I first met Carol three years ago. We were both at the annual conference of the International OCD Foundation in Minneapolis, she as a local, first-time attendee, and I as a presenter and spokesperson for the organization. I spotted her all but glued to a wall, head down, and arms wrapped tightly around her upper body, almost as if to shield herself from all the conference activity around her. I walked over and asked if perhaps she wanted to talk. She said “No”, and dashed away. I understood. Trust me. I’d been in her shoes at an IOCDF conference not that many years before and had someone walked up to me at that time, I’d have bolted even faster than she had.
The next day I was standing outside a presentation room when I heard a voice from behind: “I’m ready to talk now.” I turned around to find Carol, tears streaming down her face.
We tucked away in a quiet corner, and I learned all about Carol’s almost unfathomable battles with OCD: a childhood plagued by endless obsessions and compulsions (and their devastating social consequences); dashed dreams of becoming a teacher and working with children; lost jobs and countless other opportunities; dozens (literally) of hospitalizations; months of intensive inpatient treatment. You get the picture.
As an active OCD advocate, I’d met a lot of people with the disorder over the years, but I can honestly say I’d never met anyone as seemingly consumed by her OCD as Carol. And yet, there was something about this quiet, troubled woman that gave me hope—some spark of uncommon determination. Maybe it was the bracelet she wore that read IMAGINE.
With this blog posting, Carol begins her new life as an OCD advocate, and I am certain her story will inspire countless others. I know it has done just that—in a huge way—for me. -Jeff Bell
We couldn’t have talked for more than 15 minutes that day, but somehow I knew our conversation was just beginning. Our brief encounter had touched something deep inside of me. I gave Carol my email address and asked her to let me know how she was doing.
Just two days later, an email turned up in my inbox from Carol. It began: “I don’t know if you remember me….”
Remember her?? I couldn’t get her off of my mind.
In her note, Carol went on to share how lost she felt, explaining that she just wanted to “throw this (IMAGINE) bracelet in the trash,” but also assuring me that she would continue to work with her OCD therapist as best she could.
I returned her message right away, and we began an email exchange that would fill both of our inboxes for years to come. Somewhere along the way we began chatting on the phone, as well. The more I got to know Carol, the more I grew to admire her tenacity, even in the face of incredible adversity.
Fast forward to several months ago, when Carol surprised the heck out of me by announcing in an email that she wanted to attend this year’s IOCDF national conference in Chicago. My surprise was not that she wanted to put herself back in an environment that had proved so challenging for her, but rather that she was willing to consider doing what it would take to make that happen.
Carol had not left Minneapolis/St. Paul (except for a residential hospitalization) since 1983—nearly three decades! She was deathly afraid of public transit (and the contamination issues it raised). And yet, here she was contemplating a 400-mile road trip to The Windy City. The ultimate OCD exposure therapy!
Now, I’m a big believer in tackling OCD step by step, working one’s way up an exposure hierarchy under the watchful eye of a trained expert. So my first question for Carol was whether her therapist had signed off on this idea. She assured me he had, even offering to put me in touch with him, so we could all come up with a plan.
As readers of this blog know, I’m also a big believer in the power of what I call Greater Good motivation, encouraging OCD sufferers to identify and pursue specific goals with the potential to empower themselves and/or others. So when Carol mentioned that she wanted to experience Chicago’s deep dish pizza and bring back a meaningful souvenir, I jumped on both goals.
Carol and I talked frequently in the weeks that followed—about pizza, about possible Chicago mementos, and about her ultimate desire to step into advocacy. We also talked about the challenges she’d have to tackle before she could reap any of those rewards–namely, an 8-hour overnight bus trip and a taxi trip to the conference hotel. I lost track of how many times she wondered out loud whether she could actually do this.
On Friday, July 27th, Carol proved that she COULD.
I was finishing up a talk at the IOCDF conference that morning when I looked out and saw my courageous friend, sitting in a back row of the room, looking more than a bit tired, but sporting a big smile on her face. Almost three years to the day after meeting in Minneapolis, here were Carol and I reuniting in Chicago.
For the next two and a half days, Carol and I methodically tackled her Chicago “bucket list.” We scouted out and ate some of the city’s finest deep dish pizza—unbelievably delicious. We searched far and wide for the perfect souvenirs—a sweatshirt and a Matchbox-car-sized yellow Chicago taxi cab. We found ways for Carol to be of service to others at the conference—helping me staff the table for my nonprofit Adversity 2 Advocacy Alliance. We shared a lot of laughs—and a few tears— along the way, and Carol presented me with one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received: a handmade clay depiction of me battling my “Octopus Chewing Doubtnuts” (a reference that will mean something to those of you who have read When in Doubt, Make Belief).
At one point during the weekend, I looked over and saw Carol crying. I asked if she was okay, and she tearfully whispered that she couldn’t remember the last time she felt so alive. She pointed out the bracelet she was wearing—the same one that had adorned her wrist the day I’d met her. Staring at the word IMAGINE, I realized that she had managed to do just that. I realized too that, in picturing the possibility of her making this heroic trek to Chicago, she had started a much longer and more important journey that will undoubtedly transform the rest of her life.
With this blog posting, Carol begins her new life as an OCD advocate, and I am certain her story will inspire countless others. I know it has done just that—in a huge way—for me.
This post was republished with permission from Jeff Bell and Psychology Today. You can find the original here. Bell is the founder of the nonprofit Adversity 2 Advocacy Alliance, co-founder of Beyond the Doubt and the author of When In Doubt, Make Belief.
My name is Annalise De Young, and I graduated this spring with my degree in Mental Health Counseling and Expressive Arts Therapy from Lesley University. My thesis project was about exploring anxiety, particularly my own anxiety through art, and I wanted to share a little bit of that journey with this community.
When I look back on human history, I see that there are many constants, things that are always there in some form, and one of those constants is art. When I talk about art, it means more to me than just pictures on a page, it’s all the creative processes and expressions—visual, musical, theatrical and so on. Creating something is a way that we have processed our lives and experiences since the dawn of time. This is why ancient pieces of writing, art, and music still appeal to us because there is something about those human experiences written into that piece of art that we share. So I began the process of exploring my anxiety through art.
For me, anxiety is a very physical experience. A lot of the time I become aware of something physical before my brain kicks in to notice that we are on the fast track to Anxious Land. The biggest clue is that my jaw will be clenched, and once I notice that it usually follows that I notice knots in my stomach and hands that cannot be kept still. Sometimes, it just feels like the overwhelming need to escape. I kept a journal for a couple months focusing just on the physical feelings of being anxious, and then, I brought them into the art studio.
I wanted to make what I felt inside of myself visible to the outside world, and I wondered what these feelings would look like on the outside of my body, painted on my skin. And I wanted to get to know those feelings, so I could name them, face them, and feel them without letting them take control. I began each of the painting sessions by reading through my journal entries until I found something that stuck out to me. I spent time remembering that feeling, trying to find it back within my body, and then I started to paint.
Here is an example of one of the descriptions I found in my journal, and the painting that came from it: This one is sudden—it feels like my air is gone. It radiates and sucks itself in like a swirling vortex of terror, but in slow motion. It pulls everything into a great, big emptiness.
I spent hours in the studio painting what my anxiety felt like, and since this was for research, I was also filming, photographing and documenting along the way. On my last day of painting, I was sitting on the studio floor reading through my journal entries like I had done each of the previous times. I was looking for an image or feeling from the journal that stood out to me that day when I realized I was ready to paint myself strong. As I looked at the journal pages, I felt like I knew those feelings already, I understood them better than I had on the day I started painting, but I wanted to paint myself strong. I survived those feelings, in this body, in this skin, and it was strong—it is strong, and so am I.
Through all the research and my own life experience, I learned a few things, and one of the biggest lessons was that it can be almost impossible to tackle anxiety with just a single approach, like therapy or medication, or meditation. Anxiety becomes part of our train of thought, running on a parallel track until it derails us. It is something that we have to approach from multiple angles in order to really get ahead of it. I also came to recognize that anxiety is well-intentioned, but it is dangerous when it becomes too powerful. Anxiety wants to keep us safe, and it thrives on the unknown.
Art is a useful tool for relaxation and meditation, for keeping the mind calm, which are excellent things for a person who experiences anxiety. But art can also take us through some of the more difficult parts of our journey, the parts that are not easy to talk about. When there are no words for what we feel, we can turn to art to express ourselves. For some of us that could mean dancing, for others writing. It could mean picking up an instrument or picking up a paint brush.
Annalise is a freshly-minted Expressive Arts Therapist born and raised in Grand Rapids, MI. She attended City High School, Alma College, and Lesley University. She has a passion for helping people discover and rediscover creative paths to healing in their lives and their communities, and for helping people to express things without words. Truly ‘smitten with the mitten,’ she is always drawn to the water, loves all four seasons (yes, even winter), and all the adventures that Michigan has to offer. When at home you would likely find her hanging out with her rabbit (Matteo), crocheting, making art, or enjoying the thrills of Netflix. To hear more send her an email at email@example.com.
If like me, you rely on the internet for work, information, leisure, making social plans, shopping (the list gets embarrassingly long, so I’ll cut it there!), it can feel like a pretty great thing. The internet and the digital devices it’s brought with it have changed the world – in many ways for the better. However, nothing is without its fallbacks. The digital revolution has brought many unforeseen problems in its wake. Many people are linking the sudden, global upsurge in depression and anxiety with the rapid worldwide spread of digital devices. While nothing is as yet proven, the evidence to suggest that the use of digital devices – particularly concerning social media – can cause anxiety in susceptible individuals.
Let’s start with the most ‘pathological’ pattern of internet usage. The concept of ‘internet addiction’ is well established in Japan, China, and Korea, but remains debated in the West. However, we are increasingly coming to understand that patterns of excessive internet usage can provoke reactions resembling (if not functionally identical to) the reactions of an addict to their preferred substance. Needless to say, addiction brings with it a lot of associated psychiatric troubles – including an enhanced capacity for anxiety. If we are indeed addicted to our digital devices, it’s hardly surprising that we’re experiencing anxiety as a side-effect of the addiction-based dopamine surges and withdrawals within our brains. The trouble is, our reliance on our digital devices is so intense that excessive use is normalized, and behaviors have to become seriously extreme before we realize that there is a problem. Indeed, many people are far more protective of their digital devices than they are of their cars, their homes, or even their bank accounts. Increasingly, people’s digital lives are so important to them that they ask to be buried with their smartphones – and that’s considered normal!
Loss Of Downtime
Moving onto more lifestyle-based factors, many have noted that the internet has chipped away at our downtime so insidiously that we’ve barely noticed it happening. Indeed, it’s more or less destroyed the boundaries between ‘work time’ and ‘leisure time.’ Many of us have a social media or magazine tab open while we work, and take guilty pleasure in updating our Facebook during work hours. However, the flip side of being able to reach your at-leisure life while you’re at work is that work can also reach you during your leisure time. No longer do office hours finish when we go home. Emails can reach us any time of the day or night, and many of us are asked to take work home, to research, or to complete and send via the internet. True downtime – where we’re completely disconnected from our working lives – is a thing of the past. Even when we are using the internet purely for ‘leisure,’ our brains still have to work pretty hard to keep up with the gallons of information we’re pouring into it from a thousand different sources. Furthermore, the constant connectedness of the digital world makes us feel obliged to immediately answer any message – which instantly re-engages even a very relaxed brain. All of this is bad because our brains need to go into ‘rest mode’ to process our experiences and ‘sort out’ the psyche. Without giving our brains a bit of a break (i.e. concentrating purely on one, pleasurable thing – reading a book, meditating, going for a walk, dozing etc), our brains never have a chance to file things away to long-term memory, heal emotional wounds, sweep away stress, and let all of our worries seep into the substratum of our consciousness, there to be harmlessly dispelled. Psychological ‘clutter’ thus piles up in the psyche and manifests as depression and anxiety.
Then there’s the ever-present problem with social media. Scientists have various ideas about social media and how it can be bad/good for us. Trolls upset us, anonymity brings out the worst in us, we become more invested in our online than our real lives, the list goes on. However, there’s one theme which emerges pretty consistently: that of pressure. The lives we portray on social media are our highlight reels – they’re bolder, more dramatic, prettier, and far less humdrum than our real lives. Which is fine, if you realize that everyone is essentially ‘photoshopping’ their social media persona. Sometimes, however, scrolling down everyone’s beautiful, funny, successful feeds can make us feel intense pressure to live up to these unreal standards. We don’t know that the person who always has hilarious statuses spends hours thinking up her next quip. We don’t know that ‘casual,’ gorgeous selfie was re-taken fifteen times and then heavily edited. We don’t know that those perfect, smiling children were screaming monsters five minutes before the photo was taken. All we see is a stream of apparently faultless lives, which our lives cannot possibly match. Which makes us feel inadequate, knocks our self-esteem, and gives us anxiety.
Helen Fields is a freelance writer and mother. She juggles her work around her home life. In the past, she has suffered anxiety problems and now seeks to help others through writing about these issues and what life is like managing these kinds of problems.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Have you ever been asked to join a group? Perhaps at your work setting, church organization, or even among family members? Group activities, whether it’s social or business-related, can be difficult for anyone with social anxiety.
Sure, on some level, everyone gets nervous when they are among a group of people they don’t know. And it’s human nature to be somewhat nervous around strangers. But for those who have social anxiety, it’s not a touch of nerves but rather a flood of anxiety that interferes with their social interactions. In fact, if a person has severe reactions to social experiences, they may be diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder.
Social Anxiety Disorder is a psychological illness in which individuals have an extreme fear of social situations and being around others. A person with this illness commonly fears being evaluated and judged by others, to the point where it is debilitating. Frequently, this fear prevents them from being able to participate and engage in healthy activities and relationships. Those with Social Anxiety Disorder typically feel self-consciousness in an extreme way. They often also feel a fear of being embarrassed or humiliated. Sadly, even average, every-day interactions can feel overwhelming.
So if you’re in a workplace setting and you’re asked to do a group project with another division, co-workers you don’t know, it can be frightening. Or if you’re in a community setting with neighbors and community organizers, for example, working on a fundraiser for your neighborhood, that too can feel overwhelming.
Someone with Social Anxiety Disorder who is faced with an overwhelming social situation might experience the following symptoms:
- a racing heart
- shortness of breath
- sweating palms
- feeling hot
It’s common for people with Social Anxiety Disorder to withdraw from people and social activities. To avoid these experiences, they frequently isolate and spend time alone. The worry and anxiety may become so intense for some people that they no longer have the ability to participate in social situations. In many cases, those with the disorder might even be aware that the social anxiety they’re experiencing is unreasonable. However, they may still feel powerless to it.
As you can imagine, Social Anxiety Disorder may interfere with a person’s career, ability to make friends, and have a network of support. However, those with the illness can utilize mental health treatment, such as psychotherapy and medication (if needed). In some cases, therapy that explores a person’s beliefs, thoughts, and feelings while in those social situations can help illuminate the experience that might be triggering the physiological response of fear. A person with Social Anxiety Disorder might also incorporate relaxation practices, including meditation and yoga, into their lifestyle. Practices such as these can help a person learn a state of relaxation as a natural and ongoing state versus anxiety as a dominant state.
If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder, contact a mental health provider for assistance. A person doesn’t have to live in fear. Help is available so that anxiety doesn’t have to get in the way of enjoying life.
About the author – Robert Hunt is a recovering addict of 7 years. He has devoted his life to helping others suffering from chemical addictions as well as mental health challenges. Robert maintains many blogs on drug addiction, eating disorders and depression. He is a sober coach and wellness advocate and a prominent figure in the recovery community.
My dear, my dear, do not fear the night.
It comes to bring contrast to the colors of the light. If not for dark, walled-in caves with no cracks at all, you wouldn’t know the beauty of the bright, golden sun. Or the rich green leaves that serve as beds to the raindrops that fall from the sky. You wouldn’t know what the sky really looked like if that’s all you saw day in and day out. Its brilliant blue would turn to haze and your eyes would eventually glass over so you could hardly see its detail anymore. You would think it commonplace and try to throw it to the wind out of boredom.
You say you wish for all things to be made new and all the darkness to be gone, and yes, I think that’s in all our hearts. This world is not how it should be, and we know it. But do you also see that the colors of the sun, the leaves, and the sky are so beautiful because they come as a welcome miracle at the other end of your pitch black nights? You see how beautiful they are, but if they were all you ever saw, you wouldn’t see their beauty like you do. My love, take heart. Cry into my chest if need be. Speak. I’ll listen. I know the nights are wrought with pain. And I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. You should not have to go through this. I have no answer for you. I wish I did. I know my words don’t fix anything. But I am here. And I just want you to see. To see how much you see the beauty, how sensitive to it you are. You may have a heart more aware of beauty than most, and with that, you are also more sensitive to pain. You feel everything very deeply. But remember, “beauty can save the world.” You are a chosen one to help others find the beauty.
You are a chosen one to help others find the beauty.
Caravaggio, he mastered Chiaroscuro. He could create an effect of contrasted light and dark in a painting. He must have had his own darkness, too, to make such captivating works of art. The light, though. When you cuddle up your little brown puppy and let her kiss your face and let her pure excitement of being in this world flood into your soul, that’s what I mean. You look into her eyes and you see the marvelous miracle of her life, how just 4 months ago she wasn’t even alive yet, and somehow the lines of the universe matched up so she could land in your home all the way from St. Louis. Her brown eyes etched with detail offer a certain kind of tenderness you’ve never seen. She just wants to be loved and wants to love you back. That’s all that matters to her, and that’s all that really matters. Remember Nate, the cook at your restaurant, jamming and singing his heart out while he scrubbed those pans like a pro that one busy night you had no dishwasher? He must have forgotten anyone else was there- his pants were falling down and he mostly had his eyes closed while the music played and he was jamming to the beat like the happiest person alive. Now that’s life. Last night after your yoga class, you were in the lowest of states, tired of trying, so depressed and exhausted from everything, wanting a break. But something in you knew that before you left, you had to run your fingers across the colorful banners the yoga teachers had bought while in India. They were handmade, they each had yoga symbols on them. Your heart knew there was something special there. Some beautiful people who ushered these banners into the world, a new and intriguing culture of their home country, and perhaps freedom and power in those banners that displayed symbols that give meaning to life, gratitude, joy, love, and freedom. The blues, pinks, and purples, were especially brilliant. You felt a twinge of magic running through your veins as you touched these treasures. The beauty almost kills you.
And you realize that perhaps you, with all your darkness and mistakes and imperfections and light and strength and bravery, you are beautiful. You are a gift to the world. Just as beauty is a gift to you.
These moments of beauty, you wouldn’t really SEE them like you do if they were all you had. Or if your life were easy. Because you wouldn’t need to see them. There would be little use for them. But you do have the wretched nights of little sleep and deep despair, or days when the night seeps into the day. When your soul aches from exhaustion, and the pain feels like it can’t go any deeper. And, my love, you LOOK for the beauty. Damn, do you ever. It’s your fuel. During the night, you either consciously wonder when the light will come again, or if your hope runs thin and you stop anticipating, when it actually comes you are that much more bewildered and in awe. You marvel and you laugh. A hearty laugh because what more joy is there than to be given something beautiful? Ahhh, maybe there is an even greater joy. One that you’re still learning. What if it is then to give it away? Your heart becomes so full with the beauty that it will simply burst if it doesn’t let any of it go, so you give it away in a smile to a friend or even someone who has hurt you. You point out to someone the beauty you see in THEM and hope they see it, too. You care for your teenage friend and really ask how she’s doing. You do something that would encourage your mom. You look for ways to love others. You write, and you song-write, and you hopefully create something beautiful for others to enjoy. And you realize that perhaps you, with all your darkness and mistakes and imperfections and light and strength and bravery, you are beautiful. You are a gift to the world. Just as beauty is a gift to you. You are a chiaroscuro piece, created by someone more skillful than Caravaggio. Don’t let your weaknesses or failures cover up your strengths and successes. They’re just a contrast, remember? If the darkness weren’t there, the light wouldn’t be as bright. Embrace all of you. Be the gift. Remember, darling, that beauty reins, both around and inside of you.
When we hear the word “anxiety,” we almost always associate it with something unfavorable. These “negative” thoughts brought about by anxiety can affect our relationships with other people and how we function at school or work. Most people would describe “anxiety” as a creepy creature who whispers incessantly in our ears all the things we don’t want to hear. For some, it is feeling uneasy when there is nothing to be uneasy about yet there is no way to shut down such uncomfortable feelings.
But is anxiety that bad? Is it the evil monster that we think it is? Like most things, anxiety lies in a spectrum. It can have a negative or positive influence on an individual’s behavior. But since it has always been associated with negativity, people tend to ignore or dismiss it instead of listening to it. It is rare or unheard of to think that anxiety can have a positive influence. Think of it as a knife – most people would instantly dismiss or have it put away before someone gets hurt instead of giving the utensil recognition for its usefulness in preparing a delicious dinner. Be it detrimental or beneficial, anxiety is trying to tell us something worth our full and due attention. For this reason, one should make a friend out of anxiety.
Anxiety acts as a wake-up call to deal with problems urgently. If it is trying to tell us anything, it is that something is not right and must be dealt with immediately. However, most people would either avoid tackling the issue or resort to aggression. These do not solve the real problem at all and may even cause more problems, like opening a can of worms. Instead, a person should listen to what his or her anxiety is trying to say. If it is trying to point a person to a specific issue, then it’s best to take heed and deal with the subject. If the anxious thoughts do not point to something specific, then it’s best to consult a professional who can give counseling.
Though impossible as it may seem, one can also harness anxiety as motivation. Anxiety can be crippling, but research suggests that there exists a “sweet spot” where anxiety is enough to keep a person motivated. As long as the person does some preparation and pushes him/herself instead of wallowing in doubt, it can help to get things done. Since it is a warning system, it gets people to act on whatever it is they are worried about. It may differ for everyone, but an individual is usually compelled to act when such person hits enough amounts of anxiety.
All these opportunities between problems and solutions eventually lead to a person’s increase in self-awareness and self-growth. By listening to anxiety, a person becomes more solution-oriented instead of avoiding problems. It also helps a person to become more caring since he or she understands how other people feel when faced with challenges.
Alisa Abrasaldo is a freelance writer and works with Open Colleges helping people decide on a career in Counseling. She learned through a friend’s experience with anxiety how crippling this disorder can become. She shares her insights to help others. Alisa also enjoys photography and travel in her spare time.
She walked through the door as to avoid notice. Carefully and quietly she planted herself into the cream-colored rocker that embraced her. Body trembling, hands interlocked, face lost in the ground below. Ridden with anxiety, fear of the unknown, shaken to the bone and yet in a place so warm, embracing and accepting.
People walk through our doors every week, and everyone’s story is different but also very much the same. Social anxiety is very common among those who attend the ARC. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 15 million American adults have Social Anxiety Disorder.
So what is it really? Just being shy? No, it’s much more than that. According to an article published by the National Institute of Mental Health, social phobia is a disabling anxiety disorder characterized by overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social or performance situations.
As you might imagine, the holidays can be very stressful with so many events focusing on social settings. Consider some of these tips shared by others:
- Focus on one person in the room. Find someone who makes you feel comfortable and that you can identify with.
- Offer to help someone. This allows the focus to shift from you and onto the task at hand.
- Recognize that it’s ok to feel nervous. Sometimes the best thing we can do is feel the anxiety and know that it will pass.
- If you feel overwhelmed in a social setting, excuse yourself. Maybe you need to use the restroom or get something from the car. A few minutes to stop and breathe can be very helpful.
- Attend a smaller gathering. Recognize that being in a social setting with people who understand can be rewarding and a baby step towards something bigger.
- Utilize those deep breathing and meditation skills you’ve learned. Don’t have any? Check out our Pinterest boards, especially Holiday Help.
Above all recognize that while anxiety may not be curable, it is highly treatable. We wish you a joyous holiday!
Suzette Andres is one of the founding board member and the director of the Anxiety Resource Center in Grand Rapids, MI.
There is a Reason-
to keep walking
You might see a sunrise,
red gold glory
blooming into day.
You might hear
praising a new day.
You could sit
in yellow bright sunshine,
its warmth sinking
into your bones.
You might hear
the sharp crack
of bat meeting ball
which screams over
the green grass field –
over heads, outstretched hands,
over the fence.
You might enjoy
a wonderful meal
smiling, talking, laughing,
You could walk
a soft sand beach
hearing gulls scream in tongues
given only to them,
see their hieroglyphic
every which way
till they end when
they lift to the sky.
You might find
a bright shining penny
on a walk, pick it up,
and feel lucky all day.
You might exchange
a sudden smile
with a stranger
and wish each other
a good day.
You might learn
that many people
will walk with you
and find Peace
along the way.
-Mary Ericksen, 2014
Why? And What Can You Do About It?
In my professional life, I frequently come across individuals who are experiencing food-based anxieties. Sometimes these are centered around body-image, and sometimes they’re a little more ephemeral than that. When I first began to work with people suffering from anxiety disorders, I was actually surprised at how many of these suffering individuals found that mealtimes, food, and so on became an anxiety ‘flashpoint’. It was not something which my training had touched upon overmuch. When I was learning my trade (which was, admittedly, a few years ago now!) the tendency was to compartmentalize eating disorders and anxiety disorders – a tendency which, I swiftly learned, was not at all helpful. Anxiety disorders and eating disorders co-occur far more often than we are led to believe, and the relationship between the two is often extremely complex.
While not everyone with an anxiety disorder has an eating disorder, I don’t think it would be pushing the envelope too far to state that a far higher than average proportion of people with eating disorders also have an anxiety disorder. Furthermore, many individuals suffering from anxiety disorders may experience problems around food and eating – problems which may not translate into a quantifiable eating disorder, but which certainly cause a great deal of suffering. If left untreated, anxiety disorders can and often do cause eating disorders to develop. It appears that OCD is the most common anxiety disorder to co-present with an eating disorder, perhaps because the anxious obsessions of OCD lend themselves easily to the kind of food-based obsessions and compulsions associated with diseases like anorexia and bulimia nervosa. However, that does not mean that other anxiety disorders sufferers are ‘immune’ from eating disorders. Sadly, far, far from it.
Why Eating Disorders?
Like any mental illnesses, eating disorders are complicated phenomena. What triggers them, and the manner in which they manifest differ from person to person, meaning that successful treatment have to be highly individualized. However, there are certain common features which therapists and other mental health professionals see again and again in eating disorder sufferers. Most commonly, the sufferer will experience intense low moods, self-hatred, and obsessional thinking patterns. Anxiety disorder sufferers will recognize all of these, no doubt! The mental processes associated with both eating disorders and anxiety disorders fit together extremely well. Anxiety disorders and eating disorders can develop a symbiotic relationship which makes life very difficult for the poor sufferer. It is unclear whether anxiety disorders are ‘caused’ by eating disorders or vice versa – but in all honesty, it probably varies from person to person. Eating disorders can make the sufferer very anxious, and anxiety disorders can cause their sufferer to develop food-based worries and obsessions. While all mental health problems are serious, eating disorders are a matter of great concern as they have the highest death rate of all mental health problems.
Many without specific ‘eating disorders’ may also develop a food-based component to their anxieties. Eating is a phenomenon of far more significance than we tend to acknowledge. It’s not only intensely social at times, but our food choices have a huge impact upon our health, our appearance, and our lifestyle in general. Little wonder, therefore, that mealtimes and food choices can become an anxiety ‘flashpoint’. People with social anxiety may experience intense fear of judgment and of being ‘watched’ in social eating situations. It is important to remember that evolution has primed us to feel a little vulnerable while we eat – this is why going for a meal with someone is such a social phenomenon. It shows trust, and that we are at ease with our co-diner. However, this can work against those with social anxieties, who may find social dining a phenomenally anxiety-making experience.
If someone has co-morbid eating and anxiety disorders, it is essential to treat both, otherwise they will continue to reinforce one another and intensifying the suffering of the individual. Eating disorders and anxiety disorders can be treated! However, it can be difficult to get sufferers to both admit that they have a problem and to get help. If you suspect that someone you love has an eating disorder (curious behavior around food, rapid weight loss, rapid weight gain, and obsession with weight can all be indicators), it is essential that the issue is faced head on in order to start treatment as soon as possible. Don’t force the point, but do gently and firmly try to get your loved one to open up about this, and to seek help.
Helen Fields is a freelance writer and mother. She juggles her work around her home life. In the past, she has suffered anxiety problems and now seeks to help others through writing about these issues and what life is like managing these kinds of problems. She offers insight into eating disorders from her personal experience as well as what she’s learned through working in the health care industry.
Congratulations. If this letter reaches you at the right time you’ll be sitting under a tree on Hampstead Heath. Alex has just popped a bottle of fizz to celebrate your engagement. You’re both excited about the future. You should be – it’s been great. Your wedding was the best day of your life – full of love and magic and friendship.
But there are a few things it might help to know. If you’re not careful your mental and physical health could take quite a bashing over the next couple of years.
One. You can’t control a wedding diet. Change the dress, not yourself. Your disordered eating lurks much closer to the surface than you think. You’ll slide into militant calorie counting, restriction and purging through exercise. You’ll use the excuse it’s ‘just for the wedding’ but you’ll take a guilty pleasure in losing weight again. Your dress will end up too big. You’ll spend your honeymoon struggling to find a manageable balance – running miles in the early morning when you should have been cozy in bed with your new husband. Your periods will stop and your attempts to conceive put on hold. It isn’t worth it.
Two. You need the medication – and that’s fine. I know you’ve been on it for years and you’re desperate to know who you are without it. I know you’d rather be medication free before you conceive. But again, it isn’t worth it. Coming off the Sertraline will wreak three months of havoc on your body, health, and relationship before you finally admit you need it.
It’s helping you be yourself. Without it you’re a dark anxious shadow. Your world will narrow. Anxieties will bulge and take over, distorting every joy. You’ll lose the strength or clarity of thought to control those eating or exercise demons.
Three. You need to look after yourself better if you want to conceive. And looking after yourself isn’t pushing your body to extremes or restricting fat or calories. Looking after yourself is allowing time for rest, relaxation, and sleep. Eating for health rather than size. It isn’t easy. But…
Four. The body positivity movement can help. You’re not the only one who functions with a constant and negative internal dialogue about your weight and appearance. But people are fighting back. Women you respect are talking sense about body positivity, challenging destructive attitudes and unapologetically being their beautiful selves. Look for books, blogs and social media posts that can slowly adjust your perspective.
I know you’ve always based too much of your worth on how your clothes fit and how slim and muscular your body is. Even if in reality you’re unhappy and look unwell. Work on valuing softness, rounder curves and hips as a proof of mental strength instead. It’s really hard, especially when you’re feeling anxious, vulnerable or stressed. It will take a while to stop the recrimination and resolutions, to realize that gaining a little weight isn’t losing control. But one day you’ll get to the point where you can see your curves as part of a healthy, beautiful body and a more flexible mind.
Your body will keep on changing throughout your life. You could fight it for another 30 years or you could spend that energy learning to be happy in the only skin you’ve got.
Finally Clare, remember that change happens slowly. Stop thinking of your time in hours and days. Don’t beat yourself up if you seesaw up and down while trying to find a balance with food or weight. Don’t think you’ve failed if sometimes only a long run will calm the panic.
Things will change. But that change is measured in months and years not days or weeks.
I hope you’ll listen to me – but sadly I know you probably won’t. You’ll need to feel the pain of withdrawal and the slow deterioration into relapse in order to build a simpler, more accepting relationship with your medication. And it might just take the full force of a relapse into eating problems to finally push you into making serious moves to change your attitude towards your body.
Good luck. You can do it. And have a brilliant wedding day.
Clare is a writer, editor and community manager. She keeps her own mental health blog here. You can follow her on Twitter @fostress.
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