Fight or flight?

I avoid feeling afraid, it’s what drives my anxiety, always has. As a kid, I had a lot of things to be afraid of but had no way of managing them. I had no outlet, I just shoved them as far down as I possibly could. And now my older daughter is the age I was when my fear and anxiety were probably their worst. It’s triggering a lot of difficult feelings for me and I’m not sure I’m managing them all that well.

I fear her fear. I fear her inability to cope with her fear. It triggers way too many feelings of insecurity and being out of control. I rarely do things that make me feel afraid, it’s an emotion that really stirs up very painful memories. And now that she is that age and struggling with her own transition from being a little girl to a pre-teen where independence is king, I feel for her so much. And yet, at the same time, I struggle with finding the empathy that’s required to get to patience.

I think this is where an inability to understand fear really damages us, both as children and as adults. Fear is the body’s response to external stimuli – fight or flight. It’s biological, instinctual, where the body reacts because we used to be chase by lions. But in 2019, fear can cripple. It can turn inwards, becoming anxiety or depression. If left unchecked, the inability to manage fear can turn into a lifetime of running from challenging situations. I lack some pretty fundamental skills for helping my daughter – I don’t understand how most people manage their fears, and by extension, help their children manage theirs.

This is something that’s going to require extra attention. Her fear makes me angry, upset, impatient. Some people pray on problems, others meditate. Some drink their fear, shop their fear, lash out, make excuses. I talk mine out. How do you manage fear? How do you help your children with theirs? xo Janet

Recovery takes time

When I think about taking time to recover from depression/anxiety, I realize that the feeling of wanting to rush through it was so powerful. I wanted the whole thing to be over. I wanted to be well. I wanted to stop feeling like a major inconvenience. I wanted to stop feeling ashamed of being broken. But there was no way of hurrying the process up because everytime I thought about going back to work, I would get heart palpitations and break out in a cold sweat.

The thing about recovery is that there is no timetable, no rule book or manual. It depends on the supports you have in place, how skilled your therapist is, whether you have a therapist in the first place, and your family system. The best thing about being away from work on parental leave was that I had lots of time to think about other things than work. The not worrying about work stopped after about eight weeks, by month three, I didn’t care about work at all. I had completely disconnected myself and that felt amazing.

Unburdening myself from work was so freeing and allowed me to focus on other things like exercise, therapy and being with my children. We had a newborn and I was trying to sort out my terrible mental health, my broken back and be a good mom. I was barely functioning emotionally but wanted to be present for my family and it took me several months. At least four or five. By the time I went back to work after my parental leave it had been eight solid, blissful months of being at home, taking care of myself full-time and I felt better. But I still wasn’t ready to go to back to work. As soon as I went back, the insomnia kicked up again, my anxiety spiked and it was hard. I realized in retrospect that I should have gone back part-time, progressively. But I didn’t even give myself the space to think that would be an acceptable solution. I thought I was better and threw myself back in full time.

Eventually, the return to work became a new normal but that took time too. So if you’re in this space or thinking you need a break and have the ability to take one, I encourage you to think about it. If it’s possible to give yourself any space, even a day or two, take it. You’ll feel better as long as you give yourself permission to not feel guilty. xo Janet

Being shamed for emotional reactions is a powerful motivator

Credit: @frizzkidart

Kids grow up with a view of the how emotional responses are suppose to work just by watching their parent or parents or primary caregiver(s) respond to the world around them. They also understand how to emotional responses are supposed to work by how their caregivers respond to them. Children want to know if their emotional responses are a) acceptable and b) normal. Being shamed for having emotional responses as a kid is a sure fire way to teach children not to: show emotions, connect with their emotions, and/or that they are a freak for having a normal emotional response to something stressful, sad or upsetting.

So, if we take this logic into adulthood, what do we get? Disconnection, lack of empathy for self and others, a fundamental belief that we are somehow different or inherently flawed/unfixable. We suppress or repress our emotion, we bury them in food or alcohol or other quick hits, we have difficulty being vulnerable or connected to others, even those we love the most. It’s a shame cycle that isn’t pretty – I have difficulty expressing my emotions because I have an built-in shame response about doing this, people view me as lacking the ability to connect or be vulnerable, I feel more shame for being defective or broken in some way. Rinse and repeat.

What do we do then as adults when this is happening? Can I think my way out of this? Yes and no in my experience. The first thing I did was learn about the range of human emotions and that these are totally normal for me to express. Sounds weird but it’s true. Second, I learned from my therapist that we’re all flawed and fallible, that’s being human, and that this is, also, totally normal and ok. Third, I learned that when I default to an emotional response that isn’t functional or rationale (extreme worry, anger, frustration, etc), that I can write down the story I have in my head about what is going on and work it through. What does that mean? In cognitive behavioural therapy, therapists use things called “thought records”. It sounds weird at first but once you do them on paper a couple of times it gets pretty easy to start doing it in your head. I do these in my head a lot when I have anxiety or when I’m really frustrated by something. I’m not an expert on CBT, a therapist or a source of advice on thought records but if you want to learn more, go here.

I have found that there are tools and resources that help me when I’m in a shame spiral, particularly when it comes to feeling guilty, anxious or getting angry/frustrated about something. Shame is something we learn as a kid in so many different ways and all of it comes with trauma. But we can unlearn the shame we feel and respond differently. We can work through the trauma and the thoughts or mental scaffolding we have built up around it. This is a way through, not away from, tough stuff emotionally. Keep leaning into the fear of being emotional exposed and you’ll find it’s not so scary after all. xo Janet

Feeling the feels

The feeling that we are often told to feel is fear. We are so often told, especially as kids, that we’re supposed to feel the fear and do it anyway. What about sadness, grief, anxiety, remorse, jealousy, worthlessness, joy? As humans, we are wired to feel and yet we numb like crazy with drugs and alcohol, sex, shopping, food and our phones. We numb so we don’t have to feel the feelings. We numb so we don’t have to process our trauma, memories, feelings of insecurity, lack of confidence or general sense of malaise.

We are in tough times folks. For many of us, times are physically easy, historically speaking. Psychologically, we are in tough times. The news this week has been awful, and that’s saying something for 2019. We are in a collective free-fall, psychologically speaking. And I’m really worried about what all of this trauma is doing to our psyches. I’m worried about what all this trauma is doing to our alcohol intake and credit card balances.

I’ve had plenty of trauma, plenty of pain. I’ve had more than my fair share of alcohol, credit card debt and numbing. I will use my phone to distract myself, worry about my level distraction and then get more distracted. There feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day to be sad or worried or fearful about what’s happening in the world or what has happened to us in the past. There often aren’t enough hours, life is busy and stressful. But there are small windows where we can find a space to feel our feelings. Therapy helps. Meditation is good. Exercise can really be helpful. Journaling helps some people although I’ve always found it tedious. I started writing this blog to get out a lot of the stuff that has rummaging around in my head for the last twenty years.

The difficulty with not feeling our feelings is that numbing results in anger, frustration, depression, anxiety, perfectionism, overachieving, micromanaging and a host of other dysfunctional ways of coping. We yell at our kids, spouses, sometimes or coworkers or employees, we anxiously meddle, we try to control our surroundings. So in the hopes that some of you may be open to feeling your feels, know this: it’s not as scary as you think it will be. What feels like our crazy is only scary to us; therapists don’t scare easily unless they’re not good at their job. So go ahead, feel your feelings. Dip your toe in the feelings water if you’re not used to it, it just takes practice. The more you do it, the easier it gets, I promise. xo Janet