Guest Blog – Kate Carries On

(Kate is a guest blogger from Canada who writes from time to time of her work on overcoming agoraphobia and its effect on her as wife, parent and businesswoman)

Season’s Change

This winter as many of you know, especially those of you living in the eastern half of North America, was colder and snowier than anything we have experienced in years.

Winter has always been a difficult time for me.  The time change, temperature change, shorter days and lack of sun make me fall into SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) very easily.  But worse for me is the lack of mobility.

This winter has been one of the worst I can remember and when I look at my agenda compared to last year’s agenda I am down about 75% “going out” ability.  I rely heavily on my bicycle to either ride or balance my walking, to get me out of the prison of my house.  I drive very little in the winter.  I will take it out of the driveway a couple of times during the week and drive a few blocks but that’s about it.  I do it only for the purpose of getting in the car and driving – not to get anywhere.

I live in a bike friendly city but this past February the snow and cold kept coming and never thawed and I was only able to manage going out for dinner once.  At least it was once and better than not at all! But the snow mounds act as a claustrophobic barrier and the ice encrusted roads are not overly bike tire friendly.  So, I have felt particularly trapped this winter as many of us have. I am full of shame and guilt that I can’t just get in my car and drive down to Florida for a break or hop on a plane for that matter.

One of the trickiest parts of the transitions of seasons for me has been the “start-go-stop” cycle.  Now that it’s spring, I will be enthusiastic about the thaw and the budding crocuses.  I will drive more, be with friends more, attend functions more and do regular day to day things more.  It’s an awakening I look forward to each year.  However, I will be good for a few months until the oppressive heat and humidity of July and August hammers down and drives me back indoors to the air conditioned comfort of my living room until September when I resume my going out activities until January when I shut down completely and just want to hibernate until spring.

This “start-go-stop” cycle drives me batty because I can go and go, achieving real headway in my recovery process during the fair-weather months and then the change in season kidnaps me and keeps me hostage until the weather changes.  It feels like learning how to walk all over again every few months.

I have wondered what it would be like to live in a more temperate climate like Hal mentioned in his book Un-Agoraphobic.  There are very few options for moving within Canada where you don’t have to experience winter. Next year in January, I will sign up for an online university course or two to keep me motivated throughout the winter and as an assurance that I will be far too busy to be spending the winter in Florida.

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The Fake Sanity Clause*

I have more than once pretended to be happy about something or another in order to please or at least placate someone else, but it turns out I could also fool myself by faking it.

Brain scientists have shown that focusing on and repeating any thought, action or behavior stimulates the brain into creating new neural pathways in order to facilitate that process. It makes sense to me; it’s sort of like you start lifting weights and after awhile it gets easier because your muscles get bigger and more efficient.

If you suffer from panic disorder you have evidence close at hand proving the brain will pay attention to whatever you want to focus on at that particular time. You have subconsciously and consciously informed your central nervous system that you are in some sort of danger, so the system gears up to be ready whenever the “danger” occurs. That’s why you’re nervous. You are tense and tight and hyper-vigilant because your amygdala thinks something bad is going to happen without warning.

Your high level of anxiety of course makes it much more likely you’ll be startled or stimulated which will trigger a flood of adrenaline that creates the extreme feeling of terror we call a “panic attack.” The bad thing happening is happening because you programmed yourself to be on the look out for fear. It’s not something you were necessarily doing on purpose, but because the feeling of being in danger (from a panic attack) creates new thought pathways, pretty soon you’re stuck with being a nervous wreck.

Luckily, your brain will do pretty much anything you want it to, even feeling calm and at ease. You can totally reverse your current situation though the response may be slow in coming. There’s lots to undo and redo, but you can do it. I set up a daily work program in my book, Un-Agoraphobic to accomplish that very thing – to set the brain in motion with positive thoughts and and activities. Creating new neural pathways that relate to safety and comfort and happiness is what will help you recover from panic disorder and agoraphobia.  To start it off, all you have to do is smile, as you’ll learn in the following article.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-dolphin-divide/201403/can-smiling-make-us-happy?collection=1072688

*A nod to the Marx Brothers

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:

http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2015/01/13/what-it-really-means-to-be-in-the-present-moment/

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.

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.

 

 

 

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.

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.

Your Very First Suitcase

If your agoraphobia began early in life – for me it was age 19 – you may have yet to purchase your very own luggage. Who needs a suitcase when you can’t travel more than a few miles away from home – if that far? I probably used family suitcases for trips in my youth before a rather savage recurrence of panic attacks early in my sophomore year of college made me too frightened to travel more than the few blocks I lived from campus. And I wouldn’t travel freely again for another 30 years.

I clearly remember my first suitcase. I didn’t want to buy something shiny new and have people think this is the first time I took actual trips far off into the world. I hunted through second hand stores until I found the perfect statement.  It was a tan, heavy canvas thing with leather trim that folded out sort of like a wardrobe and had lots of cool side pockets. It made me look like a man who’d been abroad, or at least around.

With that suitcase I made a trip back to my parent’s house, my home, that I hadn’t been able to visit for 3 decades. The mountainous trip from Helena to Billings is stunningly beautiful. The first part trails the Missouri River to its origin – where the Madison, Jefferson, and Gallatin Rivers (all named by Lewis and Clark) combine near Bozeman (Three Forks).  Soon after that on the winding, climbing, descending freeway, the legendary Yellowstone River emerges from its namesake national park through Paradise Valley and announces itself to the world as it winds its way beside the highway through  geology ranging from mountainous to hilly to sandstone rimrocks and buttes.  Towering cottonwood trees suckle at its flanks the entire journey through Montana to where it joins the Missouri clear the heck over on the east end of the state. The soaring, glistening Absaroka Mountain Range and then the Beartooth Range, highest in Montana, are your constant companion on your right on that particular stretch of I-90. I was driving on an interstate highway for the first time in my life.  The previous, pre-agoraphobia times I traveled across the state, the massive national highway construction program was just underway.

I had already made months earlier my initial Very Big Trip from Helena to Butte 60 miles away to officially end my agoraphobia. And then I made the 2 hour trip from Helena to Missoula many times as I moved back to my favorite place in the whole world. But the trip from Helena to Billings was another matter – longer at 3 hours, and at times the openness – one of my panic triggers – goes on and on. Luckily I was in a state of awe the whole journey and pretty much didn’t have any anxious times. For this trip, where I was actually going to stay a few days I needed a suitcase.  And after that I took on many sorts of traveling bags as I came across them in thrift shops for my many trips to follow.

The final symbol of freedom from agoraphobia is a large suitcase with wheels, which I now possess. It’s red,  second hand, and large with many zippered nooks and crannies. The wheels say it all: I am a person who travels freely so much that I need wheels on my suitcase.

I’m certain you’re excited to take your first trip away from agoraphobia with a suitcase. Perhaps you should go ahead and buy a suitcase now so it’ll be there on that glorious day when you’re ready to take a long trip with luggage. I know! You can put it at the foot of your bed and call it your “hope chest.” Get it? Sometimes I am so brilliant in an ad agency way I scare myself.

You’ll get there, I promise. Work hard every day on your Recovery Program in Un-Agoraphobic and you will put it all together and solve your mystery with my vast knowledge and experience guiding you along.

If wheels on a suitcase make you look or feel old, try a couple of shoulder bags for a hip-ness  in your new traveling look.

Keep it Simple

I’ve noted a phenomena common to many agoraphobic people I’ve connected with over the years. I’m trying to think of a nice name for it. What would you call it when someone exaggerates and distorts reality in order to make someone think something is way more complicated than it actually is? Practicing deceit is I guess what I used to do when explaining my craziness to someone who had never heard of agoraphobia before. And so have some of you, admit it.

Here’s the problem: we’re afraid of panic attacks. That’s all. It’s not like we’re delusional, or have a “”thought disorder” type of mental illness.  We’re not psychotic, but we are disabled because of this one very strong fear.  If your business partner or spouse is waiting on the other side of town for you to show up for a very important reason and you can’t make it, somehow “I’m afraid I’ll have a panic attack” doesn’t carry much weight. I found myself engaging in a lot of psycho babble to make whatever it was I had sound medically complex and almost dangerous whenever I was really blowing something by not showing up. My grandmother’s funeral was painful for the whole family, made harder by my not being able to show up.

I can understand the phenomena. Someone who’d never had a panic attack would think I was a sissy or faking it; that’s how I justified my elaborate and mystifying explanations of my peculiar condition. I was trying to make certain people believe I really was crazy, but in a nice way. I wanted my disability to seem significant to the few people I had to explain myself to. I guess there are times when you might want to use clinical language to obfuscate the reality of your condition. The one person you don’t want to deceive is yourself.

Keep it simple. If you suffer from panic disorder, what you are working on is a way to stop being afraid of panic attacks. Once you accomplish that, your problem is solved. Once you change the messaging in your “fight or flight” system you’ll no longer have false alarms like the ones your amygdala has been triggering because you gave it too many things to be fearful of. Every day that you work on your recovery program you are creating new neural pathways that will lead you to freedom. Keep it simple: all you’re doing is re-training a clumsy elephant