I can’t believe the summer is over.
It was a great one. We soaked up the sun, swam our hearts out, and ate our weight in popsicles. We had a blast at the beach, made memories in the mountains and out on the lake. We hit the water parks, museums and movies. The summer was hot, fast and magical.
I also can’t believe that I only blogged ONE time all summer.
Although as I mentioned in my last post, I take that as a pretty good sign. Instead of blogging away at night, drenched in fear, I was pretty relaxed. I was doing things I hadn’t done in forever, like actually reading whole books and watching TV (seriously y’all, I hardly ever watch TV anymore. It’s a steady diet of smart phone news and Facebook). It was a nice break. Of course, I’m obsessed with the summer Olympics, so now there’s more TV. I can’t think of a bigger oxymoron than watching the best athletes in the world sweat it out while I lay completely still and horizontal under my blanket on the couch. If only they gave gold medals for best blanket-wearer. I’d definitely be on the podium.
Anyway, I did accomplish some big things over the summer in terms of anxiety. I drove up to Cashiers, NC with the kids and my sister in the car, which was huge for me. Granted, it wasn’t a ginormous interstate, rather a series of small highways and crazy mountain roads. It was super uncomfortable and mentally exhausting, but I made it. The more I pushed through the discomfort and just maintained, the better I felt. Although having an adult passenger in the car makes driving harder, since the social anxiety kicks in and amplifies everything.
What if I start panicking in front of this person? Or have to pull over to calm down? What will they think of me?! How embarrassing!
It helped so much that my sister knows all about my issues, but it’s still not something that I’m comfortable with. And I was following my mom and grandmother in their car, which added even more pressure. I did have to finally pull over on the side of that curvy mountain road (at the ever convenient scenic lookout) to take a stretch and a brain break, something my first counselor taught me. Sometimes it helps to just stop and hit the reset button. Although when you’re driving it’s not practical to stop very often, especially when you have passengers. But eventually I made it, and had an incredible vacation, so mission accomplished. Another tiny taste of freedom.
Lately, I’ve been driving on the interstates more frequently, and have been able to stay on for an extended amount of time. This hasn’t happened in years. If I ever did get up the nerve to get on the highway, I’d usually only make it one exit. Going for more than one exit was such a scary idea; as soon as I passed the first exit I would automatically panic at the idea of being trapped until the next exit. If there was more than a mile between exits, it was game over. I became flooded with panic. Looking back I can’t believe how catastrophic this idea seemed. There is still a small impulse to pull off when I see an exit approaching, but it’s nowhere near the level of doom that I previously felt.
One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed when I practice highway driving is the decreased level of anticipatory anxiety. Back in April, when I really started tackling this thing head-on, just thinking about having to get on the highway made me shutter. I would work myself into a total frenzy from the time I left my house until I reached the entrance ramp. My nerves would just fester and burn until they were about to explode. I anticipated the worst scenarios possible; having a panic attack on the highway, losing control and crashing, injuring my children. Because of these twisted thoughts my brain totally rejected the idea of getting onto the highway at all, and this also caused physical sensations that would worsen the more I worried. Trying to control a car when your skin is crawling with discomfort and you feel like you’re having a heart attack is not exactly a good time. But after numerous practice sessions, the nerves are starting to settle. The purpose of exposure practice is to desensitize the brain and to re-train the thought patterns of fear. Ever so slowly, I’m beginning to regain control over my a-hole brain by proving it wrong.
Hey a-hole brain? Look at me! I’m driving on the highway and I’m not crashing. You were wrong. Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah!
Fear is such a liar.
So now when I choose to practice highway driving, I just get on and go without much of a thought. There’s still lots of discomfort and doubt, but the voice of fear isn’t quite as loud. Sure, the actual decision to practice is still a tough one, and maintaining a calm journey is extremely difficult, but I’m taking it nice and slow. Baby steps. Plenty of grace. I’m not ready to head down I-75 with the kids to the beach, but it’s on my to-do list.
Although the voice of fear was relatively quiet this summer, today it decided to turn itself up a notch. Up there with that fear was an equal amount of self doubt. I always try to pinpoint reasons for an increase in my doubts, but the truth is my self esteem issues run deep. I’ve always struggled with my self worth, to the point that it’s shaped much of who I am. Again, I can’t point to a specific cause of this generalization, but I recognize it as a lie. It’s just a lie that I have a hard time unbelieving.
The way we talk to ourselves is so automatic that it’s hard to tune into, let alone change. For different reasons, our genes and our environment shape our subconscious thoughts from the moment we are born. I’ve spent many years in talk therapy and I’ve come to the realization that I will never be able to trace back to a specific reason that I talk to myself the way I do, and there’s no one thing in my past to blame for the onset of panic disorder. Mental health is so, so complicated and such a conglomerate of factors, that the search to pinpoint a cause or find a cure is enough to drive you mad. In fact, I will never be completely cured. Similar to a recovering alcoholic, there’s always a chance that I will fall back into my old ways. It’s something that I will have to manage for the rest of my life.
Most people who suffer with anxiety or depression tend to have distorted thought patterns that end up leading them down this road. David D. Burns, author of The Feeling Good Handbook, uses the idea of cognitive distortions to treat his patients. Psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck was the originator of this idea, and Dr. Burns continued to research the concept and has even developed methods to alleviate negative thought patterns.
Cognitive Distortions are exaggerated or irrational thought patterns that are believed to perpetuate the effects of psychopathological states, especially depression and anxiety.
I tried to read Feeling Good. I really did. Heck, I may even pick it up tonight and try to get back into it. It’s a great resource. But it’s long and technical; there are charts and daily assignments and at some point my ADD kicks in and tells me to put it down and see what everyone is up to on Facebook.
He does, however, have a great method for getting rid of thought distortions. You have to chart your daily thoughts (specifically during anxious or depressive episodes) and trace them back to categories of thought distortion. It’s kind of like untying a knot in your negative thoughts by figuring out what distortions makes you think a certain way. Once you can straighten out your thoughts by disproving the distortion, you can recreate the thought in a positive, more constructive manner. This takes a lot of work, mind you. But if you really want to get down to the root of your problem, this is a highly successful way to do it.
I want to at least give you the list of cognitive distortions for reference purposes. I love this version of it:
When I first saw this list, I realized how many of my thoughts were distorted. It had become second nature to me to think like this for most of my life. I’ve been handed this list by many a therapist and psychologist, but I appreciate how this one includes pictures to help you remember easier. It’s like Cognitive Distortions for Dummies. There are many other lists online; feel free to search for the one that is easiest for you to understand.
Dr. Burns suggests that the way to “untwist” your negative thoughts is by keeping a Daily Mood Log, to track your thought patterns and assign them to one or more of the cognitive distortions. I also like this list of simple ways to examine negative thoughts:
The power of thought is amazing. The notion that a simple thought can shape your mood, your behavior, and your entire life is not to be taken for granted. The longer you’ve lived with distorted thoughts, the harder it is to unravel them. But it is possible. I am seeing the results ever so slowly.
In other news, I did make a few more noteworthy accomplishments this summer. I made it to the top of the lighthouse while on vacation in Saint Simons Island…man, if that wasn’t a hot, seemingly endless, claustrophobic journey. I drove up I-75 to the Tellus museum, and again on the way home, with my daughter in the car. And just today, I crawled through the penguin tunnel at the Georgia Aquarium. THE FREAKING PENGUIN TUNNEL! Have you been in that thing? It’s like two feet tall in there! But the smile on Allie’s face when I lifted her up and she saw herself surrounded by all those adorable little penguins, that just made the extra flutter of fear in my heart transform into joy. Okay, so I was also a little distracted by the two penguins that decided to mount one another right in front of me. Thank goodness Allie just found it funny that the one penguin was “jumping” on the other one. Good gravy.
To the “normal-brained” person, this list seems silly, but to me it is everything. To me it is proof that my work is paying off. Every little accomplishment gives me hope. I have so much more work in front of me, but I’m motivated. I have built up quite a collection of tools to help me, and hopefully I can help a few others along the way by sharing them along with my story.
The other night I was watching (guess what?) the Olympics, and the runners were getting ready to take their marks at the starting line. I said to my husband, Can you imagine the nerves they are feeling right now? I would never be able to do that! I would pass out!
They are trained for that, he says. They spend their whole lives training for that moment. This is their moment.
No matter what the goal is, there’s a way to get there. We are all running our own race. We train for it. We practice. We put in the work, the sweat, the tears. My race does not involve gold medals or world records, but it is a race towards my freedom. Freedom from the chains of fear. I don’t need to win, necessarily, I just want to finish strong. To be able to look back, with clear, non-distorted thoughts and know that I did my best. That the fear did not break me, but propelled me forward.
I will finish this.
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