Sunday, December 21, 2014

Doing the thing I fear and hate to do

This year I was on more than 75 airplane flights. I travel more than any of my family or friends, perhaps even among my co-workers. I’ve been as far west as Seattle and as far east as Miami—and had a five-and-a-half-hour trip between the two.

Throughout these experiences, I have had symptoms: racing thoughts, imagination on fire, heart palpitations, blurry vision, sweating, loose bowels—classic anxiety. Yet I did not let this stop my travels. At times I was extremely uncomfortable, but I would remember Dr. Low’s words that comfort is a want, not a need. I never truly was in any danger.

Perhaps the tool I used most frequently was that “feelings are not facts.” I might have felt that the turbulence was intense, that the take-off wasn’t quite right, that the plane was in jeopardy, but the reality of the situation was always quite different. The facts were clear: I was usually experiencing normal turbulence and, at times, feeling panicky for no reason at all.

Next year promises the same level of travel—perhaps more. I have fantasized about telling my boss I “can’t” fly, that the symptoms are simply too intense. But I recognize that the only way to maintain self-esteem and overcome symptoms is to do the thing I fear and hate to do. Feelings and sensations cannot be controlled, but thoughts and impulses can be. I can control my impulse to not fly again, and I can continue to change my thoughts using Recovery tools to replace insecure thoughts with secure ones.

Thus, I’m going to give myself a hearty endorsement for practicing Recovery in such uncomfortable circumstances this year. Feeling anxious on a flight is not a failure—we endorse for the effort, not the outcome. In years past I might have indeed told my boss that I can no longer travel by plane, but a life chained to anxiety is not how I plan to live.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Embracing an active, not passive, recovery

Lately I have been reflecting on the concept of leadership in mental health. When we’re anxious, it’s easy to adopt a “woe is me” attitude. We often turn to others for comfort. In my case, I would ask my loved ones the same questions over and over, seeking some sort of relief while irritating those who only wanted to help. I thought medications alone would quickly relieve my symptoms—I was quickly disappointed.

In essence, I was adopting a passive attitude toward my mental health. I was hoping that outside forces, whether they be friends, family members, therapists, or pills, would relieve my symptoms and make life more bearable. 

What I didn’t realize then, but I learned later in Recovery, is that anything meaningful in life takes effort and will power. We celebrate high school and college graduations because it takes hard work to achieve those goals. We don’t wait around for a promotion; to advance, we have to talk to the boss about why we deserve greater pay and responsibility. With something as important as our mental health, we can’t assume that things will simply get better or that others can transform our lives.

The path to sound mental health begins with self-leadership.

On this point, Dr. Low was clear. For our symptoms to abate, we must practice Recovery techniques to improve our lives. I emphasize the word practice because information alone doesn’t lead to meaningful change. You can read about improved mental health all day long, but you will not get well until you practice techniques, deal with uncomfortable feelings and sensations, and learn to control thoughts and impulses. To do this demonstrates self-leadership.

The concept of leadership has been enormously empowering in my Recovery journey. All the tools for wellness are right with me all the time, and I have the power to improve my life. Friends, family members and, in some cases, medications can certainly be important adjuncts to one’s own Recovery practice. Yet to truly embark on an active Recovery, on the path to wellness, one must embrace self-leadership, let go of a passive attitude, and embrace change, despite the road bumps one might encounter along the way.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

When you absolutely positively ultimately have no control whatsoever

Nervous people like to be in control, or at least think they are in control. We don't like change. We crave stability and knowing that everything is just the way we want, or like, it.

I'm no exception, and this weekend has been taxing for me.

I have been planning a large event in St. Louis for more than a year, and it takes place next weekend. Recent events in Ferguson have caused me to have sleepless nights, racing thoughts, and feelings of dread. My stomach has been jumpy for days. I fear no one will show up, that my event will be a failure, and that I will be blamed.

Being in Recovery, however, I also must acknowledge that I have absolutely, positively, ultimately no control whatsoever over what is going on there. I am taking an exaggerated sense of responsibility, as I, or anyone else, could never have anticipated what happened.

By checking my e-mail and the news frequently, I have been trying to give myself a sense of control, but these activities only heighten my anxiety. To protect my mental health, I must recognize that I am powerless in this situation.

As Dr. Low would remind me, although I feel helpless, the situation is not hopeless. The conference is still a week away. Recent events have proved that the the situation can change quickly, sometimes for the worse, but sometimes for the better. Our event is more than 20 minutes away from Ferguson, and my fears that no one will show up is a reflection of imagination on fire rather than reality.

The next few days are going to be uncomfortable. I can't change my feelings or sensations, but I do have control over my thoughts and impulses. By applying realistic thinking I can temper panic and not overreact to news events. I need to keep busy, keep positive, and deal with events as they happen, as anticipation is almost always worse than realization.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Another airline tragedy--putting it into perspective

This week I was as shocked as everyone else after learning about the plane being shot down over Ukraine. As a nervous person and someone with a history of a fear of flying, I responded to the tragedy perhaps more severely than many people.

My imagination was on fire, as we say in Recovery. I fly frequently, and I found myself wondering what it must have been like for those tragic souls onboard that flight. I talked to several co-workers about my fear of flying. I was working myself up into a frenzy.

I soon realized that in order to protect my mental health, I would need to distance myself from the news coverage. Avoiding hearing more about the tragedy will be difficult in the coming weeks, but I’ve decided to not focus on or obsess over the situation. I acknowledged that talking about my fear of flying with my co-workers did nothing but upset me—I got goose bumps, my eyes became blurry, and my breathing became shallow.

These symptoms are average for me after an airline disaster and, to put the situation in perspective, I don’t have them often, as such tragedies are quite rare. I’m also providing myself with secure thoughts, acknowledging how exponentially safer flying is than driving, for example. I can’t control my feelings and sensations, but I certainly can control my thoughts and impulses.

Flying is part of my job—there’s no way to avoid it, and I wouldn’t want to. I enjoy seeing new places and meeting new people. This rare tragedy is causing me discomfort, but through my Recovery training I am able to put such feelings into perspective. My heart goes out to the families of the victims, but obsessing over the situation will certainly not help anyone.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Addressing 'woe is me' and 'why me' thinking

Everybody has good days and bad days. When people with anxiety have bad days, we tend to fall into a “woe is me” and “why me” attitude. Maybe we let ourselves perform a compulsion over and over we know we shouldn’t have. Maybe we lacked the effort to not spot symptoms and correct our behavior. Maybe we are exhausted from a stressful week compounded with anxiety. Living with anxiety can be a struggle at times and, coupled with the usual daily stressers, it can be easy to fall into despair over continuous symptoms.

When I find myself feeling this way, I remind myself that questions about why I have anxiety usually don’t lead anywhere useful. After all, Dr. Low tells us that everyone has anxiety, but we “nervous people” tend to feel the effects more acutely and more frequently, and we have a tendency to overreact to distressing—but not dangerous—feelings that most people dismiss. As anxiety sufferers, we have a chronic condition, not likely to disappear overnight and likely requiring lifelong management.

When days seem dark and times tough, I like to adopt Dr. Low’s emphasis on being a leader in addressing one’s symptoms. Instead of rolling over, lamenting my lot in life, and letting symptoms get the best of me, I decide it’s time to double down, take control, and remind myself that feelings are not facts. Feelings and sensations cannot be controlled, but thoughts and impulses can be. “Woe is me” thinking is indeed under my control. I look back on all I’ve done, endorse myself for my achievements toward a healthier life, and recognize that sometimes there are setbacks—but setbacks do not reset my progress.

Sure, from time to time I get discouraged. But taking what Dr. Low calls the “total view” allows me to put everything in perspective. “Woe is me” and “why me” thinking focuses only on the past. This is a partial view that doesn’t benefit me. Taking the total view, recognizing my progress and projecting a long-term healthier outlook, I feel re-energized and rejuvenated. Yes, I’ll have bad days, and there will be times when I wish all of my anxiety would just go away. But recognizing I am taking a leadership role in my own health, that life is so much better now that I endorse myself for continuous spotting and practicing Recovery, recharges me and provides me with an overall broader, healthier, and optimistic view on the days ahead.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Tingling sensation--distressing, but not dangerous

People with anxiety sometimes have weird sensations. Tingling, throbbing, pinching—we often suffer with these “intolerable” symptoms, which we describe as zips, pings, heat, freezings, and other words that will be familiar to a lot of my readers.

Lately I’ve had the return of an “old friend” sensation. When I drive, I feel like pins are sticking into my foot. It’s a tingling, vibrating sensation, sometimes throbbing, and definitely uncomfortable. The trigger is no surprise—I have a new car, and when I bought a new car years before I had the same symptoms. When I drive a rental car, I don’t experience this sensation. I suppose that’s no surprise, because at the root of the problem is my fear that I didn’t make the right choice: Did I buy the right car? Did I make a mistake? Should I have waited for a better deal? And so on.

To cope, I’ve continuously reminded myself of Dr. Low’s wisdom: Feelings and sensations cannot be controlled, but thoughts and impulses can be. Telling myself that these are simply anxious reactions does help, but I admit sometimes I feel defeated by the symptoms. It can be exhausting to deal with distressing, but certainly not dangerous, symptoms all day.

Over time, through continuous spotting and endorsement, I know these symptoms will abate. They did before, and they will again. There’s nothing physically wrong. Before Recovery, I would have complained about this symptom to anyone who would listen, ask friends to drive the car to check for anything wrong, take the car to the dealer to ask them to find a problem, and so on. Now, with Recovery, I’m better equipped to handle these symptoms, and I am confident things will improve soon.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Recovery training takes time and effort

There are no quick fixes to dealing with anxiety.

That may seem obvious, but in our fast-paced world people crave the easy way out. The Internet is flooded with advertisements for pills and potions, techniques and trainings, “guaranteed” to quickly abate nervous symptoms.

But these problems don’t develop overnight, and they won’t disappear that quickly, either.

However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t reason for hope. In Recovery we continuously remind ourselves that the discipline of sticking with the Recovery method leads to a path of wellness. Reading Dr. Low’s books or attending a few Recovery meetings will not lead to instant symptom relief. Yet Dr. Low reminded us that anything worth doing won’t be easy. Overcoming distressing symptoms takes time and effort—if it didn’t, we wouldn’t have these problems in the first place.

Recovery is about continuous practice—endorsing along the way no matter what the outcomes. After a short time, things will get better—any sort of cognitive training will have the same result. Recovery’s focus on a continuously applied method, regular attendance at meetings, and frequent spotting builds the character and discipline needed to face and overcome our fears. In many ways, the mechanics of the Recovery method, just going through the motions so to speak, can lead to improvements.

When I started this blog years ago, I was at a point in my life where I felt I “couldn’t take anymore” and that I needed instant relief from my distressing symptoms. Recovery taught me that such thinking, on both counts, is unrealistic, and that with continuous practice I will get better. Recovery may not be the quickest way to a better life, but I believe it is the surest.

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.