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(Mental Health) My Anxiety

Myth 150When I was a little kid our family had an ancient brown Chrysler my mom called “Nellie”. I wasn’t sure if it was actually brown, or if the car was covered in that much rust, but Nellie was a formidable vehicle, a 20-foot land yacht with leather seats that gave you frostbite in the winter and third-degree burns in the summer. The space on the floor in front of the seats was so wide we actually sat there during long drives sometimes, watching the sky speed by through the windows. There are a lot of things about that car I miss, but I did not miss the joy-buzzer sound of its alarm system.

Nellie bleated about everything whether it was a problem or not: the oil gauge would light up even when she was half-full, and so did the gas. The temperature gauge was lit no matter what, so we just learned to ignore it. But the bane of my existence was the “door ajar” alarm, which would sound sometimes even when you just bumped the door with your elbow. Sometimes, during long trips, it would just buzz until we stopped and shut it again — and that wasn’t something a seven-year-old bookworm could do easily. Mom would turn up her Motown tape to try to drown out the noise, but really it just made it worse. Even today, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” just doesn’t sound right without that buzzy whine.

As ancient as she was, Nellie was a good car — even if her gauge system was completely shot. I think fondly of her these days because I identify with her so much; like her hypersensitive open door sensor, my anxiety trigger will go off for like, no reason.

I am one of about seven million Americans with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a mental illness that is often found in people with Major Depressive Disorder. People who cope with GAD are natural-born worriers, with anxiety flaring up over just about anything. The anxiety is excessive for the given situation and many of us feel like we can’t control how much we worry. Symptoms often include a feeling of restlessness or edginess, difficulty with concentration or your mind going blank, muscle tension, difficulty with sleep, and/or being easily fatigued. That worry and accompanying symptoms have to be present for at least six months before diagnosis.

GAD is one of those disorders that develops gradually, so the typical age of diagnosis is right around 31. It affects women more often than men, though it’s not entirely clear why. In fact, not much is known about how GAD develops in general; the best guess is that combination of biological factors, family background, and life experiences — especially stressful ones.

In general, GAD is treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), mindfulness training and/or medications like SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which prevent your brain from cleaning up free-floating serotonin in your synapses). Cognitive behavioral therapy helped me understand my anxiety disorder much more clearly, and gave me a good framework to deal with it.

I find it helpful to think of my emotions like the gauges and alerts on a car’s dashboard; when they light up, it’s my mind telling me that I need to pay attention to something. Happiness is basically Cruise Control; everything’s good, just keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll be fine. The temperature gauge warns me when I’m getting too hot and need to cool down; the gas gauge warns me when I’m hungry and so on. When the sensors are working properly, emotions are a useful way to bring mindful attention to a situation that might need to be changed. For those of us with mood disorders like depression or GAD, however, the sensors are over-sensitive and tend to light up when they really don’t need to.

Those of us with anxiety disorders tend to have trouble with uncertainty; what’s unknown is dangerous, and our minds tend to jump right into hypothetical catastrophes. So we try to plan or control as much as possible, getting out ahead of any situation that might arise. This can be put to good use in a lot of different ways when the anxiety is mild or even moderate; but when it tips into severe anxiety things get a lot harder.

My biggest stressors are failing at something I really want to be good at, forgetting to do something I’m supposed to, and disappointing someone. For the longest time I refused to move into a position that required more expertise at my day job because I knew in my heart I wouldn’t be able to do it — I’m not detail-oriented enough and the consequences of failure can be pretty high. I didn’t want to be the one person who couldn’t keep up and forced other members of my team to drop what they were doing to bail me out.

Deadlines are a nut I have never been able to crack, especially with writing. I stress about everything when working on a story, and all too often I get caught in a loop where I’ll get stuck on a single aspect of the process, revising again and again and again until I’m exhausted. As the deadline grows closer, that anxiety grows until it feels like I’m physically unable to concentrate on what I need to do: my monkey-brain leaps all over the place, or my mind simply goes blank and I can’t hold on to a thought. Almost always, I’ll freeze in the face of the deadline and watch the opportunity pass me by. Having never tried is almost a relief compared to the imagined hell of really going for it and failing completely.

While this kind of performance anxiety is fairly common, it’s not the reason GAD is so troublesome for me. Like Nellie’s constant open door buzzer, my worry is ever-present and all-consuming. I am in a near-constant state of fight or flight, ready to box any perceived threat or run screaming from it. Right now, as I type this, I’m worried about the following things: the possibility of marijuana addiction; the spectre of a progressively worse anxiety disorder that blossoms into a full blown obsessive-compulsive disorder; all of the people I haven’t spoken to in a while and what they think of me; the last work project I need to turn in; my Patreon; my Pathfinder game; countless other projects I’ve committed to and should be working on; my mother; my brother-in-law; my bank account; my new job; the possibility of dementia at an old age; Trump; Iran developing nuclear weapons; my rabbit; how this post will be received; how much I still need to do before bed; whether or not I’ll sleep well; how much I can get done tomorrow; my upcoming trip to Europe; the possibility of nuclear war or a terrorist attack; my weight; my libido; the length of this paragraph.

My mind gnaws over these worries all the time, from my first thoughts in the morning to those last troubled, fuzzy ones that pop up when I’m lying in bed. I’m constantly thinking about the things that could go wrong, the things that have gone wrong, what’s my fault and how bad it will be when the consequences are due. I’m not going to lie, it’s exhausting; whenever I find something that makes me more relaxed, it’s like discovering Narnia. People who can just wing it, or not care about what happens, are straight-up aliens to me.

But simply knowing that my brain has this hypersensitivity to stress helps me deal with that. It means that building a less stressful life is not just an idle dream; it’s a necessary component of self-care. I’m a bit more watchful for the symptoms of high anxiety, like unfocused near-panic just waiting for something to latch onto or the tendency to take a small annoyance and make it exhibit A for a major problem that we’re screwed if we don’t solve. And when I catch myself feeling overwhelmed, I know that I need to take a breath and a step back, then force myself to take things one step at a time.

Still, it’s a struggle. Knowing that my amygdala is intensely hyper-active doesn’t necessarily make the effects any easier to deal with, especially when they prevent you from doing so much. Anxiety frequently overwhelms the techniques learned through CBT because there’s no one thing that causes it; it really is an omni-present entity, a background static that makes it really easy to be thrown into a state of high anxiety and all that comes with it.

While I’ve been dealing with depression for long enough that I feel comfortable with the coping mechanisms I’ve developed for it, Generalized Anxiety Disorder has proven to be much more difficult to deal with. It prevents me from trying new things readily, or producing stories that I would want to show people. It makes it harder to be relaxed or confident; it affects my ability to be social. I wish it weren’t so, and I wish I had a better way of managing it, but that’s the way it is.

Over 40 million Americans — roughly 18% of the population — has some kind of anxiety disorder, whether it’s GAD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or a Specific Phobia. We are a very anxious country, and it shows. I think one of the best things we can do for ourselves and our neighbors, coworkers and fellow citizens suffering silently under this epidemic is foster an environment of safety and acceptance wherever we can, however we can. Making sure those of us who are anxious have concrete feedback that the consequences aren’t as bad as we fear for failure sure helps, but it also helps to ease the ‘background anxiety’ in our culture. That might be the most important thing we can do: removing fear from our lives and our communities as best we can.

This post is part of Mental Health Awareness Month; I’m writing to share my personal experience with my mental health and hopefully ease the stigma around the very real illnesses I and millions of other people cope with on a daily basis. If you’re interested in helping with this work, here are a few things you can do: support the National Alliance for Mental Illness; visit The Siwe Project, which aims to reduce the stigma of therapy and mental illness in the African diaspora; visit and support The Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM); and, if you like, chip in a dollar or two through Ko-fi for the blog. I appreciate your support, no matter what form it takes.

 
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Posted by on May 9, 2018 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Writing) A Writer’s May

Self Improvement 150The month of April was…not great for me as a writer. I didn’t make much progress on anything of note, though I *did* resume a long-dormant Pathfinder game that I’ll take as my big win. I could attribute the lack of writing to my day job, or family stress, or the general pressures of being an adult with obligations and such…but to be honest, the biggest reasons are fear and a lack of discipline. I didn’t write because writing has become this internal battle between my willpower and anxiety, and I’m just not mentally equipped to win that battle consistently.

It’s possible that I’m simply trying to do too much. In addition to an ultimate goal of three missives a week on this here Writing Desk, I’m trying to find a way to write consistently for my Patreon project, the Jackalope Serial Company; I’m working on a Pathfinder game that, at this point, is firmly mid-level and I’d like to take to level 20; I’m starting another Pathfinder game that aims to be more of a loose pick-up style campaign; I’m trying to write short stories for two anthologies that I’d love to be included in; I’ve been asked to contribute to other fandom projects and while I’ve said yes I have yet to take any concrete steps to do so. Then there’s the Udemy courses that aim to teach me more about blogging and tech, the Rosetta Stone course for French I’d like to get back to, SO MANY comics, books and short stories I want to read, the clarinet I want to practice, the cleaning and paring down of all my stuff I’d like to get to, the TV and movies I’d like to watch (and maybe review)…

I’m not sure that ADHD/anxiety is a big reason why I commit to so much and achieve so little, but it really can’t help. Because our executive function is compromised, it’s really difficult to set proper priorities and stick with them when we’ve been interrupted; splitting our attention just can’t happen, because we need to be rooted in one thing or else we go flying all over the place. That’s why off-loading your executive function to things like to-do lists and routines is so important; we have to find a way to make an instinctive internal process external and conscious.

I live and die by my Bullet Journal, though that has to be supplemented by other things like Todoist and Google Calendar to make sure I have an eye on deadlines. If I don’t make sure I have some place to put specific information, it’s pretty much gone — but even then, I can write down, say, a submission deadline for an anthology, but unless I take the time to break down the steps I need to take to actually GET to that submission AND make time for it in my schedule it’ll just sneak up on me and then I’m scrambling to meet a deadline. That kind of surprise triggers my anxiety disorder, which makes it more likely for me to just freeze up and watch the deadline go by.

Good project management practice can help with that, but building a project schedule can only do so much when you’re trying to juggle multiple projects at once. When it’s time to put pen to paper (or paws to keyboard in this case), it’s really hard to make productive use of my time. I know that my time with this project is limited, and my goal is…to just get it done. Not to have fun with it, not to engage with what I’m doing — if I’m being honest, most of the time I already have one eye out on the next thing I need to do. That ain’t no way to write.

So this month I’ll have to pull things back a bit and focus on fewer things that I can root myself well in. I have four big goals for this month — write for The Writing Desk consistently; resume regular updates for the Jackalope Serial Company; finish short stories for “The Rabbit Dies First” anthology as well as one other anthology.

Here at The Writing Desk, I’ll be focusing on Mental Health Awareness Month with posts about depression, anxiety and ADHD from my personal experience as well as the things that have helped me deal with them, or the things that I still need to work out. For the Jackalope Serial Company, I’ll be writing four “first issues” of various possible serials to see what folks take to, then continue on the most popular serial through June. With the short stories, I’ll devote as much time as I can to both of them once I’ve made sure the blog and Patreon are squared away.

I’ll also be working through my sky-high book stack as much as possible this month. I’ve got quite a lot of time off this month and I’ll be doing some international travel, so I’m fairly sure there’s a lot that I can knock out. Hopefully I’ll finish “Bluebird, Bluebird” by Attica Locke; “Steppenwolf” by Hermann Hesse; “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach; and “The Upward Spiral” by Alex Korb. If I can manage that, there should be a few good bits of reflection out of them.

So what’s your plan for May, writers? What’re you hoping to have finished by the time June rolls around?

 

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(Personal) My Sister, One Year Later

Myth 150

One year ago today, my sister died. My mother, my two nephews and their father were gathered in the conference room down the hall from her room in the hospital when we got the news — even though her heart was beating and she was breathing (with help), her brain hadn’t registered any activity for long enough that the presiding physician called time of death. Everyone cried. It was the first time I had hugged my Mom since I had come out to her. It was the first time I had ever hugged either of my nephews.

I rushed to Baltimore with the small hope that I would get to see my little sister alive one more time. It had been eighteen years; we spoke on the phone sporadically, but we hadn’t seen each other since I left home. The worst thing for me, at the time, was knowing that the last time I saw my sister was when I was being disowned. Between then and last year, she gave birth to four children, tried to take care of my difficult and increasingly frail mother, had a nervous breakdown. For the longest time she had been self-medicating for mental health issues, and in the end that’s what had brought us here.

I think about Teneka every day. I think about how hard it must have been to struggle against your own brain without a support network of people who understood and accepted what she was going through, who were committed to helping her find what she needed to get better. It could have been talk therapy, or cognitive behavioral techniques, or medication. It could have been changing her lifestyle so that she had room to take the time she needed to cope with everything on her plate. It could have been a community of people willing to give her help when she needed it without asking or judgement.

Instead, she was under a system that punished her for finding any way she could to ease her pain without giving her access to the tools she needed to do so in a healthy and sustainable way. The people around her dismissed very real issues she was having and encouraged her to do the very things that would make them worse. Her own mother took whatever help she offered and said it wasn’t good enough, accused her of being selfish and lazy and untrustworthy. My sister was a good woman who needed help, someone to orient her. But there was no way she could get that.

It breaks my heart, because my sister is part of a narrative that’s been used to blame black Americans for our problems since the end of slavery. The truth is, however, much more complicated. The immediate cause of her passing — what’s on her death certificate — is not the reason she died. The real reason is that we, as a civilization, are far more interested in judgement and punishment than compassion and assistance. Instead of recognizing the very real problems Teneka suffered under, we made her feel broken for not being able to cope with them.

Her experience isn’t uncommon. There are so many black women who have to shoulder extraordinary burdens — motherhood and everything that comes with it, often totally by themselves — while being told that they are wrong in every way. Our sisters don’t look the way they should; they don’t talk the way they should; they don’t act the way they should. Their names are wrong, their hair is wrong, their clothes and makeup are wrong. They’re hoes, or they’re stuck-up; they’re too angry and too loud, too ignorant, too dark, too ugly.

Misogynoir took my sister away from me. The stigma around mental health took my sister away from me. Our social inability to address the pain felt by our most vulnerable citizens while placing them under impossible stress took my sister away from me. I’m still grieving about that, because I’m reminded of it every day.

Remember this story about two women being racially profiled at an Applebee’s?

Or this story about a black woman detained by police on the tarmac because the police were called on her for no reason?

Or this story about a black woman being mistreated at a Waffle House and the police receiving no repercussions?

What about the responses Kelis received when she detailed the abuse she received at the hands of Nas?

What about what our sisters have suffered at the hands of powerful men like Bill Cosby and R. Kelly?

These are all stories that have been in the news for the past two weeks. If I started going into the recent and not-so-recent history of mistreatment of black women, we’d be here all day. If I started going into the institutional problems that prevent our sisters from getting the mental health treatment they needed, we’d be here all week.

I don’t want anyone else to feel trapped in a private and invisible hell the way my sister was. It’s so important for me to speak up about mental health because I know first-hand that not doing so literally kills people. We have to be better about this. The lives of our women depend on it.

Dr. Amber Thornton is a licensed black American psychologist who has devoted so much of her time to addressing the stigma of mental health in our communities while also advocating for better cultural competency within the professional psychological community. Her podcast, “A Different Perspective”, has invaluable information about depression, anxiety, and the black experience.

Journalist Imade Nibokun heads up the Depressed While Black Twitter and Tumblr pages, creating an online community of folks across the diaspora who have to deal with the personal struggle of depression and the social struggle of institutional racism at the same time.

The Black Mental Health Alliance is an organization of licensed black American mental health practitioners, activists and organizers dedicated to dealing with mental health issues on a personal, professional, and institutional level.

All of these people are doing much-needed work, helping our community see the problems we face clearly while adapting perspective and solutions built by institutions with little to no insight into how these problems manifest through our shared culture and history. On the anniversary of my sister’s death, I vow to support them and their work and I ask that you please do the same. I want my sister’s legacy to be one that spurred us into action, to finally address this blind spot within our own community.

I love you so much, Teneka. I’m so sorry that we failed you; I will work hard so that we fail far fewer people like you.

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2018 in mental-health, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) Perpetual Tharn

Myth 150We’re three weeks in to 2018 — just long enough to settle into the new year and whatever new habits or goals we’ve set for ourselves. I wanted to push myself towards more mindful behavior this year, doing my best to really dive into right speech, action, and livelihood. While last year was definitely stressful, a lot of unresolved anger bubbled towards the surface in so many interactions. I didn’t like the way that made me behave, and I can’t help feeling that my relationships suffered because of that. I ended up retracting socially through a good bit of the year; while a lot of that was probably for the best, I have the feeling that I could be handling these difficult interactions with a lot more equanimity — but that’s way easier said than done.

My anxiety has been very hard to deal with over the past several months. The current state of our country, and the world, has elevated the level of ‘ambient’ anxiety I’m dealing with and that makes it a lot more difficult to take on additional stressors. Surprises or an increase in workload are harder to absorb, and recovering from those episodes of anxious lashing out or simply being overwhelmed takes longer.

So much of the time I feel like I’m in a state of perpetual tharn, so overwhelmed by anxiety that I freeze up and simply can’t do anything. Today, for example, my mind is racing with thoughts about the government shutdown and why it’s such a terrible thing. I’m worried that Republicans will successfully shift blame for this to Democrats, who are taking all the wrong lessons from this and seem to be allowing the public discourse to be pulled further to the right. I’m worried about what this means for all of us — especially those of us who are self-employed, need health insurance, or just happen to be federal employees.

I’m worried about our environment and the fact that the weather has been so obviously unusual over the past year or so. I’m worried about my finances and how I’ll be able to meet my obligations there. I’m worried about so many friends who are going through a difficult time and my diminished emotional capacity to help them. I worry about our ability to talk to one another in a way that connects us instead of dividing us. I worry about my family, who I avoid talking to because I simply can’t handle the possibility of more stress.

I worry about the promises and obligations I’ve made and my ability to keep them. I worry about trying to maintain a balance between being principled and being too rigid; I worry about standing up for myself in a way that doesn’t make other people feel bad. I worry about our apartment and keeping it clean. I worry about learning the technical skills I need in order to move to the next stage of my career. I worry about the people I know on Twitter, and can’t shake the feeling that most people only tolerate me because I’m so frustrating and weird and hesitant. I worry that I talk a good game but can’t deliver when push comes to shove. I worry that I’m just a fundamentally untrustworthy person.

This is what anxiety is like for me. Almost every action I take is connected to a worry that is never far away from taking over my thoughts. Am I talking too much about myself here? Is there a better way to communicate this? What kind of response am I after? Is this just for attention, or reassurance, or am I really just trying to help people understand how anxiety works so that others can deal with those of us who suffer from this better? What are my motivations? Are they corrupt and selfish?

Existing in this state of paralyzing doubt is exhausting, and it just doesn’t leave me with much energy for other things. It can be difficult when I’m struggling with anxiety to remember my promises, or keep my focus away from distractions, or not to simply bail and spend large chunks of time chasing idle happiness. It’s hard to put in the work because setbacks and obstacles are a lot harder to handle rationally.

For the next few weeks, I’ll be focusing on building and rebuilding the habits that help with anxiety. Taking care of the basics is essential, which means that I need to get good sleep, eat good food, and exercise regularly. On top of that, building a meditation, reading, and writing practice will help provide some measure of virtuous stability that always keeps mindfulness with me. This might mean that I’ll be quiet and withdrawn for a bit longer; I need time and mental energy to put these into practice, and that may mean less to deal with other people. So, apologies in advance if I’m a bit slower to respond to things, or have to decline requests for favors for a little while.

Ultimately I would like to be able to interact with people, help them wherever I can, and find ways to have difficult conversations without surrendering to anger and fear as drivers of behavior. But in order to do that, it’s clear that I need to get on a more stable emotional footing. That means mindfully withdrawing to renew the foundation of my practice and hopefully coming back in a better, more hopeful frame of mind.

 

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(Mental Health) When Depression Strikes You

Myth 150Chronic depression is one of those things that can be very difficult to deal with, mostly because those of us who suffer from it exist in two states. When things are fine, we might think that we’ve rounded the bend and things will never be as bad as our last valley again. And then, when we find ourselves descending towards another crash, we have no idea how to stop it or make the cliff feel any less steep. I think most of us have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude towards things that are big problems; when we’re not actively battling our depression, we prefer to forget we have it.

But the fact is that chronic depression is a disease; an invisible one, one whose symptoms might not show up for days or weeks or months, but a disease that most of us will have to cope with for a major part of our lives. When a diabetic has his glucose levels under control, the diabetes isn’t cured — it’s just managed so that the symptoms aren’t making it difficult to function.

I think it’s useful for those of us with mental health issues to think of our illnesses like that. The symptoms might not be bad enough to prevent us from functioning most of the time, but it’s still doing its thing under the surface. There are things that we can do to help ourselves manage it; taking care of ourselves can make depressive episodes less frequent and less severe. I can’t guarantee that we’ll ever be completely free of it, but we can develop a number of coping mechanisms to help.

Learning how to live with depression is a process. Sometimes it might feel like we’re making no progress at all; sometimes it can feel like we’re sliding backwards into our worst places. But it’s important to have patience with the process and with ourselves. There is nothing fundamentally broken about us; there is nothing that we can’t handle. There are just a lot of considerations we must make that most others might take for granted. This can be a gift of practice; learning how to appreciate many aspects of our life that we wouldn’t even notice otherwise.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned to do over the course of several years. You might find that different habits work better for you, and that’s fine. It’s not important to do every single thing that people recommend for you. It’s important to find your own way of managing your mood and getting to a place where you feel comfortable and capable within your own skin. Take my advice, or discard it and forge your own path. But please try. It’s worth it, I promise.

Sleep. This is single biggest piece of advice I would recommend for people dealing with mental illness: sleep well. I can’t overstate the importance of rest in helping yourself to get on a more even keel. If you don’t have a sleep routine, or you’re having issues with getting regular or quality sleep, I really do think this should be a top priority. Sleep allows us to settle our emotions and builds our ability to cope with fluctuations in mood or changes in our environment that would cause anxiety. It is one of the best things we can do to care for ourselves.

Building a good sleep habit takes time and practice. The chemical imbalance that can lead to depression also impairs sleep function, so we end up sleeping too little or too much. However, keeping a regular sleep practice is a great foundation for routine that we can use to help us weather those times. Listen to your body; notice when you start to feel tired or your brain tells you it’s time to get to bed. Notice when you’re most likely to wake up without an alarm clock. If at all possible, build your sleep time around your own circadian rhythm. If it’s not possible, determine when you need to get up and count back nine hours — start getting ready for bed at that time.

It’s not easy, and it’s not quick, but it is effective. Once you’re sleeping regularly, your body can begin the work of stabilizing itself.

Eat well. I know in a lot of situations this can be exceedingly difficult. Even for those of us in the United States, we might live in a food desert where fresh produce or lean meat might be hard to come by. Many of us simply don’t have the money or time to make our own meals. I get it. But making sure we at least eat food that gives us a good balance of proteins, fats, carbohydrates and fiber will give our body its best shot at managing itself.

If possible, eat three squares a day that includes lean protein, unsaturated fat and complex carbohydrates. Think a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread, multigrain chips and fruit. Try to limit caffeine intake after 2 PM; we all know that caffeine plays havoc with the ability to sleep and too much of it will definitely exacerbate anxiety issues. Drink more water, and cut back on sodas and sugary drinks.

You hear this kind of advice all the time, and I know how much of a drag it can be to try and follow through. But it’s definitely important. The better fuel you give your body, the better it will be able to function. That’s the simple fact. And I know that the instant you begin to control your diet it feels like you’re swimming upstream, and we just can’t put in the effort all the time. But try. And keep trying. Notice how you feel — how you really feel — after you eat. Does the food sit heavy in your stomach? Do you feel gassy or bloated? Greasy? Light? Satisfied? Focus on the foods that make you feel good — not just emotionally, but biologically. The more you listen to your body, the more it will tell you what it needs. To be a god-damn hippie about it.

Exercise. I know, I can hear the groaning from here, but trust me — being active when you can really helps. Just going outside or getting the blood flowing helps just about every part of your body, including your brain. When you find the activity that works best for you, your brain learns how to release endorphins that tell you that you’re doing a good job. And again, pushing yourself to pay attention to your body will help you recognize how it speaks to you — how it tells you that it’s in pain, or needs food or water, or what kind of shape or mood it’s in. Learning your body is the first step to being comfortable with it, realizing and accepting its limitation, and appreciating the things you like about it.

Most people think of exercise as a slog; huffing on the street during a grueling run, or sweating through some terrible routine that you can’t begin to keep up with. But it really doesn’t have to be; it can be any activity that gets you moving and makes you happy. For me, it actually IS running. I get a wonderful high and a sense of accomplishment after putting in my miles. But for you, it might be anything from playing tennis, basketball or football to playing Dance Dance Revolution or Rock Band on your XBox. If it gets your heart rate up and your body moving, it’s fair game. Do it as regularly as you can without hurting yourself.

Therapy. This is another suggestion that takes on almost limitless forms. For you, it might be therapeutic to write your feelings down in a journal or talk to the spiritual leader of your congregation. It might be reading, walking in nature, talking to a therapist or taking medication. Whatever works for you, seek it out and do it; develop a self-care routine, arm yourself with coping mechanisms, engage with the world and community around you however you see fit.

Again, I understand how difficult this might be for some of us. We might live in places where mental health professionals are hard to find or prohibitively expensive; we might not have access to an understanding or capable support network; we might not know where to begin to develop a framework of self-care. But if you’re reading this, you probably have access to the Internet and that gives you a leg up. Research things that might help you and try them out; describe the results when you use them, and determine if it would be useful to keep doing them. Seek out communities online if you can — there are a number of websites and forums for those of us dealing with depression and anxiety. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Try.

Sleeping regularly, eating as well as you can, doing active things you find enjoyable and engaging in a therapeutic practice are all basic things we could all do to help stabilize our mood as much as possible. Again, these are a lot easier said than done for many of us, but please — do what you can when you can. Seek out help and support where you can find it. And keep trying. What helped me most with my depression is seeing it for what it is. It allowed me to engage with it, really understand it. And by doing that, I understood myself a lot better. Self-awareness is perhaps the most powerful tool we have against our mental illness. It helps us learn how to cope with it and to live happy, full lives even while we struggle.

If you have depression, anxiety or another mental illness difficult to endure and tough to make people understand, I see you. I’m with you. I want to help. And I’m not the only one.

But the best way to get help is to help yourself. We can support you, but we can’t “fix” you. There’s nothing to be fixed. You’re a human being, wonderful and complete just as you are. You deserve to live, to be happy, to be loved. For people like you and me, it takes more work and care. But it makes the results of that work so much sweeter.

 

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(Personal) A Rabbit Thinks About Fear

Self Improvement 150Earlier this year I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and I’m still wrapping my brain around it. I never thought of myself as a particularly anxious person; sure, there were a lot of things that I had an outsized reaction against, but I always thought that was tied up with self-esteem issues or concentration trouble. It never occurred to me that my anxiety response was a significant piece of the puzzle — until I went to a group therapy class about it and learned how GAD works.

The therapist leading the class told us that our emotions are like the warning lights on our cars — they’re general indications that we should pay attention to something. If we get angry, it more than likely means our sense of order about the world is being upended and we should probably react to that. If we get sad, it means that we’ve lost something or must pay attention to something’s absence. And if we get anxious, usually it means that there is something coming towards us with stakes that we care about — our survival, our success, or our happiness.

You know how sometimes our low-pressure tire gauge comes on even though the air pressure is fine? Our how we can’t rely on our gas indicator because it comes on way too late to do anything about it? A lot of mental illnesses can be related to our car’s warning systems going out of whack in some way. In this case, my anxiety light is really sensitive and this can cause me to over-react to certain issues in ways that don’t really help me to deal with it.

At work, this manifested as a resistance to doing more technical work for years. I was convinced that I didn’t have the attention to detail necessary to be good at that job, and if I did something wrong I could royally screw up a customer’s system. Other, better support people would have to come in and save the situation and it would be all my fault. What if I did something that couldn’t be fixed? What if I never actually learned how to work with the command line? What if I disappointed friends I worked with, or troubles at the job followed me into my personal relationships? It would be better if I never touched the command line and left it to people who were inclined towards such things.

In my personal life, that anxiety kept me from writing. I could never finish anything because I wasn’t sure how endings were actually supposed to go. I tended to write from the hip, and the endings I loved most were the ones that felt like the only possible one for the story. You could see how each bit of the track in a story lead to this inevitable place that was both surprising and satisfying. I wanted to do that, and I wasn’t sure I could; when I tried to outline my work, I would often end up surprised by what a character did. They would tell me that they simply didn’t work that way, or would do something that caught me completely by surprise. Often when I’m writing a story, the characters “grow legs” and start wandering all over the place. Control over these guys is an illusion; an outline is a joke. I’m not the kind of writer who can plan meticulously.
So what does that mean for my work? Will anything I write just never be as good as I want it to be? If I don’t have the ability to tell the kind of stories I want to tell, what’s the point of writing in the first place? If I can’t get behind my writing, then who will? What if I put something out there and it’s so bad, people realize that I’m nowhere near as smart or wise or thoughtful as they might think? What if my own writing exposes me as the fraud I feel like?

When I stepped back to think about it, most of the anxiety I feel comes from a singular place: the realization that people will realize I don’t have the control it seems I do. That I’m all too often lost and frightened and that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. The command line scares me because it’s a binary — either the command you put in works or it doesn’t. Putting my writing out there scares me because in many ways it’s something I can’t take back — it either succeeds in what I’m trying to do or it doesn’t; either the audience reacts positively towards it, or it doesn’t. It either connects me to my audience through shared or expanded values, or it divides us.

I learned that I tend to “catastrophize” a lot. Possible mistakes I could make taking a course of action will have consequences far greater than the mistake warrants. If I can’t be perfect doing something that I’ve set out to do, then I would rather not do it at all. It was the main reason I could never push myself into doing something different, something more. Thinking about stumbling outside of my comfort zone gave me the worst feeling, and my immediate reaction was to retreat somewhere safe.

Realizing just what GAD is and how to deal with it is a process I’m still learning. Over the past year I’ve learned how to be comfortable with discomfort, and to even see it as a blessing — being unmoored with an activity is actually a sign that you’re stretching yourself and trying something new, and that’s one of the best things to do in life. Dealing with a situation not completely inside your control is just the price you pay for stretching yourself and learning new things.

Still, progress is slow. My tolerance for the new and different is rising, but it’s still lower than most. I still catch myself retreating to the familiar and the easy far more often than I should. But that’s a part of the process, too. We’re never going to get it right the first time we try something new; making mistakes are a part of the refinement and learning portions of building a new habit.

I’m still quite frightened about working with the command line at work. And I’m still nervous about posting up the stories that I’ve written online. I’m still worried about the endings of short stories I haven’t even begun to write. And I’m still learning how to deal with all of that. For now, it’s enough to recognize the anxiety is there, take a few deep breaths, and move through the discomfort to push myself anyway.

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2015 in Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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The Anxious Rabbit

Self Improvement 150One of the reasons I believe Rabbit is such a helpful totem for me is that fear is such a strong emotion within me. I’m afraid all the time, of various things real and imagined, and that fear drives a great deal of my behavior. One of the lessons Rabbit teaches is how to move through that fear to engage with a broader, brighter world where danger lurks unseen just in the peripheries of your vision. You have to eat, you have to sleep, and you have to enjoy yourself sometime. There are moments of grace, quiet and contentment to be had in a scary and sometimes hostile world.

Over the summer I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder in conjunction with ADHD. That diagnosis was a bit of a surprise to me, especially since over the past several months I had been feeling more frustrated than frightened; I was unable to make headway on most of the projects I’d been working on and I was moving into a new position at work that I know I would have trouble with if I couldn’t get my concentration issues under control.

Part of the treatment for the diagnosis is a group therapy class given by Kaiser Permanente every Thursday where we learn what Anxiety Disorder is, how it manifests in people, and what’s going inside your brain to cause this behavior. It’s been illuminating — both in my own tendencies and how paralyzing anxiety can be for people. I’ve met so many people in class who have trouble with dealing with work, or keeping good relationships, or even leaving their houses due to their anxiety. Just coming to the group is a major victory for them, but they can’t see it because they just want to be fixed, want to be normal.

From what I understand, Anxiety Disorder is kind of like an emotional allergic reaction. With allergies, your body has mechanisms to protect you from foreign bodies that go haywire on things that it should be desensitized to — like pollen, or dust, or certain foods. And the best way to deal with that is to either avoid the trigger or take an antihistamine to block the effects.

With Anxiety Disorder, your mind is set up to deal with threats in a certain way. It releases hormones that prepare you to flee the threat or fight it, and those hormones do all kinds of stuff from elevating your heart rate to making you breathe faster to take in more oxygen, to hyper-focusing your brain to deal with what’s in front of you. Only instead of the bear that’s charging towards you or the really important test you have to study for, it’s imagined scenarios about a presentation at work, or the story you’re writing, or saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Most of the time we cannot avoid the triggers that cause this reaction, and most drugs that would lower our reaction have side effects that make us unable to do anything else — so we have to find a new way to deal with it.

For me, my anxiety is wrapped up in any activity where I have to show a decent level of competence, requires sustained concentration and involve other people being affected by what I do. Writing stories is all I’ve wanted to do for my entire life, but I just can’t bring myself to finish a story and put it out there. I’m so afraid of the process of writing — knowing that I won’t be able to provide the focus that the story deserves really stresses me out. Knowing that I’m not where I want to be with my writing prowess yet is so discouraging, because I’m 35 already and so many people write great novels in their 20s. Knowing that I would have to present my work to a world that is scary and sometimes hostile fills me with dread — what if it’s simply not good enough? What if people rip it to pieces? What if it’s deeply offensive in a way that I hadn’t anticipated? Or worst of all, what if something that means so much time and effort to me is just met with a gigantic figurative shrug and no one cares? It’s better not to do anything than to risk all of the fears I have about myself proven right.

I work in Silicon Valley on a very technical and complicated suite of software. I was brought on in an administrative capacity, but for my career to advance there I’ll need to move into a position with significantly more technical work. That terrifies me. I’m not tech-illiterate, but the amount of know-how that the job requires, the attention to detail and the ability to navigate thorny issues with angry customers is just paralyzing for me. My brain doesn’t work that way; as much as I would like it to, I just can’t remember a host of considerations to be effective with troubleshooting, and confrontation drains my social batteries almost immediately. The job would require me to learn a lot through doing in real-time, making mistakes and recovering from them, all while under pressure to perform at a level expected of world-class support. I’d be moving from dealing with mostly people (which, while draining, I’m more comfortable with) to dealing mostly with tech (where the consequences for a mistake can be catastrophic).

In these, two of the most important aspects of my life, my Anxiety Disorder has pushed me into a spiral I didn’t even see but kept me from moving forward. The situation causes an anxious thought, which triggers an outsized emotional reaction, which triggers a *physical* reaction that triggers another anxious thought, which sustains and solidifies that emotional reaction, which ratchets up the physical reaction, which…you get the idea.

Without realizing it, my reaction to these stressors has been to flee; I’ll get to work, take stock of what I should be doing that day and get freaked out enough by my workload that I retreat to something easier — a mindless task that’s more comfortable, Twitter or something else. The moment a story gets difficult or starts to diverge from where I had expected it to go, I’ll bail on it. Or I’ll muddle through it in fits and starts, unable to keep the story disciplined so it fulfills my worst fears and justifies me never trying it in the first place.

I’ve learned a lot through the Anxiety class about being mindful with my worries, knowing what kinds of thoughts send me into a spiral, and all the ways people with Anxiety Disorder tend to magnify or distort issues in order to justify the emotional/physical response. Catastrophizing the outcome, “fortune telling” about what terrible thing will most certain happen, “mind-reading” the reactions of those around us or what people are truly thinking all happen in varying ways, to various degrees.

Last week I learned how the fight/flight response tends to work in those of us who have trouble with anxiety, and what we can do about it. The fight response tends to be obsessive worry with a particular problem — working through every possible angle and outcome until everything is accounted for, which is a problem. Sometimes, even after you’ve put an issue to bed with a solution that covers all your bases, your brain can be really good at chewing on the bones of it over and over again. The flight response most often manifests in procrastination, sometimes aggressively so. If I’m worried about a project, it often feels like there’s a block in my brain that physically prevents me from working on it.

I’ve been taught that with Anxiety Disorder, the best thing to do is often the exact opposite of your initial impulse. If you’re a compulsive worrier, it’s best to try and take your mind off the problem (I don’t know how that works, but I’ll assume we’ll learn about that next week); if you’re a procrastinator, it’s best to lean in with the issue and face the thing that’s worrying you.

For example, with my job I’m worried that I will not be able to perform up to the standards of my managers and will face months of disappointed superiors, warnings and eventual termination. As an exercise, we were encouraged to visualize the worst-case scenario of that fear three times; each time, we would deconstruct our imaginations with an eye towards learning how we catastrophize.

I was surprised by just how awful my story was: because one of my superiors is also a friend, I imagined that the situation deteriorated our friendship to the point of dissolution. Because I was desperate and afraid, I’d lash out at work, and THAT put a strain on the relationship between my husband and I, and my superior and his partner. That put this strain on our entire social circle, and because I was so emotionally devastated I just could not deal with it. My world got smaller and smaller until I couldn’t even get out of bed, and by association my husband’s world got smaller — between taking care of me and our strained relationship, he was becoming increasingly alienated. I couldn’t get it together enough to do anything; I was too fragile to shoulder any of his problems, but he had to deal with all of mine. Our marriage suffered…and I had to bail on the rest of it. It became too painful.

When I was back in the room, I noticed how tight my chest was, how fast my heart was beating, how dry my mouth felt. Then I answered the questions: Is this likely to happen? Will thinking about it make it happen? If it *did* happen, what could I do to cope? What aspects of the situation had I misinterpreted that makes it less likely to happen? After that, I felt better, and the next visualization felt embarrassing for how melodramatic it was. I came out of it, refined the answers to my questions, and visualized a third time — by then, it was boring and silly. I knew how impossible the worst-case scenario would be, and had a better appreciation of the strength of my relationships and the love of my husband.

The tools I’m developing to deal with my anxieties — after learning how to clearly identify and understand them — are allowing me to lean in towards the things that scare me the most. I was able to move through my discomfort talking about mental illness earlier, and I have a lot more patience with myself when it comes to my writing. The progress is steadier, faster than it’s been for a long time. I can actually imagine a life in which I am capable of learning new things, becoming more competent with the things I want to do, actually reaching the goals I set for myself. It’s so great to learn about myself and take those lessons into direct action.

I’m still afraid, of course, but now I have a much better time with that fear. It doesn’t paralyze me the way it used to. And I have professional help to thank for that.

I understand that not everyone with Anxiety Disorder has this experience; there are so many people in my group who are affected a lot more strongly than I am, and will probably need furthere help over a longer period of time to deal with it. My heart goes out to them. I know how much my relatively mild version of it has hampered my life; it must be terrible to deal with much stronger fear day in, day out. Once you see how fear manifests through a broad swath of people, you notice it driving so many other behaviors — especially the ones I’ve found antagonistic or particularly angering. That allows me to see myself in these people a lot better, which allows me to check my anger and better understand what they might be going through. Understanding myself helps me to connect better with others.

I’m curious if anyone else out there has issues with anxiety. What about it do you find particularly challenging? Are there ways you’ve learned to cope with it? Are there experiences you would like to share? I’m all ears!

 

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