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Myths About Happiness That Are Keeping Us Miserable

There are a few myths about happiness that are keeping us just plain miserable! In this video Dr. Russ Harris (one of our favorite podcast guests from episode #152), a leading expert in ACT therapy, shares three of the most common happiness myths. Here they are:

Myth #1 Happiness is the Natural State for Human Beings

The first myth goes that if all of our basic needs are being met (food, shelter, safety, connection), then happiness is the natural state for human beings. Imagine the internal struggle this creates when we feel anything other than happiness, and we're going to feel lots of emotions other than happiness because the reality of being human is that we experience an ever-changing flow of emotions.

Myth #2 Happiness Means Feeling Good

You can't be happy if you're feeling challenged, struggling, or frustrated. Think again. Many of us equate happiness with feeling good. But, true lasting happiness comes from leading a "rich, full and meaningful life." And, as we all know but often forget, building anything meaningful, like a relationship or a business, includes a host of pleasant (excitement, joy, contentment) and unpleasant (frustration, doubt) emotions.

Myth #3 If You're Not Happy, You're Defective

More and more, human nature is being pathologized, meaning we are treating many normal human experiences as abnormal or unhealthy. Part of being human includes hardship, loss, and challenges. Part of being human also includes ease, happiness, and connection. Being human includes experiencing a range of pleasant and unpleasant emotions that are constantly shifting and moving.


***If you'd like to learn some of the principles from ACT and other mindfulness-based therapies to navigate anxiety (and being human) with more ease, check out our upcoming Group Coaching Course.***

Cultivating Emotional Resilience

No one told me how relentless parenting would be. You would think I would have somehow known this, but I’m convinced it’s the best-kept secret of all time. I really underestimated how much parenting would test me (I read somewhere that your brain physically and functionally changes as much as a teenager going through puberty when you become a mom). It’s certainly been among the steepest learning curves of my life.

Don’t get me wrong; there are wonderful moments, fun moments, silly moments, and heart-busting-at-the-seam moments. But, there are also moments of overwhelm. Overwhelm that I’m failing at EVERYTHING. Being a mom, a coach, a wife, a friend, a human, and the list goes on. As soon as this overwhelm sets in, I feel that familiar racing heart, that surge of heat, that worry that I can’t handle it all, the fear that my needs and values won’t be met and I’ll be trapped. It can feel like a storm surge. So, I’ve been using this as an opportunity to work on emotional resilience, agility, and flexibility, and I’ve been keeping it simple because simple is all I can do right now. If you’ve had moments like me and want to experiment with re-training your brain in the face of overwhelm, stress, or anxiety feel free to give it a try. It’s an adaptation of an exercise by psychologist Dr. Elisha Goldstein. It goes like this:

  1. Slow Down. Literally. For example, while my girls are eating I often run around to change the laundry, clean the counters, and pick up all the crap on the floor. The mind often follows the body, if we’re physically racing around our thoughts start to follow suit. Physically slowing down, even just a little, sends the signal to our brain that we’re safe.

  2. Drop into your body. Is your jaw clenched? Are your shoulders touching your ears? Where can you soften, let go, or adjust? I often drop my shoulders and do a stretch that opens up my chest because it can become so constricted in an overwhelmed state. Again, when you drop into your body, your mind follows suit.

  3. Be mindful of your task at hand. If I’m feeding my girls, I come back to being present in that. Presence and awareness allows me to discern whether or not it makes sense in that moment to “fit in” another chore or two while they’re eating.

This simple exercise won’t necessarily eliminate overwhelm, stress, or anxiety. But that’s not the point. The idea is to work with these challenging feelings in a way that will cumulatively lead to more emotional resilience, agility, and flexibility. I still feel overwhelmed, but not as often and I understand what's happening a bit better so that it's not so consuming. Happy practicing!

What Do You Do With Your Beach Ball?

Pretend you’re at a pool party and for some magical reason all your anxious thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations are a beach ball. And you’re not the only one with a beach ball; there was a huge sale at Walmart so we all have one.

Now, what do you do with your beach ball when it feels troublesome? Do you bring it right up to your face and analyze the heck out of it? What do you notice when you bring it up close to your face? Probably that it’s pretty tough to see anything else and engage in this glorious pool party – we end up missing out on the hot dogs, swimming, games, and oh so much more. Or do you try to avoid the beach ball by pushing it away under water? How does that go? I don't know about you, but usually that beach ball comes flying up out of the water and hits me square in the face. And then I’m left tired from all the energy I just spent trying to defy the laws of physics to push that beach ball underwater. 

My personal preference has always been to analyze the beach ball, but I’m no stranger to trying to push the beach ball underwater too.  As you’re reading this, you may be waking up to your personal beach ball today. You also may be thinking “Okay, well what the heck do I do with this beach ball then?” To which I’d say: "There’s not much to do; it’s just a beach ball!" I know, frustratingly simple, but by no means easy!

Want to hear more about the beach ball and anxiety metaphor? Check out Episode #144 of the Not Another Anxiety Show podcast in iTunes!

Blog: Strategies for Working with Fear

If you’ve heard or read anything of mine before, then you’ve probably heard me say that strategies alone (e.g. five easy steps, breathing techniques, distraction, etc.) are not enough to truly move past our fear. We also need to bring awareness and a willingness to feel and explore that fear – a.k.a. being with the fear. Being with the fear is what allows us to move past "fearing the fear"; it’s what de-conditions the fear habit.

But, for those of us that have experienced trauma or are really sensitized, it can feel really scary and unsafe to be with that fear in a helpful or productive way. This is where "resourcing" or strategies can come in handy; the idea of resourcing is to give us just enough space and altitude so that we can start to feel safe and willing to be with the fear. We’re all capable of being with fear, so it’s just a matter of cultivating that capacity. We’ve all been there when we’re trying something new that is exciting but also scary, sure there’s fear there but also an openness and willingness to let it be part of the experience – in fact that fear is what makes some of our experiences exciting. 

So here are a few simple resourcing methods from psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach. Feel free to experiment with all three and see what resonates with you.

  1. Name-out-loud the sounds, feelings and images that are right here in the present moment: “Seeing the trees through the window, hearing the sound of the radio, feeling the weight of my body on my seat.”
  2. Relax parts of your body that feel tense: Bring a gentle attention to these areas with the intention to soften. Pay particular attention to the shoulders, hands, and belly. Also relax your face, including your tongue, from the tip to its root.
  3. Visualize a comfortable or safe space – This could be a place in your home, a beautiful spot in nature like the woods or ocean, or even a person or pet. Really visualize that comfortable space or person. What do you see? What noises might you hear? What textures might you feel? How does this space or person make you feel?

Guest Blog: How to Support a Loved One Experiencing Anxiety

This is Andy Walker, Kelli's husband. I know Kelli often writes and speaks of me on her podcast, and from what I've heard, I probably come off as more patient and understanding than I actually am, certainly more so than when Kelli first started her anxiety journey many years ago. I have learned a lot about anxiety and about how to support someone that's caught up in it, but I was not always as enlightened as Kelli graciously gives me credit for.

For years I identified as a rational, self-reliant, hard-nosed kind of fella. I suppose I still do. I always believed that overcoming doubt or fear or emotional challenges in general was simply a matter of willpower. You're nervous for a test and find yourself procrastinating; knuckle down and study your butt off. You over-indulged at Thanksgiving because you have three different celebrations and now you're ten pounds heavier than you've ever been; run two miles every morning and don't stop until you're where you want to be. Bottom line, if you put your mind to it, you can will yourself through anything. Right? Wrong. Oh so wrong. In riding shotgun with Kelli as she struggled deeply with anxiety and panic attacks, I quickly learned how little will power has to do with being anxious.

This fact was hammered home for me when Kelli was starting a new job at what would become the beginning of her most crippling anxiety. There were a lot of factors that led Kelli to feel she had to succeed at that new job. We had just bought a house and felt we needed the income. She had just finished nursing school and wanted to get to work. She had been a student for six years and wanted to be bringing in money of her own. Her fellow graduates were starting jobs. Her parents valued careers. Bottom line, she felt like she needed to find a job and make it work... or else. And I was certainly part of that. So when Kelli started having panic attacks and severe anxiety during her orientation week at the new job, she and I both put a tremendous amount of pressure on her to knuckle down and will power through it. "Just get through the orientation and you'll be okay. You just have to make this job work."

Well one morning, after a sleepless night, I had front row seats to Kelli reaching rock bottom. She was in the bathroom trying to get ready for another day at orientation. She was crying. She was terrified she was going to panic that day and have to leave early again. She was scared for what that meant. I was standing in the doorway telling her to willpower through it. Was I yelling? She couldn't take it anymore. She couldn't succeed and she couldn't fail. She flung everything off the bathroom sink. She sobbed and screamed. I saw in her eyes the look of a trapped animal. It was terrifying and liberating all at once. In that 30-60 seconds, I realized, and I think she did too, that anxiety is not something you can willpower through. My wife is the toughest, most stubborn person I know, but her tremendous strength was simply feeding her anxiety. Like quicksand, the harder she tried, the deeper she sank.

On the floor of our bathroom, in one of the darkest moments of our early 20s, we learned a critical lesson - you cannot willpower through anxiety. It's as important a lesson for someone struggling with anxiety as it is for the friends and loved ones that support them. Over the next couple years, we learned several other important lessons for loved ones to be aware of. Kelli and I recently recorded an episode for her podcast (Episode 16) where we talk about those lessons. Kelli, as always brings the brains, but I like to think I didn't make a total fool of myself. If you have a loved one struggling with anxiety or could use some more support from your family and friends, please take 30 minutes to listen in. Thanks, and as Kelli always says... be kind to yourself.

Guest Blog: How I Conquered My Social Anxiety in Spite of My Inner Joan Rivers

I can't take any credit for this highly entertaining yet insightful blog. The author is my friend and regular co-host of the Not Another Anxiety Show podcast (due to be launched by yours truly any day now)... Erica Leathem. Erica is The Baby Broad. She is a Certified Lactation Counselor, Postpartum Doula, and SafeKids Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician. She also says that she can make a really good quesadilla.

Erica blogs about her discoveries living with and through anxiety and panic, and all that goes with it. Find her on Facebook, Instagram, and at www.thebabybroad.com.

Check out her latest blog about social anxiety that was published by Elephant Journal:

 

What is the worst feeling on earth?

This isn’t subjective. I’ll tell you what it is.

The worst feeling on earth is the one full minute of standing at the front of the high school lunch room looking for a seat.

Sweat starts pooling in inconvenient places, you blame everyone from your parents to your great aunt to the Pope for making you the way you are.

Your internal Joan Rivers starts in:

“Are you carrying a lunch box? No one uses lunch boxes! Why did you wear this shirt? You’re shaped, somehow, like a pear ate an apple, and are you kidding with that hair? Why are you sweating like that? What is wrong with you?”

You start shaping your identity in that minute.

You don’t even like people, you decide resolutely. You want to be alone to read. People just annoy you. You want to do yoga in silence because yoga understands you. You’ve always been more mature than people your own age…so you go eat in a classroom with a teacher. You start skipping lunch because you really need to catch up on your underwater basket weaving.

It always comes back to the last three seconds of that one minute at the front of the lunch room: begging. You beg Jesus, and the Dalai Lama, and your guardian angels, and all of the spirits they probably pray to at Mason Lodges, and the spaceship Tom Cruise lives in—you beg silently, and sweatily, for someone to wave to you. Better yet you hope someone is so passionately excited by the prospect of sitting near you, that they actually kick the person next to them off their seat so you have room.

Just somebody—anybody—please want me!

Whoomp! There it is…

I can’t speak for anyone else (which doesn’t mean I won’t try), but I know some things about myself.

First of all, I ate lunch alone or in a classroom (alone) until I was a senior in high school, and even then, Mrs. Arnold saw me in her empty math room a lot. I just wanted to be left alone because the stress of knowing I didn’t fit anywhere took too much energy. It’s actually exhausting. I nap a lot when I think I don’t fit in. I really believed it was just easier to do life on my own. Except it isn’t.

Second of all, not doing life all on my own means I need people. People are the worst. I have to have faith that people will show up for me. I also have to trust that I don’t suck as much as I’m telling myself that I do.

It’s the effing hardest thing ever. Things my Joan Rivers mind also says to me when I’m at the front of the proverbial lunch room:

“If I try, I will fail.”

These days, my lunch room is the break room at work, or being the third wheel with younger/cooler friends, or family parties when I just know I have nothing to talk about, and I won’t even start on my preemptive lunch room anxiety about my upcoming trip to Spain.

Here’s the thing, I want to be the coolest person in the room, but I don’t want anyone to talk or look at me. I want everyone to pine for me when I’m not around, but to never have to actually interact. Is that so much to ask?

It wasn’t until college, when we were all scared and leached on to each other, that I felt okay(-ish) enough to admit that I wanted to connect to people.

Twice recently I have talked to friends about my memories of being an RA in college. I glorify the pants right off of those days. I was good at something, and I could be as loud and obnoxious and bossy and fun as much as I wanted. It was awesome.

Being finally competent in something was a great mask for me. I was able to hide from myself: from that insecure, binge-eat-my-emotions-in-the-bathroom side; from the scared-that-no-one-likes-me-side; from the drinking-alone-in-my-hotel-room side; from the I-just-need-me-time side. You know, all the sides we pretend we don’t have.

Doesn’t it just feel like life is just a series of coping mechanisms lined up like a jäger shots sometimes? I kept trying to reinvent myself, like Madonna. I’d move, or change jobs, or have a job where I moved. I changed numbers, got a new car, cut my hair and shaved my beard. Annoyingly, the crap parts of myself kept finding me.

I know connection is the true way out of myself.

I also know that exercise will help my squirrel brain slow down a little. Knowing clearly isn’t doing, because I’m writing this on my living room floor alone, eating mint cookie crumble ice cream.

Connection with someone has apparently been scientifically proven to cure addiction. I should add, that it’s connection to someone who isn’t fueling your addiction. But hey, connection is connection, man. I have nothing to base this on because I’m too lazy to look for the evidence, but I would argue that the kid who connects with someone at church is using the same brain meat as the kid who is doing heroin in their friend’s garage.

Sitting across from someone who says, “yeah, me too,” is like the heavens opening and hearing Lionel Richie’s “Hello” being played just for you. Yes, it is me you’re looking for.

Connecting is liquid vulnerability, but I’m straight up telling you, it’s the only way to survive.

There’s no scarier moment than looking at someone across the table drinking their merlot, and saying, “so yeah, I have this thing about me…” and waiting to see if they tip their chair backward and Cirque du Soliel tumble toward the door.

I joined a woman’s group last year (well, joined is a kind way to say I went under threat of execution by my therapist), and although I don’t think I did anything but make jokes, and sometimes I felt like I was forcing myself upon these poor unsuspecting souls, those girls mean the world to me. The actual world.

The connections I made there have given me an anchor to tether to when I’m bungee jumping into things like blogging, or even scarier, going to the mall. It’s helped me get closer to my other people, and helped me weed out the ones who needed weeding.

I’m safe in the world because I’ve connected.

My lunch table is slightly less scary (sometimes) because I practice looking up and telling someone that I want to get to know them. Sometimes it comes out more like an anxious/self-conscious, “Hey, I like your earrings,” but because people like being noticed it has yet to fail me.

I don’t like to promise things I can’t actually follow through on, but I feel like I can say this one thing to everyone else who has ever felt the worst feeling on earth: I promise that you are wanted.

Let’s go get ’em man. We’re worth getting to know.

Blog: Who Wants to be Perfect Anyway?

I know it’s been a while since I’ve last visited your inbox, but I was on vacation exploring the beautiful country of Norway this month.  I’ve traveled a bit in my life, more than some, less than others; part of the reason I value the traveling experience is because I always come home having gained a greater perspective on life.
 
During my most recent journey, I realized traveling and overcoming anxiety are parallel in more ways than you might think. While traveling, there are absolutely perfect days and days when nothing seems to work out, beautiful sunny days and gross rainy days, days when you're sick of people and days when you have a wonderful conversation with a Norwegian nurse over a 45-minute ferry ride. It’s easy to get caught in the habit of continually judging our experiences (as humans we love labeling, even if it’s arbitrary and subjective), whether it’s traveling, parenting, working, or anxiety – “Wow, I didn’t have anxiety today, I’m doing so good!” or “Ugh, I totally got caught up in the anxiety again, I’m never going to get over this!”
 
When is anything perfect for longer than a moment? Apart from us, who says any experience “should” be perfect? No one ever told me flat out that life should be perfect. In fact, I can remember my painfully down-to-earth mother telling me that life isn’t perfect – it’s what you make of it. Somewhere along the line though I developed the belief that a good life or a worthwhile life can only be so if it’s perfect. But the truth is, there are days when you’re pissed. Or days when you cry at heartwarming rescue animal videos (that definitely wasn’t me last night). Why wouldn’t there be days when you feel more apprehensive or nervous? Or insecure?  Or flat out scared? It’s okay to be kind to yourself when anxiety pops up, anxiety isn't any different than the other emotions; it's not special.
 
A big part of what perpetuates anxiety is our judgment, because judgment brings a lot of attention and focus to the anxiety – judgment basically breathes life into the anxiety.  What helps you move on when you’re in a sassy, sad, or scared place? Well it often starts with making space for those emotions and cutting yourself some slack. While traveling I felt disappointed that I didn’t absolutely love the first few days of my time in Norway, and I was judging myself pretty harshly for it, which in turn created a lot of tension that manifested in the form of me getting snippy with my ever patient husband. But, once I took a step back and remembered that not every day traveling is going to be perfect or magical (that’s part of the adventure after all), then I was able to ease up a little, and within the next day or two I started to fall in love with what Norway had to offer. I don’t know where we get the idea that in order to be happy, fulfilled, and content that every day has to be perfect. In reality, it’s striving for that constant perfection that creates so much anxiety and tension, not the imperfections themselves. Being human is wonderfully messy and imperfect, and it's awfully tiring to pretend otherwise. Perfect is boring anyway.

Blog: Anxiety is a Lot Like Getting Dumped

Anxiety is a lot like getting dumped. You feel like crap. It seems that you will feel that way forever. There's probably some crying involved.  You forget how awesome you are. You keep asking yourself the same questions - what did I do wrong? Will I ever feel better again? Why can't I just move on? You quickly get tired of asking yourself those questions. Friends and family are initially super supportive, but they too get tired of answering the same questions over and over again. (Alcohol anybody?)

But moving past anxiety is a lot like getting over a bad breakup too. You hurt and you struggle and you try too hard, until one day, when you have carved out enough space from that past relationship, that shared apartment, those memories and all the emotions that go along with them, the clouds lift and life suddenly seems a bit rosier. So too does anxiety lift when we create a little space between us and the stressors of life and from the scary stories we tell ourselves about those stressors.

I've come to find that meditation and mindfulness help me (and a lot of my clients) create that space. I recently read this online article by Ed Halliwell, which also happened to appear in the June 2013 issue of Mindful Magazine, that does a great job describing how mindfulness helps us create that space. As Ed describes his initial struggle with anxiety: "I convinced myself there must be some ready cure I could find, and I embarked on a frantic tour of the therapeutic merry-go-round to relieve my pain. I desperately reached for any doctor, therapist, or support group. I gobbled up whatever advice or pills they offered, but nothing changed." Sound familiar?

For Ed, for me, and for many others, it was not until we gave up that desperate search for 'the anxiety cure' that we were able to take the time and make the effort to truly try mindfulness meditation. And to our wonderful surprise, mindfulness helped us put a little bit of space between us and the scary stories our anxiety liked to weave. As Ed so wonderfully describes: "My stressful struggle to fix and change things faded little by little. A subtle and profound transformation occurred as I allowed myself to rest in the experience of just being. I became more willing to experience all the energy of my emotions and feelings—even the unpleasant ones. I stopped fighting with myself so much, and with that, ironically, came the very relief I was seeking."

Mindfulness meditation is not easy. Don't ever let anyone tell you that it is. It takes practice and persistence, but it is also quite powerful. The effect of mindfulness on anxiety is a lot like that wonderful head-over-heels infatuation at the beginning of a new relationship that very quickly makes you forget why you were so bummed out by the end of the last one. That feeling doesn't change that you got dumped or your initial reaction (I'm thinking sweatpants and binge watching Netflix), but it does change your association with those memories and emotions. Mindfulness can't remove the stress of final exams, childcare, work presentations, terrible drivers, or mean-spirited co-workers, but it can absolutely change your anxious association with those stressors.

To learn more about how mindfulness and how it can help you overcome anxiety (or be better at life in general), take a look at Ed's article.

Blog: Do You Know Who You Are?

I thought I knew myself pretty well. I’m terrible at navigating, I hate shopping, and I’d rather break my leg than have to run a 5K. I’m good at listening to people, I love most outdoor activities (apart from running), and have zero self control when a jar of Nutella is within my reach. Yup, I pretty much have myself all figured out… or do I?
 
I was vacationing in the great state of Vermont this past week and as is typical in New England, the weather went from 85 degrees and sunny on Saturday to 55 degrees and blustery with a miserable driving rain on Sunday. Now I am a fair-weather hiker, or so I always thought. I don’t hike in the rain or the hot sweaty weather or if the stars aren’t aligned just right. However, this past Sunday I just really wanted to hike despite the wet, rainy, windy day. I was pretty shocked because I’m really not one of those people that “dance in the rain." I’m more of a sit-on-the-couch-and-binge-watch-Game-of-Thrones kind of person on a rainy day. Anyway, I just wanted to hike so I went for it and had a pretty great time. And even though there was zero visibility at the top of the mountain, I wasn’t even mad that I did all that work for nothing.

So maybe you're like me and have fallen into the trap of thinking you know everything there is to know about yourself. But maybe your labels aren’t always or entirely accurate. Maybe you’re not worse at handling stress than other people. Maybe you're not an “anxious person.” Maybe the way you respond to a situation is as varied as it is for the next person. So if you notice that you're boxing yourself in with certain labels or definitions, keep in mind... you never know, you may just surprise yourself yet.

Blog: Anxiety and the Karate Kid

Watching the movie The Karate Kid may help you move past your anxiety. Bear with me here....

The Karate Kid was an 80s movie about a boy named Daniel who moves to a new school, where unfortunately he falls victim to bullying. A martial arts master/school handyman Mr. Miyagi witnesses this bullying and offers Daniel training in karate. At first, Daniel is eager to learn how to defend himself, but Mr. Miyagi has him do a lot of seemingly useless tasks - paint his house, refinish his wood floor, and of course wax an entire parking lot of cars. "Wax on, wax off” anyone? Through their journey together, Daniel comes to understand that there is so much more to martial arts than the physical aspect of throwing punches and kicks. To be a true martial arts master, one must understand not only the physical skills, but also the mental, emotional, and even spiritual foundations. All of the seemingly useless chores than Daniel carried out were to train his spirit, to build that foundation; he learned patience, self-discipline, and emotional balance.

When anxiety is kicking our butt (like the bully in The Karate Kid), we of course are pretty eager, as Daniel was, to strike back and stop it in its tracks. I don’t know about you, but when I was experiencing panic attacks, I wanted to know how to stop them ASAP. I think we all do; it’s natural - I can't be the only one who bought one too many "5 easy steps to overcome anxiety" programs that promised me the moon.

In order to truly move past anxiety we need to gain a deeper understanding of it. The more we know and understand about anxiety, the less it feels like something that needs to be fought off. For instance, when someone is scared of dogs, telling them how to interact with them - approach slowly, reach out with the back of the hand, etc. - generally doesn't do much to extinguish the person's fear. Instead, helping that person understand dog behavior and dog language - establishing that deeper foundation - will not only help extinguish the fear more effectively, but it will feel less forced and much more natural the next time that person approaches a dog. When we’re hyper-focused on beating anxiety, we have blinders on, and it’s really hard to see things in a new and deeper way. It may seem counter-intuitive and challenging, but taking a step back really gives us the space we need to find a lasting solution. Just like Daniel and karate, when we take the time and make the effort to understand anxiety at a deeper level, we can begin to truly master it.

Blog: Why Do We Trust Thoughts As Fact?

Thoughts aren’t facts.

The first time I realized this was a huge "ah-hah" moment for me. It’s not like I hadn’t heard or read this before, but like many people, I need to hear or see something about a million times before I truly “get it.”  Do you blindly trust all the thoughts that come your way when you're in an anxious state? I know I did. Some particularly “sticky” ones for me were “You’re weak for letting anxiety get to you this way” or “You’re never going to truly overcome anxiety” or my personal favorite “You probably have this (fill in the blank) medical condition.”
 
Why do we blindly trust and engage these anxious and insecure thoughts? Because, as humans, we experience something called... emotion. When we have an anxious thought like “What if I panic during the next work meeting?”, it’s quickly followed by a surge of fear. That intense emotion makes the preceding thought look and feel true. We forget that our emotions aren’t necessarily a reflection of the way things are; they’re a reflection of our thinking. That fact is why we react with fear to scary movies - am I the only one who can't watch an apocalyptic zombie movie without sweating? Despite the fact that the movie isn't real, our mind and body still react as though it were, simply because that's where our thinking is focused.

So, next time you feel caught up in a storm of anxious thought, you don't need to change or judge or hate your thoughts, or yourself for that matter. Remember that those thoughts are just a scary movie - a movie that will change on it's own the less involved we get in the story.

Blog: How Are You Measuring Your Anxiety "Recovery"?

Today I have a question for you to reflect on: Are you using the absence or presence of anxiety to measure your well-being?
 
It’s tempting to use the absence or presence of anxiety as the metric to determine how “recovered” we are from anxiety. However, anxiety is not something we need to "recover" from. It is a normal emotion, like sadness, anger, frustration, joy, or love. Anxiety simply comes with the territory of being human. In addition, using the term “recovered” implies that the presence of anxiety is abnormal…. If you’ve been following along in my classroom, then you know by now that anxiety is not inherently bad or wrong. Anxiety isn’t a fun emotion; it’s uncomfortable by nature (would you run from a bear if it wasn’t?). But anxiety is not what causes us to miss out on vacations, or birthday parties, or going after that promotion. It's only when we innocently start altering the way we live to avoid or "manage" those anxious feelings that anxiety starts to feel like a legitimate problem holding us back from the life we want to live. I know anxiety looks like THE problem, but it's just a smoke screen. 

Your understanding of and progress in moving past anxiety shouldn't be measured by whether or not anxiety is popping in to say hello; anxiety will say hello from time to time. A much better way to measure your self-growth is to ask yourself: "Am I starting to see this anxiety for what it really is, when it does say hello?" 

Blog: What do I DO About My Anxiety?

The most common question I get from my clients experiencing anxiety or panic attacks is “What do I do?!”  This is an innocent question, one I asked a million times when I myself was experiencing panic attacks. I mean, why wouldn’t we ask what to do?

It’s human nature to do something, to do anything, about the stuff that we believe is causing us harm. I don’t know about you, but when I accidentally rest my hand on the hot wood stove, I remove it with a guttural scream pretty quickly. (During the summer, the wood stove serves as a convenient way to steady myself as I hurriedly put my shoes on; in the winter... not so much.) It’s instinctual to want to do something when we’re suffering, but “doing” doesn’t work when it comes to anxiety because anxiety is a false alarm. It’d be like calling 9-1-1 and running out of the house every time that extra sensitive smoke detector went off while cooking dinner. So, there is literally nothing we have to DO when we feel anxious. It’s a false alarm; we’re already safe. Of course it doesn’t look that way in the midst of a panic attack, but the good news is the anxiety will pass whether or not we remember it’s a false alarm.
 
Something to reflect on - what does a real alarm feel like? What does a false alarm feel like? I know for me, when something is legitimately wrong, I don’t feel anxious about it. For instance, the time I drove by a house with leaf-filled gutters that were just starting to catch fire, I was too busy playing my part in that moment to feel anxious. I was grabbing the garden hose; I was shouting for the owner; I was instructing her to call the fire department. When there was a real alarm situation, I was present, taking action, and not anxious about a thing. Sure, I was definitely experiencing an adrenaline rush, and rightfully so, but no anxiety. However, when I’m getting wrapped up in false alarms, that feels VERY anxiety inducing. False alarms often take the form of “Oh no, this is definitely the time you’re going to fail as... (fill in the blank - some of my favorites include but are not limited to: a business owner, a daughter, a wife, a decent human being, etc.).” Why do these false alarms make us feel so anxious? Because the situation is NOT yet happening (and most likely never will) and trying to solve a non-existent problem leaves us feeling powerless and helpless. No one can solve a problem or challenge that hasn’t yet come to pass. So, remember, it’s just a false alarm.

Blog: Are You Confusing Comfort with Happines

This week’s piece is going to be more about sharing an insight, in part to “switch things up” from my typical novels, and also because I’m back in school (to complete my Master’s in Psychology) and balancing life this week hasn’t exactly been flawless. So far though my family and I are alive, fed, and well so I consider the week a success, even if there are tumbleweeds of dog fur flying around the house.
 
Moving on to this week’s insight…. are you confusing comfort for happiness? I know I sought constant comfort when I was experiencing anxiety. I thought anxiety was the enemy and comfort was the answer – it’s an innocent mistake the best of us fall into. But eventually I saw how constantly seeking comfort was making me miserable. In an effort not to experience anxiety, I avoided everything and everyone that I thought might trigger anxiety, shrinking my comfort zone to my house (and then my bed). So often we get caught up in trying to “manage” anxiety because we assume if we don’t feel it, then, and only then, we will be “ok” or “happy”.
 
But let me ask you this – weren’t some of the happiest moments in your life accompanied by some fear or apprehension? I know mine were. In college, I signed up for a wildlife biology study abroad program in Kenya, Africa. I was excited all summer, but when the day finally arrived, I got cold feet. I begged my parents not to make me go, but they had already paid the bill so that was the end of that conversation. I cried the ENTIRE ride to the airport. While my four months in Kenya were not without their terrifying poisonous snakes and overwhelming open air markets, they were also some of the most memorable moments of my life. Almost ten years on, the friends I made in that study abroad program remain some of my closest friends today. Another example, when I moved to Maine to train to become a whitewater rafting guide I was SO nervous my first day on the river that my instructor could barely hear me squeaking commands over the sound of the rapids. But guess what, that instructor ended up becoming my husband and we've never looked back. The point is that some of my happiest and most fulfilling life experiences have happened while fear and anxiety were present, and I bet that’s true for you as well. Remember that fact next time you catch yourself feeling a little addicted to being comfortable.

Blog: Leggo my Ego (Ego and Anxiety)

The ego gets a pretty bad rap, but what is it really?

The ego is simply who you think you are. It is neither good nor bad. The word ego has come to make us think of arrogance, selfishness, and over-confidence, but it is really just our sense of self. It is this ego, this sense of self that allows us to survive and thrive in the world. Ego helps us scan for dangerous situations; it makes us ambitious; and it helps us stick to our values. When we struggle with anxiety, the ego can go into overdrive, trying to protect us by telling us scary stories about ourselves and about the future; the ego often relies on fear as a motivator. Fortunately, the ego isn’t the “real” us, and we can learn to take those scary (or funny or ridiculous or selfish) stories with a grain of salt.

Ego, or the way you see yourself, is formed through a lifetime of experiences, thoughts, and emotions. Our ego starts developing at a young age as we begin to realize that we are the person looking back at us in the mirror. Enter the terrible twos (and the angsty teens) as we begin to understand that we are an individual, not an extension of our parents, and we exert ourselves on the world around us. As we grow, so too does our ego. We start to feel more and more separate from the world; it’s us and then everyone and everything else. By the time we reach adulthood, our ego, who we think we are, is ridiculously complex. It is the biggest, most eye-popping scrapbook you’ve ever put together over years and years without even knowing it.

The ego is actually quite biased and subjective but because the ego is formed by our experiences, thoughts, and emotions (a very effective disguise), the stories it tells us can be quite compelling whether they are true or not. We tend to blindly trust judgments like “I’m a good reader” or “I need to get that promotion at work to be truly happy” or “I’m uglier than average.” We just assume that the way we see ourselves is who we actually are, when in reality our ego is shaped by random and arbitrary events from throughout our lives. Perhaps you think you are a good reader because your 1st grade teacher placed you in the advanced reading group (maybe your parents read lots of books with you). Perhaps you feel you won’t be happy until you get promoted because your parents once told you that there’s nothing more important than a successful career (when really that was just the way they lived their lives). Or perhaps you feel ugly because, let’s face it, you were an awkward looking 13-year old and some kids at school reminded you every day. The ego is complex. It tells us all manner of stories; they are very convincing, yet often biased or subjective.

So how do you know when it’s the ego talking? The ego typically sounds like a bully or a scared and insecure child. It always feels quite personal, urgent and important, even shameful. Again, the ego isn’t good or bad, but it often uses our own fears as a misdirected way to protect what we value most. Let’s say you value your career (damn parents), and you have a work presentation coming up. Your ego may tell you this insecure and urgent story: “You better make sure your presentation is perfect or you will mess up and everyone will think you’re an incompetent fool!” This thought, this story, feels true only because our ego and our anxious fear say it is, not because it is actually true. We feel fear because that ego-driven thought targets a core value – we value what other people think of us; we may value our career. Another example – maybe your house has become a bit messy and your ego chides you: “You’re so lazy, you should be cleaning the house, not sitting here reading this blog!” Your ego tells this story to protect something of value. Maybe you define yourself by your productivity and your ego is driving you to uphold that value, or maybe you are experiencing lots of change in your life, and your ego is striving to re-exert its core belief – there is us and then there is everyone and everything else.

Why shouldn’t we listen to the ego, as tempting as it is? Well, have you ever noticed how fickle it is? In the same day, no the same hour, I’ve gone from feeling like an awesome human being, a rock star at life, to a crap bag that has accomplished nothing and will never be more than a weird dog lady. So, which is it: am I a rock star or am I a crap bag? The answer is neither. Neither of those are the real me, they are my ego. The real me shines through when I’m busy being present in the moment and don’t have all that ego chatter going on in the background. The real me is when I’m cooking dinner, walking with my dogs, connecting with a friend or my personal favorite – playing a game of Ultimate Frisbee.  The ego is neither good nor bad, but it can certainly cloud our lives with all manner of anxious stories. Perhaps we are most content when we shed our ego – who we think we are, and get on with being who we actually are. When are you simply you

Blog: What Do We Do When Our Anxious Brain Throws A Tantrum?

We do all sorts of stuff when we feel scared or anxious – we worry, we overanalyze, we re-play both real and imagined scenarios, and we seek reassurance, whether it’s from others or ourselves. We do all these things because anxiety feels downright crappy and taking some sort of action, even non-productive action, gives us a semblance of control, which feels oh-so-good compared to the unease that anxiety brings.  

How come we can’t always see this anxious thinking for what it is, rooted in fear and insecurity, not truth? Well it’s because we are always feeling our thinking. Emotions (especially intense, not so pleasant ones) have a way of making our thoughts appear way more personal, important, and real than they actually are. So we innocently get tricked into spending a lot of time trying to avoid, prevent, and/or run away from those negative thoughts and the uncomfortable emotions that follow – as quickly as possible. One way we do this is through habitual reassurance.
 
So what can we do about this truth? Remember that feeling uneasy, unsure, scared, and insecure are really uncomfortable emotions, but they are just symptoms; they are as much symptoms of an anxious state of mind as are an increased heart rate, stomach aches, and, my personal favorite, profuse sweating. There’s literally nothing we have to do because all this emotional discomfort is the result of anxiety (a temporary and fleeting state) and nothing more. Unfortunately we are not taught to slow down and do nothing when we feel anxious. Our instinct is to do what we know how to do best – take some sort of action to dampen the discomfort from anxiety.

Reassurance feels pretty good when we’re feeling unsure or uneasy, so we get into the game of trying to convince the anxious brain that it’s ok, that we’re ok. Sometimes it works temporarily, but often it gets us caught in no-man’s-land in a battle between the anxious brain and the logical brain. You have to remember – the anxious brain doesn’t play fair; it’s not going to see any logic or reason in that moment, and by engaging it we’re only empowering and perpetuating this anxious habit. Your anxious brain is a bit like a toddler throwing a good old-fashioned tantrum; if you let them scream it out for a minute they often exhaust themselves and move on, usually laughing and smiling 5 minutes later. But if that toddler is used to getting attention, toys, or sweets during their tantrums, then it becomes a more frequent occurrence. If our brain feels like we’re getting something out of reassurance (even if it’s only two minutes of relief) then it’s going to keep seeking reassurance.

I know when I was struggling with health anxiety and was SO convinced that I had a heart problem, reassurance was my go-to habit. Every time I felt the sensation of skipped heartbeats and palpitations or had the terrifying thought that I was going to drop dead from cardiac arrest, I’d seek reassurance from my doctor (once or twice is a good idea, by the eleventh visit not so much), from WebMD, and by compulsively checking my pulse and blood pressure.  These actions brought me instant and temporary relief for a time, but eventually I was monitoring my blood pressure every 5 minutes because the relief became more and more short lived. What I didn’t realize was that by constantly seeking reassurance, I was perpetuating this belief that I actually had a heart problem – no wonder anxiety was sticking around.

What happens when we take a step back and do nothing instead of getting caught in the reassurance game? Well, like the toddler, when we don’t engage our anxious brain with reassurances, it tends to simply scream and cry itself out after a few minutes and moves onto to happier activities. Sure, it’s uncomfortable in the moment, but when you slow down, take a step back and let the wave of anxiety wash over you, I think you’ll be surprised by how quickly the anxiety dissipates. Each time we make room for anxiety to wash over us instead of playing the reassurance game, our brain starts to see what anxiety really is, not a danger but an uncomfortable, temporary and fleeting emotion

Blog: What Does Your Vagus Nerve Have to do with Anxiety?

If you experience anxiety and panic attacks then you’re probably familiar with the body’s fight or flight response, an automatic response that’s initiated by the sympathetic nervous system. During the fight or flight response, our body releases stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline. These stress hormones give us a surge of energy that allows us to fight harder or flee faster from danger – it’s a survival mechanism. Sometimes that danger is concrete and obvious, like a mama bear crossing our path on a hiking trail.  Other times, the danger is less tangible and may come in the form of worries, like how we’re going to make rent at the end of the month.

But did you know our body has an opposing response? The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for calming our body. So, the fight or flight response is really handy if a bear is chasing us and there’s still a chance for survival. But what happens when the bear catches up to us and starts snacking on our leg? Well, this wonderful relaxation response takes over (another form of protection) and feel-good hormones, also known as endorphins, are released.

We can actually tap into this relaxation response  by stimulating something called the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve, aka “The Wanderer,” is a cranial nerve that branches out to most of our body and is basically captain of keeping a lot of different functions in check, like breathing, heart rate, digestion, inflammation, etc. Here are a few simple ways to stimulate that vagus nerve and tap into your body’s relaxation response:

  1. Use your vocal cords by talking, singing or humming (apparently humming is most effective)
  2. Deep belly breathing
  3. Splashing some cool water on your face
  4. Coughing a few times
  5. Gargling
  6. Drinking cold water
  7. Chewing gum
  8. Laughing

These are just some tricks that have helped me and other clients in the past. They are by no means a "cure all," but they can help to interrupt the anxiety cycle so you can gain some altitude in the moment. Sometimes that altitude is all we need so that the anxiety doesn't become all consuming but instead a fleeting and temporary experience - like a wave washing over us.

Blog - What's Your Outlet for Releasing Anxiety?

What’s your outlet for expressing your emotions? Mine is a good dance session, even though I’m a C+ dancer at best.

Like me, maybe you have innocently and unknowingly developed the belief, or what I like to call a “story,” that expressing your emotions (especially the not so warm and fuzzy kind) is inherently bad or wrong. The good news is that this belief is just a story; it’s not even your story, and even better news – you’re the editor. These stories feel real and meaningful, but they’re not, and they don’t always have to be. If you’re anything like I was, maybe you assume that keeping a negative emotion, like anxiety, hidden underneath the surface is the best way to treat a negative emotion. My story was that feeling anxious was a weakness, and to keep myself from feeling vulnerable, I needed to hide it.

Who has ever felt better, stronger or more at peace by hiding anxiety?! I know I never did. If we treat anxiety like it’s something worth hiding, our mind comes to view anxiety as something way more significant than it really is. Anxiety is a normal emotion, one we all feel from time to time, and trying to keep it hidden underneath the surface is like trying to keep a beach ball underwater in the pool – it takes a lot of effort and eventually the ball escapes your grip and comes rushing to the surface, only to smack someone in the face – probably you.

Having an outlet to express emotions like anxiety is a healthy way to release the built up tension. When we utilize our outlet, whether it's dancing, writing, a good cry, or a walk in the woods it feels cathartic and the anxiety dissipates faster than if we try to hide it. In order to hide anxiety we have to cling onto it, like the beach ball, and like the beach ball, anxiety naturally wants to rise to the surface and float away as quickly as it came. So let it.

Blog: Are You Wearing Anxiety-Tinted Glasses?

It can be really hard to see what’s right with us, our life or even the world when we’re experiencing a lot of anxiety. Usually all we can see is what’s “wrong” because that’s the nature of anxiety – it clouds our perception and judgment. We question whether we are good enough as a person. We despair at ever doing anything meaningful with our life or returning to our pre-anxiety self. And we may feel that the world is dark and hopeless, questioning the point of it all.

This outlook is pretty standard thinking/feeling when we are in an anxious state. Think about it, if you’re in a life-or-death situation, you don’t want to waste your time focusing on what’s right and good about that scene, you want to be scanning constantly for the potential dangers and possible solutions. For instance, when you’re hiking in the woods and stumble upon a bear in the middle of the trail, you don’t care how beautiful the sky is; no, you want to be focusing on why the bear is eyeing you the way I eye a jar of Nutella and how you’re going to escape being lunch for said bear. You focus on how to fight or flee your way from that danger.  We’re wired to see what’s wrong – real or perceived – when in an anxious state of mind.

A brain on anxiety is like seeing the world through dark-tinted glasses, like wearing sunglasses inside. Everything is dim and dull, individual colors are harder to see, and everything looks gloomy. But when those glasses come off (or when that anxious state passes), everything becomes clear, colors return, and you see the world for what it really is.

It can be hard to remember that your thinking in an anxious state isn’t personal; it’s just what a brain on anxiety looks like. So when you’re in that anxious state and everything looks dark, scary, and hopeless, remind yourself that you are just wearing anxiety-tinted glasses. What you fear is wrong or bad is just a reflection of an anxious state of mind, not of the way things really are. Remember that your anxious brain is scanning for dangers and preparing to fight or flee; everything is going to look a lot more intense than it truly is. When you feel this way, take the scary stories you are innocently telling yourself with a grain (or ten) of salt. Maybe you’re not hideous, but are just having one bad hair day. Maybe your kids don’t hate you, but are just angsty teenagers. Maybe life isn’t pointless, but you’re just having a bad day and things will perk up as they always do. When everything around you seems dark and dull, maybe you just forgot to take off your anxiety-tinted glasses.

Blog: Can Surrendering Be Brave?

What is bravery? Can surrendering be brave?

When trials and tribulations inevitably occur in life, we tend to want to fight them. According to our society and our customs, fighting tooth and nail against adversity is the “brave” or “courageous” thing to do. However, while fight and grit certainly have their place, even with anxiety, sometimes surrendering is best and it can take just as much bravery as fighting.

This truth has been hammered home to me lately as I’ve watched my mom dying of cancer. She was recently put on hospice for end of life care and pain management. Yet still some in her support network continue to tell her things like “never stop fighting” or “you never know what might happen.” I understand the tendency to say those things, to feel those things – cancer is tough, everyone is just doing their best in a crappy situation. However, I can see the guilt on my mom’s face whenever she hears those words: “never stop fighting." It makes her feel as if she should be "doing" something more. In this case, fighting actually looks more like denial; fighting blinds my mom and others to the truth that she is, in fact, dying and prevents her from tying up loose ends or saying goodbye. In this case, surrendering is incredibly brave; being willing to look straight at the raw, painful truth is no easy feat, but doing so would allow her to move forward and find peace.

In a perhaps (perhaps not) less gloomy way, the same is true of fighting versus surrendering to anxiety. I used to think fighting anxiety was the brave way to go about dealing with anxiety, but maybe continuing to go to the gym every morning for my daily exercise-induced panic attack or continuing to hide my struggle from everyone because I was afraid of appearing weak was maybe not brave so much as stubborn. Fighting panic attacks and endless “what if…” thoughts were really just a super fun form of denial.

Surrendering to anxiety takes incredible courage because it can be a painful truth, but it is often necessary in order to move past anxiety. Surrendering is simply acknowledging the reality of a situation, and once we do that, we’re able to move forward. It’s hard to admit that anxiety is affecting or limiting our life (been there, done that, got the t-shirt), but once we do, it makes it a whole lot easier to move toward the life we want. Sometimes fight and grit are helpful – you’ll know when because it won’t feel bad or shameful, it will feel empowering – but sometimes, especially when it comes to anxiety, surrendering is invaluable. Surrender doesn’t necessarily make anxiety go away in that moment, but it brings a sense of peace and clarity so that we can transcend the anxiety, whereas fighting the anxiety keeps us feeling stuck. 

If you are struggling with anxiety, you don’t need to fight it tooth and nail anymore; you’re still brave if you give up the fight. Instead, surrender to the fact that you are struggling with anxiety so that you can finally begin to move forward.