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Today I chatted with Christa Holmans about some of the overlapping issues found in both anxiety disorders and autism and other neurodiversity conditions such as ADHD. Christa had so much excellent insight on how autism influences how one may deal with anxiety issues.
Christa talks about the concept of neurodiversity and how conditions like autism can be viewed as natural variations of brain types and processing styes rather than a disorder or disease. We discuss how Christa’s approach to her issues – going toward the things that are difficult or scary to learn how to do them – mirrors the “facing and floating” approach we use in overcoming problems like panic disorder or agoraphobia. We also talked about how various aspects of autism and ADHD (for example) may require intelligent modifications to an anxiety recovery plan. Christa was kind enough to answer a couple of listener questions as well.
I really enjoyed this discussion and I hope you will too!
My Links (Website, podcast, social media, etc.)
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Today I was fortunate to spend about 30 minutes with Dr. Martin Seif, a psychologist specializing in anxiety disorders. Dr. Seif and I talked about intrusive, obsessive and unwanted thoughts. What are they? How do they become so troublesome? How should we approach this problem?
Everyone Has Intrusive, Irrational Thoughts
We all have odd, irrational thoughts at times. They are nonsense. They are meaningless. We know that we would never act on them, and for most of us, those thoughts come and go within seconds without any impact. For others, irrational thoughts become “sticky” when these thoughts are viewed as threats in some way. Thoughts that are viewed as threats are put on what Dr. Seif calls a “watch list”. We guard against them and try not to have them, which almost always leads to that thought becoming intrusive, obsessive, or out of control.
Interestingly, it would appear that thoughts are more likely to become intrusive and obsessive when the content of the thought runs counter to our core values, beliefs and self-image. The gentle person has intrusive thoughts regarding violence and harm. The person that loves children has obsessive thoughts about harming or abusing children. The religious person has obsessive thoughts about yelling blasphemous statements in church.
The content of intrusive thoughts is generally irrelevant. The important parts are simply these:
- The thought is stuck
- The though repeats
- The thought causes great distress
Anxiety And Fear Blur The Distinction Between Thoughts And Reality/Action
When calm and rational, we recognize that thoughts are not reality. They are ways to rehearse things with no real consequence. Thoughts do not lead to reality nor do they reflect the state of reality. When anxious and afraid, however, the bluffing nature of anxiety and fear distorts this view. An anxious mind suddenly follows every thought as if they are real, or accurate descriptions of reality.
An Unwanted Intrusive Thought Is An Obsession
Intrusive, unwanted thoughts are similar to obsessions in OCD, but thoughts can also be compulsive. In treating OCD we can stop the compulsion that fuels the disorder, but since we can’t stop thoughts, we must “empty the gas tank” of the obsession by learning to not fight, change, or stop the thoughts. Success comes when we learn to let these thoughts come without resistance, and without reaction or interaction or engagement. Dr. Seif likens intrusive unwanted thoughts to bullies. You disarm a bully by simply refusing to interact with him. You react to a bully by acting as if you simply do not care that he is yelling at you and threatening you. This is the path to treating intrusive/obsessive thoughts. Its not easy, but there are ways to learn to do this.
About The “Root Cause”
We’ve talked about this quite often on the podcast. Digging for root cause as a way to solve the unwanted, intrusive thoughts problem is generally not terribly effective, somewhat outdated in current mental health circles, and can actually be counter productive. While examining deeper emotional and historical issues can be beneficial in life, it is likely a better strategy to deal with the anxiety disorder first, then go after those items.
Important Links From This Episode
Find Dr. Martin Seif at http://drmartinseif.com
Find the Anxiety and Depression Association of America at https://aada.org
Drs. Seif and Winston’s most excellent book on this topic can be found on Amazon (affiliate link):
My Social Media and Other Links:
Note: This is an excerpt from one chapter of my book. As of October 2019 the book is roughly 80 percent written and I hope to have it released in early 2020. If you would like to be notified of my progress and when the book is released, consider joining my mailing list.
‘Scuse me, while I kiss this guy.
What the hell am I talking about? Stick around. You’ll see.
Anxiety is NOT a disease.
I don’t care what you’ve been told. You are not sick. This is not an illness, mental or otherwise. If you’re offended by this because you feel that the term “mental illness” is an accurate description of why you can’t, then this might be a good time to stop reading.
Cancer is a disease. Its what happens when biological processes beyond your control bring about detrimental changes and/or impairments in the way your body functions at some level. Alzheimer’s is a disease. ALS is a disease. You could probably argue that even the common cold is a disease. But anxiety … that’s not a disease.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let me explain.
Anxiety is a state. Its predictable, normal, natural, and does not indicate defect or malfunction. In a state of anxiety your body is operating exactly as its been designed to operate after millions of years of miraculous engineering otherwise known as natural selection. Anxiety is the state you enter in response to a pending threat, real or perceived. Anxiety is a close relative of fear – another natural state. Anxiety is often a precursor to fear. Sometimes its difficult to tell them apart.
The physiological hallmarks of an anxiety state are all quite well known and easily measurable. They are not a mystery. They do not indicate that anything is wrong, broken or malfunctioning.
- Your heart beats quickly. This is normal in an anxiety state.
- You feel dizzy. This is normal.
- You feel shaky and weak. This is normal.
- Your vision gets strange. This is normal.
- You feel hot and/or cold. This is normal.
- You feel short of breath. This is normal.
- Your stomach churns and you feel nauseous. This is normal.
- You feel an intense need to find a bathroom. This is normal.
- You feel driven to run or escape. This is normal.
- You feel an overwhelming sense of doom. THIS. IS. NORMAL.
I can go on and on. The Internet is awash in giant lists of the “top” anxiety symptoms. You don’t need me to list them all for you, nor could I even if I tried. There’s always another one. The point is that every last one of the things you feel when anxious is completely normal and expected from a properly functioning human body.
I know, you’re convinced that your most disturbing and scary symptoms are unique and special. You’re sure that nobody else feels it as strongly as you do. This just can’t be normal! Something must really be wrong because it FEELS so much like something is wrong!
Let me address this right now.
You are absolutely and completely wrong. What it “feels like” … doesn’t matter.
More on this – much more – later. Let’s get back to the topic at hand.
Anxiety is NOT a disease.
“OK fine. Its not a disease. But obviously SOMETHING is wrong, so what is it?!?!”
Fair question. Lets break things apart a little. We need to identify the components of this problem you want so desperately to solve.
First, there are the feelings and sensations that you hate so much. These are the symptoms of anxiety. As I just ranted about, these are normal physiological operations in a healthy human body. The sensations and symptoms you dislike so much are simply your body reacting as its been designed to do in the presence of an impending threat. When needed, your body protects you and prepares you for battle or escape by entering an anxious state.
Sometimes, this mechanism gets triggered at the wrong time. The anxiety/fear response kicks in even when there is no current or pending threat in the environment. You were fine one minute, then convinced you were dying or going insane the next. This was your first terrifying experience with panic. This happens to almost everyone at least once in a lifetime. Call it a bug. A defect maybe. A design flaw. Whatever it is, it happens … all the time. The natural protection mechanism built into your body fired when it shouldn’t have, and you found yourself at dinner with a friend, absolutely terrified.
That is not fun, but its still not a disease, and its still not the problem.
The problem is what happened after that. You were afraid, and did not want to be afraid again. You were uncomfortable, and did not want to be uncomfortable again. You interpreted this misfire as something to be avoided at all costs. This interpretation turned your natural threat protection mechanism …. into a threat! Your brain turned your own normal, healthy body into your enemy. Once this happened, it was game over. You were locked in the cycle of fearing the next episode, living in a state of high alert, and dreading every tiny hint that it might be happening again.
You were afraid, so you learned to be afraid … of being afraid. Does that sound like a disease?
Once you are living in a constant state of worry, always on guard for the next wave of anxiety symptoms or panic, then you are breeding the very thing you dread. Your fear manufactures tension, anxiety, and more fear. By teaching yourself that you must avoid and escape those feelings, you’ve created a monster where none previously existed.
Do you see now why your anxiety is not a mental illness? Can you see how the situation you are living in today is simply the result of a natural process gone awry? This is not illness. You are not broken or damaged. You are not defective. You just learned some incorrect lessons. This is nothing more than a collection of bad brain habits.
That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Habits, no matter how bad, can be broken. Things you learned in error, that you thought to be true all this time, can be unlearned and corrected. You are not sick or ill or full of disease. You just need to correct some mental mistakes, that’s all.
Have you ever spent years singing along with a favorite song, only to learn that you’ve been singing the wrong lyrics? For God knows how long you were convinced that you knew the words, then one day you find out that everything you thought you knew was wrong? Same thing. You’ve been singing the wrong words. Now you can learn the right words, and sing them. Much better, right?
‘Scuse me, while I kiss the sky.
(The correct lyric from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” is … ‘Scuse me, while I kiss the sky. Its one of the most often misheard and misquotes lyrics in music history, so it seemed to be a great illustration. At least it is in my head.)
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Reading, listening to podcasts, watching videos, and otherwise educating yourself about your anxiety disorder is a good idea …until its becomes a safety and avoidance behavior Ultimately, overcoming an anxiety disorder only happens by DOING, not by reading. So after you’ve read the book for the fifth time, or you’ve read 10 anxiety books and want to read an 11th, you must realize that its time to actually put what you’ve learned into action. There is no lasting progress without action. There’s hard, scary stuff to do here, but its so worth doing, so put down the book and lets actually do the things you’ve been reading about!
You feel alone, and probably want to ask, “Does anyone else get …?”
Recently in our Facebook group, we revised the group rules to cut down on the number of symptom checking questions in the group. This bothered a few people, so a a few friends of mine got together to help me answer this question for you once and for all. Checking symptoms and seeking reassurance is normal, especially for those early on or just starting along the path to recovery. At some point quickly, however, this must stop. Your symptoms are the same as those experienced by many many many others. They are not unique or special or worse than anyone else’s symptoms, and people recover from anxiety disorders every day regardless of the symptoms they experience.
This is not a symptom problem. This is a cognitive and behavioral problem.
I hope this three minute video helps to provide the reassurance and hope you seek so you can start to move forward.
Thanks to everyone that helped me put this together, and gave permission for me to share it on a wide scale. I appreciate you all more than you know.
Social Media and Other Links: https://theanxioustruth.com/links
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One of the most fun episodes I’ve done in a while. Join me to hear how my friend Raven went from homebound agoraphobic, crippled with panic and intrusive thoughts and fears, to living her life, not being afraid of anxiety, and making plans for her future. If there was every an uplifting story from a lovely human being, it would be this one. If you think you can’t, here’s about 30 minutes that will show you that you CAN!
Thank you Raven, for taking the time to share with us!
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One of the most common issues that seems to pop up for people doing the work to overcome an anxiety disorder is emotions and how to deal with them while in the recovery. What do I do when I feel sad, or angry, or generally upset? Is that wrong? Is this a setback in my recovery? Its it OK to cry or otherwise express my emotions when they come up? My friend Joe Ryan and I talk about how its perfectly OK and normal to experience emotions, and how its healthy and productive to express them whenever and however you need to. We answer common questions, address common concerns, and point out potential pitfalls when dealing with those emotional times.
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Find Joe at https://joeryan.com or on Instagram @joeryan.
If you’ve got Netflix and 20 minutes to spare, I strongly suggest you watch “The Mind Explained” on Netflix. The anxiety episode is AMAZING. The documentary clearly explains and illustrates the mechanics of anxiety, fear and what turns anxiety into an anxiety disorder. There’s excellent discussion of how anxiety has been viewed and treated over the years. Even the mention of medication – which I was worried would be the same old thing – was honest and objective and clearly acknowledged the side effects and our overall lack of knowledge about how they really work. The explanation of how CBT and exposure work was absolutely exceptional. Watch comic Maria Bamford explain how she used exposure to “let anxiety flood up to the highest level, and you don’t die”. I literally jumped out of my char with excitement when she said that.
I was so pumped that I had to shoot this quick video review. What can I say? I’m a total geek with this stuff! 😂
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