Welcome to the Weekender edition of #febup2020!
Every February I post some daily resources on IG that are related to a particular subject. Previous years have been about depression and anxiety.
For the first three weeks of February this year, the subject was Identity. But I’m switching #febup2020 to a new topic, anxiety, which is the second most requested topic by friends, family members, clients, and bartenders alike. Feel free to go back into the blog to find previous years and posts (see links below).
Obvious but important disclaimer: I am not a doctor or psychiatrist, so don’t take my word for anything in this post. Consider the source and the conclusions.
I watched a Netflix doc the other month about health and healing. One person spoke about how he assumed that once beginning anti-hypertensive meds he would always be on them and he was, for decades. But, at some point, he questioned if this was true and looked into ways to reduce, then refuse the meds. He was not supported in this decision, neither by his doctor or his family. Not at all. But he did some research, made some changes, and was successful.
Then I thought about how this kind of belief relates to other chronic health conditions and, in particular, to anxiety. Once you are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, are you destined to struggle with it forever? Where do these beliefs come from?
Some fast facts about anxiety:
- Etiology (origin): genetics (predisposition); developmental (trauma & other insults to body and soul); and, social/cultural (life worries, fears, stressors, & socialization).
- Anxiety is generally activated/perpetuated in the Limbic System, our body’s interpretative centre for threats (flight-fight-freeze-tend & befriend mechanism).
- Standard treatments (medical model): meds & CBT (group & indiv.), which are largely problem-centred i.e., your body/mind are faulty/wrong, and brief.
- Co-morbidity: often correlated with depression and other mental health concerns.
- Growing concern: an epidemic in Westernized nations, with a rapid increase in diagnosis and medications, including children.
I’m planning a kitchen reno for sometime in the next year. Today, I drew out a rough plan as to how the cupboards and the stuff will fit since I’m going to try to include a lot of open shelving.
Coincidentally, organizing ‘all the things’ has really helped reduce the anxiety I’ve been having about looking at ‘all the things’—they WERE scattered around the counters and stuffed into every cupboard (spices in the linen cupboard…yup). Ta da! Today, finally, a forever home for the marjoram.
I’ve only lived in my current home for 5 months and already I’m editing. Sheesh! Clutter is not only evidence of my consumer mindset, it also speaks to my mental state, which was a hamster-wheel, work-crazy spin cycle this fall.
Turns out I’m not alone in finding clutter anxiety-provoking; research shows that dealing with all the things—organize, reduce, clean up, put away—makes our nervous system calm down. Our brains like things neater than messier, cleaner than dirtier.
Basically, it’s a bit of structure and stability that tells our Limbic System that no threat—not even a stray spice jar—can disturb this tidy kitchen (and mind) today.
Do you find that just looking at a freshly organized cupboard/closet brings about a petite swoon—or is it just me? Give it a whirl, if you haven’t before and let me know if it kicks off the anxiety nipping at your heels.
My face gets all scrunched up when I have too much to do and not enough time to do it. It’s the face of someone who is so very tired but pushing past resistance to doing more, which is usually related somehow to realizing someone else’s best life.
I bought into the big corp mantra to do more, be more, work harder, push past pain, sacrifice the body (or soul or spirit). There has been a lot of should-ing in my life. From others, yes, but also from my inner critic. “You should…do yoga, exercise more, eat better, raise your kids differently, serve, help, cook for, clean for, buy for….” Well, it all sounds a bit exhausting, doesn’t it?
I don’t recommend being motivated by shame and blame for years (decades if you’re my age). It leads to resentment, people-pleasing, and a scarcity mindset that convinces a person that there is never enough. Never enough energy, friendships, opportunities, hours in a day, years in a life. Or maybe that’s just me.
In any case, I decided a few years ago to rest and restore a bit more and find ways to deal with the shame demons in my head. It’s working. I do feel more rested, my work is as good as it was or maybe it’s even better. My anxiety is fading and having more stomach lining and tooth enamel has felt decidedly groovy.
Well, that’s when I listen to a different identity story—the one where I am human with limits, no longer trying to be all things to all people (What was the reason for that, again?). The hardest part of reducing my workload? Believing that prioritizing my health (all kinds) doesn’t make me self-centred. It’s about being well-centred.
How about you? What’s keeps you well-centred?
RUMINATION (part 1)
I used to mention in counselling sessions that ruminating is a skill and that if you’re really good at it, surely this handy-dandy skill could be used for good. Nobody took me up on the offer to test that theory out, so I don’t know if it would actually help.
I do know this: your brain likes to solve problems and it will gnaw on a metaphorical bone forever until a problem is resolved. An example of how this works: You are strolling down the street and suddenly think of the name of that restaurant you were trying to remember a few days ago. Even though your conscious self forgot the memory retrieval task, your brain did not; it was still grinding away.
Ruminating is one way the brain can keep a problem fresh and top of mind so you will attend to it. Your brain introduces solutions, typically words and more words that play out in your head as conversations or scripts, all of them rehashing and repeating the microscopic aspects of the problem. It does this so the threat goes away and you can live in relative bliss.
But sometimes the problem is not resolvable and if people are exposed to many stressors or trauma, they tend to tread water in a holding tank of unresolved problems. A chronic elevation of the limbic system stays in reactive mode fighting it out with the problem, not allowing access to the prefrontal cortex, the analytical and reasoning mode.
People often argue with me about this because they feel certain they’re using logic while incessantly thinking about the problem—but consider this: where is all the heightened emotion and anxiety coming from? Why hasn’t the problem gone away despite all the exhaustive thinking and beating yourself up?
RUMINATION (part 2)
If you are stuck in a moment and you can’t think yourself out of it, you know that the limbic system is bossing you around. It’s trying to keep you alive by being a pest. It wants you to pay attention to the threat—perceived or real—but stuckness creates rumination and that creates cycles of frustration, worry, fear, and self-dislike.
What if there is no resolution to the problem, no way to fix the haunting memory of that conversation or event from a week or decade ago, no way to go back and say or do differently, no way to predict a future outcome or response?
Rumination gives us the illusion of working a problem out but it rarely delivers. A couple of ideas of how to get out of your head:
- Calm your body, then your mind. In this order.
- Create a visual of a container in your mind & lock up your thoughts for a while or place your worry and questions in a box, then put the box on a shelf.
- Apply liberally: self-compassion & a healthy measure of shared humanity.
- Use distraction or thought-stopping techniques.
- Let rumination dissolve under the tap of forgiveness, kindness, & generosity to self.
- Separate truth & what is known from the hyperbole, mind-reading, fortune telling, & catastrophizing.
- Journal out your questions, trials, & troubles; create lists & plans for things you can do something about; accept what is left; continue on with what you want to do in your life.
- Visualize the regret, shame, & sadness hopping on a leaf or cloud & watch it drift away.
- Not every thought you have is true; not every thought originates from you; not every thought you have is a friend you should invite for the weekend. Curate your thinking. Be strict.
A neuroscience adage: what fires together, wires together. Stoke the fires of possibility & actionable change and leave dead doubts and regret rubble behind you—for good.
When you think of what might be creating chronic anxiety, its source might be related to a narrative cycling in your head. This narrative usually includes a few gloomy beliefs: I can’t do this; I’m too much-I’m not enough; there is too much-not enough; people will think I’m foolish, weird, dumb; I’m overwhelmed; what if…; I’m scared; I’m not loveable; I don’t want to screw up; they might leave me; and/or, did I remember everything there ever was?
Or, for some anxiety might show up as a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach, like a portent of doom, and it’s there every day, and you can’t identify it but it never leaves you (at least not completely) and it keeps gnawing at your stomach lining and your peace.
Have you ever thought to dig down and mine for the source(s) of your anxiety? Here are a few areas to pique your curiosity:
Energy: more sourcing from stress or renewal?
Growth: more drive for unfolding or folding?
Work: more effort in construction or deconstruction?
Belief: more authenticity or hiding?
Tasks: more listings for busyness or playfulness?
Mindset: more about problems or solutions?
Mood: more lightness or darkness?
Wisdom: more trust in authorities or inner knowing?
Orientation: more leading or following on the path?
World: more about journeys or enclaves?
Inspiration: more vision from copying or creativity?
This idea: to create a life fuelled by something other than anxiety is to start thinking about options, maybe doing some visioning, some experiments, and uprooting some weeds.
Krista Tippet: Acts of rebellion are the first acts of creation.
Imposter Syndrome: the feeling (or certainty) that you are just faking it/life, that everyone will eventually find out, which will then lead to a catastrophic humiliation event and loss, which means you can kiss your job, your Ph. D/job, or your lover goodbye.
Where does it come from? Possibilities: appalling or indifferent parents, social comparison and criticism, sexist socialization, leading to negative self-talk claiming you are a loser, an incompetent, unworthy, stupid, or unlikeable fraud. The I.S. mindset is likely rooted deeply in social anxiety, perfectionism, and/or low self-esteem.
Question: If people really knew you, would they still like you? Would they still believe in you, respect you, trust you, and adore you?
Answer: It’s a sad truth that many people won’t care about you; they are full of themselves and their schemes, too full to worry about treating you well. Many will be puffed up with their own self-importance and posturing and will want to squash you while climbing the ladder of success. Many will not notice you at all.
Then again, there are at least a few people who love you as you are; they know about your ‘hidden’ foibles, and follies and they love you anyway. They have chosen you as their partner or friend. But in case those warm feelings/people aren’t accessible to you right now, here are a few ways to quell the anxiety:
- Stop the trash-talk in your brain. Change the negative nouns to positive verbs.
- Be kind and generous to yourself. Be honest about what you need.
- Squelch the impulse to be perfect or to produce falsely.
- Focus on the good you’ve done/can do, not on the regrets & misses.
- Become comfortable with not-knowing; adopt a beginner’s mindset.
- You don’t know what other people are thinking but I assure you, they’re really not thinking about you—at least not much—so don’t torture yourself with worrying.
- You don’t know what other people are thinking but if you really need to guess, come up with something life-giving.
- You really don’t know what other people are thinking, so why does it mean more than what your loved ones think?
- What could you do right now to boost your confidence and contentment? Please, go do that now and revel in your awesomeness. Repeat.
Authentic life is about embracing all the parts of yourself, changing what needs to be changed, and offering yourself respect, compassion, and forgiveness in the process. Start living into who you really are (your glorious self) and what you were made to do and take comfort in this: we are all trying to figure this life thing out.
Today, I woke up with a scary-wary feeling buzzing in my brain that I couldn’t identify. It was like a portent of doom with no discernable cause. Feeling very uncomfortable with this, I employed a few steps that typically help me in these situations.
- Threat System: the presence of buzz-jangle is the sign that my system is feeling threatened somehow. So, first I calmed my body to calm my mind, using breath-work (Today: limited success, so other ideas were required).
- Structure: Work the lists and day-planner: What do I have to do and when? (Today: add, delete, and do some future planning. That helped a bit.)
- Usual suspects: dig around & discern if anything is missing, is creating time stress, or is upsetting. (Today: I had forgotten to book my counselling office for this aft. Sheesh!).
- Filter: Realize again that the world’s troubles and terrors & social media can elicit low-grade anxiety. (Today: feed-fast for a few hours and remember that I am safe and loved.)
- Nurture: talk to someone about the ‘feeling’ or in this case, the emotion since it was somatic. (Today: phoned my sister. Some support, clarity, and normalcy were stabilizing.)
- Nourish: What is needed to restore equilibrium? (Today: eating and working were most helpful.)
By lunch today I was feeling a lot better (thankfully). I’ll keep working at it through the aft, trying out a few more ideas. In the meantime, I am curious as to what you do to help calm your nervous system. What would you add to the above list? I would love to learn a few more.
FWIW: I looked up the def of ‘portent’, which oddly means both of these: 1) a warning that something calamitous is about to happen; or, 2) an exceptional/wonderful person or thing. (Hmmm; scratches chin). Both seem to be present today.
Tired of this?
Being pressured into things, feeling obligated to do, do, do, do more, feeling afraid of your objecting voice, mired in the maybes, avoiding guilt-tripping family members, stumbling around with what-ifs, and should-y situations?
Introducing some stock phrases to practice in front of a mirror and then boldly go where no pressured, overwhelmed, anxious person has gone before (see cartoon).
Practice saying these when the stakes are lower. Build up your strength.
Accept and process the distress that comes with ‘displeasing’ people.
Affirm your self-efficacy, self-worth, and agency. Dance or sing your praises.
Rinse and repeat.
(True Story: it gets easier and your life will thank you.)
Anyone want to add to the phrase list?
Well, that’s a wrap for #febup2020. I hope you enjoyed the exploration and exercises. See you next year for more of the same (but different).
Peace to you and your household,
Shari van Spronsen, MC, RCC, CCC
IG account: https://www.instagram.com/sharivanspronsen/
Previous FebUp posts: #febup2018; #febup2019
Current posts: #febup2020
For this web blog, use the search terms “depression” or “identity”