My constant companion is anxiety—with just a smidge of depression—that I keep in check (mostly) with diet, mindfulness, journaling, an hour or more of exercise each day, and one massage a month. It works, mostly, to keep the eddy of worry from swirling into panic, but it’s a delicate balance and when my spouse goes out of town and I’m left with all of the responsibilities, my barely-held-in-check anxiety goes into hyper-overdrive.

I’m wound so tight, if you bumped into me, I’d twang like a guitar string. Or I’d deck you, just because I’m in this perpetual fight-or-flight thing that has me screaming at drivers who randomly try to give me the right-of-way even though they have a stinking green light and are going straight and if I turn left in front of them and at that moment someone decides to pass them, I’m in an accident and it’s my fault because I didn’t have the right of way. I don’t care how much you blink your lights and wave your arm, there’s no stinking way I’m turning in front of you because you have a green light! Green means Go, and following that rule is what makes the world work and keeps us from descending into chaos. Chaos!

When I’m not in the car, I indulge in escapism—part of the anxiety package deal—and since I’ve got urchins to care for and I can’t literally escape, I “escape” via the Internet. Doing this, it doesn’t take long before I find the posts about about how wonderful gratitude is. Science has proved that gratitude is the secret to being happy and not-anxious, so if I just give it a try, I’ll be calm and fine, and everyone else will be spared my shitty moods.

But gratitude doesn’t work that way for me.

Whenever my spouse is out of town, I think about my mom and how she had three kids compared to my two and how my dad was on cruise with the Navy for six to ten months every other year rather than a week or so three or four times a year, and you know what? It doesn’t help.

Yes, I am grateful that the guy who scoops the cat litter and brushes the little kid’s teeth before bedtime and does the dishes so I can be alone before 9pm is only gone for a week rather than ten months. I’m grateful that I can leave him a voice mail or send him an e-mail any time I want to, or, if it’s a big emergency, I can call his hotel because I know where he is, unlike my mother who wasn’t allowed to know beyond the most general descriptions where my dad’s aircraft carrier was.

Admittedly, I would feel more grateful if my spouse didn’t tell me about how great it is to sit in his kid-free hotel room drinking beer and watching football, and I’d also be grateful if he didn’t micromanage my handling of Garbage Day remotely, especially not while the kids are fighting with each other in the background and I’m trying to figure out what these maggoty things are all over the basement floor. (Turns out they’re acorn weevil larvae from the acorns we collected week before last. Public service announcement: don’t collect acorns with cracks or holes in them unless you like fat little grubs eating their way through the plastic bags you stored your acorns in.)


Even feeling grateful that the grubs weren’t something that would infest anything we have in the house because all they care about is acorns doesn’t make me feel better. (Okay, maybe a little better.)

Despite the promises of science, I’m able to feel anxious even while feeling grateful.

What gives? Am I just contrary? Not trying hard enough? A scientific anomaly?

Nope. Digging just a little deeper I found this:

In a study looking at the effects of sleep and gratitude on depression and anxiety in patients with chronic pain, researchers “found that after controlling for the amount of sleep people got, gratitude still had an effect on lower depression scores. This means that regardless of their levels of insomnia, people who showed more gratitude were less depressed. With anxiety they found a different result. After controlling for sleep, gratitude showed no effect on anxiety. So while higher gratitude led to less anxiety originally, this is simply because it helped people sleep better, and sleeping better improved their anxiety.” (emphasis mine)

As it turns out, I’m not a freak of nature; I’m just a victim of the oversimplification of the results of scientific studies. (For those interested, here’s the abstract of what I think is the original article referenced in the link above: “The differential effects of gratitude and sleep on psychological distress in patients with chronic pain,” by Ng et al, published February 2013, in Journal of Health Psychology.)

Tonight after I put the kids to bed maybe I’ll turn off the computer and go to bed myself, feeling grateful that I’m getting to bed at a reasonable hour.

Yep, I’m sure it will happen just like that.

What We Have Here is Failure To Communicate

I get nervous when I talk to people. I have a naturally high baseline anxiety level—it’s just how I’m wired—and I know this is a big part of my interpersonal nervousness. But part of it is also a learned anxiety because from long experience I know there’s a high likelihood that when I open my mouth, I’m going to be misunderstood. My palms get sticky, pit stains bloom, and my heart flutters, especially when I’m talking to teachers, plumbers, hotel concierges, dental hygienists, my in-laws, massage therapists, other parents, telephone solicitors—

and doctors. Read More

Wednesday Check-In: Between Writing Sessions

English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions
English: Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

ROW80 Week 2.

Goal: Write 5 days out of 7 using the writing and contemplation prompts from a chapter of The Pen and the Bell by Brenda Miller and Holly Hughes (this week is chapter 2, “Sitting Down and Waking Up”).

I’m going to say very little about the writing part and talk more about how the writing is effecting me when I’m not writing. Maybe I’ll talk more about the writing itself at the Sunday check-in. For now, I feel more comfortable leaving that specific bit alone. The writing I just want to leave be without analyzing or judging it for a while yet.

Since Sunday, I’ve had two main insights as a result of “Sitting Down and Waking Up.” First, I noticed that I feel awake to the reality that my life isn’t as compartmentalized as I routinely think of it. My life as “mother” isn’t separate from my life as “wife” or even from my pre-motherhood or pre-married life. All of those versions of me exist right now, in this moment. There is no tangible separation between those versions of myself, no such thing as “my” life separate from what I do every day. If my daily life feels like I’m waiting for a chance to be “me,” then I either need to shift my perspective or shift how I spend my days.

The other insight I had this week is that sometimes I interpret a physical sensation as an emotion when in reality it’s just a physical sensation. For example, when I drink alcohol—even just one drink—several hours after it should be out of my system I feel a fluttery feeling in my chest and I get cold sweats. The same thing happens with coffee. My husband—who is a doctor but the PhD kind, not the medical kind—diagnosed me with trouble metabolizing acetaldehyde, one of the byproducts produced when the body processes alcohol or coffee. Whatever it is, it’s clearly a physical reaction, but because it includes sensations I associate with anxiety or nervousness, I automatically translate the physical sensation into the emotion. I say, “Oh! I’m anxious!” and then go over and over the events of that evening and the past several days to try and figure out what I’m anxious about.

But what if I just felt the sensation without attaching an emotion to it? In this situation, I think that would be a liberating path that would entail much less suffering than my usual way of handling it. Inspired by this insight and the rediscovered benefits of close observation that the exercises from The Pen and the Bell have revealed to me, I’ve been looking at other situations from this perspective. So far I’ve not been able to dissect anger or boredom or overwhelm as I have that one particular type of “anxiety,” but trying to do so has helped me feel less at their mercy than I usually do.

Onward to Sunday!

The Belly of the Beast, or Why I’m Back on Facebook

Last summer, after debating it for months, I deleted my personal profile on Facebook (when I typed that word the first time, I ended up with a typo that read, “Fecebook.” Perhaps my subconscious is still not happy with my decision to return to the world of social networking).

For the most part, I liked being away. I kept my Page, and Facebook converted all of my “Friends” to “Likes” for my Page. It was fun to see my “Likes” jump so quickly (even though I realized it was artificial). I enjoyed not having a News Feed, too, since that’s where my willpower often broke down. Consumed by a need for escape, I would stay up ’til all hours commenting on everything my friends posted and reading (and…ugh…commenting on) often inflammatory posts from friends-of-friends, including the one woman who made remarks about my daughter (whom she does not know) and suggested that I might not have a bible in my possession (me, the religion minor. I counted, and I had no fewer than FIVE bibles on my bookshelf, not to mention innumerable other religious texts—from The Book of Mormon to the Bhagavad Gita—and books about religious texts. I had to force myself to stop engaging in that comment thread). When I finally went to bed, I would lie awake for hours, agitated and anxious about the comments I’d made, sure I’d said something very, very wrong. I’m prone to anxiety and I do this after social gatherings, too, so it’s not new, but I also don’t attend social gatherings every single night.

So, not being on Facebook stopped this pattern, and that was nice.

But there were downsides, too. For one, I found myself isolated socially in a way that I hadn’t expected. When I first deleted my profile I thought, “This will be great! I’ll just go back to what we all used to do before Facebook. I’ll call friends. I’ll get together with people in person. I’ll send birthday cards and write actual, physical letters!” What I didn’t bank on was how completely everyone else’s social interactions centered around Facebook. I didn’t get notes about people having babies. I didn’t know when people had moved or lost their jobs or experienced serious illnesses. I was out of the loop.

For months I decided I would just try harder. There was a bit of improvement, but I still felt disconnected from my friends. I started to wonder if my friendships had been as close as I’d thought they were. And I started to wonder if, perhaps, I just needed to meet my friends where they were. Which was on Facebook.

This month, two things happened that pushed me over the edge to opening a new personal profile and re-friending all (well, some) of the people I’d lost touch with last summer. First, two members of my extended family passed away. At the memorial service for the first relative (which I was not able to attend; all of my family are hundreds if not thousands of miles from me), one of my cousins told my mom that she was interested in reconnecting with me after 16 years. I had no idea it had been that long. She mentioned she was on Facebook and maybe she could connect with me through my sister. But I wasn’t on Facebook anymore. I realized that when I lost access to my “Friends'” profiles, I’d also lost access to the only contact information I had for some of these relatives I’d not seen in years.

The second thing was a very pleasant hour-long telephone conversation with a friend from Utah. She told me she was getting ready to have fairly involved surgery. We talked for a long while and then she said, “Well, I’ll update Facebook and let everyone know how I am after the surgery. [pause] Oh, wait…you can’t see that stuff anymore, can you?”

That was it. I wanted back in.

My compromise was to join using a variation of my name. Anyone who knows me will know who I am, but even if my profile ends up being publicly searchable (which it’s not supposed to be based on the super-duper-lockdown privacy settings I have), people who don’t know me fairly well hopefully will feel enough doubt that if I ignore their friend request, they’ll just think I’m not who they thought I was.

So, here I am, back again. We’ll see how this goes.

Anxious? Blame Your Mom

Figure 15 from Charles Darwin's The Expression...
Scaredy Cat (Image via Wikipedia)

A friend sent me a link to an article in Slate entitled, Anxiety gender gap: Are women really more anxious than men? – By Taylor Clark – Slate Magazine.

In this article, Clark ruminates about recent research suggesting that the reason that women are diagnosed with anxiety disorders twice as often as men might not be because we’re hardwired to be nervous but rather because our moms screwed us up at a young age.

Clark notes a slight predisposition of female rats to have a bigger reaction to stress than male rats, which suggests that there’s a hormonal difference between men and women that make women more likely to experience anxiety in response to stress. According to Clark, this difference isn’t significant enough to explain the two-to-one difference in anxiety in human women and men, though.

What Clark, and apparently also Michelle Craske, an “anxiety expert” from UCLA, point the finger at as the cause for higher levels of anxiety in women than in men is “socialization.” From the article:

In my book Nerve, I call this the “skinned knee effect”: Parents coddle girls who cry after a painful scrape but tell boys to suck it up, and this formative link between emotional outbursts and kisses from mom predisposes girls to react to unpleasant situations with “negative” feelings like anxiety later in life. On top of this, cultural biases about boys being more capable than girls also lead parents to push sons to show courage and confront their fears, while daughters are far more likely to be sheltered from life’s challenges. If little Olivia shows fear, she gets a hug; if little Oliver shows fear, he gets urged to overcome it.

I’m trying not to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to his insinuation that moms are making their daughters into nervous wrecks. (Besides, blaming our moms for our neuroses is so 20th Century.)

Aside from feeling defensive, I do have some problems with the assertion that parenting differences account for so much of why women are more anxious than men.

First, from all that I’ve read about attachment, “coddling” a child of either sex when they’ve experienced a trauma will help that child to feel more confident, secure, and loved than telling them to “man up.” If we’re going to use the parenting argument, it might be just as reasonable (if not more so) to note that children of both sexes are given a limited selection of emotions that are acceptable for them to express. For girls, tears and anxiety are acceptable, but anger and asserting for their own needs are not. For boys, it’s the reverse. Wouldn’t it be just as likely that girls grow up learning to express anxiety and depression more often not because those are reinforced but because the other emotions in the broad spectrum of human emotions are prohibited to them?

My second problem with this assertion is that it assumes that all “socialization” comes from parents. If this were true, why are homeschoolers constantly getting so darned much flack about how their kids are lacking in “socialization” by staying at home?  Seems to be that school-aged children and younger children who spend most of their daytime hours away from their parents are at least as likely to be “socialized” by teachers, peers, childcare workers, and babysitters as they are by their parents.

Let’s see some studies about the relative levels of anxiety between men and women who were homeschooled throughout their lives compared to those who spent all of their time in conventional schools before we go blaming the already maligned mother for her daughter’s jitters.

To Clark’s credit, he doesn’t blame mothers for all of the difference. He notes some pretty striking ways in which our culture reinforces the idea that women are anxious, including some that could be life-threatening:

…we buy into the fretful-women stereotypes far too often. Another report, for example, found significant differences in the way doctors respond to patients who report common stress symptoms like chest pain: Whereas men get full cardiac workups, women are more often told that they’re just stressed or anxious, and that their symptoms are in their heads.

I’m feeling anxious right now just thinking about the idea that if I told a doctor I was experiencing chest pain, I’m likely to be told that I’m a nutcase rather than be given proper medical attention. What about all of the other reasons women have to be anxious, like getting paid 70 cents on the dollar compared to men, or being more likely to be murdered by a loved one than by a stranger, or that if we take maternity leave and time after to care for our children we’ll be penalized in our professions?

Clark mentions another very important reason that levels of anxiety might be higher among women than among men: Women are more likely to see themselves as anxious and to report that they’re feeling anxiety than men are.

I know that in my house, my husband is much less likely to say that he’s anxious than I am. But he’s also much more likely to check the doors a dozen times, to drive back in front of the house to make sure he closed the garage door when he backed out of the driveway, and to check the knobs on the stove every time he walks by. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure those are signs of anxiety.

And this leads me to the third thing I don’t like about the “blame Mom” reason for higher levels of anxiety in women: it only explains why women are more likely than men to say they’re anxious, not why women are more likely to feel anxious. If men aren’t reporting their feelings of anxiety (or even labeling them as such to themselves), how do we know what they’re feeling? And what if women are labeling their emotions “anxiety” when they’re really pissed off or something else that’s not as acceptable for women to feel?

The Real Week 33 Review: On Not Fighting Depression

View of Antelope Island from the causeway
Image via Wikipedia

This week I’m feeling depressed and anxious. These are familiar feelings for me.

I don’t think this is “postpartum” depression/anxiety even though it starts up 8-10 months after my kids are born. Pregnancy and birth don’t cause my depression and anxiety. If anything, they alleviate it and give me a little break. During pregnancy, even with all of the discomforts and exhaustion, I am practically serene. After birth, I cry for the first three days, but I don’t feel down. I feel full. So I cry. And it’s actually very, very good. Then day four and after I settle into the oxytocin high again and am set for a few months more.

I think the intensive breastfeeding-and-cosleeping regimen of the first 6 months keeps my hormones closer to pregnancy levels, which means I remain happy and serene, for the most part.

Then solid foods and longer stretches of sleep hit and things start to change again. The depression and anxiety return, followed a few months later by the cystic acne, which just adds insult to injury.

This is where Don’t Jump to Solutions comes in for me. If I were to be only solutions-minded, I might say, well, let’s get pregnant again. In fact, let’s stay pregnant as much of the time as we can, just keep having babies to keep my bad times at bay. Eventually, however, this will have to come to an end. And I can only imagine that the downward shift back into depression and anxiety would be even more difficult to manage with eight kids to take care of than it is with two.

If I were only solutions-minded, I might take meds and then call it a day. Except for the fact that the meds don’t address the underlying issues and that they involve side effects that bother me enough that medication is not a great long-term solution for me.

If I were only solutions-minded, I might act on my fantasies of escape rather than just indulge myself in novels and imagining a solitary existence somewhere not here.

A few years back, I read a book called The Zen Path Through Depression by Philip Martin. In it is the idea that part of what creates suffering in depression is fighting against it. Martin suggests that our meditation be not on being happier or even on being “not depressed.” Rather, he suggests that we just sit with our depression, aware of it and not attempting to change it.

When I first read this, I thought this was a really stupid idea. How am I supposed to pull myself out of depression if I just sit there in it?

But I’ve come to see that when I’m feeling down, I’m like a mastodon in a tar pit. The more I struggle against sinking, the faster I sink. Struggling is not the way out.

Neither is reasoning. Depression and anxiety don’t come from my brain. Trying to use my brain to reason my way out of them just makes them worse. It heightens my anxiety, doesn’t address the underlying cause, and leaves me feeling ineffectual because I can’t make things better. And when I’m in the throes of depression and anxiety, I’m not in a position to figure out the underlying cause anyway.

I recognize that the only way to alleviate them is to simply accept their existence and work with them. If I’m lying in bed awake, anxious thoughts spinning faster and faster through my mind, it only makes me more anxious to try and talk myself out of those thoughts. The answer, for me, is to let go. I make myself take a deep breath, do a mental scan of my body, and just take note of how I’m feeling. “I’m feeling anxious. My hands are feeling tingly. My stomach is feeling nauseated. My heart is beating quickly.” Another breath, another scan, more awareness.

My mind doesn’t like this plan. It rebels against it and tries to go back to its usual plan of action. There’s a perverse comfort in going around and around in the same groove over and over again. At the same time, I need to respect my mind. It’s trying to help. Over time, I’ve discovered that fiercely reasoning through a problem can get me solutions quickly. I’ve come to pride myself on my intellect and rely on it to solve all problems. It does work. Except when it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t work, I need to try something else.

So here I am. I’m feeling anxious this week. There are lots of reasons this could be. Tsunami, earthquake, nuclear disaster, no-fly zone in Libya, staying up too late making a quilt, Daylight Saving Time, joining Twitter, too much Grey’s Anatomy. Some of these I can change. Most of them I can’t. What I can do is go back to basics. Mindfulness, nonjudgment, self care. These alone won’t “cure” me. But sleep and chicken soup don’t cure a cold, they just create conditions better suited for the body to cure itself.

Week 23 Review: Pacing Myself

I’m trucking along with the “Explore” resolutions.

Went skiing yesterday, and I have the photos to prove it.

I start aikido tomorrow night. I know it’s at East High School (where they filmed High School Musical and subsequent sequels, apparently), but I don’t know where in East High School it is. Maybe I’ll make a phone call tomorrow and try to find out.

I think what I hadn’t banked on was how much this “doing new things” would trigger my anxiety. I’m really, really on edge since skiing yesterday. I couldn’t even focus on reading last night.

I remember doing a temperament assessment as part of my daughter’s and my preschool class (it was a parent-participation preschool in Palo Alto) when she was around 18 months old. When I got the results, my daughter scored “Moderately Slow” in General Adaptability. Given her reticence in social situations, that made sense to me. But I remember thinking that, given my enjoyment of frequently relocating, I must be pretty adaptable.

Now, witnessing my persistent anxiety around yesterday’s adventure, I have to wonder if I pegged my own Adaptability wrong.

There’s something to be said for going outside of one’s comfort zone. I think that, while it can cause short-term discomfort, it can also lead to great personal growth. What’s not clear to me is where the line is between healthy and growth-promoting stress and unhealthy and mental health-degrading stress.

In other words, I’m considering not going dancing this month.

The Neverending Story

So, my theme for January is “Explore.”

I’m still kind of working out what that means. I had decided that in general it meant that I would try out things that leave me feeling squirmy. Just push my comfort zone a bit. I set out a few activities that I’ve been avoiding but that still interest me. Cross-country skiing. Aikido. Dancing. I’m going skiing this weekend, and I start aikido next Monday. Dancing is still kind of on the back burner, but I’ll get there.

I’m finding, though, that I’m planning the activities but not really thinking all that deeply about them. I think about them to get anxious (Where will I park when I go to the high school for aikido? How will I know which room to go to? What should I wear? How cold will it be when we go skiing? Will I be a big wimp?), but not to really get to how I feel about doing them.

A lot of times, I decide to do something simply because it scares me or is something I’m not good at. When I was in college, I spent the first half of freshman year (wait, they don’t call it freshman year anymore, do they?) convinced that I ought to major in biology rather than English simply because I knew I did well in English and enjoyed it and I thought I ought to do something I wasn’t good at and didn’t really enjoy because it would be a bigger challenge and leave me more well-rounded. In the end, I decided that playing to my strengths and interests was a totally reasonable way to go, and I majored in English (with a writing concentration).

The trouble is, I don’t like doing things I’m not good at. If I try something and it seems too hard, I quit. But what if I kept doing it, became good at it, and then liked it? This is a big reason I continue to try new things. It’s also a big reason why I continue to try things I’ve already tried. It worked with broccoli.

See? It’s not so scary after all. (Image via Wikipedia)

When I was a kid and didn’t like broccoli, my mom told me to just take a tiny taste of it every time it was offered, and that maybe one day I’d like it. Lo and behold, I love broccoli now, along with a whole bunch of other formerly yucky foods. Discovering the fresh versions helped, too. Frozen brussels sprouts don’t hold a candle to fresh. Even my kids eat fresh brussels. But if I hadn’t kept trying them, I wouldn’t have ever discovered the variation that was palatable to me.

I tried karate many years ago. I lasted one class. The format (the class was held on a basketball court) left me feeling exposed. And sparring was absolutely terrifying to me. I don’t like conflict and I’m not confident with gross motor skills, so hitting each other (or even pretending to) was just too much for me. A few months after I tried and gave up karate, I saw an aikido demonstration. Controlled falling looked like more my style. I looked into it, found out when and where the classes were, and then never went. That was more than ten years ago. Every time we move to a new place, I look up aikido classes and then never go. So, now I’m going.

Skiing (yes, even cross-country skiing) is just terrifying to me, but it’s what practically everyone in Utah does in the winter. We have the Greatest Snow on Earth. If I moved away never having skied, it would be like living in San Francisco and never visiting Alcatraz or living in Washington, DC, and never walking along the reflecting pool (I’ve lived outside both cities and done both things, incidentally). I just have visions of myself standing up on the skis and just sliding all over the place. Or getting out there and, despite my best efforts, being so cold I get all whiney in front of my poor friend and beg her to take me home. (I’m only comfortable getting whiney in front of my husband and maybe my sister. Not that I don’t get whiney around other people. I’m just uncomfortable while I do it. And embarrassed afterwards.)

My defense against all of these anxieties is to just push all thoughts about the new activities to the back of my mind. I know I’ll show up at my friend’s house on Saturday morning wearing every warm item of clothing in my wardrobe. I’ll have to control myself so I don’t try to bring five pounds of trail mix and a gallon of water (when I’m nervous, it calms me to bring along adequate provisions for being lost in the wilderness for up to three days. Even if I’m flying). I’m trying not to think beyond that. On Monday, I’ll have my husband kick me out 30 minutes before aikido starts. What comes next, who knows?

Maybe that’s the essence of Explore month: beginning a story to which I don’t already know the ending.