

The answer is complex, of course, for overcoming anxiety (or any other difficulty be it related to mental health, physical health, relationships, etc.) takes time, effort, and more than one approach. While I’ve used a variety of techniques to transcend anxiety (yes, I have risen above it, but sometimes I fall back down in which case I work to rise up again), I think the most effective approach was to change my perspective from one of looking at things with dread and fear to looking at life with passion and fun.

Anxiety is strong, but a sense of purpose is even stronger. We can beat anxiety with passion and purpose.

A sense of purpose can decrease anxiety’s power.

When I began to shift my focus on the fact that I might screw up and instead began to concentrate on why I do what I do–on my passion and my purpose–I found that my anxiety decreased. I write and speak with a passion and purpose: to connect with others and to increase empathy and understanding of mental health issues. That is something bigger than I am. What I do isn’t about me or my ego. It’s about the greater subject. When I take the focus off myself and put it where it’s supposed to be, I find my anxiety decrease and my effectiveness increase. Ironically, by not worrying about failing, I am more likely to succeed.

This focus on purpose and passion rather than on failure and my personal shortcomings has another advantage, one which further reduces anxiety. Finding my passion and holding on to the purpose for doing what I do decreases anxiety and helps me relax, which in turn leads to a sense of fun.

Fun? How can anything possibly be fun in anxiety land? Awhile back, before an interview, I was talking to a former colleague and mentor. He had two wise words of wisdom, and only two: have fun. I scoffed inwardly. Until I tried his advice. I focused on my passion and my purpose rather than the worry, and I enhanced it by thinking of what I was doing as fun.

It ended up being easier than I thought, because what I was doing was truly fun. My new perspective reminded me that I love to write and speak and connect with people, to interact in meaningful ways. To converse and even to laugh. To be passionate rather than anxious, to have fun rather than to take life too seriously.

When we replace worry and fear anxiety with a sense of passion, purpose, and fun, anxiety shrinks to make room for fun in whatever it is we’re doing. It seems to be true that what we focus on is what we make happen.

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En-JOY is an Action Verb: Mental Health Means Enjoying a Life Worth Living

May 12

 

The term mental health has become quite a buzz word (and well it should), but as a concept, it is very broad. What does mental health really mean? At its core, it means not merely the absence of illness; mental health means thriving and enjoying a life worth living.

Mental Health Awareness Month is in full swing, and how wonderful it is.  To have an entire month dedicated to increasing awareness about mental health and wellbeing is in itself something to celebrate. It means that we as humans want to be well, to not only exist but to live and to thrive, and we want to raise awareness so that this wellness can be achieved by all.

Truly, mental health and a life worth living can indeed be achieved by everyone. Happily, these concepts don’t discriminate. Each and every human being on this planet can create his/her own life worth living. Positive psychology is a field dedicated to helping people transcend challenges and problems and make meaning in their own lives.

To transcend problems is not necessarily to completely get rid of them. That’s not always so realistic. We, as human beings, face myriad challenges in our lives, including (and certainly not limited to) various physical and mental illnesses. Do these health challenges mean that a life worth living is out of reach? Is it possible to thrive and have wellness while simultaneously living with a physical or mental illness?

The answer is simple, and admittedly it’s not necessarily easy: a resounding and confident yes. Really? Is it really possible for someone living with depression or anxiety, for example, to thrive? (Yes.) Does he/she need to wait for the depression or anxiety to be gone in order to live a life worth living? (No.)

Here's how enjoy is an action verb and how we can use it to create mental health and a life worth living.Creating a life worth living is a grand adventure, a majestic quest that begins with a mere step and continues one small step at a time. At the heart of it is finding joy, day by day and moment by moment. Mental health means thriving and enjoying a life worth living.

Enjoying a life worth living. En-JOY is an action verb. A question to explore over and over again is how can I create joy in this moment (or this hour or during this event, etc.)? This isn’t a superficial joy or putting on a superficial—and artificial—happy face. This is about paying attention to who you are, where you are, and what you are doing and creating joy in that moment.

As someone who once experienced a significant amount of social anxiety, I used to live in fear of being judged wherever I went. While I was able to make myself go out and about in the world, I did so with anxiety and dread. One time, I vented to a mentor that I didn’t want to attend a certain event because I knew I would do something stupid and make everyone look down on me more than they already did. My mentor merely grunted and said, “What do you care what people think? Does it matter? Just go have fun and enjoy the experience.”

Perhaps you’re thinking what I initially did, that he completely trivialized my anxiety and clearly didn’t understand. Thanks to my superhuman ability to ruminate, I mulled over his comment repeatedly, for days. And nights. And more days. Eventually, his remarks began to blend with what I already knew about positive psychology, counseling, and wellness. It spilled over into other areas of my personal life and experiences as well as into my experiences in working with others. Things began to click.

No matter our challenges, we can all take an active role in owning our own lives. We can create joy, even little joys, in our lives. Feeling that life isn’t worth living? Find things that you are grateful for, that you like and that you enjoy, and focus more on them. Perhaps it’s fresh air but the thought of going out of the house makes you want to hide in bed and never get out. How about opening a window and enjoying the feel of the air? Then later what about opening the door? Then maybe enjoy a step or two outside. Concentrate on how good these things feel rather than how hard they are or what might happen. Little by little, you are en-JOYing your life.

Once I understood that “enjoy” is an action verb and that I could thus act to make joy in my life, to make my life worth living, I found myself transcending my anxiety. I didn’t need it to go away before I could have a life worth living. Waiting doesn’t work. Instead, I took charge of enjoying my life and making it worth living. It was then that I found that true happiness (not a problem-free happiness but a core satisfaction with life and all of its ups and downs and twists and turns) means actively making joy rather than passively waiting for it to appear.

My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel is the story of two people who don’t quite know how to live in the world—the man, Brian, because of debilitating anxiety; the girl, Abigail, because of instability and abuse.  Neither one of them feels they have a life worth living until they slowly begin to create joy. One time, Abigail says enthusiastically, “Come on, Brian. Let’s go play in the rain!” That, right there, is the embodiment of enjoyment. Play in your rain!

 

 

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Taming the Racing Thoughts of Anxiety

Apr 13

I admit to having racing thoughts. When anxiety flares, my thoughts race uncontrollably at dangerous speeds. I’m sure I’m not the only person who hates this with a passion. Thankfully, it’s possible to tame these racing thoughts.

When anxiety flares, thoughts often race at uncontrollable speeds. Here are some tips for taming the racing thoughts of anxiety.

Don’t get me wrong; the brain is a wonderful thing. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to live. That doesn’t mean we always love what it does, though. (When I was little and got myself into this trouble or that, my mom would always tell me, “Tanya, I love you, but I don’t love what you did.” To me, my brain is like that. I love it, but I don’t always love what it’s up to.)

Usually the trouble that it’s up to is creating such a high volume of thoughts and anxieties that I end up losing track of them. Oh, they’re there. It’s almost as though I can feel them pushing and shoving and tumbling and bouncing off my skull. Sometimes they go so fast that I can feel the heat increase, like molecules of water bubbling and bursting as they explode into steam.

When this happens, it’s usually effective for me to grab the thoughts, one by one, as they streak by. Then, with a thought tight in my grip, I can deal with it: examine it, counter it, develop a plan to overcome whatever stress, worry, or anxiety is involved. However, this approach doesn’t work when thoughts race so rapidly that I can’t even tell what I’m thinking. I can feel them, but I can’t understand them.

Anxiety can cause so many thoughts to race through one's head that it becomes overwhelming.

These are the times when I tell my brain, “I love you, but I don’t love what you’re doing.” And then I remember that my brain and I aren’t exactly separate entities. That means that we can work together to tame the racing thoughts so I can go back to identifying and analyzing those anxious thoughts and using reason to make them shrink. For this to happen, the thoughts have to calm down.

Tips for Taming the Racing Thoughts of Anxiety

  1. Be mindful of the moment. Anxiety’s racing thoughts are usually about the past and/or the future. (What if…, Why did I… I should’ve said…, etc.). When thoughts begin to race so much that they really can’t even be identified, we’ve lost sight of what’s happening in the moment. Intentionally focus on what is going on right now, what you are doing and what’s happening around you. Pay attention to it. The present moment acts like a speed bump for those racing thoughts of anxiety.
  2. Enlist the help of all of your senses. It’s hard to concentrate on any one thing when anxiety has thoughts zinging. This is where the senses come in. Rather than simply telling your brain to stop (as you probably know, this isn’t very effective), ignore your thoughts and turn instead to your senses. What do you see? Hear? Smell? Feel? Taste? Be purposeful. Look for something beautiful to study with your eyes. Fully attend to the sounds around you. Do this for all of your senses, including taste. Eat something and savor it (and use your other senses to fully experience it). Going for a sauntering walk is a great way to tune in to your senses.
  3. Get your creativity on. What better way to give the racing thoughts an outlet than to go all art-ninja on them? Don’t worry about skill or results. Just do! Color, draw, paint (even better – finger paint), sculpt with clay or Play-Doh, write a poem, write a story, play an instrument if you have one, make a craft. The possibilities are numerous. The act of creating completely shifts the mind and how it’s thinking and processing. You just might find that you are calmer, more focused, and even happier after some creative time.
  4. Organize or clean. When my head is chaotic, everything seems jumbled and cluttered and overwhelming.  Digging in and straightening up my external environment helps slow down my internal one.

These are but a few suggestions for taming the racing thoughts of anxiety. Believe it; you absolutely can quiet your mind and calm anxiety.

 

 

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Making Mindfulness Work for Anxiety

Mar 9

Several years ago, when my anxiety was stuck in its intense phase, I decided to give mindfulness another try. Yes, another try. In my quest for the holy grail, that one thing that would miraculously poof away all of my social anxiety and generalized anxiety, I had tried many things many times. “Mindfulness” as a technique for soothing so many things, including anxiety, is something that was and continues to be hailed as effective in decreasing anxiety.

On paper, it makes sense. The anxious mind races with often uncontrollable worry and fear. Mindfulness calms and quiets the mind. Therefore, mindfulness will quiet anxiety. Right? Right. But it’s not so quick and easy.

I remember suffering through a yoga class. I didn’t suffer because I was ridiculously inflexible (I am, but that wasn’t the problem). It was painful because I couldn’t get my mind to shut up and experience the peace of the class. I kept telling myself that I should be still, that I shouldn’t be thinking of the million other thoughts and worries that were whirling around my mind. When it came time for the final relaxation, my mind and body were so agitated that I could barley lie still on the mat. The only thing that prevented me from jumping up and bolting out the door was that I was on the far side of the room, trapped by a sea of calm bodies that I was afraid to disturb and disrupt by leaving.

So much for mindfulness. And in the wee hours of the morning when I would toss and turn and ruminate over mistakes both past and future? I simply could not still my mind and be mindful. Of course, this failing added fuel to my fire of anxiety that burned within.

My inability to still my mind and pay attention only to the present moment (hallmarks of mindfulness) was bothersome to me because I knew the research behind its effectiveness. Mindfulness, when practiced regularly, is proven to be effective in reducing anxiety and increasing mental health and well-being — in helping people create a life worth living.

Happily, I can now say with conviction that mindfulness does indeed quiet the mind and calm anxiety, and this knowledge comes not just from research but from my own personal experience. for me, the key to quieting my mind enough to be mindful of the present was to fully use all of my senses.

Initially, I was only using my brain to try to be mindful. After all, in the brain lie (or, rather, run) the thoughts. So I tried to stop the thoughts from racing. To do this, I commanded my thoughts to stop racing and to pay attention to what was going on. Yeah, that didn’t work so well.

What does work is to leave the racing, anxious thoughts alone. If I try to force them to stop, I’m paying attention to them and energizing them. That is not the result I want. Instead, I let them be and begin to pay attention to other things around me. I use all of my senses: what do I see, hear, smell, feel, and taste (this last one isn’t always practical–I’m certainly not going to lick a mailbox or something–but if it is, I use it). In activating all of my senses and paying attention to them, I am invoking powerful imagery that is immediate and strong enough to quell anxiety.

Making Mindfulness Work for AnxietyUsing the senses to form powerful, calming imagery can look like this experience described by Brian Cunningham, the main, very anxious, character in My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel:

I take a moment to gather myself by leaning back against a wall and closing my eyes. I take deep breaths to quiet the anxiety that has me wired and agitated inside. I slowly take in the faint smells of grease, oil, and cleaning fluids that smell like spotlessness and order. I enjoy the soothing scents for a moment before turning my attention to the sounds, and I’m transported to the forest trails I love. The water moving through the pipes becomes the muted, distant roar of a waterfall that is gentler, softer than up close. The occasional clicks of the HVAC equipment at work could be a woodpecker if it ever were to strike a tree more slowly, or could eve be small rocks tumbling from the face of a cliff onto larger stone. The faint buzzing of the lights over my head is like the insects thta lull me to sleep in the tent at night. All together, these create a type of white noise that calms me enough to be able to do what I need to do.

That’s absolutely what I sought–to be calm enough to do what I needed to do. The use of all of the senses to create, in the moment, calm, soothing imagery does indeed soothe anxiety. It’s become a regular tool for me, so much so that I hardly even need it anymore. I’ll never stop using the senses to aid in mindfulness, though, because I like the stillness that I can induce with sensory mindfulness.

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Toastmasters plus Trophies equals Terror

Oct 13

trophies for toastmasters2A recognition, sometimes even a reward, for a job well done. Is this not something for which we human strive? Sure. It makes sense, too. As individuals and as a species, it’s imperative that we constantly seek to grow and improve, and rewards and recognitions can advance us toward our goals. So what is the point here?

The point is this: I just began a Toastmasters course, and I’m disturbed by one particular element. At the end of every class, after each person has already been scrutinized and evaluated and given constructive feedback, the class members vote to determine which speaker was the best that day, which evaluator was the best that day, and which extemporaneous speaker was the best that day.

The point is also this: what is always, always, always and constantly with trophies and extrinsic rewards in classes such as these? Are these necessary and even healthy? Do they elevate us in a positive way?

Sometimes, yes, honors, recognitions, trophies, and the like can help make us better at being who we are. They encourage us. They help us strive for something great, improving our skills, our very selves in the process. A glance at the sidebar on the right will reveal that my writing has received honors and recognitions, and for that I am proud and grateful. Such awards evaluate specific elements of writing, and receiving them (or not) is a form of constructive criticism that helps me grow as a writer: do more of this, less of this, etc.

Sometimes, though, rewarding every little thing with a trophy or trinket can be harmful.  The trophies given at the end of each Toastmasters class are a type of motivation known as extrinsic motivation. It means that desire for success comes from an obscure place outside of the individual. Take away the trinket, the carrot on a stick, and motivation to succeed and improve wanes. Desire for success can become less about being a better speaker and more about competing with the other class members. The daily in-course evaluations and feedback are most definitely about helping people be better speakers; why destroy that opportunity for growth with a competitive trophy?

Intrinsic motivation, extrinsic’s opposite, means that motivation to grow and succeed comes from within. I have a very strong suspicion that every person in that Toastmaster’s class is intrinsically motivated to be there. Each of us wants to become a better speaker, whether it’s in front of large audiences or small groups. At the very first meeting, many people, myself included, expressed high anxiety around not only speaking but simply being in the class.

Each of these nervous people, who want to grow, must speak on a weekly (or bi-weekly) basis and be evaluated and rated by all of the other class members. How intimidating! But we want to grow, so we stand up at the front of the room, and we speak. Aloud. To an audience. That itself is deserving of a reward. And guess what? There is a reward. It’s called an intrinsic sense of accomplishment, a feeling of “Oh my god I thought I was going to die but I lived and not only that I gave my speech and people had positive feedback!”

glz013

This is empowering, and it goes a long way toward reducing anxiety. But then comes the end-of-class trophy. Okay, people. Never mind that you all did it. You all got up and faced your fears. That’s not as important as who-was-the-best. Let’s compete! Let’s compare! Let’s give the trophy to the one person who was better than the others. And excuse me, better by what standards? When we judged at the end of the class, it was completely subjective. The ballot told us only to write the name of the best speaker, not the qualities which made them “best.”

Why? Why put anxious people who are doing their best through an artificial system of who-was-the-best? There doesn’t need to be a “best” in a Toastmasters class! Assessing the best in a situation that already fills people with anxiety can absolutely skyrocket anxiety, and the person with it, into orbit. Have you ever had to speak or even interact with people while in orbit around the planet? I’ve tried, and it’s not very easy.

Trust me. I am not anti-reward. I think that honors and recognitions and, yes, trophies have an important place in life. When used properly, they can help motivate and grow. I believe this to such a degree that I have striven for them my entire life (yes, my entire life. I remember coveting a gluey-Popsicle-stick trophy in preschool, and I’ve been going after such things ever since.) Admittedly, that is part of my problem with the Toastmasters trophies. I have recently been working hard to overcome my competitive streak (okay, it’s far more than a streak on my body; it’s more like a morph suit that won’t come off). So wiggling such a Toastmasters trophy in front of me is truly like offering a drink to a recovering alcoholic. Seriously. There’s this buzzy, electrified feeling inside me that wants the trophy to prove that I’m good-better-best. But I don’t want to be judged as good-better-best. I want all of us in the class to be able to concentrate on what we’re there for: personal growth.

Man vs. man (person vs. person) competition has a legitimate place in our society; however, so does person vs. self competition. This latter is intrinsic. It involves true inner growth. Trophies are useful in a person vs. person type of competition. They do not, however, belong in a self-improvement, person vs. self, type of environment. Sometimes, we just need to forget the judgment and the comparisons and let people be. In all likelihood, anxiety will diminish, and people will grow. The reward for that is a sense of self-efficacy. No engraved trophy for that, please.

 

 

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A Brady Bunch of Mental Illnesses and Why it Doesn’t Matter

Sep 1

Ian and his wife

It’s a pleasure and an honor to introduce Ian Knabel as a guest on my blog.  Ian operates Queensland Mental Health and provides a wealth of information about mental illnesses, their impact on our lives, their treatment, and a great number of other things associated with them. Out of respect for what he does, I invited him onto my website to share his own story (or rather, stories, as they are illnesses intertwined, his own and those of his wife).  Without further ado, enjoy what Ian has to say…

 

 

"Please don't measure yourself against anyone else."

“Please don’t measure yourself against anyone else.”

 

When my wife and I married, not only did we become a “Brady Bunch” of a family, having both been married with children previously, we also became a Brady Bunch with our list of combined mental illness.

I live with mild anxiety and depression, and my wife has absolute textbook schizoaffective disorder, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Hhhmmm, after all these years, it still sounds really interesting when I read and think about it.

Our issues are not only different by name but also by nature. My wife’s schizoaffective is episodic. This means that at random times (often without warning) her illness will flare up. The psychosis and rapid mood cycling come from nowhere. Her episodes always require lengthy hospital admissions and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatments. Yes, ECT. She has been living with her diagnosis for over 20 years and had six major episodes. The only thing–the only thing–that can break the hold the illness has on her is ECT. There are not enough drugs on this planet to get her well.

The flip side is that when she is well she requires very low doses of the medication to stay well. After every episode the medication regime she was on for the previous three, four, or five years will no longer work and we have to work through getting the new medication and the new doses sorted out.

It’s really like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. This mix of drugs is too hot (too sedating) and this mix of drugs is too cold (not strong enough, allowing the illness to start poking it’s head up again, but this mix of drugs is just right – finds the balance of holding the illness at bay without my wife sleeping 18 hours a day.

My issues of anxiety and depression are the exact opposite. Always there with mild fluctuations in symptoms and severity, and the same medication has worked perfectly well for 15 years.

The differences don’t end there.
Ian Knabel quote My anxiety has never stopped me doing anything. It may have turned me into a hyperventilating, heart pounding ball of illogical fear but when the “fight or flight” personalities were handed out I got a very good dose of the fight. I have never let my anxiety or depression stop me doing something I needed to do.

My beautiful wife is the exact opposite. She will avoid issues that cause anxiety or stress. My wife is an excellent driver, far better than I am. Sadly, her various illnesses decided to start ganging up on her when she was driving. This continued and grew and grew to the point where she has now sold her car and will not drive anymore because of the anxiety caused by her illnesses. She certainly has the “flight” attitude when it comes to dealing with tough issues.

The really interesting thing about this and the point I am trying to make is there is no normal, no right or wrong, when it comes to living with mental illness. Every single one of is unique. My wife and I are both different. Even biological twins with the same issues require different types and levels of medication.

Please don’t measure yourself against anyone else. All you need to compare yourself to is you. How are you travelling? Everything OK? Everything on the up and up? If so, great! If not, grab the phone and make an appointment to see your preferred medical professional. Go on, off you go. Do it now.

Ian Knabel unique indiviualsWe are all individuals; we are the same but different. Our diagnosis may be the same yet our symptoms and fixes or cures will be different. Forget about all that. Don’t worry how you look, act, sound compared to the next person. Just work on the being the very best “you” that you can be.

 

 

 

 

 

Feel free to to share Ian’s story. The more stories like this are shared, the more understanding and empathy grow! Just click the buttons below. Even leave a comment if you’re so inclined.

Also, I was a guest on Ian’s site! I wrote about what social anxiety disorder is like. He really made my post, What Can Apples Teach Us About Social Anxiety Disorder, look great, and I appreciate him for that.

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I’m Good because I Own my Mental Illness

May 14

 

I’m proud to join the I’m Good campaign hosted by P.E.E.R.S. (Peers Envisioning and Engaging in Recovery Services). This proactive, pro-mental health organization has created this campaign to raise awareness of mental illness — and mental health — issues during Mental Health Awareness Month. Join in and and share how YOU are good!

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Like many of the millions of people living with mental illness, I haven’t always been good. My most “ungood” period involved five stays in a behavioral health hospital over the course of a couple years. I was admitted for the first time because of a plummeting ability to function in daily life. It was a result of a traumatic brain injury sustained in a car accident, or so I believed. Early on, I was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and social anxiety disorder. But that was wrong, I said. I had a brain injury, not mental illness.

I grew increasingly “ungood” throughout the revolving-door treatment. I was “ungood” when my employer politely let me go when it was discovered that I was hospitalized, not in a regular hospital for brain injury stuff, but in a behavioral health hospital for mental illness. I was “ungood” when friendships ended.

I’m happy to say that I didn’t stay “ungood.” People are resilient, and I began to remember that I was a person, too (I didn’t always believe that), and as such I possessed the strength to bounce back. I started to become good when I started to take charge of my life and gain control.

At first, though, becoming good through taking charge didn’t quite work because I was doing it wrong. I was trying to take charge of my life by ignoring and outright denying that I had bipolar disorder. It. Was. The. Head. Injury. Period. Turns out, it wasn’t. Looking back over my life, it is very obvious that I have lived with bipolar 1 disorder since young adulthood and perhaps even adolescence. It intensified and grew entirely unmanageable and undeniable after the brain injury, but the brain injury was neither the cause nor the explanation. Just the catalyst that led to diagnosis.

Yet for a couple years after the diagnosis, I continued to live in denial. I went off my medication once I felt stable because of course I didn’t need it. I needed it. Symptoms returned with a vengeance. That’s when I finally stopped denying it. And when I stopped denying it, it stopped controlling me, and I finally became good.

In owning the fact that I do, indeed, have a mental illness, I have taken charge of my life. I willingly take medication because it keeps me good. And I stopped beating myself up for losing a job because of psychiatric hospitalization. I realized that I didn’t want that job anyway, and I became free to take control and choose what I wanted to do in life. That was a good feeling.

I gave myself permission to follow my passion. I gave myself permission to use my experience with mental illness to help the world develop empathy for those who live with it. The novels I write feature characters living with mental illness. I hope to show what mental illness is really like. I do what I love to help increase understanding of and empathy for real-life people who live with mental illness. I have taken charge of my life, and I am good.

I am good because I have owned and taken control over bipolar 1 disorder and anxiety disorders. I have incorporated them into my life to help others be good. Hopefully, I can help others say, “I am good,” so I can say, “We are good.”

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