Need More Proof You can Recover?

Have you abandoned hope that you’ll ever be entirely free from panic attacks and all the misery they provide? I was in that depressing  place of mind often during my 30 years in Agoraphobia Prison and wake up every day over 2 decades later grateful I no longer have to lead my life with that weight dragging me down.

I regularly read posts on the agoraphobia online support forums and am saddened to read people saying they hope to find a way to “cope with” and “manage” their panic disorder when there is so much evidence that you can “eliminate” the problem.  The way I eliminated panic attacks and agoraphobia from my life was to finally put all my energy into recovery and the effort paid off. I’d like to give you a way to create a new burst of energy for yourself – a big boost to get you going with a recovery plan. You are, I’m sure, acquainted with current brain science on the capacity we have to make changes in our brain’s wiring; now I want you to become a serious student of the subject.  Your assignment is to get a notebook and pretend you’re in class again  as you listen to talks by 3 scientists working in the field of  “neuroplasticity,” PhD. Rick Hanson, PhD. Richie Davidson and MD. Dan Siegel.

I am convinced that you will be so empowered by what you hear in their YouTube lectures that you’ll find the energy to throw all you have into a recovery program. These 3 professionals apply their knowledge in various ways, but at the center of their work is the ability of the brain to change through its owner’s efforts. Once you are convinced that your brain is not fixed and that you can actually do this… that you can completely overcome your fears and be panic free for life, you can get your notion back in motion.

To do so, begin a journal and do research every day to maintain inertia. There are two things I want you to understand before you begin your study: 1. Recovery will require hard work and dedication; 2. Neuroplasticity works both ways. You can change your way of thinking to positive, but you must continue the pattern to own it.  Your daily task is to think happy thoughts. It could be worse.

Check in with the blog for questions you’d like answered. Onward to recovery.



Creativity and Mental Health`

Anyone who possesses strong passions and the  burning need to express what they feel knows about the need to create. Having a mental illness creates a sort of “passion” within, if we use a Webster’s New World dictionary definition. When I was suffering from panic disorder I certainly had very strong feelings and emotions, and when I read the definition for “passion,” I laughed aloud. I felt like agoraphobia is almost synonymous with passion in the dictionary which emphasizes “suffering” and “agony” as the strongest emotions evoked, and suggests that “passion” is the combining of all strong emotions such as “hate, grief, love, fear, joy,etc.”

If you’re suffering chronic panic attacks as I once did, you are a passionate person and you have a need to express your feelings on the matter. I’m here to recommend to all agoraphobes that you begin immediately to discover a way to express yourself creatively. I’m bringing up the therapeutic benefits of creativity in view of the self-inflicted deaths of two male actors recently. Both men, James Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams, performed creatively in their crafts, but battled with depression and the downside of self medicating symptoms.  Some of the publicity about their deaths spoke of the destructive aspects of being mentally ill and highly creative.

There has been a connection between mental illness and creativity through the ages – much of it negative. Depression weighed upon the astronomer/physicist Isaac Newton, the composer Johann S. Bach, the painter Van Gogh and countless other famously creative people. The upside to these recent, tragic deaths is that we’re talking openly about mental illness. While we’re doing that, I want to keep a light shining on the benefits of creative thinking for folks I know best – people with panic disorder.

I used creative thinking and creative processes as tools in helping me totally recover from panic disorder and agoraphobia. I learned to become a potter and later how to draw and paint as a form of therapy, though I didn’t know that’s what was happening at the time.  I began my mental health career by volunteering at my town’s Mental Health Center, teaching pottery and drawing sessions. When I actually became employed at the Mental Health Center in my new town after I recovered from agoraphobia, it was because I was running their pottery program as a volunteer.  For most of the 17 years I was a full time mental health social worker, I also ran a drawing class for the Center’s day drop-in program. I think I can speak as an expert in this particular area. I know how grounding and calming clay work can be and I benefited many times from the meditation-like practice of drawing for 2 or more hours per sitting.  I saw how those very same activities benefited folks with seriously disabling mental illness.

That’s why I’m recommending you learn a new skill, preferably in the arts. Doing so will better you in the following ways: it will help you gain confidence as you improve your abilities; it will show you the benefits of meditative-like activities; it will re-direct your thinking to a more objective look at your world, and it will give you an outlet for your passionate feelings.



Someone Here Order a Panic Attack?

I had a visit from an all-too familiar feeling last week. It had been over 20 years since I experienced the “aura,” that tiny bit of time just before you get body slammed with a panic attack. Everyone familiar with panic attacks knows that creepy, threatening sensation just before you lose control. If at that point you let the feeling overwhelm you, the monster will mightily oppose being placed back in the jar.

One of the many reasons I’m grateful I overcame panic disorder is I no longer have to experience that horrible moment (I thought). “I’m back Jack,” is more or less what I remember a voice hissing at me as I writhed in pain on my hospital bed. It was day 2 of my intestinal blockage drama.  On that day, cramping with pain, I began to think about the gravity of my situation, and panicky feelings emerged instantly. I recall the instant clearly. I probably thought the equivalent of “oh no! and quickly put into practice many of the things I created in my past to overcome panicky feelings.

The object is to take your focus away from your sensations by focusing on your surroundings. This is a form of mindfulness I practice by keying in on particulars.  I placed my focus on hearing at first and tried to identify and locate each sound I heard of which there are many on a busy surgery recovery floor. The thought I might need surgery was part of the fear package that presented itself to me as I lay exhausted with pain and very vulnerable. As soon as I recognized what might happen (panic attack) I began to listen intently like a safe cracker to every sound. And later I began focusing on accessories the folks were employing with their scrubs. I looked intently at hair patterns and at fingernails and counting my tubes. Counting my tubes was a task for a couple of days.  Outward focusing also helped me tune out pain.

And I used humor when I was able, cracking jokes and generally engaging as brightly as possible all those who were tending my needs.    It worked. I work. All the things I put into place for my and now your recovery from panic disorder are what helped get me through a scary health crisis. I had intestinal surgery 15 years ago that left scar tissue and a few narrow passages and my now forbidden fruit is mixed nuts. I was in constant, sometimes intense pain for 4 days. No sleep, no food, no drinking water (bits of ice). Now there was a test of the constitutional. It’s day 4 after my release and I’m feeling a little frisky. I rode my bike to the store and ate real food all day.

Hydrology Department officials met recently at the site of the blockage on the Lower Mathias River to discuss possible causes of the crisis. “We think it was either vandals or beavers that caused the dam-up,” said Department engineer Holly Goforth. She added, “We’re going to implement new rules against placing limbs, branches, clumps of leaves or grass or any densely packed materials into the Lower Mathias. We hope that helps, but the fact remains: that beavers can’t read signs.”


See if I Care…

When people ask me how I recovered from agoraphobia, I usually avoid a very long story by saying such things as “It was a process,” or “It’s a very long story,” or “I had a lot of help,”  but one thing I always say is “I had to learn to become blase’.” You know, that French word meaning a sort of satisfied boredom.  When I was in the grip of chronic panic attacks I was trying to control everything I could, probably out of desperation to be in control of something, since I couldn’t control my anxiety or fears.  As I came more in contact with others suffering from panic disorder through peer support groups I started or helped organize and my social work job at the Mental Health Center I discovered a lot of anxious people with perfectionist traits. I’m not referring now to “obsessive compulsive disorder,” but rather to the controlling behavior exhibited by those who suffer chronic panic attacks for no apparent reason.

I somehow knew my perfectionist, controlling habits were interfering with recovery from agoraphobia.  Learning to become blase’,  wasn’t that much of a stretch for me.  A lot of my habits are of a casual nature, so I just had to extrapolate from not making my bed to not  making a big deal out of speeded up breathing or heart rate or other kinds of false warning signs that can trigger panic attacks. I had to learn to stop caring about the outcomes of many many things I used to think were necessary to my well being. The whole business of letting go and letting down my guard didn’t happen quickly… but once I could see positive results from forced lack of concern about this or that, I allowed myself to  become kind of casual. The whole process over several years affected everything about me – the way I walk and talk and write and  listen. I can listen a lot better now that I’ve become less self-concerned.

Folks who suffer with agoraphobia will help their recovery efforts by learning to let go – a lot. The question of whether anxiety creates perfectionism or perfectionism creates anxiety is a circular one – worth pondering though. I’m thinking of how perfectionism and anxiety disorders co-occur because of an article written by Psychology Today blogger Max Belkin. His nicely written piece,         “5 Steps to Taming Perfectionism,” appeared in late July and links the obsession of perfect to both low self esteem and procrastination. I’m not saying that agoraphobes are necessarily perfectionists; just that there’s a trait toward controlling one’s surroundings that actually creates more anxiety.

Dr. Bilker advises those who have let perfectionism ruin their dreams to learn to accept themselves just as they are and to acknowledge that they are good enough just as they are. Self love is at the core of recovering from panic disorder and agoraphobia. Healthy self love always radiates out, so once you obtain it, walk it around and shine on some folks in the shadows.