How to love someone who has anxiety

"What should I say?"

I get this question a lot. It almost always comes up when I do speaking events at colleges and conferences. During the Q&A, an incredibly kind and thoughtful person stands up and says, "I don't have anxiety, but my partner/friend/parent/kid does. How do I help them?"

I first tell them they are pretty much an angel walking around among us. They care so much that they came to a talk about someone else's issue just so they could learn to help. I hope that a million blessings fall on their heads.

Then I say that I don't have a one-size-fits-all answer, but I can tell them what helps me when I'm in the middle of an anxiety spiral:

Ask if there is anything you can do 

99% percent of the time, I'm going to say there is nothing you can do. But it's going to make me feel loved and supported that you asked. And on the occasion that I really do need something (Can you bring over dinner? Meet me at the gym for a workout? Get me out of this social obligation?) I'll know you actually mean it.

Understand that I don't need you to fix anything

Most of the time, I just need to explain what is in my head and have someone hold my hand and say something like, "ugh, I'm sorry, that sucks." Please know there is zero pressure on you to fix whatever is going on. And you definitely don't need to fix me. I'm not broken. I'm just a girl with some anxiety.

Let me cry

Crying is good for me - it's a release valve. Trying to shove those emotions down is much worse than just crying it out for a little while. If you can just sit with me through the uncomfortable ugly cry and maybe get me another Kleenex, that is incredibly meaningful.

Tell me you get it, that you've been here (if you really mean it)

This is a controversial one. I frequently see the advice that you shouldn't tell a struggling person your own stories of struggle or say that you know how it feels. But personally, I love it when someone does that. It makes me feel less alone to know that other people have had to deal with this shit, too. It reminds me that things won't always feel this hard. So use your own judgment with this one. But always make sure that you are listening first, and sharing your experience as a distant second.

Be silly with me

Lightening things up always helps me put things in perspective. Not in dismissive "it could be worse, you could be a Rohingya refugee" kind of way -- but let me know we can laugh together and it's not always about my anxiety.  Cute animal memes or cuddling up together for an Arrested Development marathon might seem frivolous, but it can help to stop the Doom Spiral.

Text to check in the next day

The "Just thinking of you and sending a hug"  text is a wonderful thing. A well-timed heart emoji has been known to turn my entire day around. For many of us with anxiety, we worry that people will decide that we're annoying or overreacting or just too much to handle. A quick check-in lets me know that you're still here, that my anxiety didn't freak you out, that you love me for who I am, which is so much bigger than the anxiety. (And you know that phone anxiety is a legit thing for some of us, right? So yeah, a text is better than a call.)

It's not easy to love someone with anxiety. So to all those friends and family members who care to learn and support us -- thank you. We're grateful from the bottom of our anxious little hearts.

**Want to read more from me about anxiety and depression? I wrote a whole book on the topic -- Not Just Me: Anxiety, depression, and learning to embrace your weird. **

Have additional ideas that have been useful to you? Please leave them in the comments!

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Burn it up: impermanence and playing with fire

I was talking to a friend about how much I like to burn my writing. I don't burn it all the time, but when it's something I feel like I need to release, it's incredibly powerful cathartic ritual. That got me thinking about a wedding I attended two years ago.

I didn't want to go to the wedding because I had nothing to wear.

It's humiliating to admit that. It's such a frivolous, stereotypical girl excuse. I'd been to a million weddings, but nothing quite like this. There were going to be a lot of people there and my social anxiety was running pretty high.

It was silly to think that I was worried looking out-of-place...with a bunch of people who take looking out-of-place very seriously. The wedding was done "burner-style" (think Burning Man) and grounded in the spirit of community, art and self-expression.

When we arrived at the farm in rural Virginia, there were tutus and masks and glow in the dark hula-hoops. There were hot pants and frilly bras -- and the women's outfits were even more eccentric. There were also 60-year-old women in lawn chairs wearing Laura Ashley dresses that would have been right for a church picnic. There was literally nothing that I could have worn that would have been inappropriate. And if I had worn literally nothing, I suspect that would have even been okay, too.

People had set up camp for a week and there was swimming in the river and fire dancing and a tent full of dress-up clothes. There was home-brew and dune buggies and of course, there was a wedding ceremony, in front of a two-story temple that our friends spent months building from scrap wood and fallen trees. We placed paintings, poems and wishes for the couple inside the temple, hanging them from branches.

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And after the ceremony, after the "I do" and the kiss - we burned it all to the ground.

There was such joy in watching it burn. It was a profound sense of release.

Of letting go. Of surrendering to life and the inevitable destruction.

Because eventually, everything deteriorates and falls apart and there is no sense clinging to it. Permanence seems comforting but it's an illusion, and that makes this moment now even more precious. You have to love it with all your heart while it's here. Because one day, it won't be. And neither will you.

Letting go means opening up more space for joy. Not even love can survive if you cling too tightly. Love works when you let the other person be who they need to be and love them through it. As my friend said in his vows "I love you and I will love who you become." Nothing is static. People change.

What a profound statement at the beginning of a marriage.

This wedding was full of joy. The bride wore a purple top. They danced down the aisle and basked in their weirdness. I have always been ashamed of my weirdness, and it did me good to see people so comfortable with theirs. I cried happy tears from beginning to end of the ceremony.

It was just so very them.

We let it all go, and we burned it all up.

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*****

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Embrace Your Weird event tonight in Virginia

Screen Shot 2016-06-13 at 8.02.31 AM Hi all,

I'm thrilled to be giving a talk tonight in Charlottesville, Virginia. The event is called Embrace Your Weird: from Anxiety to Authenticity and it's based on the new book that I am writing. There is even a whole fancy Power Point thingy.

Many of us are afraid to talk about anxiety, depression and panic attacks – it’s about time we change that. This talk is a deeply personal exploration of mental health, told with compassion and humor. It’s a hopeful, entertaining and enlightening look at the root causes of anxiety, the results of the latest research and ideas for how to manage stress in your own life.

The event is free and open to the public, as part of Retreat Week at Ix Art Park. For more information and to RSVP, please click here. 

And in case you were wondering, yes, I'm feeling very anxious about giving an anxiety talk. But I'm gonna to do it anyway.

with love,

~Lisa

 

Why I will do yoga until the day I die

IMG_0922 Yeah, I know. That’s a big statement. Especially for me.

I can have some bandwagon tendencies. I jump on and ride along for about six months until a more interesting wagon rolls on by. For a while, thought I needed to buy a potter's wheel, I looked for apartments to rent in South Africa and went through a phase where thought I really needed to be able to read hieroglyphs.

This is different. Yoga is a keeper. This is a lifelong practice for me and if I ever stop doing it, someone needs to kick my ass back on to the mat because I’ve temporarily lost my mind.

Yoga taught me how manage my panic attacks and anxiety, it has lessened my depression and made me a much happier person. It's made my marriage stronger and has given me the supportive community that I've always wanted.

And then there is the physical stuff.

When I was 11 years old, I broke my back. I was working on a film called Rambling Rose, and in a freak accident in the school room, I crushed three vertebrae between my shoulder blades and I got whiplash in my lower back. It's not even an interesting story, I pushed myself back to get out of a chair, the wheels got caught, I fell backward, hit the wall and snapped forward. I'd really rather tell you I was saving kittens from a burning building, but I like you - I don't want to lie.

After five days in the hospital, they put me in a metal brace and drugged me up on codeine, so I could finish the film. Then, I went home to recover and had to use a wheelchair if I needed to walk further than a few steps. (If you want to hear more, and the reason opiates and gorilla costumes don't mix, all that is in my book.)

In time I healed, but some issues remained. I had nerve damage and lingering pain. My left foot would drag when I got tired and the lightest touch to my lower back would cause spasms to shoot down my legs. I was generally stiff and sore, I couldn't get anywhere near touching my toes. But, I just accepted pain was part of my life; I was grateful I could walk. My back pain was manageable. It was mostly fine.

Then, at the age of 30, I walked into a hot yoga studio. Thanks to my anxiety, I had spent an entire therapy session devoted to discussing whether or not I could survive a yoga class. I felt panicked about the people, the heat, the physical postures I knew I couldn't do. But I got myself in the front door and found a whole community of men and women with open arms - ready to welcome my messed up body and chaotic mind. They all had jacked up bodies and minds when they started, too.

Everything changed.

I started to get flexible. 20 years of back pain melted away. And with it, a whole lot of emotional pain dissolved, too. It wasn't instant. It took time. But it became clear that yoga was making me stronger – mentally, physically and spiritually. Yoga gave me back my spine, in more ways than one.

I was ready for a life with a “bad back.” I was prepared for the constant ache and various restrictions. One of those things I shouldn’t be able to do is this:

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But here I am anyway.

It changed my normal. It changed what I could expect from life.

Yoga is not about being flexible or having cute yoga pants or chanting in some language you don't understand. It's about learning to get distance from the incessant chatter of that inner critic jerk who wants to ruin everything. It's about the courage it takes to be willing to show up, just as you are, and have that be good enough.

Some days who I am is a person who is overwhelmed by the world and needs to spend most of the class in tears, lying on my mat. And that's good enough, too. Yoga is where we learn to let go of what is no longer serving us and sometimes that process is emotional. Having a melt down in class is pretty much a  rite of passage. Everyone else is dealing with their own stuff so no one really notices, but it's still nice that tears look a whole lot like sweat.

Yoga is not about being "good"  - it doesn't matter that I still have a hard time getting my forehead to my knee in Dandayamana Janushirasana after seven years of solid practice. I’ll probably get there eventually. I’ll still be doing this when I’m 84; seven years is nothing.

I don’t take compliments well. I shrug them off and explain them away, inadvertently flinging a kindness back in the face of the person saying it.  But when someone praises my backbend, I do my best to fight that habit and simply say thank you. Because it’s the purest and most genuine way I know to express gratitude – to my spine, to this practice, and to this life.

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*****

If you are interested in yoga and have any questions, please ask in the comments! I always recommend going to a class because teachers can help you with proper alignment and any modifications you might need. At the studio where I practice, we have men and women of all ages and body types - new people are always welcome! 

If going to a studio is not feasible for you - check out Yoga with Adriene. She has free YouTube videos that are fantastic for all levels. 

*****

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Don’t just do something - sit there

  Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 9.03.43 AM The search for a deeper understanding of self is both inherently natural and completely exhausting.

That kind of self-reflection can leave you sweating and chewing your toenails if you aren't prepared for it. It’s the reason that we have reality television -- so that we don’t have to do the hard work of sitting with ourselves and trying to figure out who we truly are. But we do reflect, because it seems more selfish to just wander through life and not think about what you want your contribution to be.

Since I was a kid, I've had a nasty habit of getting so anxious about things that I hyperventilate and black out. It could be about a phone call or a party or merely pondering what the hell I am doing with my life. Panic attacks can happen anywhere. I can be in my living room or in a restaurant, when suddenly there is gasping and shaking and trying to fight the tunnel vision and convince myself (and anyone else who might be present) that I'm not actually dying.

My shrink recommended that I try meditation. She sent me home with stacks of books and the instructions to just sit there and breathe. Just sit there. Alone. In silence. With my own self. I would have preferred a recommendation to massage my eyeballs with sandpaper.

I had an entire film career based on the fact that I could let my thoughts run away with me. Acting required me to completely believe the worst possible scenario, such as the fact that my computerized house was really trying to kill me, and let my body react accordingly. My mind was the master, and my emotions needed to follow.

However, I tend to do what I'm told and so, I sat. Every emotion that I wished would stay lurking under the bed, got in my face. Those voices pointed out all the other people in the world who understood how to do this life thing just fine, and how pathetic it was that I had massive anxiety about going to the grocery store.

But I still sat.

I started going to a weekly group that did Yoga Nidra, a deep form of meditative relaxation. Most of the other people in the group were vets from Iraq and Afghanistan. They possessed this disconcerting combination of looking both very young and very world-weary. They picked at their cuticles and talked about their PTSD. They mentioned their lingering pain from combat injuries and they pulled down their sleeves and tried to cover up the scars.

I stayed quiet at the gatherings, deciding not to bring up the whole “I’m stressed because I’m a former child actor” thing. It lacked the drama of mortar fire and made me feel like a massive jerk.

Instead, I just listened. I listened to these young warriors who knew more about sacrifice and suffering than I ever would. One guy told me he hadn’t been able to sleep more than a couple hours a night since he got back from his tour. He said this "chanting hippie shit" was not his scene, but he had actually started sleeping since doing a meditation practice. So, he was happy to trek down the pathway, which was draped in Tibetan prayer flags and Obama signs, to come to this little shed near the chicken coop in a yoga teacher’s backyard. He’d do whatever it took.

We sat together and breathed deeply. We sat with the voices that tormented us and we sat with the uncomfortable unknown. We didn't fight with the doubts and fears and regrets, we just stared them down until they exhausted themselves and slithered away. We let go of the past and the future and simply practiced gratitude for this moment right here. Eventually, I noticed that I was spending less and less time gasping like a fish who had just leapt out of her bowl.

It wan't like some lightning bolt where I saw God.

But I saw some peace.

And then I saw that maybe those are kind of the same thing.

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Panic attacks, social anxiety and other perks of being me

At the age of 13, about to have a panic attack before a press conference for the film "Matinee." 

At the age of 13, about to have a panic attack before a press conference for the film "Matinee." 


Recently, I did an interview and we discussed anxiety disorders. I realized that although I've written about that topic in other places, I've not addressed it much on this blog. (ETA: since I posted this, I wrote an entire book on the topic of mental health - Not Just Me: Anxiety, depression, and learning to embrace your weird.)

It can be challenging to talk about panic attacks and social anxiety. We've been taught that it's either nerdy (think someone with high-waisted pants, sucking on an inhaler at a party) or it's just regular stress that we should be able to handle.

It's neither of those.

I've had anxiety and panic attacks since I was a kid. I've always been described as "sensitive" and "thoughtful" and "a worrier." When I was about 11, my mother would push her thumb into the middle of my palm, calling it my Breathe Button. She'd remind me to take a deep breath as I gasped like a fish and anxiety drained the color from my face.

At a certain point, my inherent shyness and introversion turned into hyperventilating, blacking out, and not being able to leave the house. At its worst, I was having a couple of panic attacks a day. If you don't know what a panic attack feels like, consider this:  it's common for people to end up in the emergency room during their first one because it feels so much like a heart attack.

It feels like you are dying.

And I was doing that twice a day.

That anxiety was complicated in my early 20s by the fact that I was not happy in my life. I felt trapped and scared and not sure what could ever comfort me. I've been carried out of restaurants mid-panic attack, I've made bad choices in a fog of anxiety-ridden self-sabotage. The world had become a very dark place and there were many times that I was not sure how I could ever get out of it.

I've written before about what has helped me. Personally, it's all about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, meditation and yoga. I wanted to avoid the drug route - I don't think there is anything wrong with taking drugs that you need - I just wanted to try a different way. Although I have had prescription bottles at the ready, I've always found other ways to manage it.

Even though it's greatly improved, my anxiety has not disappeared completely. Last weekend, I felt some significant panic just thinking about having to leave the house to go to the grocery store. My heartbeat was irregular. My hands went numb. Flickers of light clouded my vision and made me cling to the counter with vertigo. Those are all signals that I'm not breathing well.

The difference now is that have a whole arsenal of tools that I can use to stop that panic before the sobbing-on-the-floor point. I have breathing exercises. I remind myself that this feeling is temporary and will pass. My husband knows what he needs to do, and not do. My friends understand that sometimes I can't come to large social gatherings (large means more than 2 people) and if I do, I always drive myself so I can leave if I start to feel panicy. There are preventive things I do every day to reduce my anxiety so that it no longer runs my life - like yoga and a daily meditation practice.

Whenever I talk about anxiety publicly, I get messages from people who deal with similar things and who are glad that we can talk about it. That sense of connection is the reason that I write words and put them out into the world. Because I hope that someone will find them, read them, and say, hey, I totally get that.

I wish there was one common answer we could all share -- sadly, there is no simple one-size-fits-all solution. But if you are dealing with this stuff, know that you are not alone. There is no need to feel ashamed. There are people and books and techniques that can help you. Anxiety tends to drive people into isolation, but suffering alone is never the answer. You can take control of your life and your own wellbeing. You can ask for help.

I used to think my panic attacks could be alleviated by some external image of "success." Maybe if I got cast in bigger movies or dated a different boy, I would suddenly be fixed. When I finally realized that I was capable creating some peace for myself, right where I was  - that's when it all started to get better.

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I created a bookshelf of some of my favorite books that helped me with my panic attacks. You can see it on Goodreads. (And while you are there - friend me so we can share books!)

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