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.