7 Anxiety-Reducing Truths I Was Reminded of at #BlogHer16

7 anxiety reducing truths reminded of at blogher16editedOne week ago today, I left the #BlogHer16 Conference feeling something I doubted I could: empowered by the experience. As much as I had wanted to go, my anxiety told me I would hate every minute of it and, worse, that I would hate myself by the time it was all said and done. Instead, I loved #BlogHer16 and it reminded me of some anxiety-reducing truths.

1) Other women are anxious, too

On Day 1 of the conference, I got there 20 minutes early for volunteer training. There was one person there. She were sitting up front looking very official (i.e., intimidating). I couldn’t bring myself to (a) talk to her or (b) ignore her so I left before she saw me and walked around the hotel for a few.

When I got back, there were two people in the room. The second person was a woman I’d passed in the hall earlier. We’d already exchanged a smile, so it felt safe enough to go in and have a seat behind her. We said hello, exchanged a few words, and got back to our smartphones as others trickled in.

One by one, we said hello and one of the women started asking around what each of us blog about. That’s when it happened. The thing that clued me in to how much I might really belong there after all.

I said I blog about women and anxiety, and one of them said, “Oh, I’m gonna need your card.”

That’s how it began – the first of many times the women I met over the next three days said they struggle with anxiety, too. Maybe not to the extreme I experience it – or about the same things that trigger my anxiety – but it’s there, it’s challenging, and it’s all of us.

2) You can turn off the news

In the weeks leading up to the conference, the only thing I felt more anxious about was the news, which I haven’t been able to tear myself away from lately.

I’ve never watched the news regularly. I used to think it’s because I didn’t have interest in what was going on in the world, which isn’t something you want to believe about yourself. But after immersing myself in the election coverage these past few months, I’ve come to a different conclusion.

I cannot sustain this level of anxiety.

Even if I only want to follow one story, when you’re tuned in to the news cycle, you’re seeing it all. Between Google news, and social media, and cable television, it’s one thing after another to absorb every day, all day long.

Sheryl Crow echoed this experience in her keynote Q&A on Day 2 of the conference:

“My boys are 9 and 6 and have never seen the news. I make sure CNN is not on when they turn it on to watch Cartoon Network. I think it’s not natural for people to have that kind of stress and worry and be exposed to every bad thing in the world.”

I’m learning to lay my phone down.

3) It doesn’t matter what other people think

Kim Kardashian was also a keynote Q&A speaker on Day 2. When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, Kim revealed she’s doing exactly what she wanted:

“When I was 13, The Real World had just come out. I told my best friend that’s what I wanted to do.”

No matter what you think about her dream and how she lives it, Kim Kardashian says she doesn’t care.

“I do what makes me feel comfortable,” she said. “I just do what makes me happy… Be you. Be confident in you… Do what you love because you love it, not for validation.”

Now, Kim did acknowledge that she felt differently years before when she would obsessively pour over social media comments about her. (In fact, I saw it myself when it was a storyline on a Kardashians episode.) She cared very much back then. But she seems now to have a thicker skin, and it’s a good thing because she needs it.

It’s no secret there were mixed responses to her presence at the BlogHer Conference. Some people love what she does. Some people hate what she does. Some people love to hate what she does. And she doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass any which way. I love that.

4) It’s okay if other women don’t want to be your friend

I moved around a lot when I was a kid. The worst part of the day at a new school was lunchtime because I often had no one to sit with. That fear and anxiety came rushing back full-force going into the Voices of the Year Awards at the end of Day 2.

For all the other keynotes throughout the conference, I was with other bloggers beforehand, so we naturally sat together. This time, though, I’d been flying solo and I walked into the giant room by myself. I didn’t see anyone I knew so I swallowed my pride, picked the closest table with the best view and available seat, and asked if I could sit down.

I didn’t know anyone there. There was one woman who I’d seen in a session earlier that day so I introduced myself to her and we had a little chat. Also at the table was one of the few men at the conference, there for his wife who’d won an award for her Instagram page.

I cannot tell you a single thing about the rest of the women at the table because none of them would talk to me. They wouldn’t even look at me. The woman to my left was buried in her phone the whole time. At one point I decided to break the ice and remarked how much I liked her phone cover. She smiled and said thank you; conversation over. She left the awards show early, as did most of the women at our table. It was a lonely feeling.

Halfway through the presentation, I noticed a blogger I knew sitting directly behind me. If only I’d seen her before I sat down. On the one hand, it would have felt better if I’d been able to sit with her instead. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to practice feeling comfortable with being uncomfortable. I’ve come a long way since middle school when I would have taken my lunch to the bathroom stall.

5) If it’s only meaningful to one person, what you do matters

On Day 3 of the conference, Mayim Bialik was the Q&A keynote speaker. You probably know her as Blossom, the young Bette Midler character in Beaches, Amy on The Big Bang Theory, and a real-life neuroscientist. But you should also know her as the creator of the website GrokNation.

Grok means to understand something intuitively or by empathy. And by “something” GrokNation means pretty much everything because it sounds like there’s not much they won’t cover.

“When we first started, we were asked what our demographic was,” says Mayim. “I said I think about so many things. I don’t have to pick…

“I don’t want to say I’m a reluctant creator, but honestly, it was scary. I don’t think of myself as a celebrity. I’m a mom and a scientist… I don’t pay attention to stats because that’s not where my brain lives. I did those in grad school! Some people on our team are trying to track what people like. I posted a piece about incest. If this gets one like from one person that needed to read it, then that’s all I need.”

That’s music to my ears, as my own site is so new, with very little traffic, and most of the time it feels like I’m writing into a vacuum. But every few weeks someone will leave a comment, message me on Facebook, or send me a tweet saying how much what I’m doing means to them. And hearing from that one person means the world to me.

6) When you put yourself out there, you can make friends

A few weeks before the conference, I wrote a piece called Odd Woman Out at the BlogHer Conference. As the title suggests, I was worried I wouldn’t fit in. I posted it to the BlogHer Facebook Group and received this reply:

“Be my friend.”

It was from Joules Dellinger and she asked about meeting up. I looked at her blog and saw that she’d written a similar post about the conference: Let’s Be Odd Ducks Together.

I loved we had odd in common.

If I hadn’t written and shared that post, I would never have met my new friend who already feels like a good one. I also wouldn’t have met the women Joules introduced me to – Jenna Taylor whose fun Instagram page is one of my new faves. Or Meadoe Hora whose post about the excuses she makes to avoid working out made me laugh.

If I hadn’t volunteered, I wouldn’t have met Patty Kraikittikun-Phuong who’s working on a gluten-free bread recipe I can’t wait to try. Or DiSheen Smith who reminded me how important is to make the most of opportunities we have living here in L.A. Or Elizabeth Hill who switched volunteer times with me so she could see Sarah Michelle Gellar and I could see Kim Kardashian.

If I hadn’t talked to someone I didn’t know, I wouldn’t have met Ligeia Polidora whose writing about midlife inspires me. Or Joy Bennett whose reviews have me motivated to see more L.A. film festivals, shows, and concerts. Or Tabitha Black who makes me want to explore the Pacific Northwest.

If I hadn’t reached out to another blogger on the Facebook Group page – a woman who posted about having a tough time with unfriendly folks at the conference – Sandi Schwartz wouldn’t have seen my response and invited me to meet up because she writes about anxiety, too. She focuses on kids, with ideas for stress and anxiety relief backed up by science, like this one on creativity.

7) It’s okay to talk about anxiety

I used to try and hide it, ashamed I couldn’t control my anxiety. Funny thing is, that only made my anxiety worse, as it felt like I was pretending to be someone else. In talking about anxiety with other women at the conference, I felt proud of us. Not proud of the anxiety, but of the courage it often takes to admit. I also felt more like myself – awkward, yes, but honest.

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How to Keep a Worry Journal

how to keep a worry journal notebookI started my worry journal 5 years ago right around the time I was stressing over two life-altering experiences that would have been stressful enough on their own – producing my first play and dating again after a break-up. I worried that I sucked in both arenas and on pretty much every level. I barely managed to keep my shit together but keeping a thought record, or “worry journal,” kept it from turning into a total shit show.

When it feels like you’re worrying 24/7, keeping a record of your worries may seem unnecessary and even counterproductive:

“I know what my worries are. Won’t writing them down just make them worse?”

No. As I discovered, most of the worries I have throughout the day are repetitive. Once I put a worry through the ringer, it loses a lot of its power. Yes, the worry often comes back, but when it does it’s a little less horrible.

Keeping a record of negative thoughts

The gist of it is this – write down your worries and analyze the hell out of them.

1) Choose your journaling medium

For the worry journal exercises I share here, I just type it all out on the computer. You can certainly do that, but there’s something nice about handwriting in a notebook that you can personalize. Using Notes in your phone works, too.

2) Keep a list

You can add to it throughout the day as the worries come. Or you can schedule worry time and write your worries down then. Try to pick the same time every day, including the length of time you’ll spend on it. I think I started at 15 minutes, but some days found myself twiddling my thumbs after just 5 (a welcome surprise).

3) Analyze your worries

Not all of them (unless you have the time and inclination), but definitely the loudest, most persistent ones. Here’s how my therapist taught me. Look at:

  • The situation. What triggered the worry, or negative thought? Be as specific as you can about where you were, what you were doing, and who you were with when you had the negative thought. Even if what you were doing seems inconsequential, like “I was sitting on the porch sipping hot tea,” write it down.
  • Anxiety level. How high is it on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the highest)?
  • Worry/negative thought (also known as hot thoughts, automatic negative thoughts, or anxious thoughts). What are you worried about? Something work related? Love related? Something in the news? If it can be expressed in one sentence great, but feel free to write as much as you need to get it all out.
  • Evidence for. What proof do you have that this worry or negative thought is true? Did something happen in the past that supports the likelihood of it being true now?
  • Evidence against. What proof do you have that this worry or negative thought is not true? Did something happen in the past that casts doubt on the likelihood of it being true now?
  • Anxiety level. Now that you’ve completed the journal entry, what is your anxiety level on a scale of 1 to 10?

Why this helps

Thought records are tools used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

The best definition I’ve found for CBT is from Merriam-Webster:

A type of psychotherapy that combines cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy by identifying faulty or maladaptive patterns of thinking, emotional response, or behavior and substituting them with desirable patterns of thinking, emotional response, or behavior.

When I’m caught in a worry spiral, I work myself into a frenzy obsessing over a worst-case scenario that increasingly feels real.

When I put that worry into a thought record, I’m able to take a step back and start seeing that worry for what it really is – just a thought, not the truth.

One of my first worry journal entries

In November 2011, my dating anxiety was at its height. Here’s one of my worry journal entries about one particularly worrisome fella.

Situation / Trigger

Thinking about Mr. X, wondering if and when he will call.

Anxiety Level

8

Worry / Negative Thought

What if he doesn’t call? Of course he is going to call. But what if he doesn’t call soon enough? What is soon enough? My definition of it? Should I call or text him? No. It’s his turn. He will limit contact so as not to lead me into a routine. Limiting contact/seeing me so I don’t get too serious. I have initiated the past two dates. Maybe it’s his turn. He only saw me because I asked and not because he really wanted to.

Evidence For

He doesn’t call in between our dates – only to make the dates.

Evidence Against

He likes me. I know this. [In hindsight, this isn’t the most convincing argument but I believed it and it made me feel better; job done.]

Alternative Thought

I know he has a great time with me and he has talked about future dates – going to dinner, seeing movies, etc. There is no reason he would not call. I believe this 99 percent.

Anxiety Level

3

What to expect

In my experience, by the time I get through a worry journal exercise, my anxiety level is lower than when I started.

Other ways to keep a worry journal

1) Add a couple of categories to the format outlined above:

Feelings. How did the worry or negative thought make you feel? Anxious, stressed, disappointed, frustrated, hopeless, defeated, overwhelmed, edgy, afraid, resentful? Describe physical feelings as well, like sweating, trouble breathing, tightness in your diaphragm or chest.

Behavior. How did you respond to the worry or negative thought? Did you have an imaginary conversation with someone? Did you send an email you regret? Did you binge on a 4-hour Kardashians marathon (yes, I’m talking to me)? Did you journal, meditate, practice deep breathing, take a walk?

2) Break your worry journal into two columns

Use the left column for the worry and the right column for the action you could take to address it.

3) Forget format and just start writing

Sometimes that’s all I can do, is just spill it out all over the page. I then might do a formal worry journal exercise afterward or at a later time if it’s still on my mind.

Write it down

You might be tempted to work through a thought record in your head. Please, write it down.

Sure, you may be able to shorthand things once you’re practiced at the process, but it’s no way to start. As a writer, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought I’ve written a masterpiece in my head only to discover upon writing it down that it’s a lot less developed than I thought.

Bottom line, expressing yourself in writing forces you to flesh things out more fully than you ever will in your head.

Give it a go

If not now, then the next time you find yourself caught in a worry spiral. Your anxiety isn’t going to want that – for you to stop mid-worry marathon – but every time I manage to tear myself away from the madness and record a thought record, I feel better for it. I hope you do, too.

This information is not intended to serve as, or replace, professional help for an anxiety disorder. Go to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America to find a therapist or support group in your area.

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How Cameron Diaz Helped Me Deal with the Anxiety of Aging

how cameron diaz helped me deal with the anxiety of agingToward the end of one of my play productions a few years back, the actresses and I were having one last get together before we said our goodbyes (none of whom were Cameron Diaz, by the way, in case there’s any chance that needs clarifying).

I don’t remember how, but the conversation turned to age.

I want to say we were sharing our numbers, but that might not be true. I just remember us being pretty open about things, with the exception of one of us.

She said she wouldn’t say how old she was because she’s a lot older than she looks. The upshot was, if I knew how old she really was, it would change the way I saw her and, in turn, how I (or other producers I told) might cast her in the future.

A few months later, the subject of age came up again with another actress I know (also not Cameron Diaz). She doesn’t tell people her age for the same reason, and she said I probably shouldn’t either, as it could limit my job prospects, too… Me… A writer… WTF?!

Though I’m not on stage or in front of the camera, what I gathered from our conversation is that the older I am, the more likely I’ll be perceived as someone who doesn’t get what younger audiences want to see and hear.

I’m reminded of that show “Younger” where a 40-year-old woman pretends to be 26 so she can get a job in publishing. It sounds far-fetched, but after what I just shared with you, maybe “Younger” is closer to reality than not.

So what if you know my age?

When I launched this website 6 months ago, my intention was to be open and honest about my life relative to my anxiety. Yet, the more I wrote, the more I realized I was avoiding talking about one very anxiety-inducing subject – how old I am (though I implied it here).

This is very unlike me. In person, my age is one of the few things I’m not shy about sharing. But I guess I took that actress’s advice more to heart than I realized.

I have found myself worrying that if readers know how old I am, then readers who aren’t (around) my age won’t be as interested in what I have to say. Like it won’t be relevant to their lives.

Meanwhile, I read stuff by women older and younger than me all the time.

I do find, though, that on the subject of aging, I find myself looking for inspiration from women who are my age because it feels like we’re going through it together. I’m not alone in this today, and if they’re aging with grace, then I can, too. Case in point…Cameron Diaz.

The Longevity Book

I recently finished The Longevity Book by Cameron Diaz (with writing partner Sandra Bark).

It’s not an anti-aging book. In fact, if anything, it’s a pro-aging book:

“Societal pressures that encourage women to deny aging or pretend that it’s not happening – as though we should somehow be immune to the passage of time – make it an even more painful challenge.

“From what I’ve witnessed among the women in my life, the only way to actually feel younger is to embrace the reality that you are in fact getting older – and deal with it.”

I like that advice better.

The Longevity Book is a pretty incredible reference on the science of aging and a welcome read for any woman who wants to feel better about getting older.

It also has some interesting things to say on the subject of anxiety.

My gut tells my brain when I’m anxious

Whatever you’re eating or feeling in your gut gets communicated to your brain via a direct line of communication called the vagus nerve.

As Cameron and Sandra explain, that’s how “feelings like fear and anxiety can originate in the gut and travel to the brain.”

Playing a big role in all of this is your gut’s microbiome, the population of good bacteria that lives in your digestive tract. You know, the kind of bacteria antibiotics kill and you take probiotics to replace.

“Recent evidence from animal studies has shown that the overall health of the microbiome has an impact on behavior and mood…. The microbiome can even play a role in stress-related diseases of the central nervous system, like depression and anxiety.”

How do you keep your microbiome healthy?

Don’t just take probiotics after a round of antibiotics; work probiotic foods into your regular diet – fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kombucha, and kefir. And don’t forget your prebiotic foods, which is what all that good bacteria thrives on – asparagus, bananas, oatmeal, and legumes.

Beyond that, minimize stress.

Stress causes inflammation, and inflammation kills the good bacteria in your microbiome. What’s worse, it promotes the growth of the bad bacteria instead.

Because here’s the thing: “As you get older, the health and diversity of your microbiome diminishes.”

Anxiety is shrinking my brain

“At any age, prolonged stress or anxiety can reduce brain volume.” It bounces back easily when we’re younger. And in middle-age, the brain can still recover. But in our older years, once it’s gone it’s much harder to get back.

This list helps me – 24 ways to 24/7 anxiety relief. Not that I’m doing all of them, but what I am doing is helping a lot.

Being social does my body good

In a study of 6,500 men and women over 52 years old, researchers found that “people who were socially isolated had an elevated risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, infections, cognitive degeneration, and inflammation, while loneliness was linked to higher risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and a poor immune response to stress.”

Loneliness was most common among women.

I can’t say I ever really feel lonely, but as someone with social anxiety, my inclination is to avoid people at pretty much every turn. So I’m further inspired to keep pushing the boundaries of what’s comfortable.

The privilege of time

This is another important takeaway of The Longevity Book – the privilege of time – citing the fact that in 1850, a woman’s life expectancy in the United States was just 40 years old.

“The fact that we can grow old enough to look old, in droves, is far from a failure. It happens to be the end product of arguably the biggest success story in human history.”

For the privilege of growing older, I’m going to have to look older. Thankfully, the operative word there is growing.

I turn 44 years old this month.

Telling you that feels like growth to me.

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