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Helpful Holiday Tips from the ARC


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.


For My Friend-Who Asked

There is a Reason-
to keep walking
every day.

You might see a sunrise,
red gold glory
blooming into day.

You might hear
trilling birdsong
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,
finding freedom
over the fence.

You might enjoy
a wonderful meal
with friends,
smiling, talking, laughing,
laughing, laughing.

You could walk
a soft sand beach
hearing gulls scream in tongues
given only to them,
see their hieroglyphic
footprints leading
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

Eating Disorders Are Frequently Co-Morbid With Anxiety Disorders

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.

Eating Anxieties

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.


A Letter to Self

Dear Clare,

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.

Big love

Clare is a writer, editor and community manager. She keeps her own mental health blog here. You can follow her on Twitter @fostress.


Guest Post: Back to School Anxiety

Tips to Help Your Child Overcome School-Related Fears

With the school year quickly approaching, approximately 50 million American students are gearing up to enroll in elementary through high schools, according to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics. That means many children and teens are starting to become anxious about going back to school with questions such as, “Will I like my teachers? Will I have friends? Will my classes be too hard? Will I fit in? Will I get lost?”

This sense of uncertainty and uneasiness may be particularly difficult for students who have just moved, or are first-timers to elementary, middle or high school. A sense of nervousness is pretty common, and a case of jitters is normal and to be expected, but what can you do when your child is experiencing a noticeably intense amount of anxiety leading up to the start of school? Here are some general strategies to help your child overcome his school-related fears.

Take care of the basic needs.

Anxious children can often forget to eat, don’t feel hungry, and don’t get enough sleep. Make sure to provide nutritious snacks for your child often, and start to establish consistent routines during this time, so that life is more predictable for your child. These types of routines can consist of morning and bedtime habits, as well as eating schedules.

Encourage discussion around fears and worries.

Ask your child about what is making him worried. You can also ask questions such as, “What have you heard about elementary school?” “What do you think it’s going to be like?” Tell your child that it is normal to have concerns, and begin to address them one-by-one. Some kids feel most comfortable talking about concerns when they have your undivided attention, and some kids, most likely teens, feel most at ease to talk when they have some sort of distraction to lessen the intensity of their worries, such as driving in the car, or taking a walk.

Problem solve instead of giving reassurance.

Children with anxiety often seek reassurance for things that cause them stress in order to reduce their worry around engaging in those activities. Avoid reassuring them with statements like “Everything will be fine!” Instead, support your child to develop his own ways to solve his problem. For example, “If this happens (the worst-case scenario of the fear or worry), what could you do? Lets think of some ways you could handle it.” Along these lines, you can use this time to address real versus imagined scary situations. If need be, role-play with your child, to help him make a plan to feel more confident that he will be able to handle the situation in question.

Model confidence for your child.

Parents can also feel stress about their kids starting school. When children notice their parents are feeling nervous, they may become anxious, too, because they take cues from their parents. The more confidence you can model for them, the more your child will recognize there is no reason to be afraid. Don’t let your child avoid school with an explosive tantrum. Be supportive and positive, yet firm. Help your child communicate his fears and discuss how he can deal with them with a little problem-solving and planning.

Plan a timeline leading up to the first day of school.

At least one week before the start of school, start your child on a school-day routine, which includes waking up, eating, and going to bed at regular times. It may be helpful to get everyone in the family involved in this routine so that the child doesn’t feel singled-out by the changes. Start brainstorming with your child to help him plan his lunches for the first week. Create a list of school supplies together and go shopping. Talk about some coping skills he can use when he’s feeling nervous, including breathing exercises.

A couple days before school, you can practice the school day’s entire routine, maybe even multiple times so that everything becomes as familiar as possible. This includes walking, driving or waiting at the bus stop. For children who take the school bus, describe and draw out the bus route, including how long it takes to get to school. Discuss bus safety with your child and his expectations for riding the bus. For students who are first-timers to their school, take a tour with them. Show your child the classrooms, the cafeteria, and the bathrooms. If possible, try to meet your child’s teacher with your child there. Help your child pack his backpack the night before. Reach out to your child’s teacher to tell him or her that your child is experiencing some anxiety. Praise your child for his brave behavior!

If your child doesn’t settle into a daily school routine a month or two into the school year, and the anxiety has become so intense and prolonged that it’s affecting his daily functioning, it may be time for some professional help. Talk to your child’s teacher and the school counselor to get their thoughts and to get their support if outside counseling is needed. Anxiety is the body’s way of alerting us to respond to dangerous or stressful events, but if your child is continually struggling with anxiety, you may need to seek out a trained counselor or psychologist. Once your child is able to tell the difference between a real danger and a “false alarm” danger, he can begin to implement various strategies and tools to handle those in a better, and less stressful way.


“Helping Your Child Cope with Back-to-School Anxiety.” Anxiety BC. Retrieved on July 15, 2015 from www.anxietybc.com

Lohmann, R. (2014). “Back to School Anxiety: Tips to help your teen overcome back to school fears and anxiety.” Psychology Today. Retrieved on July 15, 2015 from www.psychologytoday.com

Peach, Sara. (2011). “Coping with back-to-school anxiety.” UNC Health Care. Retrieved on July 15, 2015 from www.news.unchealthcare.org

This post was republished with permission from Turnaround Anxiety. You can find the original here. Emily has a bachelor’s in Journalism & Mass Communication from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her master’s in Christian counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She is a counselor in private practice. A native Charlottean, she currently resides in Charlotte with her husband and son. For more information about her, please visit her website: www.emilybasscounseling.com.


Guest Post: 3 Things Panic Attacks Don’t Want You To Know

“Whatever you fight, you strengthen, and what you resist, persists.” ~Eckhart Tolle

Sunday started out with a panic attack.

It wasn’t little butterflies in the stomach like right before a first kiss. It wasn’t the feeling of anticipation as a rollercoaster slowly climbs the big hill before the drop.

This panic attack felt like I was about to jump off a cliff while being chased by clowns. Not cute clowns—scary ones. The kind of clowns that were in the paintings at my pediatrician’s office when I was a kid. The clowns that smiled at me smugly when I was getting emergency asthma shots, unable to breathe.

Panic attacks are my suffering at its most profound. Over the years, I’ve become an expert on them.

I was twenty-nine when I had my first major panic attack. I was sitting in a hotel room in Sunnyvale, California, getting ready to drive to the beach, and I couldn’t decide whether to eat at a local restaurant or wait until I got to Santa Cruz.

Bang! It hit me out of nowhere.

That’s how it happens for me. I can handle a major crisis like a medical emergency or aiding in a car accident with unthinking grace. It’s the day-to-day living that sometimes gets me.

Suffering the break-up of a romantic relationship a few months ago brought the panic attacks back out of hiding. Instead of going through a depression, I felt riddled by anxiety.

A lot of the anxiety had to do with the fact that I was going to have to deal with my ex in a working situation. It was compounded with the awful things I was telling myself over and over again in my head. It was extremely painful and maddening.

At least I have some skills and resources for dealing with panic and anxiety, and I’ve gotten a lot better at using them.

I’ve found meditation and present moment awareness to be effective in dealing with panic attacks.

I know that some people reading this will think that they can’t meditate. However, there are lots of different kinds of meditation and lots of different techniques we can utilize.

If we think of a panic attack as a villain who steals away pieces of our soul, these are the three techniques that he wouldn’t want us to know about.


One of the most powerful things that you can do in the midst of a panic attack is to accept it. I know that seems to go against all rational thought.

Don’t I want the panic attack to go away? Sure I do. But noticing the panic and accepting that it’s visiting me is the first step. Realizing that I’m having a panic attack instead of being lost in the dream of panic creates some space to work with it.

One way to work with it is to lie down on the floor and feel the anxiety and panic flowing through the body. Accept that it’s there. Feel it completely.

I notice my chest feeling tight and my heart pounding, notice the sweating or feeling of being light-headed or dizzy. I let the anxiety develop completely, inviting it to overcome me like a wave of uncomfortableness.

Yes, it can get pretty nasty. But usually at the point when I feel like my whole being is going to explode from so much anxiety, something almost unimaginable happens: a release.

The panic begins to fade, moving away from me like the tide slowly going back out to sea. I’m left a little tired, a little drained, but also relieved.

It’s important to know that a panic attack won’t last.

Nothing lasts forever—not pleasant things, not unpleasant things, not panic attacks.

It’s not necessary to lie on the floor.

Sometimes I find myself in certain social situations where being stretched out on the floor would look just plain nutty. This technique works just as well sitting in my truck, behind a desk, or hiding in a bathroom stall. We do what we must.


A lot of people say to take deep breaths when you’re having a panic attack. I think this is sound advice, but I like to put a slightly different spin on it.

Take a walk. That’s right. Go walking.

Walking is awesome because it gets the blood flowing, the heart pumping, and if it’s a brisk walk, it forces you to breathe more deeply.

Sometimes I feel like my anxieties and fears are chasing me, but I’m walking away from them. Other times, I just feeling like I’m burning off some built-up energy that has nowhere to go.

Running would probably also be helpful, but I will only run in the event of The Zombie Apocalypse.


Another really effective technique that I practice is to name the feelings and thoughts as I’m having a panic attack. I learned this technique from listening to Tara Brach’s podcasts on iTunes. It’s super effective and very simple to learn. (*Note: Tara Brach’s podcasts are free on iTunes.)

In the midst of the panic attack, I focus on any feelings or thoughts that are arising and name them either out loud or silently to myself. I sometimes even grab a notebook and write them. For instance:

  • I feel tightness in my chest
  • I feel my racing heartbeat.
  • My mouth is dry, my head aches,, and I’m a little dizzy.
  • I feel like I’m going to fall off of a cliff.
  • I’m feeling bad about feeling bad because this anxiety destroys relationships.
  • I feel like no one is ever going to love me again.
  • My jaw is clenching.
  • There’s a knot in my stomach.
  • I feel like a loser.
  • I feel like I don’t belong here.
  • I feel like I suck.
  • I’m afraid I’m going to fail.
  • I hear a pounding in my ears.
  • I feel unqualified, unworthy, unnecessary.

Once again, it’s helpful to remind myself that this is a panic attack, that it will pass, but it needs to be allowed to.

I remind myself that this awful time in my life will pass like all the others. How do I know this? If I look back over the course of my life, I can see it.

I’ve had some great times. They’ve passed. I’ve had some awful times. They’ve passed, too. I can see that everything before this has passed.

This also will pass. It has to.

These simple techniques can work, but you have to put them into practice.

It’s like learning to play a musical instrument or a sport; the more you practice, the better you get at it. If one of the techniques isn’t working, I switch to another one.

I believe that, in the moment, we always pick the right one.

James Gummer has no idea what’s going on and is learning to be okay with that. He writes in Baltimore, Maryland where he also teaches drumming, qigong, and meditation. His collection of essays will be available soon. Visit him at james-writes.com. This post was republished with permission from tinybuddha.com. You can find the original here.


Guest Post: 5 Ways Travel Can Help Overcome a Negative Mindset

Routine can be such a double-edged sword. We need it to make our world go ’round. To take the strain off rethinking everything every time. This frees up brain space for more complicated thoughts, like researching cost-effective energy sources or designing your wee one’s Halloween costume. Advantage: Us

But regimen can also feel relentless and numbing. It’s often the culprit when we get stuck as a Deflated Doer. That’s when we lose sight of why we got involved in the first place, so our passion and motivation plummet. And when that happens, negative thinking has a tendency to take over.

  • I went to grad school for this?
  • My life is one, long dirty diaper.
  • How did I end up working for her?
  • My dreams are dead in the water.
  • Might as well keep smoking/drinking/you-name-it.

That’s roughly the state of mind Dylan Thuras found himself in a few years ago, though you wouldn’t know it from the outside looking in. Happily married and successfully freelancing as a video editor, Dylan, by all counts, was making it in New York, NY. Yet, “it was a real concern and worry for me that this routine I had fallen into was going to be my life, and it actually wasn’t what I wanted for my life,” he says. “I was stuck in this money-making grind but had no real sense of personal agency. Despite everything, I felt like I was just failing in some existential way.”

His wife, Michelle, felt similarly. So together, they pulled the emergency lever and moved to Budapest for a year: “It was the best thing we ever did.”

More than a day at the beach.

If you’ve ever taken a trip, you know it can be like an instant refresh. We leave our day-to-day worries behind, and return with a more optimistic outlook. Sometimes the optimism lasts. But sometimes it’s lost after the first hour back on the job. And that’s a problem if you’re trying to get your mojo back.

The answer: Travel thoughtfully. Approach your trip with a mission to discover yourself as much as you discover your destination. It’s not about where you go — a different continent or two-hour train trip. It’s about paying attention to the messages and sensations you experience. How do they fit with life at home? Do you feel priorities shifting? What really excites you? Does a belief need adjusting?

To make this process more tangible, Dylan shared with us his personal journey through Budapest and beyond. His insights offer a kind of blueprint for using travel as a tool to get unstuck.

Don’t try to control the entire experience.

When in a foreign place, it’s a natural tendency to look for the familiar. Fight that. “We have to unshackle,” says Dylan, “because we’ve become too accustomed and clingy to schedules and logic. If you see something, and it looks interesting and your first thought is ‘We should go check that out,’ then check it out! It allows you to discover the freedom you really still have.”

You’re more curious in a different environment.

There’s no autopilot in new places, and we want to take advantage of that. Be observant and let passion and curiosity lead. For instance: “We were in Bologna, and we were running around trying to see all this cool stuff we’d read about,” recalls Dylan. “We went to the church of Saint Catherine of Bologna to see the saint relic. You couldn’t really get close, you only see it through a little grate from a distance. So we walk out, but then we saw a little door with a doorbell next to it. It seemed so out of place, so we were curious and rang it. Nothing happened, and we were about to leave when the door slides open. It was like an adventure movie moment! We go in and it’s just us and this 500-year-old saint mummy sitting on her golden throne in front of us.”

You’re the only obstacle in your way.

You know those reasons why you can’t or won’t or shouldn’t — they fade away on the road. “The experience opened my eyes to the possibility that you can actually do what you want in life. All of our previous concerns seemed so trivial and irrelevant,” says Dylan. “It’s hard to see that when you’re in a comfort zone.”

Anxiety comes out of hiding.

It’s hard to tackle a serious worry when you’ve got hundreds of minor concerns and distractions to handle. But when you wander alone somewhere new for a few hours, those distractions diminish (especially if you unplug from your mobile device). “Letting yourself not have a predetermined route can provide the new perspective you need when you’re reflecting on things,” says Dylan. “You’ll start asking yourself things like, ‘Why am I so worried?’ ‘What am I trying to control?’ Being alone while traveling is a good place to get to the root of anxiety and what you want for yourself.”

You live in the moment.

There’s no fretting about yesterday or planning for tomorrow in a new place. You need to figure out the now — like where to eat and sleep. How to get somewhere. How to communicate. Dylan found this gratifyingly fulfilling: “It helped me be more appreciative of life, and that allowed me to reflect on what I actually cared about.” He later realized that “a lot of the long-term bigger life questions and goals start to resolve themselves in the background, especially when you put your focus and concerns in the moment.”

These days, Dylan dedicates much of his time to AtlasObscura.com, a travel site he co-founded with Joshua Foer.  “While I was in Budapest, I realized that I want to be truly self-employed. And I realized how much I value exploration. I wanted to share this with people, which is why we started Atlas Obscura.” But that doesn’t mean he’s grounded himself. “Whenever we’re feeling frustrated or stuck, we just leave,” Dylan says. “Sometimes it’s for a day, sometimes a weekend, a week, or even a month.”

Bon voyage!

Unstuck offers tools and tips to help you get at the heart of what has you stuck. “5 Ways Travel Can Help Overcome a Negative Mindset” is from the Unstuck Advice blog. Copyright © 2013. It has been reposted by permission.

What Does Your Anxiety Look Like?

I have always been a visual person. When I read a book, I see the characters’ faces. When I listen to music, I know how it moves. When I say the word “armchair,” I picture an armchair (purple, wooden legs).

When I was a kid, I thought everyone knew that A’s were yellow and 3’s were green. That “fairness” was blue and the phrase “wait and see” looked like a handful of white Styrofoam balls. My favorite color was the letter J, and I loved “P-U-F-F-I-N-S” because it felt so luxuriously soft.

Turns out, I have a touch of synesthesia (and a very vivid imagination). And while this doesn’t affect my daily life very much, it did help lead me to the field of art therapy.

Art therapy is a branch of counseling that encourages individuals to explore their thoughts and ideas visually. Art therapists believe the choices we make during the art process (how a material is manipulated, for example, or the words we use to describe our art) helps others understand how we perceive and move through the world.

In graduate school, my professors would ask us questions like:

Where in your body do you feel sadness?

What sound is that feeling?

What does that sound look like?

How big is that word?

These seemed like super, uh, far out questions at the time, and it took a while for my cohort and I to get used to using this type of language to describe our ideas, relationships, and emotions. I eventually drank the Kool-Aid, however, and didn’t feel as silly using my new far out language with my peers. The more I practiced reframing the way I saw and talked about my experiences, the better I understood why phrases like these have purpose (and substance). It’s now the way I relate to my clients in session.

Healing Piece, Acrylic paint on canvas. I completed this image in graduate school in response to the question, “What does it mean to heal?”

Healing Piece. Acrylic paint on canvas. I completed this image in graduate school in response to the question, “What does it mean to heal?”

If I were asked to draw the “shape” of confidence, the first thing that comes to mind is a huge marshmallow. If I had to “color” of my fella’s name, I might use mint green, like toothpaste. To me, marshmallows are indulgent, soft, and child-like; and mint green toothpaste is domestic, intimate, and clean.

When I explore how the words “indulgent, soft, and child-like” relate to feeling confident, I learn a little something about how I understand confidence.

Soft, child-like… Tell me about the last time you felt confident.

Further, the descriptors “domestic, intimate, and clean” may help an outsider better understand the way I see my partner (or relationships in general).

Domestic and intimate sound positive to me… But tell me how you view them.

Art therapists walk alongside their clients during the art process to encourage ideas and discuss conclusions. As an aside, I’m not saying these conversations are unique to art therapy- on the contrary, art therapists and counselors come to similar conclusions because they work from a similar framework and toward similar goals. But the path differs.

Therapists (art therapists, in particular) get a bum rap as interpreters, mind-readers, and quacks… but that’s really not what’s going on here. Houses, trees, and people mean little without input from the artist- and art therapists are not in the business of putting words in your mouth (or pictures on your paper). Art therapists partner with their clients to discover symbols, themes, patterns, etc. in an art piece, explore their significance (or insignificance) and apply this knowledge to therapeutic goals.

Marshmallows are child-like and indulgent to this artist, but may be expensive, nauseating, or Ghost Buster-y to another.

Hospital Art. Oil pastel on paper.

Hospital Art. Oil pastel on paper.

In addition to being an art therapist, I also identify as an anxious person. At age 12, I began to socialize less, scrutinize myself more, and worry excessively about absolutely everything. As an adult, my anxious thoughts tell me I’m an incapable and unlikeable person who doesn’t have anything of value to share with the world. Art-making has made these thoughts feel less threatening and helped me talk about my experiences on my own terms. Seeing my anxiety objectively on paper, instead of feeling it in my body, also helps me find solutions to it.

Pictures can be a great jumping-off point for those of us who have trouble verbalizing emotions (due to trauma, a disability, anxiety, a preference for visual language, etc.). Art images encourage honesty, organization, and make our feelings heard. Art can be used to distract a stressed mind (see my post on the adult coloring book phenomenon here), foster confidence, and encourage us to sit in quiet and stillness (this is so important).

You don’t need to have synesthesia to benefit from art therapy, most people don’t. Art doesn’t always flow easily from our fingertips, art therapists get that and they’re here to help you get started. The goal of art therapy isn’t to hang your final art piece in a museum (though you may want to), it’s to develop a new language to describe experiences, feelings, events, and ideas. My clients have written their gratitude in love letters addressed to themselves, ripped up their memories and created new narratives from the scraps, and placed their hurt in carefully constructed boxes. Art therapy works, of that I am sure. But I would be honored to learn how it works for you.

Jess Kimmel, MSAT, LLPC is a limited licensed art therapist and counselor in the mid-Michigan area. She is currently employed as a Neuro Rehabilitation Aide at Hope Network East Lansing and a part-time Art Therapist at Sanford House in Grand Rapids. She can be contacted via her website www.jesskimmel.carbonmade.com. She enjoys writing, eating pizza, and watching too much true crime television.


Looking After Someone With Anxiety While Still Looking After Yourself

When someone you love is suffering from anxiety or any other kind of mental health problem, your first instinct is to do everything you possibly can to help and support them. Anxiety disorder is a long-term condition, and the causes of the condition are not fully understood by medical professionals, meaning that treatment is generally carried out for an extended period of time in order to be effective. The battle against anxiety disorder is a marathon, not a sprint, and finding the treatment plan that is right can be difficult, and is often a matter of trial and error. Accepting that you have anxiety disorder then and that you need professional help is a brave decision to make, and will certainly not be easy.

The problem is that, although their illness is not their fault, the time-consuming nature of controlling and reducing the symptoms of the condition means that caring for someone who has anxiety can be both physically and emotional draining. Relationships involving anxiety disorders face many challenges: you will probably find that you bear the brunt of completing family activities, such as paying the bills, doing the grocery shop and even taking the children to and from their after-school activities. But it is important to provide as much support as possible.

Don’t Loose Yourself

Looking after a loved one with anxiety is important, and the more support anxiety sufferers have throughout their treatment, the more likely they are to come out the other side. However, it is also important to look after yourself, to ensure that you don’t suffer burn out of begin to suffer from compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a condition that occurs when individuals are exhausted and weighed down by the weight of caring for someone with a long-term illness, and in turn, they begin to feel unwell themselves, suffering from symptoms such as anger, depression, headaches and sleep disturbances. Self-care is essential when you are primarily responsible for caring for someone else, and there are many ways that you can care for yourself while simultaneously caring for the person that you love. It’s important to take time out for yourself: taking a walk and getting some fresh air, joining a gym, or meeting with friends for dinner or a cup of coffee are all great ways to reconnect with yourself and remind yourself that you exist outside of the illness of the individual you are caring for.

Learn About the Condition

When you are caring for an individual who is suffering from an anxiety disorder, it can be massively helpful to learn as much as you possibly can about their condition. This can help you to understand why the person you are caring for will act in a certain way, which is turn will alleviate any anger, guilt, and fear that it is inevitable you will feel at some point during the process. Acquiring this knowledge will help you to separate the illness from the person that you love and realize that their anxiety and the way that it sometimes causes them to behave is not directed at you and certainly can’t be helped or avoided: it is simply a symptom of their condition. Part of learning about the condition is learning about the treatment, and encouraging the anxious individual to continue with that treatment, even when it becomes difficult, overwhelming or inconvenient.

Don’t Make Assumptions

Finally, don’t make assumptions about what your loved one needs or second guess what they are thinking and feeling. It is important that you take a step back and listen to what they are thinking and what they need, rather than bulldozing your way through the situation. Remember that you don’t understand what suffering from an anxiety attack feels like, and therefore that while you can empathize with them you can’t truly know what they need. Ask. Question what you can do to help, listen carefully to the response and then follow through and deliver. There is no doubt that caring for and living with an individual who is suffering from anxiety can be challenging for both parties involved, but by working together it is possible to create a situation that is life enhancing and really helps.

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.


My Story: Finding the Light

Having OCD has been the biggest challenge that I have faced in my life thus far. After over four years of really struggling, I am happy to say that I am on the road to recovery and I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. For me, my OCD has taken ahold of a few different obsessions but has primarily grasped onto contamination fears, most specifically the fear of contracting HIV.

The scariest obsessions for me are that I will somehow contract HIV through casual contact and then unknowingly pass it along to others. The feeling of guilt that comes from this thought is the hardest part. My obsessions caused me to compulsively wash. These compulsions include things such as hand washing, showering, cleaning our house and belongings, and laundering our clothes unnecessarily. The obsessions also lead me to ask for reassurance all the time.

For example, I would feel the need to ask my husband if I should be worried about what happened that day, or if he would be worried if that had happened to him. Although I knew that these obsessions were completely irrational, that it is not possible for HIV to be spread in the ways that I feared, my anxiety wouldn’t let go of its grasp on me.

Although I have a feeling that I struggled with it slightly throughout my life, OCD really hit me in college. It hit me like a load of bricks. I was fortunate enough to see a therapist that year in my hometown and I will forever be grateful for him and all of his help. He knew that I was struggling with OCD right away. Because of him I was spared time wondering what was wrong with me or what to do about it, something I know I am very lucky to have been spared.

A few months into treatment with him my husband and I had to move to Michigan, and during that time my OCD was much improved. I didn’t seek out further treatment in our new town right away because I was feeling so much better. However, about six months later it came back worse than before. I knew that I needed help again so I did a lot of research and was led to the Anxiety Resource Center of Grand Rapids. I attended a group session one Wednesday night and met Alan Carriero. I decided to seek out counseling with him, and almost one tough year later, I am feeling better than I have since before my OCD really hit me hard.

Throughout this past year I saw Alan weekly, sometimes three times per week, to do Exposure and Response Prevention therapy. At first I remember feeling like I would never feel better, or that I wasn’t sure how this would truly make my symptoms decrease. All I knew is that I was not okay with feeling the way I felt for the rest of my life. So, I stuck with it and worked hard every week in Alan’s office and on my own.

By late springtime, due to a variety of different things happening in my life, my OCD started to get even worse. This was a really hard time for me. I was struggling at my job and it was very hard on my husband and I. I started feeling depressed on top of it all too. I remember feeling like I was safer at home, away from other people. So, I started isolating myself from my family, my friends, and the things that I loved to do. I also found myself needing to call in absent to work because of the intense anxiety I was experiencing. This is when I had the feeling of hitting rock bottom.

With Alan’s help, we decided it was crucial to my treatment and recovery if I took a short leave of absence from work. That summer I took the leave, started on a very low dose of Prozac from my general practitioner, and spent those three months seeing Alan for intense therapy three times per week. It is hard to even write all this down because it was such a difficult time in my life. I remember feeling defeated, like I was not a good wife, employee, daughter, friend….any of the things that made me who I was. I honestly wasn’t sure I would be able to get myself back, but I knew something had to change and that somehow everything would get better.

I also remember thinking that I had to do this for my future family. My husband and I have always wanted to be parents, so I knew that I had to do this so that our children would never have to go through this with me. Even though I’ll always wish that we hadn’t had to go through OCD together, I thank God that OCD hit us before we started our family. I know we are very lucky.

Now, just about one year after I began seeking treatment with Alan, I know that I have put OCD behind me. It no longer controls my thoughts and actions every day, and it feels amazing. It has been an extremely long and challenging road, but I have come out stronger in the end. I cannot tell you that I never have obsessive thoughts come into my mind or that I never give in to a compulsion anymore, but I can tell you that I now have the tools to conquer this crippling disorder.

This summer, things just started to “click,” and every day since then has gotten better and better. I wake up excited for each new day, excited to go to work, and I am finally myself again. When obsessions and compulsions do come sneaking up on me sometimes, I have the confidence and skills to deal with them. Often times I’m even able to look at moments that used to cripple me and turn them into opportunities to further conquer my OCD!

I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support system that I am lucky enough to have around me. My husband has never left my side or let me forget what really matters in life. My hometown doctor gave my anxiety a name and helped me to understand that I had a treatable medical problem. Our parents have been with us every step of the way and have helped us in more ways than I can count. My family and friends have given me a safe place free of judgment or pressure to “just stop worrying.” And Alan, my therapist here in Michigan, absolutely helped me get my life back. I know that God led me to his office because He knew that Alan could teach me how to get myself out from the rock bottom that my OCD had brought me to. He is an incredible therapist, teacher, and person.

I have to say, one of the biggest things that really helped me conquer my OCD were the “Group Therapy” appointments that Alan organized. Being with others also struggling with OCD, others who truly understand what I’ve been going through, has been amazing. It’s incredible what groups like this and those at the Anxiety Resource Center can do.

Throughout my struggle I have always found great comfort in the stories of others with OCD. Knowing there are others out there who understand what I have been going through has helped me realize that I’m not alone. My hope is that my story can somehow be of help to you, as so many others’ stories have helped me. I want to tell you that you are not alone, you are strong, and you can do this! It may seem too big at times, but be brave, seek help, be persistent and disciplined through therapy, and know that you can beat this!

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