Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ear popping: Distressing but not dangerous

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

Removing the burden of perfection

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

Flying is uncomfortable—not dreadful

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!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The burden of trying to be perfect

I am continually amazed how Recovery has improved my life. Although I still suffer with fearful temper, I now have the tools to handle and muddle through situations that at one time would have been paralyzing. For example, I have a history of being a “checker.” Checking the locks, checking to make sure the stove is off, rereading documents multiple times, opening envelopes to make sure I really did put the letter inside—I would repeat these and many other activities ad nauseam every day.

In Recovery, however, I learned to let go of insecure thoughts and behaviors such as repetitive checking. Dr. Low taught me to be self-led instead of symptom-led. Perhaps most important of all, I have developed the courage to make mistakes. When I learned about this Recovery tool, I had an epiphany. I have long been a perfectionist. The idea that I could actually accept the fact that I will make errors and mistakes was so foreign to me. Yet doing so lifted a heavy burden from my shoulders, as it is not easy trying to be perfect! It indeed takes courage to stop listening to all of the warnings in your brain that something is wrong. I had to give up my passion for self-distrust and actively challenge thoughts that previously kept me in an endless cycle of doubt and worry.

I had to accept that I should not strive to be a perfectionist. I should strive to be average. Our society does not have a high view of “average” people. But I’d rather be mentally healthy and average than perfect and miserable.

Of course, every now and then I find myself wanting to check something. That’s average. Usually my Recovery tools help me fight the urge and move onto something else. Even if I have a moment of weakness I know that I should excuse, rather than accuse, myself. All of these Recovery tools have made daily living so much more enjoyable, an outcome I thought for a long time I could only achieve by being perfect.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Mantra: Feelings are not facts

Regular readers of my blog know that I have practicing Dr. Low’s teachings to help me overcome fear of flying. Recently I had a four-hour trip to Phoenix (and another on the way back). I am endorsing for using Recovery tools to help me through the experience. Among those I found particularly useful:
  • When booking my flight I chose an aisle, instead of a window, seat. When things get bumpy I have a tendency to look out the window, which I think is a fear-reinforcing behavior. Therefore, to better control my muscles I chose a seat away from the window.
  • During takeoff, when things are a bit bumpy, I kept repeating to myself, “Feelings are not facts.” Just because I felt something was wrong and was worried the plane was in trouble did not mean that was reality (in fact, quite the opposite). I ignored my body sensations (sweaty palms, racing heart, etc.). For the first few minutes into the flight, this was my mantra.  
  • I focused on reading a graduate school textbook for most of the flight, forcing myself to focus on something objective. This way I ignored a lot of the little bumps that are average during any flight.
  • When the plane encountered some mild turbulence, I returned to my mantra of “Feelings are not facts.” At these times I could not focus on reading. I excused myself for that.
  • Upon landing I gave myself a hearty endorsement. In fact, I’m still endorsing. I am not endorsing because I wasn’t nervous; I’m endorsing because I practiced Recovery teachings and am making my mental health a business. Before Recovery, the flight would have been a lot more uncomfortable.
I have more flights coming up, but I’m not dreading them as much as I used to. Recovery is helping me with everyday, average experiences such as flying.  

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Keeping my opinion to myself

One of many things I love about Recovery is that it has taught me that I do not always need to express my opinion—something that before Recovery I did all too often. I now practice exercising control over my speech muscles. This may sound simple, but for nervous people this is not always easy.

For example, I recently had dinner with friends at a chain restaurant. My companions said their food was delicious, but I found mine to be wanting. Yet instead of complaining, I chose to talk about something else, thereby not ruining my friends’ experience or making them feel guilty about selecting the restaurant.

Before Recovery I would have felt compelled to share my opinion of the meal. Although there would be nothing wrong with doing so, I decided that I would find it difficult to critique the restaurant without temper. Thus, I was group minded by letting my friends enjoy dinner without my temperamental expression.

That, admittedly, is a fairly simple example, but I have found other situations in which exercising control over my speech muscles was very valuable, such as:

• When my boss says something I disagree with
• When I’m anxious about something and want to talk it up with others
• When someone expresses a political opinion with which I am very opposed to

In each situation I’ve decided that the temperamental outburst would not only not be in the group’s interest, but also would lead to a temperamental reaction I’d later regret. If I allowed myself to express temper in any of these scenarios, I would later worry that I said something I shouldn’t have, that I made someone angry at me, that I am burdening someone with my problems, and so on. However, my Recovery training has taught me the value of controlling my speech muscles. Now I let the temperamental flare quickly rise and fall, avoiding the compulsion to say what is on my mind. And my mental health is better off because of this self-control.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Four flights, four opportunities to practice

As frequent readers of my blog know, I am not a huge fan of flying. Thankfully, I have my Recovery tools to help me.

This week I had a day trip that required me to be on four planes in one day. I tried to remember that anticipation is often worse than realization. On the first flight I was very nervous and on edge. I did not make a full effort to address my symptoms.

By the second flight I knew I had to make my mental health a business. So instead of sitting and worrying, I decided to focus on reading my graduate class's textbook. Amazingly, even when the plane experienced turbulence, I remained calm and indifferent. I applied Dr. Low's method of using objectivity to concentrate on something else. This strategy worked on my third flight as well. On the fourth flight I spoke with a fellow passenger during the trip to keep my mind off my fears--another form of objectivity. And once the trip was over, I endorsed for having the will to effort and tolerating uncomfortable feelings.

Before Recovery I would have been terrified during the entire experience. I might have even avoided the trip altogether. But with my Recovery training I know it is not how I feel but how I function that really matters. Despite some uncomfortableness, I muddled through. I chose obligation over inclination, and I demonstrated leadership in my own Recovery process.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Tina Turner and Dr. Low

Dr. Low tells us that humor is our best friend and temper is our worst enemy when dealing with symptoms. With that in mind, I recently realized that some of Tina Turner’s famous song lyrics have some things in common with Recovery principles!

Dr. Low: It’s OK to be average.
Tina Turner: We don’t need another hero.

Dr. Low: It’s not how you feel, it’s how you function.
Tina Turner: What’s love got to do with it?

I doubt Tina Turner even knows what Recovery is all about, and this is admittedly a bit silly. But it’s a good reminder that when we find ourselves all tied up in anxious knots, a little humor can go a long way toward feeling better. The next time you feel down, think of Turner singing "Proud Mary"; you'll find it hard not to smile.

Any other Tina Turner sayings you can think of that are reflective of Recovery?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Confessions of a perfectionist

I’ll admit it: I am a perfectionist. I like to be number 1, to have everything work just right, to be at the top of the class, to be at the front of the line, to be the highest performer. The problem is that trying to be perfect is exhausting—and taxing on my mental health.

Recently I turned in an assignment for a class. Afterward I agonized over whether my submission would meet all of the grading criteria. More specifically, I was worried I would not receive a perfect score. I had trouble sleeping, talked up the paper with friends, and felt nervous and tense. Finally a friend reminded me that this is a triviality—that the earth won’t stop spinning if I receive a less-than-perfect grade! I realized that I was violating Recovery’s principle of being average by trying to be exceptional. I allowed my imagination to be on fire.

After this experience, I felt a bit guilty for not practicing my Recovery training better. However, Dr. Low reminds us to endorse for the effort, not the outcome, and before Recovery I would not have stopped this vicious cycle and would have continued to worry. After all, we are not to try to practice Recovery perfectly, but rather as an average person.