“Where Am I?”

I have a problem. And if you’ve been reading this blog, that statement won’t surprise you.

My thoughts take me for a ride and it’s a wild one. I’ve gone from being perfectly calm one minute…and the next minute gesturing wildly, face screwed up, whisper-arguing with a person who is not there. I can feel agitation in my belly and an increase in breathing and heartrate.

The story takes off.

I have a solo argument with an invisible adversary. Sometimes it’s someone I know, rehashing past hurts; other times it’s an imaginary situation that my brain concocted, a fear of the future. Regardless, there is always some form of negative state change involved.

When my mind starts creating stories, it’s hard not to jump on board the train and get taken for a ride.

In the past, I would have barreled along like a runaway freight train, exhausting and unnerving myself. It became a habit, like an itch I needed to scratch. It was so hard to stop those thoughts once the train started rolling along.

Mindfulness changed that, but it took time to develop awareness. I learned to ask one very simple question of myself as soon I realize that I’m being swept away by that torrent of brain activity.

Three simple words: where am I?

This works like magic for me. It’s instant grounding.

That’s because the train screeches to a halt and I shake off the mental noise and look around myself. I’m usually somewhere alone. There’s often some far away street hum or something else not very intrusive. I feel where my body makes contact with whatever surface I’m on.

As soon as I poke my head out from the noise, I realize that I’m on the train. And I get off.

I am HERE. And in this moment, I am safe. Regardless of all the thoughts that suggest otherwise, I am safe.

It doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems that will need solving or work that needs to be done. But all that noise that was panicking me just a bit ago? I am reminded that it doesn’t exist right now. And right now is the only moment that matters.

Three simple words. Man, if I’d known this years ago, I could have saved myself so much heartache. But at least I know now. And now, so do you.

Why I Stopped Believing in Ghosts

So, I have a confession to make.

Throughout my primary and middle school years, I thought I had powerful extra-sensory perception. Actually, it might have even been longer than that, although I’m embarassed to admit it.

I blame my older brother for this. We were in grade school and my grandma had just passed away. Due to the arrival of a number of relatives for the funeral, we were left alone to entertain ourselves. As we turned off the lights for sleep, he and I somehow got on the topic of extra-sensory perception and decided to test it out.

One of us would think of a number and the other would guess what it was. I guessed correctly, over and over again. I would “see” it through my closed eyes as I concentrated. I didn’t miss a single one and my brother was very impressed.

When I was young, my older brother convinced me that my mind had special powers. Well…he wasn’t exactly wrong.

I fell asleep that night believing that my dear grandmother had imparted me a special gift with her passing, and I felt that I had undisputable empirical evidence of it.

In reality, my claim was on shakey ground, but I had already convinced myself that there was something magical there. In fact, I began seeing “evidence” of it everywhere. These couldn’t have possibly been coincidences, could they? I started fearing that if I could see something as a possibility, it would actually happen. As a result, I fought to keep certain thoughts out of my mind. Avoidance, anyone?

Some years later my older brother admitted he had fibbed to me that night, that no matter what number I “saw”, he would pretend that was the number he was thinking about. He thought it would be funny.

But by then, the latent fear of my thoughts was ingrained in me, even though I knew that triggering event had been a lie. What was true, however, was that my mind had always been very powerful. In one instance, I experienced intense pain that I couldn’t explain, lasting several days. While I was vaguely aware that this pain disappeared upon the release of a stressor, I didn’t realize that it was psychosomatic –literally something my mind created that had been expressed in my body.

My mind also had the power to hijack my thoughts, amplifying negative feelings. I was anything but grounded. I managed to plow on, garnering notable academic achievements. But there was always a sense of fear in the background and since it ran unchecked, eventually it overtook me and pointed my life’s path in a direction quite different from that of my peers.

Wish I’d realized way back when that life could “magical” in its beauty without having to be supernatural and out of my control.

Lacking awareness of how my mind operated meant that I didn’t realize why I was making the decisions that I was. It took years, even decades, to understand that so many of the things I had feared originated in my mind, affecting my interpretation of whatever input I was receiving.

Now, after all these realizations and a number of painful lessons, my world is not as “magical” as it used to be, but I am better rooted and grounded. And that feels a lot better.

What about “ghosts”?

When I live in the present, I am safe and secure. Those unexplainable occurences that I attributed to otherworldly origins have become much more explainable. And I’m well-aware of how my mind has twisted meaningless common things into terrible foreboding ones.

There are quite enough frightening things in the material world (cancer, wars, having my email account hacked…) that there’s no need to search the paranormal world for their cause.

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A 2021 survey of 1000 Americans revealed that 2 out of 5 people believe in ghosts. I am not here to contradict their beliefs, and frankly, when I talk of “ghosts” I don’t mean spooks. At the same time, I learned the hard way that my mind wasn’t always reflecting 100% truth. I was compelled to take inventory of what was bouncing around in my noggin and decided that, while I can’t neatly explain everything going on around me, it’s harmful to let my thoughts run wild.

Showing Signs of Stress

One of the benefits of doing a yoga teacher training (YTT) is that there are some interesting side effects that go far past learning about yoga instruction.

It also involves a great deal of introspection, sometimes uncomfortable, but always valuable.

Signs of stress are pretty universal and usually unmistakable.

What I found curious about myself was how, when I was stressed, I exhibited loads of visible signs of stress even if I was aware that I was doing it. It was as if I didn’t want anyone to mistake me for not being stressed when I was.

This made me wonder, was it simply habit? Or was I being a drama queen? Stress does affect me deeply and anxiety is hard for me to shake. It’s possible that I feared not being believed that I was suffering.

Perhaps I needed people to care that I was not okay.

But I came across a recent research article about this that suggested an even deeper reason. UK researchers Whitehouse et al. (2022, Evol Hum Behav) conducted a study in which it appeared that individuals displaying signs of stress came across as more likeable and more likely to elicit support from those around us.

This is curious because often in nature, showing “weakness” may result in a greater chance of being attacked. But apparently it doesn’t work this way in human society. The researchers postulated that signs of stress suggested that the individual might be deemed friendly and not a threat.

I can attest to the fact that seeing someone displaying anxiety immediately triggers a strong empathic response in me, no matter who the person is or what they’ve done. Having suffered anxiety myself, I am immediately drawn into what the individual might be feeling, projecting my own feelings onto them.

Yeah…don’t be this.

And it is very true that I’ve often gone out of my way to look more friendly, less scary, particularly when it comes to people smaller and weaker than I am (I’m 5’11”). I have a drive to appear less threatening. However, this does not necessarily benefit me–does the term ‘doormat’sound familiar? When you lower yourself far lower than is even remotely necessary, you’re not doing anyone any favors.

This explains a lot about my own life and it underscores the importance of being aware of your behavior and why you engage in it. When you run on autopilot you risk reinforcing negative self-beliefs and even generating new ones. Self-awareness is the antidote to that.

So that is what I’ve been musing about. YTT provided me with space from which to reflect on the ways that I behave and feel in certain situations. In turn I can use that information to make much needed changes in my life and get myself unstuck. How about you?

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Original research article:
Whitehouse J, Milward SJ, Parker MO, Kavanagh E, Waller BM (2022). Signal value of stress behaviour. Evolution and Human Behavior; DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2022.04.001

Reader-friendly version:
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/05/220515113229.htm

Making Space Through Breath: A Visualization

I’ve posted previously about the sensations I’ve experienced in the midst of anxiety, as if the stressor is right in my face, raw and unescapable.

Combatting this feeling has been my number one priority, since anxiety overtakes me before I even know it, triggering my fight-or-flight response. Once my sympathetic nervous system gets going, getting it “back in the box” can be difficult, possibly taking days, depending on the intensity of the stressor.

Anxiety can make us feel like we’re trapped and suffocating.

My current strategy is to create protective distance for myself in a very simple way. And it consists of visualizing an expansion of the space around my body.

It goes something like this: Imagine you are inside a deflated balloon. If you are experiencing tighteness in your head or chest, this serves as an effective analogy, particularly if your balloon is constricting you. Without letting your mind be consumed by the tightness, allow yourself to acknowledge the stressor that surrounds you.

Then, taking a deep breath in, exhale through pursed lips and inflate that space around you. Imagine how it feels to expand the balloon and release that clinging sensation. Feel the fresh air moving against your skin as the space around you continues to broaden.

Maybe you begin with the area around your head first, as if creating a bubble around it allows oxygen to flow freely, then move the expansion towards the torso, protecting and releasing the heart, lungs and other vital organs.

Or perhaps begin with the chest if that’s where the constriction feels greatest. Anxiety can squeeze your breath, so focus on mentally removing that weight from your sternum and ribs, visualizing an expansion of the free space around your chest with a deliberate slowing of breath. This takes some work, a back-and-forth between imagining space expanding around you and your breath taking advantage of the room that it has.

Breathe, expand and feel the space!

If your chest is mired too deeply in anxiety, turn your attention to your extremities, starting with the feet and hands, getting a foothold there and allowing the sensation of space to move slowly towards the center of your body.

The idea is to E-X-P-A-N-D the space around you, dispelling the feeling of closeness and suffocation that results in the wild urge to flee. Note that this is not avoidance of the stressful situation. You are acknowledging its existence…and then creating room so that your brain has space and time in which to think, to know that it’s protected from words and sensations and fearful possibilities. To know that it’s safe in the “now”.

Try this the next time you have a quiet moment. As with many of these techniques, it is helpful to practice in times of calm, to feel into what that sensation of space feels like. The more we practice, the clearer and more familiar that sensation becomes, and we can draw upon that feeling during stressful times.

Putting a Hold on Looking for Trouble

Last year at this time, I feared that I had heart issues based on what I had read about some of the cancer medications that I had been on, so I went to the cardiologist and they administered some tests. When I came back to the cardiologist to discuss results with the doctor, I was told that they had found “something” in the echocardiogram and Holter monitor readings.

But I still had questions, so I had a consultation with the cardiac nurse, who went through everything with me.

In the back of my mind, there’s a fear that my body is harboring serious health problems.

And it turns out that while they did find “something”, it wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary, beyond normal wear and tear. I was assured that my heart was very strong and healthy and I could continue to push through high-intensity workouts.

Still, it was recommended that I get checked out again this year.

But you know what? I’m not going right now. It felt like anxiety about the scans and then waiting for the results did worse things to my heart than whatever I might have been already experiencing.

I talked this over with my oncologist, who agreed.

The fact is, there are things that you need to get checked out, especially as a cancer survivor. But for other things, especially without a specific indication that there’s something wrong, you are simply looking for trouble. And if you’re looking for it, you’re going to find it.

Our bodies are not perfect. And the older we get, the more aches, pains and abnormalities we have. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s anything “wrong” that immediately needs to be fixed.

For now, I’m halting my search for trouble and taking the time to breathe deeply and just live.

Anxiety was the driver for me to get tests run. I was overreading about everything that could possibly go wrong–given the medications that I had been taking–and then rushing out to make sure that it hadn’t yet in the hope that I could rectify any budding issues.

And to be fair, there are still things that I could look at, still specialists I could contact. But perhaps I need to chill a bit…

…but perhaps I need to chill a bit. If it were to progress, would I stop exercising? Absolutely not. So then perhaps it’s best to take a wait-and-see approach for now.

All of this is so different from cancer, which drives us to seek treatment immediately. I am forever primed to worry about what might be happening in my body. But I also recognize this as a psychological side effect of cancer. I can’t let fear take over the rest of my life.

So for me, it’s time to stop looking for trouble, stop fearing for the future and simply relax and enjoy what’s happening in the present moment.

Four Minutes of Hovering

Last week I had a 3-D mammogram. This scan marks a bit over five years since the diagnostic test that indicated I had a solid tumor on the outside of my left breast.

Heading into this appointment, I wasn’t particularly worried. Yes, I admit to having little heartbeat skips over “lumps” in my breast that aren’t really lumps: if you recall, I had felt something before my last oncologist visit; my doctor reassured me it was nothing.

I will never again hear the word “lump” and NOT think of cancer.

And because last August I’d had a chest MRI, a more sensitive scan than even a 3-D mammogram, it was HIGHLY unlikely that there was anything to be found in this mammogram.

But still, after the pictures were taken and the mammography technician left the room to consult with the radiologist, I got that all-too-familiar uneasy feeling.

WHY? I knew that the radiologist wouldn’t find anything. The technician practically said that out loud, since she was aware of my recent MRI.

But still.

I sat alone in the mammography room, breathing, looking at the clock on the wall and simply hovering. My attention was like a butterfly looking for a place to alight. I wasn’t holding my breath…but mentally, I had put the rest of my life on hold when the tech stepped out the door.

It took all of four minutes and the mammographer returned and gave me two thumbs up.

For four minutes, I had no plans for anything outside of the room I was in.

I breathed a sigh even though I had expected the good news. And while I wasn’t “freaking out” waiting for the response, it became apparent to me that I might always feel uneasy during that period of uncertainty.

I didn’t want that. I wanted to be completely unaffected, as if I had never had a bad experience and my heart was calm.

But hovering it was, because there are no guarantees. And as the gears of my life started turning once again, I remembered that there was no going back. All the negatives that have happened have happened and I can’t change that.

Eventually, years from now, my emotions may soften, but in the meantime, I’m just going to have to be okay with hovering for a few minutes.

And Suddenly, Another Freakout

Last week, I had a Pap smear. If you’re not familiar with what that is, you must be either male or blissfully young. In brief, it’s a test for cervical cancer, customarily done every 3-5 years.

I knew my results would come this week, along with other lab results. I was in a work meeting today when I noticed my phone was vibrating. It was my doctor’s office…and I was too late to answer the call.

Me: It’s probably nothing.
Also me: OMG I NEED TO CALL NOW!

The doctor’s office didn’t leave a message.

And that’s when I officially tuned out the meeting. A flood of possibilities came rushing in. My boss needed to talk to me but I was trying to suppress the growing urge to call the doctor’s office immediately.

The urge won. I called and left a message and went back to work, but my head was elsewhere.

The fact that there had been no message was extremely unsettling, because it made sense that if there were really bad news, the office would want to speak with me directly instead of leaving a voicemail.

And my reaction shouldn’t come as a surprise, because having been hit with a cancer diagnosis before, I’ve become hypervigilant. Like it or not, my brain wants to prepare for the worst so that I don’t have that horrible fall from thinking that everything’s just peachy to slamming into a nightmare.

It doesn’t help that I’ve read sooo many stories of women talking about being completely blindsighted by frightening diagnoses, and all of them saying that they thought nothing of the missed call from the doctor since they knew they were perfectly healthy, blah blah blah.

Gotta be prepared, ya know?

Of course, I know better than this. And at least I was aware of the hypervigilance, aware of my body’s reactions and aware that I was blowing things out of proportion. But it’s that uncertainty that is so difficult to take. Even though I know my response, I know why it happens and I know that chances are everything is ok…I want that certainty.

As it turned out, the call had come from the nurse assistant to let me know that my blood work results had come in. This was a relief, although I admit I considered it a defeat that I couldn’t be mindful and breathe through it all.

Then again, as a cancer survivor, I need to cut myself some slack. Getting slammed with a devastating diagnosis once leads to understandable echoes, no matter what test results I’m waiting for.

For now, I’m calm. Of course, my actual Pap smear results aren’t in yet. Those should come tomorrow or the next day. The nurse assistant told me that they’ll probably be normal (OMG, how can anyone say that????) and they’ll be loaded onto the patient portal…unless they’re not normal. And then they won’t be.

Guess whose heart will be fluttering for the next few days?

Not mine, because I’ve got it together.

Kind of…

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To be fair, I didn’t totally freak out over this. But scanxiety over test results is getting a little old, honestly…

What If It Isn’t?

“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”
“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.
Piglet was comforted by this.

A. A. Milne

So, I felt a “lump” under my left nipple, what I refer to as my cancer-side. It wasn’t the same kind of lump that I remember from cancer but when I thought of how I’d describe it (mass, thickening, etc.) I came up with cancer-sounding descriptive words.

This “lump” was also way bigger than my tumor had been.

I think I feel “something” and –BAM!– my mind takes me to worst-case-scenario land.

Now you might think that I would reason with myself. I’d had an MRI in the late summer that showed nothing. A real lump that big would have shown up.

Again, it wasn’t a lump, it was a “lump”. But in the back of my mind, a film starting playing…

I was writing letters to my friends on how much I had appreciated their friendship. Practicing how to tell my kids that I wouldn’t be around to see them graduate from college. Posting my final thoughts here.

It sounds sooo melodramatic but my brain is like a motor boat left unattended with the engine running. And it’s just heading away on its own on a course that no one plotted.

Why do I “go there”?

There is a part of the brain called the Default Mode Network (DMN), which is the area that is more active when you’re at rest and otherwise not focusing on anything. There is a nice “plain-English” explanation here (from an accompanying article to meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness course on Masterclass.com). It describes the role of the DMN in “self-reflection…social evaluations…memories…envisioning the future”. And it also notes that problems within the DMN can predipose people to a variety of cognitive issues, including anxiety.

Start my motor, cut me loose…and off I go.

This would explain a lot about my personal default mode.

The article goes on to describe how meditation can “keep the mind from wandering into stressful territory, like reliving traumatic events from the past or anxieties about the future.”

Well, it’s good that I’m meditating, then. But I’ve already put a lot of practice into panicking. I’m an expert hand-wringer. I have a lifetime of experience helped along by a series of anxiety-provoking events. Meditation is chipping away at my hypervigilance, but it’s a slow process.

The main thing that has changed, however, is that now I’m more aware when the motorboat putters away. It used to blindsight me and before I knew it, I was hit by a tidal wave of anxious sensations (tightening, gripping, nausea…). I didn’t realize that this habit of automatic thoughts was driving my anxiety.

Now, when I start down the road of “what if it is…”, I can stop and ask, “what if it isn’t”?

And that comforts me.

When I Can’t Keep Images Out of My Head

When I first started my mindfulness meditation journey, I was taught to use the breath as the point of focus. It is a reliable anchor, always there to return to when you inevitably drift off into thought. It is a stable grounding force that keeps us present.

But there are times when it’s hard to focus on the breath. Perhaps when the mind is especially busy. At those times, I switch to other bodily sensations, such as tingling in my hands or pressure from contact with the surface that I’m sitting on. I wrote a post about moving between two points of focus to help the mind maintain concentration without wandering off. That helps too.

Some days my monkey mind is particularly loud and attention-seeking.

And sometimes my chattering “monkey mind” calls for a switch to an auditory focal point such as gentle music, singing bowls, nature sounds or even simply street noises. Those will keep me present as long as I don’t fall into the trap of making stories about the sounds.

But some days are extra tough.

I tend to avoid meditating with my eyes open. Doing so only reminds me that I need to clean my desk or vacuum the carpet (“guilt-guilt, blame-blame”). However, I am a very visual person with a vivid imagination, and opening my eyes immediately grounds me if my thoughts get too pervasive when my eyes are closed.

Sometimes a thought will trigger an uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking feeling simply because a seemingly-innocuous scene has been associated with a disturbing event. The scene flashes before my eyes andbefore I know it I’m down a rabbit hole. Monkey mind is activated.

While staying with bodily sensations would be preferable, some days there are too many opportunities for my monkey mind to run away with me. It can get exhausting and counterproductive to “dodge” these visuals. Yes, we are “supposed to” let the thoughts pass by us without getting caught up in them. But there are days when they agitate me too much and throw me off track.

Tree!

So I’m cutting myself some slack and turning the “problem” into the solution. On those difficult days, I focus on an image of my own choosing. Something that I can visualize clearly so that it keeps the monkey occupied while at the same time keeping me away from troubling scenes. You could argue that I’m “avoiding” the thoughts. But I see this differently–I’m giving myself a little break from them.

What works best for me? An image unencumbered by potent associations–this is different for each person. A tree, for example, works for me. It might be a thin white birch tree or as majestic and meaningful as Yggdrasil. The tree itself doesn’t matter as much as that I choose it according to what suits me and what soothes me. I can focus on its rough bark, veiny leaves and thick canopy and the sensations that these things evoke to keep away from creating stories.

And if this results in greater concentration, I have the option of hopping back to the breath. Or not.

This might not seem like an earth-shattering revelation. There are relatively popular mountain and lake meditations, so this concept is not new. But with all the emphasis on feeling into your breath in an effort to calm the thinking mind, sometimes it’s simpler to not worry about the “shoulds” and instead see what your own self needs to help it let go and settle into peace.

Nothing to Fear but Fear…Sort of

About five years ago around this time of the year, I had an uneasy feeling.

So, let me back up. The previous August 2016 I had felt a small lump in my left breast. It wasn’t all that different from another lump that I had gone to see my Nurse Practitioner about in late June 2016, and she had put my fears to rest.

Still, she noted that I hadn’t had a mammogram since 2013, so she wrote me an order for one so that I could keep on track with my screenings.

But I dragged my feet on the mammogram. And when the August lump appeared, I decided to wait until it disappeared–you know, like they always did–before setting up the appointment. Because going into a screening knowing that I had a lump seemed terrifying.

You can’t hide from your fears, but that didn’t stop me from trying.

It didn’t disappear. I kept feeling it, pressing it to see how squishy it was, did it move about, was it getting bigger. And all the time, wondering how long it would last. It was hanging around longer than I expected.

But I still waited because I was afraid. I didn’t want to go to the mammogram and have the technician look concerned. Maybe she’d call the doctor in and the doctor would look concerned. Maybe they’d suggest more tests.

I *knew* it was nothing because it had to be nothing, but I didn’t want to risk having the medical professionals think it was something because that would be terrifying to me when I really knew that it was nothing. I didn’t want to experience that fear needlessly. I was afraid of being afraid.

So I waited until around this time of the year in 2017, when, after talking with my mom, we both agreed that getting the lump checked out would relieve my building anxiety. I imagined a pleasant conversation with the Nurse Practitioner as she would say, “Don’t worry, it’s nothing.”

Except that’s not what my NP said. Her expression went from friendly-smiley to concern, and she told me that I needed to get that mammogram done as soon as possible. All that fear that I’d tried to avoid by not getting the screening suddenly hit me at once. As the NP left the examination room, she admonished me to not put the mammogram off.

The order that I got read, “Mammography and Diagnostic Screening”. The left breast on the picture on the sheet was circled. I think. To be honest, I don’t remember much more than that. To an outsider, I was just going to have a suspicious lump checked out. But inside me, there was a tornado of anxiety whipping around unchecked.

I know I know I know…but at that time, the fear of what might be overpowered common sense. So I waited.

I had waited six months simply to avoid fear. I was so afraid of the fear that I was willing to risk my life–even though I hadn’t see it that way. The overwhelming need to not experience fear trumped everything else because it was so horrible that I couldn’t seen past it. Nothing else mattered.

Believe it or not, I didn’t realize that I had been suffering from severe anxiety for a number of years. It was always bubbling right by the surface, occasionally boiling over, but never sufficiently dealt with. It had built up throughout my life through an unfortunate series of events and I had become worse and worse at shaking it, but the two years prior to my diagnosis brought some of the longest bouts of chronic anxiety and feelings of worthlessness.

And all that fear that I had, that reason for not getting the lump checked out, that fear that almost cost me my life? Cancer was what forced me to face it. The most feared disease that I could have imagined ironically put me on the path to finally dealing with one of the most crippling issues of my adult life.

No, I’m not going to say that I’m thankful for cancer. Because that would be ridiculous. But I can now step back and see the worth of fearful experiences and understand that sometimes it’s the horrible things that push you into the most meaningful personal growth.