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Using Visualization To Overcome Anxiety

9 Sep

anxiety-cycleOver three years ago I suffered from a panic attack that I was sure would cripple me for life.  I couldn’t leave the bed for days, couldn’t eat, was sure I was losing my mind, and begged for an answer as to why this was happening to me.  Three years later, I am not the same person I was hiding under the covers scared of everything…including life itself.  I go to work at a high-pressure job where I’m good at what I do and enjoy the challenges it presents me.  I drive to work, I fly on planes, I try new things, and am adventurous and able to go with the flow.  I do all the things I used to do…I just do them with a heightened sense of self-awareness now.  Things were going pretty well until last week when out of the blue…I had a panic attack.  Worst one since three years ago.  Terrible…and it rattled me quite a bit…but I survived.

Much like three years ago I began asking myself what may have caused it.  The recent change in diet?  Are my magnesium levels off?  Did the pharmacist give me the wrong prescription?  Do I have a brain tumor?

Whoa!  Whoa!!!!  A brain tumor?  That’s some rookie stuff right there.  No, I am not going back to the dark ages of my anxiety when I thought I was dying and I was alone.  This is common.  I need to find some positive things I learned from CBT therapy and get my mind right:

  • This panic attack is not as bad as my first one, I’ll never have one that bad again because I know what is happening now.
  • I survived my last one – I’ll survive this one.  I have what it takes to persevere and feel better.  I’m not dying.
  • I can be my own safety net, I do not need to retreat to my wife or bedroom to get through this – I must move forward.
  • Breathe.  Just breathe.  Don’t think about everything I need to do, just what I need to do right now.
  • Discomfort, not disaster.  Discomfort, not disaster.  Discomfort, not disaster.  This sucks, but I’ll survive.

I drove to my office, breathed, and got to work.  I set a goal of making it till lunch and then seeing how I was doing.  I made it to lunch and noted I was anxious about 80% of the time and was fending off my fight or flight instincts through breathing and focusing on work.  I decided to wait till 3 PM and see how I felt.  By 3 PM I was anxious about 60% of the time and aware that the end of the work day was near.  I decided to stay till 6 PM and then go home no matter what.  At 6 PM I was only anxious about 20% of the time and I stayed late to get more work done.  In the end I had a very productive work day, drove home just fine, and passed out I was so mentally exhausted.  The next day I was fine…almost like the attack never happened.  I felt pretty good about myself.

Over Labor Day weekend I had a plethora of underlying anxiety that grew the later the day got.  I masked it from my friends and family by saying my stomach was a little upset and dealt with it by breathing and focusing on how much fun was taking place.  I didn’t want to miss out because of my anxiety so I just took the spinning-head feeling as part of the ride and went with the flow.  Discomfort, not disaster.  I had one small anxiety attack on Saturday night driving back to the hotel and I simply pulled the car over, told my wife and brother-in-law I didn’t feel well, and my wife happily drove us the rest of the way to the hotel.  Everything seemed well in hand driving home Monday…a 7 hour ride with 2 kids in the backseat.  I got a wicked migraine that I chalked up to them asking questions non-stop and again, passed out once we got home.

Tuesday was rough.

Tuesday my anxiety was right back where I started the week before and my brain immediately went back to trying to solve it.  I landed on magnesium…had to be.  Had to be the cause.  Not the amount of work baring down on me at the office, the pressure I was under, the fundraising project I had taken on, finances, new diet, etc.  No…couldn’t be any of that.  Probably taking too much magnesium.  This is laughable, magnesium is a calming nutrient with no reaction to any of my medications yet I was convinced it was the culprit.  Because…there has to be a culprit.  Right?


The culprit is not some thing you can cut out and suddenly you are okay again.  Anxiety is my train of thought.  I suffered through all Tuesday and Wednesday morning till I remembered that and began working on breaking my train of thought.  You know when you get a song lyric stuck in your head and you can’t stop hearing it over, and over, and over again?  That’s anxiety.  You get stuck in an infinite loop of being overwhelmed and then it cycles downward as you wonder if it will ever stop.  I could take a pill, but that just attacks the symptoms.  I attack the root.  Here is what I did…and it worked:

tightrope with a safety netI pictured myself on a tightrope platform of an old-fashioned circus.  I chose this visual because I wanted something aesthetically straight, juxtaposing my current cyclical thought process.  In front of me was the tightrope, deathly high off the ground, and on the other side; another platform.  On that other platform was nothing, no goal, no object, nothing…just the satisfaction of knowing I’d made it.  However, there was this tightrope to deal with.  Next I reminded myself that I was not in a life or death situation, so I imagined a large trampoline net below me to catch me if I fell…and I knew I’d fall, and that was okay.  From the net there was a ladder back up again.  The net and ladder represented the part of my brain that reminds me I can be my own safety net.  I can be my own support team.  I can do what I put my mind to.  However, first steps are scary and it is good to have friends, so that is what I imagined next.  I pictured a catwalk that ran on either side of my tightrope made of hardened steel with sturdy railings and support beams.  On the catwalk I imagined all my friends and family, smiling at me calmly with encouragement.  No one was chanting, everyone was just whispering good tidings…like when you walk down the aisle at your own wedding…everyone knows it’s all about you but they want you to know they are there and love you.  It was a great visual.

I stepped out onto the tightrope.  It was shaky.  My balance was terrible.  Hundreds of hands reached out for me for me to grab if I needed them.  Friends and family.  I steadied myself.  The hands relaxed like a mother watching her baby take his first steps.  My mom was there.  So was my wife.  I could even see the guys I work with who I swear argue with me just to argue with me.  Everyone wanted to see me accomplish my goal.  The rope ceased wobbling and I stood upright.

I walked out the front door of my house despite my anxiety and got into my car, backed out the driveway, waved high to the neighbors, and drove down the street.

One foot in front of the other I took steps forward along the tightrope.  I focused on each step and did whatever it took to keep my balance.

I drove a new route to work and admired the flowers and new things I encountered.

The catwalk seemed farther away.  The net below seemed larger.  The height seemed less.  I seemed to be walking faster.

I got to work and excitedly engulfed myself in a project that took my mind off things.

I paused to catch my breath.  Tightrope walking is hard to do.  Kate, my wife, gave me her hand from the catwalk and asked if I was okay.  I squeezed her hand and nodded yes, I had my own net and was about half way to the other platform.

Kate stopped by my office and brought me lunch.  We hugged.  It felt great to be embraced and smell her hair, being hugged by Kate can be described in one word:  “Home.”

I moved faster along the tightrope when I saw my friend Chris up ahead on the catwalk drinking a beer asking if I’d like to join him.  The catwalk was suddenly empty…a few strangers milled about.  I only knew Chris but his smiling face was encouraging to see.

I got a text from my buddy Chris asking if I wanted to grab drinks after work.  I told him the truth that I was having some anxiety and needed to play things by ear.  He texted back that he understood and was there if I needed anything.

Then I was alone.  Just me and the tightrope.  There was no catwalk, no platform, no net, no nothing.  I was just walking along like one might on the beach…slightly awkward in the sand but ever forward as the waves wash up onto the retreating wet sand and chase cold water between your toes.  Was there a tightrope?  Was there a net?  I was just walking.

Things went back to “normal.”  I broke the cycle of thought.  …and like that, I heard my song lyric drift off into the wind as if some Nantucket sea-breeze had lifted my radio on a kite out past the breakers…

Sing Ta na na,
Ta na na na.
She got diamonds on the soles of her shoes.
She got diamonds on the soles of her shoes.
Diamonds on the soles of her shoes.
Diamonds on the soles of her shoes…

hands-in-the-shape-of-a-brainI don’t know what later tonight will be like but usually once I break my cyclical thinking, it is broken for the day.  I don’t know what tomorrow or the next day will be like but I do know this…I can handle my anxiety when I put my mind to it.  The tightrope image worked today…maybe I’ll need something else tomorrow?  Maybe I won’t need anything?  Who knows.  All I know is the future is anxiety, the past is depression, and right now is where I am.  Funny thing…time.  It gets weird in physics and doesn’t necessarily behave the way we want it to.  Perception of time is what those of us with anxiety grapple with.  Is it an open funnel of opportunity in the future with a set course behind us as we progress ever forward?  Is it like a clock?  How come time seems to move slower and faster depending on what we are doing?  Is there such thing as the present?  As you read this…this sentence is already in the past.  Does it matter?  All I know is when I dwell on the past I get sad.  When I focus too heavily on the future I get anxious.  However, when I exist in the world around me in that exact moment I am good.  I can walk the tightrope…eventually without the net.  If I fall, I’ll get up and try again tomorrow.  I have people who care about me that will help me along the way.  Strangers will help me along the way.  I am in good hands, wouldn’t you help a stranger if you saw them in need?  People are inherently good.  Life is inherently good…and that is hard to realize when you feel broken and wish everything would stop.

Just breathe.  Discomfort, not disaster.  Just breathe.


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Bachelordom: Day 1

4 Aug

bach·e·lor (băch′ə-lər, băch′lər)
1. A man who has never been married.
2. A person who has completed the undergraduate curriculum of a college or university and holds a bachelor’s degree.
3. A male animal that does not mate during the breeding season.
4. A young knight in the service of another knight in feudal times.

GatesFamPhoto2015As a happily wed man with two wonderful children, being a “bachelor” for a few days is simply a state of mind.  My wife, children, brother-in-law, and my folks are all out of town at the same time…leaving me to fend for myself.  There was a time in my life that I actively sought out being alone.  When I graduated college, I drove straight to a small turn of the century cabin in the woods of the Adirondacks and spent my days alone in the wilderness without electricity or running water while I gathered my thoughts.  I later found a place in New York City without a roommate where I slowly built a mountain of dirty dishes, laundry, and cigarette butts.  At one point I ran out of socks, underwear, and dishes.  Logically, I bought new socks, underwear, and dishes instead of washing the old ones…as one does as a bachelor.  Then, in 2003, I met my wife (Kate).  We moved in together in 2004 and have shared a roof ever since.

It is not that I have not been alone since 2004, I have.  I have gone on business trips, Kate and I lived in separate cities when she went to grad school, and I’ve had the boys to myself while Kate goes on a trip.  However, I have never been home alone without any family for as long as I can remember.  I’m always the one going somewhere.  I’m never just…home…alone.  It scared the crap out of me!  What would I do with all that time?!

I made a list of possible activities to keep me occupied after work:

  • Prep the upstairs bathroom for painting
  • Refinish the basement stairs
  • Build an Adirondack set of chairs
  • Clean out closet & donate to AMVETS
  • Paint windowsills in the guest room
  • Reinforce newel post at top of stairs
  • Paint ceiling in kid’s bedroom

I looked at this list long and hard.  I could definitely pull a project from the list and keep myself very occupied.  Painting the kid’s ceiling seemed like a clear winner since I can’t do it when they are here and its an indoor activity so I can do it after dark.  I then added one more item to the list:

  • Drink Jameson and watch TV

That seemed much more in my wheelhouse.  Yeah…screw painting the ceiling!

Throughout the day I received texts from Kate and the family with updates about their road trip, pictures of the boys, and stories of family fun.  It knocked the wind out of me.  I missed my boys.  I had spent that morning hugging them over and over again telling them how much I would miss them.  I cried a little when it was time to go to work, I don’t like being separated from my family.  Kate called my office numerous times to tell me she loved me.  I felt loved…and abandoned.  I was sad.  I just wanted it to be next week and have them back.

Then I realized it was late and everyone had left the office.  I was just working to avoid going home.  It was time.  I took a deep breath and went home…alone.

The house felt weird…like it was trapped in time.  There were no little boys destroying my furniture, playing loudly, or arguing about having to take a bath.  Nope.  Even the cat avoided me on Day 1.  No love.  Ace Hardware had been closed on the way home, so if I was going to paint I needed to change and head over to Home Depot.  I drank a Jameson on the rocks instead.  I flipped on the TV and immediately my phone rang, it was my best friend beckoning me to come over and drink his whiskey and grill steaks.  Oh alright…if I have to.

jamesonI fired up a cigar in the house.  Usually I smoke outside but…who’s going to care?  It’ll air out by next week and I was halfway out the door.  My buddy lives a few blocks away and I decided to hoof it instead of driving…can’t remember the last time I walked somewhere alone.  Felt great.  Smoking a cigar and strolling through my neighborhood wearing flip-flops.  Upon arrival I was greeted with much joy and told, “I’ve never hung out with ‘bachelor‘ you!”  Its true, every time we’ve hung out I’ve either been with my kids, had to go home for dinner, or felt bad that I didn’t go home for the kid’s bedtime.  He’d never known me without obligation pulling me home.  So we drank bourbon, grilled steaks, listened to music, and talked till a little after 11 PM.  It was great.  I started remembering what it was like to do what I want, when I want.  Bachelordom looked good on me.

The obligation of work the next morning pulled me home and the walk home was simply delightful.  Alone in the dark…strolling, not rushing.  Where did I need to be?  Nowhere.  That’s where.  When?  Anytime.  So I drank water and dozed on the couch till I realized it was late.  I headed upstairs to go to bed and that’s when I realized my temporary state of bachelordom sucked at night.  The door to the boys’ room stood open revealing their empty beds.  There were no sounds of them breathing heavy as they slept.  There was no one to tuck in.  There were no cuddles, no hugs, no kisses…just an empty room.  I walked into my room and was greeted by a bed for two…but there was only me.  No one to talk to.  No one to cuddle.  No one to kiss goodnight.  My stomach sank.

Gates BoysI called to the cat.  She howled from another room in the house…I think she said, “Impostor!”  I was sleeping alone that night.  I slid into bed where the boys had left me stuffed animals to cuddle with, I had spoken to them earlier in the day on the phone and they said, “It’s so you don’t get lonely at night Dada.”  I gripped the stuffed frog and stuffed eagle close to me as I turned off the light.  I closed my eyes and tried to picture their sleeping faces, the images came to me immediately.  I felt Max’s hair against my cheek, saw Dodge’s chest rise and fall as he slept, and heard their little snores of innocence.  I drifted off to sleep…but it was a light sleep.  I awoke around 4 AM on the wrong side of the bed – clearly I had spent the past 4 hours scooting over further and further in my sleep, searching for Kate but finding only more bed…till at last I found the edge and my brain woke me up to tell me something wasn’t right.  It was hard going back to bed after that, loneliness set back in and I spent the rest of the night dreaming of my boys cuddled up in my arms.

Being an honorary bachelor is fun during the day, but it is lonely at night.  3 days to go.  Wish me luck…or buy me a Jameson…or both.

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Stupid Anxiety

21 Jul

RockCentralWichitaA little over two years ago I had an anxiety attack at the intersection of Rock Road and Central in Wichita, KS as I pulled into the left turning lane on my way to work.  I’d experienced this feeling before in life but only for short confusing intervals.  This one was different…it didn’t go away.  In fact, it got more intense.  My fight or flight kicked in and I flew.  The days following were torturous as I could not leave my bed, the weeks following I improved to only being able to not leave my house, then I got to the point where I could painfully kind of go places, then I got pretty functional, and then…my CBT therapist’s office screwed up my bill and I said to heck with them and embarked on a year of self exploration to mentally toughen up and get back to “normal.”

If you want the full story you can go HERE.

Fast forward 2 years with leaps and bounds of progress and things are pretty darn good.  I still had anxiety but my ability to dissect it, analyze it, cope with it and move forward with my life was astounding.  Then I started asking myself if I should explore going off anti-anxiety medications and that opened up my internal discussion of what effectiveness they had or didn’t.  Am I better because of them or are they the crutch that got me mentally ready to move forward?  My gut says the latter since I spent 33 years without needing anything but realistically going off them is…well…its taking the crutch away.  So the debate built up in my head along with other things I have no control over and as I argued with myself, my anxiety plotted its triumphant return.  Sensing this I started seeing a new therapist (whom I love) and have come to realize that while I made major progress in the past 2 years…there is not a finish line in life, just a constant track to run on.  Whether it is uphill, downhill, or even is what I have some control over…but I cannot stop.

NWBayIt was about Midnight the second week of July when my first anxiety attack in a while hit me.  I was piloting a boat on Lake George and had just rounded the Northwest Bay buoy and was heading north into dark waters and a shoreline miles away without lights when I felt the overwhelming feeling of not knowing where I was.  I knew where I was…but not exactly.  It has been a year since I drove the boat at night and this was a new boat with different blind spots, gauges, and sounds.  It is understandable to get spooked in the middle of the dark doing 25 mph on the lake and realizing you are not 100% sure of where you are.  Your eyes play tricks on you at night.  Distance is hard to read and boats don’t have headlights.  I was overwhelmed with the fear that I would not be able to find the dock I was driving to and that my wife Kate would have to take the wheel, or worse:  Talk me down from an anxiety attack in the middle of the lake with no cell reception.

Cell reception.  Seriously?  I used to do everything in my power to get away from cell reception.  I used to adore being alone.  I used to love impossible situations.  Add fog, rain, waves higher than the boat and I would have stayed calm the whole way and loved the thrill of it all.  Now?  I just don’t want to be alone…I want shared responsibility.

KelloggCentralWichitaToday it hit me again, and this one struck a chord.  At the intersection of Rock Road and Kellogg the light turned red as I went to cross the highway…a long light.  As I pulled into to the left turning lane I became acutely aware of how “trapped” I would be and started playing the “what if” game.  “What if I panicked right now?”  What if I just ran the light?”  What if…”  The game became the “what is” game.  I watched the car in front of me slow to a stop (silver Civic), I saw the car in the rearview pull in close behind me (beige Buick sedan), I looked right and saw the truck boxing me in (blue Tundra), and as I began debating making a U-Turn to the left out of the double turn lane a silver Kia pulled in next to me and I found myself with nowhere to go…and I panicked…bad.  The sunglasses came off my face and I started talking myself down but it was no use, I was deep in it and could feel my body wanting to ditch the car and run off screaming. Not an option!  I told myself as I dialed my wife who picked up on the fourth ring.  Before she could finish saying hello I told her, “I’m stuck and I need you to help talk me down!”  She asked where I was and in the time it took to tell her and explain what was going on the light turned green and I proceeded through the long overpass intersection and was “fine” again.

My hands are still shaking a bit.  It was too similar to my initial attack 2 years ago just 2 blocks away.  The only difference is 2 years ago I walked away from the incident asking what was wrong with me and if I’d ever be okay again.  Today, all I can think is “stupid anxiety!”  Seriously.  Stupid f**king anxiety.  I’ve given up trying to understand why this is happening to me and just started accepting that it does happen to me.  I’ve clearly got some crap bubbling up to the top again right now and need to find a way to release the pressure valve…but honestly, I think I just need to find a better way to silence my brain.  My brain is like when you get stuck on a single song lyric and it plays over and over and over and over again in your head.  Sometimes I just get stuck.  Writing helps…and here we are.  All I know is I am fighting a battle between what my gut is telling me to do and what I want to do.  My gut wants me to avoid life, especially the situations where it could suck to have anxiety…but I want to live life to the fullest.  There’s the rub and maybe the best lesson I’ve learned in my life:  Things are not going to get easier – but I will get better at overcoming obstacles if I keep trying.  No one who ever achieved greatness in life was faced with no hardship.  I doubt people will remember me in history books, my name is not in lights, and my triumphs are small in the eyes of others…but every day I get out of bed and find the will power to keep fighting my instincts so I can do what seems natural to so many others.  I’m striving to be a good person, a good father, a good husband, and most important:  Happy.

Stupid anxiety.


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Living With Someone Who Suffers From Anxiety

8 May

anxiety-cycleAlmost 2 years ago I experienced a terrible panic attack that shook me to the core as it seemingly came out of nowhere.  In the aftermath I became antisocial, anxious about everyday activities, and dependent on my family to help me emotionally through the roughest period of my life.  I became deathly afraid of things I used to love to do like driving, flying, meeting new people, or going anywhere with large crowds.  I became agoraphobic which caused me greater anxiety, and down the rabbit hole of depression and cyclical thoughts we go.  In that time period there were people in my life that became safety blankets for me because of their demeanor, their knowledge of me, and the things they said when I was around them.

This week Lindsay Holmes at the Huffington Post published an article titled

8 Things Only People With Anxiety Understand

…and it made me happy to be reassured that I was not alone in my anxiety and emotions.  Her piece covers some of the most basic things about anxiety that you truly can’t understand unless you are one of the millions suffering from this disorder, and I’d like to expand on it to share what did and didn’t help from those around me when I was in the thick of the fight.

Dam_BreakI like to think people are naturally helpful and so when we see a problem we either try to fix it or find someone who can.  My mother-in-law embodies this philosophy and is a genuine listener who then offers advice.  For people living with an anxiety disorder…this doesn’t work.  The human reaction to seeing someone freak out (out of nowhere) is to say things like “calm down,” or “take it easy,” or my least favorite “get a hold of yourself.”  I heard all these things from many people in the early days after my panic attack and they became the triggers that sent my anxiety spiraling further out of control…because I didn’t understand why I couldn’t get a hold of myself.  I didn’t understand why I was so scared of everything…and when I couldn’t get a hold of myself I became afraid that I was broken, un-fixable, dying, and useless.  My mother-in-law saw this and instead of trying to fix me she started asking me simple questions like, “Can you tell me what you are afraid of right now?”  That simple question allowed me to vocalize my anxiety as opposed to trying to internalize it…and it made all the difference in the world.  Those early days, weeks, and months after my panic attack was like a dam overflowing after heavy rains.  I’d open up the flow valve, let the emotions spill out of me till levels returned to “normal,” and then do it again once things started spilling over.

Telling some one to “take it easy” is asking them to internalize something that needs to be jettisoned.  Asking them what they are feeling is an invitation to vet the poisonous thoughts.  When those thoughts and emotions come spilling through the flow valve the best thing you can do as the person listening…is just listen.  Don’t try to fix someone’s anxiety…just listen.

This made me think of Dr. Brene Brown.  She has a great piece that The RSA has recently converted into a short called

The Power of Empathy.”

In it Dr. Brown discusses the differences between sympathy and empathy and how empathy drives human connection.

Empathy is the number 1 tool people should use when they are confronted with someone who suffers from anxiety.  Empathy shows that you are a person we can be ourselves around and you won’t judge us for the silly things we may say.  I’m afraid of being alone while at the same time afraid of being around people…this is a conundrum.  I’m happiest at work where I can be around people but alone in my own bubble, or at home chilling out with my wife but lost in my own thought.  Empathy is the greatest tool you can use when speaking to someone suffering from anxiety because you are telling us we are not alone…when we feel completely alone.

Fear Of RestroomsIn Holmes’ Huffington Post piece she talks about the physical symptoms and how real they are.  I’ve had IBS my whole life and in the past 2 years I’ve come to appreciate (and almost fully understand) the connection between my GI Tract, my migraines, and my anxiety.  They are all linked.  The onset of a situation that causes me anxiety elicits real stomach flu symptoms that are much more serious than “butterflies in your stomach.”  Knowing this, and being empathetic to the situation, is a great help.  For people without anxiety disorders the logical solution to a migraine is a pain killer, GI issues get an Immodium, and reflux take an antacid.  However, most people I know living with anxiety disorders are scared to take any kind of medication.  I’m scared of Advil and have to read the bottle over and over again before taking the right dosage if I deem the timing to be right, such as near a meal.  Nowadays I take a Beta Blocker every morning and a Clonazepam every night for my anxiety…and it took me over a year to get past the anxiety of taking anti-anxiety pills!  Why?  Because people like me think in cycles.  We get stuck on something…a thought that rolls around and around till it becomes a fear.  Its illogical…but to us the progression to conclusion is fully logical.

anxietyHere is where it gets tricky:  The part that struck a chord with me the most in Holmes’ piece was the differences between feeling anxious and stressed out.  All of us knows what it feels like to be stressed out, overwhelmed, and emotional…which is why people try to act empathetic towards someone with anxiety.  However, this just further makes us feel “broken” because we ask ourselves (in a cyclical thought), “Why can’t I just get over this like they do?”  We can’t…at least not in that moment.  Telling someone who suffers from anxiety that you “know how they feel” because you got overwhelmed and stressed out by a situation is actually hurtful to us.  Its insulting.  Its like telling someone with insomnia to count sheep.  Being “stressed out” and suffering from an anxiety disorder are massively different.  While this is an empathic act it is relating your feeling of stress to our feeling of anxiety.  I found out that a few of my friends had gone through similar battles of anxiety.  One of my closest and best friends had an experience almost identical to mine…and when he told me that 2 years ago, I thought he was trying to be empathic but couldn’t possibly understand how I felt.  Last night the two of us went to a baseball game and talked about our anxiety together and it was amazing to hear someone who had gone through the same stuff as me and I got to hear what worked for him and I told him what worked for me.  This is where empathy works.  Two people who can relate about anxiety.  Comradery.  Knowing you are not alone.

Sympathy, as Dr. Brown puts it, is attempting to put a silver lining on a situation.  I have anxiety about this flight.  “At least you get to fly.”  I’m afraid of being alone.  “At least you get to be alone.”  I’m afraid of having a stroke and think every headache is my last moment of life.  “At least you’ve had a good run.”  That doesn’t do anyone any good.

If someone you know is living with anxiety, don’t tell them about the things that are good in their life or what the “bright side” of the situation is…allow yourself to be vulnerable like them and ask what they are feeling.  Don’t try to fix them…listen to them.  Don’t get frustrated with their physical symptoms…they’re very real.  Don’t confuse stress with anxiety…you can take measures to relieve stress, anxiety disorders require more help.  One of the things I found to be a common thread among everyone I have ever met out there with an anxiety disorder is that we scour the internet looking for “The Answer.”  The breathing technique, the arsenic in our drinking water, the pollutant in the air, the fire retardant materials building up in breast milk being passed on to newborns, climate control, fracking, WWIII, flying monkeys, government conspiracies…ANYTHING!!!  Anything that is the single answer to make our anxiety go away or explain why we have it.  It doesn’t exist.  For me I swore it was artificial sweeteners.  It wasn’t.  It was me.  I was built this way…for whatever reason.  This is who I am.

Here is what I can tell you:  (1) My friend was right…it gets better.  Its amazing how much better it can get with the right help, tools, and support.  (2) CBT therapy seems like a joke at first…but it works.  (3) Medications help.  Some people take nothing, some take a little, some take a lot.  If you were diagnosed with cancer you’d seek help and take medications.  Sometimes you need a crutch while you build mental tools and sometimes you need something to help you function better.  Its okay.  (4) Anxiety can take you on a journey of self discovery…which can be scary…but it can also be freeing.  (5) Yoga, meditation, acupuncture, etc…it all works.  Even if you don’t believe in it, you learn how to tell your brain to “shut up!”  (6) Empathy.  You’ll learn more than you ever knew about empathy.  You’ll find that most people, once you let down your guard and allow them to see you be vulnerable, will be empathetic to you.  (7) If you haven’t found that empathic comradery with other people who have an anxiety disorder, comment on this post or anything on this site and I will listen to you.  To quote Dr. Brene Brown, “Rarely can a  response make something better.  What makes something better is connection.”  I’m happy to be that connection and let you know…you are not alone.

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Anxiety Update: 2013 In Review

4 Feb

panicIts been a while since I gave an update on my living with anxiety…and that’s a good thing, because it has become far from the front of my mind.  I wish I could go back to me having all those panic attacks two years ago when I was wondering if things would ever get “better” and show myself that they indeed would.  From a blubbering mess who was afraid to leave the house to a guy who lives with it pretty well.  If (10) is living with constant anxiety about everything and (0) is living with no fear of anything in the world…I think I’m at about a (3) right now.  Maybe a (4) some days.  However, I’ve come to realize that a constant state of (o) is unreal and/or boring.  I think I spent most of my life around (1-2) with spikes to around (6) every now and then…then one day.  Bam!  (10).  After that I spent so much time working to get back to (0) that I didn’t realize that (3) is pretty healthy.

I have good days and I have bad days…but the bad days aren’t as bad as they used to be.  Good days used to mean that I coped with it well and hid my fear.  Now, good days are just good days.  Bad days used to mean I had to put my head down, close the door, and get lost in something at work to forget about the world around me.  That certainly can still happen every now and then but for the most part…bad days mean I recognize palpable anxiety.  What is palpable anxiety?  It is anxiety that exists for an understandable reason like deadlines at work, lack of sleep from the baby, and emotional hardships.

This month I will be tackling a few things I added to my “Never Again” list two years ago such as…

  • Flying on a plane alone
  • Staying in a hotel without my wife
  • Giving a speech in front of a crowd

There are other things…but those are the ones I am looking forward to the most while also being slightly anxious about them.  I spent my life as a very independent person and racked up thousands of miles flying, millions of points at hotels, and spoke to countless crowds and taught classes.  Then I had a panic attack and turned my wife into a safety blanket.  Since then, I have forced myself to do things I was afraid of and in return my mind has given me the gift of growing confidence.  That’s how I work.  When I was little I was afraid of heights and would get vertigo, so I climbed the roof of the house and sat on the top of the chimney till I didn’t feel weird.  I did this every day till being up high just felt natural.  So…now I’m afraid of being too far away from my wife or the safety of my home – so I force myself to challenge myself.  The result?

  • I went to the NCAA Final Four with my family
  • I went to World Series (1 game without my wife)
  • I have been speaking in front of small groups
At The World Series

At The World Series

Its weird…but the sports teams I root for have really done wonders for my well being and forced me to either get off my butt and experience history -or- miss it due to anxiety.  Its a great time to be a fan of Wichita State…but its the best for me because it has given me many opportunities to get past my fears.  A post for another time.  Basically, I feel like I’m on the winning side of the battle.  I’ve stopped putting timelines on things, setting unrealistic goals, and talking myself out of living life to the fullest.  I still have anxiety and still have bad days…but those are merely skirmishes and I’m looking at the war.  I’m scared to fly alone, I’m more scared to be in a different city than my wife for a few days, and speaking in front of the crowd?  Who isn’t?  Those are palpable anxiety moments.  I cannot fail…because there is no such thing as failure.  To try…to want to try…that is to succeed.  So, to my readers who battle anxiety and ask themselves that terrible doubting question, “Will things ever be normal again?”  No.  Things will be better – but only if you try to make it better.

My three-year-old Max asked me if “brave” means “not being scared.”  I told him, “Brave is being scared but having the courage to try.”  I’m trying to be a good father and husband, among other things.

Cheering for the Wichita State Shockers with my family!

Cheering for the Wichita State Shockers with my family!

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