Jangle, Jangle, Jangle

 If everything could just kind of jingle this time of year, folks with panic disorder might be okay with all the increases in stimulation. The problem is there’s way more jangling – nerve jangling – than the sweet little jingling we prefer. As a result, this is a time of great suffering for many people with chronic panic attacks.

When your nerves are already jangled with ever-present anxiety, the holiday season can easily put you over the top. I recall my most anxious times during my years with agoraphobia were from T-Day to New Year’s.  Now I understand that my environment of supposedly  cheery, festive occasions was loading up my fight or flight system. The colored lights, the crowds, the noise, the blurs of activity, were just increased stimulus as far as my amygdala was concerned.

If the same cycle occurs for you, I’d be interested to hear about it. Send an email if your panic attacks get much worse during the “holidays” and you want to hide from it all. I was nearly homebound on at least two of the Christmas/Thanksgiving periods. I recall feeling deep despair this time of year. Agoraphobes know they will most likely face demands to travel during the holidays, so their nerves get amped up by that threat.

You are expected to get things for people; online shopping makes life easier, but there are some things you’ll have to go out for. My increased anxiety level was probably also due to the contrasts between how everyone around me was apparently feeling – kind of happy and pepped up and bustling around – and the way I was feeling, which was desperately unhappy and frightened.  I remember more than one holiday season when I felt that I could just no longer go on… I mean go on. I did, and so shall you my friend.

What I needed during periods of heightened anxiety was something to focus on; something I could start doing that would demand all my attention and take my fears away. I didn’t have much to turn to in earlier years, but once I discovered art and clay I had something to go to and begin creating.  When you enter the creative process your fears will nearly or completely disappear. When you live fully focused on the present moment of creation, the past and future are just that.

My advice to you is to start making things for people. Make by hand every present you’ll give this year and enjoy the satisfaction of creation and the delight of discovery from the receiver. Your gifts could range from found and modified art to drawings/paintings/collage, to poems or stories or songs you write. Cookies! Your gift can be homely or lovely, but I guarantee that in the eye of the receiver your gift will be beautiful. You may discover a talent you weren’t aware of and begin pursuing whatever way you decided to make your own presents.

Schedule some daily breathing timeouts throughout the coming weeks and try to sit in meditation at least once a day. This would be a good time to transfer your extra stimulation to your journal. Make a holiday observation every day- remarking on particularly gaudy or tasteful things you saw or heard in passing, for example. Writing will help you focus on recovery.

Be extra mindful of everything around you this year. By focusing on one thing at a time you’ll greatly reduce your anxiety level. Study colored lights closely. Look at people’s faces and clothing with increased interest. Listen intently to each sound you hear and try to isolate it. Doing things of this nature will I hope make the task of being in holiday crowds easier for you.

Social isolation can be a serious matter for homebound agoraphobes this time of year. Reach out to others in whatever way you can – from writing nice letters to phone calls to visits. Stay connected with your world throughout the holiday time. Bake delicious things and invite people over. Give yourself the present of a comfortable holiday season for a change.


Your Words Shall Set You Free


Writing is an important part of  overcoming panic disorder and agoraphobia, and I’ll tell you why. As you’re working on your recovery program, you’re doing a lot of research and thinking and then writing about it in your journal. The hour of the day you dedicate to reading about brain science and panic attacks will produce an abundance of material to comprehend and digest. Your job as a journal writer is to select what is of best use to you and  condense the information to fit in your journal. Think of writing  in such a way that the essence of what you learned is now on the page in your hand in a style that will be easy to read and learn from months later.

As a journalist I sometimes faced hundreds of pages of material related to a story I was working on, and had to learn to find the good stuff quickly. Decide on some buzz words of specific things you want to learn about and then you’ll soon spot whether a particular article or book will be helpful to you. Getting things right when you’re reading and interpreting someone else’s point of view is not easy. Your job as a writer is to take the time to understand what you’re reading or hearing. As a journalist you can, believe me, be deeply embarrassed when something you wrote turns out to be wrong and it’s your fault. As a personal journal writer you don’t face that kind of pressure of course, but that doesn’t eliminate the moral need to seek the truth in everything you read and hear.

Your amygdala creates firestorms based on apparently flimsy and even false information, and that is your basic problem. You have panic attacks because your alarm system no longer knows how to interpret data and must be reprogrammed. This time you’ll want to do it right, so make sure you comprehend what you’re finding in your daily research projects and passing along to your subconscious.

I never fully understand something until I write about it. Writing is a process and that’s what’s good for you about writing. When you read things they pass on by and you remember particulars here and there, but when you write about what you read, you read in a different way; you kind of process the information . When I’m reading about something in order to write about it, I become inclined to see the big picture more clearly because I want to produce a story (blog) that will hit the mark. Write clearly and thoughtfully and you will be served by what you write – as may others if you publish in some way.

I recommend you start your recovery program by writing a piece in your journal explaining what you think caused you to become ruled by the fear of having a panic attack. Recall any early fearful feelings and talk about what your environment was like then. This can be the “before” of you and you’ll get to compare that with “after” when you recover and write about it.

Once you get your recovery project underway and are writing regularly, I have an assignment for you. I want you to read aloud everything you write. Does it sound just like you? It should because your journal is your voice and your voice should sound like you – otherwise it won’t seem real. If your writing doesn’t sound conversational or like you, it’s probably because you have the dreaded fear of writing. Even I, who loved language and reading from early on and spoke and wrote well, hated English class as it was taught all too often. Conjugating sentences should not be allowed under the Geneva Convention rules on torture. Learning that way promotes stiff and formal writing in my humble opinion.

I believe the best way to teach “English” or any language is to treat it as a spoken as well as written language, so that students hear what they write. The best way to learn to write is to write (and read read read). Shortening of the language for technological reasons may be doing harm to the written word and the future of literature. More about that in a later post, but for now I’d like you to focus on creating a clear, conversational writing voice if you don’t already have one. Your overall communication skills will be improved immensely when you write in the vernacular, meaning the common voice – the sort of language you would hear in your particular society every day.

To be blunt, I’m reading things online written by obviously English speaking people that make them sound barely literate. I’m sure they are well-spoken people who are losing the skill of writing in a flowing, descriptive, conversation like manner. If paper disappears, clear writing will become even more important with so many online voices misinterpreted perhaps because of fractured syntax. Just a theory… I’d love to hear what others have to say about the future of written language.

All of this is to emphasize that your writing will help save you – if you write clearly, with passion and compassion.




How Far Out Are You?

I’d like to de-mystify agoraphobia a bit by discussing the various manifestations of classic panic disorder. I think most civilians equate agoraphobia with hiding in the house, but that’s not true all the time or even at all for everyone who suffers from this mental illness. My personal experience as well as what I learned from mental health clients and peer support group members led me to rate agoraphobia by severity:

Level 1. Housebound or mostly so.

Level 2. Partially mobile.

– Level 3. Mobile with a wall.

Many people who suffer panic attacks when they venture beyond their safe perimeter have experienced all three levels at one time or another. I ran the gamut more than once during my 30 years with agoraphobia. The housebound stage is usually the result of extra stressors; the increase in fear level that drives someone into a corner is demoralizing. Being inside can feel safe, although terror-stricken people will resort to hiding in small spaces to reduce the fear level.  A great day for someone at Level 1 is a trip all the way to the end of the block. The victim’s fight or flight system is on such a high stage of self-imposed alertness that unending anxiety is the result.  Someone at this high level of anxiety feels that a panic attack is so nearby that one dare not rock the boat.

When agoraphobes are at Level 2 they are able to work and go to school, though with great difficulty. Going to and from is likely the most difficult of every day’s difficult tasks.  Those  periods of vulnerability bring out an agoraphobe’s talent for catastrophic thinking.  Anything and everything can be a threat, but bridges, railroad crossings and long lines of streetlights are particularly troublesome for someone at this anxiety level. Work may be the easiest part of the day; a job that requires total focus on the work is good for the agoraphobe who wants to shut out anxious thoughts.

Many people with long-term agoraphobia spent a lot of time at Level 1. I did. When you are able to work and have relationships and feel free from heavy anxiety, you can become complacent. Eventually, though, being stuck at this level is heartbreaking because you are so near yet so far from complete freedom. You’re still a prisoner even if you have a good job and relationships.

So… the truth is out: No one is safe from agoraphobes because not all of them are locked up in their houses.  Some of them are moving about you, working with you, touching you, and even…. Yes! Agoraphobes can appear to be nearly normal, if not more so.

Start increasing your functioning level by decreasing your fear level with the help of “Un-agoraphobic.”

Fear is Fear is Fear

I was interviewed on a radio station recently by co-hosts, each of whom had experienced different kinds of fairly severe fear. The three of us had experienced agoraphobia in one form or another, so knew exactly of what we were speaking when we talked panic attacks. We all agreed the experience is mind altering and often life altering. We 3 also were intimately familiar with self medication (alcohol, chemicals) as well as prescription addiction; you know, tranquilizzzzzers and anti-depressants and mood stabilizers.

One of the hosts had overcome addiction and for the most part fears, but the other was still struggling with anxiety and addiction. Both were very upfront about themselves, as was I. It seemed like a lively discussion and I hope well received. I mostly tried to level the playing field for people with serious anxiety issues. One host suffered severe loss, appearance issues, and abuse at home. The other had loss and physical trauma at the root of a high anxiety state.

I, on the other hand, didn’t experience trauma, something real that happened and sent me into a panic attack. I went straight into a panic attack for no apparent reason, other than something vague may have startled me. That was my trauma. The result for all 3 of us was that our alert system got set a little higher, taking the form of general anxiousness. Additional traumas, mine in the form of panic attacks, programmed our “flight or fight” system to be constantly alert – a higher level of anxiety.

The fact is, all anxiety is fear-based. We are exceptionally self-protective, ever on the alert for danger – via the amygdala, the most primitive part of the brain. I consider it a storage area where memories are kept – memories of all kinds of trauma, danger signals, danger thoughts, all the sorts of things that you have decided to put in the fear category. I’m an English major; I don’t really know much but general information about the brain system, so a lot of what I think about this is sort of made up but based on science. I do know we all have to get out of our anxiety the same way – by reprogramming our neural systems to start working our way.

My book Un-Agoraphobic is the fully equipped, all you need package to begin the recovery process and find yourself standing on the other side of your agoraphobia prison wall – laughing and crying at the same time. But for now, get to work every day on the routine and write of your journey. I had to overcome my fear of panic attacks. I didn’t have to overcome my fear of traveling beyond a certain distance; I had to stop being afraid of having a panic attack. People who have suffered physical and or verbal trauma will probably have to resolve their specific fear issues as they work on the agoraphobia recovery program. It’s hard work but the payoff is unbelievable happiness.

Don’t Hold Your Breath

Proper, natural breathing plays a significant role in both depression and anxiety, but for kind of opposite reasons. In brief, people with depression tend to breathe shallowly because of body posture and anxious people tend to breathe shallowly and rapidly because their overactive adrenaline machine is filling up all the necessary fight or flight systems with fuel. I recall when I was highly anxious it felt like I couldn’t get a full breath. I would try to breathe deeply but couldn’t. Now I know it was because I already had a high concentration of oxygen in my system because my “fight or flight” system was fueled and ready for action. Trying to force in more air would cause me to hyperventilate and…. what’s the next step class?…. that’s right! …and have a full blown !$%==%&&!!!## panic attack.

The opposite could happen to a depressed person breathing so shallowly she fainted. The low oxygen rates from shallow breathing certainly cause lightheadness. I read a recent article on the Optimal 2 Breathing Mastery website about the dynamics of depression and breathing. Research indicates people suffering depression tend to slump and not use good breathing mechanics, which can raise carbon dioxide levels, reduce oxygen intake and create a number of health problems.

The site recommends breathing and physical exercises as perhaps a better treatment than any of the commonly used antidepressants. One contributor to the site reported that when she changed her posture by throwing her shoulders back and breathing with her diaphragm, her depression symptoms were markedly reduced.

All the research I’ve read on breathing and emotional well being indicates exercise of some form is the best antidote to depression and anxiety. Both yoga and aerobics sessions are recommended on the site. For folks with the anxiety breathing problem, the solution is really to begin meditatively focusing on your breathing so you can help guide it back to normal. Once you even start a safe, healing practice your adrenaline blaster will idle down a bit and go along with you in getting back to relaxed breathing. Essentially, you have to get in a comfortable as possible posture on a chair and begin to think only of your breath. Watch what your chest is doing as you’re breathing and then your belly. Your diaphragm expands in a deep normal breath and your body tends to straighten. When I’m meditating I focus on my breathing and counting. I wait until a natural urge to breathe begins and then take it in through my nostrils to the count of 4. I hold it lightly awhile and let it out through pursed lips to the count of 8. I think the key is to wait until your body says “breathe.”

It makes me feel good that solutions can be so simple. Focus on the basics. Breathe well and live well. Your pal Hal