I am woman -
hear me roar!
I am Buddhist, so -
watch me sit!
Ok, so you know the times that I mean. You’re coming unglued. You can’t cope. Your heart is pounding. Your thoughts are racing. In fact, there are layers of thought, fifteen-feet deep. Crap. Wait, you don’t know what you’re thinking about. You can’t tease out just one thought. Sweat is beginning to trickle from places you’d rather not mention, at least not to someone you don’t know well. Ack! You can’t take it. The panic is mounting. Oh no! You’re freaking out, and since you know you’re freaking out, you freak out some more. You get up, since there’s no way to sit still. Suddenly, you’re in another room, but you don’t know why you’re there. Confused, you leave that one and find yourself standing in some peculiar spot like the middle of the hallway with your mouth hanging open. Your heart starts skipping beats. Uh-oh! Maybe it’s a heart attack. Possibly you’d call 911 if only you knew where your phone is hiding. Your breathing is erratic, your hands start shaking and soon after, your entire body.
WOMP! You’re having a “freak-out.” Otherwise known as a panic attack. Cripey!
So what do you do? Here are some tips. They’re only mine. They work for me, but I’m by no means an expert, so take them with a grain, or five, of salt. If they help you, great, if not, I apologize.
1. Go find someone to talk to – about anything, anything at all. Find your phone and make a call to someone you trust, or seek out a neighbor. Don’t talk about freaking out, find a different topic. “Hey, can I have that Salsa recipe you mentioned last week?” “I’ve been wondering what you’re up to, fill me in.” “Got any favorite authors, I’m in the mood to read!” “Where DID you find that rug? It’s so, um, colorful.” This always stops my freak-outs. By the time I get off the phone or leave a neighbor’s house, I can think clearly again and all the sweat has done dried-up.
2. Find something to watch on YouTube. Go for something funny. Type in kangaroos, cats, dogs, turtles, beetles, funny babies, or Charlie Chaplin. AVOID the serious stuff. Make yourself watch a few videos until you start laughing. What pounding heart?
3. Clean something. There is nothing quite like cleaning to quiet a freak-out. Scrub your tub. When was the last time you did that anyway? Command your commode to sparkle! Throw out all the dead food in your fridge. It’s been laughing at you, wondering when you were going to get around to the task. The mayonnaise that expired thirteen months ago is mocking you. Go on, get rid of it. Oh, how ’bout your car? Could it use a good washing? And what of the inside? How many fossilized french fries can you find? Count them. Right there is some amusing Panic Vanish!
4. Organize things. Your computer documents or photographs. Yay for folders! How about your linen closet, or your pantry? Put like with like. Organize your make-up or your tools. Straightening up makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something, so naturally, you’ll feel calmer afterward.
5. Run an errand. Go grocery shopping. Pick up the clothes from the cleaners. (Pardon me while I get side-tracked. Ask yourself why you have so many things that need to be dry-cleaned. Possibly you may be able to eliminate this errand if you stop the obsession with rayon.) Ok, onward. Get that gift for your niece’s birthday, you know you’ve been putting it off. Force yourself to go get it. What about your prescriptions? Do you need to head to the pharmacy? Any errand that gets you out of the house is a great distraction. And yes, you CAN drive while you’re having a panic attack, they don’t last that long. You know this. Pay careful attention to the road. Quit worrying about your heart rate. Use your Zen mind.
6. Go for a walk. Listen to music, if possible. If you can’t go walking because it’s 2 am, walk in your garage, your living room - any space will do. Walk in circles. Walk in figure-eights. Aim for a perfect square. See if you can pull off a heart shape. Concentrate!
7. Eat something VERY slowly. Ok, so you want to lose weight, yeah, yeah, we all do – well it’s not going to happen overnight. So, eat a small piece of candy, a cookie, a granola bar. Savor it. Mindful eating! I like to do this with my eyes closed. I won’t even look at the food. Well heck, it’s not looking at me! I take long, deep breaths while I’m eating and pay very careful attention to the flavor and texture of the food. My boyfriend was oh, so skeptical about this. He said, “There’s no way eating with you eyes closed makes food taste different.” Well, he was as amazed as I when he tried it. It’s an entirely unique food experience. When I’m done eating a cookie, slowly, mindfully, with or without my eyes closed, most of the freak-out is gone.
8. Go somewhere you wouldn’t normally visit. Try the zoo, a museum, the library, your local community center, or even your town or city hall. Yes, I’ve actually visited my city hall as a means of distraction. I wound up registering to vote! I was quite pleased I’d found someplace new to go and my freak-out went away. Plus, I now had a voter registration card on its way to my house.
9. Do something creative. Draw, paint, scribble, doodle. Make stick figures. Sculpt. Make something with Play-Doh. Make paper airplanes. If you don’t know how, do some research. Or make dots on a piece of paper and then try to connect them. Once you’ve done that, color in the shape and name it. Which creature is this? Which planet is it from? Ah, also try creating a maze. My neighbor does this whenever he feels panicky. He once spent 16 hours making a maze. Heh, heh, amazing! This is extreme distraction.
10. I saved the best for last. Of course, with practice, this one can PREVENT a case of the freak-outs but if you’re not there yet, that’s OKAY. Don’t rush yourself. Just breathe. In and out, very slowly, no matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing. Just breathe. Count from 1 to 10. Then reverse, 10 to 1. Repeat. Really, this works, it’s Mindful Breathing, simplified. Ok, so if you couldn’t manage this one (and there are times when you can’t) BEFORE you had your freak-out, once you’re done with it, find someplace QUIET to sit and JUST BREATHE. Tell yourself that this was just a freak-out, it’s done now. If it had been a real emergency, you’d still be running from that saber-toothed tiger.
Adrenaline, Cortisol – be gone – POOF!
It is a sense of duty that
calls one to discipline.
When discipline pays off,
in its many forms, as it no doubt will,
one develops a strong sense of devotion.
Devotion returns -
oh, the wonder of it -
to a sense of duty,
Shortly after I was diagnosed with BPD, I came across the idea of keeping a Gratitude Journal. I’d been researching different types of therapies that I could do by myself at home and discovered Journal Therapy. Though truthfully, it was more of a re-discovery. I’d kept a journal religiously as a child and at a few points during adulthood, so I already knew it was quite therapeutic, I just hadn’t known it was an organized style of therapy.
The suggestion to keep a Gratitude Journal kept popping up in several locations that touted the healing effects of Journal Therapy. I’ll admit, though I read about it several times, I kept dismissing the idea. And the reason why seems rather silly to me now. In a nutshell, it sounded too simple. I thought: how can keeping a list of things for which I am grateful make that much of a difference in my life? It just didn’t seem possible. Well, of course not. When you’re stuck in a negative thought pattern, virtually nothing sounds promising – basically, you can’t see the forest for the trees. It makes sense. How do you make yourself feel grateful when you’re not? Sometimes you’re just too depressed to feel any gratitude at all.
At a time when I was more depressed than I’d ever been, I thought the answers to my problems somehow couldn’t be as simple as keeping a list. I didn’t feel simple. I felt very complicated, uncertain, perplexed and convinced, of course, that nothing could make me feel better. How to get away from those negative feelings then just had to be elaborate! Ah, the ironic joy of hopelessness!
Staying stuck in the same old rut had its rewards. If I thought the answers had to be terrifically complex, then I could avoid helping myself and stay a victim forever. And the fun in that? Well, you get to keep throwing yourself one pity party after another.
But one day I decided to try it. I figured even if it did absolutely nothing for me, it couldn’t cause any harm.
At first, I wasn’t that motivated, so I didn’t keep a “real” list - a legitimate journal. I’d just scratch out one or two things on a sticky note, the backs of envelopes and receipts, or even next to an inspiring paragraph I read in a novel. But at some point, I realized it was helping. I felt better, more positive, less depressed, when I concentrated on feeling grateful. With that awakening, I moved to whole sheets of paper. Oooo! Ok, so the migration didn’t improve my organization, not right away. I’d often write something down at odd angles and just circle what I’d wrote, so the result was a bunch of text-filled bubbles on a plain piece of paper. One day, though, I noticed that these sheets were adding up. Instead of writing one thing on Tuesday, six things on Friday, and perhaps two on Sunday, I was adding several items each day. Whoa! That’s when I sat down and really thought about the difference it was making. It had become a habit and a good one at that. I did feel better, no longer quite so hopeless, hapless and helpless. I took a leap then and went out and bought myself a pretty bound journal. Since then, I look forward to filling one up and starting another. They help me stay positive now, but even better – maybe someday they will inspire my great-grandchildren.
Following is a sampler, a partial list of benefits I’ve uncovered so far. A year ago, I never could have imagined so many. I am actually grateful for gratitude. If you think about it, that’s pretty powerful.
- Keeping a Gratitude Journal helps me stay focused on the present. Zen mind. It keeps me from spending too much time thinking about the warts of the past and the bunions of the future. What’s in front of me or within me, right this minute, that I can appreciate?
- Over time, the journals have increased my overall awareness, period.
- They have helped me slowly establish positive thought patterns instead of negative ones. Oh sure, I still get downright pessimistic sometimes, but instead of despair-dwelling for ten hours at a time, or even several days, I will feel contrary for a few moments – maybe an hour. This is obviously a major improvement. Looking for the negative in anything and everything used to be the norm for me, but now I find that more frequently I’m automatically looking for something more optimistic.
- I say “thank you” more. The more I say “thank you” the more my family appreciates me and says “thank you” back. It has helped improve my relationships.
- Finding things to be grateful for has reduced my feelings of anger considerably. I don’t even think I could measure the difference. It’s hard to be mad when you’re feeling grateful for something!
- The more grateful I am, the more grateful I want to be. A wonderful ripple effect in place!
- Gradually I’ve learned that I don’t need STUFF to make me happy. I can be grateful for things like air, sunshine, water, clouds, my own breathing and even the spotting of a lizard scampering happily (I’m assuming) in my garden. I am happy now with things that don’t come in shrink-wrapped packages. I don’t need a shopping fix in order to feel better.
- Quite naturally, I take less for granted. I think about the gift of electricity, as an example. I can curl up on the couch at 9 pm, with a hot cup of peppermint tea, and write in my Gratitude Journal – electricity makes this possible. It’s so much easier to form letters sitting next to light bulbs. Yes, I’ve tried it by candle light, just to get a glimpse of what it might have been like to write at night a few hundred years ago. The ambiance is lovely, but penning in my journal is a bit on the difficult side.
- Establishing this one good habit motivated me to create more of them. From the simple act of being grateful, I’ve been able to trash many of my maladaptive coping strategies and replace them with adaptive coping strategies.
- Keeping track of what I am grateful for has allowed me to reduce the intense sting I’ll feel when I think I’m being rejected. Of course, being Borderline means I can be quite sensitive to rejection, but whenever I feel that way I can pull out a Gratitude Journal and remind myself of positive events – times when I was accepted in some way. After reading a few pages, I am back to coping in a healthy way.
Obviously keeping a Gratitude Journal is not a magic pill. There is no happy fairy dust. But it helps, tremendously. I am far less depressed. As more proof of its power, I offer this: I don’t take any psychiatric medications. I used to, but I don’t need them anymore. Of course, keeping a Gratitude Journal isn’t the only way I have learned to manage my moods (more posts coming soon) and it’s not the only way that I was eventually able to table the pills, but I encourage all to take that leap of faith and give it a shot, it really helps that much.
When you hurt,
when you’re scared,
when you’re MAD –
You and your breath,
When the tears don’t want to
and your nose, ugh, you can’t
When the fear has you frozen
and all you want is to hide,
When the rage starts leaking
from your pores,
and you’re tempted to scream
ON ALL FOURS,