Fancy Word for “Pay Attention”

 Mindfulness is, I think, a rather lovely word , pleasant to pronounce and has been in the air more and more the past few years.  It begins with the Mmmm sound that is sort of like ommmmm, creating a syllable that is our favorite subject, followed by the word “full”, and who doesn’t like that notion?  And it’s finished off with “ness,” a satisfying release of air that indicates “quality of being.” Who could say anything bad about a word like mindfulness?

Well, some people don’t care for fancy words.  What it really means is “paying attention.”  So, pay attention to this: in order to be mentally healthy, you need to spend a good portion of your day paying attention to every little thing you do and see and engage.  My Un-Agoraphobic recovery plan is built on focus and action, and creates many ways for the panic disorder victim to engage in mindful activities.

I advise lots of research and writing, and purposeful activities that require full focus.  One of the recovery steps is to learn a new skill that requires all your attention.  My healing mindful activity that helped me recover from 30 years of agoraphobia was to teach myself to draw, and then to draw regularly.  Learning a musical instrument such as a recorder or penny whistle is another mindful activity  that actually builds gray matter in the brain and defuses the flight or fight apparatus.  Learning a new language does the same; music is a new language.

The anxiety of traveling outside one’s safety zone can be eliminated by fully engaging with everything in your environment as you travel.  Read all the signs, look closely at clothing those around you are wearing, count blue cars and so forth.  Take pictures and write about what you see.  Getting outside your head and into what is around you will help you recover totally from chronic panic attacks and anxiety.

A recovery plan should also include sitting meditation as the practice is scientifically proven to make positive changes in the brain.  Your way, way over-staffed alarm system needs to lay off a few neurons, and the way to do that is to let your amygdala know that you feel safe.  If you practice regular activities that give you a calming feeling, the amygdala will get the message and re-assign some soldiers to more peaceful duties. The peace and serenity gained through meditation and meditative activities gives you a safe place to go when anxiety creeps in.

Here’s a link to a brilliant article that de-mystifies and explains “mindfulness” by an expert on the subject:



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:


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.

Wanna Read Some Real Brain Science?

I write extensively in Un-Agoraphobic about your amygdala’s role in your panic attacks and how you can re-train the #%#!&@&!#! traitorous false alarm-creating organ. (Now, now Hal – remember: every month is “Be Kind to Your Amygdala Month” from now on.)  Sorry. I forgot for a second there that I’m not mad at my amygdala like I was when trying to survive the daily lightning storms caused by I knew not what. I never even heard the word “amygdala” until many many years after I started having panic attacks – age 10.

I’ve done a lot of reading about the amygdala’s role in our misfortune and have written about it in blogs and in my book. I like to think I provide information to people like a journalist who doesn’t have to follow all the grammar and order rules, just the truth rule. I hope you are able to understand more about brain science as it relates to you as I’ve written about it in the book. I do, however, write in kind of easy going, casual Hal language – sort of the opposite of scientific writing.

I came across some scientific writing recently about studies done on the amygdala’s role in panic attacks.

You might occasionally come across a string of words that might cause you to rupture a synapse if you try to wade through them. Stop and breathe. They’re only words and the people who wrote them aren’t necessarily all that much smarter than us – they just have specific knowledge and know bigger, cooler words and how to use them. Here are some links:


The Four Seasons of Agoraphobia

I recall having a paradoxical relationship to the four seasons back in the bad old days with agoraphobia  when my anxiety level was particularly high. I started feeling better in the late Fall when leaves reign and days grow shorter. Some people experience a downturn in their emotions – a feeling of weight from lack of sunlight. “SAD” is its accurate acronym – seasonal affective disorder. Many others are somewhat depressed by shorter days. I, on the other hand, welcomed the comfort of a world closed in rather than wide open. I started to cheer up in mid-September

I don’t know if this is true for all agoraphobes – it was for some I talked to in peer support groups. I felt more anxiety on long, clear,  blue sky days than when clouds were low and dark and days were short. I  loved darkish, cloudy days when I was most anxious because I felt somewhat sheltered or protected or contained. Wide open spaces were terrifying for me. I never looked up at the night sky when I was anxious. Give me a smaller space please. A darkish, cloudy day feels like a smaller space.

So that covers two seasons: I dreaded Summer‘s constant wide open sky and embraced Autumn‘s clouds and shorter days. Winter’s tale was long and complicated. On one hand, I felt the comfort of often cloudy skies and less time in wide open space that I could see. I never ever looked up at stars after doing so once set me off on a terrible period of panic attacks as a teen.  Darkness was also my friend. The downside to Winter for me had to do with crowds and transportation. Stores and travel about town are difficult enough for anxiety ridden folks but when Christmas crowds and all that traffic begins, going to a store or trying to make a quick auto trip can be a horror story. Spring had dual effects on me as well. I joined many others in the relief from cold temperatures that March brings, but I also felt my anxiety level rise – always in late March. I think the increased light was too much stimulus for me and I hated coming to this part of the year. After the Equinox period, I would get a wonderful break from constant anxiety by the joy of Spring.  

After that period of relative elation, the greening and flowering and sex of the world, I would begin to get the long, clear-day yips again, longing for a return to the comfort of less light. If I hadn’t been agoraphobic I would have moved to a cloudy climate area, but if I hadn’t been agoraphobic I wouldn’t have needed or wanted to. See how that works? The four season of agoraphobia.

Bragging on Myself

I got some good news about my book Un-Agoraphobic recently: a nicely positive review by Library Journal. This is a prestige publication that goes out to over 17,000 subscribers including most libraries and publishers. If libraries make their purchasing decisions based on such reviews, I could be widely available. How about that?!

The book has been in bookstores and Amazon for a little over a week, so it’s too early to tell much about sales. I’m hoping nearly everyone with panic disorder will hear about it eventually because I know it will help folks overcome this madness forever. I’m also writing for Psychology Today’s website as well as the newsletter Mindbodygreen.  My first article there, “Who’s Afraid of the Agoraphobic Wolf,” is appearing in their issue 10/9.

Writing to help people recover from chronic panic attacks is taking over my life in a good way. Saying that Un-Agoraphobic is the best book yet written on the subject of recovery from panic attacks and agoraphobia is bragging, of course, but I’ve read everything I could find on the subject and none of the other writers have proposed a structured, holistic, inclusive, compassionate program like mine. Most of the other writers in this field are professionals – therapists and doctors, and the few who write about recovery from a personal viewpoint are missing the clinical experience I had as a mental health social worker. Plus I’ve written professionally much of my life.

Here it is, Ta Da – my first review:

Library Journal review:

Mathew, Hal. Un-Agoraphobic: Overcome Anxiety, Panic Attacks, and Agoraphobia for Good; A Step-by-Step Plan. Red Wheel Weiser. Nov. 2014. 256p. bibliog. ISBN 9781573246392. pap. $18.95; ebk. ISBN 9781609259655. SELF-HELP

Using his own experience and what he’s learned in support groups and counseling sessions, journalist Mathew sets out to assist victims of agoraphobia overcome their panic attacks and anxiety. After giving basic information about the condition, he proposes a highly structured hour-by-hour plan for each day, which entails journaling, performing relaxation exercises, learning a new skill, and rewiring one’s brain. One of the keys to healing is practicing visualization techniques specifically designed for overcoming anxiety and panic. The author’s advice on seeking help from therapists and lawyers as well as dealing with partners and bosses rounds out the text. VERDICT Mathew not only delivers assurance to those suffering from panic attacks and agoraphobia but provides a way through difficult situations.

Heal Yourself With Loving Kindness

Meditation is an integral part of recovery from agoraphobia, but meditation can take many forms. I just read a recent article by one of my brother/sister bloggers at Psychology Today pointing that out. Emma Sepalla advises her readers to find a form of meditation that works for them. In her words, “You just have to find the shoe that fits.”

In the Un-Agoraphobic recovery program I recommend both sitting meditation and the meditation that comes while learning and practicing a new skill. I emphasize employing some form of meditation as a means to get out of your own head. Practicing loving kindness was the Buddha’s means of learning and teaching compassion as a way to attain a peaceful mind.

PhD Sepalla, a TED speaker on the subject, elaborates on the virtues of meditation and suggests learning to meditate by starting with something that comes easily to most: kindness. “Loving kindness” meditation, she says, can be a powerful healer because it brings out healing feelings such as empathy, compassion and love.

Her blog, “18 Science-Backed Reasons to Try Loving Kindness Meditation,”talks about the healing aspects of this basic tenet of Buddhism. The Buddha Dharma Education Association website says this about loving kindness meditation: “It acts, as it were, as a form of self psycho-therapy, healing the troubled mind, to free it from its pain and confusion.”

When you can begin focusing on loving compassion toward others you can begin practicing it on yourself – part of healing the whole you which will free you from panic disorder and agoraphobia forever. Un-Agoraphobic is available in bookstores and other places to purchase books on Oct. 1.



Tranquilizers Linked to Alzheimer’s

There are now three very important reasons for people with panic attacks to avoid long term use of tranquilizers in the benzodiazepine family.  The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation online “Health” blog reported Sept. 10 on a Canadian medical study that indicated elderly people taking meds from this family increase the likelihood of developing dementia by about 50%.  That was rather astonishing news to me.  I had already, based on personal and professional experience, advised against use for more than three months  such meds as Valium, Xanax, Klonopin and Atavin for two big reasons: 1. your body becomes addicted to these meds after only two or three months, as their effectiveness declines. 2. Withdrawal symptoms include unending anxiety that can last for weeks or longer as you taper off. I’m basing this on wide reading in the field, interviews with psychotropic prescribers, and my own addiction to Xanax.

The article in “Health” was referring to a study by French and Canadian university researchers on several thousand Canadians over 65 that was reported on the British Medical Journal web site on Sept. 27, 2012. Using national medical records, the researchers tracked those who developed dementia and then the ones in that population who had been prescribed a benzodiazepine medication. Based on those statistics, university researchers said in the report that those people who were taking a benzodiazepine during the study period were more likely by half to be diagnosed by a neurologist as having Alzheimer’s disease, a dementia-like condition that causes severe loss of memory and even death.

Un-Agoraphobic is a non-pharmaceutical approach to recovering from panic disorder. I can tell you that once I got past the edgy, restless period of withdrawal, I felt more calm then when I’d been taking tranquilizers. I loved my benzos, but I know my recovery from panic disorder was delayed by a long time because of my addiction. If you are taking one of the meds from this family, please begin doing research. The study’s researchers included an advisory in their conclusion that essentially asked  medical professionals and medication regulation boards to be prudent when prescribing benzodiazepines.


Therapeutic Value of Writing

You will be writing your recovery program in your journal day by day as you begin work on the Un-Agoraphobic plan. Writing is a vital part of your recovery: you write your goals, your accomplishments, your insights, your passions. What you write based on what you learn through the book is what will set you free from agoraphobia.

One of my brother/sister bloggers at Psychology Today has written a nice little piece about the therapeutic values of writing that I know you’ll enjoy reading. PhD Harriet Lerner’s article, “Five Ways Writing Can Make You Braver and Happier,” gives us several avenues for improving our lot by writing about it. Included in her humorous look at writing is the advice to write yourself a love letter. Who else, she asks, knows better what a lovable person you are?

I advise saying those 3 little words to yourself every day in the mirror, so that self love becomes a driving force in your healing process. Writing a love letter to yourself as Ms. Lerner recommends would give added value to your self love endowment. She also suggests writing as a means of self discovery. I know I often don’t know how I truly feel about a subject until I begin writing about it. That’s why I have you writing about your passions as part of the assignment in Un-Agoraphobic, appearing in bookstores Oct. 1.

Look for Ms. Lerner’s blog on writing at in the topic stream “Creativity.” She is author of the book The Dance of Anger. My blogs on agoraphobia appear at the same Psychology Today site in the category “Personal Perspectives.”

Imagine Me in a Vid

I wrote what follows as a script for a video I’m making as a promotion for Un-Agoraphobic, available in book stores Oct. 1. As I was reading it through it sounded like something readers and bloggers would like to read. So, here it is; imagine me sitting in an office chair by my drawing table, yakking away, summing up the recovery program.

“I was in Agoraphobia Prison for a long, long time before I put together all the things I needed in order to Bust! outta there. That was over 20 years ago.

I’m Hal Mathew, former agoraphobe. I’ve been panic free and able to travel freely ever since I cleared the final hurdle and left that terrifying, horrible time behind. You too can be free and I’ll gladly show you how. I don’t want anyone to suffer as I did for any longer than necessary. Whew! I had some really scary times and I imagine you have as well.

I’m actually the “perfect storm” for creating a recovery program for folks with panic disorder and agoraphobia. First, I’m a writer by profession and as a journalist trained in communicating ideas to others; Second, here I am, living proof that you can totally overcome panic attacks and everything that comes with them: I had my first panic attack at age 10, became agoraphobic by age 19 and totally overcame the problem at age 49, and Third, when I overcame my mental illness I began a 17 year career as a social worker at a Mental Health Center, keeping close track of adults with all forms of seriously disabling mental illnesses, including anxiety issues.

I learned much about daily coping and problem solving by working closely with clients, and much about medications, treatments and all available options by working closely with psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, therapists and other social workers. Problem solving for people with mental illness was my job for 17 years. I’m a potter and artist, so I also ran programs at the Day Center in pottery and drawing. I show you how to incorporate creativity and artistry in your healing process.

I learned from working in mental health, but I also learned from adversity, a powerful teacher – if you survive the lessons.  I made my life even more difficult by treating anxiety with alcohol beginning as a teenager. As a result, I had to overcome alcoholism as well as addiction to tranquilizers before I could begin serious work on defeating the Panic Monster. I finally, with help from a friend, was able to blast away from the strong gravitational pull of agoraphobia.

I’ve put together a systematic, daily work plan that will lead to the healing of the Whole You, because all of you has been damaged by your experience with a mis-firing alarm system that is badly in need of re-programming. That’s what you’ll be doing, step by step, day by day – re-training your brain to process data as it arrives at you in an objective and rational manner. That way, you can lead your life as if you have nothing to fear and will only have to panic if something truly dangerous occurs. Wouldn’t that be refreshing?! You’ll have your life back.

If you do everything in my book you will learn how to disconnect your current frantic thinking process and build new neural pathways in your brain that will leave you panic free. It’s not going to be easy, but if you throw everything you have into this you will stop fearing panic attacks and never have another. You can do this. You can be free.

Un-Agoraphobic is the best book ever written on the subject of recovery from panic disorder and agoraphobia. I should know. I not only lived it, I researched it, and I certainly know how to write it. I don’t have to cite stories of others as many writers do. There are other books available on recovery from panic attacks and anxiety. Some are written by psychiatrists and MDs, and some are written by various mental health professionals, such as psychologists and therapists. A few have been written by people who suffered from panic attacks and agoraphobia. All of them have value and I would recommend a few of them as an aid to your recovery.

But, only mine has the holistic approach, covering nearly every aspect of the life of an anxiety-ridden person, because no one else writing in this field has the complete range of experiences I have. No one else has experienced the total picture as I have, or been given the skill I have to organize ideas and communicate them to others.

Many of the self help books on anxiety and panic focus on “exposure” as part of therapy, with the belief that repeated exposure to the feared thing or feeling is a way of gradually overcoming the fear. I had the “desensitization” therapy approach backfire horribly for me more than once in trying to overcome my fear of traveling beyond a “safe” perimeter. I also talked to other agoraphobes who said a panic attack many miles from safety resulted in a major setback in recovery efforts.

Instead, I set up a daily routine that helps a panic-stricken person create the comfort of order as well as be able to record and measure progress. I show you how to create ideal-for-you ways to do practically everything in your life. This may be a very scary time for you, but it’s also an opportunity for you to create a new you out of what you’ve learned in this battle and what you’ll learn about yourself  in this fascinating recovery process you’re about to undertake. When you have learned enough to have confidence in yourself you will begin quite naturally to dip your toe into the pond and  beyond.

Take it from me: You too can be free.”