Saturday, December 24, 2011

A New Year Resolution

At this time of year, we make New Year Resolutions. Thinking about the next 12 months makes me nervous, however. Fortunately, I have my Recovery training to help me out.

A lot is ahead for me in the next 366 days (It’s a leap year :). I have a busy schedule, as I am in graduate school. Many changes are expected at my workplace, and I could be in store for a stressful year if the economy continues to sputter. One of my cats is 19 (need I say more?). Thinking about the year to come is overwhelming and stressful.

Yet Dr. Low reminds us to not work ourselves up in the preview. I’ve reminded myself to not allow my imagination to be on fire. Every year brings challenges—some good, some bad—and that’s part of an average life. Dr. Low says to enjoy times when they are good, but not get trapped in a vicious cycle when times are bad. Instead, focus on how we function, not how we feel, and like any average person I will muddle through.

Before my Recovery training I would have had no “game plan” for dealing with the year ahead. In fact, I would have worked myself up worrying about events that may never happen. Now I am more focused on the here and now and not working myself up over what may be.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Life's ups and downs

I do not like to travel by airplane. Being hundreds of feet in the air makes me nervous. However, my career requires that I travel more than once a month, so I have used my Recovery training to make the experience easier.

Recently I was on a flight that became quite bumpy; the plane went up and down and left to right. It was probably the worst turbulence I’ve experienced. Needless to say, I was in a panic. My eyes were blurry; my palms were sweaty; my body shook; my mind raced. To my astonishment, the woman next to me sat calmly with her eyes closed.

After about five minutes the turbulence was over, and when I began to regroup I applied my Recovery training. I didn’t fault myself for my reaction, as Dr. Low reminds us that we shouldn’t expect to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. I endorsed myself for controlling my muscles (not crying during the turbulence or disturbing the composure of the woman next to me). Afterward I remarked to a few people in the office about the bumpy trip, but I did not speak about it excessively. Before Recovery I would have told everyone I met about my “horrible” flight, thereby working myself up.

I’ve also come to realize that when I worry about the plane crashing I’m making a bid to be exceptional. There are hundreds if not thousands of flights every day across the world, and only rarely does a plane encounter trouble (and even more rarely it crashes). Instead of worrying about an exceptional event, I need to focus on the average flying experience. There will be some bumps, and some flights will be smoother than others. But overall I should not give into temper every time the plane encounters some rough air.

To help me with this, I’ve been practicing forced objectivity. For example, when I’m flying I listen to music, watch a video, or read. This way a lot of the little bumps go unnoticed—and my mental health is better for it.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Handling a triviality

In one of my classes I received a less-than-stellar grade on a group assignment. At first, I began to work myself up. My pulse quickened; my mind raced; and I began to blame myself. I had thought we had done an average, if not above average, job but the professor disagreed.

I remained in temper for several hours. I did spot that to talk it up is to work it up and avoided bringing up my disappointment with others. I avoided apologizing to other group members as excessive apologizing is a form of temper.

I have spotted that my imagination was on fire, and I have been taking steps to practice forced objectivity so I do not dwell on this triviality. I’m endorsing for my efforts.

Before Recovery, I would have called up many people to analyze this grade for hours on end. Now I know better. This is a triviality and not worth working myself up over.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A super spot

I recently began pursuing a master’s degree. After turning in one of my first assignments, the professor posted tips on how to answer some of the questions. That’s when I began to work myself up. Oh, there was plenty of time to submit a revision, but I began to work myself up over making the changes. I needed to adjust only a few answers, but I felt compelled to review all of my work. I wanted to double check all of the answers, not just those few I needed to change based on the professor’s advice. My mind started to race; my pulse quickened; and my eyes became blurry.

Then I spotted that I was facing a triviality, and that there was no need to review all of my work. I gave myself permission to make a mistake. I revised and resubmitted the assignment.

A few moments later I had a “eureka” moment, what I’m calling a “super spot.” I realized that I am not pursuing a master’s degree to be tense, miserable, and in temper for the next 18 months. I am pursuing a master’s degree to better myself. The uncomfortable feelings melted away upon this realization. This is now my guiding principle whenever I encounter temper in my studies.
Before Recovery, I would have thought about the revised assignment all night, talked it up with friends, and probably triple or quadruple checked my work. Now that I have Recovery training, I feel I’m better equipped to pursue a master’s degree. And my “super spot” will help me whenever I feel the need to be perfect in my studies.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Avoiding the symbolic victory

Our culture encourages us to “get the last word,” to air our feelings, and to express our minds. Dr. Low warns us not to buy into these notions, as doing so will lead to temper and symptoms.

For example, I recently received an e-mail from a co-worker making a statement with which I do not agree. My initial flare of temper compelled me to reply with my own opinion. After all, I believed my viewpoint was correct. I felt my skin tensing and my breathing quickening as I formulated a brilliant response.

However, I spotted that I was becoming worked up over a triviality—and there is no
right or wrong in the trivialities of everyday life. I decided to abandon the need for a symbolic victory and control my muscles by not sending a response. During this long holiday weekend I still find myself thinking about that e-mail, but I choose to focus on secure thoughts.

Before Recovery I would have replied to the e-mail. While I might have thought that my argument was sound, the ensuing back and forth would have led to a temperamental deadlock, which would have harmed “group life” (i.e., work). And I would have developed fearful temper as I awaited my co-worker’s response.

With my Recovery training I have avoided a panoply of symptoms. And for that I heartily endorse!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

When things fall apart

This week a major problem developed for me at work. I am not responsible for what happened, but the fallout could affect our business significantly. I first learned of the issue through an e-mail, and my symptoms exploded: confusion, sweaty palms, shakes, anger, fear, and despair. My mind raced as I envisioned everything I worked for crumbling as the result of something for which I had no involvement. (I’ll spare you the details; in the end, they don’t really matter.)

For the past few days it has been difficult to spot my symptoms. In fact, I don’t think I really wanted to. I allowed my mind to play out scenarios; I coddled my feelings; and I permitted my imagination to be on fire. I know how to maintain my mental health, but the situation was so overwhelming that I didn’t want to make the effort to change my thoughts.

The days ahead will reveal the final outcome/fallout of what happened, and I’m now beginning to spot that symptoms are distressing but not dangerous, that to know is to know that I DON’T know what will happen (Read that a couple times to get it). I’m making an effort to not let these symptoms overwhelm my years of hard work toward improving my mental health. I’m trying to be a realist and not let my imagination get carried away.

It’s so easy to fall into my old patterns during a crisis. Ultimately, this is a triviality in my life, but it seems so pressing and important right now. I don’t feel like endorsing but I will, because before Recovery I would not have made the effort to put my mental health first. I would have wallowed in my misery, talked about the situation to anyone who would listen (and even those who didn’t want to), and worked myself up so much that my recovery would be threatened. No matter what happens, my mental health must come first, and that realization is worth a hearty endorsement.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Blurry vision--distressing but not dangerous

My most distressing symptom is blurry vision. Sometimes when I begin to read a thought of insecurity enters my mind (What if I am not reading “properly” and missing something important?). Then the usual, “old-friend” symptoms develop: racing heartbeat, shallow breathing and, most distressing to me, blurry vision. I have struggled mightily with this symptom for at least 10 years.

Through my Recovery training I have learned to spot these symptoms as distressing but not dangerous. By not attaching danger to the symptom and replacing insecure with secure thoughts, I have managed to decrease my level of discomfort and “limit the damage time.” Blurry vision is still my most troubling symptom, plaguing me virtually every day. Yet now when I experience the sensation I remember to endorse myself for the effort of reading and not the outcome (my so-called worry about “understanding”). Adopting a realist philosophy, I acknowledge that I am reading just fine—thus, it’s not how I feel but how I function.

Like many nervous people, I used to think I suffered alone. Even after joining Recovery I used to think that few people experienced blurry vision. I then decided to note every time Dr. Low discusses blurry vision in Mental Health Through Will-Training, and I was surprised how often his patients reported this symptom or Dr. Low discussed it: pages 61, 62, 65, 66, 102, 106, 112, 114, 174, 228, 240, 266, 290, 291, 308, 341, 376, 377, 379, 381, 382, 383, and 400. If you suffer with this sensation, you will likely find these references very useful and comforting.

Dr. Low addresses many symptoms, including a person who had a rectal itch (333) and severe belching (385). In the end, the actual symptom doesn’t really matter; I’ve found they change and evolve over time, sometimes receding while others pop up. Symptoms are like weeds. You can cut them down but unless you uproot them, they’ll keep on coming back. To people without and even those with nervous symptoms, many sensations seem foreign, strange, and bizarre, but for the sufferer they are quite real and distressing. Thankfully Dr. Low provides us with a simple but effective method for addressing all symptoms, no matter what they may be.

1. Low AA. Chapter 46: Symptoms must be attacked where they are weakest. Mental Health Through Will-Training. 3rd ed. Glencoe, Ill.: Willett, 1997.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Finding the weakest link

As I've mentioned here many times, dropping the belief in danger is key to overcoming nervous symptoms. Of course, this is easier said than done.

Dr. Low gives us tips for doing this, including replacing insecure thoughts with secure thoughts. Taking the emergency out of the situation makes a big difference too.

I have found that these tools work particularly well with "new" symptoms. For example, a week ago I was really dreading making a call to my handyman. Temper certainly was blocking the light of logic, as I'm on the phone all day at work; why should one more call bother me in any way? Yet every time I thought about making this particular call my heart would race, my hands would become sweaty, and my mind would be filled with insecure thoughts. After a couple days of this torture I spotted that calling a handyman, and spending money on home repairs, makes me uncomfortable, and that is an average reaction for an average frustration. So I moved my muscles and made the call, and quickly the agony went away. I endorsed for putting my mental health first. Before Recovery I would have spent a lot more time working myself up before making the call.

For my "old friend" symptoms replacing insecure thoughts has been more difficult. This is really not surprising, as these problems did not develop overnight and they won't ease that quickly either (that would be exceptional, and Dr. Low advises us to be average). In this case Dr. Low tells us to attack symptoms at their weakest link. I recently read his thoughts on this subject (1) and found his words reassuring. While my symptoms are more intense outside the home, the key to reducing their intensity is to start addressing them at home, where they are not as intense. Dr. Low elaborates:

"Suppose you wish to become an airplane pilot. You will first work on prints and models, then on parts, then on machines of simple design, and only in the last stages of your apprenticeship, will you venture to manipulate the more powerful engines. This gradual progression, from relatively simple to increasingly more complex tasks, is the system by means of which every method is learned.... If a patient suffers from an explosive temper, it will be easier for him to control it where the temperamental deadlock is mild than where it is in full blaze." (1, 381)

By attacking symptoms at their weakest link, Dr. Low assures us we will improve. And that is indeed a secure thought.

1. Low AA. Chapter 46: Symptoms must be attacked where they are weakest. Mental Health Through Will-Training. 3rd ed. Glencoe, Ill.: Willett, 1997; 376-84.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Everybody has fear--not everyone develops a vicious cycle

Ah, wouldn’t it be wonderful to live without fear? I think this is a common fantasy for nervous people. In fact, when we observe people around us, we often think that these “normal” people must have such “easy” lives, free from the tortures we experience every day.

Yet Dr. Low reminds us that fear is a normal, healthy emotion:

“How can you live in this world—or in any other world it seems to me—without having fear? If you have no fear, this means you have no capacity to feel what is going on. If you have no fear, then I doubt whether you will have loved. I doubt it. You see, that sounds very attractive to be without fear, but that can’t be done. If you are without fear, then you are not human. Then you are angelic perhaps and saintly, but I told you what I want you to be: average, human and not saintly.” (1, 75)

Dr. Low elaborates on the difference between nervous people and other folks:

“[T]he average person has fears, and headaches, and numbness, and develops a palpitation here and a pressure there, but if he feels average, then he takes it for granted that this is coming to him and therefore doesn’t work himself up over it. If he feels average, he will not blame himself for having palpitations, not even for having the feeling that he is dying away. He will simply take it for granted that he is an average human being with the average human limitations.” (1, 75)

We nervous people attach danger to palpitations, blurry vision, tightened chests, rapid breathing, and other “everyday” symptoms, and thus we work ourselves up into vicious cycles. Eliminating that belief in danger is what will free us from the discomfort associated with these symptoms.

So lately when my eyes are blurry and my breathing shallow (“old friends” of mine) I stop what I’m doing and remind myself that no danger is involved in the activity, that the feelings and sensations may be distressing but are not dangerous. I command my muscles (eyes, lungs) to carry out the task at hand (reading, breathing). And when it’s complete I heartily endorse myself—not for the outcome, whatever that may be, but for the effort I invested in improving my mental health.

1. Low AA. Manage Your Fears, Manage Your Anger: A Psychiatrist Speaks. Willett; Glencoe, Ill.: 1995.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The power of secure thinking

I often have written that thoughts of danger are what drive and underlie our nervous symptoms. I recently reread some of Dr. Low’s remarks that illustrate this point eloquently:

“Nervous symptoms are the result of tenseness, and if you ‘spot them as distressing but not dangerous,’ you dismiss the idea of danger; and without the thought of danger in your brain, you feel safe; and if you feel safe, you relax; and if you relax, you lose your tenseness; and with tenseness gone, the symptom disappears.” (1, 140)

At first blush this sounds too good to be true—can it really be that simple? The hard truth is, yes, we are buying into (or, as Dr. Low would say, “pampering”) thoughts of danger. This is at the root of our symptoms. As Dr. Low notes:

“[T]he fundamental principle of Recovery [is] that symptoms can be conquered by means of simple and innocent procedures initiated by the patient, i.e., through self-help.” (1, 126)

We all suffer from nervous sensations and feelings—they make us so uncomfortable. Of course, we can’t simply change them at a moment’s notice. “Feelings and sensations cannot be stopped, calmed or controlled by deliberate effort,” Dr. Low says, adding, “thoughts and impulses alone are subject to control” (1, 136). Thus, embrace secure thoughts and your feelings and sensations will adjust accordingly.

This doesn’t happen at the drop of a hat at first, but as one of Dr. Low’s patients remarked:

“You can throw off any nervous symptom at any time for a few seconds or minutes if you spot them as distressing but not dangerous. The symptom will come back in the next minute or so. But you can get rid of it again for a short while, and then again and again. And before long, you will be rid of the trouble for hours or for the days. The symptom will return and keep returning, but in the end, you will bring it under control by plugging away at it.... That was hard for me to believe. It just didn’t seem to make sense that an awful head pressure would disappear if I made an effort to spot it. But I can tell you that when I have these symptoms now, all I have to do is practice Dr. Low’s rule, and before long, they are gone.” (1, 139)

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

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Dealing with 'little worries'

I don't like being uncomfortable, and anxiety makes me feel very uncomfortable. I especially worry about making mistakes. Ironically, my fears center around trivialities, such as misspelling a word in an e-mail, bumbling a calculation when balancing my checkbook, misplacing a bill, and so on. All of these "little worries" add up to one chronically stressed, uptight individual.

However, Dr. Low reminds us that mistakes made in trivial matters are themselves trivial. In my encounters with other nervous people, I've noticed how we often sweat the small stuff but can handle life's larger challenges.

For example, we're more likely to panic over misspelling our name on a college application rather than making the big decision to attend a college. I've also noted that in true emergencies many, if not most, of us react just fine, with a cool head and calm demeanor.

So as we work our way through our own recovery journeys, perhaps we should keep our focus on the little things, those everyday events that we can change our attitude toward. While our overall "big" goal is a long-term reduction in our symptoms, in the meantime we can make progress by focusing on prioritizing our mental health during all of the little challenges of life--and endorsing ourselves for every little victory.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Making our mental health a business

Recently I learned some news from a co-worker that upset me. Oh, it wasn't anything critical--a project I am involved in is scheduled to be completed sooner than I anticipated. I developed an angry temper because I learned the information second-hand, without hearing directly from the project manager.

I experienced several emotions. I was fearful that this project was moving forward ahead of schedule. I was angry for not being told directly of the change of plans. And as I rehearsed in my head plans to confront the project manager, I felt the need to vent my frustration.

However, I made a firm command to my muscles to not speak up at the next meeting. Recognizing the situation for what it was--a triviality--I decided to make my mental health my top priority and simply roll with the new schedule. While in former days I would have expressed my opinion passionately, I now realize that would not be very group minded. I excused instead of accused the project manager, and once the meeting finished I endorsed myself for not making a mountain out of a molehill.

We nervous people often want to speak up when we feel we have been "wronged," but in doing so the outcome is rarely satisfaction. Instead, in such a bid for a symbolic victory we usually feel embarrassed, guilty, or fearful afterward, analyzing what we said and why we said it. Dr. Low does remind us to not be "doormats," but to express ourselves with "culture" (that is, politely) if we feel the need to confront someone. Because in the end venting our feelings is not worth it if it costs us progress toward achieving better mental health. And at work this truly means making our mental health a business.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Reading anxiety

The other day I had to read an important document. Well, “important” might be too strong of an adjective, but it was something I did need to read carefully. When I began the task my symptoms—an “old friend”—showed up. My vision became blurry and my breathing was shallow. I feared making a mistake, missing something important; my thinking was very insecure.

Then I began to spot that it is average to make mistakes—and it takes courage to make them. I reminded myself that it is not how we feel, but how we function that counts. Although my inclination was to not read this document, I had an obligation to do so, and I wasn’t going to let uncomfortable symptoms get in the way.

I muddled through the task. I didn’t feel great, but I endorsed myself. Before Recovery I would start a project like this; feel anxious; start over; feel more anxious; start over yet again—and something that should take ten minutes would take four torturous hours. Now, though, I have skills learned through Recovery training to deal with uncomfortable feelings and not let them run my life.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The importance of meetings

Many people with anxiety have tried many different outlets to achieve relief: multiple therapists, different pharmacologic combinations, self-help books. While all of these have their own importance in recovery, Recovery (capital R) offers an essential ingredient to true healing: meetings with peers.

Before Recovery, I had tried many different ways to achieve relief. But what really set me on a path to better mental health was making the effort to attend a group meeting weekly. Although visiting a therapist is important, most of us don't have the luxury of seeing a professional once a week. But in Recovery you can attend a meeting (in person, on the phone, or online) every day if you like. Simply showing up is an act worth endorsing for, as are commenting on examples and giving your own. Being around people who share similar fears, angers, anxieties, and frustrations is a powerful experience and is a continual reminder that we are not exceptional; our symptoms are indeed average; and relief can and will be achieved.

You can read all the self-help books you like, including Dr. Low's, but without having a constant reminder to act on the advice the changes probably won't stick for very long. That's why attending meetings is so important. Dr. Low reminds us that changes to the brain are made "through the muscles," including making the effort to attend a meeting through getting in the car, picking up the phone, and/or logging on to the Internet--even when we don't particularly feel like it, or when we would rather be doing something else, or when we feel that we don't need meetings anymore. It takes effort to improve our lives, and attending Recovery meetings is a relatively simple--but powerful--way to improve our mental health.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Endorse for the effort, not the outcome

Our main goal, of course, is to eliminate nervous symptoms and temper from our lives. All too often we become frustrated, though, when despite our best efforts, they will not go away. We become discouraged and wonder what we are doing “wrong.”

Dr. Low, however, reminds us frequently that we cannot control feelings and sensations—only thoughts and impulses. We must allow our feelings and sensations to rise and fall on their own, using our spotting techniques to reduce their intensity and duration. And perhaps the most important lesson here is to remember to endorse for the effort but not the outcome.

At a recent Recovery meeting, a fellow group member shared her experience of using the Recovery method but not achieving the results she wanted as quickly as she desired. At some point she said she finally "got it" and her symptoms began to abate more quickly. She wasn’t sure what prompted her eureka moment, but I think I know the answer: It’s when she started to endorse for the effort—for spotting, for making her mental health a priority, for learning to endure uncomfortable feelings and sensations without making them into an emergency—and not the outcome (i.e., immediate cessation of symptoms).

Dr. Low stresses that we should give ourselves a pat on the back not because our symptoms are reduced, but more because we are doing something about them. And the more we provide ourselves with these “mini-rewards” for making our mental health a business, indeed the more quickly our symptoms will lessen. But if we focus on the symptoms themselves, we miss the fundamentals of truly becoming well: Changing our lives takes practice, patience, and perseverance. Thus, we celebrate when symptoms reside, but we endorse for all of the work we do along the way.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Being realistic

When I feel anxious, sometimes it seems the world stops. You probably know the feeling: I zero in on my symptoms such as blurry vision, heart palpitations, and tightness in the chest. The more I think about my symptoms, the worse they become. Sometimes it's hard to think of anything else which, of course, is how we get into trouble. We look for ways for instant relief: For people with OCD tendencies, this might mean performing a ritual. For others, it might be escaping from the distressing situation. Either way, we do ourselves much more harm than good by not muddling through whatever troubles us.

For example, say you're having a problem with doing something at work. You might think you are making many mistakes, but that's not likely the reality. Dr. Low called this thought process romanto-intellectualism: basically, believing that if you think it or feel it, it must be real. Such an attitude distorts reality for nervous people. In actuality, what we think or feel usually does not reflect the true situation. Dr. Low reminds us that it is not how we feel but how we function, and in most cases we perform just fine--no matter how distressing the feelings or sensations. And, using this example, if you did make a mistake, better to have the courage to make a mistake than succumb to a vicious cycle of anxiety. (After all, making mistakes is average, and we should not focus on being exceptional.)

True recovery comes to those who wait and practice with patience. Although we want instant relief, that's not realistic for boosting our long-term mental health. Letting go of our fears and being realistic is part of what Recovery is all about.