Sunday, March 9, 2014

The important distinction between feelings and facts

Recently I was speaking to someone about his fear of flying. To help him to begin to spot distressing symptoms, I reminded him of Dr. Low’s sage advice regarding troubling sensations:

“[Y]our feelings are not facts. They merely pretend to reveal facts. Your feelings deceive you. They tell you of danger when there is no hazard, of wakefulness when sleep was adequate, of exhaustion when the body is merely weary and the mind discouraged. In speaking of your symptoms, your feelings lie to you. If you trust them, you are certain to be betrayed into panics and vicious cycles.” (1)

In my friend’s case, there is no value to worrying about a plane crash when he senses turbulence. What he feels has no bearing on what is actually happening.

Our culture tells us to trust our feelings, trust our gut, and to act on our feelings. But those in Recovery know better. Feelings and sensations cannot be controlled, but thoughts and impulses can be, Dr. Low tells us. If we allow ourselves to be swept up by emotions, we will be at the mercy of rising and falling tides of anxiety and anger.

Better to look for the facts of a situation and respond accordingly. We might feel our hands need to be washed, rewashed, and washed again, but the fact is our hands our clean. We might feel that we need to check, double check, triple check that the stove is off, but the fact is the burners are not ignited. We may worry that bumps while flying signify imminent doom, but the fact remains that we are not aviation experts and that such situations are normal. 

And in light of the disappearance of the recent Malaysia Airlines flight, we might feel that means air travel is dangerous, but the fact is that traveling by plane is exponentially more safer than by car.

“Feelings are not facts” is one of my favorite Recovery tools, and I’ve written about it previously. Like all good tools, it bears repeating. The next time you find yourself in a distressing situation, ask yourself if  you are responding to feelings or facts, and remind yourself that there is an indeed an important difference.

1. Low AA. Mental Health Through Will-Training. 3rd ed. Glencoe, Illinois: Willett, 1997;118.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Car troubles--not a reason to panic

Talk about a frustrating week.

On Sunday I went to start my car, but all I heard were a series of clicks. The next day I was flying out of town for business, so I had to arrange a ride to the airport and a tow truck to take the car to the repair shop. The tow truck dropped off the car across the street from the repair shop; I had to call back and have it towed across the street for $45. Turns out it was the battery. A couple hundred dollars later, I discovered when I returned home that my muffler was hanging low—my muffler brackets had snapped. What I thought might be a quick weld repair turned into a much more expensive job.


Throughout the entire experience, I remained relatively calm. Before Recovery, I would have been in a full-blown panic. With my Recovery training, however, I’ve become much more of a realist. Cars break down. Multiple things can go wrong. These sort of problems are average for an older vehicle.

And among all of the things that can go wrong in daily life, this is certainly a triviality—an expensive triviality to be sure, but not something to risk my mental health.

Among the tools Recovery teaches its members is the mantra, “Expect frustrations every five minutes and you won’t be disappointed.” To someone not trained in Recovery language, this may seem pessimistic. Yet when experiencing a series of unfortunate events, such thoughts help keep me grounded and in control of my emotions.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The importance of a holly, jolly holiday

This is a stressful time of year, for all of the obvious reasons. Amid all of the holiday hustle and bustle, and the resulting anxiety, I find it useful to remember one of Dr. Low’s most innovative concepts: Humor is our best friend; temper (that is, fear and anger) is our worst enemy.

Fearful symptoms, of course, are no laughing matter, but sometimes it’s helpful to step back for a moment and consider just how ridiculous our fears can be. I used to fear leaving the toaster plugged in, worried that it could lead to a chain reaction resulting in my house burning down. Hmm, don’t hear about homes exploding in flames from toasters every day, though! Some of us will check, double check, and recheck to make sure the doors are locked, as if checking one more time really will satisfy us. We might worry endlessly about an upcoming presentation, of course convincing ourselves all the while that we are the only people who have such fears.

Dr. Low advises us to be realists and, in doing so, to recognize that our fears are not based in logic and facts. He notes, in fact, that feelings are not facts. We take ourselves too seriously, often as those around us simply shake their heads at our ungrounded fears. Although we crave sympathy, there is definitely value in taking stock of our symptoms and recognizing that some of the things we are afraid of can be downright silly. Some anxiety-causing situations (for example, divorce, death, and job loss) are certainly not laughing matters, but Dr. Low notes that these problems often do not have as paralyzing of an effect on our lives as the everyday trivialities that feed most of our symptoms.

This is not to say that the symptoms generated by trivialities don’t have a profound effect on our lives but, as Dr. Low so wisely pointed out, finding the humor even amid a flare of anxiety can help reduce its impact, providing us with a release to calm down. After all, we know how powerful a good laugh can be in changing our immediate outlook. To that end, I recently stumbled across a blog titled “26 problems only anxious people will understand.” This tongue-in-cheek post from BuzzFeed might just bring you a few chuckles and make the upcoming days a little more bearable.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

I was once scared of a toaster

Once upon a time, I was scared of a toaster.

My fear was that if I left the toaster plugged in, there was a chance that the toaster could start on its own, that this strange-but-true-automatic-starting toaster would catch on fire, that the toaster would start a conflagration, that the entire house would burn down. Therefore, I always checked, double checked, and rechecked that the toaster was unplugged. I might put the toaster in my car when I went shopping just to ensure it wasn't plugged in. My mind buzzed with the possibilities, however unlikely, and a simple household appliance caused me much misery. For nervous people, this probably doesn't sound too bizarre, as anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders often lead us to do some pretty strange things in retrospect.

Recovery helped me through these feelings. I learned to become a realist. Dr. Low taught me that anticipation is often worse than realization and, especially, that feelings are not facts. I spotted my reaction as distressing but not dangerous. I decided I would no longer unplug the toaster, thereby "doing the thing I feared and hated to do," as we say in Recovery language.

Over time the urge to unplug the toaster decreased and, when I felt the need to check it, I relied on my Recovery training. In fact, the other day I noticed that my roommate had unplugged the toaster, and I promptly plugged it back in. At this moment I realized how much progress I have made since I started this blog in 2008 and my Recovery training and 2009, and for that I'm giving myself a hearty endorsement.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Handling disappointments

Sometimes things just don’t work out the way we want them to.

For example, a project I have been toiling over at work is not yielding the desired results. I’ve invested many hours in it, including many after the normal business day is over. Despite my best efforts, I can’t seem to make the progress I want. I was working myself up over this situation: I wasn’t sleeping much; my mind was racing; my mood was sour; and I felt quite dismal.

Just recently I spotted that I am trying to be exceptional, a condition Dr. Low warns us to not try to attain. I have an exaggerated sense of responsibility to this project. Although the results are disappointing, I must acknowledge that the situation, on balance, is average: Not every project I work on will have stellar results.

I am practicing internalizing these concepts, and for that I am endorsing. I understand them intellectually, but my perfectionist streak pushes back. I am reminded of the everyday saying of Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Although this situation is disappointing, Dr. Low would remind me that such everyday trivialities are never “dangerous.” With this in mind, I am finding some peace in the situation.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Airplane in trouble? Feeling or fact?

Feelings are not facts.

It's easy to forget this nugget of wisdom from Dr. Low when your heart is racing; your mind is cloudy; and your vision is blurry. Our bodies react--make that overreact--to some situations. In the heat of the moment, it's hard to deny that what we are experiencing is real. The symptoms are, of course, real, but the reality of the situation may be quite different.

For example, this week I was on a short flight. The plane experienced some very light turbulence, and instantly my heart began pumping hard; my breathing became shallow; and I was "certain" the plane was in trouble. That's what my feelings were telling me, after all.

A quick look around the cabin showed otherwise. Flight attendants continued serving drinks. Other passengers continued to snooze. In other words, my feelings about the situation did not reflect the facts.

Dr. Low reminded us that feelings and sensations cannot be controlled. They'll rise and fall on their own, and there's no use trying to stop them. However, our thoughts and impulses can be controlled, and they will always respond to our commands. So instead of working myself up about having anxious symptoms, I reminded myself that feelings are not facts and decided to read a magazine article instead of focusing on my bodily symptoms. Within minutes I had forgotten about the few bumps in the air, and my body calmed down.

Out of all of Dr. Low's teachings, "feelings are not facts" may be one of the most powerful tools he shared. The next time you find yourself worked up in either fearful or angry temper, remember this short but powerful saying.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

How Recovery changed my life

I have been blogging since 2008, but many of you may not know my back story. Discovering the teachings of Dr. Abraham Low was a life changer. I recently wrote about my journey with anxiety for You can view the story at