Looking Forward to Looking Back

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Brazos Bend State Park, TX (LB)

Song lyrics, memes, and more often tell us, “Don’t look back.”  It seems like sound advice.  In a practical sense, we know we should watch where we are going in order to avoid an accident.  Metaphorically, if we dwell too much on what is past, we risk missing out on great things in the present and future.

The pain of a loss, disappointment, or failure can be so great we often choose anger or avoidance as a way of minimizing the grief we feel.  It makes sense – anger is an emotion over which most of us feel we have some control, whereas grief can launch a full-fledged assault on all of our senses, leaving us feeling emotionally and energetically empty.  Avoidance is a sort of “saving face” inner voice which tells us, “I didn’t really care about that as much as thought I did, so it doesn’t really hurt as much as I think it does.”  To be fair, anger and avoidance can be effective coping mechanisms for the short-term.  However, the issues they appear to heal today can reappear as open wounds tomorrow.

Grief is a time of nevers.  “I’ll never fall in love again.”  “I’ll never forgive that person.”  “I’ll never get another pet.”  Ever heard something similar?  Ever said something similar?  The problem with never statements is they trap a piece of our psyche in a particular place and time.  Our brains are basically big file cabinets.  We file painful memories deep in our subconscious, and research has shown our brain sometimes files for us, stashing away traumatic events in an effort to protect us.  However, painful memories have a way of springing to the forefront – sometimes in our dreams, and sometimes because of a trigger such as a smell or sound.  When you prepare for the possibility of the past appearing in the present, you minimize the anxiety and depression which might otherwise accompany these troubling and intrusive thoughts.

In my job, I meet people every day who have been the victims of trauma, who have been in prison, and/or who are trying to overcome addictions to drugs/alcohol/sex/gambling/food — you name it.  Several have a special item or memento they keep close at hand which serves a dual purpose.  First, it grounds them in the present to remind them of where they are right now in their recovery.  Second, it reminds them of how far they’ve come, and how much worse things could have been had they not taken a step towards positive change.  It is something they can touch — a coin, a family heirloom, a necklace — which helps them regain focus when life seems out of control.

Keeping a memento does not necessarily mean we are living in the past.  It can mean we have prepared ourselves for those times when our present feels too much like the past.  Likewise, looking back doesn’t mean we are going back, but rather serves as an acknowledgement we have made progress, no matter how small.

Only looking forward can be daunting, particularly if you have a big goal.  For instance, if you are trying to write a novel or lose a hundred pounds or run your first marathon, the road ahead can seem frightfully long and arduous.  Take a moment to look back – look at the first word on the page, the first pound lost, the first mile you ran without stopping.  Then remember it wasn’t very long ago those small milestones were hurdles in front of you.  In moments of quiet reflection, it is sometimes helpful to look back – not so we can live with regrets or dwell on the past – but to enable ourselves to keep pressing forward.

 

 

Anxie-tea

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We all know life is good at throwing us curve balls.  Some of life’s difficulties — such as the death of an elderly relative or a child going off to college — although unpleasant, are not entirely unexpected.  The real curve balls are those sudden shocks to the system – finding out you have cancer, losing your job, a breakup – that are like suddenly being hit in the face with a steaming cow pie.

Some people expect trouble all the time, living with a constant burden of fear and worry.  Just watching the news for a few minutes should be enough to convince anyone these worries are not completely unfounded or unreasonable.  Bad things happen regardless of whether we’ve been naughty or nice.

Getting caught by surprise can send a shock wave through our coping systems, overloading us with worry and regret.   The result is often a fear of trying new things.  New relationships, careers, adventures – all are avoided because of an inner voice which echoes, “You remember how badly things ended last time, don’t you?

To say you can learn to expect the unexpected would be untrue.  Someday, bad news is apt to hit you like a bolt of lightning, and it will totally suck.  But living with the expectation of trouble also sucks; it sucks the joy out of life.  So how can we weather life’s storms today without losing hope for tomorrow?  The key is in preparation, not expectation.

People in the Gulf Coast often keep a ‘hurricane kit’ on-hand.  Those in the north often have extra supplies on hand for surviving blizzards.  For weathering those soul-crushing storms of the psyche, there is much comfort to be found in small, seemingly mundane tasks.  As an avid fan of British mystery shows, I often wondered why nearly every crisis was met with somebody saying, “I’ll put the kettle on.”  Tea was made and cups poured, but frequently untouched.  After a particularly trying day, I decided to test this peculiarity out for myself and I discovered something: the act of drinking tea is less important than the act of making it.

There’s nothing complicated about making a cup of tea, but something magical happens while we do it.  The part of our brain which handles repetition and sequence is engaged, granting us a temporary reprieve from the anxiety centers of the brain.  Granted, stopping to make tea doesn’t resolve the major issue at hand, but it does allow us a moment to catch our breath.

Try imagining the brain as a file cabinet, with the front files in disarray and those in back in perfect order.  So often, an event takes us by surprise and we feel completely powerless.  This is the front of the file cabinet, but very close behind is order – those things we CAN control in a time where everything feels quite out of control.  It may seem odd to claim there is power in making tea or coffee, or doing laundry, or any number of ordinary household tasks, but indeed there is.

When a crisis comes, allow yourself to stick with some small habit, even if it means encountering some disapproval from the people around you.  If you normally go for a walk every day, try sticking with it even if you have to limit your time.  If you write or journal each day, go ahead and write, even if the topic is how you don’t feel much like writing.  Feeling anxious?  Make a cup of tea or coffee.  Make several if it helps you feel better; nobody says you have to actually drink them — sometimes just holding the warm cup can be soothing.  The point is to focus – if only for a few minutes – on the back of the file cabinet.  The problem of the day may still need to be addressed, but you will be better able to deal with it because you’ve found yourself some breathing room.

 

Perception and Conditioning

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Photo by David Boatwright

It may seem there is no rhyme or reason to what precipitates a panic attack.  Some days, anxiety appears to creep up out of nowhere, often at the most inopportune times (not that there is any good time for a panic attack).  There are natural physiological reactions in the brain which contribute to negativity, depression, and anxiety.  However, there are some learned responses which also contribute, and unlearning them can be helpful in restoring your happiness.

Anticipation is typically associated with a positive event.  For instance, we look forward to spending the holidays with our family, or an upcoming wedding or graduation, with anticipation.  There are two components to anticipation: perception and conditioning.  Our perceptions begin to develop in early childhood and conditioning reinforces these ideas throughout our lifetime.  If an early perception is negative and nothing ever happens to alter that perception, as adults we may experience anxiety when presented with similar ideas or events.

Going to the dentist is a fairly common source of anxiety for many adults.  However, the person who had regular cleanings as a child is less likely to feel anxious than somebody who only saw the dentist when they had a toothache.  Likewise, the child who was told, “You’re being very brave” is going to have a different experience than the one who was told, “Quit being such a baby.”  As adults, we try to rationalize with ourselves — we know we’ll be fine, we know the dentist is a trained professional, and yet there is still a “this is awful” feeling in the pit of our stomach.  This is the perception aspect of anticipation.

Consider a young child who spills a drink and is told, “You’re so clumsy!  Look at the mess you’ve made!”  Perhaps the story is then repeated, “We were having a good time until he spilled his drink.”  The perception has now been created for the child, and reinforcement – or conditioning – has begun.

People who spill their drinks are clumsy and messy; therefore I am clumsy and messy.

I ruined everyone’s day by spilling my drink.

This is how a common event such as a spilling a drink becomes over-important.  Life is messy and spills happen, to children and adults alike.  There are people who, even as children, can spot the blown-out-of-proportion-ness of some adult reactions and grow up unaffected.  But the depressive brain is predisposed to absorbing negativity and feeding it back to us throughout our lives.  Even long after toxic relationships have ended, our brains replay the tapes over and over again.  This is conditioning; the reinforcement and repetition of self-defeating thoughts which are fed to us by others and ourselves.  As adolescents and adults, these messages become a source of anxiety.  We may skip out on social occasions because we think, “I’ll just end up embarrassing myself and ruining everybody’s day.”  In other words, we have learned bad things not only happen to us, but because of us.

Have you ever had one of those days where you felt you couldn’t do anything right?  Maybe it started with a bad hair day or you burned breakfast.  Then you got reprimanded at work or school over some mistake.  Some people have the gift of isolating these incidents, but for others, the brain pairs each incident with an earlier perception, bundling them all into one reverberating theme: I am a loser.  It is therefore crucial to remember two very important truths:

Your brain will lie to you.

You can retrain your brain.

Learn to isolate incidents.  It can be easy to look at life like a big bowl of spaghetti, with people and events intertwined.  Everyone and everything becomes tainted by a few negative comments or events.  Try thinking WAFFLES.  Keep a notebook handy and track what happens throughout the course of the day – both the good and the bad.  Instead of looking at the day as one collective bummer, consider it as a series of incidents, some good and some bad, but each independent of the others in its own little waffle square.

Counter-punch those negatives.  For each bad thing, identify a good thing that happened.  On a particularly challenging day, your good thing may be to simply acknowledge at least it didn’t get worse or at least the day is nearly over.  That is okay!  You are still forcing your brain to spark up a positive reaction.

Identify and eliminate ‘always/never’ thinking.  As you chronicle your day, pay close attention to both internal and external messaging.  Do you have a parent who still claims you always do this or you never do that?  Do you say those things to yourself?  Write them down.  Then, at the end of the day when you can relax, rewrite each statement without the definitive.  Beware the definitive in disguise!  “I’m such a screw-up” has exactly the same meaning and effect as “I always screw things up.”  Capture these thoughts and reconstruct them.  For instance, “I’m lousy at my job” can be rewritten as “I messed up on that project, but now I understand my mistake and can do better next time.”

Taking control of your thoughts will strengthen those positive-thinking areas of the brain and reduce activity in the areas which feed into your depression and anxiety.  In time, you will learn to filter out the negative messaging around you, and live a happier and healthier life.

2012: A “pace” oddity…

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Bridge, 2012 (LB)

Walking has been my exercise of choice for a few years now.  Not that I have anything against other exercise genres, but when somebody says “downward dog” I look around for a puppy’s belly to scratch.  Awhile back, I noticed I had some weird walking habits.  One, I was always counting things such as my footsteps or cracks in the sidewalk.  Two, I was almost always watching my feet.

One spring, I decided to begin hiking at some of the local state parks and quickly realized I had been missing out on much of the beauty around me because I was constantly looking down at my feet.  I tried adapting my behavior – walk a few steps, look around, walk a few more steps, etc.  (This may be where the counting habit came from.)  It was taking the fun out of hiking, so I purposed to identify the root of my weird walking ways and resolve them.

What I learned was my foot-watching was a symptom of my depression, or rather an extension of it.  Somehow my brain had landed on a literal interpretation of “things are looking down” and decided to personify that in my being by perpetually tilting my head forward.  I also learned I was not alone.  Look around sometime; you are likely to see there are a lot of people watching their feet.

Further research into my “pace” oddity revealed perfectionism in disguise.  What do you think of when you hear “perfectionist”?  Do you picture an A-type go-getter or perhaps a towel-straightening Sleeping with the Enemy kind of person?  If so, you may be surprised to learn perfectionism is actually insecurity incognito.  You can tell the difference between achievement and perfectionism by one factor: realism.

Achievers set goals with realistic timelines and expectations.  To them, there is no such thing as failure.  Every bump in the road is an opportunity for growth, thus making them even more capable of successfully reaching their next goal.  On the other hand, perfectionism is loaded with “what ifs” – nearly all of which can be interpreted the same way… What if I fail

Another important distinction between achievement and perfectionism is achievers tend to be more satisfied with life whereas perfectionists frequently suffer from anxiety and depression.  Fear of failure or falling can cause us to look down, watching every step, and depression can convince us we have no reason to look up.  I’d like to recommend two things which have helped me: a camera, and setting small goals.

Something about having a camera at the ready helps us see beauty where we otherwise might miss it.  Today’s blog photo may look like some old steel girders, but for some reason one particular day, they just struck me as awesome and I snapped a photo.  The content of the photo is not nearly as important as the fact I was looking up and looking ahead.  Learning to shift my focus when I walk has brightened my outlook (it has also helped me to count less).

Why not give it a try?  Set a small goal such as taking two pictures the next time you are out and about.  When you do, consider not only your achievement, but the physiological benefits of it.  Natural sunlight and natural wonders are good medicine for depression.  Looking around for new things to photograph not only redirects focus from the negative messaging centers of the brain, it sends a new kind of message – a positive one which says, “Things are looking up”.

 

 

 

 

On Becoming an Aardvark

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Photo by David Higgins (unsplash.com)

Do negative thoughts and images seem to pop into your head at random?  In spite of our best efforts to construct and maintain a positive outlook, some brains seem determined to keep their human hosts totally bummed out.  These thoughts can be very troubling and often worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety, but understanding the physiology behind them can help us minimize their influence over our moods and behaviors.

People with depression tend to have an overactive deep limbic system.  The deep limbic system is the area of the brain associated with feelings and memories.  It is also the part of the brain which pairs our words and thoughts with emotions.  For people with an overactive limbic system, most words and thoughts become auto-paired with negative feelings.

By conducting exhaustive studies of numerous brain scans, Dr. Daniel G. Amen found the deep limbic system shows low activity — or cool spots — when the brain is processing happy thoughts.  Negative thought patterns produce hot spots, which in turn produce what he calls ANTs: Automatic Negative Thoughts.  Here are a couple of tips for channeling your inner aardvark, eliminating ANTs, and cooling your brain’s jets.

ANT Elimination Tip #1: Remember ANTs will lie to you.

The depressive brain is predisposed to filtering out or distorting healthy, uplifting thoughts.  When you notice your first reaction to something is pessimistic, or when an unpleasant image intrudes on an otherwise normal situation, take a minute to write it down so you can evaluate it further.  Not everything we think is true, and thinking something does NOT have to mean believing it.

ANT Elimination Tip #2: ANTs tend to be extremists.

You can usually tell an ANT by its absolute.  Do any of these sound familiar?

  • FINITE: “You are always late” or “You never pay attention to me”
  • PREDICTION: “You’ll only embarrass yourself”
  • LABEL: “You’re such a loser”

Always and never statements are the fuel of defeatist thinking, causing us to believe the very worst of ourselves and others.  Rather than finding encouragement in the idea that we all have room for improvement, we become convinced we and others cannot or will not ever change.  We predict the future, often adapting our behavior according to these mythical expectations.  We may cancel dates, avoid friends and family members, or call in sick to work the day of a big meeting all because an ANT convinced us something bad would happen.  We then validate our predictions with labels.  “I’m better off skipping that presentation today.  Besides, I’m such a poor speaker nobody would want to listen to me anyway.”

 Can you see how easily a cycle of negative thinking can develop?  I urge you to challenge these thoughts.  Keep track of them on paper throughout the day.  Later, restate each one while avoiding finite and predictive phrases, and without using hurtful and accusatory labels.  Try doing your restatements in the evening, so you can kill some of those ANTs which try to keep you awake at night.  And consider checking out Dr. Amen’s book, Change Your Brain Change Your Life if you’d like to learn more about identifying and conquering ANTs.

 

Overcoming Anxiety through Observation

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Photo by Dmitry Ratushny

My daily commute is pretty stressful: six lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic, angry drivers, and a “Debris Challenge” as I circumnavigate random objects which appear on the freeway.  I was recently going nowhere fast (in spite of the 65 mph sign), when I noticed a new IHOP sign: not a new IHOP – a new IHOP sign.

The tiny analyst in my brain began doing the math.  I pass two IHOPs in my daily commute, so essentially four:  two on my journey in, and the same two on the way back.  If one estimates 260 workdays each year, that is over a thousand times each year that I pass these IHOPs.  And yet, it was only on this day I noticed not only a new logo, but it was smiling at me.  Something about that smiley face made me feel a little less aggravated about the endless sea of taillights ahead of me.  How had I failed to see it so many times before?

Although I am a fan of the cakes of pan, today’s post is not meant to peddle pancakes or advertise for IHOP.  Rather, that smiley face made the misery of a traffic jam less miserable; and it got me wondering what else I have been missing.  For instance, how many times have I walked from car to front door without noticing my jasmine was in bloom?

We can easily become so focused on simply trying to make it through the day that we become unable see those things which could make the day better.  Granted, everyone is susceptible to stress, but in people with depression it becomes absorbed and refined into chronic anxiety.  Still, something as seemingly insignificant as a smiley face on a sign can make a difference.  We can retrain our brains to absorb more positives and filter out more negatives, but this means we have to look for positives to input.

Seeing life sunny-side-up doesn’t come naturally for the depressive brain.  In fact, an overactive deep limbic system means the brain is predisposed to noticing the dark cloud behind every silver lining.  So, how can we begin to — as Johnny Mercer wrote — “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”?  Start by playing an observation game.

Ten Things…then Ten More Things

Pick a place you go frequently – it can be a coffee shop, work, the park, whatever – just someplace familiar to you.  When you reach your destination, write down ten things you saw on the way there.  Then, set your list aside until the next time you go back to that place.  When you arrive, write down ten things you saw on the way there, but without duplicating any of the items from the previous list.  This game is also helpful in staving off a panic attack.  Suppose you are in the bedroom when anxiety hits.  Go into the living room and write down ten things you see.  Now, go back to the bedroom and write ten more things you saw in the living room.

Focusing on what you saw earlier in the day or in the previous room allows you to shift activity out of the negativity and panic areas of the brain.  It enables you to direct your thoughts towards a specific outcome: ten things.  In other words, you are shifting your thoughts from the Problems area to the Problem Solving area.

Have fun with this!  You can try variations such as looking for ten blue things, or looking for ten animal references in signs you pass on the way to work.  The key is in observing more so you can begin to “eliminate the negative and latch onto the affirmative“.  Thank you, Johnny Mercer.

 

 

Time to Worry

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Photo by Heather Zabriskie (www.unsplash.com)

There is a song by Mark Knopfler called “Why Worry” on the Dire Straits album Brothers in Arms.  This is the chorus:  

“Why worry?  There should be laughter after pain

There should be sunshine after rain

These things have always been the same

So why worry now?”

For many it seems quite simple; this too shall pass, life will be rosy again, and troubles will cease.  However, for some, worry takes a foothold in the brain.  Instead of making a hasty departure when a problem has righted itself, it latches onto one thought and then another until it becomes a chronic condition.  When this happens, worry can easily be mistaken for normal thought patterns.  In fact, the question becomes “Why NOT worry?”

How can you tell when thinking has morphed into worry?  Trace its path.  Healthy thinking follows a path and eventually reaches a stopping point, or destination.  There may be turns, U-turns, and even wrong turns along the way, but at some point the train of thought reaches the station.  Worry is an enormous, meandering loop which also has its share of turns, but never actually leads us anywhere but to more worry.

Despite never reaching a destination, the outcome of worry can feel very finite, which is why depressive and anxious brains are susceptible to it.  Worrisome thoughts can trigger those emotions tied to experiences long past and buried deep in our memory.  We may not be able to recall the particular experience, but because the current correlating emotion is so strong, the thought becomes valid.  Over time, as one worry leads to another, it begins to guide our behavior and take over our lives.

Can a worrier ever stop worrying completely?  I would be lying to you if I said, “Yes”.  Bad things happen, and when life seems uncertain, it is only natural to worry a little bit.  Allowing yourself to worry a little bit is the key to bringing joy back into your life.  Just as controlled burns are sometimes necessary to preserve a forest, controlled worry is necessary for preserving our peace of mind.

The key is: Worry a little bit.

Try scheduling your worry.

  1. Schedule 10 minutes a day for worrying. Try not to schedule it first thing in the morning or just before bedtime.  You don’t want to start or end your day worrying – at least not anymore, right?
  2. Get yourself a notepad and carry it with you throughout the day
  3. When you find yourself worrying, write the problem down in your notepad
  4. At the appointed worry time, review the things you wrote down
  5. When time’s up, tear that page out and throw it away

Don’t worry (sorry!) if you write the same thing down day after day.  The point is not to solve every problem, but rather to stop allowing worry to control your thoughts.  Consider scheduling worry time just before your bath or shower.  That way you can decompress and wash the day’s worries away.

Scheduling time to worry may sound counter-productive, but it works by putting you back in control.  By writing down your worries and designating an appointed time for them, you allow yourself to quickly refocus on whatever task is at hand.  You also reduce worry about worry.  Ever had trouble falling asleep because you were troubled?  The next night, did you find yourself reluctant to even lie down because you were certain you’d have another night of worrying?  No more!  Write it down and say, “Good night.  I’ll see you at your next appointment, and not a minute sooner.”

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“A” is for Anxiety, “P”is for Phone…

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Do you ever get phone paralysis?  When you get a call or a text message, do you ever find yourself frozen, unable to respond?  It can be difficult to explain phone paralysis to somebody who has never dealt with anxiety, but there is a very real, physiological reason behind it.

Within the brain is a group of neural clusters called the basal ganglia.  These clusters surround the deep limbic system (where depression lives) and are the anxiety center of the brain.  Persons with overactive basal ganglia may regularly experience one or more of the following: nervousness, being easily startled, anxiety, panic attacks, tremors, and nervous tics.  Other and often more severe symptoms can include persistent headaches, obsessive-compulsive type disorders, and Tourette syndrome.  Symptomology is caused by a semi-permanent heightened state of alertness which causes the sufferer to consistently anticipate conflict.

Have you ever driven a car with a sensitive gas pedal?  Imagine your brain as a car with the engine constantly revved up; the slightest touch of the gas pedal sends it lurching forward.  Lurching forward at the wrong time can cause an accident, which in turn can cause a fear of driving.  Similarly, when our brain lurches us into a panic attack at the wrong time, we can become fearful of social situations and stressors.

Now obviously, there is no right time for a panic attack.  However, there is a difference between having one in the privacy of your own home versus the middle of a shopping mall or board meeting.  Perhaps one of the most aggravating aspects of anxiety is its incessant ability to generate more anxiety.  What frequently happens is this:

Person senses a panic attack coming on

Person recalls the horribleness of previous panic attack(s)

Anxiety over past panic attacks fuels the current panic attack

It is a terrible cycle.  Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  That is exactly what anxiety disorders do; they teach us to fear fear.  Whereas normal basal ganglia might generate mild excitement or nervousness about an upcoming event, overactive basal ganglia will convince you that if you attend, things will go apocalyptically wrong.  Sound extreme?  Not to somebody with anxiety.  In essence, their ganglia are gangling up on them.

Panic attacks are dis-empowering.  They rob people of their dignity.  This is why anxiety disorders often manifest as agoraphobia and conflict avoidance.  When we anticipate a situation may become stressful enough to provoke a panic attack, we avoid it.  Further complicating matters is the revved up brain which needs very little to set off its alarm bells, thus making even a common task like answering the phone feel very threatening.

There is good news – you CAN cool the engines of your brain!  What has worked for me is “PBB” – Puppy Belly Breathing.  When we breathe normally, our chests rise and fall with each breath.  Have you ever watched a puppy sleep?  Its little belly swells up with each breath, and that puppy sleeps peacefully as can be.  Forget the old adage ‘sleep like a baby’.

Sleep like a PUPPY! 

When you crawl into bed, focus on filling your belly with a deep, cleansing breath.  Hold it for a couple of seconds and then exhale slowly.  Do this ten times.  Then practice PBB throughout the day.  Make it a habit!  By doing so, you allow more oxygen to reach all the cells in your body and cool overactive basal ganglia, which will return your brain to a comfortable idling speed.

Let me know if it helps!

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3 Good Things About Bad Things

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Houston, TX (LB)

You can find a lot of useful information on the internet to help you deal with anxiety.  People who have been there know it’s horrible and want to share what has worked for them.  I’ve noticed many of these tips involve counting or making lists, and this makes sense to me.  I have found the most effective ways to quiet even my worst anxiety attacks involve numbers and sequences.

Have you ever poured water into a funnel too quickly?  Some of it flows easily out the bottom, but pour too quickly and water begins to spill out over the top as well.  This is how I envision the birth of a panic attack.  Things happen throughout the course of a day, each a drop of water passing through the funnel of the brain.  Negativity is a clog in the funneling system of the depressive brain.  The thought droplets begin to back up until finally, WHAMMO!

When there are more feelings than our funnel can process at the time, the system overloads.  The flood of unsorted feelings flips the switch on our fight or flight response and we get that awful “Run away!  Run away!” impulse.  So, how can numbers help?  Throughout the day, as bothersome things happen, think of three ways to look at them in a less bothersome way.  In other words, try coming up with three good things about bad things.  Let me give you an example of how this has worked for me.

I have a Pandora’s Box of derogatory thoughts stored in my brain, ready at any moment to spring to the forefront and fill me with a sense of worthlessness.  On my worst days, even the most minor upset can seem like absolute condemnation.  I’m a Manchester United fan and a coffee drinker, and I like to ring in each year with a new coffee mug at work.  This year I found a spiffy, stainless steel, insulated mug with the Man U logo, and even though it was a little pricier than I cared for: I splurged.  The mug arrived and performed admirably as a coffee-carrying vessel…until I dropped it.  Mug was separated from handle, and handle became a collection of useless fragments.  Pandora’s Box began to open and I immediately began thinking, “That’s what you get for paying too much for a mug” and “This is why you don’t deserve to have nice things.”  It would have normally sent me spiraling into a terrible day, but I made myself stop and put three positive spins on the situation.  This is what I came up with:

At least there wasn’t coffee in it

Good thing it wasn’t glass

A mug without a handle is still a cup

Get it?  Your three good things don’t have to be all that good – they just have to be less bad.  Here’s why it works.  Numbers live in a different area of the brain than negativity.  By forcing yourself to count three good things, you not only bypass the filter but you build up those positives.  Building up positives is how we close Pandora’s Box for good and avoid future panic attacks.

I hope you’ll try it.  I hope you will try again and again until it becomes your new way of thinking.  And, I hope you will email and share your ‘Three Things’ stories with me.  I’d love to hear them.  Incidentally, I still use that mug every day.  Being a little bit broken hasn’t made it worthless, and the nubby remnants of a handle remind me to count to three.  So remember this… A mug without a handle is still a cup, and a person who is broken is not worthless.

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Rule #2 for reducing anxiety

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Brazos Bend State Park, TX (LB)

Like an ocean tide, depression ebbs and flows with the potential to unleash a flood of unwanted thoughts and feelings at any moment.  During low tide, life is pretty sweet.   During high tide, even the anticipation of doing something fun with people we love can overwhelm us.  Depression is inconsiderate in its timing, and I typically find myself feeling worst on the days when I need to be at my best.

Depression is truly the horse’s hindquarters.

Life goes on in spite of our emotional tides, but we don’t have to miss out on it.  Even when going through a rough patch, if you know your limits (Rule #1) then you already know you can do anything.  That means you can also alleviate some of the anxiety around less-than-desirably-timed socializing with a little planning.

Rule #2: Always have a Plan B.

Choose a strategy or develop your own.  The point is to find something that works – something to alleviate the stress of socializing when your depression is at high tide.  I typically use one of the following:

The exit strategy

The fail-over

The no, but

The exit strategy is a time to leave, plain and simple.  For example, you want to attend your young nephew’s birthday party, but know being around a crowd of children is a bit more than you can stand right now.  Plan on going for an hour or two, but also plan an activity for later – something flexible – and use that as your reason for leaving.  It can be as simple as shampooing your hair, but if being at the party is making you anxious you can say, “I need to be somewhere at 6:00” and leave.  You don’t have to say where you need to be, and if you are enjoying yourself, stay.

Plan B’s are not meant to deceive, but rather provide some flexibility around inflexible people.  If people know about your depression and are supportive, then they will most likely understand the need to minimize your visit.  However, we all know people who view depression as a self-indulgent pity party – the exit strategy is for them.

The fail-over is a substitute, and especially useful at mealtimes.  Have you ever beaten yourself up for burning dinner?  In the grand scheme of things a minor offense, but there are days when the smallest mistake triggers a litany of self-deprecating statements from Lobespierre (my depressive brain):

“You can’t even do THIS right.”

“Once again you’ve disappointed everybody.”

“Any idiot can cook…except you.”

I have learned to silence those negative voices by keeping two things on-hand at all times; biscuits and frozen somethings.  When a new breakfast recipe goes wrong, I may be disappointed in my inability to channel Julia Child, but I’m NOT feeling guilty or stressed over it: I just make biscuits.  When dinner is an epic fail, I fail-over to mini-frozen pizzas.

Pick something you know everyone likes, keep it on-hand and off-limits.  Tell the kids it’s your Plan B, and everyone will be cheering the next time you burn dinner.  Well, maybe not, but at least there will still BE dinner, and you can spare yourself the mental beating.

Finally, the “no, but” strategy is the proposal of an alternative which suits today’s tide.  If going to a dance club is beyond your current limits, offer a “No, but I could meet you for coffee later.”  This way you acknowledge your friend’s invitation, confirm you want to spend some time together, but choose a setting you can both enjoy.

Depression does not mean being doomed to a life of Plan B’s, but when circumstances feel beyond our control, Plan B’s give us choices, and choices empower us.  You will feel better, the tide will go out, and you will dance again.

NEXT TIME: Do you  feel like you absorb the stress of people around you?

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