Add Up Your Gratitude

Expressing gratitude about the significant experiences of the year soon gone will help you get started on the right foot for what lies ahead. List in your journal the top few or several occurrences that made a difference for you in 2014 or at least got you thinking differently about something related to panic disorder. Speaking of gratitude, you are reading words that I wish I could have read decades ago when I was still heavily under the influence of panic attacks. I am writing this because I know how grateful I was to uncover something, anything, new or revealing about panic disorder.

My agoraphobia began in the early 60’s, and there was not much available for lay people to read about chronic anxiety and panic attacks. Be grateful to the information age (early 80’s on) for making it possible for people with mental illness to learn more about their condition.

What else are you grateful for? What else, besides discovering unagoraphobic got you thinking about ways to get out of the mess you’re in? It could have been a personal insight, or the words or deeds of others; it could have been scientific or academic research. Think of things that stood out for you and record them with a paragraph or so about why you are grateful for that particular thing. The more you understand about what has worked for you, the better you’ll be at doing things now that will work for you. When you record these reflections on 2014 you’ll learn more about yourself, vital to your recovery.

I hope your strongest expressions of gratitude are toward yourself for having come this far and for having at least the beginning of a plan for total recovery from chronic panic attacks.


Extinction is Good – in This Case

Remember when you were a teensy little baby in a general state of learning, of absorbing into your brand new memory unit everything going on in your world? You didn’t know what the hell it all meant, but you had 3 distinct feelings: pleasure (food, warmth, touch), discomfort (hunger, pain, angst) and fear (startle).

When we pop out, everything is new and potentially dangerous. We’re probably afraid of everything because we’ve never experienced it before. As time passes, we learn that we don’t have to fear certain things (food sources, warm caresses).  In one very important way, our lives are reduced to the simplicity of two tasks: 1. Learning to fear certain things, and 2. Learning to stop fearing certain things. Learning to stop fearing things is called “fear extinction” by social and brain scientists. It’s verrrrry important, that stopping part, and it’s what agoraphobes aren’t good at.

I never really thought of getting over a fear in terms of “extinction,” but that’s in fact what has to happen, in a structural way, in a pact with your brain team – the amygdala, the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex (aka “Big” and “Brains”). In order for you stop fearing something, there has to be a committee meeting in your brain. I’ll set it up for you.

You are startled one morning on a walk you have to take regularly.  A dog in a yard leaps, snarling, as you pass. Your adrenaline alarm goes off, partly because you’ve been bitten by a dog, and partly because your fight or flight system works the way it’s supposed to. You were in danger and you froze, planning your next move.  You understand the fence will probably protect you, so you circle widely and pass to the diminishing sound of barking. Well, hell. Now what? Who knows who owns the dog in that big apartment building? The next morning, there’s no dog, but the day after your nearly serene walk is shattered once again by that bloody dog. Now each time you leave the house with anxious feelings, not knowing. This business has wrecked your mornings.

You watch a TV movie one night about a jewel thief who throws a big bloody steak to the estate guard dogs and the next morning you take along some dog treats, turning the barks to wags. You are not at all afraid of the neighborhood dog any longer. Why? The pre-frontal cortex created the notion of taking doggie treats and began to romanticize the positive outcome of it all, completely forgetting there’d been anything about fear.

The hippocampus had passed along the memory to Big after the first incident and kept the master mind informed. When “Brains” thought up the treat idea she had to then convince the hippocampus to eliminate the fear memory. Hippocampus isn’t as sophisticated as Big, but can understand that a smiling dog poses little risk. The amygdala started it all, of course, jumping back from the fear-provoking event and calling out the alarm to all systems. It’s sort of like that horn blasting chaos when everybody’s running around on the deck of a submerging submarine.  WHOOP WHOOP WHOOP!

In mili-seconds everybody in the body knows there’s a lunging, barking dog and is ready to fight it – or whatever – thanks to the amygdala. After the doggie treats worked, hippo had to tell amygdala that from now on, no matter how many times the dog appeared, nobody else in the brain was going to worry about it, so amygdala might as well not also. When the guard at the gate, the amygdala, has cancelled a fear memory, that baby is EXTINCT.

You know what your problem is? You neglected to kill a few memories.  So now we start the process, and this research is part of your process.

I’ve come across several medical journal articles about that very subject – the extinction of fears. I’m not a science type, but I enjoy reading brain science and will pass along to you links to articles about the nature of anxiety as it pertains to you, as well as a summary of what you’ll be reading. Science articles can be difficult to read, but by doing so you’ll increase your knowledge of what afflicts you and help you figure out how to overcome it.

This article from the “Biology of Mood & Anxiety Disorders” online journal reveals results from a study of the relationship between early, childhood abuse or trauma and structural changes in the brain. It was written by four medical researchers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina.  It may reveal something to you about the roots of your anxiety; at least it will deepen your understanding of you.

Ya Gotta Work It

My book Un-Agoraphobic came out in October and has drawn a few reviews – one of them quite negative. I felt hurt at first, until I thought about it. The reviewer called it “a waste of time.”  This person couldn’t have had the book long enough to even begin the recovery program I designed.  Unfortunately, some people think just reading a self help book will be enough to get them over whatever they have.

If you’ve been around much you learned that doing the minimal isn’t enough to get you very far in life. You got to do more than show up; you have to get engaged. My book clearly calls for working a daily routine involving research, journaling, doing visualizations and affirmations, learning a new skill, gaining the benefits of meditation and performing regular activities in order to change neural pathways. Change like that doesn’t happen after a short time of work and certainly not from just one reading of a book.

It took me a long time to put together everything I needed to do and to change in order to get over panic disorder and end panic attacks forever. I got discouraged many times, but I had to press forward because otherwise… well, I don’t want to think about otherwise.  A long history with panic attacks can hammer a person down until recovery doesn’t seem possible any longer. I’m glad I survived that dark time and dedicated myself to the hard work and courage it took to free myself from agoraphobia prison.

I’ve encountered people along the way who are looking for a quick fix. These seem to be people who haven’t learned how to take charge of their lives and expect others, so-called experts, to fix them. They want to hear a few magic words or tricks or bombastic statements that will suddenly turn everything around. You meet people like that from time to time. They’re the ones blaming everyone but themselves, the ones who are always searching but never really looking. You have to look at yourself. You have to look at the possibilities. You have to look at your recovery as something to devote yourself to.

You can recover completely from panic disorder and agoraphobia by using my book and fully engaging in all the procedures and activities I’ve put in there. You have a lot of changes to make but you’ll never make the changes without hard, steady, day after day work.

Are You Being Ethically Mindful?

The word “mindfulness” is in the air these days where people are talking about well being and problem solving and reducing stress. Now that I think of it, mindfulness is probably in the air because stress is in the air. War, political strife, severe weather, economic crises are all, in my opinion, contributing to increased stress all over the world. A lot of people are getting in the stress reduction game – teaching mindfulness workshops, for example.

It’s good to be hearing the M word tossed about. This means people are talking about and thinking about solutions to their problems. I employ the practice of “mindfulness” in my Un-Agoraphobic recovery program as a means of soothing your savage system. By focusing fully throughout the day on each task you perform, every activity you undertake, you always are living in that moment and that moment only. There’s no anxiety or regret over past or future, there’s only now.

A question was raised recently in a Salon Magazine article over whether mindfulness practice is becoming a fad, losing its meaning and spiritual background. Authors Ronald Purser and Andrew Cooper expressed fear that the practice of mindfulness will become the equivalent of an energy drink, designed to be consumed quickly as a way for business people to reduce their stress so they can build their business bigger and even more successful

Mindfulness is also associated with meditation, which I recommend in the recovery program. Once you learn how to focus on something as simple as the passage of air through your nostrils or the rising and falling of your abdomen or a pine cone on a tree you will have created a safe room in your brain. Meditation becomes a place to go when anxiety is having its way with you. The breathing preparation alone will lower your vitals. Your brain gets to take a break any time you are engage in a singular activity. I do a lot of drawing to reduce my stress.  The activity takes all my thoughts away and gives me the feeling of having taken a great nap.

The article in Salon expressed concern that the “science” of mindfulness – the brain imaging truth that resting the mind is beneficial – will lead people to use the practice for purposes other than what the Buddha had in mind. Purser and Cooper remind us that Buddha wanted people to use focus and meditation to clear their minds for spiritual benefit. Buddhist teachings concentrate on such things as loving compassion and simplification and reducing the need for “things” to achieve happiness.

A calm that will lead you to free yourself from anxiety and panic attacks is the goal of the use of mindfulness in my panic disorder recovery program. My opinion is that one can practice mindfulness without becoming a Buddhist. but that any materialistic gain from such practice is contradictory to the original purpose of meditation and mind cleansing activities.