It’s the fourth day of the year. My mind is filled with new ways of doing things better in this fresh year. 2018 kicked my butt. Pretty hard.
I’ve set aside the notion of New Year’s resolutions for a while now for all the reasons that we’re supposed to do that – you know, consistency and all. But this January, I feel the need for fresh resolve. Fresh perspective. Fresh goals.
I can’t really say why 2018 was as bad as it was. But it was. There was a certain sense of panic and anxiety that blanketed itself over the full 12 months. A lot of things that we’ve spent years and years building came to ruin. Relationships that we’d enjoyed for years reached rocky ends. My body decided that the entire left side of me must feel as though it is on fire 24/7. A court situation pressed in on us and wrapped tight hands around our throats making the daily chore of getting the mail even something that was triggering and filled with bad news.
By the time September came around, I was ripe for a mini breakdown. But because I’m dumb, instead of signing up for more time off, lots of clean eating and extra sleep, instead, I signed myself up for 50+ hours/week of school and 30+/hours a week of work. And being a mom. And being a wife. And being a six-days-a-week-Crossfitter. And a whole bunch of other things that I should have set aside for a while in order to notice the critical mass that was about to drop on my body like a time bomb.
October showed up just in time for me to lose it completely. My pain level was so out of control that I began a long series of testing. After all the blood and all the spit and all the urine said that I’m actually in good health, it hit me like a ton of bricks that I was suffering from emotional symptoms that I’d been ignoring long enough that they turned physical.
It just so happened that I was studying anxiety and polar disorders in my psych class when my schtuff totally hit the fan. Each page was like a new revelation. Realities about myself and my health that I’d been dealing with for more than a decade suddenly became crystal clear. In truth, I’ve probably never had an “adrenal problem” as much as I’ve actually had an anxiety problem. But because that is such a wildly overused term and diagnosis, I really didn’t know what it is.
Of all the things I learned about the chemistry of (real) clinical anxiety, this was most impactful to me.
Each perspective of psychology has its own prescribed method of treating anxiety. And, statistically speaking, most treatments were relatively ineffective. Psychotropic drugs were often out ranked by placebos. Not always, but in a high percentage of studies and cases. But here is what was interesting. The two perspectives with their corresponding therapies that had high success rates were the cognitive perspective and the behavioral perspective. Their treatments are, of course, radical changes in both cognition (thoughts and thought processes) and behavior (the things we do in response to the things we think).
And so, while doctors are handing out psychotropic drugs like candy to every person they can slap an anxiety/depression label on, as it turns out, the people who write the books to train the professionals actually say that that isn’t the answer. The answer lies in radical change in a person’s thought life and in a person’s behavioral life.
There is an ancient proverb that goes like this, “As a man thinketh, so he is.”
You see, our thoughts are the seeds of our behaviors. The two are connected like fruit and root. Inextricably bound together.
Another proverb goes like this, “We give power to that which we give attention.”
And so, while my body was lighting up on fire with pain and while the mail was busy delivering daily bombs of anxiety and trouble and while the troubles of a failing industry that was killing our family business was all happening, I let my eyes get totally fixated on that. And nothing more. Each day became another day of pain and another day of possible painful surprise. Another day of trouble. It was what I chose to give my attention to.
And to be honest, I don’t think I realized that I was choosing it until recently. Until I read in those chapters that radical changes to one’s thoughts and radical changes to one’s behavior is really the key to setting an anxious mind to rest and to peace.
I’ve been reading a book called “The Chemistry of Calm”. To anyone who suspects they might struggle with real true clinical anxiety, I highly recommend it. Especially if your symptoms have gone beyond mental ramifications and have become physical. You’re on board a powerful train that is headed somewhere painful and bad in a hurry. And if you don’t learn the heck out of getting off of it and work your pants off to deboard, you’re probably never going to return to the land of the sane again.
In the book, the author talks about the actual steps of making these changes. He starts with the changes to one’s thoughts. He suggests that some of us have more active and more analytical minds than others.
He suggests that the answer to calming the anxious mind has to do with not just ceasing the negative thought, but ceasing the analytical thought. The “fixing” thoughts.
When presented with trouble, my brain works overtime – even in my dreams – on finding productive solutions to the problem. This can be a good thing when trouble comes quickly. A sharp mind can mean the difference between succumbing to a trouble and reaching fast for answers and alternatives. But when the trouble is chronic and long lasting and every day for a whole damn year, the overthinking and analyzing becomes like poison. All the chemicals of the brain that help us feel calm and bring homeostasis actually temporarily shut off. Dopamine takes a break and serotonin just stops production. These things would normally be inhibitive of the negative transmissions of things like cortisol and other stress hormones. But when the body halts production in order to give the mind time to benefit from the stress hormone (come up with a solution), there is no insulation to the mind.
From there, a massive trickle-down effect happens. This chemical production triggers that chemical production. The lack of this chemical production triggers the lack of that chemical production. And rather quickly, all the systems in the body that are meant to enhance fight or flight are put in a permanent “on” position. Imagine the turning on of a light switch whose chemicals that are meant to return it to the off position when the trouble has passed have stopped being produced. And when you are stuck in an “on” position, this is what anxiety is. It’s not a bad mood or a lazy mind. It’s a chemical problem actually.
And so, in this wonderful little book, the author (an MD in Minnesota, actually) talks through what is needed to bring the body back to a place where the stress hormone production is able to move back into an “off” position and the protective hormones of wellbeing and calm are turned back “on”.
While there is some diet therapy as well as some vitamin and mineral therapy involved, the main treatment is… you guessed it. Radical change of one’s thoughts. Radical control, actually. STOPPING the thoughts. Stopping the analyzing. Recognizing the problem as it exists. Bringing it back down to proper size. Dissecting only briefly, “What can I do about this? What can I NOT do about this?” Take whatever action is appropriate. And then walk the heck away from it. Be in utter control of the thought process. Continually bring the mind back to a non-analytical state. Quit “fixing”. Stop working on the problem all the time. Give only brief attention to the situation. Then act in strong, decisive, and relatively quick ways. Then stop. Cease. Bring the mind to a forceful halt.
I started working hard on this in early December. My psychical symptoms were at an all-time high, and I was feeling at my very weakest for doing hard mental work. But I began just the same. It felt a lot like when you haven’t been to the gym in half a year, and you slide up under the barbell in the weight rack for the first time. All effort. Nothing easy about it. Moment by moment digging deep and trying to find muscle that has atrophied so badly that it’s hard to imagine it was ever there in the first place.
I found that by transferring my thoughts away from my trouble and away from the constant moving of mental chess pieces as I tried and tried to fix what was wrong, what was actually completely out of my control, I could bring my headache down to bearable and my brain stopped feeling like it was on fire.
Further into the month, I discovered that by moving my thoughts intentionally away from my trouble and onto something that brings me genuine joy and simple pleasure was about as effective as taking an inappropriately large dose of Advil. With Christmas within reach, I pulled my thoughts there. To gifts and love. To cocoa and coffee. To Jesus in a manger and all the heavenly host singing “Hallelujah”. To family and friends. To the warm serenity of Christmas morning.
I found that if I could allow my mind to wander the paths of happiness, somehow the mail and it’s terrible surprises had less impact on me when those moments needed to happen. I found that my body would only go into its fits of wild pain once or twice a week instead of non-stop, around-the-clock. I found that I began to build a bit of mental muscle again and the effort that it took to keep my thoughts in check became progressively easier with each passing day. Like showing up at the gym with rigid consistency, soon, the work became doable and progress was constant.
I’m still working through some bad headache problems, but I’d say I’m about 80% past it. Past what I’m certain would have been a treatment of some silly drug with some stupid side effect. All because of a radical change of thought that has led to a radical change in my behavior.
A few months back, I stumbled into this really wonderful little app called Daily Audio Bible. For thirty minutes each day, the reader – some guy named Brian with really funny little speech nuances – shares a passage from the Old Testament, from the New Testament, something from the Psalms, and something from the Proverbs.
Truth be told, I’m pretty well versed on the NT and Psalms and Proverbs. And the OT is something I’ve largely avoided since my childhood experience of growing up in a cult with a wildly distorted picture of God and grace. Thunder bolts and lightening, very very frightening.I just don’t like it. It’s hard for me to assimilate the Gods of the OT and the NT. I mean, I know they are the same, but my pea-brain likes to think that it can understand cosmic things very well and therefore it must all fit neatly into my human box of logic and common sense. And so, when it doesn’t, I sorta shrink away from it.
This time, I’m finding some odd… comfort, I guess, in this wild and crazy God who blows away entire societies with his mere whim. Who floods the whole earth except seven pairs of these animals and two pairs of these animals and this one small family with which he was not wildly disgusted. Who strips humanity bare of the glory he intended for us over the incorrect eating of an apple.
This God who rains fire and brimstone and who calls for the complete decimation of entire lands of people. “Men, women, and children. Leave none alive.”
I think it’s because I’m badly in need of a God this big right now. This ferocious. This… well, terrifying. I’m badly in need of a break from the Santa Claus version of him that we lazy-minded Americans prefer. I’m badly in need of a God who breathes out destruction upon people who are set against him and those he loves. Maybe because I believe I AM one of those that he loves. And I need desperately the healing medicine that comes from knowing that the God I call upon in the shower with desperate tears running down my face is not the sort of God who is weak and so finite that even the puny human mind can unpack him. I need a God who is wind and rain and thunder and lightning. Who is an ocean and a calm stream at the same time. Who is overwhelming and not-able-to-be-understood. Who is just too damn big for my little brain, for my little mind, for my little ability to comprehend.
I need that God.
I need him always but I especially need him today.
I need him to burst through this dark cloud I’ve spent too much time in. I need him to ease the pain in my body and to relieve the anxiety of my mind. I need him to show up in real life and in the shadows where I am all alone and wrestling against the very real forces of evil who seek my soul like a hungry lion. I need him then. To be my refuge and my aid and my defense and my advocate. And the Santa Claus version just isn’t cutting it anymore.
I need my thoughts to find a home in this contemplation. I need a radical change of thought that will lead to a radical change of behavior. From strife to peace. From anxiety to calm. From frenzy to trust.
Come be to me who you really are. Not a watered-down, palatable version. Come to me with hurricanes and avalanches. Come to me with all of your confusing dichotomies. Come to me with the desperateness of the human condition and your once-for-all treatment that is nothing like a pill and its less-than-placebo effects.
Burst onto my scene again. As you have so many times. Flood my thoughts with the overwhelming majesty and terror that you truly are. So that there is no room for my fear. So that there is no room for my anxiety. So that there is no room for petty worries over the blip of my life in the timeline of humanity.
Radically alter me. My thoughts. My behaviors.
Bring me calm. Chemical and otherwise.
Bring me peace.
You are good when there’s nothing good in me…
You are light when the darkness closes in…
You are peace when my fear is crippling…
My heart will sing, no other name, Jesus, Jesus…