The Best Book for Anxiety and Panic Attacks

As May draws to a close, it’s important, like, really important, to remember that mental health care and awareness isn’t a single-month thing. It’s something everyone, everywhere needs to take notice of all the time, particularly if they or someone in their life is struggling with a mental illness.

There are still way too many stereotypes and way too much misinformation out there. People who declare themselves to have anxiety or panic disorder or OCD or depression are often not taken seriously, ridiculed, dismissed, or even abused. And that is so, so wrong.

Okay, on that terribly depressing note, let me offer some hope to people like me who currently suffer from Panic Disorder, Anxiety (in any form), OCD or phobias. I have generalized anxiety right now, but about two years ago I had such severe anxiety it morphed into Panic Disorder, which brings those fun side-effects of insomnia and agoraphobia with it. I wrote all about that time in my life here, and I’m happy to say I’ve conquered most of my symptoms. I haven’t had a real attack in months, and day to day my anxiety is manageable. Sure, I still have days or even hours when it hits, and my body and mind shut down to deal with the physiological and mental pain.

And truth be told, since it stopped being super bad, I haven’t taken too many drastic steps to eliminate it altogether. (Diet and exercise, I’m lookin’ at you.)

But I have practiced meditation, deep breathing, yoga, and the elimination of negative self-talk and limiting self-beliefs. That’s what got me out of the worst parts of it in the first place.

Now though, with the pandemic going on and anxiety at an all-time high, I wanted to get in ahead of it and start seriously working on some life changes to help me kick it for good. The disorder, not the being anxious sometimes part. Part of recovery is realizing that anxiety is just another emotion that every human feels. The key is to get it back to the realm of just an emotion.

And so we come to the best book I’ve ever read for Panic Disorder/Anxiety/OCD/Phobias. The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne, PH.D. I’m not even halfway through, but it’s amazing.

It is a workbook, which is why it’s taking me so long, because I’m actually doing the exercises. At first, it outlines what the disorders are and combats myths about them. That’s important, because a lot of the fear about having one of these disorders usually comes from believing something that’s not true about it.

For instance, it took way too long for me to find out that panic attacks are not physically dangerous in any way, especially when the mental side of them make sure to let you know you’re dying.

Yeah, it’s a comforting book. It lays out what each disorder is and plans to overcome them. Next, it takes you through each tool in your toolbox, each weapon in your cache. Things like relaxation techniques (hello progressive muscle relaxation, I didn’t know you were a thing), diet and exercise, and asserting yourself. It even goes into the different kinds of medication and how they work. Although the book does not recommend using medication as a first response, it accepts that it’s a useful and sometimes very necessary combatant for severe cases (as mine was).

Nothing beats a therapist, of course, who can guide you week to week as you fight, but this book does a damn good job of being an at-home therapist when outside is still kind of, like, full of coronavirus.

So in honor of Mental Health Awareness month, buy this book, learn about your own disorder or about the disorder of someone you love and continue to spread the education and awareness.

Let’s end the stigma.

Trying the Five-Second Rule for Anxiety

Recently I read Mel Robbins’ “The 5 Second Rule“, and there was a very interesting part in there about anxiety and panic attacks. Robbins has struggled with anxiety, panic, and a fear of flying for decades, but she claims in her book that the five-second rule helped her conquer her fear of flying and come off of medication.

I was intrigued, particularly when she mentioned a very key point. To our bodies, physiologically speaking, excitement and fear are the same things. I knew this from experience, having felt the excitement that quickly turned to fear because my brain associated those feelings instantly with panic, not happiness. You sweat, your heart races, you become hyper-aware – this state of the body can describe fear or excitement. Our body reacts in the same way. The only difference? Our brains. It’s what our brains are thinking that differentiates these feelings. If we have a context for the shaking and sweating as being psyched for something, our brains back off and we’re okay. But if our brains see something to be fearful of, or don’t have a context (as in a panic attack), the brain will escalate the feeling and send us into fight, freeze, or flight mode in order to protect us.

Since I struggle with anxiety, and particularly with confusing the feelings of excitement and fear in my body, I decided to try out the five-second rule to see how it might help. For one month, I used the 5-second rule to re-direct my thoughts and help my body recognize what it was feeling.

How It Works

The idea goes like this. When you’re about to give a speech, make a sale, call a date, or do anything that makes you nervous, tell yourself, “I’m excited.” Give your brain context about what it’s feeling that doesn’t risk escalating the feeling into panic.

I wanted to try this also with panic attacks, because those generally happen without any context at all. Using the related idea of anchor thoughts, I decided that on any given day, should I have a panic attack, I would help my brain contextualize the sudden rush of adrenaline by telling myself I was excited about something. One week it might be the crafting project, another it might be NaNoWriMo, another my next D&D session. But by doing that, I wanted to see if I could actually de-escalate my panic attacks and get through them more calmly than normal.

Results

I am happy to report that the experiment worked. I was a bit skeptical, to be honest, because it’s something so basic and simple it seems like someone, somewhere, would have come up with it before.

But the idea works because it is so simple.

Unfortunately for the experiment, though fortunately for my health, I didn’t have any panic attacks this past month, so I didn’t get to try it out in that state.

I did get to try it out with my worrying. I have a bad habit of worrying all the time, so I used the five-second rule any time I caught myself ruminating on mistakes, thinking of what might go wrong in the future, or general anxiety over what was happening in the present.

When I caught myself, I thought “5-4-3-2-1” and pulled my thoughts away to something else. I had several anchor thoughts; my novel, my next D&D session, how awesome it would feel to be a published author or a book I was reading.

I also added visualization, which was a powerful element. Robbins had mentioned in one of her talks that the act of counting backward moves us from our irrational brain to our prefrontal cortex, a kind of half-circle around the head. It engages that area which literally interrupts our thoughts, short-circuiting the loop of anxiety.

I pictured the numbers as points around my head, and my thoughts literally moving from the back to the front as I counted down. It was so powerful it was honestly surprising.

Overall, I can say that the technique does work. I had just as many anxious and worrisome thoughts as I normally did, but I felt more in control of them, and they didn’t run away with me as often as before.

If you struggle with fear, anxiety, worry or depression, I suggest reading Robbins’ book and trying it out for yourself.

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Setting Boundaries for People with Anxiety

 

A while back I wrote a review for the book Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend. I love the book, and have seen it quoted in vast numbers of self-help books and articles.  Boundaries are important for everyone. Across the board, no exceptions. Everyone.

I would like to say “especially for people with anxiety”, but that’s not true. Especially for everyone.

I think most of the problems in our lives stem from boundary problems. Not being clear on them, even if you do have them, or letting them be repeatedly crossed, or not having them in the first place.

I fell into the third category. I didn’t really have any concept of boundaries as a real, vital thing until I read the book.

Imagine that most humans are supposed to have a third arm and not realizing it until you read a book. It was kind of that feeling. Then suddenly you see people with that third arm everywhere, and some still lacking the third arm completely, and some with one but sort of half-curled inside them…urk. I think that metaphor is running away from me.

Anyway, it was a revelation.

I’ll speak from my experience as someone who’s pretty darn sure most of her anxiety issues stem from lack of boundaries.

Work

I’m an excellent worker. I was raised with a strong work ethic, and I’m an obliging person. If you ask me to do something, I will do it for you. Whether I should or not, and no matter what I have on my plate at the moment. That’s the problem.

I work really well, but I take on too much. I was no good at saying no. I saw myself doing this, but I always assumed it was my fault in some way. I need to figure out how to handle all of this, I need to be more efficient, not wanting to help that coworker out is selfish, etc.

I remember one day when three separate coworkers, well, two coworkers and a boss, asked me to edit something for them. One was a document for procedures, one was a statement to put in the handbook, and one was a collection of essays from a class to be printed in a book.

I said yes to all three. I spent my free periods that day and next editing for other people projects that had nothing to do with me. Could I have done one of them? Sure. Should I have done all of them? No. None of them were my specific responsibility. I was not getting paid extra. I did them because those people asked.

Later on in my job, I would swing the opposite way where the building resentment had me saying “no” too often, another side effect of lack of boundaries.

This happened in all my jobs to some degree. When I worked retail, I regularly took on the extra shifts just because people asked me, or came in earlier when my boss asked. I even accepted a promotion I didn’t want because my boss wanted me to take it, leading to my first bout with stress-induced health problems.

Relationships

Neighbors

I remember a specific instance when a neighbor asked me to watch her dog for a night and a day. She was going out of town and hadn’t called the sitter or doggie daycare. I hardly knew this person, but I said yes. I thought: I can’t be selfish. It’s only one night. Just do it. She needs help. 

Did I want to? A resounding no. I don’t like small dogs, and I lived in a one-room apartment. There would be no getting rid of any unwanted smells for a while. But I said yes because she asked, and the dog naturally peed on my bed. I didn’t mention it to her, just promised myself I would not accept again.

Dating

When I’ve dated, I’ve let the other person lead the way. I like my men decisive, but frequently the reason is less that than my own obliging nature. You want to watch a movie? Okay. You want to eat there? Okay. You want to kiss? O…kay.

This is one area where I could clearly see the problem, more than any other. Dating should be a shared agreement, in my opinion, of what to do and how to do it. So mostly, my lack of boundaries has resulted in a pure lack of dating, since I won’t do it for fear of falling into my old habits.

Friendships

I’ve had some tough friendships. And the funny thing is, the other person would probably be surprised to hear that. I don’t speak up. I don’t feel I have the right, or, more often, I don’t want to rock the boat.

I’ve had work friends several times, and usually they were fine. A couple situations though always happened. I’d have a friend who would always come to me for a chat, me being such a good listener. They would interrupt my free time, or my work time, if possible, and talk about this and that. And I would let them. Are you free? Yeah, sure, what’s up? I just need to vent. Okay, what happened?

Never mind that I’m not in any mood to deal with another person’s problems. Never mind that I never feel I can come to you. Never mind that you blew into my room like a summer storm in my peaceful afternoon…

I needed boundaries.

Family

Fortunately, or unfortunately, my family has often borne the brunt of my boundaries. I’m comfortable there enough to say no, most of the time. They see me as pretty judgmental and decisive, even stubborn, because all of my no’s I don’t say to other people I tend to say to them, and loudly. It’s an unhealthy balance.

In the book, boundaries are envisioned like fences. Not walls, to keep everything out and everything in, but fences, with gates. Gates to let out the good and the bad. Some people keep all the good in and let all the bad out, some vice versa. I was always vice versa. Keep the bad in, where it can’t hurt others, and let the good out, to give of myself. Except with family, where the gate then swung the other way.

Myself

I’ve never been good at meeting my own expectations. I can meet other’s fairly easily if I’m not in a rebellion phase.

But I could never stick with a self-regulated habit, for the most part. I’m getting better, as I grow to understand myself more. I’ve kept up my new habits well. I’ve written every day for the past few months because I like to make that checkbox go away. In fact, Habitica, the fun online to-do list website I use, is a helpful external accountability partner, but setting boundaries with myself is still hard.

Especially when it’s to stop doing something. Stop eating sugar. Oh boy, good luck, me. Stop letting people walk all over me. Yeah, okay. Right.

Well, this whole recovery journey is about setting good boundaries, so I know I’m not there yet.

Anxiety

Lack of self-control and boundaries has been a major cause for anxiety, I’m convinced. The stress from my job was a direct result of me not saying no when needed and not being clear about what was hurting me or causing me too much anxiety. Always saying yes led to resentment as well, which only added to the mix.

All of my relationships have an element of anxiety for me, because I always assume responsibility for how the other person feels, and don’t want to rock the boat by making my needs known.

And with myself, living against what I want for myself naturally creates internal tension, which has manifested physically. I don’t practice my faith the way I want, I don’t dress the way I want, I don’t speak the way I want…it all creates tension.

What’s Next?

I’m hoping by finding out the root of the issue I can start to build these boundaries I need and heal from the inside out. I don’t want to take medication forever. And I don’t believe I’ll have to. The authors of the book are psychologists, and they use boundaries in their work with patients. I’m hopeful that with therapy and with the knowledge of needed boundaries, I’ll be able to better my relationship with anxiety.

It’ll be tough, but it’ll be worth it.

#buildaladder with boundaries.

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D&D and Life

I am in control of my actions and reactions, not how they turn out, not the things around me, not the problems I face. Only my actions and reactions.

Turns out, the system for D&D combat is a really good tool to help navigate life.

Hear me out.

In D&D (5e), when you’re in combat, your character has only three things they can do on your turn; an action, a bonus action, and movement.

An action is usually something like making an attack or casting a spell, or even holding an action until something else happens (other actions include hiding, dashing, interacting with objects, and so on). A bonus action might be to take a potion or even another attack if you’re one of those classes.

Here’s the thing though. I can choose to attack, but my dice roll determines how I do. If I roll low, no go. If I roll high, hurray! I succeed. I choose what to do, but I can’t control what happens (not until someone develops a wrist technique for rolling dice how you want – I’ll keep you posted on that).

So in life as in D&D.

In life, I can only choose my actions and movements. I can choose whether to pursue this relationship, take that job, move away, move home, write this book, start that blog, exercise, etc. It’s all up to me. What I can’t choose is what happens with it. Maybe I move to a new city and it doesn’t work out. Maybe the relationship doesn’t pay off. Maybe the book is a glorious flop. Or maybe not. I have no way of knowing.

However, also as in D&D, I can stack the odds slightly in my favor. In D&D you use a d20, or 20-sided die, for most ability checks and attack rolls. You roll the dice and add your modifier. A fighter class, for instance, will have a higher chance of doing something strength-based so they will have a higher modifier, and a likelier chance of success. Say they have a +4 modifier, on a d20 that increases the chances of meeting the target number by 20%. Not bad. Magic weapons, spell effects, and other items can also increase the chance of success.

How can I do the same in real life?

Education is one step, and I don’t necessarily mean organized education, although that can help in certain circumstances. But if you want to succeed on your taxes this year, doing some research and learning how to prepare your taxes is essential. Or learning that you can afford someone to prepare your taxes for you.

You might learn a new language, which helps your chances of getting a coveted job posting abroad.

You might get a certificate in the area of your choice, vastly increasing the odds of getting a job in that field.

Health is another way to stack the odds in your favor. Having more energy, both mental and physical, will help you in any endeavor, whether it’s personal or professional. Being emotionally stable is another huge benefit in work and in life, and though that might require some investment (hey, training in D&D ain’t cheap), it’s well worth it.

How far can this metaphor go?

Well, D&D is a cooperative game, designed to run best for groups of 4-6. A solo player won’t be able to handle much, as their skills aren’t going to be balanced. That’s just how the game works. You can’t be a rogue and a wizard and a barbarian and a cleric. You will have your strong points offset by weaknesses. Everyone does. But in a party (support group of friends/family) everyone is made stronger. You can tackle higher level puzzles, traps and monsters because you all work together.

As in D&D, as in life.

I think this is one reason why people love D&D so much. I’ve even heard (through rumors), that some psychologists treat it as a great place to work through personal issues. Home-therapy, anyone? At the very least, it can teach a receptive player how to cooperate in the face of danger (and believe me, the stress of a combat situation feels very real), how to have interpersonal conflicts in a healthy way, creative problem-solving and a lot more.

D&D is a great metaphor for life and a great tool for how to live it.

Or maybe I’m just looking for any excuse to repackage my problems as dragons.

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a poem: spring

My spring started December 22
On a plane
Bound for home
Nowhere else to go
But home
Home to home’s original place
Back to where I might find
The space to call me mine
Back to the space where I could find
A beginning to heal
To find what was real
To find what was mine
What was me
What was home
That’s spring for me
The beginning of me
The end of lying to me
Am I putting out leaves?

-a.e