Promo Code: JOY

I promised myself I’d be in bed by 10pm.

Yet here I am, 50 minutes past my bedtime, deciding that there’s more important business to attend. Time to get back to writing. It’s been way too long, friends.

Life is good. Summer was hot. Heck, fall was hotter than summer I think. Halloween was crazy. I think the moon was full for like seven straight days at some point, so between that and all the candy my kids were plain bonkers.

Then my sweet old stinky dog died in his sleep. We went from bonkers to grief in 2.2 seconds. I was a sad, sad soul. I think I cried for 24 hours straight. But although I still swear I hear Bear’s toenails tip-toeing down the hall, and his little piggy-like snorts coming around the corner, we are slowly adjusting to the emptiness.

Now it’s almost December…and like every year we all stop and look at each other like HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?!! Then ensues the blur of shopping and parties and Santa and Christmas songs and white elephants and Black Fridays and cyber Mondays and Giving Tuesday’s and days that I can’t even see straight because it’s FREAKING DECEMBER.

But I caught it early this year. A light conversation I had with a friend early in November stopped me in my tracks. We were literally dreading the holidays. Bracing ourselves for the chaos and basically setting ourselves up for a stressful month no matter what. And then I heard myself. And I decided to stop it.

NO! I will NOT dread this season. I will not get wrapped up in the busy distractions that steal my joy. I will not stress over buying gifts or worrying that they are enough or perfect. I will not go to every Christmas party if I’m tired and need to say no. I will give what I can to charities I love and know that I can’t give to everyone and that’s ok. My cards won’t be early if on time at all but they will get done. If the dang Elf forgets to move one or two or five nights in a row, it won’t ruin my children’s lives. The chaos will not control me anymore…I’m taking back my joy this season.

Because, y’all. We are so totally setting ourselves up for failure every year. It’s like some imaginary universal Christmas competition that we all go crazy trying to win. The decorating and the wrapping and the shopping and the baking and the partying…yes, it can be fun, and it may even bring you joy, but not if you feel like you are chasing an unattainable goal of winning the holiday perfection trophy every year.

That was the path I was on the last few years. Literally so distracted by all the stuff that I was missing out on the joy.

Why? What is it all for?

Last year, during our school’s mom/daughter Christmas craft party, Rachel Brown came to speak. Between the painting and blow-drying and kids running around with unlimited hot-chocolate, you could hardly hear the poor girl. I tried to listen as best I could, and I know she played her favorite Christmas song, but it was hard to hear. I asked her at the end of the night what the song was, and the next day, in the stillness of my quiet car (which is sometimes the only place a mom can get peace and quiet) I played the song; Wrap This One Up by Christy Nockles.

As I listened intently to each word, a peace came over me. I knew I needed to hear that song in that moment. I needed to be reminded of where my focus needed to be during that busy, crazy time. I just needed to be still and listen.

That song forever changed Christmas for me.

From that day through the rest of December, anytime I started to get wrapped up in the chaos and stress, I would force myself to stop and listen to that song. To remind myself of the why of Christmas. To remember what it’s all for.

Because the what and the why are so much bigger than the stuff.

If you get a moment in the next few days, try to be still, even for a minute. Focus on what’s good in your life. Focus on the fact that we get the privilege to celebrate at all. Forget the invisible finish line and the infinite lists you’ve made for yourself, and relish the fact that you are here to see another day. Soak up every ounce of joy you can. Be grateful for the tangled ball of Christmas lights and the 60 cookies you have to make and the paper cuts from the wrapping paper.

Or don’t do any of it at all. Just decide to sit and be with people and love on them and shine your light brighter than the dang Rockefeller tree.

Whatever brings you joy, will bring joy to others. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. No promo code required.

So before you go rolling your eyes at those Christmas songs that drive you mad sometimes, try to be still and listen. You may just be reminded what a miracle Christmas really is.

Just Say Yes

It was a rough start to the trip this morning.

As we took off through a barricade of storms in Atlanta, the plane once again bobbed and weaved through the turbulence, sending me once again to the edge. Zero visibility blinded my view and brought on panic.

Meanwhile, my brave daughter next to me could hardly contain her excitement. “We’re in the clouds!” she exclaimed. Unfazed by the bumps, she smiled and carried on without a care. Her joy was contagious, parting the clouds of my fear.

As we journeyed on to Denver and started making memories on the first leg of our trip, I realized just how grateful I am that I can persist through my fears. I could’ve crumbled and said no to flying at all. I could’ve foregone the excitement and anticipation of this time with my family. I could’ve just stayed in the safety of my home and never experienced a day like today, watching my children take in this beautiful scenery for the first time, their eyes wide with amazement.

I could’ve said “no”.

I could’ve said “I can’t”.

But I said YES.

Go, see, do.

Live.

The yes is not always easy. It’s not graceful or without pain or embarrassment or doubt.

But I’ll take a yes over a no any day when it comes to facing my fears.

What will your yes be?

Dear Turbulence

Ahhh, the adventures of summertime travel. We have been hoping around a ton, making precious memories along the way.

Although flying has been somewhat easier for me than in the past, I still get hung up on the same old triggers. Turbulence is a biggie. No matter how many times I seem to fly, I struggle with the unpredictable nature and lack of control when those pesky little bumps seemingly come out of nowhere.

This past flight, although it wasn’t particularly terrible, it was just constant enough to drive me to that edge where I am desperately grasping for comfort. Where I just want to make it stop. It’s so hard in these moments to slow my thoughts down to where I have trained them; the physiological response is just so quick. But obviously, I cannot control this specific situation, so I must cope.

Enter my good old friend…words.

I need to get the words out, the words that match the overwhelming feelings. They need space, a place to breathe, a way to purge this toxic negativity from my body.

You know when you are so upset at someone that you write a letter you never intend to send? That’s what I decided to do. I decided to send a note to my pal, Turbulence.

Dear Turbulence,

Hi there! It’s me again. I know we have this exchange every time I fly. I get very upset with you, you see. The way your existence in the cloud formations just happen to be in the flight path of my plane, making it bump up and down with invisible undulations in air flow, it’s all very scary and terrifying to me. Why can’t you just stay out of the way until my plane has safely passed you by? How can you be so inconsiderate? You make me very, very nervous. I’m sick of it.

Today especially, even on this very short flight, you’ve decided to hang out waaaay up high at cruising altitude, in these thin little clouds that are shielding the clear blue sky with a hazy white glow so that I can’t see anything out my window. They are bright and blinding and it’s probably annoying to the passengers next to me that I have to leave the window open since you make me so nervous. I have to see what’s going on around me, hoping that it will give me a clue to when you decide to throw a few more unwelcome bumps my way. Sure, they are small and subtle bumps, but enough to keep me on edge wondering where the bigs ones are you’re hiding. I wish you would stop being so secretive about all of this. It’s not right.

I really hope you can work on controlling yourself and stop scaring me to death. I get really stressed out and nervous when I’m flying with you just bumping me around all unpredictability. Don’t you realize how many people you are making uncomfortable up here? It’s just really rude, and I think you need to stop.

Sincerely,

Your Favorite Panicky Passenger

I know what the response will be, I can see it coming.

Dear Panicky Passenger,

I am so very sorry for your panicked state while flying with me. But please keep in mind, I’m just air. I can’t be anything else. The weather patterns and conditions made me this way. I’m here whether you want me or not. I’m not trying to scare you on purpose. I’m just being myself, and going where the wind takes me, and that’s the best I can do. I’m so sorry to hear that I make you so uncomfortable. Since I can’t do anything on my end to help you feel better, maybe there are some techniques you can learn that will help you deal with me when I’m hard at work. You could also take this up with the Global Air Current department. I regret to hear you are having issues with me, but I’m just doing my job, ma’am.

I hope that you have a pleasant flight.

My sincere apologies,

Turbulence

As usual, I make the realization that it’s not all Turbulence’s fault. It’s also my reactions that are to blame. So I write back.

Dear Turbulence,

I’m so sorry that I have placed all the blame on you again. I know you can’t help where and what you are, and it was unfair of me to make you feel badly for my discomfort. After I sent my first letter, I looked around the plane; I saw people sleeping, playing cards, reading and relaxing peacefully. No one else seemed upset enough at you to be writing you a mean letter. Everyone else must have realized and accepted that you cannot help who you are. Although it’s true that you do make some people nervous when you bump them around particularly hard, I know you don’t mean too. Like you said, you are just doing what you were meant to do.

You see, I have irrational fears that sometimes try to hijack my brain, and they cause me to enter into a state of panic. Even though there is no physical harm that your turbulance has placed me in, my brain send signals to my body that I am in danger, and it results in a vicious feedback cycle every time I feel the slightest bump. This is called a negative feedback loop. Your turbulence is also a panic trigger. There are ways to help this of course, and it is my responsibility to learn how to manage and deal with having you in my life. I’m so sorry to blame you for how I choose to react to your existence. I know you don’t mean to scare me or anybody else. It is something I continue to work on every time I fly.

Although it’s true that sometimes I don’t like you, and you make me extremely uncomfortable, I need to learn that you are a part of life. If I want to continue to travel to fun and exciting places while making wonderful travel memories, you and I are just going to need to learn to get along and trust each other. I need to trust that although you make me nervous and scared, I am not in real harm. I will try to remember that next time I want to write you a nasty letter.

Looks like the nasty letter really needs to be addressed to my brain. I’ll get to work on that right away.

Sincere Apologies,

Work in Progress

I get a final response, hopefully the last exchange we will have for awhile.

Dear Work in Progress,

Again, I’m so sorry I make you so scared. It’s true that I have no way of warning you of every bump, and yes it is true that I cannot harm you and do not intend to do so. I hope that you can work with your brain and train it to not worry so much about me. Good job at continuing to fly even when you are so nervous about it. I would hate for you to miss out on the adventures of traveling because of me. It would sadden me greatly.

I’m sorry you don’t like me, but I hope that you can learn to tolerate me. I’m really not as bad as people make me out to be. I hope that one day you’ll be like the people on the plane who are relaxing and enjoying their flight without worrying about me so much. It’s a much better way to be, I believe.

Good luck with everything. I’ll reach out to that brain of yours and give her a good talking too. She sounds like she’s got some serious trust and control issues.

Until then, keep on flying and I’ll see you next time!

Be brave my friend!

Sincerely,

Turbulence

I finish this two-sided conversation with an interesting feeling…relief, calm, and positivity. The plane continues to bump intermittently, but I find myself unfazed. I even close my eyes for a bit.

So I had an imaginary conversation with an inanimate object…and it totally worked.

It doesn’t matter how silly your coping skills are, find what works for you and go for it. Let go of the shame and stigma of your fear and give it a good talking to.

Then all of a sudden you’ll realize, with alarming clarity, that the things you’re so afraid of couldn’t talk back to you even if they tried.

The Blanket

I’m drinking coffee…on a plane!!! What?!! Who is this girl?

Many people head straight to the bar before they board an airplane, hit the Starbucks, whatever pumps them up (or calms their nerves) for the flight. Not me, I am straight-up ginger ale only up in the air.  I want to be in complete control at all times, just in case. Like I’ve said before, someone needs to be sober in case it all goes down, just in case I need to take over for the pilot or something. Yet here I am in the middle seat, next to my son; my husband and daughter in the next row, ordering coffee.  A previous panic trigger. There was a point in time where I wouldn’t drink coffee at my own house, as even the slightest elevated heart rate would start me down the worm hole of panic.

Ahhhh the dangerous desire for control.

The past couple of days I’ve really been thinking about the effects of the need for control. I’ve been a control freak most of my life it seems…which is why the fear may have started early. I want to have control to the extent that I can know what will happen next, which I’m pretty sure no one in the world has the power to do. The realization that this is utterly impossible, and that I must learn to accept that I will never have complete control in all situations, is a constant struggle.

Even my devotional passages this week have been reminding me of the importance of letting go of the desire to control every aspect of my life. I love these reminders, but then I start to feel bad about myself. Guilt creeps in. Why can’t I put all my trust in God? Is he mad at me for this? I am less deserving and worthy in His eyes because of my constant level of fear? 

So add trust issues on top of control issues I guess. I am constantly reminded to release my urge to control my life and look to Him.

“No one was ever meant to carry the burden of complete control”

Yes!!! 

Yes. As I read the words I remember this, they blanket my soul in warmth. But why then, do I end up finding myself so quickly back to feeling exposed and chilled with fear? Perhaps I didn’t remain under the blanket long enough? I didn’t let its warmth radiate deep enough?

If you are a person of faith, you realize that it is a journey. I’m a little late to the party, having not been raised going to church regularly. We did go occasionally, to different places sometimes, and every place always seemed a bit foreign, like they were speaking a language I didn’t quite understand. I wasn’t sure how to act, what to say, what was expected. I was afraid I was doing it all wrong. I went to church with friends, witnessed different types of denominations and their rituals. My stepdad is Jewish and we spent some time enjoying some of their traditions. I taught in a Catholic school for almost 10 years and can say the heck out of some Hail Marys. As intimidating as each new religious experience was, I did learn that finding God came in all shapes and sizes. For this perspective I am grateful.

But in not having a strong connection to one house of God, I told myself that I wasn’t worthy of his love. I couldn’t quote Bible verses, and was confused about whether to worship Jesus or God as a child. What if I talk to the wrong One? Do I need to choose? I had lots of questions that I was too afraid to ask. I was asked if I was saved or needed to be, and I was always unsure of how to answer. I often found I felt closest to God in nature (which is still mostly true); watching a sunset, reveling in the breeze, watching the waves on the ocean, I felt Him here. I felt close to Him through music and singing.  Did this mean I had gained his approval? Was this enough?Am I doing it right? I was never sure.

In my Bible study recently, we were asked what our relationship with God was growing up. Every answer was so different. I spoke up and explained that I felt like I was never quite worthy of knowing Him; I felt like God was one of the popular kids that didn’t want to hang out with me. I felt like a good person, like if He knew my heart he would be pleased, and I wanted Him to know that I had a desire to know him, but was also intimidated and didn’t quite know where to start. I felt like maybe I had missed the Jesus boat and was left back with the stragglers. Did I still count? Was another boat on the way?

Speaking of Bible study, the fact that I had even joined one in recent years was so unexpected for me. I always had a desire to join one, but what did I know about the Bible? Wouldn’t they look at me like maybe I was in the wrong place? Was there going to be a quiz on Bible knowledge to allow me to attend (as I’m editing this I just remembered that “Bible” is supposed to be capitalized…doh!!)? But a good friend invited me (she actually thought I already attended, haha!), and assured me that all were welcome, so in I went.

Guess what? They didn’t ask me to leave. There was no Bible verse quiz of any sort (shoot, another B I had to capitalize!!).  In fact, I was exactly the kind of person they wanted to reach. The one who felt unworthy. That felt out-of-place. They embraced me and took me in. They reminded me that there wasn’t a wrong time or a wrong way to find God. That we are all on our own personal faith journeys, and we all have our own pace.

I’m pretty sure it was with that group of amazing women that I first realized that God truly loved me, just the way I was. That I was secure and accepted with amazing Grace. I can almost pinpoint the moment. I was practically in tears about my struggles with anxiety (I could barely get through the carpool line those days without a near panic attack) and those women just took me in and lifted me up. They were the hands and feet of God (or Jesus, right?), radiating with love and acceptance. He grabbed hold of my hand and my heart and never let go.

Still, I am a skeptic by nature. I analyze things down to their core. I think and over think and think some more. Which is why sometimes I question. Sometimes I demand answers and clarity. Which when it comes to faith, you are not given.  You must turn a cheek, and dig deep within. You must walk by faith not by sight. Wow, so hard for me. But I’m still on this journey, and I’m not planning on turning around anytime soon.

There are strong nudges on this journey of faith, ones that shout and ones that seem to whisper. There are crests and valleys and moments where I struggle to understand and others where I am lost in the moment. But the most important thing I am learning is that there’s no perfect here either.  There’s no one size fits all when it comes to faith and God and your place in line for Heaven. Wherever you are, is where you should be, and He is there, waiting to meet you in that place, ready to wrap you up and cover you with love. No guilt, no shame, no doubt should preceed that absolute truth.

It was not ever meant to be our burden to carry. We are not meant to be in complete control.  The work has already been done. The price has been paid. The more we can let go and realize this, the less fear and uncertainty will stain our hearts and steal our joy.

Fear has no place when faced with love.

I turn down the little personal AC fan above my airplane seat, something small that I actually can control, and grab the thin little blanket for warmth. I cover up, sit back and begin to relax in the security of that warm, tiny blanket.

Maybe I should order another cup of coffee? I’m not flying the plane, after all.

Fake News

Cognitive distortions. What are they? Why are they important? Are you speaking Italian?!!

“Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but only make us feel bad about ourselves.”

To put it simply, it’s like fake news. It’s the stories we continue to tell ourselves that aren’t true. And they can affect every aspect of our lives negatively if we don’t keep them in check.

Throughout my years of therapy I’d been handed many wordy, overwhelming worksheets and charts that explained all this, but with my brain already struggling to make sense of anything during that stressful time, I yearned for someone to tell it to me straight, like a friend would. I needed a friend in that dark time in my life, one who understood the frustration and confusion and complexity of it all. That’s my goal, my service to you. I will do my best to provide that valuable insight as only a friend would.

Over the next couple weeks I’m going to break down the 15 most common thought distortions as simply as I can. All of us have struggled with negative self-talk at some point or another, whether we realize it or not. Those of us who have struggled with anxiety and depression have carried the crushing weight of negative thought patterns without even knowing it. Luckily for us, neuroscience has proved that the brain has the ability to change, just like any muscle in our body. This is called neuroplasticity. If we do the exercises, we can potentially “build” our brain muscles and improve our mental health and well-being.

But like anything in life, it’s not an easy fix. If you start a workout program to try to loose weight, it takes time, right? You don’t see results right away. You may get discouraged and want to quit. Same goes for retraining our thoughts. It takes time and effort to see results. It also takes persistence and maintenance work. The first step is learning what areas we need to work on.

Our bodies yearn for balance in order to thrive. If we are off-balance in one or more aspects of our lives, we start to suffer. Stress takes over and we begin to deteriorate. There are so many pieces to the puzzle. But training our thought patterns to work for us and not against us, is just as important as taking care of our physical bodies.

Lately I feel I’ve been slipping ever so slowly back into old thought patterns. It’s a tricky thing to realize, but when those old familiar panic triggers start to flare up and creep into my day to day, I know that I need to get to work.

For example, the other day I was driving somewhere, and I felt my nerves start to fire up and my thoughts drift off to that place of fear and panic. It was an old, deep-rooted trigger (one of hundreds my mind had mapped out over years of uncontrolled anxiety). A certain stretch of road was all it took to bring me back to that place. It happened so fast. My throat dried up, I started desperately grasping for something to steady my fearful thoughts. When I am quickly flooded with panic, I feel like I can’t get enough air. I crack the window, turn down the AC, fumble for a sip of water. These impulsive reactions that are hard to explain, but it’s just the coping mechanisms my brain tells my body when it is triggered by a negative feedback loop. 

Ten years ago, when I didn’t know what was going on in my brain, I would’ve completely panicked.  My body would’ve been taken over with terrifying, uncomfortable sensations; heart racing, arms and legs tingling, unable to breathe, dizziness, tight jaw, dry mouth.  All while trying to maintain a vehicle on a busy interstate. I would’ve ruminated all day on what had happened, felt tremendous shame and isolation, and wondered how I was ever going to live like this. Oh, and I wouldn’t have mentioned it to anyone. Looking back, it’s no wonder I was afraid to drive on the highway for years!

Today, however, there is no mystery in all this. I know what I’m dealing with, exactly what cruel trick my mind is trying to play on me, and even though this is not a welcome battle in my mind, I have to remember how to manage this bombardment of fake news that is flooding my brain. I dig into my toolbox at that moment; I reach for my lavender oil, take some deep breaths, intentionally switch my train of thoughts to the positive. I practice present-moment awareness and become an observor to my surroundings; the feel of the steering wheel, the music, the cool air blowing from the vents. Most importantly I remember not to stop the anxiety from happening, but give it space to rise and fall, knowing that it will end as quickly as it began. This is the hardest part, trusting this process. But it has been a vital part of changing my feedback loop to be able to manage these moments of panic that will always be lurking around a dark corner. It is disappointing and discouraging to be back in this dark, scary place, but now that I’ve found ways to deal with my anxiety constructively, I must trust that I can do it again.

These moments are discouraging, sure, but they are invaluable messages that remind me that I need to get to work. As I’ve mentioned before, there is no cure for anxiety, only management. It will creep back in, but I have the power and the tools to keep it from taking over as much as it has in the past.

The mind is a funny, fickle little thing. It can trick you into thinking all sorts of false realities. It can make you think you are in real danger when in fact you are not. Worry, dread, phobias, panic: all contrived stories we tell ourselves, all fake news. So how do we keep these scary stories tucked away, up high on a shelf, witholding the urge to reach for them?

Again, we circle back to good old cognitive distortions.

Let’s think of an example so that we can explore the different types of distortions. Let’s say there’s a high-school girl named Sarah. Sarah has just moved across town and is starting at a new school. She is extremely self-conscience already and is nervous about this new environment. On one of her first days there, she has to stand up in front of one of her classes and introduce herself. Here are some of the thoughts going on in her head when she is told she has to do this.

“Oh my gosh, if I don’t do this perfectly, I am ruined!” – All or Nothing Thinking (Black and White Thinking)

“Ugh I should’ve worn a cuter outfit! I look so lame” – Mental Filter (discounting the positive and focusing on the negative)

“The other kids will think I am so dumb. I’m going to have no friends. ” –Jumping to Conclusions (Mind Reading and Fortune Telling)

“I am so humiliated, so I must be an idiot.” –Emotional Reasoning (thinking that because we feel a certain way that it’s true)

“I am such a loser.” –Labeling (assigning labels to ourselves or others)

“I always make a fool out of myself”-Overgeneralization (seeing a pattern based on a single event)

“My hair looks pretty good today, but that just doesn’t matter anyway.” –Discounting the Positive

“I am never going to have any friends at this school.” –Magnification (catastrophising)

“I should have never agreed to do this. I must be sure to never to do this again.” –Should/Must/Ought statements

“I must’ve done something wrong to deserve this kind of embarrassment.” –Personalization/self-blame

Do you see what poor Sarah has done to herself? She has let her mind take this one small moment and turn it against her. She feels terrible and self-defeated. Yes, talking in front of people is one of the most anxiety-producing things a person can do, but the way we think about it has the tendency to make it either better or worse. Wouldn’t you want to know how to cope with public speaking in a more helpful way?

It is so much harder for a teenager to hone in and dissect this dangerous way of thinking, as their brains are still developing. But knowing what I know now, I wish I had these tools as a child! What a difference a mindfulness practice would’ve made!

Pay attention to your thoughts towards yourself and towards other. Do you find yourself falling into any of these mind traps? I know I still struggle daily. But once we can start recognizing our unhelpful thoughts, we can work at changing them for the better. It takes time and patience, but it can be done!

Don’t let your mind betray you. With the right tools and a little practice, you will find yourself at the winning end of the battle in your mind!

And no, that’s not a distorted thought. 😉

My Mind is Playing Tricks On Me

You are what you think.

Mind over matter.

Think it, be it.

Yes, you’ve heard the phrases, but the idea is the same…our thoughts help shape who we are.

After the trauma and shame of the first few years of my panic attacks started to taper off, I found myself wanting to know more about them. Certainly this occurrence didn’t come without a biological explanation, right? This wasn’t some random crazy voodoo that was making me feel like I was dying all the time, was it? Knowledge is power, and I was determined to get to the bottom of my seemingly broken brain.

So I started to research and read every panic attack and anxiety/depression book that was out there. It was overwhelming, and I got all hung up and intimidated by the big fancy psychological terms and charts and graphs and exercises, finding myself discouraged yet again. Would I ever find out how to understand what was wrong with me?!!

It’s been 15 years since my first panic attack, and it’s been a journey to say the least. But in that time I have definitely gained a better grip on what exactly makes the brain pull these kind of pranks on us. I’ve found that logical explanations based on neuroscience and psychology can really bring a light to the darkness of anxiety.

Let’s start with our cognitive behavior.

When you her the word cognitive, what do you think of? Looks fancy, right? The word cognitive simply refers to our conscious intellectual activity, such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering. It’s basically using our conscious brain in reference to our daily lives. When we think a thought, recall a moment, try to solve a problem, we are being cognitive. Our conscious thoughts, however, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the complexity of our mind.

Good old Sigmund Freud conjured up the earliest concept of the three levels of the human mind, which in their complexity are not capable of being scientifically proven, but widely accepted among psychologists as the standard example of how our thoughts are used and stored. This is often referred to as the “iceberg theory” (hence my clever reference above).

Our conscious thoughts, which guide us through our day to day, are just a fraction of what lies beneath the surface. In our subconscious, we store the emotions and associations tied to these thoughts beyond much of our control, based on recent experiences or behaviors. The unconscious level is the deepest and hardest to reach, where blocked-out trauma, carnal human needs, and old forgotten memories reside. For more analysis and explanation, here is a great article that breaks it down.

When you suffer from panic attacks, your number one goal is to make them stop. As I’ve learned and mentioned before, you can manage them, but you will never be able to completely stop them. This is where acceptance is key. You can, however, greatly improve the frequency and intensity of your panic attacks in many different ways. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is one of my favorite tools in my anxiety toolbox, and I hope it can help you, too.

When you suffer with mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, eating disorders, and so on, there is some type of faulty informational feedback loop in your mind that is giving you false or negative thoughts that can impair your everyday quality of life. Basically, what CBT claims is that by working to change your thought patterns, you can change your behavior. There are varying CBT exercises that can help with this theory.

I’m going to try to break it down for you as best I can over the next couple of weeks. Next time, I will explore Cognitive Distortions. When I learned about these, it was a game-changer for me. There is a lot to cover, but all I can do is offer what has best helped me, in the hopes that it can help others as well.

Most importantly, if you are in a place of suffering right now, give yourself a break and realize that you are not alone in this. Whether they choose to share it or hide behind a mask of perfection, so many others around you are struggling with similar issues. Don’t be too quick to judge a person from the outside, as you would not wish that for yourself.

We all have weaknesses. We just have to learn to own them and see them for what they are. If we want change, we have to do the work. If we want to love, we have to love ourselves. If we want to help others, we have to share our stories.

I am learning to trust the journey even when I do not understand it.”

-Mila Bron

We may not ever fully understand our journeys, but don’t lose hope. Lean in and trust what comes. You are stronger than you think.

Lift the Shade

Happy New Year!

After realizing that it was January 3rd and my outdoor Christmas lights were still on, I reluctantly pulled the plug and slowly started the process of un-decorating.  It’s been frigid cold here in the Southeast (they are predicting snow in Savannah!!!) and it’s been pajamas for days here in the house. The kids have been sleeping in until 9 am and we’ve all got a serious case of the lazies, which is going to make going back to school tomorrow seem impossible.  But, the world keeps turning, and a new year has begun.  So it goes.

I haven’t blogged in forever, and it’s been looming over my head like more of a chore than a necessity.  Since having both kids in school, I’m not sure what I’ve filled my time with, but I’ve kept myself busy.  I’ve missed writing, but haven’t been able to find the inspiration or drive to start typing. My anxiety has been pretty much under control; a quiet, distant memory at least for now, which has meant even less motivation to write. I had all these grand plans for starting an anxiety support group and producing more in-depth blogging to help those struggling with mental illness, but somehow I’ve side-stepped and found myself focused on more mundane efforts (volunteering, organizing the house, workout classes, Christmas perfection coordinator!?!). Life has been moving at a steady, undramatic pace (ok, minus the usual holiday drama).

Last night, however, I felt a shift. I woke up at some odd hour with a pang of longing, an urge to get up and get the words out. I briefly entertained the idea of popping up immediately and opening my computer with wild fervor (like in the movies!) but I decided going back to sleep was more my speed.  So here I am, after another pajama day, finally getting down to it.

I got news the other day that a friend of a friend had taken her own life.  I didn’t get much of the story, but as I browsed over her obituary on Facebook, took in her beautiful smile and pondered over the sweet words describing her kind spirit, I was struck.  She was about my age, married, strikingly beautiful with a successful career.  She looked like someone who had it all together. I sent a text expressing my condolonces to my friend; the girls had been good friends in college.  She said they had just been in Mexico a couple months ago with a group of friends, but she showed no signs of distress. To gaze upon that picture of her sparkling smile and to know that there was so much silent suffering behind it, that beauty and perfection weren’t enough, was a tragedy.

Her story lit a fire in me, and I knew in that instant that I needed to get back to work.  There are too many people out there, quietly struggling with mental illness, to ignore the cause. Too many beautiful souls smiling through their pain. Too many lives that need saving. I can’t sit back and let it go any longer.

Not long after hearing her story, I heard of another young life taken by choice, a close family friend of a friend who’s son had played baseball with hers. He was only 19.

Although there’s no statistical proof that the holidays have an impact of increased suicide rates (this is generally a myth), it can be a hard, lonely time for many.  If loneliness isn’t the problem, there is added holiday stress, financial burdens, family issues, and little down time.  The self-inflicted perfectionists (guilty as charged!) may not sleep until the last present is wrapped and decoration hung.  Top all that off with colder weather and less sunlight and the holidays can be a bit heavy for some.

There is a disconnect in understanding between those who have struggled with anxiety and depression and those who have only heard stories about it.  To realize that you are in need of serious help is either too embarassing and hard to accept or simply just too complicated to self-diagnose. I’m fortunate to have had only a small taste of depression (I’ve had more acute struggles with anxiety and panic), but once you’ve had a taste, you will never forget it.  It’s a disease that causes your own mind to deceive you, to tell you such enormous lies that you begin to question everything, even your own existance.  It is both tragic and infuritating, and it has the potential to affect us all in one way or another. We owe it to ourselves, and to our loved ones, to make an effort to understand and tame this monster.  There’s no easy answer here, but compassion and understanding are huge bridges towards healing.

That being said, it’s a two-way street.  If someone is unwilling to share, to speak up out of their silence, it will remain that way…silent.  You must be vulnerable in your truth. I opened up about my struggles with mental illness and it has granted me such tremendous freedom.  It is not a crutch or an excuse or a plea for sympathy, but simply a way out of silent suffering.  Ownership and acceptance and transparency can change your life, as scary as it may seem.

Another one of the most freeing things I’ve learned in my journey with anxiety is to give yourself permission to fail.  If you always want everything to be perfect, you will most definitely always fall short.  The pressure of perfection is suffocating. Forgive yourself. Laugh at yourself.  Love yourself no matter what. If you can’t, find the courage to learn how. If it means asking for help to find your courage, that’s okay. Asking for help takes a tremendous amount of courage in itself, even though some may fear perceived weakness.

But listen up, here’s some news for you; if someone calls you weak, guess what? Who gives a shit?!!! (I praise this phrase in one of my previous blog posts, and it still proves to be one of my favorites, although it’s usually just said in my head)!!! Keep on doing whatever you need to become secure in your worthiness. No apologies.

Yes, I still have lots of work to do.  We all do in one way or another.  But I can’t sit back and watch another tragedy without at least trying to do the best I can to help others.  It is my purpose and my duty.  I can’t be responsible for each persons journey, but I can help make a positive impact as much as possible.  I can lend an ear over a cup of coffee or a walk or a simple phone call.  I can take the profound darkness I’ve felt in my past and use it for good.  I have ears that hear and a mouth that speaks and a heart that loves.

So this year, if you see me around, or if you think you need to talk, or if you’re not sure if you need to talk but just need to cry or laugh or hug me, my door is open.  There is no story too silly or embarassing that will phase me.  I’ve been afraid to sit at a stoplight before, I’m still afraid of the dark, and I’ve gone into panic attacks on the most G-rated Disney rides.  I still shutter at the thought of being on a subway, in a crowded room or even just driving a car full of people around. I am working hard at being comfortable being uncomfortable, but it is slow going. There is no shame here, people. If it bothers you, it’s legit.  You can talk about it.  I’m here for you.

Let’s make this year the best ever.  Fear and shame and darkness will fall victim to your light. Just let go and let the shade lift, friend. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…

You are so worth it. 

Up in the Air

*Fear of flying continues to be one of the most common anxieties today. I wrote this post a couple of months ago while flying home to Atlanta from Jacksonville, FL. I know that all you fearful flyers will be able to relate! I’m working on it…and I know you are too! With every flight I try to practice leaning in to my anxiety, which gets me one step closer to actually being able to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight!

Another day, another flight. I have flown more lately than I have in years, and its a bit of a paradox for me. I can’t think of a place more terrifying and yet more utterly exhilarating than up above the clouds in an airplane. It’s truly one of the few places where I can almost completely surrender control, simply due to the fact that I have no other choice. For this challenge and opportunity I am thankful, but still uncomfortable.

One thing I’ve learned on my anxiety journey is that the hard things not only make us stronger, they bring us one step closer to healing . When I choose to lean in and deal with the discomfort of turbulence; when I ride the surges of panic that try to take over, I can begin to relax into my role. I can pleasantly sink into the fact that my only responsibility is to sit, watch a movie and have a drink or two (even if it is only ginger ale, nonetheless). No one needs me to fly the plane. No one needs me to explain turbulence to them to get through it. I have realized that what I thought was so hard may only be so due to my negative way of thinking. I can groom my thoughts, train them up, turn lemons into lemonade. I am in control of that choice. I can continue to battle with this invisible monster of fear (which, in turn, feeds it), or I can turn my back to it, and move forward.

Sure enough, there’s good reason for my self-pep talk. As I cling to these words of encouragement, I feel myself slipping back into the spiral of dread as we fly into impending storm clouds ahead. Visibility goes from clear to zero. This is the place I hate. The place where I have to trust without seeing. The place that tests my deepest level of faith. The bumps come; the invisible, unpredictable roller coaster of air shakes me to my core. 

I realize this is why I’m so scared of total darkness; I want to see what’s ahead, what surrounds me. Dark water slides, roller coasters, I even freaked out once on the People Mover at the Magic Kingdom it was so dark. Don’t even think about putting me on Space Mountain. No, ma’am.

Although it’s not dark during our flight, the concept of fear is the same; I have no control over what’s in front of me. This seems to only occur physically and spatially; conceptual control of things in my life are usually less anxiety provoking. Recently I’ve found that watching YouTube videos of amusement park rides helps me mentally prepare myself for what to expect, (really, I think I’ve watched every Disney ride ever made. Yes I’m a dork.) but there is no such life-hack when it comes to airplane trips. You are simply a slave to the wind and weather.

As we fly onward towards huge grey storm clouds, I grasp to remember my own words…Give. Up. Control. Turn my back to fear. Why is it so much harder to do in the moment? The answer, of course, is due to the discomfort that the physical symptoms of panic bring in my body’s quick response to stressful situations (again, in people with panic disorder, the fight or flight response is a bit disabled). But I persist, because this hellish place is where the magic happens. Where you become tolerant and patient. Where you look fear in the eye and say…I see you. I acknowledge your existence. But I don’t need you. You will not help me in this situation. So thank you for visiting, but you are not welcome here today. 

A friend told me recently that she loves turbulence. I looked at her like she had three heads. She also loves roller coasters, so I guess that makes sense.  This is a totally foreign idea to me. You love turbulence? To me that’s like saying you love jumping off buildings. But the more I thought about it, the more I started to see it for what it was; the same event viewed in two different perspectives. The same definition, simply experienced a different way.

You mean the same thing that terrifies me is same thing people love?!!
  Yes, the event is exactly the same, it is only the perception of the event that is different. What a shift in thought.

Yes, my heart is racing and I’m starting to get some hot flashes. This is not relaxing by any degree. But turbulence, which is just weather-related changes in air flow (a.k.a, invisible roller coaster that I loathe) is not out to get me.  The event has no more risk to it because of the way I view it than the person next to me. I’m pretty darn sure a plane has never crashed from turbulence (okay, so knock on wood just in case) just like the doctor tells you that no baby will die from crying it out when you’re trying to sleep train, although your motherly instincts make you feel otherwise.  I try to see the turbulence for the event that it is, rather than emotionally analyzing and constantly worrying about the discomfort it brings. This is easier said than done, but each time I practice, it gets a little bit better.

We are emotionally driven beings, complex in nature and sensitive to the world around us, some more than others. Certain things frighten and unnerve us that others don’t even blink at. But that’s a beautiful thing; it’s what makes us human, it’s what make us want to work together to find common ground. It’s what motivates us to seek community and support when we need it. If we all walked around with perfect, needless lives, how could we achieve purpose and meaning? We were not meant to live that way.  Our struggles drive connection and enable empathy.

Just like that, we are through the storm and making our way closer to home. One thing to remember about moments of panic, rest assured, is that they will always, always END. With the threatening clouds behind us now, I gaze down onto the ground below.  I notice a field filled with tiny glimmering specks, what are those? I stare closer.

Headstones. It’s a cemetery.
It screams up at me, not in a morbid, dark way but an enlightening one.  The sun illuminates each marble slab, creating a sparkling, enchanting display from the ground below.

You up there! Yes, you! You’re doing it! You’re living! You are alive! Don’t take this life for granted. This is your one chance. Don’t let fear steal your joy and hold you captive. Don’t waste your time on the enemy of fear. Keep moving forward. Live your life. Right. Now. 

That’s all we can do. Whether we’re up in the air or down on the ground, we journey on.
Okay, I just looked out the airplane window and no lie, there’s a rainbow below me. I can’t make this stuff up, people.

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You can’t have the rainbow without the rain. 

I see the runway ahead of me. This was not an easy ride, but it wasn’t meant to be. We are not guaranteed a smooth ride through this life. But we press on, we do the work, and if we’re lucky (or perhaps just a little insightful), we will find rainbows behind the rain.

Shirts That Say Things

Right now they are all the rage. You know what I’m talking about…the shirts. The ones with all the words. The statement tees. 

I have a bunch…Mind Over Matter. Keep Calm and (fill-in-the-blank). Good Times and Tan Lines. But First…Coffee. Namast’ay At Home. I Really Want Abs (…olutely all the tacos). 

Okay, that last one still makes me laugh pretty hard.

I like statement tees. They’re cute and fun, a playful way to express yourself. But I yearn for more. I want more than a few catchy phrases hinting at your life’s story. I want the whole story.

When I started struggling with this anxiety stuff, I remember wishing for a shirt that would explain this silent illness to people around me. I would appear calm and put together while crumbling on the inside. There was a disconnect, a fear of showing my true emotions, and shame and frustration in explaining it to people. Yes, I’m laughing and engaging in conversation with you, but I’m also starting to freak out because it’s getting kind of hot in this elevator and I am terrified of having a panic attack but I don’t want to be rude and interrupt you and I’m afraid you wouldn’t understand or care anyway so I’ll just sit here and act like everything is okay so you won’t think less of me but hiding my emotions makes me panic more so that’s why I am fidgety and nervous and taking deep breaths and sweating but please go on and ignore me and act like everything is totally fine. 

Phew. Try putting that on a shirt.

We are lucky enough to be heading out on vacation today. So of course I’m spending the morning at the airport, immersed in a sea of people. I do love the vast variety of people passing by, although sometimes the crowds can be a bit unnerving. All the while, I am vividly aware that my eyes are only witnessing what’s on the surface, and what I see is a fraction of what lies underneath.

I long for their stories. I want to know where they are going. Where they have been. I want to know their fears, what ails them, what their dreams are. I want to know what makes them human.

Of course, compassion is not always my first response . Take the guy behind me in his car the other day, impatiently honking and throwing his hands up while waiting for me to turn left at a busy intersection; he most certainly did not receive my compassionate thoughts at first. And I may have taken a liiiiitle longer to turn with the hopes of teaching him a quick lesson in patience. But beyond my spiteful reaction, I stop to wonder the reason behind his frustration. There’s always more to the story.

Think of the people you encounter everyday, the ones you pass judgment on without knowing so much as their outward appearance or spoken words. What story do they have to tell? Would it help us to understand their words or actions? Their appearance? Their attitude?

Some of them may not want to share their stories. They may be too painful to relive, or perceived as too shameful. They may believe they are all alone in their suffering, without an empathetic ear in the world.

If they only knew.

There is almost always someone else, someone who knows, who can empathize. They ache for a story to parallel their own. It’s out there, just often hidden in the most unexpected places, covered up and buried by the demons of pride and fear.

I’ve been trying something new lately. Whenever someone on the street asks me for money, I ask them, what’s your story? How did you get here? Okay, so I’ve only ever been brave enough to ask two people. The answers were short, generic even…lost my job, health went south, couldn’t pay the bills. But still I wonder…is there more? And does anyone care? How does it feel to be in their shoes? To be ignored and essentially forgotten? Do they even want to try? Am I insensitive to ask? Is their life’s story any of my business? And what can I do about it anyway?

It’s easier to walk by. Some would probably argue that it’s safer too. But these are people. And we as humans ourselves know that there are a lot of long, hard hours logged into being a living, breathing soul. As passers-by we only witness seconds of a full life lived. This is fascinating to me.

So again, what can I do? 

I think the most important thing I could do, that we all can do, is the easiest.

We can listen. 

We can stop and take the time to hear their story, their journey. It costs nothing to us but time, compassion, and a little patience.

And I don’t just mean the homeless guy on the streets, people. The people who need to be heard the most are often the ones you would never, ever guess. The neighbor with the perfectly manicured yard and a house that would make Joanna Gaines jealous. The mom at church whose family looks like they walked straight out of a catalog. The company president who is driving that brand new car.

What you see isn’t always what you get. The people that seem the most put together on the outside are often the ones who are falling apart on the inside.

Perhaps they are afraid, worried that any hint of internal issues may signal weakness and result in social separation and isolation. Maybe their outward appearance is their shield, a powerful suit of armor against the truth that suffocates them. Maybe to them, anything less than perfect is unacceptable.

I drove by a church the other day that had one of the best signs I’d ever seen. It said, Perfect People Not Allowed. It made me want to visit right then. I don’t remember anything else about the church, but that sign was all I needed.  This is the message I needed, that we all need.

No one is perfect. Come as you are. We are all worthy of love. 

If only we were all required to wear a shirt with those words. A shirt that sent the message that no matter what your story, you are important . I could argue that it should be our uniform for being human.

Don’t be afraid to share your story.  Even if the words aren’t printed on your shirt for the world to see, they are still there, imprinted on your heart.  Their content is what makes you unlike anyone else in the world, and yet so much like so many.  Your story can be a bridge, a new pathway, a shining light.  No matter what your statement is, just go ahead and put on that t-shirt. Do not apologize for it.  Wear it proudly and know that it was custom-made just for you.

Project Me

*I wrote this post back in early January and never ended up posting it. I felt like time had passed and it was irrelevant after a couple of weeks.  It has been a busy, but positive couple of months since. But I still feel like it’s important to share where I’ve been. Plus, I haven’t posted in forever! So here you go!

I skipped my coffee today.

When it gets to the point that I fear even the mild effects of a cup of half-caff, I know its time to come to terms with my mental state.

Here I am again, my fear and me.  Funny how sometimes it creeps in so slowly that it seems to come out of nowhere are knock the wind out of you. At least that’s what happened to me a few days ago.

I was taking Jack home from school one day, driving the short journey home, when it struck.  The panic.  There was no warning.  It hit me like a bolt of lightning.  Quick, sharp, terrifying. As quickly as it came, it proceeded to disappear.  But the damage was done.  The aftershocks of fear shook me to the core, alerted me to a bigger problem.  What just happened? Why did this happen? How did I get here?

I continued on as usual, the day to day routine unfolding before me. But my mind circled anxiously.

Hello there, a-hole brain.  I was hoping we wouldn’t have to meet again on these terms. 

One of the most frustrating and complicated aspects of anxiety and depression is its ability to seep into your life ever so slowly, camouflaging itself in a variety of reactions and emotions, until all of a sudden you find yourself grasping and reaching to steady yourself, already far below the surface of stability.  I am so thankful for the ability to recognize my symptoms early, before descending too far into the dark.  But it is a complex puzzle.  Unlike the obvious clues of a sickness; a sore throat, a cough, a fever, mental illness has no such clues.  They are subtle, invisible discrepancies, slowly chipping away at our soul without much notice.  What’s even tougher to realize is that the people closest to us hardly notice either.

When you struggle with anxiety and depression, you learn that there is no cure. There is only management. In managing anything, there is a risk of unraveling, of finding ourselves back in a situation that needs some tweaking and reworking. Accepting this reality is a must.  I’ve spent too much time pouring useless anger and energy into my inability to have a perfect life.  I know now, that it does little to serve me.  Sure, I have a period of mourning, I have myself a few days of a big ol’ pity-party, but then its time to buck up and get to work.  It’s what a good manager must do.

I have made so many notable gains in the past year. I can’t discount my accomplishments.  In fact, it’s almost been an entire year since I have started this blog.  Last year around this same time, I found myself in a similar place mentally.  I was at a low place, searching for answers everywhere but within.  But then I let the words loose, and out they poured, and through this release began the most healing and progressive year I’ve had since starting this journey.  Which is why it is harder to find myself back at this place.  The higher you climb, the harder you fall. On the contrary, I’m better equipped to cushion the landing.  I have more knowledge, more experience, more support.  But still, getting back to work will be difficult.

Let me lead you through a typical cycle of hitting a low point when it comes to my mental state (since I’ve been through more than several now):

  1. Leading up to the “panic event” (let’s call it the awakening) there are subtle mood changes.  I may be more critical of myself or those close to me.  I find myself frustrated more, able to concentrate less, my mind obsesses more about little fears, about what others think.  I am drained of energy more often, I am in a general funk, and unable to pinpoint why.
  2. There is usually a change, whether it’s an event, a change in routine, or even a change of season. Sometimes just the quiet, meandering days post-holiday, when we find ourselves enjoying the quiet but also realizing we are stuck in the house for days on end, trying to dig ourselves out of old and new clutter, probably surrounded by restless children who’s routine is also upended, can be enough to break us.  It’s also January, and maybe you haven’t seen the sun in days, or you are buried under a blanket of snow and it hasn’t been above freezing in a week.  The third week of January is the week associated with the biggest rise in depression and suicide. It is a tough season for many.
  3. After the awakening event occurs, I go through the typical shame cycle. I am scared, I am confused, I am discouraged, I am angry, I am sad. This is when the pity-party ensues.  I mope around, wondering why me, and try to figure out how I’m going to live like this.
  4. I start looking for answers.  I obsess over small ailments and wonder if there’s a bigger problem.  I’ve been dizzy lately…am I getting vertigo? Maybe it’s just my sinuses? What if it’s a brain tumor? Is my eye-sight getting worse?
  5. I realize I am being paranoid and start working on a management plan.  I start carving out some more me time.  I go to yoga.  I go for a run.  I start my nightly meditations and prayers.  I make time to write.  I force myself to spend time on my hobbies; I write poetry, play the piano and the guitar (even if it messes up my nails!).
  6. I make an appointment to see my PA at the psychiatrist’s office.  I need to pay attention to my medication management and stay on top of it.
  7. I slowly feel the cloud start to dissapate. Hope always remains.

I have to remain patient during this process.  I have to come to grips with the fact that I may find myself in this difficult place many more times in my lifetime.  Most importantly, I have to be okay with this.  I must embrace it.  My stubborn personality despises this, but that will not change things.  As I explained in an earlier post, I must lean into change. 

I have started up poetry again for the first time in over 15 years, and have decided to publish it (much to my initial resistance), mostly because it is usually written in the most raw, emotional moments.  Sometimes the words come so quickly, it’s alarming. But this is a coping mechanism, and I feel like I need to share it. If even one person can connect to my words, my job is done. The purpose is worth the risk and vulnerability.  I wrote this poem in the parking lot of Publix, sitting in my car, feeling as if I were wrapped in thick, grey clouds. The only way I felt I could get out of my funk was to write right then, in that moment. The words aren’t always pretty, but they help take the weight off. It’s a wonderful gift. You can check this particular poem out (yikes!!!) at the end of this post. Ugh, being transparent is soooo scary! 

So if I seem off these days, I apologize.  I’m grappling with a big project right now, and it seems that I need to put in a little extra work.  Most likely, I will present to you a version of myself that shows little to no struggle, which is just how I operate. I try hard to always share my light, even when I am shadowed within. My pain is often encased in a shiny, sparkling shell. Which I why I am thankful for the opportunity to share these words, to share my heart of truth with you, even if you can’t see it on my face.

We are all works in progress; continual projects in need of proper managment and often times restructuring. Don’t be afraid to call an emergency meeting with yourself.  Open the door and have that hard conversation. Sometimes a little performance review can motivate and move you in a new, better direction. And don’t forget, you’re not allowed to quit. You are the most important job you will ever have.

Now, off to work I go.