Me, social anxiety, and a little night out (self-help books)

Over the years I have tried so many self-help books that I’ve lost count, I don’t even want to know how many there have been.

I’ve tried Claire Weeks and her “Pass through Panic” CD, the “Linden Method”, Paul McKenna books and CDs, online CBT courses, you name them – I’ve probably tried them. I’m not knocking them, I know these have worked for many people, just not me. Perhaps it wasn’t the right time.

Most of the programmes I’ve tried have been along the lines of starting with something which only brings moderate discomfort (e.g. for me, tea and cakes), and, as that situation becomes more comfortable, trying the next step up the ladder until that too becomes comfortable. This was ok on the first rung of the ladder, but I never got past the first rung because I didn’t have the confidence or skills to move on. I struggled because:

• It was too big a step – how do you move on from a café to a restaurant? Or from a cup of tea at someone’s house to a full meal? It was too daunting.

• The steps were too far apart in terms of timings. I needed to be able to build on these steps every day, or I’d be back to square one again. But how do you invite someone out for a cup of tea one day, then tea and cake the next day, then a meal the next day, without them thinking you are totally crazy? (for me the answer has been several things – by admitting I struggle, by blogging about it and receiving so much wonderful support, by building my confidence with my counsellor, and practicing mindfulness – learning to switch off the panic button).

• Authors would say I needed to drop my safety behaviours, such as having mints to stop me feeling sick, a valium in my bag in case of emergency, taking Mr Silver Linings with me, having an escape plan. The thought of this meant I couldn’t face it, I need these things. (However, my counsellor says that these are all fine, they’re not unhealthy, the important thing is that I get out there and try things).

• Claire Weeks (who has helped a lot of people), asks that you don’t escape anxious situations, that you stay and wait until the anxiety subsides. Escaping and avoiding are two things I am very, very good at.

My problem is that I’ve been BATTLING anxiety for over a decade. I’ve gritted my teeth and made myself attend things I haven’t wanted to attend. And none of this battling has worked – I figured I lacked the willpower and courage needed, and so I beat myself up even more!

The next post will look at the counselling I’ve had, and how it turned out I was doing it all wrong. No more battling, no more teeth gritting!

 

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Mindfulness for sceptics

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I didn’t start off as a sceptic. I used to be first in the queue for anything that promised to change my life, and there have been a lot of books making a lot of promises. There was the 365 day stress-less challenge*, the 52 weeks of positive affirmations*, the 10 steps to instant confidence*, you name it, I’ve tried it. And when they didn’t work, I’d feel even more of a failure, and then buy the next book with a cover full of promises…

A decade later and a lot more anxious (but with a bulging bookcase) I have become a bit sceptical of the latest craze. I see a book with a title like “Think happy, be happy”* and yes, I pick it up (or click on it), I look at the reviews on Amazon, and I put it back down again. I figure that I won’t be happier, just £7.99 worse off, which just rubs salt in the wound. If it was that easy, I’d have succeeded years ago, wouldn’t I?

And then a friend sent me an email about how mindfulness had worked for his anxiety, and posted me a copy of this book, “The art of happiness” by Matthieu Ricard.

I had heard of mindfulness, a friend’s counsellor had recommended it to help with depression. She described it as noticing the little things that we usually walk straight past, and so I had tried this on my daily trudge to work. I noticed a Siamese cat watching me from an upstairs window, flowers growing in the gaps between concrete slabs, the way the sun caught the chimney posts in the morning. It gave me a little lift, but like most things, it wore off. Or, more accurately, I forgot to keep doing it, and so it wore off. (Now I realise that observing our surroundings is just a small part of mindfulness).

I couldn’t help but be intrigued by this book that arrived on my doorstep, by the fact that it was written by a Buddhist monk (which made his promises sound a lot more trustworthy than most) and by the heartfelt recommendation from a school friend I hadn’t seen in years. I’ll admit, I was too drained to read it there and then, but I looked up the author and found his TED talk, “The habits of happiness“, and I was captivated. I spent all afternoon watching talks, lectures and classes on mindfulness, wanting to know more. The video below stands out as a particular favourite from that afternoon because it explains mindfulness so well, both the practice of mindfulness and the science behind it (and the fact that the talk is given by the University of California helps me to believe that it isn’t another craze!). It is long, but it is well worth the watch:

And that was it, I was hooked, in no small part because of the scientific evidence that showed that mindfulness physically changes your brain. Carla Shatz coined the phrase “cells that fire together wire together” (Carla Shatz), or to give it its scientific name, synaptic plasticity. So here was medical proof that I could actually reprogramme my brain to be more positive. Wow. My inner sceptic was suddenly feeling a lot less sceptical. (NB the mindfulness that I practice has its roots based on Buddhist principles and meditations, but minus the religion. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a medical professor, fused Buddhist practices with Western psychology and brought us a non-religious version of mindfulness).

I wanted to get started as soon as possible, so I found a book that came with a CD: Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. It’s written as an 8 week course, a course that I could do at home, at my own pace. I even checked out the author’s voice to make sure I found it relaxing. Perfect.

The first chapter was so well written that even in my frazzled state I quickly understood what Mindfulness is, what it isn’t, and why I should do it (the scientific evidence mentioned earlier).

Mindfulness doesn’t include:

  • Sitting cross legged (unless you want to)
  • Chanting (I’d be too self-conscious!)
  • Attending a class (unless you want to)
  • Trying to stop all the thoughts that pop into your head (impossible, surely?)
  • A large commitment of time (if you can fit in 3 minutes a day, you’ll be fine)
  • A large commitment of money (you can borrow a book from the library)

Mindfulness does include:

  • Learning to accept (not change) whatever emotions you are feeling
  • Appreciating what you already have
  • Noticing your thoughts, not trying to stop them or change them
  • Exercises that only take a few minutes
  • Exercises you can do almost anywhere (I do mine on the bus)
  • And yes, it really does re-wire your brain!

My next post will give an outline of the 8 week course, and what I gained from it. I warn you, I am bowled over by this book, it really has changed how I view things, or more accurately, how I think. And trust me, I overthink! (And no, I’m not on commission).

*The small print – titles marked with an asterisk are titles I have made up to illustrate a point. They are not a reflection on any real books that might have these names!

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