Want to Stop Avoiding? What Would That Mean to You?

Feb 23

Avoidance is a common human behavior that has good intentions but can spiral out of control until, before we realize it, we’re trapped, boxed in by anxiety and blocked from fully living (see What is Avoidance Doing to You?) Avoidance is fear- and anxiety-based. Whether we avoid one situation, such as making or taking phone calls, or almost every situation, such as anything that takes us out of the house, we are letting anxiety limit our lives.

Is “letting” the right word? Do we actively permit anxiety to cause avoidance? Of course we don’t actively invite anxiety and avoidance into our lives. The vast majority of people who are plagued by avoidance, including avoidance in its most extreme form—avoidant personality disorder—do not want to avoid and are not actively choosing it. The problem is this: avoidance, once started, quickly takes over thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It looks like this:

The cycle of anxiey, fear, and avoidance keeps people trapped.

At first, everything is pretty much even in the cycle of anxiety and avoidance, avoidance actually increases anxiety over time, which strengthens avoidance. The cycle begins to look like this:

In the cycle of anxiety, fear, and avoidance, anxiety and avoidance make each other stronger. There's a way to shrink them.

While initially, avoiding something that causes anxiety does reduce that anxiety. But the human mind doesn’t like to be confined, and we begin to think of freedom of action, freedom of being. That causes anxiety, which causes avoidance. Anxiety and avoidance feed on each other, and they grow bigger and more powerful. Strangely but surely, avoidance doesn’t reduce anxiety anymore. It makes it ever stronger.

As daunting as this cycle of avoidance and anxiety is, we can break it. The key lies within the cycle itself.

To break the cycle of anxiety and avoidance, fill your life with meaning and purpose.

How to Break The Cycle of Anxiety and Avoidance

Thoughts about the people and things that make us anxious do increase anxiety and avoidance. Those very thoughts, though, are the keys to breaking the cycle and reducing anxiety and fear. Use the keys to unlock your doors to freedom.

To turn the key, you must first insert it into the keyhole. At first, you’ll discover surface-level thoughts that are easily overrun by anxiety. Have you ever tried to turn a key and unlock a door when the key is only partially inserted? It doesn’t work. You have to insert it completely.

It’s the same with anxiety, anxious thoughts, and avoidance. Buried under all of the worries, uncertainties, what-ifs, and fears lie your hopes, dreams, wisdom, and more—the whole of you. The heart of all of it—the key, the hole, the stuff inside the hole, the stuff beyond the locked door, and you yourself—are meaning and purpose. 

When you identify and embrace your greater purpose, that which gives meaning to your life, you begin to break that cycle of anxiety and avoidance. The more you intentionally think about your purpose, the more your thoughts shift toward meaning. The more you focus on meaning, the less you are focusing on anxiety. Purpose and meaning are so much more powerful than anxiety, stress, depression, and any other problems and challenges we face. Honing our sense of purpose doesn’t directly “cure” anything, but it allows us to transcend our struggles and live well anyway.

Develop your purpose and meaning thoughtfully. Consider question such as:

  • What brings you joy?
  • What is important to you?
  • What actions make you feel good about yourself and the world?
  • What do you value?

These are just a few thoughts along the path of meaning-making. When we have a sense of greater purpose, it becomes possible (not necessarily easy, at least initially) to stop avoiding. Develop your reason, your purpose, your “why,” and the “how” will follow. (Check out Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: Why and How. It’s more about purpose than it is the holiday.)

My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel tells the story of Brian Cunningham, a man who has lived with debilitating anxiety and avoidant personality disorder and a sense of stranger danger for nearly all of his 37 years. It isn’t until he discovers meaning that he begins to, little by little, create freedom from his own prison.

Usually, I mow my small front lawn and trim the hedges on Monday mornings. The weekends are a bad time for me to do this because one, I’m typically camping, and two, there are more neighbors out and about on the weekends than on a Monday morning. I don’t know my neighbors. I’ve never had to talk to them. I certainly don’t want to change that now after seventeen years of planned isolation. However, I’m home this Sunday because of my failed camping trip. Further, I have a dreaded appointment with Dr. Greene tomorrow and thus will be unable to perform my Monday lawn maintenance. That’s how I came to be working in the front yard today when I saw Abigail Harris trudging down the sidewalk across the street.

My need to hide from people is so deeply ingrained that it has become instinctive. Automatically upon spotting her, I duck behind the cluster of large rhododendron bushes I’m pruning at the moment. I peer around the side of one of the bushes and see her shuffling slowly down the walk, head down. I wonder where those small pink and purple tennis shoes are taking her. I’ll learn the answer to that shortly because it is reprehensible for me to be cowering behind a bush while there is a tired-looking seven-year-old child walking slowly down a sidewalk all alone.

Crossing my fingers that nobody steps outside and approaches me to see what’s going on, I take a deep breath and dash out from behind the bush and run across the street. My intent is to get to Abigail immediately, before anything bad happens to her. 


Anxiety and avoidance become almost instinctive. Learn what makes it possible to change the instinct.


It’s true. The cycle of anxiety and avoidance becomes so strong that it’s automatic, almost instinctive. Your purpose and meaning, though, are strong enough to turn the key, break the cycle, and set yourself free. What brings you meaning? How will you develop it? What will it be like for you when anxiety and avoidance are history?


Tune in to the Wellbeing & Words YouTube channel to hear more about meaning and a different passage from My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel.

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What is Avoidance Doing to You?

Jan 23

Fear and anxiety can cause us to avoid people, places, and things. What is this avoidance doing to our wellbeing? Find out here.

Avoidance is a behavior that is hardwired into us. It’s an instinctive reaction (think: fight-or-flight response, specifically the “flight” part) that in theory keeps us safe from danger. And sometimes avoidance, or flight, does just that. When we avoid walking across dark parking lots alone at night (whether we’re male or female, young or old), we keep ourselves out of risk of significant danger. What happens, though, when our brain tells us there is danger lurking here or there, and we avoid good things because of it?

Sometimes the human brain is a drama queen, setting off alarm bells for no logical reason. When the brain responds anxiously to our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of the world, we are driven to avoid what anxiety tells us to fear.

What We Avoid and Why

There seems to be no limit to what we can avoid. Whatever it is that causes fear and anxiety, we frequently go through great lengths to stay away from it. All types of anxiety disorders as well as anxieties that aren’t diagnosable as a disorder can cause avoidance. Some of the things that we avoid include
• People
• Situations
• Thoughts
• Feelings
• Experiences
• Events
• Relationships
• Leaving the house
• Any object of a specific phobia
• Places and circumstances that trigger obsessions

To be sure, this is only a partial list. Think about your own anxieties. What are you avoiding because of them?

Anxiety is a driving force behind avoidant behaviors. However, it’s not the only thing that causes people to avoid the things on the above list. Sometimes, avoidance is driven by a hatred of discomfort, a fear of failure, or even a fear of success (okay, I got what I wanted, so now what’s going to happen?).

What Avoidance Does

Initially, avoidance provides relief. We feel safer, calmer when we don’t have to deal with something that makes our anxiety, discomfort, and fear skyrocket. It does work, albeit temporarily, or we wouldn’t bother to avoid things.

In the grand scheme of our lives, happiness, and wellbeing, however, avoidance causes more harm than it does good. Avoidance keeps us stuck right where we are, unable to grow or move forward or make desired changes. Again, that might seem acceptable at first. After all, is it not better to deal with the old, familiar stresses and problems than to venture into unknown territory that might be worse? Unfortunately, when we avoid things, we rob ourselves of the chance to find out the answer to that.

By keeping us stuck, fused to our anxious feelings and thoughts, avoidance
• Prevents us from creating the quality life we want
• Traps us on the outside, merely looking in to what we could have
• Makes us tired, wired, stressed, and feeling like a mess

Are You Missing the Feast Because You’re Avoiding Something?

A metaphor from the book Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 Steps illustrates the avoidance problem:

If you’re tired of missing your banquets, take heart. You can stop avoiding what causes anxiety and fear. To discover a way to do that, check out Want to Stop Avoiding? What Would That Mean to You?

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How to Reduce Stress When Reducing Stress Causes Anxiety

Jan 17

Reducing stress is healthy, but not when reducing stress causes anxiety. Here's how you can fear stress relief yet do it anyway to enhance your wellbeing.


It’s perhaps surprising, but true: the idea of reducing stress can actually cause anxiety rather than alleviate it. We do have legitimate reasons for clinging to stress despite wanting relief from it. Sometimes the mere idea of relaxing causes anxiety because we’re afraid that our performance will decline or that seeking stress relief will cause us to be judged as weak. Stress can come to be a badge of honor, too. High degrees of stress can show the world, and ourselves, how much we are achieving or how much we care about loved ones, and more.

Yes, we have reasons for clinging to stress, and feeling anxious about reducing it is normal and legitimate. That doesn’t mean, however, that stress isn’t harming our mental- and physical health. This list is just a sampling of what stress does to us. Stress can cause:

  • • Anxiety
    • Depression
    • High blood pressure
    • Heart disease
    • Angina (chest pain)
    • Obesity
    • Diabetes
    • Headaches
    • Fatigue
    • Digestive problems
    • Sleep disturbances, including insomnia

Additionally, stress exacerbates almost all existing mental disorders and physical illnesses.

You know that stress is harmful and preventing you from fully living the quality life you want to live. You know that it’s compromising your mental health, physical health, relationships, and general enjoyment of life. Yet just thinking about reducing stress causes (or increases) anxiety and fear. How on Earth do you deal with this conundrum?

Fixing the Stress Conundrum

Getting out of this trap will likely take some effort, but it is absolutely possible to reduce your stress in spite of being afraid to do so. Not only that, in the process, you can even begin to perform better than ever—which in turn will reduce stress even more.

The process of moving past your anxiety and reducing stress can involve these steps:

1. List what stress reduction means to you, both positive and negative possible outcomes. What are your goals, and what are your fears and anxieties? Be specific, and list all that comes to mind. No holding back.

Positive Outcomes That Could Come When I Reduce Stress

Example: I’ll feel great and will be able to bike long distances again.


Negative Outcomes that Might Happen When I Reduce Stress

Example: I wouldn’t be able to ride anyway because I’d lose my job and wouldn’t be able to afford the bike and all other equipment.


2. Explore your anxieties and fears about reducing stress. If they happen, what will it mean for you (what is the worst that can happen)

My Worries About the Consequences of Reducing Stress

Example: I’ll lose my job and won’t be able to afford any of the fun things that I could do.


What This Means To Me/The Worst that Can Happen

Example: Everyone would know that I had failed and that I don’t even have enough money for a stupid bike. I couldn’t show my face around people that know me as successful. 


3. Meet your fears where they are. Assume they come true. How can you use the result to work toward the positive goals/outcomes you listed above? Use the negative as an opportunity to achieve the positive.

Because This Happened (or Might Happen)…

Example: I lost my job and people are judging me as a failure.


…I Can Now…

Example: …pursue a different job or even a new career, something that I like better and actually would be less stressful. I might feel good enough to enjoy my life, and I really don’t have to buy $2000 worth of equipment to do so. Life isn’t all or nothing. 


By doing these exercises, you come to meet your anxiety about stress reduction right where it is: in your way. This helps you accept different possible outcomes, and it can also help you see that some of your worst case scenarios aren’t likely to happen. Will you really lose your job because you’re making time for a nightly walk? Will that stress-reducing activity make you perform less well? Or will it possibly make you do your job even better? Either way, you can see that you can create positive outcomes. This knowledge alone is an excellent wellbeing enhancer.

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SOS! What OCD Treatment Will Help Me?

Sep 27

OCD treatment can seem impossible. Yet OCD help and treatment are available. Here, learn about OCD treatments ERP and a new app called nOCD.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a cruel disorder to live with. It involves obsessions, repeated thoughts that cause sometimes-unbearable anxiety. To tame the fierce anxiety and get the thoughts to stop, or at least slow, someone with OCD often performs patterned behavior, or compulsions.

These obsessions and compulsions alone are cruel, but adding to the pain of OCD is the fact that most people with OCD know that the anxiety and fear are disproportionate to the situation and are even rather irrational. They know it intellectually, but the brain goes into freak-out mode anyway. Physical and emotional responses escalate, even when the intellectual part of the brain tries to reason with the anxiety.

The nature of OCD makes treatment difficult and frustrating. That doesn’t mean, however, that OCD can’t be treated. It can. Successfully.

Treatment & Help for OCD

The two treatments that research has shown to be effective for reducing obsessions and compulsions so people can live a full life are medication and a specific type of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) called exposure response prevention (ERP). According to the International OCD Foundation, about 70 percent of people seeking treatment for OCD benefit from medication and/or ERP.

ERP involves exposure to those things (in both your inner- and outer worlds) that trigger anxiety and fear. You face them, experience them, accept their presence and notice the increasing anxiety you feel. The response prevention component involves making a choice, a commitment, to be with the anxiety without engaging in a compulsive behavior in an attempt to relieve the anxiety.

Does ERP sound just a tad intimidating? That’s because it is. It goes against all human instinct to purposely expose yourself to a trigger then choose to do nothing about it. (Well, you’re not doing “nothing.” You’re learning how to face it and reduce the degree to which it bothers you. You’re just not succumbing to your compulsions.)

ERP is done with support, especially at first. Expecting you to expose yourself to a distressing thought, situation, place, object, etc. with no help through it would be as cruel, if not more so, than OCD itself. Support is as important as the exposure and the response prevention components of ERP. (Maybe it should be called SERP or ERPS.)

Why is Support so Important in OCD treatment?

A little story will illustrate the importance of support during ERP treatment. In the book My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel, Brian Cunningham is a man who, while he doesn’t have OCD, suffers from debilitating anxiety. He begins to see a therapist, who mentions that they’ll eventually engage in exposure therapy. A situation arises that makes him decide to try exposure on his own, at a crowded grocery store.

When I pull into Albertson’s I sit in my car for what feels like a long time and just stare at the building. The doors keep sliding open and shut, like a monster’s maw, sucking shoppers in and spitting them out. There are so many people. Before I can leave my vehicle, I have to breathe into one of my paper bags. I have to keep shoving the bag down when people walk close to my car so they don’t see me lamely hyperventilating into a bag. Finally, my breathing approaches normal and I can enter the store. The moment I step inside, I regret attempting this experiment.

Brian has an extensive panic attack that lands him in his therapist’s office for an emergency session. This is part of their conversation:

“You mentioned last time that we’d do exposure therapy and in vivo therapy, so I was trying it and failed.”

Even though everything is liquid, I can see her smile. “We’ll do those things because they are effective, but it’s far too early. We need to take this one small step at a time.”

Brian went out on his own and purposely exposed himself to triggers. This increased his already intense anxiety, and if he had OCD, it would likely have led him to do the compulsions rather than resisting them.

It would be great if everyone with OCD (or with anxiety disorders like Brian) had a therapist constantly with them. Too bad it’s not possible. But wait! Maybe it is.

Enter nOCD into Effective OCD Treatment

nOCD isn’t a therapist, but it is an excellent support and treatment OCD treatment and help can seem impossible. Yet OCD help and treatment are available. Here, read about OCD treatments ERP and a new app called nOCD.tool for OCD. It’s an app, so it can be with you at all times, whether you use a smartphone or smartwatch.

You create structured, daily ERP plans (this app is yours; OCD is different for everyone, and treatment should be, too). You use proven exposure response prevention therapy to decrease your symptoms, and you use it with your therapist for feedback and support. Your nOCD app also gathers your data so you can see what is working best and what needs adjusting.

nOCD was developed by people with OCD who know what it’s like, who know how obsessive thoughts and anxieties caused by those thoughts as well as by external triggers can severely limit your life. The developers know how the compulsions can be so time-consuming that you miss import things that you really don’t want to miss.

The creators of nOCD know, too, that treatment is possible and that ERP can be successful with the right structure and support. Thus nOCD was born. It’s your mobile treatment and support app to help you live free and well. The cost of the app? Nothing! It’s free in order to give people access to this OCD treatment technology.

OCD treatment can seem impossible. Yet OCD help and treatment are available. Here, learn about ERP and a new app called nOCD.Check it out, and download it. Take charge of your treatment! (If Brian Cunningham had had this, he might have been better able to deal with his grocery shopping experience.)



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How to Quiet Your Mind

Aug 15


Quieting your mind is important for mental health, including reducing stress and anxiety. With patience and practice, you can quiet your mind. Learn how.


The idea of quieting the mind seems like a foreign concept, esoteric and perhaps even the stuff of science fiction. As our society get busier and noisier and faster, so, too, do our minds. Stress levels have skyrocketed, tens of millions of people live with anxiety disorders and more than that experience bothersome anxiety that isn’t quite diagnosable as a disorder. “Agitated” has become the new form of “calm.” Because of this, experts in the fields of psychology, mental health, wellbeing, spirituality, and common sense agree: it is more important than ever to be able to step back and quiet the mind.

It’s a conundrum. Our mind races with thoughts of stressors, worries, and fears. Racing thoughts become broken records, and we begin to focus too much on these thoughts, strengthening and perpetuating them. We overthink. For our own health and wellbeing, we need to become still, to quiet our mind. But because of our racing thoughts, becoming still seems impossible. The harder we try to quiet our mind, the busier our mind grows.

To be sure, quieting your mind is challenging. Doing it, though, brings deep peace. Imagine facing the same stressors you face now but feeling at-ease in spite of them. Imagine, too, possessing the ability to believe fully in yourself and rise above stress and anxiety. Quieting your mind brings these mental health benefits. With patience, practice, and persistence, you can quiet your mind. These five tips can help you along your journey:

5 Tips to Learn How to Quiet Your Mind

  1. Become physically still and comfortable. The mind and body follow each other in a dance.
  2. Breathe slowly and deeply. Let your mind concentrate on your inhalations and exhalations (but don’t force it).
  3. Be mindful. Tune in to your senses. Pay more attention to what you see, hear, feel, and smell than your thoughts.
  4. Accept your thoughts rather than fighting against them. Allow negative thoughts to come and go while you do your own thing and practice mindfulness.
  5. Gently conjure images of positive things, such as your personal values and goals. Visualize yourself experiencing them.

For the visual among us, here are the principles in graphic form.

Quieting your mind is important for mental health, including reducing stress and anxiety. With patience and practice, you can quiet your mind. Here's how.


One of the approaches to mental health and wellbeing that promotes the above principles is acceptance and commitment therapy.  With ACT, you define what’s important to you and learn how to accept what you can’t change while taking charge of creating a high-quality life. For a workbook that shows you how to quiet your mind and create your life worth living, check out Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 Steps.

Using the five steps to quiet your mind will help you, over time, create inner peace and contentment. The stressors will remain, but you won’t become trapped in them.



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Can Anxiety Have a Positive Side?

Jun 16

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 17

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.) 



Beating Anxiety with Passion, Purpose, and Even Fun

Sep 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 wasn’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 help them help themselves increase their wellbeing. 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.


Taming the Racing Thoughts of Anxiety

Sep 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.


Panic Attacks: Can There be Calm Instead of Storm?

Sep 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. nike free run 5.0 homme “Hey man, you okay?” I can’t answer. VCU Rams Jerseys 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. Zapatillas TUBULAR SHADOW KNIT 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. Black Grey Jordan Shoes 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. Canada Goose Montebello Parka Both of these terrible storms do actually have warning signs. Parajumpers Homme Windbreaker IKE 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. Scarpe Air Jordan 9 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. White Blue Jordan Shoes 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. KOBE 11 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. Burberry Pantalon 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.