Archive for May 2013

stepping outside of your comfort zoneTonight, I’m going on a date for the first time in almost a year. I don’t know this person very well, and I’m really not sure what to expect. I can’t stop imagining all the possible ways I could give a bad impression of myself or look like a fool. But hey, I’m going ahead with it, so I should give myself a little credit, right?

Avoidance behaviors are some of the most common and universal things that us anxiety sufferers deal with. Us lucky folks with anxiety disorders avoid stepping outside of our comfort zones like other people avoid salmonella or awkward dinner with in-laws. Unfortunately, it’s these very avoidance behaviors that keep us in loops of anxiety, never letting us free from the cycle of worry and discomfort.

There is much evidence to suggest that exposure therapy is one of the most effective methods for overcoming a range of anxiety disorders. This may not come as a surprise to you. But it probably still makes you a little uncomfortable. Why on earth would I want to force myself to do the very things that give me anxiety?

As I’ve explained before, the core of anxiety is associative learning. Your brain learns to make a connection between a particular stimulus (the sight of a bus, the thought of making small talk, the feeling of a racing heart) and the sensation of fear or anxiety. Over time, the association becomes automatic, and you can no longer control yourself from feeling anxious at the onset of whatever stimulus is evoking the anxiety.

To overcome this loop, then, we look to exposure therapy. We teach our brains that we’re not going to die if we sit on a bus. We’re not going to suffocate if we get into an elevator. And we’re certainly not going to irreparably destroy our lives if we make a mistake.

So today, I challenge you. Go out and do something outside of your comfort zone. No matter how big or how small, force yourself to make that leap and do something that may very well be worth the risk.

outside your comfort zone

You can do it!

If you have panic disorder, do some cardio and let yourself feel your heart rate rising. Maybe you’ll find out that exercise isn’t so bad after all.

If you have agoraphobia, go for a stroll around the block, and maybe stop by the grocery store to get a treat. Maybe you’ll realize that being out and about is still as fun as ever!

If you have social phobia, strike up a conversation with someone on the street. You’ll probably realize that no one is out to get you, and you certainly won’t come across as a weirdo or a fool like you think.

I can’t speak for other anxiety disorders, so I will leave it there. Use your imagination and do something awesome today!

Let me know in the comments or on Twitter what you did to step outside of your comfort zone. 


social anxiety and job huntingTwo weeks ago, I took the leap and moved back to my apartment in Montreal. I had been living at home in Ontario for the past five months with my parents while I worked on overcoming my recently diagnosed panic disorder. But now I’m back, ready for summer school and reintegrating into society.

These two weeks have been great; reconnecting with school friends, exploring my favorite city once again, getting back into the “groove.” But there’s one problem: I need a job.

To me, social anxiety and job hunting seem almost oxymoronic as a pair. The fact that job hunting basically touches on all my social fears makes it a very difficult and frustrating time for me. I’m afraid of talking on the phone, of being judged, of being unfairly categorized, and of making small talk. So how do I find a job?

So far, I’ve had some great leads. I’ve managed to find some online work that involves no face-to-face interaction or phone calls. I’m in the running for a couple writing positions that also require very little interpersonal time. These positions are perfect, because I’m looking for a couple part-time jobs while I’m in summer school (for a little extra pocket money). But what if I were looking for a full-time job?

Today I want to go over a few tips for getting around your social anxiety in the job hunting process. This isn’t a post about overcoming social anxiety (that takes time), but rather about not letting it prevent you from paying bills.

  • Take advantage of your skill set. Everyone has a skill set. For some, it may be a list of fancy degrees and research experience. For others, it may be the ability to lift heavy objects and be comfortable working long hours. Whatever your particular skill set, find jobs that cater to it. If you take jobs that you feel qualified for, then you will be less likely to feel anxious while working and you’ll probably be more confident in your interview. If you have to lie about or embellish your skill set to get a job, chances are your anxiety will be high from the very beginning.
  • Work within your comfort zone. Find jobs that you’re comfortable working. Perhaps, like me, you have a lot of experience in retail from high school/college jobs, but you’re not comfortable working in that environment anymore. Instead, look for jobs that cater to your comfort zone: instead of looking for retail or customer service jobs, I’ve been hunting for writing jobs. I had no formal experience in writing, so I made my own experience (I created this blog). Maybe your job transition can be a little less dramatic. Instead of working as a server, maybe you want to move back to the kitchen where you have less interaction with other people.
  • Be open about your anxiety. (Or not.) Often, being open about your social anxiety can be a huge relief when finding a new job. There are many employers out there who are very understanding when it comes to mental health accommodations. But there are also many employers who would discriminate against a potential employee who has a mental illness. Personally, I would never mention my anxiety in a job interview, but I would bring it up if I thought there was some way I could work around it with the help of my employer. Summer Beretsky wrote an article on requesting workplace accommodations for panic disorder, and a lot of the same points are relevant to social anxiety as well.
  • Practice with a support figure. If you’re nervous about the interview, one of the best ways to prepare is to hold a “mock interview” with a support figure. Sit down with your spouse or parent or close friend and have them ask you a series of questions that a potential interviewer may ask. It may seem too artificial to be helpful, but I’ve found that practicing interviews really does help alleviate some of my anxiety. It helps me gain some clarity as to why I’m anxious and what coping mechanisms I can use during the real interview to keep myself calm.
  • Talk to your doctor. I went to see my psychiatrist about a year ago when I was struggling with giving presentations, and I was prescribed propranolol. Propranolol is a beta blocker that helps me give presentations without any of my characteristic social anxiety symptoms: trembling, stuttering, sweating, heart racing, erratic breathing. If you believe you would benefit from the beta blocking effects of propranolol, mention it to your doctor.

How do you cope with job hunting? Do social anxiety and job hunting mix well for you? Let me know in the comments below. 🙂



obsessive thoughtsIn my last post, I explored the four types of obsessive thoughts that commonly occupy my mind. Today, I want to spend some time discussing techniques we can use to put those obsessive thoughts to rest.

Practice Thought Stopping

Thought stopping is a technique used to halt unwanted or intrusive thoughts in their tracks. You simply have to imagine a big red Stop sign or a loud “Stop!” command every time you are having obsessive thoughts. You can go about this in a lot of different ways, but the basic idea is just to remind yourself that these thoughts are detrimental and unwanted.

While there is some evidence to suggest that thought stopping is not an effective method for dealing with obsessive thoughts, I would say that it’s much worse to allow yourself to continue having these thoughts uninterrupted. Oftentimes these thoughts become so automatic that we don’t even take the time to realize how damaging they are. Thought stopping is a way of reminding yourself that you can control what you’re thinking, rather than letting these thoughts go unchecked.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a technique that focuses on present awareness. I wrote about mindfulness as a tool to improve conversational skills in a previous post, and I will continue to emphasize the importance of mindfulness.

A key aspect of mindfulness is about not letting your thoughts wander. Rather than judging yourself for letting your thoughts wander, you are encouraged to accept that it happens and try to bring your mind back to the present. In other words, mindfulness is about accepting your obsessive thoughts. They’re there, you can’t control what you’re thinking about, but you can guide your thoughts in the right direction.

A quick and easy example: try sitting on the floor with your legs crossed. Close your eyes, and imagine yourself sitting on the beach, listening to the waves roll in. Focus all your attention on the sound of the waves, the feeling of the sun beating down on your skin, and the smell of the sea water. Every time your thoughts wander away from the beach, acknowledge this, and bring them back. Practice this simple activity for a few minutes every day. Eventually, you will notice yourself gaining control over your thoughts.

Mindfulness activities may seem simple – but they’re incredibly difficult to master, especially for those of us with obsessive tendencies. I’ve been practicing mindfulness for a couple months now, and I can already see a difference. I’m much better at clearing my mind and not letting worries seep in. But of course, it’s much easier to have control of your mind in peaceful situations than in stressful ones. My ultimate goal is to see my mindfulness skills help me out in my panicked moments. More on that later.

Practice Positive Self-Talk

Obsessive thoughts are generally a form of negative self-talk. Unfortunately for us, we rarely obsess over niceties, but rather focus our obsessing on worries and worst-case-scenario thinking.

Naturally, the opposite of negative self-talk is positive self-talk. Positive self-talk is comforting and reassuring yourself, while challenging your negative thoughts. Oftentimes, the best way to approach positive self-talk is to directly counter your negative thoughts.

Here are some examples:

  • Thought: “I’m going to make a fool of myself during my presentation tomorrow”
  • Counter: “I am an intelligent, capable person. I’m well prepared for this presentation, and I know the topic very well. I will not make a fool of myself tomorrow.”
  • Thought: “What if our plane crashes?”
  • Counter: “The likelihood of a plane crashing is very low. Millions of people fly every day, perfectly unharmed. There is no reason to suspect my experience will be any different.”
  • Thought: “I can’t believe how low I scored on that exam…I’m an idiot! I’ll never amount to anything”
  • Counter: “A single exam is not representative of my intelligence. There are many different types of intelligence, and I’ve done well on prior exams. There could have been an error in grading, perhaps I misunderstood some of the questions, or maybe I didn’t fill in my answers correctly. I’m an intelligent person.”

Positive self-talk is a difficult thing for many people. Many of us have spent our entire lives telling ourselves how inadequate we are. Start small if you have to. Instead of saying “I’m an intelligent person,” try saying “There are less intelligent people than me” or “I’m not completely unintelligent.” Any thought that challenges your negative thinking is a good thought.

One caveat: There is some research to suggest that positive self-talk is only effective if you actually believe what you’re saying. That makes total sense to me; if you’re telling yourself something you don’t believe, you just end up strengthening the opposite statement. When you start out with positive self-talk, start small and make sure you’re telling yourself something that you can at least partly believe in.

In Conclusion

Thought stopping, mindfulness and positive self-talk are three techniques you can employ to combat your obsessive thinking. While thought stopping may not be effective over the long term, mindfulness and positive self-talk are two strategies that get easier with practice and will eventually help you win back control of your thoughts.

How do you cope with obsessive thoughts? If you have another strategy, leave a comment – I would love to hear it!

photo by: Neal.

obsessive thoughtsObsessive thoughts really are a drag. As if having insecure thoughts wasn’t bad enough on its own, our minds take those thoughts and broadcast them on a sadistic loop that never seems to end. And for those of us with anxiety disorders, those obsessive thought loops can be quite debilitating.

My obsessive thinking causes me a lot of problems. It loses me sleep, it prevents me from meeting people, it makes me seem aloof and distant at times. It even makes conversations more difficult than they should be. At times, it may help me stay motivated to achieve my goals, but really, the costs outweigh the benefits a-thousand-to-one.

There are a few different sorts of obsessive thoughts I tend to have. I like to think that there are four different types of obsessive thinkers in my head. No, I’m not implying distinct personalities. These are all parts of me, they just have different motives. Today I thought I would introduce them. I have a feeling you’ve met them before.


1. The WorrierThis type of obsessive thinker likes to worry a lot. (I chose a really creative name, right?)

Time frame: events that are beyond the immediate future (days to years)

Types of obsessions: approaching due dates, meetings, interviews, and exams. Also: plane rides, social functions, medical appointments, and work reviews. Basically, The Worrier likes to remind you of upcoming events when you’re not in a position to prepare for them.

Example: “I know you’re about to fall asleep,” it might say, “but I just thought you should obsess over the presentation you’re giving next week. Did you forget you’re afraid of presentations? No? Well good. Because you are. You’re terribly afraid of them. And you’re going to screw it up big time. Let’s think about that for awhile, shall we?”


2. The PanickerThis obsessive thinker comes free with one order of panic disorder. But you can also buy it if you have enough anxiety points.

Time frame: largely focused on the present moment (minutes to hours)

Types of obsession: meta-anxiety (panicking about panicking). The Panicker may think it’s helping you by constantly reminding you of possible panic attacks, but it’s really just making your life a living hell. It likes to perk up when you’re riding on public transportation, trying to enjoy a meal out with some colleagues, or waiting for an exam to be distributed. Whenever there’s waiting involved, you can be sure to meet The Panicker.

Example: “Uh oh,” it whispers out of the blue, “did you feel that? Your heart rate is going up. And now your breathing is becoming labored. Could this be a panic attack coming on? Let’s focus all of your thoughts on the unpleasant sensations you’re feeling! See!? I told you – you’re panicking! Ah!”


3. The Social PhobeAlways lurking in the back of your mind, The Social Phobe is your constant source of insecurity. Even if you don’t have social phobia, you’ve probably still met  this one.

Time frame: generally focused on the present (minutes to hours), can also be found digging up the past, sometimes even looks ahead months or years

Types of obsessions: anything social. Constantly evaluating whether or not your friends secretly hate you, telling you that you’ll never find love, and convincing you that you’re incapable of speaking to people. The Social Phobe is the one that won’t let you forget about that time you said something stupid to your boss or that party where you threw up in front of your love interest. It also likes to tell you that you’re stupid, you’re unattractive, and you’re boring.

Example: “Are you sure you want to go to that party tonight?” it asks. “Remember last weekend when you made a fool of yourself at Amy’s party? Or that time when you spilled your drink on that guy that was hitting on you? I bet you’ve forgotten about all those times that you had to talk to that really annoying guy at res parties because no one else found you interesting. Please don’t tell me you’ve forgotten how boring you are? And really, do you think you can pull off that outfit? No wonder no one likes you.”

obsessive thoughts

The Sadist: He’s watching you.

4. The SadistThe most evil of the obsessive thinkers, The Sadist picks out your most uncomfortable thoughts, and blasts them in your head on eternal repeat.

Time frame: you’re never safe

Types of obsessions: whatever makes you the most uncomfortable. The Sadist digs up your deepest, darkest secrets and never lets you forget about them. It may borrow material from the other three, but it takes obsessions to a whole new level. This is the reason why you can’t stop thinking about that one time in first grade when you wet yourself at recess and everyone laughed at you. It’s also why you get jealous of your ex, you keep having that same awful sexual fantasy, and you can’t quite get that Taylor Swift song out of your head (like, ever).

Example: “Oh, you’re just settling into a new relationship are you?” it squawks. “Well, in that case, I’m going to play a 30-minute montage of the worst moments from your last two relationships on repeat for the next month. Enjoy.”

Next time you find yourself in a spiral of obsessive thoughts, say hi to one of these four lovelies. Or maybe you have an obsessive thinker of your own? Either way, next post I will explore some ways that we can quiet these obsessive thinkers and have a little bit of mental peace once in awhile.


mental health stigmaMental illness is stigmatized. Society looks down on those of us suffering from mental health issues. Sometimes we’re looked at with fear or apprehension; other times with judgement or condescension. As I mentioned in a previous post, a recent survey found that almost half of the respondents believed mental illness to be an “excuse for poor behavior and personal failings.” About 42% said they would no longer socialize with a friend diagnosed with a major mental illness.

The human race is certainly not devoid of other types of stigma. We stigmatize people for a variety of reasons, from sexual orientation to religious upbringing. So why is mental health stigma worth talking about?

Well, for one, it affects treatment outcomes. An individual suffering from a mental illness is much less likely to seek help than the same person with a physical illness. With a large lack of social support, that individual will probably find it difficult to adhere to a treatment regime even if they do seek help.

Mental health stigma can also prevent people from getting jobs, securing loans, even having children. Mental illness makes it harder to make friends, keep up relationships, and feel accepted.

I could write an entire article (perhaps an entire book) on the obstacles created by mental health stigma, but today I want to give some tips on how you can help reduce this stigma.

1. Education. 

The first step in overcoming any type of intolerance is education. Before we can address a problem, we must first be aware of it. Since mental health education does not come passively, you must seek out this information. To start out, read up on some general psychiatry. The Canadian Mental Health Association is a great place to start. The National Institute of Mental Health is another great starting point. Wherever you’re looking, just make sure it’s accurate, verified, and unbiased information.

You may want to get a little more specific with your research if you have a close friend or family member who was recently diagnosed. If your brother tells you he has major depressive disorder, instead of judging him, read up on the disorder. Hear him out. Learn about how debilitating MDD is. Listen to the symptoms he faces on a regular basis.

We all have preconceived notions of what it means to be “depressed” or “schizophrenic”, but most people actually have a frighteningly incorrect understanding of these illnesses (you can probably attribute most of that miseducation to media portrayals of mental illness…more on that later). Only through re-education can you correct these lapses in judgement.

2. Conversation.

Talk about your mental health more often. The less we hear about a topic, the more easily it can become stigmatized. So open up. You don’t have to spill out your darkest secrets, but you can start small. Everyone has mental health – it only seems to become relevant in our society when that health is compromised. We can change that by changing the way we converse. Everyone feels depressed and anxious sometimes, but we rarely talk about it. If we can get to the point where it’s okay to say “I’m depressed” or “I had a panic attack yesterday”, maybe we can be on our way to eliminating mental health stigma.

3. Language reform.

The last thing – and perhaps the hardest thing – you can do to help eliminate mental health stigma is to change the way you talk about mental health. Mental health vocabulary is often used in a derogatory manner, sometimes unconsciously. Speaking about mental health in this way perpetuates the ideas that cause stigma: that mental illnesses are not real afflictions, that “the mentally ill” should be avoided, and that individuals with mental illness are just weak and whiny.

In order to illustrate my point, I thought I would go through some commonly heard phrases that contribute to stigma and delineate why you shouldn’t say them.

  • “Amy gets so moody sometimes – she’s so bipolar”
  • “Ben is acting really weird, I think he’s schizo”

In both examples, the speaker is implying that a complex illness like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia is simply “moodiness” or strange behavior. Phrases like these trivialize the experience of the individuals who actually suffer from these illnesses. Also, saying things like this perpetuates the idea that mental illnesses are not real illnesses, and are merely normal experiences exaggerated by “weak” and “lazy” people. Just because someone is moody does not mean they have bipolar disorder.

  • “I would rather kill myself than take that exam again”
  • “I can’t believe I didn’t get invited to that party – I’m really depressed now”

Suicidal ideation is a common symptom of a range of illnesses, most notably major depression. As someone who has attempted suicide in the past, I find it incredibly insulting when someone implies their day-to-day woes are comparable to the mental state one is in before attempting suicide. Similarly, sadness is not the same thing as depression, and implying so is trivializing the experience of someone who is clinically depressed.

In both of these examples, the speaker (who is not mentally ill) is comparing their daily experiences to the experiences of someone with an illness. I would never say “I have a terrible ache in my side – this pain is worse than cancer” so why should you compare your experience to my illness?

  • “Did you see the news story about that psychotic criminal last night?”

In this example, the speaker has labeled a criminal as “psychotic” with (presumably) no real reasoning to do so. The word “psychotic” refers to the state of psychosis, which involves hallucinations, delusions and a general loss of contact with reality. Throwing around labels like “psychotic”, especially in the context of crime, is stigmatizing to those individuals suffering from real psychotic disorders like schizophrenia. Psychosis is a disease state, not some sort of umbrella term to describes criminals and other social deviants.

  • “You’re acting crazy – are you off your meds or something?”

People who take anti-depressants or other psychotropic medications (anti-psychotics, benzodiazepines, etc.) are often looked down upon. Taking a medication for depression is no different than taking a medication for the flu, yet society sees things quite differently. Society sees those who take psychiatric medications as “crazy”, “weak”, “lazy”.

Assuming that someone is taking psychiatric medications just because of a particular change in mood or behavior is insulting to both that individual and all the individuals who are actually taking these medications. It perpetuates the stigma of psychiatric medications, which enforces one of the biggest barriers individuals with mental illness face when seeking treatment.

Wrapping things up…

Fighting any sort of intolerance is a difficult battle, and is certainly not won with a single defeat. To fight stigma, we have to change the way we think, feel, and speak about illness. We need to educate ourselves and seek out stories. This isn’t about being politically correct, this is about making people feel comfortable living their lives. It’s not easy, and we all slip up sometimes (I use the term “crazy” sometimes by accident), but if we try, I know we can change the way society sees mental illness.

How do you fight stigma? If you have any ideas I haven’t mentioned, please leave a comment!



photo by: Bhumika.B