More Tips for the Anxiety-Prone

A few weeks ago I gave a rundown of some hardwon lessons in the anxiety arena. Then a friend messaged me her experience, and I realized I left some things out of the picture. So: some more tips below.

  • Try a beta blocker. “If you find yourself too overwhelmed to practice those natural self-care techniques, you might benefit from a beta blocker such as propranolol, a drug that reduces the physical symptoms of panic attacks and anxiety. It lowers your blood pressure and slows your racing heart. Finding relief from those physical symptoms can give you the space you need to recover your energy and focus on more healthful habits.” —tip from a friend
  • Go the supplement route. 5-HTP, a naturally occurring amino acid, is a serotonin precursor. B vitamins also are my go-to (I favor a high-quality combo called Thera-B). I have just restarted these myself due to some situational stress in my life.
  • Calm your nervous system down using energy work. This is so foundational for me that apparently I completely forgot to note it down last time. Here is a good video showing several ways to calm the Triple Warmer meridian, which governs fight/flight/freeze. Most of us walk around in a state of overstimulation, with our nervous systems on overdrive. Even if we don’t think we’re in fight-or-flight, chances are our Triple Warmer wants calming.
  • Take a news fast. I mentioned limiting social media and online media, but sometimes we need a break from all of it to restore our resilience. Remember that the corporate media machine is geared toward hooking you. I favor media like Yes magazine to help me see broader trends. I might not be on top of the latest tweets and twaddles, but I maintain my balance, and stay informed in my own way.
  • Speak truth to power. I mentioned taking action last time, but leaned toward the feelgood stuff. Yet sometimes the most challenging thing, the action that seems to spike our anxiety, might be exactly what we need to do to reclaim ourselves.
  • Make space for discomfort. (Only if it isn’t overwhelming.) As transformation guide Lee Harris puts it in this video:

    “We are stronger when we allow ourselves to sit with hopelessness and helplessness from time to time. As it is often our energetic undercurrents (grief, sadness, frustration) that are the very energies we need to sit and be with (or learn how to support), in order to rise into the next place we want to go…”

  • Finally, consider anxiety a call. I don’t think this perspective from novelist Walter Percy makes light of the pain of living with a mood disorder, but recognizes it as a possible gateway:

    “Anxiety is, under one frame of reference, a symptom to be gotten rid of; under the other, it may be a summons to an authentic existence, to be heeded at any cost.”

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More tips from the 14-year-old daughter of a friend who attended my Sheroes in Everywoman workshop this week.

As always, please add your thoughts and any tips of your own in the comments!

Lies I’ve Loved

Last time I wrote about radical ephemerality, shamelessly stealing from my yoga teacher. Since then we’ve had another gentle snow to delight my eye.

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You can’t see it, but there was a kingfisher in this old craggy cottonwood by the creek.

Then we had about a gazillion inches of hard rain, and wind strong enough to knock the birdfeeder off its platform. A sinkhole opened up down the street, the same one the city filled in with gravel sometime back. Water flowed into basements all over the neighborhood and the creek ran high and muddy.

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Blossoms in a sand trap show the high water mark.

And a friend marked herself as “safe” on Facebook, after a shooting in a California town I used to visit on business in the late 1990s.

Meanwhile I read a little book called Everything Happens for a Reason, and other lies I’ve loved, by Kate Bowler. It’s the true story of a woman living with inoperable stage 4 cancer, a memoir like none I’ve read before. Kate writes with great honesty and humor of the tyranny of prescriptive joy, the collective addiction to control, and the dumb things people say.

She writes of her habitual need to plan. For example: walking with her husband, the whole time talking about what to do next. (I can relate.)

But she’s smack in the middle of a present moment tinged with pain because of the possibility of losing everything dear to her. “I just need to live to be fifty,” she tells a friend. “I need to make sure that kid is launched. I need to get most of my life done. I need to lock it down.”

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Daffodil head blown far from its stalk.

 

“Don’t skip to the end,” the friend tells her.

It’s one of the wisest things anyone can say. In fact, at the end of the book she has a list of things not to say to people facing terrible times. Things like “Well, at least…” and “When my aunt had cancer” and “God needed an angel.” (She suggests instead: Silence. Offers of hugs and food. Or: “Oh my friend, that sounds so hard.”)

The book made me think of the biggest loss of my life to date, the death of my father. I remember his response when people would say, “Just keep fighting!”

“I don’t know what that means,” he said, as mesothelioma closed his lung tissue, and chemo and radiation made him only sicker. Grieving his foreshortened lifespan, he shook his head: “What does that mean, to fight?”

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I can never remember what these are called. I used to ask Dad year after year.

 

We put such pressure on our sick people, to be brave, to be fighters, to be positive. A well-meaning extended family member asked him, “Do you want to get better?” As if he somehow wasn’t clinging to life passionately enough.

Talk about dumb things people say. A few days after he died, a twentysomething fitness guru said to me consolingly, “At least you know he’s not suffering anymore.” I remember wanting to throttle her. Thank you for that insight, perky little cheerleader-gym owner. That just makes it all OK now. Or at least YOU feel better.

The funny thing is, I do tend toward the belief (beloved lie?) that things happen for a reason. I want to believe that the hard things I go through have a purpose, that my soul draws experiences to me so that it can grow. Perhaps it is a lie, but it feels like a more empowered frame of mind than blaming random chance.

I do know that some of the difficult times in my life have softened me to others’ pain, and brought me resources that later served a larger healing.

But I would never suggest that “everything happens for a reason” to a young mother dealing with a death sentence. Sitting squarely in her ephemerality. Life is more beautiful, and painful, Kate writes, than she could have imagined.

“My little plans are crumbs scattered on the ground. This is all I have learned about living here, plodding along, and finding God. My well-laid plans are no longer my foundation. I can only hope that my dreams, my actions, my hopes are leaving a trail for Zach and Toban, so, whichever way the path turns, all they will find is Love.”

—Kate Bowler

 

Ephemeral Nature

The “radical ephemerality of the mind.” That’s a phrase from yesterday morning’s yoga class, which kicked off a spring day when the snow just fell and fell.

I happen to love snow, no matter when it falls on the calendar, no matter if it’s wet and sloppy or airy and feathery. Snow brings out the little kid in me. Not for me the grousing of most folks confronted with a late-season blizzard.

In fact, I notice that I want a storm to last longer, snow harder, more more more. Never mind if it means I need to shovel longer/harder/more. There’s still this internal clinging. I believe the Buddhists would call that attachment.

It’s just: I like the draping of snow over every twig and berry. I want that to stay. I want to fill my eyes with that clean beauty. It’s even more precious for being so fleeting. (A few years ago when we were in the deep freeze with that Arctic Vortex, I hated the extreme cold but loved the way it preserved the softness of snow.)

Today I woke up to a different kind of loveliness, with wind and sun conspiring to wipe the snow off every limb. I got out for my walk as soon as I could.

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Watching the ephemerality of  nature (and my mind), I noticed my tendency to focus on past and future moments instead of NOW. Like: This creek view reminded me how I walked on it when it was frozen solid a few months ago. That was another moment I wanted to last forever.

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I decided I would continually draw my attention to the here and now, instead of mentally wishing for something to last beyond its particular moment. “Be where your feet are,” is something I remember Anne Lamott saying, and in my Yak-traxed boots, I did my best.

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The same wind that chilled my face and kicked up snow like desert sand had carved gargoyle shapes on top of this bridge railing.

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Is this the last Yak-trak of the season? Would I step less reverently if I expected more?

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What I’d like to do is pay close attention in every moment regardless of its assigned significance. Barring that, I’d like to remember to remember to remember to come back to the present moment… as soon as I remember to!

Tips for the Anxiety-Prone

A recent medical procedure that emptied my colon brought back vestiges of a mood disorder I thought was long gone. I realized again the close link between mood and gut flora. I’m happy to say that with time and scrupulous self-care (below) anxiety has mostly left me. But it made me remember how painful it is to live with anxiety, and I thought a blog post might be useful to others dealing with similar.

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I visit this tree every day. It keeps me grounded.

So, below are a few tips drawn from personal experience. This is not an exhaustive list, and not meant to replace professional medical/mental health advice.

  • Take deep breaths. It doesn’t get any more basic than that. Breathe in, breathe out. It’s physiologically calming. It’s something you can control. Just watch the air come in and go out.
  • Feel whatever you feel. Don’t judge it or push it away. You can touch the emotion as if it is a beloved child, be there for it, love on it, and watch it shift. (Note: If this gets overwhelming, stop and reach out for help from a trusted friend/spouse/professional. Consider, too, that you can access help from the unseen: Source/God/spirit guides/higher self.)
  • Nourish your gut bacteria. This will help to rebalance neurotransmitters like serotonin, 90 percent of which originates in the gut, not the brain. According to my holistic physician Kevin Logan, a diet rich in vegetable fiber provides an ideal environment for diverse gut flora. Reduce or eliminate processed food and sugar, and introduce lactofermented veggies like sauerkraut and kim chee.
  • Take nature as your tonic. If you can’t get to the woods or the beach, just take a walk and look at the sky and the trees. Time outside (or even in the company of loved animals indoors) will increase your resilience to stress.
  • Limit social media and the online universe in general. Speaking for myself, social media can be a huge energy drain, and the overstimulation it creates is subtle but detrimental. I make it a rule that after 8pm I don’t check email or Facebook. My health coach buddy Bill Heitman recommends unfollowing anything (and anyone) giving you anything other than 100 percent warm feelings. (You can always seek out news when you want to get informed.) Or, you can install an app like Social Fixer to customize what you see on Facebook.
  • Get some movement every day. Even five minutes of freeform stretching is a start. Focus on the pleasurable aspect of feeling into your body as it moves.
  • Make positive habits the rule. If exercise is hard to work into your routine, consider what a recent TED Radio Hour guest suggested. Turn it into a rule, so there’s no question about whether to do it or not. He compared his gym habit to brushing his teeth at night: He doesn’t have to decide whether to do it or not (and if he had to make a decision, he probably wouldn’t go!). He just does it, regardless of how he feels about it in the moment. This is how I am with walking my dog every day: I just do it. And it’s self-reinforcing, because I’m also getting my nature fix.
  • Put deposits in your health bank. That’s what Christiane Northrup, MD, calls restful, restorative activities that engage the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for causing vital organs to rest). (Examples: meditation, napping, cuddling, sitting and staring into space.) By contrast, anything that activates the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for revving up your metabolism, protecting you through fight/flight, etc.) will withdraw from your health bank account. We forget how important it is to STOP, get quiet, and allow our nervous systems to rebalance, in this overstimulating age.
  • Lean on your tribe. If you have a trusted friend or two who will hear you in your most vulnerable hour, kudos. Even if you don’t, getting out and connecting with people in real-time will probably bolster you.
  • Let your creativity out. In coloring books, even! Creativity heals.
  • Consider taking action. Sometimes our minds spin and spin about whatever worrisome thing has hold of us. Taking even a small action might make a dent in the worry. If some of your anxiety centers around the state of the world, ask yourself if there’s something you can contribute to the good. It doesn’t have to be grandiose to have meaning. Maybe it’s a creative project, or a small generative act that you dedicate to the uplift of all, like a kind gesture to a stranger. (Note: Make sure that what you decide to do aligns with who you are! Vs. a “should”!)

For me, all of these are cross-reinforcing. I feed my body well (most days) so it supports my mood and movement. Several times a week I practice yoga, which slows my breathing and moves me into the parasympathetic nervous system, while also strengthening my body. I get outside every day with my dog, which helps tire my body out so it rests easier. I try to avoid media after about 9pm so I don’t go to bed with my brain on overdrive. When I’m rested, it’s easier to write about what troubles me, and sometimes the writing turns into a creative piece that boosts others. And so on.

Please add your own tips in the comments! We’re all in this together.

The Alchemy of Yoga

Sometimes, looking at the horrors of our present age, my thoughts run to “what is the ever-loving point of any of this?”

It’s a heaviness that gives despair the reins. In the wee hours, my brain chatter runs to the bleakest possible things. Teachers I admire and love, young people I care about are attempting to teach and learn… while fearing they might be the next victims of a school shooter? Devastating, terrifying. Unthinkable.

And what of the shooter, of shooters-in-the-making? How deep does our alienation go, that we continue to look away while people tumble into darkness? Would a life-affirming culture continue to produce people with little respect for life?

Yoga is where I get a visceral sense of alienation’s opposite. Yoga means union. In yoga practice, I alchemize my despair, and hold space for the collective to heal. The dysfunctional culture plants its stunted seeds into me, waiting for me to curl inward, grow cynical, turn my back. Yoga grows a new plant entirely.

I go to yoga class to be with my people. My yoga studio welcomes people of all body types, ethnicities, ages, and orientations. (My teacher is one of a new vanguard of instructors extending yoga to populations that might not gravitate to it: veterans, people with addictions, older folks, people with disabilities.)

We roll out our mats, sometimes josh and tease, sometimes get serious right away. Our teacher guides us into quietness through simple breath awareness.

We don’t have to stop the mind from its prattling. Just notice where it’s gone and take another conscious breath.

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The movements may be slow and easy, slow and challenging, or flowy and strenuous, depending on the class. But always there’s the pairing of breath with motion, the sensation of really inhabiting the body that so often goes ignored. Union.

If tears threaten, we let them come. It’s all OK.

We are here to challenge our habitual patterns of mind. We are here for community and communion. We are here to find some silence in the fray. We are here to refill our wells. We are here to stretch bodies that sit too much, or ease bodies that work too hard. We are here to touch into timelessness.

By the end of class we’ve been rearranged a little bit. We might leave class kinder than we went in. We will go back to the fractious world, the intractable problems, contributing in whatever way we do, letting go of “what’s the point,” at least temporarily.

The closing invocation might fall into the much-maligned “thoughts and prayers” category, but for me it is a powerful statement of connection that does not preclude action. It invokes what can be, what must be if we want to survive and thrive as a collective.

“May all beings be safe. May all beings be happy. May all beings be healthy. May all beings know peace, be free from all delusion, and walk through their lives with ease.”

And the light within each of us grows brighter, so we can continue to hold others in Light.

Prairie Skies

I wanted to be Laura Ingalls for a fairly long period in my childhood. If there could have been a buck-toothed, four-eyed Halfpint, it would have been me. I went so far as to wear my hair in two braids for the entirety of third grade. I also begged for a yellow sunbonnet that (if memory serves) my mother hand-sewed for me.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder

In a nostalgic mood, I recently read the eye-opening Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Today happens to be Wilder’s birthday. Happy 151st to an icon of my youth.

My passion pre-dated the TV version of Little House on the Prairie, which debuted in 1974. I was 6 when my Grandma Miller gave my older brother the first volume of the series for Christmas in 1972. I can’t remember when I first got my mitts on Little House on the Big Woods, but safe to say it was my cup of tea.

Big Woods was likely the first chapter book I read on my own. Before long I had read the entire series through. I’m guessing I promptly started over again at the beginning. Throughout my bookwormish girlhood I read them too many times to count, and they’re on my bookshelf still.

My early writing efforts owe a debt to these books. I remember matching the name on the spine with the character in the book. I’m not sure if I knew that writing was an actual profession carried out by real people until that moment.

If I get quiet enough, I can almost slide back into the wonder of first opening those books and living in their pages. The magic of a world where everything was handmade, down to leather hinges on the smokehouse door.

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My beloved and battered 1972 copy of the first volume.

 

My favorite was On the Banks of Plum Creek. Living in a dugout sounded so sensible and yet romantic. Wilder left out the scorpions and spiders. The privy was somewhere offscreen.

(Also unmentioned: the fact that Pa was a squatter in at least one of the homesites he chose for his family—claiming land legally still in Native American hands.)

The sweep of those stories riveted me—and my friends, who used to join me in pretend-harvesting “wheat” by pulling the seedheads from weedy grasses growing in untended corners of our city block.

Memory made these books, and now they are tied up in my memories (and millions others’). I’m nostalgic for something that was originally an act of nostalgia: Wilder wrote her books a half century after her own childhood, in a sometimes-painful look back at a time and place lost to her.

Her Pa was one of the homesteaders settling the West, cutting down trees in the Big Woods, plowing up native grasses on the Prairie that later would become the Dust Bowl. The wilderness that both he and Laura loved was imperiled by just this impulse to settle and farm.

Nostalgia aside, I wouldn’t want to turn back time, to the days in the 1970s when I lost myself for hours on end in these books. Or to the days when pioneers staked claims on land wheedled away from its original inhabitants.

We were sold a line in the opening paragraphs of Big Woods, in which Wilder wrote that to the north of their log cabin, for miles and miles, “There were no people…only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.” Of course there were people: the first people, the ones who knew the Big Woods better than any white settler.

Prairie Fires sets the stage for the Ingalls’ westward migration by recounting the Dakota people’s fight for their territory along the Mississippi. The Homestead Act had just offered free land to every American citizen over 21. If a homesteader lasted five years, they would receive a deed to the property. Though scientists cautioned the government against encouraging farming in the arid west, the bureaucrats didn’t listen, and so began America’s ill-fated “sodbusting” fervor.

What’s clear to me now as an adult is that Wilder’s cozy familial scenes masked real privation, not to mention deep injustice and dubious land practices.

So much of what majority Americans have comfortably assumed as truth is in revision these days, as we learn the hidden stories behind our assumptions.

When we look back at this time in Western history, if we survive it, one name for it could be The Great Unveiling. A time of necessary awakening, innocence lost (in long overdue fashion, we might venture to say).

We don’t need to cling to the illusions of our youth. We’re strong enough to contain all of these truths: our childhood selves and the simple wonders we first opened to, and our adolescent selves who only wanted to be right and unchallenged, and our (may it be so) growing adult consciousness of the hurts and injustices inextricably tied to this country’s origins.

For me, cracking these books today, for just a second I can still vibrate with the same enthrallment as I did when I first devoured them. I never wanted to come to end of the last book. When the TV show proved to be a sad imitation, it didn’t stop me watching week after week—and it wasn’t Michael Landon’s locks and dimples that kept me coming back. I suspect that already in 1974, I wanted to recapture the thrill of discovering that world for the first time.

Prairie Fires traces the arc of Wilder’s adult life, showing the hardship of losing everything with her husband shortly after their marriage, and later a troubled relationship with her daughter. Most of it was hard to read. But I am coming to the conclusion that knowing more about their author, or the complexities in her life and work, can never dim my love for her books.

Because I still carry that wide-eyed girl inside me, the one who wished for Laura’s pluck and strength (yes, even her chores)—and neverending prairie skies.

Dubious Science: The “Talking Killer Whale”

Scientists in France have taught a killer whale named Wikie to make sounds in mimicry of “hello” and “bye-bye” and other human syllables.

An authority is quoted as saying, “Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, which, along with other advanced cognitive skills, has fueled the evolution of human culture … The subject made recognizable copies of all familiar and novel and human sounds tested and did so relatively quickly.”

Um. So what?

This gimmick advancement in human-whale relations is supposed to support a hypothesis of social learning in mimicry among wild orca populations.

But really, it seems to me a silly trick, like making a parakeet wear bunny ears or something, just because we can. It reminds me of those disrespectful photoshopped images that goofify furry critters. You know what I’m talking about. People try to make mammals look cuter by morphing their muzzles into smiling lips. Usually with a sappy caption that no self-respecting nonhuman animal would ever “say.”

I mean, animals are brilliant on their own, without needing to jump through our stupid hoops. And they’re plenty beautiful without benefit of Photoshop.

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Photo by “JellyBean” via Flickr Creative Commons

I think of the book by esteemed primatologist Frans de Waal, titled Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? and the answer seems to be: No.

Must we demean a noble species by teaching it to twist its vocalizing apparatus in a semi-successful attempt to sound like us? Is that a good use of research dollars? Surely the orca has its own intricate and elegant communications genius, of which the audible variety is only one method. (Echolocation, body language, telepathy?)

If you look up “threats to orca” you find lists like this: habitat loss, chemical pollution, loss of food supply due to hydroelectric dams and other human encroachment, etc. Not to mention being captured for marine mammal parks like the one where 14-year-old “Wikie” lives. 

I won’t lie, I was thrilled with Shamu the Killer Whale as a youngster visiting Sea World. The tricks! The jumps! The splash! But … haven’t we all grown up a bit since the 1980s?

The orca who learned to “speak” lives at MarineLand in Antibes, France, which has been the target of protests and investigations for mistreatment of the sea mammals.

“Bye-bye,” indeed.

Surely we are the ones who could stand to learn from our wild cousins. An apex predator like the orca: Does it kill more than it needs to fill its belly and care for its young? Or does it live in balance with its habitat, like every other creature on the planet with the exception of homo sapiens?

What a step for humankind it would be, if we humbled ourselves enough to consider the possibility of mimicry in the other direction.