Overcoming Trauma Is Possible – with Help

This is an interesting article I found on: www.psychcentral.com

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When you see news accounts of people experiencing traumatic events, shootings, violent or sexual assaults, kidnappings, accidents, fires, drowning and more, it may seem both commonplace and far removed at the same time. The fact that the news tends to sensationalize such terrible events might numb you to the magnitude of the trauma these victims endured.

But when it happens to you, you’re stunned, frozen with fear, totally unprepared. The aftermath leaves you deeply scarred, physically, psychologically and emotionally shattered.

I know exactly how this feels. I was a victim of such trauma. Yet, I did overcome this life-altering experience with psychotherapy.

The Attack

It was a beautiful, sunny day in June when I drove into the parking space behind my best friend’s apartment building. She lived on the other side of the building, and so couldn’t see me approach. Thus, she had no idea what was about to happen. Neither did I.

Since we were going to do our hair and nails at her place before going out to a restaurant for dinner afterward, I gathered my purse and situated the bag containing shampoo, conditioner, blow dryer, curling iron, hair spray, makeup and change of clothes in the front seat. There was no one on the sidewalk and no cars nearby. As I opened the door to get out, my purse was hanging on my shoulder, my car keys in my other hand.

Suddenly, I felt something sharp pressed into the left side of my neck, and someone grabbed me roughly to pin my right arm back.

“Don’t move,” a man’s voice commanded.

I didn’t. I couldn’t. Everything seemed so surreal. Time seemed to stretch on forever as I stood petrified.

I felt my purse yanked off my shoulder and felt the sharp tip leave my neck. I sensed motion and after a few seconds realized my attacker was gone. I turned my head and saw two young males running down the sidewalk that led to another apartment building and forked to a small park.

For some reason, I started yelling at them to stop. Then, inexplicably, I took off after them. One turned, saw me, and they split. I ran after the one I thought had my purse, although I couldn’t be sure. He had a huge head start on me and I soon lost him.

The sidewalk ended on a residential street. There was a man watering his tiny patch of grass and I ran up to him and asked if he’d seen a young guy barreling by. He said he hadn’t and asked me what happened. Out of breath, just then beginning to realize how foolish my actions had been in trying to chase my attackers, I told him. He urged me to call the police.

I felt like my legs turned to Jell-O, but I slowly made my way back to my friend’s place and tearfully related what happened. She drove me to the police station and I made a report. The officers held out slim hope that the attackers would be apprehended, but said they’d be in touch if they did.

We went back to my friend’s place and had some iced lemonade. Forget the evening plans. Forget me going home to my apartment that weekend. My house keys, identification, wallet, address book with my home address in it, my checkbook with the same, my medication, all were now in the hands of my attacker.

I did call my upstairs neighbor to give him a heads-up. He promised to watch my place.

Three days later, on my return home, my neighbor met me at my door. It had been broken into and the doorjamb was destroyed. My neighbor said he heard loud banging the night before and went out on his balcony to look down. He yelled and saw two guys making off with something, although he couldn’t see what it was. He called the police.

I spent the next few nights at my mom’s house, while the landlord installed a new door and lock at my apartment. I also got a call from someone who said they’d found my purse, and wanted to know if I wanted it. I was afraid this was a scam, so I arranged for the finder to meet me at the police station with my purse. I did, and the purse was fine, although the money, my ID, checkbook and keys were gone. I offered a $20 reward, which the man gratefully accepted. I had to borrow the money from my friend to give to him.

The Nightmares and Flashbacks Begin

For months after the attack, I never slept through the night. I tossed and turned, knowing that when I did fall asleep, I’d have vivid nightmares that replayed the traumatic event over and over. In the daytime, any sudden movement put me on edge. The sound of a man’s commanding voice anywhere – on the TV, radio, in the market, at work – put me right back to the attack. I felt the knife tip, heard his insistent voice, saw the wild-eyed look in his eyes. The latter is something I remembered in the split-second when he turned to look at me on that sidewalk.

As I attended night school at university, I was also afraid to go from my car to classes. My schoolwork suffered. I had to finally drop out of school for the semester.

At work, my attention wandered. I couldn’t stay focused on the task at hand. Often, my supervisor would find me gazing off into space. I barely knew he was there, for what I was seeing was the attack happening all over again.

He suggested I go for counseling and said my company benefits would pay for it. I asked a few friends for recommendations for a psychotherapist, selected one, made an appointment, and began therapy.

The Long Road Back to Mental Health

It wasn’t easy reliving the violent episode with my therapist. Although he knew that was the reason that I started therapy, there were other items in my past that needed attention as well. We first had to establish trust. I’ll admit the thought of psychotherapy was very unnerving, but I was in a precarious state and needed help.

My therapist was a kind, gentle man. He spoke softly, whether to ease my fears or that was his regular demeanor. All I know is that I instinctively trusted him and believed he wanted the best for me.

In helping me learn how to deal with my trauma, we went over self-protective measures I put in place immediately following the attack. He also encouraged me to stay in close contact with my upstairs neighbor, my family, co-workers and friends so they knew my schedule and could tell if something was off. This gave me an added sense of security.

Working to rebuild my self-confidence and self-esteem took quite some time, and he used different approaches for that. I know I cried a lot during sessions, and a lot more at home. Still, I felt I was getting stronger every day.

I knew that I’d never again put myself in harm’s way. Before exiting a vehicle or building or wherever I went, I taught myself to be keenly aware of my surroundings. I needed to be able to quickly identify escape routes, to impress on my memory specific details of people, places and things around me – in case I needed those facts later.

While in those days, I don’t recall the words post-traumatic stress disorder or panic attack, I know now that I probably suffered from both. I was prescribed anti-anxiety medication that I took for a period of months before my therapist felt I could be weaned off them.

Did therapy help me overcome trauma? Absolutely. Was it a rapid healing process? No, it took a couple of years to undo the damage that one traumatic act of violence inflicted. Yes, I did heal. Frankly, the episode gave me an overwhelming appreciation for life and gratitude that I was able to survive what could have been another fatality statistic.

Overcoming Trauma Is Possible – with Help

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How an Innovative Therapy Technique Made Me Feel like a Superhero When I Was at My Worst

This is an interesting article I found on: www.psychcentral.com

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“Take another deep breath, hold it, and let yourself feel like you’re drifting and floating.”

The voice overtook me as I felt my body slip into that weightless feeling between consciousness and sleep. It was as if someone wrapped my body in memory foam and filled every corner of my mind with white noise.

“My jaw is slack.”

“My shoulders are relaxed.”

“My neck is loose.”

These were some of the phrases that I was told to repeat to myself in a recording made by my therapist and given to me during our first session together. Each one focused on a different body part, meant to make me feel warm, heavy, and unconstrained. This was the beginning of my biofeedback training.

Just Relax

I chose my therapist because he’s an expert in biofeedback, a psychology technique where a patient learns to control their body’s functions, like heart rate or palm sweating. Biofeedback was first introduced in 1969 as the crossroads of traditional whitecoat psychologists and those interested in a higher consciousness.

Before I could reach a higher consciousness though, I had to master just being relaxed.

A few weeks prior to my first appointment with him, I was trapped in a horror movie in my own mind. I couldn’t shake this one single thought that replayed itself incessantly for a week straight: that of the top knuckle on my right ring finger snapping backwards and breaking.

It’s a disturbing thought on its own to anyone who prefers their fingers in tact, but imagine it popping into your mind over and over — and over and over — until you want to check yourself into a psych ward. I was consumed. I could barely talk or sleep or work without wanting to slam my head against a wall. I was desperate for any advice, so when my dad recommended biofeedback, I made an appointment immediately.

The technique he employed in the recording is called autogenic relaxation. Through the self-induced relaxation akin to hypnosis, my doctor coaches his patients to cure themselves of ailments like depression, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure and anxiety — my personal woe. Learning to relax your body was just the first part, though.

Anxiety by the Numbers

At my next appointment with my therapist, he hooked me up to a slew of sensors as I reclined in his plush leather chair. Three cold metal circles stuck to my forehead measured my muscle tension in millivolts, a small wire taped to my pointer finger took my skin temperature, and two more sensors on other fingers measured my sweat production. Once I was connected, the doctor quizzed me.

“Alright, count backwards from 1,000 by 3s. If you mess up, you have to start over. If you don’t get to 940 in 30 seconds, you have to start over. Ready, go.”

I’m sure my measurements immediately spiked. I’m terrible at math and to add a time pressure to them was beyond stressful. But I got through it. He did it again, but with higher stakes.

“Okay, now you’re going to count backwards from 1,000 by 6s and you have to get to 860 in 30 seconds. Ready, go.”

To prepare for my biofeedback training, my therapist was simulating an anxiety-inducing situation to see what my normal and stressful levels were.

During the following appointment, he again hooked me up to the muscle tension sensors, but this time instead of stressing me out, he walked me through the autogenic relaxation phrases from the recording. But this time, the machine I was hooked up to was now emitting a pulsing sound that correlated with my muscle tension level. The more tense I was, the faster the pulses.

As his voice coached me through the phrases, and then in the next appointments as I walked myself through them, I learned to listen to the pulsing and to my body to see what slowed the tempo. My muscle tension level started at around 4.0 millivolts and he told me some of his patients start out at as high as 10 millivolts. Each appointment, he set the threshold lower and lower on the scale and once I reached it, the pulsing turned off. Each appointment, I was learning to bring myself to a more relaxed state than the time before.

By focusing on the pulsing, I experimented with what autogenic relaxation phrases worked best for me, what my ideal relaxed breath is like, and even how to position my head and arms for optimal relaxation.

Put to the Test

I’ve struggled with anxiety for as long as I can remember.

As I walked into the doctor’s office during my fourth session, I laid eyes on someone from my past who brings me a great amount of anxiety. My heart rate spiked and my chest tightened. Suddenly, breathing became a difficult task. I immediately turned on my heels and hid in my car until the person left, but the anxiety followed me into my appointment. My newfound relaxation technique was about to be tested.

As I cleared my mind during the biofeedback training, I was able to turn the pulsing off, meaning I brought my muscle tension down to the threshold set by the doctor, but the second the stressful person popped back into my mind, the pulsing turned back on. Over and over I emptied my mind and filled it with the autogenic relaxation phrases and turned the pulsing off, but, again, it’d spike back up once I thought of the person.

Running into my past turned out to be a blessing in disguise; I was learning to control the stressful thoughts and ensuing physiological response with just my mind. It was hard work, but I knew it would be a skill I could turn to my whole life. If I could control my heart racing, maybe it’d be easier to quiet my disturbing thoughts.

In the sessions that followed, I learned to relax myself instantaneously and in any situation without the autogenic phrases, getting my muscle tension level from the original 4.0 down to just 1.7. I’m now able to take a deep breath, let it out, hold it, and find that perfect state of relaxation — like magic.

Biofeedback empowered me during a time when I felt shaken down to my core. I walked away from each appointment feeling like I have a superpower and for the first time in years, I feel like I can finally control the anxiety that seems to rule my life.

How an Innovative Therapy Technique Made Me Feel like a Superhero When I Was at My Worst

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Bipolar Professor

This is an interesting article I found on: www.psychcentral.com

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It’s hard working as a college professor with bipolar disorder. I suppose it’s hard working anywhere with bipolar disorder, but my particular vocation is teaching 18-year-olds how to write at a local university. I’ve had bipolar illness for almost 30 years now; I was diagnosed in 1991. I’m 56. I’ve been at my university for about as long as I’ve been bipolar.

Why is it so hard to be a bipolar teacher in the higher education system?

The main reason is the stigma of the disease. As you probably know, even in 2019, there is horrible stigma about bipolar illness. There is sympathy for anxiety/depression and now for PTSD, but for bipolar, there is still relentless stigma.

If I tell someone I’m bipolar, they look at me as if I have a hidden tail tucked into my pants. This is why I don’t talk about my illness as a rule. Academics are often not as accepting as they make themselves out to be. The university is a place to freely exchange ideas about things, but not about your bipolar illness. In the age of disability awareness, no one is talking about this issue.

Then, there is the basic stress that comes with living with the illness. This is one disease where medication is absolutely necessary. If I forget to take my meds, I have a bad day. Sometimes, the meds don’t do their job. I may find myself sinking into depression or rising into hypomania. Because of my illness, I live with more unpredictability than the average person. This is stress-inducing, and we all know extra stress makes things harder.

Loneliness. This is a lonely illness. I literally know no one who lives with this issue at my university. At school, I walk around with the knowledge of my mental health problem and I never talk about it. The LGBTQ folks have each other. Many of them are out of the closet. I would love to be completely out so that I could be myself. Bipolar illness doesn’t define me, but it’s a big part of who I am.

What can I do about this difficulty I face every day?

Come out of the closet with my teaching peers. Begin talking about my disability openly. (I should tell you that I am “out” as a bipolar person in my writing, but since I use my maiden name as my pen name, no one recognizes me. This is illustrative of my ambivalent nature about this issue.)

Come out of the closet with the students and start a club for people with mental health issues. (Would I want to be part of a club that would accept me as a member?) I’ve thought about doing this for years, but I’ve doubted my ability to lead this type of organization because I don’t have any psychological credentials; I think I’d be better at running a club if I were some sort of counselor or psychologist. This is what has held me back from taking on this enterprise.

Nothing. Go on living the way I’ve been living for 30 years.

So at the university, where you can be whatever you want to be, it’s hard to be bipolar.

My brain is different; it’s what manifests this illness, but it’s also what makes me creative and drives my writing.

You might be thinking it’s here she’s going to say that if given the choice, she’d remain bipolar if a cure for it were developed.

Well, surprise, if there were a cure for bipolar, I’d take it. This is not a picnic, and I’d get myself out of my life situation if I could.

Not surprisingly, there is no national mental health coming out day. There is a day to observe mental health; this occurs on October 10 of every year, but this day is simply to “raise awareness” of mental health issues. This is very different than a day of coming out. (It should be noted that LGBTQ coming out day is October 11.)

I propose (as a few might have done before me) that we create a day for coming out with a mental health issue, a day when all the bipolar folks and schizophrenic people and depressives and the anxiety-ridden and individuals with OCD and all the people with personality disorders and PTSD can simply say “I am the way I am.”

If this happened, things might get better for everybody.

No one knows when and if they will develop a mental illness.

It could happen to anybody.

Bipolar Professor

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How Big Is Your Tomato? How I Adapt the Pomodoro Technique for My ADHD Brain

This is an interesting article I found on: www.psychcentral.com

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A few minutes ago, I was sitting in front of my computer, writing, when my dogs came to the bottom of the stairs and started whining. They can’t climb the stairs to my second-floor office themselves, so I went down to carry them up. For most people, no big deal, a momentary disruption. But for someone with ADHD? Well, you know how it goes. It’s a miracle that I’m actually back at my desk. So often, disruption of a task means I end up somewhere else in my house, doing something entirely different, or just staring into space, wondering how I got here.

This incredible sensitivity to disruption is why I struggled with the popular Pomodoro technique. You probably know how it works: set a timer for 25 minutes (the founder’s was shaped like a tomato, thus the name.); start working; when the timer goes off, take a five minute break, and begin again.

This simple format is actually incredibly powerful — 25 minutes is a manageable amount of time for deeply focused work. Enough time to get started but not enough to get burned out or bored. It can help you bust through procrastination by working in short sprints, rather than wasting long hours due to divided attention. Twenty-five minutes, like the tomato timer itself, is unintimidating. You can do anything for that long. By observing this straightforward method, you can complete long tasks, one pomodoro at a time.

Only, I can’t. The problem is the final step: begin again. Like many people with ADHD, I struggle to get focused, but once I get there, I can stay for relatively long chunks of time. While I don’t usually get into full hyperfocus states, I can maintain a quiet mind for a while once I settle in. But any disruption, like my dogs crying, or the Pomodoro technique’s five minute break, mean I have to start all over again.

I am “slow in, slow out,” and so the 30 minute scheme simply does not work for me. It takes me almost the whole block to get into a groove where I’m working effectively, then when the timer goes off, I’m gone again. When the break begins, I still want to work, but by the time it’s over, I’ve moved on to something else, abandoning the task that was just getting going.

But! That doesn’t mean ADHD folks can’t reap the benefits of the magic pomodoro. The 25-minute block need not be hard and fast. Even for those without ADHD, it’s not appropriate for every task. In fact, productivity research by the Draugiem Group found that the work-break ratio that the most productive workers in an office used was an average of 53 minutes on and 17 minutes off. A much friendlier ratio for my brain! But I still wanted to tweak it a little to figure out the optimal “tomato size” for me.

What I’ve found works best for me, in most situations, is a 1.5 hour work block, followed by a 30-minute (or even hour) long break. As a freelance writer, I’m fortunate to have the freedom to play with my schedule. This scheme allows me time to work my way in to a focused state, and the break is long enough to do something restorative, like walk the dogs, meditate, do a short yoga practice, or prep something for dinner. Where the five minute break felt too short to be useful (while still long enough to be disruptive), the longer break lets me relax and return to work with my energy replenished. It’s also long enough to promote getting the heck away from the computer — necessary for a break to truly be restorative. As I worked to implement this scheduling habit, I found myself asking a few questions:

If I’m Focused, Why Can’t I Take a Longer Break?

In my experience, the inability to consistently focus means that I live in fear. When I’m focused, I try to get everything I can done because I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get back to that state. In addition, the trademark ADHD lack of inhibitory control means it’s hard to stop something that feels good — and focus can feel very good.

So, what’s wrong with keeping on, if the work is going well? First off, you will burn out if you keep working until you stop on your own. But second of all, learning to exercise inhibitory control and develop consistent work habits is essential to the management of ADHD, and building something that you can manage all or most of the time will cut down the fear and anxiety that is often comorbid with ADHD.

But an Hour and a Half is SO LONG …

Yes. The thing about my personal magic ratio is that it eliminates one of the major benefits of the pomodoro: the approachability of the short burst. It may be just as true that you can do anything for 90 minutes as 25, but to me it really sounds like a lot more suffering. So I do something I call the “Trick Pomodoro.” It goes like this: for tasks that I really don’t want to start, from work to housework, I tell myself that I’ll start with a regular pomodoro, but that I don’t have to honor the break. In most situations, once 25 minutes has elapsed, the task feels more manageable and I can continue.

So, that’s what works for me. But the real takeaway here is that the pomodoro is flexible and that following someone else’s system is pointless if it doesn’t work for you. In fact, these longer breaks may be harder for some ADHD types, or for tasks that are particularly odious. For these folks or activities, a seven minute work session with a three minute break might work best. So if the pomodoro appeals to you but the specifics don’t suit your work style, play with it until you find a ratio that works.

How Big Is Your Tomato? How I Adapt the Pomodoro Technique for My ADHD Brain

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Living with Chronic Anorexia 

This is an interesting article I found on: www.psychcentral.com

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It’s been two-thirds of my life that I have been listening to this harassment in my head. I’ve talked back, I’ve fought back, I’ve negotiated, and yet I still suffer. It’s like a permanently playing radio, sometimes louder, sometimes more quiet, but always there as the background sound of my life. It is exhausting, but not as exhausting as it is to try to turn it off and keep it off. Sadly, I’m just used to it now. It’s become so normalized that I don’t really recall what it’s like to not have it there, my chronic and badgering anorexia.

I know that it’s in my genes because I have relatives who, although never diagnosed, have struggled with eating issues as long as I can remember.

Many people know about my disease, yet many do not. I don’t know what they think about me. I am a master of making excuses for missing meals, and people don’t realize that my obsession with exercise is not something to be admired.

Since the very first signs of an eating disorder, my parents had me in therapy. I’ve devoted my life to animals, but so much time and effort has been consumed with therapy, doctors, dietitians, medication, inpatient treatment and hospitalizations. Nobody can cure me — or anybody — of this. But people can get better. Or not. Chronic anorexia (also known as Severe and Enduring Anorexia Nervosa) feels like handcuffs and, sadly, like something I will always live with.

My mind started the anorexia harassment when most people are starting puberty. It stunted my growth and stole away my adolescence, causing lifelong and terrifying damage to myself. That’s what people don’t realize — I’m not naturally this small; I have forced myself to maintain this body since I was a child. And it didn’t help that I was a pretty serious gymnast. But this body isn’t who I was meant to be. Who knows who I was meant to be.

So I go about my life, missing out on so many foods that I know I would love but aren’t worth the anguish of listening to that damn voice in my head. I’m somehow different. I can’t have them. I don’t know what it’s like to eat what I want, when I want. Anything outside of my “safe foods” makes me feel like I’m gaining weight and like I’m bad, for I have disobeyed my eating disorder. Challenging it is simply too exhausting. And I punish myself with exercise, no matter the weather, no matter the pain. It’s the only thing that quiets and calms me.

I am constantly shocked how people can be so incredibly stupid, especially when they think they are trying to help me. The comments they have made send me backwards and out of control, back into the comforting arms of anorexia. “You look healthy.” “You look great.” “You look like you put some meat on your bones.” I’m thirty pounds underweight. Who on earth would think these are helpful things to say? I don’t want to look “healthy,” and saying so to an anorexic person thinking it will make me feel better can be damaging. Healthy means fat to me, great means that clearly thirty pounds underweight isn’t enough. And yet other people make very concerned comments to my mom, as if she hasn’t been spending years trying to help me get better.

You don’t know what somebody else is going through. Be careful what you say. I’d like to be more open with people, but I fear that they will think I’m judging their diet, their weight. I’m not, I don’t. It’s only me who sees myself and hears myself the way I do. And if you are familiar with these same harassing voices, like a conscience gone awry, seek help. At least there’s more knowledge of the causes (biological, genetics) and so maybe some better treatment options than when I fell into this trap about 23 years ago.

So now all I can do is persist in life, doing the very best I can to give back to the world despite the buzzing radio static of anorexia nervosa. I have hope, but there is no cure yet.

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Counterintuitive Ways to Combat Anxiety

This is an interesting article I found on: www.psychcentral.com

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Through the years I’ve learned to douse the ongoing wildfire of fear with productive tools such as exercise, meditation, replacing negative, irrational thoughts with positive, rational statements, and tapping into my creativity (studies show that anxious people are often more creative — as it takes a lot of imagination to come up with those what-if scenarios — so it helps to channel that artistry into a positive outlet).

Yet there are other ways I combat my anxiety that don’t sound as constructive. And they certainly don’t sound very positive, either. In fact, some tactics could be construed as downright depressing. But they work. In fact, they work so well, that I feel it’s my duty to share them.

Below are my four favorite counterintuitive ways to combat anxiety, so take a moment to remove any rose-colored glasses you may have on and replace them with some dark-hued lenses. Here they are:

Sometimes It’s Best NOT to Process with Others

I know, I know: those irrational thoughts can be so harsh, you need someone to help remind you that they are ONLY thoughts. Yet, I’ve also found that sometimes sharing my anxieties only sharpens their grip. Why is this?

First of all, I can trigger myself even more by arguing with the poor, well-meaning listener about how this or that fear could come to pass. That is, by discussing it, the probability of that fear happening further “cements” it into my brain.

Secondly, people who don’t understand anxiety may reply in ways that make anxiety warriors feel worse about themselves. You know those trite remarks such as: “Just stop worrying,” or “You need to learn to control your thoughts,” which I guess are well-meaning, but really makes me want to scream.

From what I’ve learned, it’s best to share anxious thoughts with the most trusted and understanding of people. And if it’s going to trigger you to share your specific fears, then, at least, share how much your anxiety itself is affecting you.

Accepting That Anxiety Won’t Go Away

When I was first grasping for answers to “cure” myself of my chronic and acute anxiety, I envisioned a future in which my over-the-top worry would be forever banished. Yet, as I trudged onward, I realized that there wasn’t going to be any kind of fairytale ending. I was and always will be above average on the anxiety scale (a number of studies show that anxiety is genetic).

Anxiety is something I’m able to diminish but never banish. Acknowledging this fact helped me accept that through the better days, some worse ones are still bound to pop up due to triggers, circumstances, and even physical challenges. Once I accepted this, I was better able to utilize my bag of anxiety-reducing tricks, knowing that it would just be a matter of time when I’d be able to tame it from a roaring lion to a purring cat — that is, until the next big worry claws itself into my life.

Using Terror-Filled Distractions

When my anxiety needle moves into the red alert zone, my husband often suggests that we watch a disaster movie. No, the man isn’t being facetious; rather he’s acting with complete empathy. Ironically, watching fictionalized stories about catastrophic events helps reduce my what-if fears. Why is this? I’m not sure, but I believe that it has to do with putting my anxiety into perspective while at the same time witnessing a shared calamity, which airlifts me out of my isolated island of despair.

Disaster movies are also action-packed and visually dramatic, which gives my mind a vacation from the self-ruminating dread. And…speaking of distraction, who could take their eyes off Dwayne Johnson when he played a rescue-chopper pilot in the 2015 disaster flick “San Andreas?” I know I couldn’t!

Remembering That We All Die

When my fears dive into the deepest and darkest of waters, sometimes the only way I can breathe again is to remind myself that no matter what, we all die. Although this thought may sound morose, it calms me down because it reminds me that nothing is permanent. Nothing. And if nothing is permanent, then my fears cannot be either.

In death, too, my brain will be caput — so it won’t be around to ruminate on any further worries. In the meantime, then, I’ll keep combating my anxiety with both happily constructive and darkly counterintuitive measures, hoping that my path not only gets better, but that I can help other anxiety warriors along the way as well.

Counterintuitive Ways to Combat Anxiety

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Four Steps to Manage Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

This is an interesting article I found on: www.psychcentral.com

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When I was a young girl, I struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder. I believed that if I landed on a crack in the sidewalk, something terrible would happen to me, so I did my best to skip over them. I feared that if I had bad thoughts of any kind, I would go to hell.

To purify myself, I would go to confession and Mass over and over again, and spend hours praying the rosary. I felt if I didn’t compliment someone, like the waitress where we were eating dinner, I would bring on the end of the world.

What Is OCD?

The National Institute of Mental Health defines OCD as a “common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.” OCD involves a painful, vicious cycle whereby you are tormented by thoughts and urges to do things, and yet when you do the very things that are supposed to bring you relief, you feel even worse and enslaved to your disorder.

The results of one study indicated that more than one quarter of the adults interviewed experienced obsession or compulsions at some point in their lives — that’s over 60 million people — even though only 2.3 percent of people met the criteria for a diagnosis of OCD at some point in their lives. The World Health Organization has ranked OCD as one of the top 20 causes of illness-related disability worldwide for individuals between 15 and 44 years of age.

Whenever I am under considerable stress, or when I hit a depressive episode, my obsessive-compulsive behavior returns. This is very common. OCD breeds on stress and depression. A resource that has been helpful to me is the book Brain Lock by Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. He offers a four-step self-treatment for OCD that can free you from painful symptoms and even change your brain chemistry.

Distinguishing Form from Content of OCD

Before I go over the four steps, I wanted to go over two concepts he explains in the book that I found very helpful to understanding obsessive-compulsive behavior. The first is knowing the difference between the form of obsessive-compulsive disorder and its content.

The form consists of the thoughts and urges not making sense but constantly intruding into a person’s mind — the thought that won’t go away because the brain is not working properly. This is the nature of the beast. The content is the subject matter or genre of the thought. It’s why one person feels something is dirty, while another can’t stop worrying about the door being locked.

The OCD Brain

The second concept that is fascinating and beneficial to a person in the throes of OCD’s torture is to see a picture of the OCD brain. In order to help patients understand that OCD is, in fact, a medical condition resulting from a brain malfunction, Schwartz and his colleagues at UCLA used PET scanning to take pictures of brains besieged by obsessions and compulsive urges. The scans showed that in people with OCD, there was increased energy in the orbital cortex, the underside of the front of the brain. This part of the brain is working overtime.

According to Schwartz, by mastering the Four Steps of cognitive-biobehavioral self-treatment, it is possible to change the OCD brain chemistry so that the brain abnormalities no longer cause the intrusive thoughts and urges.

Step One: Relabel

Step one involves calling the intrusive thought or urge exactly what it is: an obsessive thought or a compulsive urge. In this step, you learn how to identify what’s OCD and what’s reality. You might repeat to yourself over and over again, “It’s not me — it’s OCD,” working constantly to separate the deceptive voice of OCD from your true voice. You constantly inform yourself that your brain is sending false messages that can’t be trusted.

Mindfulness can help here. By becoming an observer of our thoughts, rather than the author of them, we can take a step back in loving awareness and simply say, “Here comes an obsession. It’s okay … It will pass,” instead of getting wrapped up in it and investing our emotions into the content. We can ride the intensity much like a wave in the ocean, knowing that the discomfort won’t last if we can stick in there and not act on the urge.

Step Two: Reattribute

After you finish the first step, you might be left asking, “Why don’t these bothersome thoughts and urges go away?” The second step helps answer that question. Schwartz writes:

The answer is that they persist because they are symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a condition that has been scientifically demonstrated to be related to a biochemical imbalance in the brain that causes your brain to misfire. There is now strong scientific evidence that in OCD a part of your brain that works much like a gearshift in a car is not working properly. Therefore, your brain gets stuck in gear. As a result, it’s hard for you to shift behaviors. Your goal in the Reattribute step is to realize that the sticky thoughts and urges are due to your balky brain.

In the second step, we blame the brain, or in 12-step language, admit we are powerless and that our brain is sending false messages. We must repeat, “It’s not me — it’s just my brain.” Schwartz compares OCD to Parkinson’s disease — both interestingly are caused by disturbances in a brain structure called the striatum — in that it doesn’t help to lambast ourselves for our tremors (in Parkinson’s) or upsetting thoughts and urges (in OCD). By reattributing the pain to the medical condition, to the faulty brain wiring, we empower ourselves to respond with self-compassion.

Step Three: Refocus

In step three, we shift into action, our saving grace. “The key to the Refocus step is to do another behavior,” explains Schwartz. “When you do, you are repairing the broken gearshift in your brain.” The more we “work around” the nagging thoughts by refocusing our attention on some useful, constructive, enjoyable activity, the more our brain starts shifting to other behaviors and away from the obsessions and compulsions.

Step three requires a lot of practice, but the more we do it, the easier it becomes. Says Schwartz: “A key principle in self-directed cognitive behavioral therapy for OCD is this: It’s not how you feel, it’s what you do that counts.”

The secret of this step, and the hard part, is going on to another behavior even though the OCD thought or feeling is still there. At first, it’s extremely wearisome because you are expending a significant amount of energy processing the obsession or compulsion while trying to concentrate on something else. However, I completely agree with Schwartz when he says, “When you do the right things, feelings tend to improve as a matter of course. But spend too much time being overly concerned about uncomfortable feelings, and you may never get around to doing what it takes to improve.”

This step is really at the core of self-directed cognitive behavioral therapy because, according to Schwartz, we are fixing the broken filtering system in the brain and getting the automatic transmission in the caudate nucleus to start working again.

Step Four: Revalue

The fourth step can be understood as an accentuation of the first two steps, Relabeling and Reattributing. You are just doing them with more insight and wisdom now. With consistent practice of the first three steps, you can better acknowledge that the obsessions and urges are distractions to be ignored. “With this insight, you will be able to Revalue and devalue the pathological urges and fend them off until they begin to fade,” writes Schwartz.

Two ways of “actively revaluing,” he mentions are anticipating and accepting. It’s helpful to anticipate that obsessive thoughts will occur hundreds of times a day and not to be surprised by them. By anticipating them, we recognize them more quickly and can Relabel and Reattribute when they arise. Accepting that OCD is a treatable medical condition — a chronic one that makes surprise visits — allows us to respond with self-compassion when we are hit with upsetting thoughts and urges.

Four Steps to Manage Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

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8 Things Autistic People Wished You Knew about April

This is an interesting article I found on: www.psychcentral.com

See credits below.


Every April, autism takes a center stage in global awareness. All around the world, well-meaning, good-hearted people “Light it up blue” for Autism Awareness Month, and they decorate their social media with the puzzle piece frames and the jigsaw rainbow awareness ribbons.

And, every March, autistic adults are already dreading April. Many of them report feeling traumatized by previous Aprils. They begin to mentally prepare for what is ahead, feeling powerless to stop it. They’re bracing themselves for what is on the horizon.

What autistic people wish their neurotypical allies knew going into April:

  1. We really don’t want or need awareness. To most neurotypical (non-autistic) people, awareness of autism is to be aware of a disease, to regard it with a somber recognition of how serious a problem autism is and how fervently a cure is needed. It doesn’t conjure the reverent solidarity that breast cancer awareness does for survivors, the bereaved, and their loved ones. Instead, it means that the world comes together to talk about the tragedy of autism.
  2. Most of us do not want a cure. The vast majority of autistic adults do not want a cure, nor do they see autism as a disease. It is simply their way of existing, perceiving, and being. Autism is inextricable from the identity and perception of the autistic person, and a “cure” would mean to erase from them what is their core self and what their divergent minds can contribute to society. Most of us are quite proud to be autistic.
  3. We wish you’d see us outside of the medical disability model. The medical model pathologizes our innate traits. We may develop on a different curve, have different strengths and weaknesses, and relate differently from the majority of the population, but those traits aren’t inherently negative. Our traits are interpreted in the most negative way because they are not what “most people” do. We express empathy differently, but a lack of eye contact or verbal expressions of emotional solidarity do not mean we lack empathy.
  4. We are offended by puzzle pieces, “Light it up blue,” and Autism Speaks. Autism Speaks has dominated the world’s narrative about autism. They are a fundraising monolith, and their information distribution campaigns rank at the top of search engine results around the internet. The focus of their campaign was originally to scare the world into realizing how important it was to find a cure and to eradicate autism and to implicate vaccines as the culprit. They have continued to deny autistic perspectives, and only a minuscule portion of their many millions in donations actually goes to helping autistic people (often less than 1%). Essentially, donations go to marketing puzzle pieces and the international “brand” Autism Speaks has created. They are responsible for the puzzle pieces and the “Light it up blue” campaigns. For a more detailed breakdown and alternative charities to support, click here. We ask that you share autistic-authored posts and articles in April and hashtag them #redinstead.
  5. We prefer identity-first language over person-first language. This means that we prefer to be called “autistics,” or “autistic people,” or “aspies” (if that’s how one identifies) as opposed to “person with autism” or “person with Asperger’s.” But, every individual’s preference should be respected.
  6. We are great at self-advocating, and we wish you’d learn about autism from autistic people. There are thousands of blogs, websites, organizations, and informational resources out there produced and managed by autistics. The autistic community is a thriving, tight-knit juggernaut of change and advocacy, and they uplift other marginalized populations by focusing on intersectional human rights outside of the neurodiversity paradigm. They’re fierce defenders of children and dedicated scholars and researchers. They can be found on social media by searching the hashtag #actuallyautistic. The Aspergian is a collective of autistic writers, or you can read more of my blogs here at PsychCentral.
  7. Autism doesn’t end at age 18. Most people tend to think of autism as a childhood disorder, but an autistic person is autistic every day of his or her life.
  8. Function labels are deeply offensive and inaccurate. When someone is autistic, it has been socially acceptable to comment on how high- or low-functioning he or she is. The truth is, autism is invisible, and a person’s struggles cannot be measured by how a person seems to be performing. Often, “function” comes at great price to the autistic person, meaning that they have to hide or “mask” their innate traits and behaviors to appear more “normal.” You can read all about function labels by clicking here.

Autistic people need neurotypical allies to be more than just aware of autism, but to accept our differences and see our strengths and our weaknesses as unique to the individual. We need your help to find our way into the conversation about autism, which means sharing articles by autistic people and supporting autistic organizations. We need employers and schools to accommodate for our neurological profiles, and individuals to understand how we relate differently.

So, let’s make April “Autism Acceptance Month” and shift the focus to autistic people as thinking, feeling, valuable human beings. By reading this article, written by an autistic person, you’re off to a great start as an ally.

8 Things Autistic People Wished You Knew about April

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On Stage on the Spectrum

This is an interesting article I found on: www.psychcentral.com

See credits below.


About three years ago, I got an email publicizing a drama school called the Center for Applied Drama and Autism, C.A.D.A. I was instantly interested. A year before, my 10-year-old son Tommy had been diagnosed with autism. I had always wanted him to get into acting because I’d acted as a child, having been in shows such as Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof at local dinner theaters. Tommy seemed as though he would be a natural because he had the ability to memorize scripts (he was an avid scripter; people who are autistic often are), and he was very funny.

The school was in downtown Akron, about fifteen minutes away from our home. I signed him up. Soon, one Saturday a few weeks later, we entered an old building on Main Street and searched for the acting studio. Down a staircase we went and soon we found ourselves in C.A.D.A.

Tommy was going to take improv. Improvisation classes, we would learn, are good for autistic people because they help them to be better communicators (learning to think on their feet) and ultimately find their own voices. These classes were also fun.

We’d done traditional social groups at centers for people on the spectrum, but these had turned out to be unsuccessful because they lacked vital context and purpose. Acting encouraged the participants to be social, but also to be creative, making up narratives and scenarios.

The first day at improv, Tommy and his classmates warmed up doing an exercise called “Zip, Zap, Zop,” in which they passed energy to each other. Then, they did an exercise called “Mirrors,” in which they mimicked each other as if they were looking in a mirror. Then came a game called “Bus Stop,” where they pretended to be waiting for a bus in a character of their choosing. Soon, they would be acting out fairy tales and even learning Shakespeare.

Tommy took to it. There was only one problem. Well, really two problems. The first was that there was a very loud service bell that people rang so that they could get in the building which was often locked. This service bell unnerved Tommy. He had sensory issues, so the bell was a hindrance in his play. The second problem was that I got cancer, and Tommy fell apart. While I was getting treatment, we had to stop going to drama for a time. But I survived cancer, and then, something else wonderful happened. C.A.D.A. moved! No more service bell. C.A.D.A. relocated to what is known as their blue box theater in Akron, where they currently reside.

Now in 2019 at the blue box theater, Tommy takes improv from Ruben Ryan and Brandon Meeker. He goes every Saturday. And he’s getting good. He can sustain a scene and create original dialogue that is purposeful and entertaining. Improv helps him stay in the moment, to be in the moment, completely engaged and fascinated with people and life. This is saying something for someone on the autism spectrum, who might often be disengaged and out of touch.

So whose brainchild is C.A.D.A.? C.A.D.A. was co-created by Wendy Duke, a drama teacher for over 40 years, and Laura Valendza, an actor and intervention specialist.

C.A.D.A.’s philosophy is as follows:

Our goal is to meet our students where they are now, and without coercion, help them to recognize their own abilities and gifts through empowerment and making connections. We do not wish to change the uniqueness of each student, but rather help each one deal with social and emotional situations that will occur throughout their lives.

We do this via individual and collaborative applied drama techniques such as theatre games, improvisation, role play, character study, voice and body work, mask work (commedia dell’ arte), and Play Back Theatre. Additionally, we encourage creativity and originality through student created puppet plays, playwriting and video production. Visual art, dance and music are all key components in theatrical productions and give our students an opportunity to expand their artistic gifts and interests.

What does all this mean? For a parent of a child on the spectrum, it means that my kid can study acting at a world-class acting school right in our own little Akron, Ohio.

Recently, Tommy was asked to be a “co-star” at C.A.D.A. This means that he will work with a class of younger students as sort of a mentor/helper. Tommy’s father and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Tommy has gone from a timid pre-teen who was frightened by everything, including a loud service bell, to a full-fledged teenage actor in a leadership role.

If your child has autism, you might consider enrolling him or her in acting classes in your hometown. I’m sure acting courses can benefit your child. These classes have made all the difference in Tommy’s life.

On Stage on the Spectrum

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To Others Who Have Experienced Trauma as Children

This is an interesting article I found on: www.psychcentral.com

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Most of us have real anger and suffering living inside us. Perhaps in the past we were oppressed or mistreated, and all that pain is still right there, buried in our store consciousness. We haven’t processed and transformed our relationship with what happened to us and we sit there alone with all that anger, hatred, despair and suffering. If we were abused when were young, every time our thinking mind goes back over that event, it’s like we’re experiencing the abuse all over again.– Thich Nhat Hahn

The #MeToo movement, including Dr. Ford’s testimony on the Senate floor in 2018, was an eye-opener for many of us. Even though I personally had experienced sexual assault and figured others had too, I was not prepared for the staggering number of brave women and men who publicly came forward to share their experiences of pain and violation. I also wasn’t prepared for the amazing feeling that this movement could actually change the climate that our daughters and sons grow up in.

By the time most of us reach adulthood, we have experienced some form of trauma, ranging from heartbreak to the more intense physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Though the actual trauma may have been experienced decades ago, often there are hidden tender and hurting spaces in its wake.

Healing is a lengthy process, even years after the event, things can happen that “trigger” a traumatic response. That is, current events in our lives that are not directly related to the trauma we experienced can evoke a reaction that is more intense than the situation at hand deserves. What happens when we are overreactive is that we are no longer in the present. However, by being aware of when we are triggered, and working on maintaining our calm and presence, we are, in fact, helping our children and ourselves.

Psychologists who study the long-reach of trauma will note that when your child enters the age that the parent was when they experienced a traumatic event, a deep part of them will relive the experience. This is beyond a simple remembering of the event — it is as if we’re actually re-experiencing the trauma. This is critical to keep in mind so that we are not blind-sided when the kids reach that age in which we experienced a significant loss or abuse.

I believe the human system is built this way so we can heal unresolved issues from our earlier wounding. It also may be a survival mechanism, in that our hypervigilance helps us protect our children by warning them of dangers in their environment. However, like most automatic survival mechanisms, these processes can take on a life of their own. That is why it’s critically important to use these uncomfortable situations as opportunities to set the course for the next generation. To harness the hidden power in these circumstances by becoming aware of when you’re triggered and before stepping into overreaction, use the trigger as a signal to get centered.

How do you know when you’re triggered? For me, all of a sudden I feel overly anxious, overly angry, or conversely, like I want to withdraw and hide. I examine whether or not a real danger is evident. In nearly every single case of being triggered, there actually is no real danger (if there is, please address it immediately and maybe even get backup help).

If there is no real danger, this is the critical moment. Breathing deeply and naming feelings “worried, scared, agitated”, can lead to healing. Yes, it’ll reduce the likelihood that you’ll act from the wounded place, but it will also help you soothe the hurting places. As if you were a loving parent to yourself, nurturing and healing the wounded places.

I’ve noticed that being kinder to myself reduces the likelihood that I’ll act out from the painful residue of the trauma. It’s an act of cultivating unconditional friendliness towards ourselves. We embrace the scared and vulnerable parts of ourselves, instead of pushing the challenging emotions away through reacting or overreacting.

When I am in a triggered phase (which when it is really bad, can last for most of a day and even span a couple days), I start my day by talking to the wounded little girl inside of me. I place a hand on my heart and on my abdomen (the Grounding Hand Posture), and I tell my younger self that I (the adult protectress) am here now. I comfort those wounded places within me with the knowledge that I am present and in charge, and that I will guide the hurt parts of myself with my mature wisdom, with strength and with kindness.

By emotionally taking care of ourselves through tending the emotional wounds and anxieties, we are less likely to act from the painful residual trauma. And we begin to remove the fear of our own emotions, which only serves to separate us from our self and those we love.

Use your triggers as an opportunity to deepen your friendship with yourself. Call upon your courage, which you likely have in spades. You’ll be more connected to the reality of the present moment. This, in turn, will increase the likelihood that your actions will arise from the most centered part of you.

Compassionately paying attention to ourselves has added benefits — of interrupting the transmission of trauma between generations, and of drawing any lingering shameful feelings out of the darkness and into the light. These earlier challenging experiences can become our opportunity to embrace ourselves with unconditional friendliness, to change the social climate that our children grow up in, and to powerfully reclaim our truth as we stand in solidarity.

To Others Who Have Experienced Trauma as Children

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