Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Handling distressing thoughts

Unwanted negative thoughts bother a lot of anxious people. These thoughts might be scandalous, lurid, heretical, or otherwise distasteful. They certainly don’t reflect their personalities or perspectives, yet they arrive unexpectedly and cause distress.

These thoughts are common for anxious people and should not be a source of shame or fear. A person might worry that he/she might say these thoughts aloud in a meeting, during prayer, etc., but that would never happen, as Dr. Low reminds us that the muscles always respond to the commands of the brain (unless there is an underlying medical problem). These thoughts bother us so much because we fear that we will say or do things we don’t want to; we’ve essentially lost trust in ourselves.

Yet these are just thoughts—some random neural energy that most people would immediately dismiss. Anxious people tend to ruminate on these distressing thoughts, giving them power and permanency, leading to greater distress. But Dr. Low says that thoughts and impulses can be controlled, and a feeling of being out of control doesn’t mean you really are out of control.

I find that such thoughts become problematic when I’m particularly stressed. I might fear, for example, that I’ll write a cuss word in an e-mail or drop an f-bomb during a presentation (who isn't a little stressed while standing in front of a room?). Neither of these would happen, of course, without me actually making them happen, but being overall stressed seems to weaken our rationality, leading us to overanalyze random thoughts that pop into everyone’s head every day.

My Recovery training teaches me that when I encounter such thoughts, I can dismiss them as distressing but not dangerous. My muscles will respond to my commands, and feelings that certain things might happen are certainly not facts. I embrace these secure thoughts and think about something else. If I move onto something else, usually these feelings will dissipate quickly, and even if they stick around I can take comfort in the knowledge that such symptoms are average for a nervous person. 

Distressing thoughts can be a source of great shame for an anxious person, but don't let these normal occurrences sidetrack your recovery.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Pops, pings, and zips

Zips. Pings. Buzzes. Pops. Tingles. 

Our bodies can produce a lot of weird sensations. Whether your eyes are blurry, your ears are popping, your hand is tingling, or you feel some “zips” in your head, every so often all of us feel something a bit strange. To most people, they’re just a passing curiosity.

To anxious people, however, they can be alarming.

We obsess over what these sensations could mean. Imminent health issues? Life-threatening tumors? We jump to conclusions with little evidence. Of course, any prolonged symptom should receive medical evaluation. Yet even if we are reassured everything is fine by trained experts, we continue to worry. The fear can become overwhelming. Just the thought of the symptoms can produce the symptoms themselves!

Dr. Low and Recovery remind us that feelings and sensations cannot be controlled, but thoughts and impulses can be. This is sage advice when dealing with symptoms that are distressing, but not dangerous (if told so, of course, by a medical professional).

For example, sometimes I have strong tingling sensations in my right foot. This occurs usually when I’m stressed for one reason or another. I then focus on the sensation, annoyed at its occurrence, fearful of what it could mean, and thereby intensifying the symptom. I become panicky, as not only does my foot tingle but my breathing becomes shallow and my thoughts reel. This can happen dozens of times in a week.

Yet I’ve found relief by simply acknowledging that, hey, I have a little distressing sensation, and I know that there’s nothing physically wrong. It will pass. Feelings are not facts, and this distressing—but again, not dangerous—sensation will pass. And it always does, usually when I focus on something else and forget about it. 

Medical experts continually expound on TV that we shouldn't ignore our bodies. If you think something is wrong, definitely see a doctor, or two if necessary. But when trained mental health and physical health professionals reassure us that nothing is physically wrong, we need not feel ashamed or embarrassed. Indeed, why not feel overjoyed? Dr. Low and Recovery tell us that thoughts and impulses can indeed be controlled, and over time by not giving power to distressing, but not dangerous, symptoms they will fade away on their own.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

A frustrating day, but a rational response

Today has been frustrating. I bought a utility cabinet to assemble, only to discover it was missing a piece. OK, I thought, no need to become upset over this. I'll do something else. So I decided to complete my taxes. After gathering my paperwork, I realized I was missing one of my documents. I tried to go online to access it, only to find the Internet was down.

Argh.

When we're stressed, we grow tense, and when we become tense, we often become anxious. The muscles across my chest were tight. My mind was racing. And I was not in the best of moods.

Before my Recovery training, I wouldn't have recognized that I was in jeopardy of my emotions getting out of control. I would have brewed, boiled, and found myself anxious. Everything would have irritated me. Obsessions would return. It would not be a good day.

Instead, I've spotted what's going on. This situation is frustrating but not dangerous. Frustrations like this occur throughout everyone's day. I can take rational steps to deal with these frustrations: I'll call the store and ask if I have to return the entire cabinet or if I can just pick up the missing piece. I'll gather what paperwork I have for my taxes, and wait for the rest to arrive by mail. I'll find something else to do while the Internet is down, such as writing this blog.

I'm disappointed my day didn't work out as planned, but that's no reason to let anxiety and anger rule my day.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Doing the thing I fear and hate to do

This year I was on more than 75 airplane flights. I travel more than any of my family or friends, perhaps even among my co-workers. I’ve been as far west as Seattle and as far east as Miami—and had a five-and-a-half-hour trip between the two.

Throughout these experiences, I have had symptoms: racing thoughts, imagination on fire, heart palpitations, blurry vision, sweating, loose bowels—classic anxiety. Yet I did not let this stop my travels. At times I was extremely uncomfortable, but I would remember Dr. Low’s words that comfort is a want, not a need. I never truly was in any danger.

Perhaps the tool I used most frequently was that “feelings are not facts.” I might have felt that the turbulence was intense, that the take-off wasn’t quite right, that the plane was in jeopardy, but the reality of the situation was always quite different. The facts were clear: I was usually experiencing normal turbulence and, at times, feeling panicky for no reason at all.

Next year promises the same level of travel—perhaps more. I have fantasized about telling my boss I “can’t” fly, that the symptoms are simply too intense. But I recognize that the only way to maintain self-esteem and overcome symptoms is to do the thing I fear and hate to do. Feelings and sensations cannot be controlled, but thoughts and impulses can be. I can control my impulse to not fly again, and I can continue to change my thoughts using Recovery tools to replace insecure thoughts with secure ones.

Thus, I’m going to give myself a hearty endorsement for practicing Recovery in such uncomfortable circumstances this year. Feeling anxious on a flight is not a failure—we endorse for the effort, not the outcome. In years past I might have indeed told my boss that I can no longer travel by plane, but a life chained to anxiety is not how I plan to live.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Embracing an active, not passive, recovery

Lately I have been reflecting on the concept of leadership in mental health. When we’re anxious, it’s easy to adopt a “woe is me” attitude. We often turn to others for comfort. In my case, I would ask my loved ones the same questions over and over, seeking some sort of relief while irritating those who only wanted to help. I thought medications alone would quickly relieve my symptoms—I was quickly disappointed.

In essence, I was adopting a passive attitude toward my mental health. I was hoping that outside forces, whether they be friends, family members, therapists, or pills, would relieve my symptoms and make life more bearable. 

What I didn’t realize then, but I learned later in Recovery, is that anything meaningful in life takes effort and will power. We celebrate high school and college graduations because it takes hard work to achieve those goals. We don’t wait around for a promotion; to advance, we have to talk to the boss about why we deserve greater pay and responsibility. With something as important as our mental health, we can’t assume that things will simply get better or that others can transform our lives.

The path to sound mental health begins with self-leadership.

On this point, Dr. Low was clear. For our symptoms to abate, we must practice Recovery techniques to improve our lives. I emphasize the word practice because information alone doesn’t lead to meaningful change. You can read about improved mental health all day long, but you will not get well until you practice techniques, deal with uncomfortable feelings and sensations, and learn to control thoughts and impulses. To do this demonstrates self-leadership.

The concept of leadership has been enormously empowering in my Recovery journey. All the tools for wellness are right with me all the time, and I have the power to improve my life. Friends, family members and, in some cases, medications can certainly be important adjuncts to one’s own Recovery practice. Yet to truly embark on an active Recovery, on the path to wellness, one must embrace self-leadership, let go of a passive attitude, and embrace change, despite the road bumps one might encounter along the way.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

When you absolutely positively ultimately have no control whatsoever

Nervous people like to be in control, or at least think they are in control. We don't like change. We crave stability and knowing that everything is just the way we want, or like, it.

I'm no exception, and this weekend has been taxing for me.

I have been planning a large event in St. Louis for more than a year, and it takes place next weekend. Recent events in Ferguson have caused me to have sleepless nights, racing thoughts, and feelings of dread. My stomach has been jumpy for days. I fear no one will show up, that my event will be a failure, and that I will be blamed.

Being in Recovery, however, I also must acknowledge that I have absolutely, positively, ultimately no control whatsoever over what is going on there. I am taking an exaggerated sense of responsibility, as I, or anyone else, could never have anticipated what happened.

By checking my e-mail and the news frequently, I have been trying to give myself a sense of control, but these activities only heighten my anxiety. To protect my mental health, I must recognize that I am powerless in this situation.

As Dr. Low would remind me, although I feel helpless, the situation is not hopeless. The conference is still a week away. Recent events have proved that the the situation can change quickly, sometimes for the worse, but sometimes for the better. Our event is more than 20 minutes away from Ferguson, and my fears that no one will show up is a reflection of imagination on fire rather than reality.

The next few days are going to be uncomfortable. I can't change my feelings or sensations, but I do have control over my thoughts and impulses. By applying realistic thinking I can temper panic and not overreact to news events. I need to keep busy, keep positive, and deal with events as they happen, as anticipation is almost always worse than realization.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Another airline tragedy--putting it into perspective

This week I was as shocked as everyone else after learning about the plane being shot down over Ukraine. As a nervous person and someone with a history of a fear of flying, I responded to the tragedy perhaps more severely than many people.

My imagination was on fire, as we say in Recovery. I fly frequently, and I found myself wondering what it must have been like for those tragic souls onboard that flight. I talked to several co-workers about my fear of flying. I was working myself up into a frenzy.

I soon realized that in order to protect my mental health, I would need to distance myself from the news coverage. Avoiding hearing more about the tragedy will be difficult in the coming weeks, but I’ve decided to not focus on or obsess over the situation. I acknowledged that talking about my fear of flying with my co-workers did nothing but upset me—I got goose bumps, my eyes became blurry, and my breathing became shallow.

These symptoms are average for me after an airline disaster and, to put the situation in perspective, I don’t have them often, as such tragedies are quite rare. I’m also providing myself with secure thoughts, acknowledging how exponentially safer flying is than driving, for example. I can’t control my feelings and sensations, but I certainly can control my thoughts and impulses.

Flying is part of my job—there’s no way to avoid it, and I wouldn’t want to. I enjoy seeing new places and meeting new people. This rare tragedy is causing me discomfort, but through my Recovery training I am able to put such feelings into perspective. My heart goes out to the families of the victims, but obsessing over the situation will certainly not help anyone.