You’re Number One! Act That Way

Chronic anxiety and panic attacks can take the stuffin’ out of you and turn you into a meek and cowering victim. I know from many years’ experience with panic disorder that the condition of being constantly on alert drains one physically and psychologically. My long struggle with anxiety turned me surprisingly passive.

Now, if something is holding back my dreams and goals I get properly pissed off and take action. When I was subdued by mental illness, however, I felt oddly powerless; I just sort of let the thing take me over. I wanted to be assertive, but expressing any kind of strong feeling was terrifying somehow. I felt so close to the breaking point so much of the time that I feared any strong display of emotion might tip me over.

Panic disorder and agoraphobia had me by the throat and I was afraid for far too long of fighting back. I couldn’t be assertive in the face of possibly increased anxiety. As I started seeing therapists, though, and sharing fear experiences in peer group settings and doing research, I began to understand my power and how to use it to become free.

The psychiatrist who said to me, “You know what your problem is?… you don’t love yourself” started the ball rolling – by making me understand I needed to start taking very good care of the most important and lovable person in the world – me.  I wish I could say my quest to become assertive and actively pursue a solution to my anxiety problem was a continuous journey, but addiction to alcohol and tranquilizers was still in my way.

Once I stopped trying to cure anxiety with alcohol and pills I became astonishingly less anxious. At that point my understanding of the importance of me and the will to make my well being a priority came into play. I was relentless thereafter in working selfishly for once on solving my problems. I soon realized the value of being assertive, as my confidence increased to the point where the thought of traveling frightened me less and less.

All that led to the momentous day when I burst through my agoraphobia prison wall and have been merrily traveling about since – more than 20 years ago. It became possible because I somehow found the will to make myself into a full human being again – one who could get angry and stand up for himself and get things done.  So my advice to you is right here when you are ready for it. The sooner you start acting “selfishly” the sooner you’ll recover from panic disorder.

I’m providing a link to an excellent read on the importance of “selfishness.:


Have You Told You Lately That You Love You?

I got torpedoed by yet another cycle of panic attacks and relentless anxiety in my late 20’s that resulted in one of my more memorable panic attack dramas. I was sitting in my University of Montana campus 3rd floor office when the totally unexpected blast went off. Panicking, I raced down 3 flights of stairs to the parking lot where I jumped onto my motorcycle and drove at high speed through campus, across lawns and sidewalks with students screaming behind me to the student health services building, where I dumped the bike on the lawn, ran breathlessly into the office and said to the first person I saw in a white coat, “I need help!!”

The campus physician took me into an examination room, talked me down, and made an appointment to see the psychiatrist. When the time came a few days later, I recall nervously tapping on Dr. Katzen’s* door and hearing a gruff “Come in.”  The stocky gentleman stared at me silently as I walked to the chair in front of his desk and continued staring at me for several seconds after I sat down.

“I know what your problem is,” the 60-ish, balding, white jacketed doctor said, his arms crossed over his chest. (Finally…. I thought to myself, somebody’s going to tell me why I have episodes of terrifying panic attacks that began when I was 10). You don’t love yourself, he proclaimed”

I still recall how shocked and stunned I was by his simple statement. My first reaction was almost revulsion. i honestly felt it was somehow morally wrong to love yourself.  I don’t remember anything else about my first meeting with this wonderful man except his parting prescription: “When you get home, look in the mirror and tell that person, ‘I love you.'”

About 15 minutes later I was standing in the doorway of my apartment bathroom, dreading the walk over to the mirror above the sink. I crept to the side of the sink and then sort of leaned to my side to peer in at a tense-looking face. The whole experience of confronting myself and looking deep inside me and saying those 3 little words was surreal and oddly uncomfortable. I went through this brand new ceremony for several days before I felt at ease and as though I was being honest.

Since then, unconditional self love  has been at the center of my recovery from agoraphobia and a tool I use in the sometimes grueling and trying time of writing. During my research I drop in on various online support groups and am saddened by how much self revulsion I read from victims of mental illness of one kind or another. Brother and Sister Agoraphobes, please listen to the words of Uncle Hal about this. You got to love yourself and accept yourself just as you are before you can make significant gains in overcoming panic disorder. There is no reason whatsoever not to love yourself and everything to gain by doing so. At least that’s my opinion.

So….. I guess you could see this coming…. I want you to get up from whatever you’re sitting on and go to the nearest mirror. Talk things out with yourself and get to know you. Have these dialogues daily and don’t forget those 7 little words: I love you and I mean YOU! (pointing)

Tarzan Meets Buddha at the Anxiety Store

Going into a large store is pretty much like entering a wild jungle for a person afflicted with agoraphobia. Someone whose alarm system is set on high avoids as much as possible things that can trip the alarm, but very few people can avoid The Store completely.  I have some inside-the-store survival tips below, and plenty of personal experience to share about a day in the life of an agoraphobe, or “Tarzan Meets Buddha Swinging from Aisle to Aisle in the Jungle Store.”

Here’s what happens on the big day; you are totally out of food – even pickles – and whatever else, and you have no choice. The store becomes now a Beast that is carefully guarding something you need and will extract whatever price it can from you before it yields the goods and lets you pass back outside to quasi safety. I’m guessing you prepare as you would for a safari, gathering such survival gear as meds, talismans, a half pint of Wild Turkey, the phone, a paper bag, water bottle and others.

You begin the journey of a thousand miles by, first, obsessing over every possible detail before you slowly push open the door and take hopefully a deep breath before that first step.  Tension builds as you begin the transport part of the saga. You travel an uncomfortable distance and then leave the safety of your conveyance and travel further in even greater discomfort before you arrive at the climax of your story.

Here you are. And there it is. The Beast, the evil, foreboding entity has what you need and you cannot get it without entering through the glass-toothed mouth (unless you know another entrance) and rushing through its innards to get your necessities. Like Tarzan, you leap and bound and expedite the journey at breakneck speed until you grab what you need, But now what? You learn it is much easier to get into The Beast than it is to get out. It doesn’t want you to get out. Prey is all around. Walls suddenly appear where before had been a patch of daylight. You suddenly fear the worst – being trapped and lost in the mandibles of the Beast that you need more than it needs you. What an ignoble dilemma. The thing that is trying to kill you is scarcely aware of all the drama.

Remember the look on Shelley Duvall‘s face as she was lost in the maze, running desperately from the monster Jack Nicholson brilliantly became in “The Shining?” She convinced me that she thought she was going to die, which is how you feel when you’re trapped deep within a store.  You’re probably a very good actor, though, and no one notices your desperate efforts to escape. I ran from many a store over the years, feeling extreme terror, but I’m sure I never did anything that would make someone take a second look. I don’t want you to ever get that desperate, store-trapped feeling again, so here’s my big advice:

   Become a slow shopper.

I know, I know, it sounds completely counterintuitive. I always did my shopping at top speed, organizing where and when I’d go so I could get the dreaded deed over quickly as possible and get back to my safety place. Now I know that doing the opposite would have made shopping much more comfortable. I have learned  the value of “mindful” thinking and practice in overcoming panic disorder and am convinced that the way to re-train your amygdala and calm your alarm system is to live in the present as much as possible.

To wit: become a mindful shopper. As soon as you enter, start looking at and reading signs that might be revealing sales or locations and take careful notice of everything you pass enroute to your destination. Say hello to clerks and take note of their appearances.  Closely observe all products and compare one brand to another. Touch stuff and turn it around as you look at it. Read the ingredients or contents and think about where it originated and how it might have gotten here in front of you. Compare prices. Talk to other shoppers. Make your trip a thorough, helpful experience, so you can find a certain safety in big stores. Instead of focusing on the vastness of the space, focus on details within the space. Look carefully at displays and think how you might improve them, for example.

I’ve written blogs about the use of mindfulness as a calming device while traveling; pretty much the same advice holds for the difficulty in many endeavors and activities, including shopping and beekeeping. Be here now and you won’t get stung.

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:

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.