Last weekend I went to the movies with a friend. When we entered the theater, I experienced a little anxiety. We nervous people often become tense when there are many choices, and we have a tendency to work up even trivial situations, such as selecting the "best" seat in the house.
We chose one location, but I thought it was not ideal, as it was near the aisle. I suggested we move to a more central position, which we both agreed was better. As the previews began I heard a baby whimper behind me. That's when I began to work myself up.
I felt a mixture of anger and fear. I was angry that someone would bring a child to a movie that, although not "adult" oriented, was not a film marketed to young kids. How rude, how inconsiderate, I thought. I wanted to move but also feared that the family behind me would consider me rude and inconsiderate for displaying my displeasure. For a moment I did not know what to do. I felt my heart beginning to race.
I then realized any decision would steady me, as Dr. Low suggests. I decided that the seats were still in a great location and that the baby was not being too loud. In fact, to my amazement the child was very quiet throughout the movie (Dr. Low reminds us to not work up a situation in the "preview"). In fact, a couple of his outbursts were a bit comical given what was going on onscreen.
A few days later, I realized that I overcame my fearful and angry temper by not allowing the situation to spiral into a vicious cycle. Yes, this was a triviality, but these everyday occurrences, not life's real emergencies, are what usually give us the most symptoms. I endorsed for being group minded to my friend and the people around me. Recovery served me well during a night at the movies.
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
We nervous people are often too hard on ourselves when we have a setback. We may make phenomenal progress only to feel guilt and shame for giving into a compulsion, failing to spot symptoms and use our tools to address them, or for missing meetings. In essence, even in our journey toward becoming well we demand perfection of ourselves; we want to be exceptional and never make a mistake as we try to improve our mental health.
Yet Dr. Low reminds us that we are apprentices in recovery and, as such, we are constantly learning about how to address our symptoms (Low, 1995, pp. 57-64). Especially when we begin addressing our fears and triggers, we must expect setbacks, just as an apprentice will certainly make mistakes as he/she learns a trade. We wouldn’t expect a plumber apprentice to know all the tools of the profession after only a week, a month, or even a year on the job, so we shouldn’t expect that we will be experts at recovering in similar time frames.
In fact, we are always training, continuously spotting our symptoms and using tools to address them. We are practicing, just as doctors practice medicine. Mistakes or setbacks are unavoidable but, as Dr. Low reminds us, the setback does not signal the return of the illness.
I prefer to use a setback as a learning opportunity. When I feel an old symptom creep back, such as the urge to double check that the stove is off, I don’t work myself up. Instead, I spot the symptom and use tools to get through—in this case, “Feelings are not facts."
Fearing the setback won’t make us healthier. Neither will anticipating them. But taking a realistic view of them certainly will.
Low, AA. (1995). Manage Your Fears, Manager Your Anger: A Psychiatrist Speaks. Willett: Glencoe, IL.
Saturday, January 26, 2013
Recently a friend confided in me that he is having problems with his significant other. He wants him to be more loving, more talkative, more giving, and so on. When I suggested that he was asking his partner to be exceptional, he was surprised by my observation. I reminded him that Dr. Low says we should not expect the exceptional from ourselves and others, and we would forgo much misery if we accepted others (and ourselves) for their average.
This sounds simple but can be difficult in practice. We are disappointed when someone doesn’t meet our expectations, but we need to step back and evaluate whether those expectations were reasonable. In my friend’s case, if his partner was not customarily affectionate, why should he raise his temper and develop angry/nervous symptoms for expecting him to be more affectionate? Dr. Low says we do not need to accept relationships we find unfulfilling, but we will avoid much misery and personal turmoil if we acknowledge people’s averages and do not expect—or demand—them to be exceptional.
We need to apply this concept to ourselves, too. For example, I am usually nervous when an airplane takes off. That’s my average. I would be employing exceptional thinking if I expected otherwise. So instead of working myself up and developing angry/nervous systems over being anxious, I should accept that these sensations are normal—that is, average—for me, remind myself that feelings are not facts, and practice forced objectivity by focusing on a book during takeoff. Over time this practice likely will change my average experience, and I will have a new average in which I don’t give plane rides a second thought. In the meantime, though, why should I get angry at myself for experiencing average sensations? Why should I feel disappointed or angry at myself for not meeting an exceptional standard?
Dr. Low’s concept of averageness is one of his most powerful teachings. It’s counterintuitive to our inclination to want to change people or constantly demand more from ourselves. We do not have to accept abusive situations or relationships that are unfulfilling, and we should strive to improve our long-term average when we are dissatisfied with our current performance. But in the meantime recognizing that others and ourselves generally adhere to average patterns can help us avoid anger and fear that otherwise cloud our lives and disrupt our well-being.
Saturday, December 22, 2012
Nervous people are often troubled by normal body sensations. A tingling here, an ache there—little annoyances most people would quickly dismiss we have a tendency to analyze, fret over, and work up.
Recently I noticed my ears popping when I was involved in deep concentration on school or work projects. I was not worried about a medical condition, but I found the sensations distressing. I’m far enough in my Recovery training to recognize that they were not dangerous, but I started to work myself up over them. I had thoughts such as, Why are my ears popping? This is making it difficult to concentrate. This is so annoying. Why won’t this go away? I was being distracted by these thoughts, and my temper began to build: When my ears would pop my heart would race and my breathing would become shallow.
Thankfully, I soon remembered Dr. Low’s comments on handling such situations. We can control thoughts and impulses but not feelings and sensations. The latter will quickly pass if we do not work them up. Dr. Low warns us against labeling symptoms as “intolerable” or “unbearable,” as such language distorts the reality that these are minor annoyances that will quickly pass—if we allow them to do so.
Every now and again my ears will pop, but I try not to pay too much attention. As Dr. Low predicts, the sensations subside when I don’t give them any importance. In former days, I would have come to dread ear popping. In fact, just the thought of it would have thrown me into a panic. Thankfully, with my Recovery training I recognize that symptoms are distressing but not dangerous, and I can nip potential threats to my Recovery in the bud long before they become serious problems.
Thursday, November 22, 2012
No one likes making mistakes. Our culture emphasizes perfection, so mistakes are seen as failures, not as learning experiences. Nervous people go a step further by fearing the possibility of making mistakes. Just the idea of forgetting to sign a check, accidentally offending someone, buying the wrong gift, and so on can make our hearts race, our palms sweat, and our minds whirl.
Great thinkers have long recognized that making mistakes is key to learning. We should not fear what is human nature. Of course, mistakes make us uncomfortable—that’s only human. But Dr. Low advises us to have the courage to make mistakes. Notice in my list of mistakes we fear that I did not mention anything major. Anxious people, much to our surprise, usually perform with rational thought and calm intent when making life’s big decisions. Instead, it’s the daily trivialities that throw us into a tizzy. Yet Dr. Low (1997) notes, “Mistakes made in trivial performances are trivial themselves, and their possible consequences are just as trivial and not to be feared” (p. 249).
Removing the burden of perfection is incredibly freeing. The next time you feel yourself tightening up over the need to be perfect, take a deep breath and remind yourself that it is indeed OK to make mistakes, that you have the courage to make mistakes. This realization has helped me in all aspects of my life. And when you “lower your standards” for yourself your performance will actually rise. Yes, making occasional mistakes actually leads to better results over time!
1. Low, AA. (1997). Mental health through will-training (3rd ed.). Glencoe, IL: Willett.
Thursday, September 6, 2012
Today I will be on an airplane.
Just a few months ago I would have dreaded the upcoming experience. While I am far along in my Recovery journey and would not have tried to avoid the trip, it would have been a very uncomfortable activity. But I have learned that it will be just that: uncomfortable. Not excruciating. Not unbearable. Just uncomfortable.
Dr. Low frequently reminds us that we crave comfort, and when we begin to dread discomfort we develop a vicious cycle of fear and anxiety. I now understand, through my Recovery training, that should I experience chest palpitations, intense sweating, blurry vision, and other “intense” symptoms, I should accept them as merely feelings and sensations, which I cannot control. I can control my thoughts and impulses. I am often amazed by how quickly the sensations will dissipate when I do not work them up.
I acknowledge that I am feeling nervous about the trip today. I am a little shaky and my stomach is jittery. Yet I am not concerned about these sensations because they are an average experience before I fly. Of course, I do not like them, but I’m not letting them bother me. They will wax and wane throughout the day, but by not working them up I will minimize their impact and proceed with my day. In the past I would want to call someone to discuss my “agonies” for hours. Now I know that such a bid for comfort rarely resolves symptoms and, in fact, enhances them.
I am bearing the discomfort and fulfilling my work responsibilities. I am moving forward in my Recovery journey. I am taking control away from anxiety. And for all of that I heartily endorse!