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

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Overcoming a shopping fear

Nervous people can find even the most mundane tasks distressing. One I recently encountered was a visit to a clothing store. This retailer uses commissioned sales clerks, and usually when I arrive I am immediately "confronted" by a salesperson. I feel pressured, awkward, and overall uncomfortable.

On this occasion I had $200 in gift certificates about to expire, and I wasn't going to let my fear prevent me from spending them. I planned on going on a Saturday, and days before I felt tense and anxious. My mind clouded and I had a sense of dread. In retrospect, I was hardly being realistic (which I discussed in a previous post).

When Saturday arrived, I continued to work myself up, but I decided to "do the thing I feared and hated to do." Instead of making this store the last stop on my Saturday shopping trip, I decided to go to the store first. I reminded myself it's not how I feel but how I function that matters, and I encouraged myself to not work up the situation in the preview.

When I arrived I was immediately engaged by a saleswoman, but she was courteous and helpful. Then minutes later I left the store beaming--I used my gift cards and, more importantly, I didn't let my fear interfere with my everyday life. That was worthy of a hearty endorsement!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The importance of being a realist

Nervous people live in either the past or the future. When we are in lowered tones, we live in the past, rehashing what was, what could have been. When we are in fearful temper, we agonize over the future, over what may transpire.

I often find myself worrying about what lies ahead. I fear a plane crashing, a major change at work, a loss of income, a serious illness—all potential future events. Dr. Low would remind me that finding peace involves living in the moment, not working up a situation in the “preview.”

Dr. Low also emphasizes realism. A realist doesn’t fret over major life disruptions that realistically have little likelihood or that are unavoidable at any rate. For example, a realist acknowledges that, yes, all of us will die someday, but he doesn’t spend his life worrying about how that could happen. A realist doesn’t try to predict the future and finds happiness and inner peace by living in the moment.

For nervous people, being a realist is challenging. But when I stop and simply listen to the wind or my cat breathing I instantly feel relief from being able to relieve myself, even momentarily, of the immense burden of trying to worry about—and ultimately trying to control—the future. Being a realist takes practice, and I have a long way to go. Yet simply acknowledging the value of living in the present certainly reflects more realistic thinking.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A night at the movies with Recovery

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, March 19, 2013

Don't fear the setback

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

Accepting averageness

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.