Is It Anxiety or 'A Shot in the Dark'?

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A couple of years ago I got a coffee ‘to-go’ from the neighborhood coffee shop on my way to work. I usually have my own mug with me but didn't that day. No problem.

Not too long after arriving at work, my body started freaking out. I was sweating, my heart was beating out my chest, I was jittery, my mind was racing and I started feeling panicky like never before.

It came out of nowhere and was totally scary. My day was busy and there was a lot on my mind but this was weird.

I started taking some deep breaths to try to calm myself down. That worked marginally, but I could still feel my heart and my mind was still racing. I didn’t know what was happening. Was this a panic attack? I’d never had one before but definitely knew about them.

At some point, I glanced at my paper coffee cup and noticed the barista’s markings for my order. It read “shot in dark”. “What?” I thought to myself, this was supposed to be just a regular coffee.

I then realized that my reaction was a result of accidentally picking up the wrong coffee order at the coffee shop that morning! Instead of my usual coffee, I had drunk one with two extra shots of espresso! No wonder my body and mind were freaking out! I had just bombarded it with a super high jolt of caffeine and it was reacting as I would’ve expected it to.

I felt better instantly. Well, my body was still a jittery mess due to the caffeine coursing through my veins and my mind was still faster than usual but once I realized this logical reason for my reactions, I was at ease. It was a false alarm brought on my a ‘shot in the dark’.

Upon labeling it a false alarm, all of those symptoms that had captured my full attention and had me so worried soon became a fading-into-the-background noise. My symptoms were still happening but they no longer gripped me with their power.

I got back to work and waited it out.

You can do this too with your anxiety. There are so many similarities.

  • If you start to feel your body anxiously amping up, check in. If something isn’t immediately requiring your “fight or flight” reaction label it a false alarm.

  • Anxiety triggers false alarms. Teach your mind to settle down with the realization that this type of experience can be attributed to ‘anxiety’ just as my type of experience could be attributed to too much caffeine all at once.

  • Just like my accidental coffee with a double shot of espresso, your anxiety is something real and once it has been activated it needs to quietly run its course in the background. Important point: In the background! Label it a false alarm and then turn your attention back on to what you were doing or need to do.

  • Remind yourself periodically if you need to that you’re experiencing a normal reaction to something that just triggered your anxiety (usually a thought) and that you can let it dissolve.

  • Your anxiety is super uncomfortable because it captures your full attention and usually spirals to become even bigger. Check it. Label it. Forget it.

Have you ever had an experience that mimicked anxiety? What happened? How did you deal with it?

3 Simple, Underemphasized Keys to Meditating

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Everyone who’s anyone these days are meditating. At least that’s what it seems like. And they all look so peaceful and calm. At least upon first look. Do they know something you don’t because you just can’t get the hang of it?

Possibly.

And if so, it’s likely to be the following 3 simply, underemphasized keys to meditating. Try these 3 and see if your practice doesn't take some giant leaps!

  1. Calm will come. Seriously. You wouldn’t expect to lose weight after one day of trying would you? Likewise, you wouldn’t expect to get that promotion after one day of hard work. Same with meditation. Keep trying. Anyone who leads you to believe otherwise isn’t a meditator.

  2. Baby steps. Start with a short period of time in a comfortable position. Your couch? In bed? At your kitchen table? 1 minute? 4? Nothing is off limits. If you make it hard or don’t have the time, you aren’t going to do it. Period. Set yourself up to succeed at least. This isn’t the place to explore your purist roots.

  3. Lower your expectations. Don’t let the word bliss even enter your thinking. Blank slate? Forget about it! You will have a constant stream of thoughts, I guarantee it. Don’t expect anything but what you get. Sorta like telling a tantruming kid, “You’ll get what you get and don’t throw a fit!” Tough love to the rescue.

What key to meditation would you add?

11 Hidden Hooks of Anxiety That Are Probably Off Your Radar

Do you feel that despite your best efforts at overcoming your anxiety you are making two steps forward and three steps back? You’re not alone.

After working with many people with anxiety, I’ve uncovered some “hidden” beliefs or reasons why one may stay hooked to worry, fear and anxiety. Despite hating these feelings we may be inadvertently reinforcing them! Argh!!!

The following hidden beliefs are extremely common. Don’t feel bad if they are tripping you up too.

We’ll start with the Top 5 Worry Myths. Many people are surprised to learn they’re hooked by one or more of the following beliefs:

1. Worrying will stop something bad from happening in the future.

2. Worrying about a negative outcome will prepare me for it.

3. Worrying helps me come up with all my options for a particular situation.

4. Worrying helps me feel as if I’m doing something about the problem.

5. Worrying sometimes helps me avoid thinking about something else.

Here are a few others that may resonate with you and keep you holding on to your old patterns:

  • Your success at work demands that you’re constantly thinking ahead, juggling, planning, problem solving. You don’t want to risk messing up, and you feel your worry and anxiety make sure you don’t.

  • You’ve always been really sensitive and intuitive. Although it has its downsides, you’ve always considered it something that made you special. When you feel anxious or worrisome thoughts, it may be a premonition, and you don’t want to risk not listening to it.

  • Your mom or dad seemed to worry a lot or have anxiety. In a way that is hard for you to explain, you feel more connected to them when you worry or have anxiety too. Especially if they are no longer with you and you miss them.

  • You grew up vowing not to be __________ (i.e., poor, alcoholic, overweight, sick, unhappy, etc.) like your family. If you aren’t constantly worried and thinking of these things, you’re afraid you may follow in their footsteps.

Or how about these:

  • You are the hub that holds your busy family together. Getting everyone to where they need to go, when they need to be there, with what they need to have, and completing what they need to have completed. You need to be thinking all the time, or things will start to fall apart. Worry and anxiety just come with the territory of being a good parent.

  • Worrying shows that you care and are keeping problems, yours and others’, front and center in your mind. If you stop worrying, it’ll be like you stop caring.

We humans are complex creatures. At the most core level we operate around two principles: avoid pain and seek pleasure.

What we view as pain and pleasure aren’t always obvious. Subconsciously we may “hide” important pieces of information from ourselves, or start reinforcing behaviors based on erroneous beliefs. And then we’re blindsided when we experience bumps in the road.

Do any of these hidden hooks resonate with you? What other hidden beliefs have you experienced?

If you’re the DIY, super busy, dip-your-toe-in-before-diving type and would like to overcome your anxiety in the comfort, convenience and privacy of your own home, check out my book.

Does My Breathing Make My Belly Look Fat?

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Embarrassing to admit but this thought hascrossed my mind. It has even stopped me from breathing properly at times. This feels incredibly shallow to admit … but I know I’m in good company. Especially among women.

We start off breathing correctly as babies. Watch a baby sleeping sometime and you’ll see what I mean. The belly rises on the inhale and lowers on the exhale, over and over.

As we grow up, however, we for some reason get out of that pattern and our breathing changes to mainly chest breathing. With chest breathing, our chests expand and our shoulders rise as we inhale and the opposite happens when we exhale.

Our bellies? Well, they stay as sucked in as possible. Totally different than when we were little.

The end result? Two totally different types of breathing with two totally different physiological experiences. Important to note that both types do keep us alive. However, if we were to keep breathing as we did when we were babies we’d be so much healthier than we are today. Physically, mentally and emotionally. To highlight my point here’s what Dr. Andrew Weil says on the topic.

“If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip,” says Dr. Andrew Weil, “it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly.”

What thuh?!? Yes, you read that right. Breathing correctly would be the single most pivotal improvement, the biggest domino effect, the greatest…well you get my point.

Why do we change our breathing from those glory days of belly-breathing babyhood? Do we consciously choose looks over health? It’s tempting to blame the patriarchy or curse the beauty industry but that doesn’t help us. So, let’s just chalk it up to bad posture, sitting too much and ignorance. Because it doesn’t really matter why we are breathing this way.

What does matter is that when we know better we do better.

Bottom line one of the biggest reasons to switch to belly breaths is to give our nervous systems a break. When we breathe from what feels like lower down in our bellies, it informs our parasympathetic nervous system that we are safe and can relax. Chest breathing, because it typically is shorter and shallower, constantly signals to our nervous system that we are ready to respond to whatever fire needs to be put out. Additionally, with shorter shallower chest breaths we aren’t getting the full O2 inhalation and pushing out all the CO2 that our bodies need to thrive.

Mentally, this chest breathing pattern has the additional effect of contributing to anxious and worried thoughts, feeling edgy and just all around unsettled. Weird that our breath can directly impact our thoughts but it can!

Check your breathing right now. Are you a chest breather?

If the answer is yes, there is good news. Changing your breathing pattern is totally within your power and probably the easiest way to improve your health and mental wellbeing!

Try this. Every time you walk through a door, use that as a cue to shift your breathing to your belly. Once you have this down, see if you can find other cues to help you make this breathing shift. Over time you’ll find you are doing this as your new default.

Two of the biggest improvements:

  1. Getting in the habit of breathing deep, rhythmic belly breaths can calm you by helping keep your O2 and CO2 in the perfect balance and reduce the times your body thinks there’s a “problem”.

  2. It can improve your physical health by counteracting the wear and tear of stress by increasing the times your cortisol can stay in it’s place and take a break.

So, does proper breathing make my stomach look fat? With my mental and physical well-being at stake from improper breathing I have to say…I don’t care!

Severe Blushing is Embarrassing. One Legit Strategy to Make It Go Away.

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Fear of blushing is a prominent complaint by many with social anxiety. We can hide many things with our anxiety, but blushing totally exposes us. Our body seems to betray the fundamental laws of loyalty and self-preservation. It’s embarrassing and all-around miserable.

The physiology of why some of us turn tomato-red at the drop of a hat, and others don’t, isn’t totally understood by researchers and doctors. But one aspect that seems to play a big role is how we respond to that dreaded physiological arousal called blushing.

When we feel that familiar flush and sudden onslaught of warmth fill our cheeks we instantly get self-conscious. Many times we’re filled with some hierarchy of self-hate. If we can escape a situation we will. If we can hide, even better.

All our thoughts get lassoed into one big self-focused bundle and only intensifies the more we think of how red our face is. It creates a vicious cycle. The more we think of how much we’re blushing, the more we blush. The more we blush the more we think of how much we’re blushing. And since it is soooo noticeable to everyone around us, we think about it even more… and want to crawl under the nearest rock.

Needless to say, that’s not the response that’s helpful.

2 Effective Ways to Combat Severe Blushing

In all my research, I’ve found two effective ways to help curb severe blushing. The first is an expensive and sorta crazy sounding surgery. Endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy is a surgical procedure where the nerves that cause the facial blood vessels to dilate (widen) are cut. Um. No thanks.

The second is teaching those who experience severe blushing to explicitly focus their attention on to anything else but their blushing.

Seriously. This simple strategy is an extremely effective way to help people decrease their blushing and cope with their blushing at the same time.

Self-focused Attention

Blushing and self-focused attention mutually reinforce each other. It’s cruel. I don’t know the evolutionary explanation as to why some of us “need” this extra ill-timed dilation of our facial and chest blood vessels. We blush and then we turn our attention on ourselves and the fact we’re blushing and so we blush harder and then we focus more of our attention onto the fact that we’re still blushing… Clearly we made it this far so maybe it isn’t all bad. Okay, that’s not how I really think. I personally hate blushing unnecessarily so I found something that works. 

It comes down to redirecting your attention outward and away from your blushing. Seriously. Acknowledge that the blushing has commenced and then pivot to Plan A. Plan A is stop thinking about your blushing by turning your attention to whatever you’re doing and your environment. With practice you’ll be able to break through the vicious blushing circle!

Were you hoping there was some secret intervention to stop your blushing in the first place? I know I was years ago when I began my research into this in an effort to help me with my own blushing. But I have to tell you since I’ve been practicing turning my attention away from my ‘self’ and turning it outward onto what I’m doing, it has become the next best thing!

I can definitely vouch for this one. What has helped you?

The Secret Coffee Meditation No One Talks About

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Who: You and anyone else who wants to start a meditation practice that will stick.

What: The Coffee Meditation. It’s simply meditating on your couch or overstuffed living room chair (or any other upright comfortable position) with a hot mug of coffee in your hands.

Why: Because you’ll actually do it.

When: First thing in the morning before everyone gets up. Or whenever it works for your schedule. The key to the success of this meditation is to personalize it so it fits your life in a way that you’ll do it.

How: Pour yourself a cup of coffee (or tea if you’re a tea drinker). Sit in a comfortable spot. Hold your coffee firmly on your lap or set it down beside you. Set your alarm for however many minutes you want to meditate. Start meditating. Feel free to take sips from your coffee during this meditation. When you drink, turn your attention onto your coffee. After your yummy sip, turn it back to your breath or however else you are meditating.

Repeat each day.

3 Ways to Be the Boss of Your Attention (without Meditating)!

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I know, I know. Everyone is doing it. Everyone who is successful that is.

Meditation is all the rage in this super fast paced, distractible world. It is thought of as the holy grail to offset all of the ills of modern attention-sucking living.

But is meditation the only way to be the boss of your attention? Ugh, say it aint so!

Let me explain a little about attention, we’ll explore a few other non-meditation possibilities and then decide. Sound good?

Attention is how we actively (either consciously or subconsciously) allow into our awareness one thing and not another. We pay attention to stimuli going on outside our heads and thoughts and emotions inside our heads. Sights, sounds, and sensations (both internal and external) all vie for the limited amount of awareness we have at any given moment.

Notably, we often give preference to the sights, sounds and sensations that are the most interesting to us. Or those that are the most threatening to us!

The goal of being the boss of our attention is to cultivate one’s ability to choose what we want to attend to versus being at the whim of what our brains want or our habits choose to attend to.

So, how do we get better at choosing and sticking with what we choose?

An easy and pretty accurate way to think about attention has been to liken it to a muscle. Muscles are strengthened with use and get weak without use. Using this analogy, in order for us to be the boss of our attention we need to practice using it to strengthen it.

Some ways we can practice and strengthen our attention (without meditating) are:

  1. Set a timer. When you do an activity, set a timer and only do that one activity until the timer is done. No exceptions (unless, of course, you naturally finish the activity before the timer is up.) Often we bop between activities, web pages, notification blips, straightening the rug, going to get water etc. and in doing so are constantly weakening our ability to stay focused. A gym analogy for this would be like like doing one push up, going over and doing a couple of leg presses then picking up a weight and doing a few bicep curls. Sure all those exercises may do something helpful for you physically but think of how focusing on one thing at a time would improve your efforts considerably. If you set a timer to do this a few times at work each day or with a few activities around the house each day you’ll do your reps and strengthen your attention in no time!

  2. Count to 3 before you look. Another way to strengthen your attention is to disrupt the autopilot reaction you have to stimuli. You can do this by counting to 3 the next time you’re working and some other sight, sound or sensation tries to grab your attention. The practice of delaying the urge to check out everything that tries to get our attention does an amazing job at strengthening our attention. The ability to tune things out is crucial to cultivating the ability to be the boss of our attention. The caveat here, of course, is if something is grabbing your attention because it is a safety issue. In that case, autopilot is the way to go!

  3. Give up the multi-tasking dream! It doesn’t work. Yep, even for you. Research has found that despite our opinions to the contrary, humans can’t multi-task. What we end up doing is switching our attention from one task to another, not doing them simultaneously and not doing them particularly well. We also lose a lot of time and effort in the process. So, in order to become the boss of our attention, we need to recognize this and stop multi-tasking. It’s a hard habit to break but try it and see if your attention doesn’t strengthen as a result!

Now you might say that attention has a biochemical component that makes it more difficult for some. And while that may be true, the keywords are ‘more difficult’. There are many things that make choosing and sustaining attention hard. Just like there are many things that make going to a gym and working out our muscles hard. That doesn’t mean we’re destined for weakness and tiny muscles. It just means that it’s going to take more effort to get to the gym and get strong.

Same with our attention. If you have a predisposition for difficulty paying attention, bump up your practice of the 3 strategies above and make it more of a priority. It may be harder or more challenging but it is possible to improve.

Follow the 3 practices above and become an attention boss…without meditating!

Do you have any strategies to add? Leave me a comment below, I’d love to hear about them.


Captain Obvious? Fertile Ground for Anxiety.

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This may sound like Captain Obvious but it actually might not be. You be the judge. Here it is:

Constant anxiety is not directly caused by events, situations and behaviors. It’s a result of our thoughts about those things. 

Two people can experience the same event or situation but interpret it differently and therefore have different results. One person might think of worst-case-scenario thoughts of failure (resulting in anxiety) and another may see it as an opportunity to improve (not resulting in anxiety). Same situation different outcomes. 

If anxiety is something you’ve experienced over a period of time or for as long as you can remember, chances are high that it’s not situational. Chances are it’s the result of how, over time, you've interpreted, predicted and repeated thinking about things. They usually include envisioning worst-case scenarios in your mind, thinking you’re going to be exposed as ‘not good enough’ and reflecting on what you did or said as stupid. Or some version of those.

Over time, without realizing it, we create a fertile and inviting place for anxiety to take root and grow. Without this fertile ground made possible by the way we interpret and think about things, many of those situations and events would just fade into the background.

This also goes for how we interpret feelings in our body. 

Is this oversimplified? I’d love to hear about your experience and thoughts below. 


Guidelines for Deploying Pessimism

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Am I a cheerleader for pessimism? Well as it turns out, sometimes I am. 

Generally speaking, pessimism can be thought of as the tendency to expect a negative outcome. Oppositely, optimism can be thought of as the tendency to expect a positive outcome. 

Dr. Martin Seligman’s research strongly suggests that optimism categorically leads to more personal and professional success when compared to pessimism. 

That said, he also points out that certain situations benefit more from a pessimistic approach.

Seligman, the Father of Optimism, offers the following guidelines for when we should err on the pessimistic side and when we should err on the optimistic side. These are handy to keep in mind!

Times to err on the pessimist side:

  1. “If your goal is to plan for a risky and uncertain future, err on the pessimism side. 

  2. If your goal is to counsel others whose future is dim, err on the pessimism side.

  3. If you want to appear sympathetic to the troubles of others, err on the pessimism side.”

On the flip side, times to err on the optimistic side:

  1. “If you are in an achievement situation (getting a promotion, selling a product, writing a difficult report, winning a game), use optimism.

  2. If you are concerned about how you will feel (fighting off depression, keeping up your morale), use optimism.

  3. If the situation is apt to be protracted and your physical health is an issue, use optimism.

  4. If you want to lead, if you want to inspire others, if you want people to vote for you, use optimism.”

Can you think of any other situations to deploy either pessimism or optimism?