I have been feeling my emotions so intensely lately.  The anxiety gathers in the area where my body holds the most tension- where my neck meets my shoulders. Once I get up and start to move around, it is slowly able to release. But, when it releases, I feel it in my whole body.  This happens most often first thing in the morning.

My legs begin to tremble, and I doubt my ability to stand. And then an intense tingle rises up through my body, until it finally hits my head. It comes up so strongly and so violently that I feel as if something bad is happening to my body- like I might pass out, or vomit, or have a seizure, or, who even knows.

But then it hits my eyes, and I’m able to cry. Not just a few tears, but a full-on, hysterical sob. The above painting, acrylic on canvas board, is a visualization of what this rush of emotion feels like. I call it “Geyser,” because that’s how violently it happens- like a geyser or a volcano.

I hate feeling this way, but at the same time, it’s nice to know that I can release all of the built up anxiety through my tears. I’m hoping that my art can eventually take that place, however.


If You Only Knew

This is a blog about high functioning mental illness. Some people don’t believe it exists. If you are successful and appear to have everything in your life together, you can’t possibly be “mentally ill.” Right?

Wrong. Some people just hide it really well.

I attended college on a scholarship and went straight to graduate school, where I graduated with a high GPA. I work in a mental health organization, providing therapy and teaching life skills to kids and teenagers. I’ve worked there for three years and have been promoted three times. I live on my own in an apartment. I teach guitar lessons, and I’m involved in community organizations.

And I suffer from anxiety and depression.

When you see me saving the world at my job, you might not know that I cried in my car this morning because I was so anxious about going to work. You might not know that two months ago, I was so anxious that I would come home from work and curl up straight in my bed, because it was the only place I felt safe. You might not know that, when I go on my breaks at work, it’s because I’m feeling particularly anxious, and that I’m about to go take a walk in the parking lot and call a friend to help me calm down.

And every day, I get out there, and I do it again, despite all the unknowns.

I can guarantee you, that you know someone like me. Probably, several people. And you might be one of them, as well.

And it’s okay. I see you and I accept you.

The Feedback Loop

When I was in the worst month of my anxiety, my brain and body were in a giant, unceasing feedback loop. My body, being over-activated because of heightened medication levels, was communicating to me that I was in danger. My heart was racing, my body was tense, my jaw was clenched. The symptoms, to my mind, were signaling a flight or fight response. My body was acting like it was in danger. So, it makes sense that my brain followed, searching for things to defend me from. Which was pretty much everything.

That plane overhead? It’s going to come crashing down.

I’m going to get into a car accident on the way home from work.

That food I ate for lunch? It’s going to make me sick.

That thing I said yesterday? So and so is going to be mad at me because of it.

In cognitive behavioral therapy, it’s actually a triangle- your thoughts impact your feelings impact your behaviors impact your thoughts, and so on. But here, I just want to focus on thoughts and feelings, and how they feed each other. This is something I’ve only recently began to observe and understand.

I had just favored a psychotherapy approach rather than a cognitive behavioral way of thinking. I was always fascinated with the idea that things from one’s past could lurk in one’s subconscious and impact their actions and behaviors without them knowing. I figured that my current anxieties were based on previous traumas. And they are. But, the thing is, all you can really do with that approach is to develop mindfulness of how these traumas impact your daily life, so as to notice and minimize their impact. In grad school, we used to talk about the “corrective emotional experience.” I used to picture some magical, cathartic “aha!” moment, where the wound stopped hurting and never hurt again.  Through my own therapy, I learned that this doesn’t happen.

What happens is that you gain an awareness for the issue and it’s triggers, as well as an acceptance for the way it makes you feel, which does help it to hurt less. From there, you learn how to take care of yourself when you are feeling that way.

So now, I’m finding that, because my anxiety is less in my body, it is less in my mind. However, there is still work to do. Now, my body isn’t feeding my thoughts, but my thoughts are still feeding my body. It’s easier to be cognizant of how this is happening, now that it is coming more from one side and not so much from both.

For example, when I feel my body tense up as I’m lying in bed early in the morning, I now recognize that it is related to my concerns over the day. Will I be anxious today? Will I complete all the tasks that I have ahead of me?

As I work through my CBT workbook, Mind Over Mood, I hope to improve this.

Of Worries and Tic Tacs

I’ve been reading through the book The Worry Trick by David A. Carbonell. I recommend this book for anyone who experiences generalized anxiety. The author explains that for some people with anxiety issues, some of the cognitive restructuring methods from CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) aren’t helpful. He offered some alternative methods to beat anxiety and worry.

He suggests an exercise early in the book to help the reader become mindful of their worries. Every time one catches themselves in the act of worrying, they should take out a pack of tic tacs or mints, which they are to carry with them, and eat one.

The exercise isn’t meant to do anything other than to help you pay attention to when you are worrying. It’s simple, but I’m finding it to be very effective. It’s a small action, but just enough to disrupt the pattern of worrying. See, whenever I find myself thinking “what if,” the next thought that now comes into my mind is, “that’s another tic tac!” And then I don’t engage in the runaway train of worrisome thoughts. It’s interrupted right then and there. It’s so much easier to catch the runaway train right when it starts to run away, rather than to stop it once it’s been running awhile!

I started doing this at noon on September 11, and I’ll be doing this for one week. On day 6, I’ve been through more tic tac boxes than I thought I would go through. I’m halfway through my fourth.  There are 38 tic tacs in a regular sized pack. That means I’ve been through 133 worry tic tacs. (And, this is under the assumption that I’ve been cognizant of every anxious thought I’ve had over the course of the week, which is unlikely.)

The first step towards changing anxious thoughts is noticing them. Once I catch myself thinking the words “what if,” now that I am more aware of it, I try to replace the second part of the sentence with something else. A favorite way to do this is to play “what if God was one of us?” in my head. (Other songs with “what if” work just as well!)

A Lesson: Mind Your Meds

Don’t ever play around with your medication without a doctor or psychologist overseeing it. A few years ago, my psychologist had told me that the Prozac I was taking was a slow-acting drug, so that I could take the 20 mg pills that she prescribed me, or, if I felt I needed it, I could take 2 pills every other day, and this would in essence equate to me taking 30 mg every day. I did this for four years, taking the 30 mg option. Then, when my anxiety spiked earlier in the summer, I figured I could “play” with my dose again, and I started to take two 20 mg pills every day. What then resulted is probably the worst month or so of anxiety I have ever had.

Don’t do what I did. 

I couldn’t take the worsening anxiety anymore, and made an appointment with my doctor, who was able to get down the issue right away.

See, Prozac is what we call an SSRI- a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. SSRIs are drugs that are used to treat anxiety and depression. The brain secrets serotonin, a neurotransmitter, and then it is detected by receptors in the brain. Once it is detected, it is re-absorbed back into the brain. SSRI drugs limit the re-absorbtion of serotonin into the brain, essentially tricking the brain into believing that it has more serotonin than it actually has.

SSRIs are all very similar to each other, as they all perform this same function. However, there are significant differences between them, as some are “activators” and some are “depressants.” Activators give you a little kick in the butt that is useful if you are suffering from depression and need the motivation to get moving. Depressants calm you down from anxiety.

Prozac is an activator. I was prescribed it when I was going through a period of depression. Now, I am predominately experiencing anxiety instead. Then, I needed an activator. Now, I no longer need to be activated, because I’m already too activated!

My doctor explained to me that patients who were on too much Prozac described a feeling of needing to suddenly get up and start doing things, like cleaning. That was it! I felt like I had ants in my pants- like I needed to be constantly moving, or I might jump out of my skin.

So, when I increased my dose, hoping to quell my restlessness, what was happening was that I was ramping up my anxiety levels, instead of decreasing them.

She suggested I work towards cutting my dosage in half- from 40 mg to 20 mg. I was skeptical, but what she said made sense. I was mostly concerned about experiencing withdrawal effects when I cut down on the amount of medicine I was taking.

It’s been almost a month since I saw her, and I am SO THANKFUL to be able to say that she was right. My anxiety levels have decreased drastically over the past four weeks, to pre-summer levels. I’m still experiencing anxiety, but it is bearable now.

My anxiety had been so high that I had been anxious to see a doctor, but I am glad I did.


The Twelve Deeds of Christmas, #1 and #2

Last week, I completed the first two deeds of my Twelve Deeds of Christmas. 

#1 Donations to Standing Rock: I had read that the protesters at Standing Rock were looking to gear up for winter, and needed supplies such as coats, hats, scarves, etc. I have been a collector scarves for many years, and have grown bored of many of the scarves in my collection. I knew that I had at least a few I could donate. I went to Five Below and bought a couple of hats and some gloves to throw in the package as well. Batteries were on the Sacred Stoned Camp Amazon wishlist, and I had a spare pack, so I threw those in, too. I packed it all up and sent it out to North Dakota. Based on the way things are going out there, I might be sending another package to the Sacred Stones camp before my project is over.

#2: Canned food donations: There was a collection box at church for holiday meal donations for a local family. I had planned on dropping a couple of cans in there with one Sunday. Giant was having an excellent sale on canned vegetables- 39 cents a can! So I bought some for myself, and then twice as many cans to donate! 10 cans for less than $5! Last Sunday, I added my cans to the heaping food box. 

Fall Changes

photo credit: Wanderung Hombourg via photopin (license)
photo credit: Wanderung Hombourg via photopin (license)

It feels like fall has come early this year. All the talk of pumpkin spice doesn’t feel out of place like it did last year at this time. Although it is 90 degrees today, the Pennsylvania breeze carries a chill as it stirs the air. Early leaves have begun to scatter gracefully across the pavement. Usually, I want to fight to hold onto the summer, but this year, I welcome the change.

This year, something feels different. It could be that I’m in a much different place than I was last fall. I had just moved back in with my parents after quitting a soul-sucking job. I was applying and interviewing to everything I could think of, to no avail. (I even got turned down for a job at Starbucks.) I almost regretted leaving my suffereable but secure master’s level job.

I’m in a far different place than I was three falls ago. This time in 2012, I was devastated after a misunderstanding at my internship that almost resulted in disciplinary action. I was completely questioning my chosen career path.Every day, I became more an more hopeless and depressed until my last day at the site in December.

This year, my goals feel closer than they did before. The part-time job I started in January has turned into a full-time opportunity, with me switching roles from caregiver to activities assistant. It’s not music therapy, but it’s much closer. It’s still a job that requires much less education than I have, but its a step in the right direction. The part that excites me the most, though, is that once I start receiving healthcare benefits from work, I will be able to afford to move into my own apartment. I already have a place picked out, and I’ve begun dreaming about how I want to decorate it.

I don’t know why things are so hard. I thought that once I completed my master’s degree, I’d have the key to an instantly successful life. Any job I wanted would be open to me. I had certainly labored enough for it. Fighting for jobs that I am underqualified for has felt demeaning. I’ve struggled to not connect my pay or my job title to my self worth.

I see my friends struggling too, many buried under insurmountable student loans. It’s hard to not feel like the millenials have gotten the short end of the stick. We did everything they told us to do in school and it’s not paying off.

What am I going to do? I’m going to keep trying, because that’s the only thing I know how to do. After I get settled in my new job and my new home, I plan to pursue my teaching certification, in hopes that it will open me up to a wider range of job possibilities and give me more opportunities to move up in the world.

For now, I’ll have to settle with moving through life one small step at a time.

On Feeling Your Feelings

photo credit: Sit and watch via photopin (license)
photo credit: Sit and watch via photopin (license)

One of the most important things that we can learn is how to sit and be present with our emotions. That, if we take the time to experience them fully, and locate where they live in our body, not only will they not hurt us, but they will go away.

Our feelings are begging to be felt- not ignored. If we ignore the uncomfortable ones, they’ll keep intensifying, nagging at us to get our attention, until finally they’ll begin find a home in our body where they’ll cause us physical pain and discomfort rather than emotional pain and discomfort.