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WeWorry reader Brittany has requested that I share her story with you. She’s certainly been through a lot, and we can all learn a lot from her experiences with anxiety and depression.

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I don’t know when it started, or if there was a starting point at all. As far back as I can remember, anxiety and panic attacks have been my constant companion. As a child, when my mother was a minute late coming home from work, I couldn’t breathe. I knew she was dead. I was scared to be the last person awake in the house. Convinced that when I watched Unsolved Mysteries the murderers and kidnappers were watching me watch the show and as soon as I went to bed they would snatch me. I slept on my mother’s floor till I was eleven years old. I was scared to answer the phone because I was so socially anxious. And when my babysitter asked me to wake up my best friend in the mornings, I worried that my babysitter would hate me if I couldn’t complete the task. There was nothing in this world that I didn’t worry about.

I don’t know the main cause of my anxiety but there are probably several reasons. My grandmother has some anxiety, and my mother suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder. My mother had just moved to St. Louis and was living with my very abusive father when she was pregnant with me, and high stress pregnancies have shown to correlate with anxious children. And lastly, as aforementioned, my father was an abusive to me as a child and I could never do anything right or win his approval. This gave me more self-esteem issues than I could count, but I’m better now. Let us just say I got my anxiety honest.

I joke a lot about my anxiety, and there are times I do find it funny. I can do this because there is that voice in my head that tells me what I’m worrying about is irrational. But then I worry about worrying about irrational things. It is a never ending cycle. I can find the humor in almost anything, and if you don’t laugh about what ails you, you’ll cry. But just because I do laugh at myself, it doesn’t mean that things aren’t overwhelming to me sometimes. Things that don’t even register to most people are uphill battles for me.

I used to spend a lot of time trying to hide my anxiety from people. It was so hard, and really that was anxiety inducing in itself. Now that I am in a better place, I can say to friends and family, “You know I don’t know why this worries me, but it does.”

I was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder when I was sixteen. This was after I had developed a crippling addiction to Tylenol PM. I could never sleep, because my thoughts were always racing. I would go days with only 1-2 hours of sleep every night, if I even got that. People will tell you that it is impossible to stay awake that long, but they are wrong. And when you never sleep, you feel like you are slowly losing your mind. Tylenol PM was the only thing that allowed me to sleep. Soon I was taking 8 every night, and then 8 during the day to take naps. I never wanted to be awake, it was too hard.

My diagnosis also came after I had stopped attending school, because I was too nervous to face the outside world. I mainly didn’t go to school because I worried about doing something stupid at school, or in front my friends. I also was afraid a teacher would call on me in class and I wouldn’t know the answer. Ironically, that was actually a self-fulfilling prophecy because I wasn’t attending class, so I never had any clue what was going on in class. I technically failed that school year even though my grades were good. My attendance was so poor that I couldn’t pass.

When I found out that I failed, I was so exhausted and tired of life. At sixteen, I knew I had nothing left to live for. I took a shower, did my hair, and swallowed over 100 capsules of Tylenol. Luckily, I had a change of heart pretty quickly. One of the most embarrassing moments in my entire life was lying on a hospital bed, having charcoal pumped into my stomach, and vomiting all over myself in front of so many people. It may sound weird to say but trying to kill myself was probably one of the better things I’ve done in my life. For two main reasons: I realized I did want to live, and I finally got help.

I began therapy soon after that, and started on a medicine that would drastically change my quality of life. The diagnosis was such a relief, I finally knew I wasn’t alone or losing my mind. By the way, after my therapist talked to my school, I was able to gain all my credits back, and I graduated on time. Then I went on to graduate college, with only a few bumps along the way.

I am more equipped to deal with my anxiety now, but it is always there. Tonight I got lost trying to pick my fiance up from work (I’ve never done that before), and I ended up on the freeway, surrounded by 18 wheelers, and driving over bridges. I don’t like driving in general, and I’m terrified of bridges, freeways, and 18 wheelers. But I always do what I have to do. I ended up on the side of the road, having one of the worst panic attacks I’ve had in years. I was sobbing, I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and I was trembling.

However unlike in the past, I was eventually able to calm myself down, take many deep breathes, send up a prayer, and figure out what I needed to do. And I did it. I stared down those 18 wheelers, went over those bridges, and finally found him. I had faced my worst case scenario fear about driving in L.A., and I had gotten through it.

There is something liberating about knowing that the girl who was once too scared to step out her front door, may still panic and freak out, but when everything goes wrong, she can pull it together and GET PAST IT.

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You can read more from Brittany at her blog.

anticipa-a-tion …. (I hope you’re humming that song now!)

This has always been a short path to anxiety for me. Anticipation of an upcoming flight. Anticipation of someone’s reaction. Anticipation of imminent death. Anticipation … fill in the blank.

Well, today is the day before a long trip. My husband and I, new empty-nesters, are heading out on a road trip. Our first ever. We’ll be gone about a month and will travel from Florida up through the Blue Ridge Mountains…up to Niagra Falls….up into Canada. Then north of Lake Huron and west to the Upper Peninsula and over into Minnesota and down the Mississippi River. Careful to avoid flooding etc.

We’ve had fun making some plans and leaving some days entirely plan-free. All home fronts are to be cared for by a variety of helpful people. The car is nearly packed.

Its 4 pm. Ahem. The car is packed. We don’t leave till tomorrow morning. Ahem. Now what?

See, the really interesting thing about this preparation is that I have NOT had anticipation anxiety. At all. I have not imagined the fiery car crashes, the bridges that will give way under us, the hotels felled by terrorist bombs or rogue earthquakes. Nope. I’ve stayed pretty much in the moment – which was to pack. To contact a hotel or box office. To fix lunch. Etc. Very reality based.

I hadn’t realized until just now, seeing how really little there is still to do, that I have not been running ragged or holding my breath. I don’t feel overwhelmed and I don’t feel… well, I don’t feel anxious.

I am starting to see what my various teachers and mentors mean when they say that serenity has a way of sneaking up on you. And so it has.

Holding to a steady meditation practice over the last two years has effected an enormous change in me! I use that term loosely because I don’t sit on a cushion in deep silence for hours on end. No, I do some active visualization, deep and focused breathing techniques and conscious present-moment awareness. I try to do this several times a day.

It may look like I’m not doing much. But, the balanced levels of serenity and excitement tell me otherwise. I have a whole different view of anticipation now!

It’s what I’m feeling about my trip!

It has been quiet here lately. I’ve been quiet. Maybe because my mind has (mostly) been quiet. I haven’t felt any urge or need to write or talk. Sometimes the best way to deal with my problems is to “not worry about them” – so to speak. Forget them for a little while. Of course my little demons remind me of their existence now and then… but I’ve managed to keep them pretty quiet. My thoughts have been quiet.

And yet I have been troubled. I haven’t had a panic attack in a long time and generally I feel pretty good. To some extent I’ve managed to subdue the inner voice that is constantly feeding my fear of dying or getting sick. I hear it and it affects my mood but I can resist the urge to run to the nearest doctor or scream “I’ve got [enter your favorite deadly deciese here] and I’m going to die within five minutes!!!”

But I have been troubled. I started smoking again and that troubles me. I see all the things I have achieved in life so far and I don’t fully realize how magnificent they are – and that troubles me. I don’t feel content when I know I should… and that troubles me.

So my current mission is to experience content. That doesn’t mean that I have to stop pursuing new adventures. It just means that I have to learn to savour the moment. To experience the joy of achievement. To experience gratitute for what I have (which is a lot). And to feel lucky and blessed.

To reach content I will have to be positive. That is my next step. Turn negative thoughts into positive paths. Be thankful. Feel blessed. Think positive.

I don’t know why I’m crowding the interweb with these thoughs. I don’t know if they contain anything relevant or helpful to others. The only thing I do know is that they contain my personal experience. My journey. And maybe – in a sea of souls – there are others out there that share my journey and will take comfort from the fact that they are not alone.

Jungian Thoughts – Part 1

I was pretty much in the throes of Panic and Anxiety when I first heard about C. G. Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist who was a young contemporary of Freud’s. I heard a talk in which the speaker mentioned “individuation” and the process of “becoming who you were uniquely intended to be” and how this process, though different for everyone, was the common ground of mankind. Well, I’m not sure of the exact words, but they struck a profound, deep bell in my soul – honestly, I had never heard someone talk like that.

After the talk, I asked what books he could recommend and thus began my journey. He gave me three names. Morton Kelsey, John Sanford and Linda S. Leonard. This was back in the days before amazon.com and so I went to bookstores. I found a book by each of them, and devoured them. Went to the bibliographies and found more books, more authors, more titles. For the next year I probably read over 180 books. This is an amazing feat if you know that I also had three children under 5 years old, and was having panic attacks almost daily.

The common themes in these books began to resonate within me. The first that I latched on to was the idea that I, personally, was here for a reason. Not some vague “here to be good” kind of reason, but that I represented a crucial thread in a tapestry and without me the world would be lacking. This language, of metaphor and rich imagery, drew me in and warmed me. It calmed me. I took deep breaths for the first time in years. I wasn’t just taking up space, I’m SUPPOSED to be here.

The second thing that I grabbed like a life-line is that the desires I had to be creative, and the images that sprang from my mind and heart, were parts of my healing. Painting, drawing and making art was not about getting hung on a wall in a museum, or scoring a huge gallery deal. It was about expressing something that without my voice (or choice of color, or line of pencil) would never be expressed. This changed how I thought: Thought about myself, and how I thought about others. For the first time in my life I felt connected to a deep voice in me that needed to get out! And so I painted. Sheets and sheets of paper, covered in colored pencil, acrylic paints and oil pastels. I drew and painted and tore paper, and made collages, and drew and painted some more.

(As a side note – my three daughters just LOVED this new me!! We lived in the play room with paint and paper and glitter. )

This was the beginning of a transformative era in my life that would forever change the way I lived. For three years I read books, created from my own imagination, and grew in an awareness of a rich and infinite inner wellspring that I would eventually refer to as God. But not in the beginning. It simply was my Soul. And that was enough.

I continued to do the things I had learned to do for panic and anxiety, but after this time period I never had a debilitating, paralyzing Panic Attack. There became, in me, a meeting place for inner and outer worlds that brought a sense of grounding, and on which I could depend. I became trustworthy to myself, and I was part of a much larger, grander and very interesting whole!

That was about 16 years ago. There have been many wonderful experiences with dreams, fairy tales, body work, analysis and I’ll share these in posts along the way. But for now, that was the starting point. And I am eternally grateful for that 30 minute talk on Individuation. As Robert Frost said in his immortal poem “And it has made all the difference.”

One thing I’ve realized lately is just how powerful a thought can be. When you think about being in pain you project pain upon yourself. You start to feel pain. When you think about the fear of dying you begin to feal that fear. You begin to die. The thought process is the same. You are actually preparing for your impeading doom and the fear of death is realized fully and in reality.

So. You have to train yourself to let go. To move away from that reality and tell yourself that it is enough to face it when the time comes. When you actually are in pain or when you are actually facing death. It is enough to experience and live through it when it happens and there is no need to go through an imagined projection of the situation.

Matthiew Ricard The Independent, a UK paper, recently published an article about Matthieu Ricard. Here’s an excerpt:

To scientists, he is the world’s happiest man. His level of mind control is astonishing and the upbeat impulses in his brain are off the scale.

Now Matthieu Ricard, 60, a French academic-turned-Buddhist monk, is to share his secrets to make the world a happier place. The trick, he reckons, is to put some effort into it. In essence, happiness is a “skill” to be learned.

[…]

…Ricard, who is the French interpreter for Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, took part in trials to show that brain training in the form of meditation can cause an overwhelming change in levels of happiness.

MRI scans showed that he and other long-term meditators – who had completed more than 10,000 hours each – experienced a huge level of “positive emotions” in the left pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which is associated with happiness. The right-hand side, which handles negative thoughts, is suppressed.

I’d love to quote more but I don’t want to step on any copyright toes, so just read the article. It’s short. Science is only now beginning to confirm what Buddhists (and some other meditation-based groups) have known for millennia: happiness is achievable by anyone who is willing to work for it. While there may be many routes to achieve such things, meditation is the most proven.

I do take one issue with this article in that it refers to meditation as teaching “mind control” and “suppression.” This is wrong. I’m unaware of any Buddhist tradition (or non-Buddhist tradition) that attempts to control the mind or suppress negative feelings. In fact, meditation is exactly the opposite. Meditation is a method of allowing negative feelings to enter the mind without judgment. We don’t solve problems during meditation, we just see them so clearly that we let go of them. We allow them to dry up and disappear.

Many people misunderstand meditation as mind control. Meditation is not mind control. Mind control is impossible. Meditation is simply a way to train the mind to see through all of our bull. It allows us to see how we treat ourselves and others without entering into an internal dialogue as to justify our actions. It’s a way of looking at ourselves to discover the painful truths which we consistently hide from, and, eventually it’s a way to discover that true happiness comes in the revelation that all of life is transient and is to be cherished while it’s here. It teaches us to live right here, right now, in this very moment, because it will soon be gone.

This is something we can all achieve. It is not magical, mystical, or reserved for hermits who sit in caves for years on end. This is something you can do on your own, just as you would exercise every day if you wanted to lose weight. And there’s the caveat: it requires diligence, practice, and persistence even when it feels like a waste of time. In this respect, it is very similar to physical exercise: we have to be willing to do it on a regular basis and suspend our desire for immediate results. If you’d like to learn more on meditation or Buddhism, check out my list of recommended books. Two in particular: Breath by Breath by Larry Rosenberg, and Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. These two books have taught me more about meditation, life, and happiness than anything else I’ve ever read.

Six months ago I knew I was in trouble. Anxiety and stress were pushing me towards an early grave. I started to feel depressed. Dangerously depressed. The light was starting to fade, the darkness was setting in and I embodied fear. I was fearful, pessimistic and on the edge.

But I’ve always been a “doer”. I do. That’s me. I move, I shake, I mold and I get things done. My way. I take control. Movement keeps me healthy. That’s what I’ve always told myself. Never stay still. Don’t stop. Don’t hesitate.

And I’m not just talking about physical movement. I’m talking about emotional movement. Spiritual movement. Intellectual movement. Movement through time, changing my surroundings, myself. Just movement in any form you can find it.

So I did something. I reached out. I found a society on the web – http://www.panicsurvivor.com – and that’s where I met Josh and Cindy (and many others). It helped a lot. For one thing it swept away my loneliness.

I saw endless posts that could have been written by me. They described experiences and feelings I truly knew as my own. I recognized the fear and the anxiety. I recognized the awareness of sure madness that was clouded by doubt. “I know this chest pain is just anxiety related but still… what if it isn’t!”.

Slowly but surely this feeling of community began stripping away my own fears. A wonderful doctor and an incredible family also helped tremendously but the community was key. I also initiated big changes in my life. Then I began writing posts for WeWorry.

And then I disappeared.

Why? Because I suddenly felt different. I think I discovered something I wasn’t really looking for (or looking out for). I’m a doer. I keep moving. I never stop. Until recently.

Without trying I’ve seemed to have learned that it is okay to stop for awhile. To enjoy the present, smile, breathe and reflect on both past and future. It is okay to relax.

This might seem obvious. It might even seem trivial. But to me it was neither. By constantly moving I was able to drown my constantly chattering brain with white noise. I was able to silence the voices of anxiety and worry almost perfectly. The keyword here is ALMOST.

They never stopped. They never gave up. That meant that they were always there when I had nothing to over shout them with. And they were constantly growing louder and louder.

So I finally decided to face them. Some I managed to silence for good, some I learned to control better. Some I even listen to, from time to time. But most of all I realized that movement won’t save me from myself. Movement is still important because I have to keep pushing myself but I also have to face my fears and I have to be able to stop. To enjoy now.

So I suddenly felt different. I felt no need to visit PanicSurvivor or WeWorry. Maybe a part of me was afraid of it. Feeling that if I did my anxiety and worry would come back with a vengeance. Like opening the door out of curiosity only to find out that the monster is still there.

But now I’m back. Mainly to stay focused, tell my stories and move on (keep moving). And, of course, to keep up the fight. Because I know the monster is still there. It’s just sleeping, at the moment. And while it slept I was able to tie it down. I hope the rope will hold.

P.S. One advice. I changed my diet. I’ve lost 18 pounds. It works wonders.

For quite some time I was confused about two contradictory pieces of advice. The first piece of advice said that I should try to reduce anxiety by developing a stillness of mind. From my initial interpretation, I had assumed that this meant I should think less. I’d always been hyperanalytical and an extreme overthinker. If it could be delved into deeply, you could guarantee that I’d be delving… until I got bored and decided to delve elsewhere, that is.

The second piece of advice said that I should try to keep busy. The term “busy” could mean many things, but I first took it to mean that I should jump from one activity to the other as quickly as possible without so much as a breath in between. I’ve never been fond of work, and “busy” sounds too much like work for me to get all giddy at the prospect that work will somehow reduce my anxiety. (I always laugh at people who think a ridiculously rigid work ethic is somehow their best character trait. I’ll expand more on this in a later post, I promise.)

So, is it possible to have a still mind while simultaneously being busy?

Absolutely. My problem was in my assumption that busy was synonymous with frantic and disorganized. In truth, an engaged mind is a still mind, but only when you allow yourself to become whatever it is you’re doing. This is essentially the practice of mindfulness, for which I’m an ardent advocate.

Read the rest of this entry »

Because I’ve dealt with Panic and Anxiety for a long time I sometimes think I’ve got a handle on it. That somehow I’ve learned the tricks and can dodge the bullets. And so sometimes a panic attack will come out of the blue, knock me on my butt and remind me that THAT is not how it works.

Dealing with the reality of Panic and Anxiety is not about cobbling together a protective shield of magical thinking. In fact, that can sometimes be very detrimental to the full, rich life I want to live.

No, dealing with Panic and Anxiety has become for me a daily practice. It is spiritual in nature. And it has more to do with acceptance and surrender, which is not the same as weak and helpless. It is an active process of trusting whatever is happening, and knowing that I am part of a bigger power. That I can, and will, survive the slings and arrows of life not because I have tricked myself into believing everything is okay. But I will survive and thrive because everything IS okay. Even the stuff that feels very un-okay, like a panic attack.

So my practice is about staying present to what is. Not getting caught up in what I want it to be or what it should be or what it will be next year. But if I can take my mind down to this minute and truly be IN that minute, then I’m not only okay, I’m at peace.

And ultimately, that’s where I live my best life. At peace. And in the moment.

Western medicine is still in its honeymoon period with the mind-body connection. Many cultures have understood this connection for hundreds — if not thousands — of years, but here in the West, we’ve been slow to come around.

Check this out:

People with generally positive outlooks show greater resistance to developing colds than do individuals who rarely revel in upbeat feelings, a new investigation finds.

Frequently basking in positive emotions defends against colds regardless of how often one experiences negative emotions, say psychologist Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and his colleagues. They suspect that positive emotions stimulate symptom-fighting substances.

“We need to take more seriously the possibility that a positive emotional style is a major player in disease risk,” Cohen says.

The exact mechanism(s) of how this works have yet to be fully understood, but I can guarantee you one thing: as soon as it is understood, pharmaceutical companies will patent, bottle, and sell artificial “positive moods” as immuno-boosters.

The good news is that you already have direct access to your emotions even though you may believe that your mood is pre-ordained by genetics. Despite popular belief, this isn’t true. Thankfully, there’s a host of scientific studies that have shown this to be the case.

The truth is that your attitude is not determined by how healthy, how wealthy, or how attractive you are. Your mood is determined solely by your attitude. If you can adjust your attitude in spite of your hardships then you can adjust your mood. It’s easier said than done, but it can be done.

Or you can just wait for the happy pill.

"Drag your thoughts away from your troubles... by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it." -- Mark Twain

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