Seen Much of Your Happiness Lately?

When I was caught in the thicket of high anxiety, constantly fearful I would soon be run over by a panic attack, I remember cherishing rare moments of happiness.  Not surprisingly, my usually brief feelings of happiness coincided with rare moments of calm and peace of mind.  The lesson to me was I could never be truly happy until I totally overcame my fearful feelings. My happiness had to come from within and at the time I didn’t know how or where to find it.

Where is happiness? What is happiness? How can I get me some?

In desperation I figured out I had to create little ways to make myself feel happy while smothered by fear. Luckily, I started a pottery habit at age 22, which not only gave me a way to relieve anxiety, but also gave me happiness.  I couldn’t always be in a studio, though, so I had to invent other things to do at a moment’s notice to give me a sense of calm and therefore happiness. I taught myself to draw, which provided me another mindful, calming activity. Producing things always brings my anxiety down, but I needed yet more ways to find that calm, centered, focus on now. 

I discovered group therapy while in graduate school, and the experience, while not always comfortable, gave me a sense of peace because of the intimate connection with peers.  I also formed some good friendships as I became an adult and obtained happiness in that way. My career as a journalist was also a source of happiness. Despite all, though, I found myself very unhappy much of the time – depressed and distraught over my ridiculous condition of agoraphobia.  My medication (alcohol) wasn’t helping, of course.

It took a long time for me to find the final key. Once I learned about meditation and was able to go to that calming place, I had the final tool and was able to put all my happy-making skills together to escape my 30-year-long fear of traveling.

I designed the recovery program in Un-Agoraphobic around all I learned over those years, and include a myriad of ways to arrive at a calm state of being where happiness rules and fear is vanquished. The reader engages daily in research, writing, visualizations and imagery, skill learning, meditation and other activities designed to balance and heal the person.  I also include practices for maintaining relationships and succeeding with work or school. My idea is to build one happy-making experience onto another so there can be a continuum of pleasant, calm, “happy” feelings.  The more ways you have to achieve your bliss, the better off you are is my philosophy.

I read a good article recently by blogger Steve Rose that explores the origins of happiness. “Does Happiness Come from Within?” he asks, and answers that there’s more than one way to achieve the desired state of mind.  His discussion begins with the state of inner peace and what amounts to happiness that comes through meditation.  Blogger Rose claims, however, that happiness coming solely from within is not enough for the Western mind, and pointed out the opportunities to find happiness in families, friendships, work and spiritual practices.Happiness, he concluded, is a journey, not a destination.

It’s a good read and I hope it will provide you with insight to your own version of happiness. Here’s the link:



Methink Thou Doth Perfect Too Much

People I’ve known possessed by panic disorder tend to be perfectionists. I’m a recovered agoraphobe as well as a recovered perfectionist and the two are closely connected, as I shall explain.

When I was suffering anxiety at its highest level my “flight or fight” system was on overload and I behaved like an armed guard at the gate, alert to signs of danger. I, of course, thought I was protecting myself by trying to control everything around me, but instead I was maintaining my anxiety by feeding it.

People I met in various agoraphobia support groups over the years as well as folks with anxiety disorders I got to know as a mental health social worker all seemed to have a need to control things. I can understand that, because when you have no control over panic attacks, you want to be in control of something. I started having panic attacks at age 10 and became very insecure. I know now I developed certain rituals and specific needs about then and continued adaptive, controlling behaviors throughout my time with panic attacks.

Hiding in the house is the ultimate controlling attempt, as many an agoraphobe well knows, but most people with panic disorder do other controlling things as well. You are forcing your amygdala to be alert to ever more things when you try to make order within the chaos by creating a bunch of rules. You are now feeding your monster by organizing your kitchen.

Your need to have all your ducks in a row in whatever form your perfectionism takes is giving your alarm system way too much to do. It’s already afraid of panic attacks, and now you’re making it afraid of wandering ducks.  See what I mean? I realized that in order to recover I had to start letting go of trying to control things. I had to teach myself to become blasé. It works and it makes sense that it works. The less you have your amygdala doing, the lower the level of adrenaline in your system. Keep lowering the alert levels and eventually you’ll only be afraid of things like the sabre-toothed tiger that started this whole mess in the first place.

If you see yourself here, I advise making a list of things you probably over-control. It may take awhile to do so. As an example, one of my many controlling, perfectionist behaviors was to be a different person for other people and occasions so that I could control the situation and maintain calm: I’d behave blandly around someone excitable and  light hearted around someone depressed just to keep a balance. I needed predictability more than absolute order, so I would make an encounter turn out as well as possible by being the person I needed to be at that particular time. A friend finally made it clear one night when he said, “You’re a phony.”

If you’re working on the recovery program in Un-Agoraphobic you already started a journal in which you can make your lists. I advise letting go of controls as you feel safe, enjoying the lightness of that release of pressure. I came across a great piece on the problem of perfectionism, written by Elizabeth Lombardo for the newsletter Everyday Health. As a clinical psychologist and traveling lecturer, she found herself in the trap of constantly striving to improve everything in her life. She offers some sound advice for people who cannot be content with now. I hope you enjoy this read as much as I did. Here’s a link:


Acting Crazy

I love watching people try to act crazy. I’m about as familiar with mental illness as a non-clinician can be, so I carefully scrutinize efforts by actors to portray a particular form of mental illness. I’ll give you a brief bio, so you’ll understand my interest in this subject.

I suffered mental illness with agoraphobia for 30 years, during which time I worked with every kind of shrink imaginable, and spent at least 5 years in therapeutic groups comprising many manifestations of mental illness. When I overcame my craziness I got a job as a mental health social worker, assisting with care of severely mentally ill people, including folks with anxiety disorders. I spent 2 of my 17 years at the Mental Health Center working with homeless mentally ill wherever I found them: jails, hospitals, shelters, walking mumbling down the sidewalk (“Hi. I’m from the government. I’m here to help you.”)  And to top off all my face to face visceral experience with the world of mental illness, I was also an actor at one time – a theater major. That’s why I love watching actors trying to be someone like me.

There have been a few efforts to portray agoraphobia in film but no one is going to win an Oscar sitting around the house all day looking tense and preoccupied. Usually the mentally ill characters presented as agoraphobic have other problems, or there is an additional story line. How would you portray your illness on stage if you were asked to? I have had panic attacks in front of others who were  unaware of what was going on with me, so I guess I’d act as normal as I could. Or, one could take it in the other direction as Mel Brooks did in “High Anxiety.”

The truth is people are all different and there are many facets to every diagnosis, so there isn’t a set way for a schizophrenic person to talk or someone with major depression to behave. They are partly themselves and partly their mental illness.

My favorite example of actors going over the top in portraying craziness is the propaganda film “Reefer Madness.” This all came up because I read an article in “Everyday Health” titled “Anxiety on the Silver Screen.” I’ll post a link so you can read about anxiety in action.

How to Leave Home Without You

When anxiety is having its way with you, leaving your domicile becomes a daily, dreaded chore. Because I struggled getting to work or school for many years as a victim of panic disorder, I want to help you take on the day so you’ll face only new opportunities instead of new threats.

I’m revisiting this because being able to travel to work or school is vital to your survival and there are so many people who struggle with this daily event – the journey into the unknown. This is for the folks who have to make a living or stay in school and suffer panicky feelings in order to do so.

My recovery program for agoraphobes includes a variety of activities and practices throughout the day designed to help make neural changes in your brain, and over time this work is what will set you free. In the meantime, as you battle anxiety throughout the day, the best advice I can give is to stay in the present moment.  Paying close attention to what you are doing and where you are throughout the journey will enable you to step confidently and serenely into the day.

I advise taking along your journal or notebook and a camera as you begin a new way of leaving home and leaving the anxious you behind.  Be mindful of everything around you and record it as a means of getting out of your head and into a connection with your environment. Peace comes from this if you do it right. As you’re walking feel the surface and make note of what your feet are touching. Describe it in detail. And on and on through your daily journey, take a new view of what you encounter.

Getting into and staying in that frame of mind can be admittedly difficult. But once you fully understand what it means to be in the moment you’ll be able to benefit from the values of meditative, mindful behavior. Here’s an excellent piece by psychologist Dr. John Amodeo on living in the present moment. I hope you’ll read it. I learned from it and I hope you will also. Here’s to healing through learning:

How to Dodge a Speeding Freight Train

There may be a way for you to see a panic attack coming from some distance away and be able to get out of the way before it runs you over in the usual freight train fashion.

I came across a study done at Southern Methodist University that indicates people who suffer panic attacks have some physiological symptoms nearly an hour before the dreaded event. Most people who have panic attacks will tell you they come on suddenly, without warning. But after reading this study I recall that I had vague symptoms before many of my panic attacks, but didn’t know what to do about them.  I probably didn’t recognize the indicators for what they meant.

It’s been more than 20 years since I suffered a panic attack, but I recall that I often experienced tightness in my jaw leading up to yet another series of panic attacks. The study continuously monitored panic disorder patients employing heart rates, respiration and skin conductive responses. Researchers noted marked changes in these areas for panic attack victims, noting the changes were similar to those experienced by people about to experience a stroke, seizure or even manic episodes.

One notable change in people leading up to a panic attack was in breathing: monitors noted decreased and shallower breathing with increased levels of carbon dioxide. High levels of carbon dioxide are associated with panic attacks, according to the study.

I’ve posted a link to the article on the Medscape website. Read it and try to recall experiences you may have had with “aura” like feelings or bodily changes preceding a panic attack. Now that I know that my tightened jaw and shallow breathing were symptoms of an upcoming attack, I’m certain I could have taken steps to avoid an attack.  Next time you’re experiencing some pre-panic symptoms, begin daily regimens of deep breathing and positive imaging to turn the panic monster away.

Meditation Builds Brain Muscles

Science has proved that meditation is a useful tool for overcoming anxiety.

Though meditation in some form or another is vital to recovery from panic disorder, some people have great difficulty meditating. In my perpetual search for articles that make meditation user friendly, I came across one that gives literal muscle to the benefits of meditation by proving that beneficial brain changes occur while practicing some form of mindfulness.

The article, “Eight Weeks to a Better Brain,” by Sue McGreevey, referred to a study done through Massachusetts General Hospital that used study and control groups, employing neural imaging and other electronic techniques to measure brain activity. The article appeared in the hospital’s newsletter and cited the study, “Neural Mechanisms of Symptom Improvements in Generalized Anxiety Disorder Following Mindfulness Training.”

The study group went through an 8 week program that included guided meditation developed for Harvard Medical School called “Mindful Based Stress Reduction.” The 8 week session included various forms of mindful activity such as yoga, walking or specific focuses and a system for participants to use for daily meditation at home.

The principal author of the study report, Britta Holzel, said she is optimistic about the role of meditation in mental health treatment. In her words, “It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”

I set up a number of activities and practices in my Un-Agoraphobic recovery program that are designed to help create new neural pathways beneficial to your elimination of anxiety.  Such things as daily brain science research, journal writing, visualizations and skill learning are known to alter brain activity in desirable ways. I also set up a time for daily meditation.  It’s good to know that meditation not only rests the mind, it also alters the mind in beneficial ways.

I’m providing a link to the study report below.  The significant discovery was that those employing regular meditation and mindfulness practices showed increased gray matter activity in the hippocampus, in a region of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress. The study also revealed a decrease in neural activity in the alarm center, the amygdala, for those who meditated regularly.