Friday, September 25, 2015

Is Anxiety an Addiction?

As someone who has been whipsawed by anxiety for many years I am always attracted to articles that attempt to address or explain that nastiest of feelings. It’s got many synonyms—fear, nervousness, tummy-ache, stage fright and clinical anxiety. I know every variation of
the theme.

So when I saw the article called “Anxiety Through the Lens of Addiction” by Suzanne Jesse in the recent Renew Magazine I tore it out and started in.

Jesse is a clinician specializing in addiction and in this article she uses the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) which is the Bible of diagnosis which also determines who gets paid for treatment. She shows how the addictions we are most familiar with: alcoholism and drug addiction are diagnosed via the DSM and then she lays the characteristic of anxiety/anxiety disorders next to those same criteria, and voila! there is an addiction pattern with anxiety.

Jesse writes: “I was curious about the addictive nature of the underlying problem with anxiety: thoughts.” 

What felt so familiar to me was how her own story led her to looking at her thinking and how she found her thinking had become addictive. She says that she knew that her anxiety originated with her, “chaotic and unstable traumatic childhood” but she wanted to know exactly how those experiences eventually resulted in debilitating anxiety. 

And her light bulb moment came from reading “Love, Medicine, and Miracles by Dr. Bernie Siegel who said, “Thoughts are chemical.” Walter Cannon, who described the fight-or-flight response, also confirmed that thoughts lead the body to release chemicals that create and sustain anxiety.

Jesse goes on to show that the chemical nature of thoughts leads to a chemical addiction. She turns back to the DSM and answers each criteria question for substance abuse disorder but replaces “the substance” with “engaging in negative thought” and she shows that folks with anxiety get pretty high scores for an addictive disorder.

This is also why, though we know this, it’s hard to shake. If we could simply, “Change your thinking” (like it says on the many reminder post-its I have on my desk, dashboard and daily planner) we would do it, right?

But it is, in fact, not just a handy metaphor to say that negative thinking is like using heroin, it is like using heroin. We think, and think and think our fear and worry thoughts continually shooting ourselves full of fear, flooding the body with addictive chemicals. Negative thinking is addictive, and given the impact of chronic stress (even self induced) it can also be physically devastating. 

So in long-term recovery—while we may not have used an “external chemical” for many years--we may still be shooting up awful and addictive chemicals on a daily basis.

You know the saying—and it’s more true than ever: “I came for my drinking but stayed for my thinking.” Thirty years later, my own thoughts may be the toughest addiction I will ever face.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Throw Up & Go

Fear. Even though we hear so much advice about fear, and even though we know that it fear is the thing that underlies almost every character defect, we still feel fear. And I have come, after all these years, to believe that’s not such a bad thing. 

Fear, like anxiety, is so dam uncomfortable, but there is a secondary gain. Fear is what drives me back to the steps, fear keeps me doing daily prayer and meditation, and fear keeps me on my toes and mindful about the “Things I can change.”

But, in fact, there are lots of things I can’t change. And sometimes –and often in certain settings—fear is one of the things that I cannot change. Nope, I do not subscribe to that early recovery platitude that “faith and fear can’t exist in the same place.” Of course they can. Of course. If you have been in recovery a while you know that you have had times of good faith and great fear simultaneously. 

In truth, we do that “faith and fear can’t exist…” thing with newcomers because it gives them great incentive to grab hold of the steps, prayer and meditation, creation of a Higher Power—all that—with both hands. 

Then we keep living our lives, and life keeps happening. And, as we get older in recovery some scary stuff happens. We tune up our recovery and yes, our spiritual connection, but we keep going, fear or not.

Recently I came up with a new mantra for myself. I am reading a wonderful, small book about living a creative life. It is called “The War of Art” by Stephen Pressfield. (Yes, the guy who wrote “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”) In his book, “The War of Art” Pressfield reframes fear as resistance—as in the part of us that resists our own creativity or our own growth. And he tells the story of actor Henry Fonda and Fonda’s fear/resistance.

It turns out that Fonda, an Academy Award winning actor who had an incredibly successful career on stage and screen had almost debilitating stage freight. Yes, an actor who was afraid to go on stage. You hear something like that and you wait to hear the secret of how he beat the fear. But he didn’t.

No, for his entire career—almost 60 years of year-round professional work-- Fonda was so scared that he would throw up every time (every single time) he stepped on a set or a stage. When he was 75 years old and adored and revered he was still throwing up. His secret? He kept a bucket or basin nearby to throw up in. Uh huh, he stood in the wings absolutely miserable and terrified and then he threw up, wiped his mouth, and went on stage.

That’s professionalism and that’s commitment to art, and that, I believe is also a quality of good, long recovery. Saying to fear, “Get the (fudge) out of my way or come with me.” 

So my new mantra, extracted form Henry Fonda’s example is: “Throw up and Go.” Just, throw up and go!

If it is a tough meeting with a boss or a public speaking engagement or I need to have a difficult conversation with someone I remind myself to stop waiting for the day I have no fear, but instead: Throw Up and Go!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

AA is a Technology for Change

There are moments when twelve-step recovery can feel old-fashioned. The Big Book language sometimes feels dated, and the prayers—with their “thee” and “thou” can feel almost archaic. But in fact, twelve-step recovery has become a fabulous technology.

Today, I am in the midst of working through yet another character defect that has just come into my awareness (and which surely others have seen in me for ages) I was thinking, “Well, now what do I do with this part of me?”

And the wonderful thing is that I realized that I knew exactly what to do. I needed to pray

about it, write about it, talk about it –first with my sponsor and with close recovery friends, then talk about it carefully in a meeting, then more openly in another meeting—all the while writing in my journal, spending more time in prayer and meditation, and setting some mini goals around the change I’d like to see.

While I’m not changed --this defect has some deep tentacles and a long history—I’m so grateful that I have a reliable and remarkable process for change. And I have a way of thinking about making changes. As usual, I catch myself wanting to clear up this defect so I can be a nicer person, then I remember that is not why we root out these “shortcomings.”

We don’t do steps 6, 7, 8, 9 and ten so we can be more likable or so that others will think well of us. Nope, we do this work so that we are better tools (yes, tools!) to be used by God—our Higher Power—for his will, and his purposes. 

We have this incredible mechanism, this detailed and linear process –with specific tasks and recommendations that really works whether we are trying to not drink, not swear, not gossip or not be a know-it-all. Technology is the application of knowledge for practical purposes and we have that. In twelve-step recovery we have a time-tested technology for change and growth. And we have a grand, international community that shares our goals and who are happy to help us.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Wisdom from Unexpected Places

These days Facebook delivers daily inspirational quotes and well, too much pastel, watered-down attempts at spiritual guidance. But every now and then –in the most unexpected place—I’ll come across an idea or a story or a line of dialog that just “Wham!” sticks like a good AA slogan.

One of my favorites came from my first sponsor. And it comes back to me again and again. It was passed from her Mother Superior—yeah, she was going to be a nun but instead recovery happened. But the great line is this—and it still applies to me:

“Feelings can’t hit a moving target.” 

So when I get going and my to-do lists are tripping over each other I remember that and take a minute (no more than a minute!) to see what it is I am trying to not feel.

Another one I have on an index card comes from a great novel: “The Mermaid’s Chair”. The main character in that book is an artist-writer, seeking her creativity and on an island retreat she begins an affair with a monk. Yes, a monk! And what her therapist says to her, as she pours out her grief and shame:

 “We fall in love with something we are missing or seeking in our self.”

Yes, ponder that one for several minutes. Look around at past and present relationships and see if that fits. It’s not a terrible thing really—if we stay conscious. In the book the woman needed to face her spiritual life so what’s better than a monk—a professional spiritual seeker.

That one has been true for me. I fell in love with men more ambitious than me—when I could not face my own ambition, and men who were more intellectual than me --when I couldn’t yet own that I am a thinker and writer, and always, always I love men who are more calm, collected and relaxed than me. (Yes back to that moving target thing.) What I had to learn though was to not punish those men for being who they are and what I chose them for.

And here’s another goody that I found in an old file yesterday:

“When ever you try to control someone else you are really trying to make yourself feel safe.” 

Hmmmm…that one needs to be on a Post-it over my desk this week. 

Any favorite unexpected wisdom you want to share?


Lots more on recovery slogans and unexpected wisdom in the book, "Out of the Woods" published by Central Recovery Press.