Archive for the ‘Live life to its fullest’ Category

It’s been a while since I’ve last posted. There are a number of reasons I can point to (e.g. the fact that my midterm exams seem to go all the way up until finals week), but honestly, the main culprit is my lack of symptoms. Sure, I’ve had my share of anxieties and stresses over the past two months, but there haven’t been any tangible things to write about.

At first, it seemed to me that I had hit a roadblock of sorts; I’m out of symptoms to write about, so I guess the blog is over. But then, who would I be doing justice? Isn’t the whole point of this blog to explore the many ways that we can get over our anxiety? 

I’m not saying that I’ve been “cured” or that I’m fully free of my anxiety and depression (don’t listen to people who tell you that), I’ve just learned how to cope better. I still get a bit overwhelmed in large public areas, I doubt I will ever feel totally calm while travelling, and I know I will not have my last panic attack anytime soon. But I do feel like I’m controlling my anxiety, rather than living a life where it controls me. My anxiety may influence the activities I choose to partake in, but it won’t dictate my life.

This whole journey for me really started two years ago when I had my first panic attack. I’ve written about my past experiences with mental health issues before on this blog, so I won’t go too far back. Today, I just wanted to give an overview of the progress I’ve made over the past year to perhaps give hope to those who aren’t quite there yet.

Just under a year ago, when I dropped out of my psychology degree because of the onset of panic attacks and depression, I was in a very unstable state. My emotions were all over the place, I was constantly in a state of terror, and I had very little control over myself in general. I couldn’t get on a bus to go back to school because of a particularly nasty panic attack. I moved back in my parents, and I am incredibly lucky for the support they’ve given me. I spent a few weeks in the house without ever setting foot outside because I was too scared of what might happen.

Eventually, I started going to group therapy sessions. I was terribly anxious whenever I had to walk to the clinic, but I knew that at least my peers would understand the feeling. I quickly learned that I wasn’t the only one suffering with crippling anxiety. In fact, I wasn’t even the worst off.

Slowly but surely, I started getting out of the house. I walked to the grocery store once in awhile, and while I could barely last ten minutes, it was a small step in the right direction. I went out for meals a couple times with my parents, careful to make sure I had a clear escape if needed, but I made it through.

Starting this blog was one of the main outlets I had at the time. Writing down my thoughts and feelings helped me to come to terms with the fact that my mental health isn’t always stellar. It brought up memories of my occasionally depressed, and often anxious, childhood and adolescence, and helped me let go of some resentment I felt (mostly towards myself). Seeing my experiences in writing was a way of validating them. I wasn’t just being selfish and indulgent, I really did (and still do) have a problem. 

By the time I went back to my apartment in Montreal in early May, I was almost completely over the agoraphobia that I had fallen into. I still had a lot of growing to do over the summer, but it was much easier without the constant panic attacks I was having before. I slowly built back my work ethic. I had a couple part-time jobs that I found online so I could work from home, and they helped me regain my attention span that I seemed to have lost.

That’s one thing that doesn’t seemed to get talked about enough: chronic anxiety really does a number on your attention span. I hesitate to say that I suffer from ADHD symptoms, but I really did have a tough time re-adjusting to the life of a student (long hours studying). I had troubles managing my time when I first got back to school, but luckily I had the foresight to give myself a bit of a break and take a lighter course load.

Now, a full year later from when my panic attacks started to get the best of me, I can say that I feel like a new person. I’m not rid of my anxiety, I’m not rid of my mood swings, and I certainly haven’t mastered my attention span, but I feel much more self-aware. I’m aware of the troubles I have and I’m aware of what I need to work on.

My one wish this holiday season is that everyone out there is able to get a little bit more of a grasp on their mental health. Happy New Year to all.

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fear of small talkAs a social phobe, I have a pretty profound fear of small talk. I’m afraid that I will sound boring or unintelligent. I’m also quite afraid of awkward silences permeating my conversations. For some reason, I’m always convinced that if I allow silence in a conversation, it means I’m inherently a bad conversationalist. I worry that my social ineptitude will prevent me from making friends and forming meaningful relationships.

Obviously, these obsessive thoughts are spawned from a place of catastrophizing, self-deprecating anxieties. My perceived social ineptitude is not a concrete being; it’s just a (flawed) social perception. It’s an opinion I have of myself. It’s not a fact.

I’ve argued for paradigm shifts before when I wrote about not being so hard on yourself. This is another time for one of those paradigm shifts. Unfortunately for most of us, some of our so-called “core beliefs” are so ingrained in our psyches that challenging them with rational thinking is analogous to breaking down a brick wall with a feather. Sometimes, we need a catalyst to overturn (or even simply budge) our core beliefs.

For me, that catalyst was online dating.

As part of my exposure therapy plan from my summer therapy sessions, I had devised a list of small-talk-related situations that caused me anxiety, ranked in order of distress. Dating was near the top of the list. There’s something about sitting down with someone whom you’ve never met (or never spoken to one-on-one) and having to forge conversation that makes me want to crawl out of my skin. What if I run out of things to say? What if I’m uninteresting? What if I laugh too much, or too little? What if my eyes start watering and I look like I’m crying? What if I say something ignorant or offensive without realizing? Obsessive thoughts cloud my mind.

As the old adage goes, “Practice makes perfect.” I think dating — and more generally, small talk — is no different. The first date I went on this summer, I was terrified. While I was waiting at the bar for my date to arrive, I seriously considered just running away and pretending something had come up. But I didn’t. I stayed there, and it was a fairly pleasant time.

The more dates I went on, the easier it got. But over time, I found that it wasn’t just dating that was getting easier. I was (and still am) becoming more confident in my social skills. I may not have the best social skills, but honestly, I could be a lot worse off. I started realizing that it wasn’t always my fault if conversation died out. I realized that, even if I did make ignorant statements or ask unintelligent questions, other people were making the same sort of statements and asking the same sorts of questions at the same (or even a higher) rate.

I’ve now been on about a dozen dates this summer. And I’ve never run out of conversation; I’ve never had a particularly awkward moment; I’ve never said anything offensive. I’ve even felt at times like I was the one driving the conversation, not the other way around like I was used to. I learned that I am perfectly capable of maintaining a conversation, and also that it takes two people to have an awkward silence, not just one.

This isn’t to say that I’ve mastered my social anxiety. I’m far from that. But what I have managed is to start seeing myself in a new light. Instead of focusing on my failures, I have begun to start focusing more on my successes.

Dating may not be your catalyst of choice, but I think there is an outlet waiting for you. There’s an outlet that will teach you to see yourself in a new light. You just have to go out and find it.

What was your catalyst? Have you been able to overcome any of your core beliefs? Let me know in the comments!

photo by: » Zitona «
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not being hard on yourselfThis summer has been a very odd time for me. On the one hand, living in Montreal with great company and lots of entertainment has been a nice vacation from the stresses of school that are looming on the horizon. On the other hand, I’ve been far less productive than I would have liked to have been.

For the large part, I realize that this down time has probably been necessary for my mental well-being. I’ve learned that I need to set aside a significant amount of “me time” in order to beat the panic that inevitably ensues after working too hard for too long. I’ve learned that while I enjoy socializing, I also crave alone time, and my mind never feels quite right if I don’t get it.

But beyond my learning experiences, there’s still a part of me, the driven, perfectionist part that is unarguably causing my anxiety, that can’t help but berate me for my lack of productivity. I can’t help but feel guilty when I think about how infrequently I’ve been blogging, how little I’ve been running, or how few books I’ve read. I feel like I should have been preparing for school (my first full semester in a year) or redesigning Anxiety Really Sucks! or training for a marathon.

This sort of self-imposed guilt has caused me much depression and anxiety in the past. I’m hard on myself, and no doubt you’re hard on yourself too. Being hard on yourself is probably a huge contributing factor to the anxiety that has brought you to reading my blog.

So how do you learn to stop being so hard on yourself?

The best way I’ve found is to simply change the way I see the situations that cause me guilt. Instead of focusing on the things that I haven’t been doing this summer, I should instead be focusing on the things I have been doing. Leisure time is something that is often condemned in our society, but as I’ve argued before, I think leisure time is just as important as productivity. I’ve had a lot of leisure time this summer; time to recharge and let my mind relax and focus on the things that I don’t have time to think about when I’m in the thick of school.

If you’re not being as productive as you could be, there’s probably a reason for it. Look for that reason. And let yourself be content with it. Maybe you’re spending more time with your kids. Maybe you’re cooking more. Maybe you’re simply catching up on some long-awaited TV series. Whatever it is, there’s a reason you’re doing it; and it’s probably a good reason!

Your mind isn’t designed to be constantly busy. You need some down time. And oftentimes, us anxious folk drive ourselves to be busy simply to avoid our anxiety, rather than face it head on. It’s in our downtime that we have the capacity to reflect on our anxiety and deal with it.

Are you hard on yourself too? Let me know how you deal with self-imposed guilt below in the comments!

photo by: VinothChandar
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tackling stressLast Friday, I had the final for the summer statistics course I was taking throughout June. It was an intensive course; four months worth of material condensed into a month-long semester. Usually, school isn’t something that actively stresses me out, unless of course I’ve been procrastinating. And yet, the morning of my final exam, I had a panic attack and was forced to take a propranolol so I could get through my exam. (The exam went fine, but not as well as it could have.)

Stress hits us anxiety sufferers particularly hard. While stress and anxiety are distinct states, they do overlap in much of their biological underpinnings and definitely seem to work together. Stress brings on the release of adrenaline, just like anxiety, and thus leaves us with a lot of the same feelings: racing hearts, labored breathing, restlessness, decreased focus.

Acute stress is beneficial in many ways, and for most people it can be a helpful force. Unfortunately for those of us with sensitivities to increased arousal, acute stress can also make us panic. Stress seems to pile on quicker when you’re living with an anxiety disorder, and it seems to be lurking around every corner.

While learning proper stress management techniques is important for everyone, it is especially crucial for us anxious folks. We have brains that are constantly on the look out for potential stressors, so we need to do everything we can to make sure there are as few stressors as possible in our lives. Since we can’t eliminate all sources of stress of course, learning proper stress management is necessary.

So how do we deal with stress?

Tackling stress goes back to the same sorts of coping techniques we used to overcome our anxiety.

Deep breathing is always a good starting point. Remember that proper diaphragmatic breathing helps to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system that works against your fight-or-flight response to calm you down.

Mindfulness can be another great coping technique. Try to keep yourself in the present rather than letting your mind wander to those “what if” scenarios that are major sources of stress. (“What if I don’t get this paper in on time?” “What if I’m late for that client meeting?” “What if I don’t pass this big exam?”)

If you’re a procrastinator like me, maybe you need to look into methods to reduce your procrastination. Procrastinating is a big source of stress for me. “Why didn’t I start studying for this exam earlier? Maybe I would have been able to finish all the practice problems if I’d just started earlier.” I’m not only stressed that I haven’t studied enough, but I’m also frustrated at myself for putting things off, which just ends up leaving me more unsettled.

Having a health lifestyle is probably the most important, yet most vague, way you can help reduce your stress. Rather than dive into healthy eating and exercise, I will leave you with some great resources that you can peruse if you’d like to know more. (I will delve into eating and exercise later on!)

Coping with Stress from the Heart and Stroke Foundation

Stress Management from the Canadian Mental Health Association

Stress Management from Health Canada

How do you deal with stress? 

 

 

photo by: Helga Weber
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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. 

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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.

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anticipatory anxietyNext week is my 21st birthday. My parents have graciously decided to take me to The Bahamas, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time. There’s nothing like relaxing on a tropical island with a fruity drink in hand and a buffet of delicious food nearby. My mouth is literally watering just thinking about it.

But alas, what is my life if not filled with irrational fears and worries? Currently, I am stressing over the flight. I haven’t been on a plane since my panic disorder started last year, so I’m apprehensive. Will I be able to board the plane and make it to The Bahamas unscathed? Or will it be a panic-fueled disaster?

Anticipatory anxiety, the constant discomfort us anxiety sufferers feel between panic attacks, is a curse like no other. It floats around us like an ominous cloud, constantly reminding us that a panic attack could strike at any moment. “Beware of the plane ride,” it whispers in our ears, “You know you can’t escape from the plane right? If you panic, you’re stuck.” For me, the anticipation of new or uncertain events is always the worst part. Those cursed “what if” statements keep popping up in my head, slowly nudging me into a state of frenzy.

The duration and intensity of anticipatory anxiety can vary quite substantially. For a visit to the doctor’s office, I may be anxious for only an hour leading up to it and remain capable of carrying on with my day. For a presentation that has a lot riding on it, I may fret for weeks, lose sleep, and as it gets closer to the presentation time, I may even struggle with everyday tasks like having a conversation.

So how do we beat this anticipatory worry? I’m not completely convinced that we can ever fully get rid of it (everyone worries a little bit), but we can certainly tame it and retain control over our lives. Here are some strategies you might find useful:

  • Mental distractions. When you feel your worries setting in, try to keep your mind occupied. Strike up a conversation with a close friend, do some crossword puzzles, or dive into your work. If you can keep mentally busy, you may be able to postpone the worries. This isn’t a permanent solution, but it can give you some relief. 
  • Physical distractions. Go out and exercise. Go for run, take the dog for a brisk walk, go swimming. Try to exert yourself, as this will keep you mentally occupied as well. It’s a win-win situation, because exercise is good for your overall health.
  • Meditation and relaxation. Relaxation techniques like mindfulness meditation have been scientifically explored as strategies for coping with excessive worrying, and the results have been very positive. Just doing some basic deep breathing exercises can help you stay grounded and deflect those troubling worrisome thoughts.
  • Intellectual attacks. This is the ultimate way to overcome your worries: hit them where they hurt. Use the much more evolutionarily advanced parts of your brain to combat those primitive structures giving you this life of anxiety. So what if you have a panic attack on the plane? You know from a lifetime of anxiety that a panic attack will not kill you, it usually goes away in about 30 minutes or so, and people around you are less aware than you expect. Worries are often irrational and illogical. If you can learn to challenge them with your superior logic, one day they may just go away permanently.

Hopefully you will find some comfort in these coping strategies. I find that distractions work well with the smaller worries, while I reserve the intellectual reasoning and meditation for some of the more lengthy worries. Distraction is a technique that can be applied to almost any form of anxiety, but alas, it never really works in the long run. At some point you need to directly target the underlying problem rather than just avoiding the symptoms.

Do you have other strategies for overcoming anticipatory anxiety? If you do, feel free to leave a comment. Have a great day!

 

photo by: lrargerich
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tribesportsI’m not a real big sports fan. I avoid team sports at all costs, I find the gym to be a scary environment, and I cringe when someone asks me if I “saw the game last night” (what game?). I think my natural aversion to everything sports is at least partly responsible for the fact that I’ve never been as fit as I’d like to be. I rely on internal motivation to keep myself exercising every day, which is a lot tougher than I’d like it to be. That’s why I tried Tribesports – and why I suggest that you give it a try too.

First off, lets get the obvious stuff out of the way. Exercise is good for you. Many studies have explored exercise as an effective treatment for anxiety disorders and life stress. Research suggests that even small amounts of exercise can be beneficial in the treatment of anxiety and other mental illnesses. But this post isn’t meant to be a lecture on getting more exercise.

No, today I wanted to explore how I’ve overcome my natural aversion to organized exercise. See, I don’t like joining exercise classes because I find them intimidating, and thanks to my wonderful social anxiety, I’m constantly imagining how idiotic I must look flailing around like a dead fish in a pair of neon red shorts. Exercise classes make me more anxious, which kind of defeats the purpose in my opinion.

But being in a social environment is encouraging. If you’ve taken intro psych, maybe you’ve heard of social facilitation, the tendency to perform better on simple tasks when you’re surrounded by other people. When you’re alone, you can do as much (or as little) exercise as you’d like, and no one will know the difference. But when you’re out in public, you know other people are watching you, subtly trying to run just a minute longer than you or lift just a few pounds more than you (or is that just me?).

tribesports

Enter the world of Tribesports. You create a profile, join tribes, engage in athletic challenges, and watch the encouragement roll in…all from the comfort of your home. It’s like being part of a network of virtual fitness classes, except you work at your own pace. There are hundreds of tribes to choose from, each with different focuses – from trail running to kickboxing. You can take challenges, like “do 10 push-ups every day for a week” or “run your first 5k”.

Tribesports is kind of like Facebook for athletics. You can follow people and watch their progress. Instead of “liking” status updates, you “encourage” activities and progress. Taking a “challenge” is a great way to become accountable for your exercise – all your Tribesports followers are watching to see when you’ll be able to hold the bridge for 5 minutes. You even get to level up as you progress with your account. The more challenges you complete, followers you accumulate, and tribes you join, the higher your ranking on the scoreboard.

I’m not usually one to promote individual sites like this one, but honestly Tribesports has renewed my interest in general fitness. Instead of forcing myself to get on the treadmill, I’m now excited to be able to push my athletic limits just to be able to click “Challenge Complete” and see my rankings improve. “Drop and do 15 push-ups right now.” You’re on!

In our technologically driven society, what could be better than a social media site geared towards exercise? I’ve already found Tribesports to be more addictive than Facebook . It’s a win-win situation – you have another social media site to join, and you’re exercising more. Give it a try – there’s really nothing to lose.

Have you tried Tribesports before? Tell me what you think! Are you as addicted as I am?

photo by: mikebaird
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mindful in conversation

Are you being mindful in conversations?

If I haven’t mentioned it before, I have social anxiety. I’m afraid of things like having to make small talk and being assertive. My social fears often prevent me from fully engaging in conversations. I fall into self-perpetuating cycles; I’m so anxious that I won’t be able to hear what someone is saying that I completely miss what they were saying because I was so worried I’d miss what they were going to say. I know it sounds ridiculous, and it is, but that’s my brain for you (I’m sure many of you can relate!).

This issue leaves me with two problems: I’m not actively partaking in conversations, and I’m anxious as hell about it. I would love to just turn off my anxiety, but alas, that is not a realistic solution. It seems the only other way to bypass the problem is to force myself to engage in the conversation. Well how could I do that, you ask? The answer is through mindfulness.

If you’ve never heard the term before, mindfulness is about staying focused on the present and refraining from judging your thoughts and feelings. Being mindful really just means living life as it is happening, rather than worrying and obsessing over things that have happened or may (or may not) happen in the future. It’s a simple concept, but an incredibly difficult skill to master. Activities like yoga and Tai Chi draw on principles of mindfulness.

Being mindful in conversation requires you to focus on what the other person is saying. This sounds quite obvious – it’s what you’re already doing, right? My bet is no. Most people are often caught up in their own thoughts while in conversation. We all want to sound interesting and intelligent, so instead of actually listening to what the other person is saying, we often are planning what we’ll say next or trying to guess how this person will end their sentence. Sometimes, we’ve even moved past the conversation in our minds, and we’re planning what we’re going to do when it’s over (“As soon as he’s done jabbering away, I’m going to go get Starbucks”).

We live in a fast-paced world. It seems like we never have enough time in the day to get half of our to-do lists done. And we make it very clear to the rest of the world – we’re constantly checking our phones, storming around like we’re always late for something, honking our horns when someone isn’t speeding. I’ve argued before for the benefits of relaxation and slowing things down. Mindfulness is the most simple way to go about being more calm.

The next time you’re having a lengthy conversation with a close friend or family member, here’s what I want you to do:

  • Let go of your worries and focus on what is being said. Instead of worrying about bills that need to get paid, notes that need to be read, and calls that need to be returned, just focus on the conversation. Being mindful in a conversation requires that you focus all your attention on what your conversation partner is saying. You shouldn’t be noticing people walking by or listening to music off in the distance.
  • Acknowledge when your mind wanders and bring it back. If your thoughts do wander, acknowledge it, and bring yourself back to the conversation. You will probably find your mind wandering quite often; that’s okay. Just keep bringing yourself back to the conversation.  
  • Speak in turn. If you do have social anxiety, you may not have too much problem with this one, but it’s worth noting anyway. Wait for your turn in the conversation – don’t interject if you think your point is more important. Ideally, you should wait until your conversation partner is done talking before you even think of your response. If you’re formulating your own thoughts while your partner is talking, then you’re not really listening, are you?
  • Don’t judge yourself if you can’t keep focus. If your mind does wander or you can’t help but think about what you want to say, that’s perfectly okay. Mindfulness isn’t a skill you learn over night. Accept that your thoughts wander from time to time, and don’t judge yourself for it. Mindfulness is also about acceptance: acceptance of our flaws and quirks that make us unique.
  • Try to appear calm. If you’re socially anxious, having conversations may not make you overly calm. But appearing calm is different altogether. What I mean is that you shouldn’t be twitching uncomfortably or fidgeting like you’re bored. You also shouldn’t be checking your phone every few minutes or responding to texts. I don’t know when we got to the point in our society where texting while have a serious conversation with someone else is considered appropriate, but I don’t like it (even though I’ve definitely done it before).

Being mindful is an incredible skill to master. It takes time, but you’ll see it can used in any aspect of your life. Mindfulness has many medical benefits, and for years it has been encouraged for patients of all different types of mental illness. I suggest that you find a mindfulness resource online and really try it. If you can practice mindfulness for a few moments every day, I really think you’ll see a difference.

Are you mindful in conversations? I would be interested to hear if any of you do this unconsciously.

photo by: pedrosimoes7
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social supportSome days, it seems like you can just never get a break. You know, those days when a passing car splashes muddy water into your face, you’re late for work, and you spill your coffee all over your boss? Or maybe the bus breaks down on your way to a final exam, you sprain your ankle running to get there in time, only to realize that you forgot your student ID card and can’t get into the building. Most of the time, you can look back on such days and find humor in them.

But sometimes you can’t. Like this one day, a few months ago, when I was just starting to get daily panic attacks for the first time, and I’d hit my breaking point. I remember that day vividly – I was walking around in circles, avoiding going back to my apartment. I made my way up to a park on a hill in the middle of the city, hidden behind an array of dense trees. And I contemplated my suicide.

What saved me was a quick call to my parents. They forced me to talk about what was really bothering me, to get to the root of the problem, and they encouraged me to use the coping techniques I’d learned in therapy. They also got me crying – which it turns out was all I really needed. I could have easily thrown away years of treatment and self-discovery all in a sudden moment of weakness, but it was my social support network that kept me grounded. It was the accountability that comes with having close friends and family that saved me.

I have a great social support network. I have two incredibly understanding parents who have seen me at my worst and have never judged me. I have amazing friends scattered across the country who treat me with more respect than I probably deserve. I even have outstanding authority figures in my life – bosses, supervisors, counselors, advisers. And it’s these people who have kept me on my path to recovery.

Social support is a crucial element of any journey to recovery. Our support network encourages us to stick to our treatment plan, lends a helping hand we need something we can’t do for ourselves, and provides us with one or many shoulders to cry on if need be. Going beyond the obvious benefits, social support also has a biological basis too. Socializing facilitates the release of a hormone called oxytocin that helps us stay calm and relaxed. Low levels of oxytocin may contribute to illnesses like depression and anxiety.

Social support acts as a sort of buffer against stress and illness. It has been linked to lower rates of heart disease, lower stress hormone release, and better immune function. Unequivocally speaking, science has shown that having a support network is crucial to any recovery program – whether it be from mental illness or physical illness.

So why don’t we all open up about our illnesses? Usually the answer surrounds stigma (I’ve written about what perpetuates stigma before). Our society stigmatizes mental illness, and thus we fear being judged if we open up. We fear losing friends, becoming estranged from family members, maybe even losing jobs. It’s a scary thing to open up and let very personal parts of yourself out. But hopefully we know and trust those people that we’ve invited into our lives enough to be able to share ourselves.

Here are a few tips that you might find useful in your quest to broaden your social support network.

  • Start small. Opening up about your illness is never an all-or-nothing process. If you’re not comfortable with labels, then just talking about how you get anxious from time to time is a great start. Tell your mom that it makes you uncomfortable to meet new people. Open up to your best friend about your fear of public transportation. Just getting your emotions out on the table can be incredibly cathartic.
  • Practice online. If you’re not ready to talk about your illness in person, then start by joining an internet forum to discuss your thoughts and feelings (you can try Anxiety Zone or just do a quick Google search).
  • Role play with your therapist. If you happen to be receiving professional help, role playing can be a great way to work out fears you have. Your therapist will likely have a lot of insight into possible reactions you may get and how to deal with them.
  • Send an email. If you happen to have social anxiety like me, then having a serious emotional conversation in person can be difficult even if you practice online first. An easier approach would be to send your thoughts by written word (email, Facebook, or even snail mail if you’d like). That way, you have more time to choose your wording and you’re giving the other person time to digest the information and decide on an appropriate response.

Having a social support network is incredibly important if you want to stick to your journey to recovery. If you’re not ready to open up to your own support network about your anxiety, then feel free to leave me a message through my contact page – I read and respond to all my messages!

 

photo by: Zanini H.
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