Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Slowly becoming more tech savvy

Ok, so I've been a bit slow with writing lately. But when my lovely friend Patience mentioned me in her PBS Supersisters Blog (which you should check out if you haven't already), I knew it was time to start carving out more time. If you have a moment, scroll down to the post on How Stevie Wonder Helped Me Get Through Postpartum and listen to two songs that always got me up and dancing. I bet you can't listen with out getting up and shaking your booty - well, at least tapping your toes. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Quick Update

I just attended a weekend intensive anxiety group with Dr. Reid Wilson in Durham, N.C. this past weekend. (He's a rock star in the world of anxiety treatment & cognitive therapy) What a great experience! He has another group in February 2009 & I highly encourage you to check it out if you struggle with panic disorder, social anxiety or OCD (they're separate groups). It's worth the time & money - I only wish I could transport the group up to my neighborhood. Another exciting opportunity is to check out Dr. James Gordon's online class starting November 18th that looks at a more holistic approach to depression treatment. Troy commented on my book review of Unstuck & told us all about it - thanks!!

October was just silly busy, but I'll have something to post very soon about my experience this past weekend!

Friday, October 3, 2008

How Stevie Wonder Helped Me Through Postpartum

I remember sitting on the kitchen floor talking with my husband and brother, who was visiting from out of town, when "Uptight (everything's alright) came on with that amazing horn section. It was like something switched on in my body & I couldn't help but get up and dance.

I had pretty normal postpartums with my other children. So, I was surprised when postpartum was harder after my third baby - especially since she was a dream child. I felt overwhelmed and in my head way too much. I experienced my first ever bout of depression and my anxiety skyrocketed. For about a month I cried a lot, had panic attacks at night and wondered when I would feel like myself again. Feeling connected to my kids was never an issue - if anything, I felt like a Mama Bear, hypervigilant & wanting fiercely to protect my young. But I worried about what was happening to me. I worried about the kind of world I had brought them into. And, I wanted an off switch for my brain. The harder I tried to think my way out of this funk and sleep deprivation, the worse it got.

Dancing with Stevie became a family affair & helped get me out of my head & into my body. Many mornings, I'd set the alarm clock to wake us up to this music. At 7 o'clock the horns would begin, and even if I woke up feeling off, my legs would start twitching to move and I would get myself up to dance. Slowly the other sleepy heads who had made their way into our bed in the wee hours would begin dancing, too, and it was a party. My 6 yr. old always wanted to hear Signed Sealed Delivered & we would shout out the lyrics as we swung around the room.

As I look back on that time, now, I still remember how scary that unfamiliar emotional terrain felt. But, there were also many gifts in the challenge. Times that take you to your knees can be catalysts for opening, positive change, and surrender. Each child, it seems, helps loosen our grip on control and frees us to live more fully in the moment. And, I'll always have fond memories of all of us dancing like crazy - the morning sun reaching in, touching us all with its golden light, inviting us to reach for higher ground.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Self Care

It feels like, for years, I've been saying, "This is the week I'm going to start going to bed at 10pm - no matter what's still left on my To Do list. I'm going to exercise every day. And, I'm going to watch my sugar intake." (Well, truth be told, I usually say, "And, I'm not going to eat sugar this week!" But let's not get carried away.) I have a strong suspicion that doing these things will make me feel good, increase my energy, & decrease my overall anxiety, but for some reason, I find myself up at all hours trying to fit more hours into the day.

So, will you join me in taking better care of yourself this week? I'm not sure what that looks like for you, but I'm going to stick to my daily walks & weights, go to bed by 10pm & stay away from desserts as much as possible.

Let me know how your week goes & what's working for you! NEXT week is: do at least one thing everyday that scares you. I invite you to start thinking about what those 7 days might look like!

Saturday, September 13, 2008


I love finding a great, new resource book. And, just as much, I love being able to share one with others.

Maybe you've heard of this one already, but it's called, "Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression" by James S. Gordon, M.D. I've only just begun to make my way through it, but can tell already that it's a gem even for those of us who don't lean toward depression.

Dr. Gordon states that depression is not pathology, but a wake up call that your life is out of balance. This wake up call offers you the opportunity to make the classic heroes journey, which he guides you through using a holistic and integrative approach. He reminds the reader that at the crux of crisis are the Chinese characters representing danger and opportunity. Meditation, exercise, guided imagery, spirituality, movement (dance, yoga), & eastern medicine are just a few of the tools you'll find in this guidebook along with practical exercises to integrate them into your life.

Unstuck appears to be a book not just for those struggling with depression, but for anyone feeling stuck in their lives and wanting to find greater fulfillment. I picked my copy up at the library -- Let me know what you think!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Door Number Three

Sometimes I start to feel anxious in new situations & wonder, “How did this start?” I wasn’t anxious about this place before.” It’s like, “And behind door number 3 is . . . Social Anxiety! Had you chosen door number 5, you COULD have gotten this fabulous vacation along with the added bonus of OCD!”

When this starts to happen, it’s easy to think, “Why me? It’ll never get better. Just as it gets easier in one arena, something else comes up”. But, this can be a good opportunity to work at the core question, “What can fear REALLY do to me?”

Can it give me a heart attack? Make me faint? Cause me to go crazy?

Of course, the rational answer is always no. But, until I know the answer 150% in my core and through hard earned experience, I’ll continue to have anxiety & get tricked into always trying to protect myself from something “bad” happening, whatever that is.

It’s nice to imagine Bob Barker asking me what door I’d like to choose in the future & I’ll say, “It doesn’t matter – they're all the same to me."

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Living an Exposure Lifestyle

One afternoon I was talking to my friend Michael who co-directs a university anxiety clinic. We had gotten our families together to go down to the river, jump around on the rocks and enjoy a beautiful day together. To get to the river and rock jumping, however, we had to walk over a suspension bridge. To say that I don't like crossing this bridge by foot or any other form of transportation, would be an understatement. I see people casually riding their bikes over the bridge, walking dogs and allowing children to peer over the railing and shudder. It feels like it's a good football field above the water and is suspended under a canopy of concrete highway.

"Oh man, I did NOT like that crazy bridge. But, if I don't walk over it now & then, it gets harder, so I gotta do it."

“That’s good exposure lifestyle, Kristin,” Michael said.

“What did you say?” I asked.

“Exposure lifestyle. . .My colleague & I tell people that once they’ve graduated from therapy, it’s important to go on living an exposure lifestyle . . .purposefully doing things that make them feel anxious in their daily life so that anxiety doesn’t get the upper hand.”

“That’s fantastic!” I responded, getting excited. “That should be everyone’s mantra. What a great phrase! Living an exposure lifestyle.”

I've thought of that clever term often as I approach situations in my daily life that make me wonder, "Will I get anxious here?". It's a new addition to my coping cards along with some of my favorites "Stir up trouble for yourself"; "Is this Discomfort or Danger"; and one I got from my sister-in-law "Don't live a small life".

How do you live an exposure lifestyle & not allow anxiety to limit you? Are there ways that you incorporate “exposure & practice” into your daily life? -- Times when you take the elevator just because it’s good for you to do so; volunteer to present at a meeting even though you’re afraid; take the highway, even when no one would know if you took the back roads? I look forward to hearing from you!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Trip to the Zoo

“This bridge freaks me out, Mama,” says my 6 year old as we get ready to enter the National Zoo.

“I know baby. Sometimes I get nervous on bridges, too. What’s going on?” I ask.

“It makes my legs feel funny. It feels like we’re high up in the trees and the water is so far below,” she explains.

“You know what’s cool about that? I ask, getting her attention, “Your body is real smart & that’s your body’s way of asking - Is this safe?

And, what’s cool is that you can look around, make sure you’re safe & give your body an answer.

So, what’s the answer? Are you safe?”

My big girl looks at me, and then all around. “Yeah, but I still feel funny.”

“Let’s look at the bridge,” I suggest. “Hmm - looks strong – lots of people are on it – cars, too.

Let’s check the railing (we try to shake it). Nice and sturdy.

What can we tell our body now?”

“It’s ok body. I’m safe,” she tells herself out loud, smiling.

“That’s right & that funny feeling in your legs & tummy will slowly go away. Maybe it has already. And, if it doesn’t for a while, that’s ok too.”

“It’s gone already,” she tells me.

“Alright, baby. Let’s go to the zoo!”

“Yeah! I want to go see the monkeys!”

Monday, August 18, 2008

Tunnel Vision

We were on vacation at the beach last week & I wanted to share a moment from the journey.

To get to the beach, our route takes us over a handful of bridges and a tunnel that goes underwater. I could have easily gotten my husband to drive, but I knew that I needed to "stir up trouble" for myself & this was a good opportunity to do so. "You driving today?" he asked. "Yeah" I responded & smiled, "No problem." Of course, it's easy to be brave when the offending bridges & tunnel are not in view.

As we approached the bridge/tunnel/bridge area, I started questioning why I was doing this, when a perfectly good, non-anxious driver was sitting next to me. I had to keep reminding myself to invite the symptoms - to try & make them stronger - to ask them to stay around - because, all of a sudden, I really didn't want to be driving & thought, 'Make them stronger? Are you crazy?'

As I descended into the tunnel, I started wondering how strong the walls were & musing about how this is really an unnatural thing to do - driving underwater and such. Before I knew it, the visual images were rolling in of water crashing in all around us as the light from the exit faded into darkness & I wanted to slam down the gas pedal and get out of there quick!

My 8 year old daughter must have known that I needed a reminder to invite in more sensation. Just as we were about half way through, she chimed in and asked, "Do these tunnels ever flood? What would happen if they did? Would we all drown?" My husband & I smiled at each other & her impeccable timing. We told her that, yes, it would be bad if the tunnel flooded, but that it was built to be extremely strong. And, besides, there are people whose only job is to check it's safety all the time. And, isn't it cool that someone came up with the idea to make a tunnel that goes under the water & boats can travel over? (More sensation thinking about being underneath a boat).

I drove us safely into the light and, after that, the bridges didn't phase me that much. We had a fun week in a beach house with 17 people & I decided that it was alright to take the passenger seat on the way home.

My Treatment Resume

Subtitles: No wonder more people don’t seek out help when they need it; and, What’s up with all the counselors pushing medication?

*Almost done with graduate school, having fun doing exploratory work in counseling (recommended for social workers) & I have my first panic attack driving on the highway in Colorado. Grad school counselor sends me to campus doctor to get a prescription for xanax. Doctor says to take it before driving (label says “don’t operate heavy machinery after using”) & to give up caffeine. Counseling stops with the end of school with the message, “you’ll be fine”.

*6 months later I receive a six week sample pack of Prozac. I take it for six weeks and then stop because of the side effects.

*About a year later, I try again & seek out an anxiety center in my area. The shrink is very nice, we have a great rapport, but he doesn’t really do counseling. He does a thorough social history, establishes that I have excellent memory skills in repeating number sequences and sends me on my way with one month worth of Paxil samples. He, too, offers me xanax & this time I say no thanks. As I’m leaving, he tells me that once I beat my anxiety, I should come back and talk to him about a counseling job. I take Paxil for one month and then stop because of the side effects &, really, this isn’t helping.

*A co-worker recommends her counselor. He says that I just need to relax & have a little fun, lighten up a bit. I say, “I have a great, happy life except for anxiety, which is a pain in the ass”. We try EMDR. I try to help the process along and bring my own treatment plans and info that I’ve gleaned from reading. After a few more sessions & more “relax more & just do yoga” messages, I know that this is not what’s going to help & give up on counseling for a while.

*After having my first two babies, I’m ready to try again. Anxiety doesn’t own me, but I’m not driving on the highway much. I still remember what it felt like before anxiety infringed on my territory and I want it gone. I find more resources & begin reading everything I can find on the subject of “how can I get over this”. I begin exposure work on my own & make progress “taking back the roads”. I set up an appointment with a recommended counselor & it’s not a great fit. I go three times & keep looking.

*Second try: nice lady, a little rough around the edges, but she goes out in the field with clients & I like her spunk. I tell her that I don’t want to do meds, but she says that if I go on celexa for 2 years & do behavioral work at the same time that my anxiety will be gone. I try it, but don’t like it. I switch to Zoloft & stay on it for about 6 mos. We drive a number of bridges and highway stretches together. She’s got the behavioral piece down. I say that I’d like to work on the cognitive piece, that in some places on the highway, I’m still feeling really anxious & there must be something I can be doing differently. She says, I’m not sure why the exposure isn’t working for you, keep trying & the anxiety will go away. We part ways & I keep working on my own.

*Third try: I contact a psychologist friend of mine & say, Look this time I really need to find someone who’s an EXPERT on this anxiety stuff, won’t push meds & is up on the current research. I find Dr. C. who is fantastic & I really like, but still encourages I try meds. She’s worked in anxiety for years & has trained most of the area clinicians in CBT. I go on Lexapro & do a lot of great work with her. She says that I’m a dream client, that no one works as hard as I do and that it’s part biology & that I really need to work on acceptance. “I know you don’t want anxiety, but you got it. You have to accept what is.” True, acceptance is important, but I’m still feeling like with all the work I’m doing, I’m still missing an important piece. After monthly visits for a year, I feel done for the time being.

*I go off Lexapro during my 3rd pregnancy, experience big waves of panic in my third trimester and it comes back with a vengeance at about 12 -14 weeks postpartum. I go back for 2 or 3 “booster sessions” with Dr. C. and go back on Lexapro (after getting the green light from my midwife & an international breastfeeding expert). Things get better slowly. I come out of hiding and begin telling everyone. This helps tremendously & others begin sharing their stories. I’m dying for community. I start up a workbook study group (with some very cool, fellow anxiety super heroes) that meets inconsistently for a couple of months & fizzles out.

*Currently – I’m “off the junk” & not seeing a counselor. I don’t have anxiety mastered as much as I would like, but I'm realizing that what I was missing was not just the acceptance, but inviting & provoking the symptoms and, yes, acceptance. Good practice means doing something that guarantees that I'll feel anxious. I wish I could transport Dave Carbonell, Reid Wilson or David Burns to my hometown so that I could work with an anxiety guru and kick this thing once and for all (well, at least feel stronger in my skills and ready for the expected ups & downs).

Looking back over all the steps it’s taken to get good treatment, I see why so many people can live with this disorder much of their lives and never learn to beat it. Access to good information, counseling & community (plus a big dose of tenacity) makes a huge difference. When I get to be an anxiety master, I am going to open my own clinic & help offer others a more efficient path. More about that later!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Showing up

Woody Allen said that 80% of life is showing up. This is a great reminder for everyone, but especially so for people with anxiety. So often when I'm working through anticipatory anxiety, I remind myself - all you gotta do is just show up.

One of my big pitfalls with doing exposure work in the past was that I measured my success by whether or not I experienced anxiety & panic. Even though I felt good about the fact that I was regularly going out and driving parts of the highway that were hard for me & sticking it out, I wasn't satisfied because I still had spots on the road where I would get huge waves of adrenaline & experience that familiar doubt of "can I really do this?" I kept waiting for those feelings to go away.

Now I realize that good practice and getting past anxiety is to take the power back & upset the normal pattern of anxious thoughts & symptoms which can lead to panic. . . I realize that I can choose to be excited when I feel anxious in a situation & see it as an opportunity for good practice. Whenever I can, I try to say "yes" to my symptoms, even if I don't really mean it at first.

In Dave Carbonell's workbook, he says that you should ask yourself these questions to measure your success in doing exposure work.

Did you show up?

Did you work through the AWARE steps to the best of your ability?

And, after reading Reid Wilson's article (The Anxiety Disorders Game) I would add that you get extra credit for these -
Did you try & provoke your anxiety symptoms? Did you invite & say yes to them? Did you try & make the symptoms stronger & keep them stonger for at least 45 minutes?

Sometimes this is exciting work for me - I get psyched up and am ready to face anything. Other times, this is hard, hard work and I just want anxiety to go back to where it came from. But, I know that showing up time and time again and saying yes to my anxiety is the way to freedom for me. What kinds of tools/techniques are working for others out there - whether you're working through your own anxiety or helping someone through theirs?

Monday, July 28, 2008

I don't want to

Sometimes anxiety means “I don’t want to”. I’ve read about anxiety sometimes being related to hidden emotions and had an interesting experience with it just last month. First of all, I’m one of those women who hates shopping for clothes. I have a hard time finding clothes that I like in my price range and often feel like I’ve wasted my time, coming home empty handed. (If only I was a trust fund kid) But recently two things happened - my Mom & I were looking through old photos and there I am wearing the same cranberry turtleneck and black skirt in a decades worth of holiday photos. Then, we were having dinner with friends and my girlfriend commented on liking the color green in my shirt. “Oh, I’ve had this shirt since we were in grad school together”, I told her. Smiling, she said, “Oh, I know.”

It was time to venture out.

I pulled together a short list of what I was looking for and drove toward the mall. I dropped into a few stores, not seeing anything I wanted. A few more and now I’m checking my watch. Shoot, I only have an hour before I need to be back to nurse the baby. What am I doing here on this beautiful day?

The phone rang and it was my husband checking in – “How’s it going? Have you found anything yet? We’re fine, don’t worry.” I heard the joyful chortles of my kids in the background. As I walked toward the dressing room, armed with about 20 items, I felt a sudden surge of adrenaline and began feeling panicky. My first response was – “What’s this?” I questioned why I would feel panicky while I was out shopping – that’s not a trigger for me.

In the dressing room, I looked at myself in the mirror and utilized the paradox technique thinking, “Do you wanna freak out here? Bring it on.” It took a little while, but I realized that sometimes anxiety means I don’t want to; or I feel guilty. I felt guilty that I was away from my family; I felt silly for spending so much time with nothing to show for it and I wasn’t having much fun. Bingo – my anxiety was telling me to either change my attitude or just go home.

Looking back, I can think of other times I’ve had similar experiences. Maybe not panic, but that cocktail of “I don’t want to” mixed with adrenaline – for example: dragging 3 tired & strung out kids through the grocery store while they all beg for something – Can we get a cookie? Why can’t we get a cookie now? Is it time yet? Or, times when I agreed to volunteer for something just because I couldn’t find a good reason not to or a way to nicely say no.

I did end up finding a few cute things. I stopped to grab a cup of coffee and kicked up my feet to really feel like I got a break from parenting. And, when I got home, my family was excited to see the goods and welcome me back like I’d never been gone.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Super Powers

Are you an anxiety super hero? Sometimes we need to appreciate some of the super qualities that may increase our anxiety, but also make us compassionate human beings.

*Empathy – Are you someone who can walk into a room filled with people and instantly feel everyone else’s emotions? Without talking, can you intuit who’s struggling inside?
*Intuition: Do you consistently get gut feelings about things that usually end up spot on?
*Cat-like reflexes: Fight or flight? No problem. Burning building? You’d be the first one out with someone on your back.
*Courage: Do you regularly choose to practice with intense feelings of anxiety in an effort to accept, surrender and allow anxiety to loosen it’s grip?
*Humor – Do you have the ability to laugh at yourself and find the humor in absurd fears?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A love letter from my Dad

*My Dad sent me this with permission to post. I know of some people who, after sharing their experiences with family, came to find out that one of their parents, aunt, uncle, cousin, etc. struggled with anxiety and they never knew. When we put our vulnerabilities out in the open with people we trust, some really lovely connections can occur.*

This is Kristin’s Dad writing. And I relate so intimately to the experiences she describes because I’ve been there and still am sometimes there myself. She comes by it all honestly via biological inheritance; genetics has an odd sense of humor. It reminds me of Mark Twain’s line about getting tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail. He said something like, “If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, I would have just has soon passed up the experience.” More on that in a bit.

The year was 1957, I was almost 13 years old, it was early on a Sunday morning and I was out on my bike, delivering the Chicago Herald American. It was sunny, the weather was mild and there was nothing in the world to suggest to me that this would be any different from the hundreds of times I’d done my paper route in the past. I had covered the stretch of 112th Place and had just crossed State Street over by Cooney Mortuary – maybe you know the place - when I suddenly felt like I was in a dream – like everything around me was muted and slightly unreal. And then I recall this welling feeling of panic that I was going to die. I can even recall shouting, to see if this was, perhaps, a dream. It wasn’t. But my recollection is that it went away by the time I got home and I said nothing to anyone about it. But a few weeks later, another shoe dropped. I woke up on a Saturday morning with the sensation that I couldn’t feel myself breathing. The panic along with this one drove me downstairs where I blurted the news to my folks. I can’t imagine to this day how jarring and alien this must have been for them but my Dad, who was always good in a crisis, must have instinctively known that getting me calm was a first step to figuring out what was going on, presumably medically. And I remember that a couple of glasses of water and his reassuring arm around my shoulder somehow convinced me that my breathing was OK and that I wasn’t going to die. At least that morning! That summer we went to California and my folks almost turned around and went home when I had a pretty nasty attack of it in Salt Lake City. Fortunately, they didn’t; the trip still carries many wonderful memories.

The thing was, though, this was the 50’s. And no one seemed to know much of anything about Panic Disorders. After maybe a year of episodic attacks, my father, with his engineer’s way of looking at things, was determined to make a logical and planned assault on the problem. When our family doctor said he didn’t know what this was, Dad took me down to the prestigious University of Chicago Medical Campus for a full work-up. This didn’t quite pan out the way the Old Man planned. They did somewhat of a work-up but, while Panic Disorder wasn’t well recognized in those days, anxiety and phobias were. The 1958 medical establishment answer, of course, was psychoanalytic psychotherapy. And so, I started seeing a psychiatrist at the University of Chicago who, in Freud’s best style, sat there, gazed intently at me - and said almost nothing for 50 minutes at a pop. We stared at each other all summer long and, amazingly, I got better. What I know now, with a doctorate in psychology and a job as the clinical director of a large community mental health system, is that the real cure wasn’t Dr. T’s blank slate act. The “cure” lay in getting on a CTA bus by myself, transferring buses a couple of times, and making the weekly trip down to the University, despite my fears that I’d have an attack along the way. That, and the normal remitting and exacerbating course of a disorder that makes guest appearances and then disappears for months or years at a time. But what I did then on the bus – and what Kristin is doing 50 years later over bridges – carries the same principle of taking it on, practicing, flooding, desensitizing and using cognitive reframes. I would have much preferred an “aha” moment in exploratory psychotherapy, where the key from some childhood experience would be handed to me and the door unlocked. Kicking yourself in the ass and making yourself go beat the snot out of the gorilla, daily, is much less elegant and a hell of a lot more work. Unfortunately, it’s effective.

Over the years, I have had long periods of full remission, mixed periods of on and off stuff and periods where it has tormented me a great deal and made me fear that I’d lose my ability to function or make a living. I have not always fought the good fight and have avoided things far too often. Note that Kristin hit the nail on the head when she identified shame as factor that intensifies and broadens the illness. The script goes something like this: “I ran away from it. I am an awful coward. If people only knew how little courage I have, it would disgust them.” Given the stigma, you now begin to lie so that people won’t know your shameful secret. And, of course, you find yourself deeper in self loathing because you are now labeling yourself – unfairly, of course – not only a coward, but a liar, too. Yet so often in the face of the intensity of panic and the anticipation of its return, avoidance and lies have seemed like a price worth paying in the moment. Unfortunately, the interest on that credit card payment comes due and compounds itself.

But you must recognize your triumphs, too. When Kris and her brother were growing up I went through an awful period of agoraphobia associated with the panic and a dread of getting on I-95 for the wall-to-wall traffic into DC, where I worked as a reporter. Weekends I rarely ventured out of the apartment, finding comfort in my books and home hobbies like amateur radio. During the week, there were days that I called in sick and made excuses to my bosses. But most of the time, I gritted my teeth and endured feeling trapped in the middle of that traffic. What choice was there, really? I had to support my family. It wasn’t noble, it was necessity. And, for all of that, it helped me back into periods of remission, even though I didn’t fully understand the therapeutic part of it way back then.

Over the years, I have had to confront a variety of challenging situations like that and find, in my older age, I confront less – with the somewhat flawed rationalization that I’ve paid my dues and am going on strike against the damned malady. I don’t fly anymore and I climb stairs instead of riding elevators. I avoid big bridges. The flying keeps me from visiting places overseas but, while I regret the impact it has on my family, I don’t personally feel like I’m missing a vital experience. I like road trips and I like trains. As for the stairs, I’m in better physical shape, courtesy of my phobias. Thanks, phobias. My best to the gorilla! This is not an endorsement for selective avoidance – just truth in advertising. Besides, I take on the things I need to take on. I’m not crazy about public speaking, but addressed an assembly of 350 clinicians recently and am emceeing an event this coming Friday. I had to throw those items in because, despite what I tell my patients, I have more than a trace of hypocrisy about stigma and caring what others might think of me. I’ll go back to my Old Man, God rest his soul, and his wisdom. “Kid,” he’d say, “Do what I say, not what I do!”

By the way, I want to take a quick side track here on another matter. I loved Kristin’s comment about the friend who semi-jokingly asked her about hallucinations. It shows the great perceived divide out there between the putatively sane people and the putatively crazy people. But the divide is phony. What I mean is that people in America are so terrified by the concept of mental illness – and that they might catch it - that they conjure up a monolithic image that looks something like Norman Bates - and they whistle through the graveyard convincing themselves that, of course, they are different. Well, I’m here to tell you that mental illness takes on many different forms, is never monolithic and that all of us have our pieces of idiosyncratic thought and behavior. Lincoln, Churchill, Mozart all had mental illnesses and enriched our lives immeasurably and irreversibly. The great psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan was fond of saying, “We are all of us more human than otherwise.” Meaning there is no clear demarcation. Thank God. Get over it, America. Especially film makers who get rich playing to our fears.

At the outset, I mentioned Mark Twain and said that, given the choice at birth, most of us might well have chosen to avoid a lifetime of periodic panic attacks and phobias - - - were it not for the honor of the thing. Well friends, I am biased, but I will assert that there is great honor in the thing. I am absolutely convinced that the majority of people with anxiety disorders are among the most intelligent, creative people around. Almost by definition, it is the intellect and creativity that magnify the biology – dull people don’t create all those elaborate, “what-if” mental scenarios that feed Kristin’s gorilla. There’s an out-of-print book, called “Be Glad You’re Neurotic.” We don’t use that diagnosis anymore, but you’d love the book.

People with panic and anxiety disorders, in my experience, tend to have finely honed senses of humor, plenty of compassion for suffering in others and an uncelebrated and quiet courage in facing daily battles that are often invisible to people around them. Doesn’t that describe people you’d like to be around and have as close friends? Look in that mirror for a while and take it in. For every avoidance, there are far more uncounted successes – uncounted by people with the disorder. As a matter of fact, we grow and develop into people of substance and character from the struggles of our challenges.

In closing, you’ll permit me the parental prerogative, I hope, of bragging on my daughter. An undergraduate degree in writing, a master’s degree in social work, professional work after graduation in a settlement house in the community helping people in great need, birth educator, doula, spouse and one terrific mom to three lovely children. Woman of character and substance. When I saw this blog, it just blew me away. Talk about creativity, courage and giving help and meaning to others! My love for her and pride in the human being she has become is boundless. I write this with a big silly grin of button-bursting emotion on my face. You go, daughter! You’re the best!

Love always, Dad.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Look behind the curtain

One of the most enraging parts of anxiety is that one day you feel completely fine and the next, you’ve had your first panic attack and normal, everyday things you’ve done your entire life become places where you fear you might freak out, go crazy, or die. Driving in general, highways, public speaking, going to the grocery store, standing in line, elevators, heights, bridges, tunnels, getting your hair cut, signing your name, crowds, meeting a friend for coffee – I don’t claim this long list, but they’re some typical situations that people end up fearing after experiencing the height of panic.

In Dave Carbonell’s workbook he talks about what happens when we experience that first panic attack. He says that because we can’t explain away the intensity, we make something up. So, if your first panic attack is on an elevator, you tell yourself that you must have a problem with elevators. You see, our brains like to make connections and make sense of things. We either assimilate information into our current mental files or accommodate by making a new hanging file all together that says “Don’t go there. . .”

While we might think it has everything to do with the situation, it’s all about the fear of fear. What might fear do to me this time & in this place? Did I narrowly escape the last 100 times I got anxious on the elevator and THIS time I’ll lose it, go crazy, or die?

I know, I know, it sounds ridiculous in the light of reason. But imagine stepping into a grocery store and all of a sudden your heart begins to race, you feel like you can’t catch your breath, adrenaline surges and your legs feel like jelly. Internally you might think, WTF? I’ve got to get out of here. By the time you get home, you’re feeling better, but wondering if it will happen the next time you try to go shopping. Suppose it does. It makes sense that you’d want to stay away from the local A & P. But, then you find the symptoms & thoughts hijacking reason again while you’re driving, and then at a dinner party, and then at the office.

This is where exposure work is so important. In order to retrain your brain to turn off the alarm when sensations and thoughts of anxiety arise, you have to willingly go into any dreaded situation, stay long enough to feel the full extent of your fear, let it pass, and realize that you’re still alright. It actually works best when you have the attitude of expecting & wanting to feel the fear. Because, really, it’s like The Wizard of Oz. The voices that say “maybe I shouldn’t” and “you can’t” are big and booming, but anxiety is just that little punk behind the curtain. And honestly, you're strong enough to stay and take him.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Two great resources

If you're an anxiety super hero (or just love one - and really, what's not to love) I encourage you to check out these two websites.

This is R. Reid Wilson's site (author of "Don't Panic"). I would recommend first signing up for his "Free Anxieties Update & E-zine". You'll receive great information & the article that accompanies your first message is fantastic -- "The Anxiety Disorders Game". If you're a therapist, this article has fantastic ideas that might inspire your treatment groups. If you're a client (or maybe wear both hats), I love the message about approaching anxiety with a welcoming attitude. It's worth the time, I promise.

Reid Wilson also has a thorough "free self help" section (scroll down menu's). I especially like the sections on use of paradox & attitude. His center is in North Carolina & you can sign up for one of his weekend treatment groups - one for Panic disorder and one for OCD.

This site belongs to Dave Carbonell & is my other favorite anxiety site. I first found out about Dr. Carbonell when I read an article he wrote called "Float or Swim". I instantly liked his style & felt like he knew something about anxiety that I needed to know. I poured through his website, which has fantastic, very readable articles and even bought his workbook called, "Panic Attacks Workbook - a guided program for beating the panic trick". This workbook, along with a KD Edstrom CD helped me fly to from coast to coast by myself (without drugs because I was pregnant. I did warn my seatmates that I might cry the entire flight & made friends with a spanish speaking nun, but I actually felt great once we got up in the air!) But I digress.

Check out the section called "Panic Disorder & Agoraphobia". Also, he has an archive of articles which is hard to find on the site, but here's the link. Great writing, nice laid back style. I once saw him work with an anxious flyer on a TV talk show. He was sitting next to the anxious woman and as the plane took off she began getting visibly nervous & started to cry. He was like a midwife - he validated & supported her and said something like, "Hmmm. I guess that had to happen." No big deal. He clearly wasn't taken aback by her panic or worried about her running amok on the plane. I frequently think about what he said & the calming, normalizing message of his body language. If you live in Chicago, he has an anxiety treatment center - Or, you can contact him for phone consultations individually or as part of a workbook study group.

What other sites have you found to be helpful?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Existential angst:

I’ve always had a fear of death. I can remember trying to fall asleep at night as a little girl and thinking about how I was going to die some day. The fear would rise to such intensity that I would race down the stairs at full speed and jump into my mother’s arms. “Oh sweetie. Most people don’t die until they’re very, very old and that’s a long time from now. It’s ok.” We would talk about God and heaven for a while. She would hold me and I’d watch a little TV or read a book with her until I was settled down. Then, I’d get tucked into my bed again for a good night’s sleep.

I think anxiety, for some, has to do with these questions of “Why are we here? What’s the meaning of life? Where’s God? Why do people have to die? What happens next?”

Sometimes I’ll be gazing up at the sky or simply going about my day and thoughts will come in like a Fox TV newstream, “You might want to sit down for this one folks. . .This just in. . .We live on a planet. . .you know, one that’s spinning & traveling through space. . . and did you know that outer space is just beyond our atmosphere. . .and, here’s the kicker people, we’re all gonna die someday!” When we’re fully aware of this amazing existence of ours, it can take you back a bit.

Sometimes, I have to remember that these repetitive thoughts are simply symptoms of anxiety (where content has little meaning). When that happens, I start going down the “AWARE” list.

But, other times it’s a reminder to dig deeper. A reminder to have gratitude for life and the love around me. A reminder that the spiritual task of anxiety calls for us to have faith in something we cannot see and to surrender in the face of it’s awesome mystery.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Some wisdom in anxiety

I wrote this late on Tuesday night and had saved it as a draft. Before you read any further, know that our daughter is home now and recovering. We're keeping life as simple and low key as you can with 3 energetic kids, accepting the love & support of our tribe and readjusting to home life after hospitalization.

My little girl is in the hospital tonight. She’s 6 years old and her little body is working hard to get rid of a high fever, junky cough, intense stomach pains and all around malaise. Her doctor says she’s fighting both a bacterial and viral infection and is getting IV antibiotics to get rid of the former. The combination of medicine, body wisdom and time seem to be working and we hope to bring her home in two days.

I had many moments today where I felt a surge of adrenaline, wondering what was going on and when my baby would be back to her normal self.

Something I was reminded of is that, even in high stress situations, I can handle anxiety and that sometimes it serves an important purpose.

As the doctor told us that she felt that her symptoms needed to be monitored & treated at the hospital, my anxiety pushed me (and my amazing husband) to ask good questions to make an informed decision.

When I walked into the room and she was in a lot of abdominal pain, panting and looked terrible, I felt a big wave of adrenaline. This was no run of the mill panicky feeling, it was a signal that all was not right. My anxiety prompted me to get the nurse and ask what’s going on with my baby, when will we see the doctor & what can we do for her right now.

As we traveled downstairs to get x-rays, me in the wheelchair and her in my lap, my mind wandered to many dark places. My body listened closely and responded. I remembered that thoughts are not facts, just a collection of ideas, worries and imagination and decided to sing in my daughters’ ear instead, soothing both of us. I whispered affirmations – Everything’s going to be alright, baby; You’re body is so strong; I love you; You're safe - I'm right here.

Today was a reminder that there can be wisdom in anxiety. The flush of adrenaline, welcomed, shouting, “Be alert, Ask questions, Protect” empowers us & gives us direction and energy to do what needs to be done. It's part of a fine tuned alarm system that, at it's best, is essential and serves us well.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

This little light of mine

I watched the movie "Akeelah and the Bee" tonight with my family & they used this poem from Marianne Williamson. I had heard it before, but liked it so much that I wanted to share it. Keep shining your light - the world depends on it.

Our Greatest Fear

It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world.

There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other

people won't feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of
God that is within us.

It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people
permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.

—Marianne Williamson

Cat-like reflexes

I’ve got to be honest. One of the upsides of my anxiety is that I have cat-like reflex skills when it comes to my children. I can remember when my first child was learning to eat solids. I’d cut up her apple and cheese into tiny, mouse sized bites. Even when I was taking pre-cautions and being ultra careful, that “breathe, chew, swallow” function would derail from time to time. I’d go to give her another apple bit and she would start coughing and getting all red in the face. Before she knew what was happening, I had grabbed her from the highchair and turned her upside down, patting her on the back to dislodge the “foreign object” while my heart raced.

When I told my former therapist this story, she said that I should be proud. She added that in the olden days, clans needed quick reflexes to flee danger at a moment’s notice. When we talked about how anxiety runs in my family, she laughed and said, “See, it served its purpose then. Your clan survived!”

Thursday, July 3, 2008


I spent a lot of years feeling ashamed of my anxiety. Feeling like it meant something was wrong with me deep down. Wondering if people would still like me if they knew. Even though I told my family and some close friends, I held these competing feelings of wanting to talk about what I was experiencing and also not making it a big deal.

The problem with not telling people, of course, is that it makes the anxiety monster that much bigger and higher maintenance. If it’s something you have to hide, then it must be pretty bad. And, eventually, you start feeling very alone.

It’s not the right time to talk about it, I would think. Or, I don’t want to get into it -- because how do you explain that fears, which sound utterly ridiculous, feel very real in a moment of panic. And, how do you also explain that anxiety is only a small part of you, even if it tries to act big and has a flair for the dramatic?

One time I disclosed to a friend and she joked, “Well, at least you don’t hear voices in your head. . . do you?”

After having anxiety under control for a long stretch of time, I experienced a really hard postpartum after my 3rd child. Part of what brought me out and helped me heal was sharing with others what I was going through. I can’t tell you how many people stepped up and either said, “Me too” or “I get it and I’m here.” One friend said, “I hope you take this the right way, but it just makes me feel so much better knowing that you’re dealing with the same stuff that I am. It makes me feel more normal and less alone.”

Maybe there’s a gift in this anxiety after all? If we can stand psychologically naked among each other, we realize that none of us are immune to life’s challenges – And, just knowing that we’re all in this crazy life together brings us strength and makes the road all the more manageable.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Why Anxiety Girl?

A few years ago I was hanging out with my sister in law Hilleary at a bridal shower. We’re notorious for scoping out the dessert table and behaving badly at “formal” family functions – making raunchy jokes in the back of the pack; laughing out loud at inappropriate times.

Hilleary also wrestles with anxiety and has a great sense of humor.

So, there we were nibbling anything we could get our hands on and talking about feeling claustrophobic. You know how showers can get – too many people shoe-horned into a small space, oohing and aahing over houseware products, going on for hours on end. As much as we adored the hostess, we were just over it.

Noticing a sliding glass door, we had the following conversation.

“Oh my God, I’m so ready to go home. You think we can just sneak out the back door?”

“Well, if I was a super hero, I would fly right through that glass door and get out of here!”

“Yeah, how about an anxiety super hero!”

“Able to flee social situations in a single bound!”

Over the years, I’ve had lots of fun visuals of Anxiety Girl fleeing social situations in a single bound; running away at lightening speed from speaking engagements; using her super powers to transport herself to California instead of flying in an airplane.

Of course, Anxiety Girl’s real power comes from staying in the feared situation. Her real courage is in feeling the wave of fear build up – feeling the dread that something very wrong is about to happen – and, despite her worries, diving head first into the swell and floating on the other side. Avoidance is her kryptonite and exposure breaks those chains.

Friday, June 27, 2008

I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.

I’m quickly learning that one of the problems with blogging is that you’re accountable. But then, maybe that’s one of the reasons I started writing.

So, this week my husband was out of town for work. Grandma came to visit the first half of the week. The second half, I packed up my mini-van with 3 excited girls and we traveled about 90 miles to Grandma and Gramps’ house, which happens to be on the water.

About 4 or 5 years ago, I would get pretty anxious driving the highway route to her house that included two long, but low bridges. I worked on it first by driving with my husband as a passenger. Then I graduated to following Grandma’s car while I drove my own. And, finally, I took it on by myself (that is, me with the kids).

Just when I felt like it was no problem & couldn’t remember why it seemed so difficult, this particular town decided that they needed bigger bridges to let the passing cargo boats go through. “Dammit”, I said, “Why would they destroy those sweet little bridges? There’s no way I’ll ever drive over those huge monsters.” I was really irritated. Why would the town do that to me? ‘That’s fine, I really love the scenic views of the back roads’, I thought. ‘There’s no shame in driving that way.’

Well, over the past year I’ve driven over the new “monster” bridges with my husband riding as a passenger & cheerleader. It’s been predictable – real scary at first (I hate the ascent); then not so bad; and finally no big deal as long as someone was with me.

So, as Mom & I drove our separate cars this week she checked in.
“Which way do you want to go?”
“Let’s drive through the point.” I said.
“Wanna lead or follow?” she asked.
“I’ll lead.”
“Alright. See you there.”

As we approached the first bridge I felt a flutter of adrenaline, but it was alright & I felt good. But, my mind was already thinking of the return trip. I could always take the back roads and it would be no big deal. Then again, I’d started this blog and had been talking about facing your fears. Didn’t I just say that I didn’t avoid anything in my daily life anymore? Well, this route was not part of my daily life, but avoiding anxiety in general does tend to feed the beast.

Over the visit, the thought of crossing those bridges stayed with me, popping up here and there in the middle of otherwise fun events. This morning I woke up feeling anxious, but also feeling like I really had to do it. It was important not to run away. But, a chorus of voices offered differing points of view.

“You have to do it. Avoiding fear makes it grow exponentially.”
-Well, I don’t HAVE to, but the 2nd part really is true.

“Just take the back roads. It’s not big deal. We’ll be back next week & I can really take the time to practice and do it over and over again. That’s a good idea.”
-Sounds reasonable.

“Looks like rain. No one would expect me to drive over big bridges for the first time in bad weather.”
-True, but Gramps’ says the rain isn’t coming until much later.

“Then again, not doing it today will make it harder next week. What’s the difference. If you’re going to do it next week, why not today? Getting to the top of the bridge will take 30 seconds & it’s all downhill from there.”
-But what if I can’t. What if I have to stop on the bridge with my babies. (Insert image of kids crying on top of the bridge while I’m frozen with fear. Fast forward to images of them all in therapy because of me).
-Ok, in the 12 years I’ve been dealing with this crap, that’s never happened. In all my
experience and in all the books I’ve read, the thing you fear never happens. It’s a hoax. Am I going to let myself be tricked today?

“Do what will make you proud later today.”
-Alright, I’m still anxious, but bring it on.

As I packed my bags, I scribbled out a new coping card to carry with me. I looked over some notes from a pain coping class I’d taken as we prepared for baby #3 (the same philosophy that I teach to expectant parents -- I’ll post later about how amazingly similar childbirth support & prep are to working through the sensations of anxiety). "Looking good man, keep going" is from a sweet note my 8 yr. old made for me before her baby sister was born. You have to read Ina May to get the horse lips reference.

We began our drive. I looked at the faces of my sweet girls. They weren’t worried. Why should I be? I told them that we were going to drive through the point and over the new bridges. “Remember how Mommy’s been working on driving over those bridges? Will you help cheer me on like last time?”

Silence at first. Then a request for food. Then music. Finally I heard from the back, “Go Mommy Go!”

“Yeah! Ok, I wonder how many seconds it will take to get to the top of the bridge and then all the way over?” (I was thinking 30 seconds to the top, max). “Will you help me count?” They were sold. Now I had to work with anticipation.

As we drove the 30 miles it took to get there, I had some waves of adrenaline and visions of getting stuck on the bridge. I was still looking for a way out. I countered those unhelpful thoughts with mantra’s – I can do this. Up and over. Don’t fight it - that’s it. Lean into it. Watch the feelings go up and down. You are stronger than these sensations. I remembered uttering some of those same words, with compassion, to a powerful Mama in labor just last week.

3 miles to go. I called my husband for a little support and he didn’t answer (you needed to do it without me, he later said - which was true). I thought of my friend Melissa, who I teach with, as she leads parents through contractions and heard her voice, “Get up in the face of this sensation. Don’t look for a way out. Do it like your life depends on it!” It may sound dramatic, but my life does depend on it.

Now here’s a funny twist about anxiety for me & many others. The moment I saw the incline of the bridge, I felt relief. The anticipation was far worse – it always is.

I turned on Stevie Wonder (who helped get me through postpartum) and we counted to the beat of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”. It took 22 "Stevie Seconds" to get to the top & I yelled out, “Woohoo!” out of relief, put one hand in the air and did a little dance. We kept counting – 46 seconds was how long it took in total. The second bridge was 21 seconds to the top and 64 total. I thought about how I could have not done this today, but I did. I felt proud.

The rest of the ride was quiet and uneventful. I threw in a book on CD for the girls, they played peek-a-boo and entertained the baby, we talked about what the world would look like if we could create it ourselves. And, in small, but life changing ways, we can.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Coping Cards

I have little pieces of paper all over the place with affirmations and coping statements. You can find them in the bottom of my purse, the dashboard of my car, on top of my nightstand and many other places. I write them when I’m feeling good in preparation for the times when logic goes flying out the window. Almost all of them have the acronym AWARE, which I read about in Dave Carbonell’s workbook. Here’s one that I just pulled out of my purse:

*Courage is being afraid and doing it anyways.*

Accept: I expect to feel anxious.
It’s ok to be nervous here.
This is what I came for – practice with fear.

Wait & watch: Resist the urge to leave or make it stop.
Stay put & see that you’re ok.
Watch anxiety – it goes up and down.
Am I being tricked again?

Actions: Deep belly breathing; imagry; music.
Try to get comfortable & enjoy the ride; some rides are longer than other;
if you can’t get more comfortable, that’s ok too.

Repeat: Start from the top as often as needed.

End: All anxiety attacks end. It’s not my job to make it end.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

When King Kong Sits on your House,Invite Him In

So, I have this comic strip image in my head where a woman is inside of her house. The sun is shining through the open windows and as she gazes out, she sees anxiety (personified as a little chimpanzee) lurking outside by the back fence, climbing in the trees. She’s gripped by fear and begins locking the windows, sweat beads form on her brow. Over and over again, she peers out the window from behind the now closed curtains, while the chimp (anxiety) opens the front door and taps her on the shoulder.

The woman, already hypervigilant and on guard for any sight of the beast, tackles the chimp to the ground, puts it in a head lock and kicks it back outside. She throws all the locks, as she trembles and shakes, and puts a chair beneath the doorknob to keep it from coming back in.

The more frightened she gets, the bigger the chimp becomes until it’s as big as King Kong and sitting on her house, it’s eye filling up the entire window as it peers inside.

Finally, after trying everything she can think of to force him to leave (think of something else, call a safe person to help ground her, turn the music up loud, thumb through her anxiety workbook, get down on her knees and pray), she gives up and opens up the door. “Come on in”, she gestures with exhaustion. As soon as the door is open, King Kong shrinks back down to the size of a baby chimp, and jumps into her lap. The woman strokes his soft fur, but offers nothing for him to sink his teeth into. Realizing that tonight he won’t be getting fed, he slips out the back door, swings over the fence and moves onto the next guarded house.

Anyone who is an illustrator and wants to draw this, I’d love to see it!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Where are we getting with chronic anxiety?

I must have a dozen books or so on the subject of anxiety. All of them tout that panic and anxiety can be cured or treated without drugs and that cognitive behavioral therapy is the gold standard.

Since I’ve become more open about my anxiety, I’ve found out that many people in my life have the same or similar issues – teachers, social workers, lawyers, doctors – people from all walks of life. Many are taking SSRI’s, recommended by their therapists, and feeling like anxiety still takes the better of them more often than not. Many are also seeing therapists who they really like, but aren’t seeing the real, lasting results they want. I can relate. I’ve taken meds before. I’ve been through therapy. And, even though I work really hard at facing my fears and strive for acceptance & surrender, I’m still not where I want to be. Fear still slips in and can throw me for a loop and I can work myself up irrationally in anxious anticipation and end up feeling pretty miserable. Like Jack Nicholson said, in the classic movie, “Is this as good as it gets?”

So, why do so many people struggle with this on again, off again anxiety or constant, underlying anxiety that grips their lives and can’t easily be shaken? The self help books say 'quick & extremely treatable', life experience & observation says 'years in therapy, medication and just getting by'. If it’s really that treatable, what’s going on?

David Burns’ book “When Panic Attacks” is subtitled “The new drug-free anxiety therapy that can change your life.” I’d like a few sessions with him to find out what I’m missing here as a student of anxiety.

Because, I truly believe what the books say -- that even severe anxiety can be effectively treated to the point that, when it rears its ugly head over the years, a person has the skills to handle it – that with acceptance, exposure and a confidence in your skills, feeling anxious becomes no big deal.

Perhaps, we as clients need to be more willing to do the hard, often scary work of facing fears. And, perhaps more therapists need to become experts in anxiety, get out in the field with their clients, and be creative in their approaches, sticking it out until they figure out which treatment mode is working. It's not one size fits all. Most of the people I know who have quit going to therapy weren’t “resistant”, it just wasn’t helping them to feel better.

With some 40 million Americans struggling with anxiety disorders, surely we can work together to do better.

Monday, June 16, 2008

YOU have anxiety?

"YOU have anxiety?", people often say to me. "But you're so calm and peaceful all the time!"

It's true. I'm not high strung or type A. I feel calm a lot of the time. I have many friends who confide in me because I’m a calming presence for them and a good listener. But, I've wrestled with anxiety and panic attacks for the past 12 years. My first panic attack was out west while I was on spring break with my Mom. I was driving on the highway and a thought entered my head, "I wonder what it was like for Dad when he couldn't drive because of panic" and BOOM -- it was like my body, genetically predisposed for this stuff, had been waiting for this invitation and jumped me right in to a full blown panic attack. I felt huge waves of adrenaline surging across my chest and back, I felt hot all over, my hands were shaking and I felt scared that I might lose control -- whatever that meant. "I've got to pull over", I said as I very carefully changed lanes, exited the highway and asked my Mom to take over at the wheel. (Which is typical of panic that I only felt out of control, tricked by my brain, while driving perfectly well. )

If you’ve never had a panic attack before, it feels as scary as if you were being chased by a hungry tiger or if someone jumped out from behind the corner and put a gun to your head (luckily, that's never happened, but you get the visceral response). Even when everything you read says that it’s just physical sensations, nothing is dangerous, what you fear never ever comes true - the intensity of panic hijacks logic and says, “Get me the fuck out of here!”

I've learned over the years, from people like Dave Carbonell, that if I could have simply experienced the symptoms without creating a story about them (what if this happens all the time? I can’t function when I’m panicking. This is dangerous. I'll be the woman who stopped driving at 26yrs old! - something's very wrong with me - I'd better not tell anyone or they'll think I'm crazy), it would have been no big deal and the sensations would have melted away.

But, I believed the story in my head and added more chapters. It didn’t take long before I started to fear that I’d panic while driving on the highway and began avoiding. I stopped driving on the highway and even avoided some “regular roads” with which I was unfamiliar. I felt more secure if I was driving with my husband (my “safe person”).

I bought a great workbook by Edmund Bourne, Ph.D. and started doing my homework. I wanted to be over this problem yesterday, asking the question “why is this happening to me?” Unfortunately, as I read, I realized that people could panic anywhere and started worrying about what others might think if I lost it in front of them. What if I panic while I'm getting my hair cut? That would be weird and so embarrassing! What if I get panicky at work? Everyone thinks I'm calm and competent - what if that's not true & I’m just a fraud? What if I freak out on an airplane and can't get off? It might just get so bad that I never really recover and they lock me up. I was being hijacked by these irrational worries that would never happen. But, my brain started wearing a deep groove and the thoughts began to skip and repeat.

Over the years, I started having babies and realized that I had to do something about my fears and began tackling them. I had three natural births with a midwife and two of those babes born at home. From childbirth, I remembered that I was really strong and powerful and could do anything. I began planning and doing the hard work of daily exposure practice on my own, made a lot of progress and then enlisted the help of a therapist.

Since then, I’ve “taken back” the highways for the most part. You won’t see me crossing over big bridges, but those bugged me before the anxiety crept in.

I still get “wiggy” talking in front of people some weeks (which is what I do for a living). I’m not so fond of airplanes, tunnels and bridges. And, sometimes the social piece creeps in and I worry about feeling anxious around other people and what they’d think if they knew I was anxious for no good reason other than “what if they knew? What would they think? What if I lose it here?” Because, really, that sounds pretty silly when I'm rational about it. Who cares what other people think? Why get all worked up? I guess part of me still worries that if anxiety really attacks, I may take a nose dive and never recover. I read once that men commonly fear that they’ll die from a panic attack and women commonly fear losing their minds.

That said, I don’t avoid anything in my daily life anymore. I try to see things that worry me as “good practice”. When I start feeling funny again, I schedule some highway practice drives & even include the kids. Crossing bridges, my 6 & 8 yr. olds yell with joy, “Go Cowgirl Mommy!” I know from experience that I have to keep doing the work of exposure on a regular basis or I’ll slide back and feel really bad pretty quickly.

Well, that’s enough for one post. My goal in writing this blog is to normalize anxiety & offer hope for anyone who is struggling with it & feeling alone. I’d also like to provide some good resource information and links. I hope this has been helpful!