Tag: mental illness

Change Your Brain Change Your Life

I’ve recently found a book that I wanted to share with you.  As any reader knows I have struggled with anxiety since a panic attack in 2007 changed my life forever.  I have improved a lot but things have never quite been the same.  Even just this week I felt life overwhelming me.  I knew things would turn out fine but that didn’t seem to stop things from boiling up inside of me.  I’ve gotten better at how I respond to the boiling feeling but not making it go away just yet.   I’d tell you all the details but they really don’t matter.  As I’ve said a million times anxiety is not a logical experience so it doesn’t make any sense when you describe it.

Cognitive therapy has helped me immensely over the years especially Dr.  David Burns book Feeling Good which I’ve praised many times on this blog.  It is a cheap book go out and BUY it! Even if you don’t struggle from a diagnosable mental illness such as depression or anxiety his thoughts on distorted thinking will help anyone (For the list of distorted thought patterns read this post https://smilingldsgirl.wordpress.com/2011/12/09/feeling-good/).  An example is if you make a mistake your distorted thought might be ‘I’m a total screw up and never do anything right”.  Nobody is such an extreme but how many times does Satan fix that thought into our heads?  I know he does it to me far too often.

Anyway, another book that I’ve recently been introduced to and found very helpful is called Change Your Brain, Change Your Life by Dr.  Daniel G Amen.  While admittedly a little dry and scientific, I found this book to be fascinating and extremely helpful.  Dr.  Amen, a psychiatrist, has studied brain scans of mental illness patients to look for patterns depending on the illness.  What he found is certain areas of the brain are more active in patients with one condition and other areas for other conditions.  For instance, in anxiety patients the basal ganglia area of the brain is more active than in a normal functioning brain.

An example of Dr. Amen’s brain imaging

The basal ganglia ‘are a set of large structures towards the center of the brain that surround the deep limbic system.  They are involved with integrating feelings, thoughts and movement, along with helping to shift and smooth motor behavior.  The basal ganglia are involved with setting the body’s idle speed or anxiety level.  In addition they help modulate motivation and are likely involved with feelings of pleasure and ecstasy. ”

So basically this is the area of the brain that tells you when to “jump when you’re excited, tremble when you’re nervous, freeze when you are scared or tongue-tied when the boss is chewing you out.  The basal ganglia allow for a smooth integration of emotions, thoughts and physical movements and when there is too much input, they tend to lock up“.

Excuse the long quote but I found that to be the most amazing thing.   That when I feel like I’m boiling inside its because my brain is basically boiling inside! Here are physical proof of physical symptoms of what for so long was viewed as something purely mental.  What a relief! I’ve always thought the experience I had in 2007 changed something inside of me and now I think it might have really done that. I wonder what Dr.  Amen would have seen in a pre-2007 scan and post of me?

Dr. Amen chocks the book full of case studies and characteristics of increased basal ganglia activity including conflict avoidance, nervous tics and fine motor problems, but the one I found the most interesting was ‘low and high motivation’.  Tell me if this describes someone you know… ”

“They tend to work excessive hours.  In fact, weekends tend to be the hardest time for these people.  During hte week, they charge through each day, getting things done.  On the weekend, during unstructured time, they often complain of feeling restless, anxious and out of sorts.  Relaxation is foreign to them.  In fact, it is downright uncomfortable.  Workaholics may be made in the basal ganglia.  Their internal idle speed, or energy level, doesn’t allow them to rest.  Of course, there is positive correlate.  Many of the people in society who make things happen are driven by basal ganglia that keep them working for long periods of time”  (Could this possibly be said blogger who wrote a 105 page novel in 8 days…)

All of this would be interesting but not empowering if left on its own but Dr. Amen’s next chapter gives 8 prescriptions to dealing with basal ganglia activity.  I have a feeling I will be working on applying all 8 for many years to come (none of these are exactly new to me but the combination of them I found very encouraging and illuminating.)

Prescriptions for “optimizing and healing problems with the basal ganglia”:

1. Kill the Fortune Telling ANTS (automatic negative thoughts)- I was already working on this with Dr. Burns distorted thoughts and Dr. Amen gives similar advice still good reminder.  I had a great example of negative fortune telling this week.  I signed a new contract on my house and I started to feel some anxiety about the new price with upgrades and additions that had built up.  I had convinced myself it was going to be astronomical and it ended up being about 2k more than my original contract.  Bad fortune telling ANTS!

2. Use Guided Imagery- “Find a quiet spot where you can go and be alone for 20 to 30 minutes every day.  Sit in a comfortable chair and train your mind to be quiet. In your mind’s eye choose your own special haven.  Imagine your special place with all your senses.  The more vivid your imagination the more you’ll be able to let yourself go into the image.  If negative thoughts intrude, notice them but don’t dwell on them.  Refocus on your safe haven.  Enjoy your mini vacation.”  This is definitely Hawaii for me and with my insomnia specialist’s encouragement I have been doing an hour of soothing activities before I go to bed and I was skeptical but it does seem to be helping.

3. Diaphragmatic Breathing- This is the low breathing you do when you sing.  (I wonder if that’s why my voice lessons are such a soothing experience for me?)

4. Meditation and Self Hypnosis- similar to the guided imagery Dr.  Amen gives a guide for the self-hypnosis which I must admit I haven’t tried yet but want to but it is mostly about focusing on tranquility and relaxing your body.

5. Think about the 18/40/60 rule- This was brilliant.  “When you’re 18, you worry about what everybody is thinking of you;  When you’re 40, you don’t give a hoot about what anybody thinks about you; When you’re 60 you realize nobody’s been thinking about you at all”.  How much energy is wasted on worrying about what others think about you?

I think I’ve gotten better about this as I’ve gotten older (maybe because I’m nearing the 40) but it creeps back in every now and then.  For example, the other day a person implied fairly strongly she thought I was lonely and desperate to get a man and the idea made me crazy.  I am not and and the idea I could be giving that kind of impression really upset me, but that’s not who I am so why do I care?  I wish I could explain it but all I can do is keep improving.

6. Learn How to Deal with Conflict- This is probably my worst one of the whole bunch.  Both panic attacks I’ve had were because of an intense fear of conflict (and a fear of looking like an idiot despite a valid case, so looking stupid in conflict). I’ve gone 48 hours with no sleep because I was so terrified of a conflict with a person.

Dr. Amen says ‘asserting yourself in a healthy manner’ is the key.  That the keys to effective conflict management are “1. Don’t give into anger, 2. Don’t allow the opinions of others to control how you feel about yourself.  3. Say what you mean and stick up for what you believe is right. 4. Maintain self control, 5. Be kind, if possible, but above all be firm in your stance.”

Easier said than done. I think being bullied as a child has always left me with an insecurity that I won’t be listened to in conflict. I don’t know if I’ve ever walked away from a conflict feeling like I was really understood and that it was effective, so I’ve learned to just stuff it inside which is obviously unhealthy behavior.

The 2007 incident was completely caused by a fear of conflict at a meeting and I could not get the idea of confronting a person out of my head.  What if I exploded?  What if I did something stupid?  What if she manipulated me like she had a million other times? I had no confidence and the questions didn’t stop.

This is the hardest one for sure to solve. Luckily I don’t have conflict that often as I’m not in a relationship (and no that is not why I’m not in a relationship) and have rarely if ever fought with my friends.  Still, I know it is something I need to work on…

7. Basal ganglia medications- There are 5 classes of medications that can be used to treat basal ganglia activity most Dr. Amen recommends on a  ‘short term basis’ as to avoid ‘addiction’.  I have an emergency only prescription and I’ve had 2 30 pill bottles filled since 2007, most of the second is full so clearly I use them rarely but it reduces panic and anxiety to know they are there if I need them.

8. Nutrition- This I found very interesting.  Dr Amen says “If your symptoms reflect heightened basal ganglia activity and anxiety, you’ll do better with a balanced diet that does not allow you to get too hungry during the day.  Hypoglycemic episodes make anxiety much worse.  If you have low basal ganglia activity and low motivation you will likely do better with a high protein, low carb diet to give yourself more energy during the day.  It is also helpful to eliminate caffeine, as it may worsen anxiety”

This was fascinating to me because I do get very crabby and anxious when I’m hungry, tired or sore (all which can be symptoms of hypoglycemic episodes and basal ganglia activity).  Ask anyone who knows me and they will agree I am not at my best when I am hungry.


So that is the list!  I don’t know if this will be interesting to anyone who isn’t struggling with anxiety but as I’ve always had a great response to my posts on the subject I hope it helps someone.  I’m still pondering Dr. Amen’s book and I am aware there is some skepticism in the psychology world of his scans but I have found much of it helpful so that’s what matters to me.

I hope that you find it helpful and would be curious for your response.

NaNoWriMo: Writing a Panic Attack

So I finished my book today!  I can’t even believe it but it is done and I kind of love it.  I’m sure most people would see it as a silly book but I love it.  I can’t wait to edit and then print it out for my own little Christmas gift to myself.  I haven’t decided who else I want to read it but will probably give it to a few people.  I admit it will be hard to hear feedback because the story is so close to my heart.

However, I thought it would be fun to share one more section with all of you.  This is where I had to write about the panic attack I had in 2007.  Just before the scene you will read I had unloaded to my boss about all my frustrations and anger.  He was nothing but super duper nice and told me we would discuss the situation on Monday.  At the time I thought it was all done when I hung up the phone.  Then the nagging  question of what would happen at that Monday meeting overtook my brain.  Its pretty much just as you will read below.  Only major difference is instead of Oliver coming to my rescue it was my brother.  We’ve never been super close so I’m grateful to have that moment of bonding, as hard as it might be.

Since the episode below I have had one other panic attack during a period of extreme anxiety at the beginning of this year.  I can honestly say it is one of the most terrifying experiences a person can have.  I hope I have captured a tiny bit of that experience in this story.  I hope I have portrayed what went on in my brain effectively and in a way that makes sense.  This is just a rough, rough draft. It may not even be any good, but I was proud of how it came out.

No critiques at this time.  Just enjoy it and keep writing

Here it is

The Panic 

I don’t know how long I was asleep.  Maybe 30 minutes, maybe an hour but it was not a restful experience.  I woke up groggy and for a second I couldn’t remember where I was or what had happened.  It was almost like I was a drunk person waking up from a coma (not that I would know what that was like).  My head ached and I was starving.  I looked at the clock 5 pm.  No wonder I was hungry.  I’d slept the afternoon away.   Why had I done that?  I never take naps.

“Oh yeah, I lost it at the office today” I say laughing in a sort of half dazed, half crazed way that insane people do in the movies.  The whole incident felt like a movie.  I wonder what my Father and Mother will think of all of this?  I know they would be concerned for me but would they understand it?  I guess Rich had understood why not my own Mother and Father?

“I wonder if Jamie is home?” I ask myself.  “Oh yeah, she is going on a date with red head Sean directly after work.  I wonder how it is going? She certainly deserves a great guy.   They would certainly have cute red headed kids” The image of all those red heads makes me chuckle.

I realize I better get some food in my stomach, so I put on a new set of clothes and take a look at my reflection.  My eyes are sunken, dark and puffy from crying. What a sight! My muscles feel sore and tired which I find odd.  I haven’t done any exercise unless crying is considered a workout.  I put on my necklace and give it a kiss.  I wonder what Oliver thinks of my outbreak? He would probably feel bad but would he care like I wanted him to care?  Why did he seem so upset with me? Maybe I can talk to him on Monday and get to the bottom of all of this?  Monday, Monday, Monday.  Why does that sound familiar? Oh yeah, that’s when Rich is going to meet with Chandra and myself?

Meeting with Rich and Chandra on Monday I repeat to myself several times.  Suddenly the weight of the situation occurs to me.  I’m going to meet with Chandra and Rich over everything I said to Rich today.  I’m going to have to confront Chandra with it all.  With three years of anger and resentment, how would that work out?  What if I lost it again and fled?  My cheeks got red just thinking about it.  It would be so embarrassing and to make matters worse my parents would be in town on Monday, so they would see it all.

Why hadn’t I just quit before losing it? What is Chandra going to say? What did I have to say in my defense? I could picture it now. “Chandra has been mean to me and treats me with condescension”. I could picture her telling me to ‘wake up’ or ‘grow up’ and was she right? What if I just came off looking like a fool? I knew Chandra had the ability to do that.  All she had to do was talk about all of my screw ups on the check run or only getting four fixed assets done in one week. Would she bring up the ‘adequate’ comment and if she did what would be her defense?  Rich had said she hadn’t spoken with him.  Would she get fired and then finally scream at me?  What would happen?  Why hadn’t I listened to the voice telling me to ‘make a change’ but it had seemed so hard?

Now nothing felt harder than Monday’s meeting. After all I had been through.  After all the anger and humiliation it was all coming to a forefront and I have never felt more relieved and terrified at the same time.  It was awful.

I had no choice but to go through with the meeting no matter the consequences.  Even if I ended up looking like an idiot.. well let’s be honest I already looked like one. Monday would just be facing the consequences of what I had done instead of hiding in my room.

My brain felt fuzzy again and I couldn’t seem to stop myself from asking more and more questions.  What would happen and would I look stupid seemed to be the most persistent questions I couldn’t get out of my head.

My heart beat seemed faster and I felt like I needed to take another nap.  “How the heck am I going to get through this weekend?” I wondered. A distraction.  I need a distraction. Cooking seemed like a good idea so I headed to the kitchen to see what I could whip up.  Looking in the fridge we had nothing unless I could make a meal with an egg some ketchup, jam and an expired container of yogurt.  Shoot.  Looks like I will have to go to the store.  It had been a week since Jamie and I had been to the grocery store to get food for the spaghetti incident dinner.

“I better go to the grocery store because I am certainly not going out to eat looking like this” I sigh into the fridge.

Grabbing my keys I head out to the car but the distraction isn’t really working.  As I walk and then get in my car I hear again and again in my head ‘What is going to happen? You will look like a fool”.  “Go away” I think and try to shoo the thought away like an annoying bug. Again when I start the engine the same thoughts plague me.

‘Focus on driving.  You can’t control Monday” I pleads with myself, trying to control my brain as if I was engaged in a giant tug of war game.

Driving does partially distract me for a few minutes and entering the store I feel confident.  “I can do this.  I cannot think about work.  I am thinking about what I might like to eat for dinner.  There are so many options.  Maybe chicken.” And then uninvited “What is going to happen? You are going to look like a fool.  You look like a fool right now.  Think how many times Chandra has done it before.  She always wins every argument.”  I look around at the crowd surrounding me and in my head everyone seems to be stepping away from me.  “I do look weird.  I am weird. Why is everyone looking at me this way?”  My breath gets faster and my heart races.  “Go away!” I think and I start to cry in a desperate sort of way.

“Ok.  I have to leave now. Maybe go to the hospital” I say to myself in a very clinical sort of way because my brain is totally absorbed in the panic of it all.  “What is going to happen? You are going to look like fool” pops into my head no matter how many times I shake it out.  Almost leaving my purse I rush out of the grocery store leaving a cart full of unpurchased food.  I have to get home.  I don’t know why I need to go home but it is a primal instinct. I’m not thinking.  My brain is full and exploding.

Somehow I make it home but each breath becomes quicker and images keep popping through my brain.  Images of what could be.  I can see images of Chandra winning whatever bizarre competition we have.  I see images of my parents looking disappointed at their out of control daughter.  I see Oliver’s face and a look of relief at the whack job he avoided.

“He, he, he, he” my breath has become like a fitful clown.  “I’m going to die.  This is it.  I can’t breathe.  I’m going to die”.  The world is black and I don’t know what to do.

“Call someone, anyone.  Where’s Jamie? Should I call a friend from church?  I can’t just die here alone!” the space around me swirls like on a hurly whirly at a fair.  I hear questions like music pounding in my head.  I have no idea what I am doing or where I am.

“Honey it’s going to be okay.  We all love you” I can hear my Mother’s voice saying through the darkness.

“I don’t know who to call.  I’m going to the hospital” I tell my Mother. “I love you.  I’ll call you when I get there”.  I know she wishes she could come and rescue me if only an ocean wasn’t in between us.   The hospital was an option but only rock bottom and I knew there was one person left to call and without even thinking my fingers call Oliver and he answers.

“I need help” I say as my breath gets fast and I know he can sense the panic.  This is the real deal.

“I’ll be right over”. He says and I put my head between my knees and try to control my breathing as I had seen people do on television when having a panic attack. I didn’t even care if he thought I was a crazy person.  I guess I was a crazy person.  I didn’t want to die and I didn’t want to go to the hospital.

Before I knew it Oliver lets himself in the front door and gives me a hug ‘You can get through this.  You are strong” he says which I have since learned is the perfect thing to say to someone having a panic attack.  Perfect.

“Now take a deep breath. I want you to take this medicine.  It will help calm you down, nothing scary I promise”

“I’m really sorry that I made you angry” I say ready to go into sobs again.

“Don’t worry about that right now.  We can sort all that out later.”  I hate later.  Later is unpredictable but I look into his eyes and I know he is really worried about me.  I have to get through this if anything for him.

I take the medicine and we walk around the house a couple of times. He is so reassuring and kind that I start to feel like myself again.  I can breath again and I don’t feel like I’m going to die. The fear of the future has not been taken away but the panic is lessening.  My brain is spinning less. Amazingly I’m still crying.  How much can a girl cry in one day?

“You probably think I’m a total weirdo but it was all more than I could take” I say as we walk and he takes my hand in his.

Confession: My Animal Phobia

Did you know that 20% of Americans suffer from some type of phobia?  A phobia is defined as “is an irrational, intense and persistent fear of certain situations, activities, things, animals, or people”.  (I personally think the percentages have to higher).  There are hundreds of different types of phobias including everything from Denrophobia (a fear of trees) to chorophobia (fear of dancing- pretty sure I suffer from this one).  The list of phobias is exhaustive and can be seen at http://phobialist.com/.

So what is my phobia?  Most of you know that I am scared of animals.  There are several reasons for this fear. The main reason is I didn’t grow up with them.  My sister Megan and brother Ben are completely allergic to all animals with fir or feathers.  This meant that not only did I not live with animals, I didn’t spend much time with them.  Even a trip to the zoo was ripe with peril for my family.  One time we visited my uncle Mark’s ranch in Northern California and my brother’s eye swelled up to the size of a tennis ball and he had to be rushed to the hospital.

I did have friends who had animals.  Most notably my friend Meredith who had 3 champion samoyeds and at least one cat.  In fact, the first time I went to her house I let the dogs out and we had to chase them through the mud.  I felt like such an idiot but I really had no experience with animals.  Eventually I became comfortable with her dogs but it took years.  When we had sleepovers the dogs or cats would occasionally jump on me in the middle of the night sending me into a complete fright.  After all, I was not used to large mammals jumping on me in the night!

After visiting Meredith or other friends with dogs I remember being worried that I was going to get my siblings sick.  My sister Megan would break out in horrible hives all over her face in the presence of animal dander (among other things) and I know I felt responsible for her outbreaks on more than one instance.  This was probably not the case but it created a compulsion to stay away from animals.

Added to that fear was that I have always been weird about my personal space.  I’m not a particularly lovey-dovey person (my first word was stop if that tells you anything).  One thing about animals is they are all about violating your personal space.  They jump, lick, bite, chirp, and land all over your body.  Most people find such gestures cuddly and sweet.  For some reason, I’ve always disliked it and felt fearful about it.  In my head I know that most of the animals I come in contact with will not hurt me but I still feel that resistance when I’m around them.

Some of you might argue that I have not spent enough time around animals.  While this may be partially true, I don’t know if this fear could be handled so simply.  When I was on my mission I met every dog, cat and bird in Indiana.  We used to joke that every Hoosier loves their dogs and cigarettes.

I prayed a lot and somehow I was able to manage but it was hard.  Despite nearly daily interaction with animals, it never got easier or less anxious to be around them.  The one time when I drew the line and refused to visit a family because of an animal was in my first area.  This family had 2 st. Bernard dogs.  It was like living with 2 horses in the house!  I mustered up my courage and went in to visit but I noticed their little girl had a large gash on her forehead.

“How’d she get that gash?”  I asked.

“Oh the dog was just playing” the woman responded!

My eyes grew big and after our visit I made sure we never went back to that house.  Especially at the beginning of my mission I could only take so much.

Another experience with animals on my mission happened in Angola.  We were visiting a less active family when the girls decided it would be funny to throw their bird in my face.  They didn’t know about my phobia or I assure you they would not have behaved so foolishly.  Seeing all the wings and beaks flying towards my face I freaked out.  At first they laughed and then when I was hyperventilating they realized their mistake.

Those are 2 rare exceptions.  For the most part I tried to be loving and kind to people’s pets despite my insecurities.  However, those insecurities never went away.  I think I will always have them.  The oddest part of my phobia is it covers all animals not just big mean dogs.  I particularly don’t like anything rodent-like such as ferrets, rats, gerbils or guinea pigs.  Yuck!  I also don’t like snakes, toads, or anything that slithers/crawls.  Most people at least like birds but not me.  I don’t like their smell and hate it when they land on my shoulder.  I feel insecure and don’t know what they are going to do next.  Plus, it freaks me out when they fly in my face.

Some people are very critical of me for my animal phobia.  It is like I detest babies or something.   There are people who think I am a bad person because I don’t like animals.  They are entitled to their opinion, but I would argue that I don’t want cruel things to happen to animals.  I just don’t want them around me.  In fact, when I see a dog or cat in a hot car or in pain I feel for the creature.  I have never liked zoos partly because I’m not into large animals but also because I think it is cruel to cage them for no reason but our viewing pleasure. I would do whatever I could to protect or make sure animals had good kind homes.  I am just not that home. Especially being single I see the appeal of the companionship of a pet, but I know an animal would not get the love it needs from me.

I have often joked that having no animals will be part of my “pre-nup”.  (No, I don’t plan on having a pre-nup.  It’s just a joke).  I know it is silly to place restrictions on my future life but it is an issue that will have to be discussed.  Forcing me to live with an animal would be the equivalent of forcing a person with a fear of heights to live on the 40th floor.  It would be cruel to both myself and the animal.

I suppose I can cross that bridge when I come to it.  In the meantime, I am enjoying my animal-less life and allowing all you animal lovers to shoulder that burden.

So now you all know probably the weirdest thing about me.  Thoughts?

Did I mention I also get nauseous in hospitals/nursing homes and faint at the sight of blood? That’s for another entry!  Do any of you have phobias?  For instance, I know a lot of people have a fear of public speaking?