The Pandemic Has Forced Me To Be Flexible When It Doesn’t Come Naturally

“I am nothing if not flexible,” I said once to a friend when our plans were spontaneously changed. We both laughed and laughed because, though I have a sense of humor about it, we both know I am not flexible. I am mature enough to make changes when necessary, but I am not a go-with-the-flow, roll-with-the-punches kind of person. I am more of a “sweat myself into an anxiety attack if I don’t exert some sort of control over a situation” kind of person.

I’d rather create a dam or wind tunnel to harness powers bigger than myself than be moved by forces I will never be able to predict or persuade. My personality in a pandemic reads like a Shakespeare play: so much tragic comedy. Thankfully I am self-aware and have enough social-emotional intelligence to know not to be a dick to others when things do spin away from expectations. So many elements of our lives are spinning right now, and being flexible doesn’t come naturally for me. I would be a big liar if I told you I was okay with bending when I want to stay rigid in my routines.

When I say I am self-aware, I mean that I know my response to change and my resistance to it is a mix of trauma response from childhood abuse and my obsessive-compulsive disorder diagnosis. My OCD does not manifest in germ-fearing; instead my brain plays a swell game called Imagine All The Scenarios, wherein I obsess about them and make plans to “solve” them. My plans have backup plans. As you can imagine, this is super fun during a pandemic where nothing is certain and everything is out of my control.

During normal times, routines, plans, and doing anything in predictable ways on a schedule I can control are vital tools in my toolbox. My to-do lists have to-do lists, people. And on hard OCD days when my anxiety and fear are overwhelming, I overcompensate by micromanaging people and situations while constantly checking the status of anything that has a status—the weather, Facebook, trending news, and now I have added COVID-19 related infections and deaths.

Of course I know that what doesn’t bend, breaks. I know all of the clichés and “shoulds” and blah, blah, blah. I also know I would probably be better off if I wasn’t so dependent on structure and predictability. But instead of fighting who I am, I recognize where I struggle and do my best to make accommodations when necessary. I’m allowed to be stuck in my ways, even if digging in is simply another example of my aversion to flexibility. And apparently the universe is allowed to throw a pandemic at me and all of the other people who cringe at the words, “Let’s mix things up!”

I am a creature of habit. I don’t like surprises. Last minute changes of plans make me anxious and angry—even if I ultimately agree with the change or end up happy with the alternate plan. This is because if I let go of what I thought was the truth about what was going to happen, then I lose control and risk being physically and emotionally hurt. Unpredictability and change are scary.

Since March, everything feels like it has been thrown into the air, including how we grocery shop, socialize, and send our kids to school. Everything is weird and we are living in the upside down. And our kids are living it too. When my kids asked me questions pre-COVID, I could either answer them confidently or tell them we could work together to figure out what they wanted to know. We could always find an answer.

But we can’t Google our way out of a pandemic, and Alexa is useless when it comes to knowing when we can travel to see family again, when we can stop wearing masks, and what will happen this winter to sports and school when it’s too cold to be outside. I tell them I don’t know and remind them it’s important to be flexible even though it’s hard to constantly be asked to pivot. I tell them these gems while knowing how hard and frustrating change can be, and while struggling to take my own advice.

This pandemic has harnessed all of my fears and waved them in front of my face while expecting me to accept promises and plans based on smoke, mirrors, and irrational people who think all of this is a hoax. I have had to scramble to find new ways not to break thanks to COVID-19. It hasn’t been pretty, but even in a world of uncertainty, I have managed to cultivate some certainty each day to help me manage my mental health. I know we are all out of fucking whack here, but I decided early on that I would throw everything I had into my mental health. I rely and thrive on routine. Even experts say that building routines are good for us.

So I made a plan to exercise each day, eat food that makes my body feel good, and go easy on myself when just functioning feels like too much work. I created routines for my kids too — set screen times, bed times, and meal times have allowed us to structure our days at home so that the pandemic is a backdrop, not the star of the show.

My Crossfit coach recently told me to loosen my grip on the barbell during a transition for a lift I was struggling with. I dropped the bar and laughed at the apt metaphor. “My grip is too tight, huh? Well, if that doesn’t sum it all up.” In Crossfit — and in life — my results are better with a looser grip, but it’s going to take a lot of repetitions to get comfortable with the adjustments.

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Why I Turned Off My Birthday On My Facebook Profile

For the past few years, I’ve gotten really intense anxiety on my birthday. And while it’s true that I’m hurtling toward (and am probably already at) middle age, that isn’t the reason for my anxiety. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but the anxiety was coming from—get this—people wishing me happy birthday on social media. I am perfectly aware that this is the weirdest fucking thing ever to get anxious about, so don’t @ me in the comments section to tell me so. I already know.

But you know how Facebook has that birthday reminder feature where, on your birthday, it prompts everyone on your friends list, many of them whom you almost never exchange words with (or at least not since your or their last birthday), to tell you happy birthday, and you end up with at least a hundred notifications? So many notifications! All day long! HAVE A HAPPY BIRTHDAY RIGHT NOW, DAMMIT!!

That was causing me anxiety. And not just a little. I’m ashamed to admit it had gotten to the point last year that I was honestly kind of letting it ruin my birthday. (Yes. I know I was letting it. I am aware I can choose not to look at social media. But my job is in social media so it is actually kind of impossible not to.)

Now, before I go on, I need to make two things super clear: First, I do not begrudge anyone wishing me or anyone else a happy birthday. I think it’s wonderful! Despite my anxiety, I realize it’s a thoughtful, kind gesture to take a few moments to wish someone a happy day. Second, I am a total fucking hypocrite because I also wish acquaintances I barely know a happy birthday, and I do so with complete sincerity. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t spoken to a person in years, if I see it’s their birthday, I am excited to take a moment to wish them a happy birthday, and I truly mean it!

Nevertheless, for the past few years, the energy being directed at me on my birthday, even though it was positive and wonderful and thoughtful, was just too much. I was having horrible thoughts, like “Why is this person wishing me happy birthday even though we never speak?” followed by “Kristen, you are a big dumb hypocrite who also wishes acquaintances happy birthday, seriously, what is wrong with you?” and the grand finale: “You’re an entitled douchebag with ridiculous first-world problems who doesn’t deserve happy birthday wishes anyway.”

Honestly. Who doesn’t enjoy when people literally wish them happiness?

Turns out, it’s actually not that uncommon to have social media birthday anxiety. I know because I asked on my Facebook page if anyone else experiences similar anxiety, and the comment section exploded with a chorus of “Holy crap, me too!”

Tons of people said they experience social media birthday anxiety, often followed by similar guilt for said anxiety. Many turned off their birthday on social media years ago. Monica, from Maryland, said, “Yes! I absolutely hate it. I hate all and any attention.” It didn’t occur to me until the moment I read that comment, but I think that’s definitely part of my issue. I’ve come a long way from the attention-hungry 20-year-old who threw back a couple of tequila shots and entered a bikini contest during spring break. Please, do me a favor and don’t notice me.

Kristina, from Florida, said all the messages actually made her feel lonely. “It’s a full day of no one actually intimately interacting with you.” This makes so much sense too! When I picture a perfect birthday, I imagine a low-key, chill day spent with the loved ones closest to me, eating good food and too much cake.

Quite a few people expressed distress about thanking everyone for all the wishes. They felt obligated to respond to each and every post, but then also worried they would forget someone and come off looking like a jerk.

This year, in an effort to reduce my weird birthday anxiety, I switched my birthday to private in Facebook. I didn’t do it in previous years because, again, who doesn’t enjoy wishes of happiness? I didn’t want to be a party pooper and I was holding out hope that my anxious ass would chill the hell out over it. Instead, I kept the anxiety and also added guilt and self-loathing for being an ungrateful, panicky turd who apparently can’t handle people trying to be nice to me, and so each consecutive year spiraled into an ever-deepening whirling vortex of panic.

This year, with notifications turned off, was perfect. A few family members and friends with crazy-good memories messaged me privately and posted on my page, which did prompt a few others to respond likewise with happy wishes in the comments, but everything felt much more organic and not overwhelming at all.

I am the first to admit that all of this is sort of a made-up problem. Social media isn’t even real life! Why are we stressing about online birthdays? It’s super weird! And yet, it can’t be that weird because it’s definitely a thing, I’m definitely not the only one, and as much as we’d love to pretend social media is an imaginary place that doesn’t impact our real lives, we all know that’s not the case at all.

I enjoyed my recent quiet birthday with my kids and partner. I was genuinely touched by the people who remembered my birthday even without a Facebook reminder and sent well-wishes my way. It was exactly the right amount of attention for someone with an inflated aversion to attention, so I don’t see myself turning my birthday back on anytime soon.

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The Lesser Known Physical Symptoms of Complex PTSD

“You’ve got past trauma stored up in your body, and even your mind may not be completely aware of it all.” 

I looked back at the behavioral health technician with a mixture of shock and grief. These were the words she was communicating to me to help explain why I was back at the emergency room again. This was apparently the reason I had been frozen stuck to my couch a dozen times that weekend, with no clue as to why my limbs had randomly decided to stop moving properly. 

As my husband and I drove home from the hospital, tears filled my eyes and I placed my tired head in my hands. Yet again, the complex PTSD I had been diagnosed with back in 2018 was invading my life in the messiest and most confusing of ways. I had basically gotten used to the sporadic panic attacks that wreaked havoc on my nervous system. I’d made peace with the years of trauma-induced self-harm I’d been unconsciously engaging in. I was even becoming quite fond of the weekly therapy sessions I’m privileged to have access to, as uncomfortable and emotionally taxing as they are to show up for. 

But nothing, not a damn thing, could have prepared me for the surprising physical symptoms of my disorder that revealed themselves to me last year. And more importantly, no one even thought to try. 

Back in early 2019, my body started shaking uncontrollably whenever I was in severe distress. No matter what I did, I couldn’t stop the movement from taking up my entire personal space and running its natural course. My arms would spastically flail about in the air, my mouth would forcibly shape into a frown, my eyelids would blink at warp speed, and my legs would not stop shaking. As you can imagine, this was absolutely terrifying to experience.

When one particularly volatile series of muscle tremors flooded my body last fall and then remained active for two painful hours, I went to the emergency room and followed up with my first ever visit to a psychiatrist. Through counseling, I was diagnosed with suicidal ideation, which I had been quietly struggling with ever since discovering that I’d been unknowingly living with a trauma-based mental health disorder for much of my life. A plan was made to help me get on the track of recovery, and it included antidepressants and more ongoing therapy. To my great relief, the panic attacks largely subsided and my muscle spasms became less frequent as the medication made its way through my system. My treatment was working, and I felt like I could finally breathe again. 

When I had that initial visit with my doctor, he explained that the involuntary shaking I’d been experiencing was called somatization, which is essentially what happens when a mental state transmutes into a physical one. Basically, my C-PTSD was manifesting in physical responses, and it was a lesser known but completely expected side effect of trauma recovery and healing. This realization floored me, as I was left wondering why the hell I’d never learned about every potential aspect of my condition before. I was also curious to know if anyone around me would ever be able to relate to what I was going through. 

Things were becoming progressively easier to manage after my ER visit, and I started feeling hope that maybe I was just moving through a passing phase in my disorder. That is, until COVID-19 spread across our country and my family was placed on lockdown at home. Every possible trauma trigger was showing back up in my life because my nervous system was totally shot to shit. I was home 24/7 with my kids, couldn’t manage the time or energy for my job, felt increasingly afraid to go outside, and ended up diving right back down into a well of complex emotions, thought patterns, and harmful coping behaviors. 

And that’s when the temporary paralysis began taking over my life. 

I was lying down on my couch one evening and zoning out on my phone when I suddenly noticed that I couldn’t lift myself back to standing. I couldn’t even wriggle out of the position I was in. My body was frozen, my mind was overcome with panic, and the only thing that seemed to get me out of it all was my husband Matt. He was the one who lifted up my legs and moved them mechanically around while he cracked way too many fucking jokes that had my paralyzed face managing a tiny grin. Once he helped me up to standing, I had to go through another round of physical reminders and cues that I can only liken to a car being given a jump start. It felt as if I had completely forgotten how to walk on a few occasions, with Matt gently explaining step by step how to place one foot in front of the other and gain momentum. 

After a second trip to the ER to figure out what the hell was going on, my psychiatrist prescribed me anti-seizure medication that relaxed my body into movement again. A couple months passed without a single bout of temporary paralysis. And then it hit again like a ton of bricks. For ten straight days, every single part of me would freeze up, and I’d need a lot of support to spring back into action. On a few occasions, I lost the ability to produce words and could only manage to slowly stutter my way back into speaking. In traditionally anxious mom fashion, I googled the shit out of my symptoms to find out if something worse was going on with me. Three hours later, all I had were a few links to articles that explained trauma-based somatization in dense medical jargon. I couldn’t find a single resource that spoke to what I was experiencing in an easily digestible way.  

I called my doctor to arrange a last-minute session. Once I rattled off everything I could think of to give him the full picture of what was happening to me, my psychiatrist shared a few things that completely blew my mind. He told me that the market for trauma-based mental health disorder solutions is very small, mostly because a lot of people don’t realize they have one or they feel too stigmatized to reveal the past events of abuse, assault, or neglect that could lead to a proper diagnosis. Because of this, many of us just don’t know that you can live with regular physical symptoms that are somatic manifestations of a disorder that primarily impacts the brain and nervous system. Because my paralysis and spasms weren’t components of a more traditionally diagnosable illness or disease, getting clarity through medical scans most likely wouldn’t be possible.

Bottom line, my body was finally releasing years of painful trauma and was doing so without an ounce of concern about appearances. 

Everything makes sense now that I know what I know. But at the time, I was majorly ticked off and confused. How could I be the only one I knew who uncontrollably shook or froze up because childhood trauma had been laying dormant in my body? And why did it take so damn long to have someone reveal the full scope of my disorder? If I had gained some understanding of how irregular, but totally natural, my symptoms could potentially be, it may have helped ease my mind as I encountered each one. And it almost certainly would have helped me feel more aware of my condition, rather than grasping around in the dark for reasons why I was struggling.

I don’t fault my therapists or doctors for waiting to acknowledge the physical symptoms of my mental health disorder until I was actually experiencing them. They’ve simply been responding to the individual demands of those in their care, and the majority of people with conditions like mine seem not to feel safe or conscious enough to visit a doctor.

I honestly think that the bulk of the responsibility falls on a culture that treats our mental health as somehow less important and valid than our physical well being. In an ideal world, these issues would be prioritized, with more funding and efforts going towards the necessary resources and solutions to recognizing and treating trauma-based disorders. This is especially critical in areas where behavioral health access is all but nonexistent. 

We need to do better, so that we can know better. And it starts with the public and widespread acknowledgement of the long-term, detrimental impact that abuse and trauma can have on a human being.

We don’t yet live in this world that I envision, but I hope that sharing my personal story can be a part of the change I wish to see around me

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The Simple Trick That Helps Me When Things Feel Out Of Control

When I was younger, I battled anorexia and binge eating. My therapist told me it was a result of trauma from being sexually abused as a child and my family’s reaction to what happened. The situation made me feel helpless and like I had no control. But my eating, counting calories, and excessive exercise was something I could control, so I threw myself into it.

She explained that’s why I stopped going out to eat with my friends and became addicted to counting every calorie that went into my body. If I did venture out and went to a friend’s house, they might want to do something like order pizza and I couldn’t handle that. I could, however, control my life if I stayed at home all the time, so that’s what I did.

It was unhealthy for me, and took a big hit on my self esteem and mental health.

I’ve always struggled with control issues. I tend to spiral when there are things that are out of my hands. I get really stressed out and feel like I need something that will take that feeling away. This has been a big reason why I lived small for a really long time. 

I didn’t take risks or speak up or really go out of my comfort zone for a long time. I never wanted to feel that scary sensation like I did as a child when I felt helpless and alone. I kept my life in a tight little cocoon without even really realizing it.

Then, I got a divorce. 

It made me realize really quickly that life isn’t something you can control. I was scared shitless; everything was about to change, and I knew it.

I couldn’t keep myself, my feelings, or my kids in a neat little package any longer.

I wasn’t sure what to do, but I knew what I didn’t want to do: control it all. It was too big and heavy and I was exhausted.

A few weeks after my ex-husband moved out, I woke up one morning and felt so low, I wasn’t sure if I could get out of bed. Then I told myself I could have a bad day in bed thinking about everything falling apart around me, or I could get up and do what I’d been doing for a few years: go for a run before my kids got up, then take a shower.

I peeled myself out of bed and on that run I gave myself a talk about really trying to let the things I couldn’t control go, but taking advantage of the things I could control.

Like planning something fun to do with my kids later on that afternoon when I saw them (we went to get ice cream).

I also decided to order some curtains I’d been drooling over that my ex-husband hated.

Then I got home, and while showering I realized how much better I felt because I’d focused on some things I could do to make myself feel better, instead of honing in on all the things that could go wrong, which was my usual trick that kept me living in my cocoon.

I am not a therapist or a mental health expert by any means. I am, however, a woman who has had to practice telling myself I can only control certain things, and I have to let go of the rest every day since then. 

Fast forward almost four years later, and I’m so glad I started practicing that. Loosening my grip around the things I have no control over, and focusing on what I can do, actually feels freeing. It’s made me a happier person.

Every minute of every day I say things like: I can’t control the fact the world is a dumpster fire, but I can turn off the news and clean my kitchen –– something that instantly makes me feel better.

I take one look around me as we are in the midst of this pandemic and I have to be very conscious about my life and my choices, or I would be in a really bad place right now. 

It’s so easy to sit and manifest all the bad things that can happen with COVID-19, my kids growing up and leaving soon, the upcoming election, the fact that I’m a single mom trying to keep up with it all. I can get sucked down the tunnel of doom really fast, and have a tendency to think about all the bad and scary things that can happen. 

But it helps an incredible amount for me to stick to my routine, get the things done I need to in order to feel organized and prepared. Something as simple as making a grocery list and trying new meals is enough of a distraction to get me moving in the right direction.

Then, I look forward to cooking for my family and having a good meal.

I’m not saying there aren’t days when I can’t get out of my own way and I start thinking (okay, worrying) about all that could go wrong. I’m human, and it seems we are all in a state of low-key panic these days.

Nothing has helped me more than looking at the things I do have a hand in — the state of my home, spending time with my children, working really hard, doing my nails, reaching out to a friend.

Those are all little things I can do that will bring positivity into my day that I have a say in.

And we all know, it truly is the little things in life that make all the difference. I take my kids to lunch every Saturday, and I look forward to it all week. There have been bad days, and the thought of having this to do later in the week helps pull me out of the sadness.

If you are struggling right now (and let’s face it, we all are in some way), I’m begging you to give this a try. Think about a positive thing that you can do which will brighten your day, whether it’s donating to a good cause, learning a new hobby, or going for a walk. Then, make a habit out of being proactive over the things you have a hand in when you feel like you are out of control. 

My life has changed and I feel stronger, more resilient, and capable because of it.

I’m confident you will too. 

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3 Little Tips That Lead To Big Amounts Of Joy

Arguments, disagreements and hostility are all around us these days. Masks vs. no-masks. Biden vs. Trump. Social distancing vs. well, not so much. Everywhere we turn we find opposing opinions. One thing we can all agree on, however, is this: Parenting, even under normal circumstances, is hard enough. Parenting during a pandemic is preposterous.

Even though we’re doing the best we can, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed, tired of our new “normal,” and just plain sad. During this chaotic time, when there’s so much that we can’t control, what if I told you that we have more control than we think we do to create more joy in our lives right now, quickly and easily? Well, we do … and here’s how:

First, acknowledge that sometimes good enough really is good enough.

If you’re the sort of mom who strives for perfection in everything you do, recognize that this is no time to aim for that level of excellence. It’s just not realistic, and you’re going to burn out if you try. Face it, friends, we’re in survival mode right now — just doing the best that we can. If you accept nothing short of 100% with everything you do right now, you’re setting yourself up for failure and disappointment.

For me, is everything getting done the way I would like during this difficult time? Heck no. Are we eating cereal for dinner at least once a week? Yep. Are my kids spending a lot more time on their devices than they used to? They sure are. Did I forget to pick up my kid from school one afternoon last week because I mixed up her hybrid schedule and forgot she was there? Unfortunately, yes. Are the dirty breakfast dishes still sitting in the sink? You betcha. And you know what? It’s all okay. It’s not the end of the world. During these unusual times I have to focus my energy and resources on the things that matter, which is getting my family and me through this challenging time as mentally and physically healthy as possible. Everything else is secondary; have a little grace with yourself and keep everything in perspective.

Second, reduce the “Dread Factor.”

We all have a ton of stuff on our daily to-do lists that we are not excited about doing, yet they have to get done. Ask yourself if there is a way to make those dreadful tasks less dreadful, and perhaps even create a little bit of joy while you do them. A friend of mine demonstrated this strategy perfectly recently – she had to move her kid’s stuff out of a storage unit and into her new apartment. She was dreading it, so to make it a little less miserable she rented a cherry-red Mustang convertible to do it. Yes, it took her longer (she had to go back and forth between the unit and apartment more times since the car could only hold a fraction of what a U-Haul truck could hold) and was slightly more expensive, but it turned this dreadful task into an enjoyable experience. She actually had a great day, driving with the wind in her hair and the tunes cranked up high.

Consider the possibility that there may be tiny tweaks you can make to create more joy in otherwise miserable tasks. For example, hate grocery shopping? Plan to listen to the latest episode of your favorite podcast in your earbuds while doing it. It’ll give you something fun to look forward to while doing something that you have to get done.

Finally, start each day off right.

Typically, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when your alarm goes off each morning? If you’re like me, it may be an obscenity or two because you can’t believe it’s morning already and you’re still so dang tired, but it may also be that laundry list of tasks you have to get done that day (and, of course, laundry is likely at the top of it!) Our brains automatically go there first thing in the morning, which is a very depressing way to start the day! Instead, force yourself to think of at least one thing you’re looking forward to that day – no matter how small it is. Perhaps you’re going to watch the final episode of Ozark that you’ve been saving. Or maybe you’re going to enjoy another chapter of that book that’s been unopened on your nightstand for three weeks. Or maybe you’re ordering pizza for dinner from that delicious pizza place on the corner.

Whatever it is, before your feet hit the floor, focus on that little bit of joy that will be coming your way. Can’t think of anything? All the more reason to come up with something, right then and there! It’ll put you in a positive mindset and get your day started on the right foot!

As we continue through these difficult times, there’s a lot we can’t control, but the one thing we can control is intentionally creating more joy for ourselves each day. We deserve that. Now go get some.

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What It’s Like To Have Both Anxiety And Depression

For a long time, I knew I did not feel right. I’d gotten so used to my ability to successfully (or so I thought) multi-task, to zoom from place to place and be on time, to constantly check in with myself, setting reminders, writing down notes on Post-Its (I have lots of Post-Its all around).

Checking things off of my to-do list would ease my anxiety just a bit, but I often pushed aside the physical signs that were so clearly present. I ignored what my body was telling me for so long that it felt normal after some time: the burning sensation in my chest as I prepared for some event or activity, the sweat that would build up over my upper lip, the racing heart — these were all signs pointing to anxiety.

Though I could not easily define the sadness I felt, the low feeling, I usually blamed it on PMS. Or the residual trauma from my childhood. Or my recent diagnosis of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD). But all of the signs were, and remain, present in my life. I was not diagnosed with anything at all until very recently and this fact brings me so much relief — that I now have something to call my feelings, a name to give them both: anxiety and depression. 

I was tired of feeling down and constantly worried, and I chose medication as a way to help me get through the feelings I’d been struggling with for some time. Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t suicidal or so incapacitated with anxiety that I could not function without medication, but I chose to go the medication route because I knew I could feel better — with just a little extra help. 

In addition to medication, I also found relief in simply knowing my feelings and my physical symptoms had a name. But they also required me to get in touch with my body, to focus more on self-care, and to listen when my body was telling me to slow down. To be kind to myself. To write things down so I wouldn’t forget.

I often joke about how bad my memory is. I started even taking ginkgo in hopes of improving my memory — only to discover that memory loss and learning difficulties can be attributed to suffering from anxiety and depression in tandem. Bryan E. Robinson Ph.D. states in Psychology Today: “Previous studies have shown that depression shrinks the part of the brain, the hippocampus, linked to memory and learning. Many people suffer from both depression and anxiety. Yet most of the past studies do not account for patients with both conditions.”

He goes on to share the research from a recent study from Australian National University, which examined the co-morbidity of anxiety and depression and found that “[O]ver time the pairing has a profound effect on brain areas associated with memory and emotional processing. The study, published in The Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, observed people with depression and anxiety to learn the effects of both disorders on the brain. The researchers examined 10,000 people in 112 studies and found what past research has found: that those with depression alone also have lower brain volumes, especially in the hippocampus.”

Why is any of this important to know, especially if you or someone you love is suffering from anxiety and depression? Because the effects can last well beyond a few years or until the medication kicks in. According to the Psychology Today article, the authors found two important differences in the brain: those with depression alone have lower brain volumes, most notably in the hippocampus, which correlates to a higher chance of getting Alzheimer’s and dementia. However, when a person has both anxiety and depression, the impact on the hippocampus and the amygdala were much different — the hippocampus stays similar in size, and the amygdala increases in size.

The study’s research team estimates that anxiety lowers the impact of depression on brain volume by about three percent … because when the brain is overactive, as it is with anxiety, it develops more connections and enlarges the brain. That enlargement may help “make up for” the shrinking caused by depression, but further studies are needed to determine the long-term cognitive effects of having both depression and anxiety.

Until that happens, all I can do is take my medication, listen to my body, and know what I’m capable (or not capable) of doing. I need to be in touch with my emotions and know when I am feeling low due to my depression, and when I am suffering from PMS or just feel shitty. It’s not easy to tell the difference or admit to a particular feeling- – but it is necessary to sit with it for my well-being. I cannot push them aside any longer, or brush them off as irrelevant feelings or emotions, because they mean something — to me and my family. I must continue to take care of myself, mentally, emotionally, and physically. My life and my family’s livelihood depend on it.

What I want for myself, and you, is a healthier mind, body, and soul. How you get there is up to you. Maybe it’s medicine, maybe it’s more family time, maybe it’s keeping a journal to write it all out. But whatever your “it” is — do it!

Anxiety and depression do not have to hold us back. No matter what they’re doing to our brains, listening to our bodies now can only help us in the long run.

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September Is Suicide Awareness Month — Here’s How You Can Help

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Suicide was the 2nd leading cause of death in individuals 10-34 and 4th leading cause in individuals 34-54. There were more than twice as many suicides in the United States as there were homicides. And the issue is only getting worse, according to the CDC, with suicides increasing by 30 percent in the past 20 years. In order to bring awareness to the issue, the month of September is recognized as National Suicide Prevention Month. Its mission is to bring awareness to suicide and prevent it.

Yet, we are all too aware that suicide exists, aren’t we? We still need a month. An entire month. 1/12 of the year set aside to help prevent our loved ones from dying. Such a short time though — and that’s all the more reason we must focus on this issue. My father died when I was a little girl, a victim of suicide. One of my best friends from middle and high school attempted it.

I’ve attempted it. I’ll bet that I shock many by that statement. However, we cannot stay silent in the face of such an avoidable death. Allowing ourselves and our loved ones to have open, non-judgmental conversations and checking in during difficult times are just some of the few ways to raise awareness and save lives. It’s no secret 2020 is different. Unemployment and underemployment, student loan debt, issues obtaining housing, social media, and COVID-19 all contribute why this year adds layers of nuance not seen in years before. In essence, we are struggling to survive. Quarantine has isolated us all even further.

So, that begs the question: How can we help?

First we need to go over the signs again.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there are three types of risk factors: health, environmental, and historical.

Health risk factors:

– Depression
– Substance use problems (such as those of the opioid crisis)
– Bipolar disorder
– Schizophrenia
– Personality traits of aggression, mood changes and poor relationships
– Conduct disorder
– Anxiety disorders
– Serious physical health conditions including pain
– Traumatic brain injury

Environmental risk factors:

– Access to lethal means including firearms and drugs
– Prolonged stress, such as harassment, bullying, relationship problems or unemployment
– Stressful life events, like rejection, divorce, financial crisis, other life transitions or loss (a great deal of stressors in life events, such as those in 2020)
– Exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of suicide

Historical risk factors:

– Previous suicide attempts (most suicide victims try more than once)
– Family history of suicide
– Childhood abuse, neglect or trauma

Not all signs are as obvious as depression or a job loss. Some behaviors are more subtle. Psychiatrist Cesar Figueroa, MD of Southern Hills Hospital and Medical Center states, “Any changes in someone’s personality, behavior, or how they express their emotions can be an indication.”

Not all risk factors for suicide will fall under a neat umbrella of clinical terms. Those with a background of military service or an individual who identifies as LGBTQIA+ can be at increased risk due to PTSD or bullying. A person such as myself, with a chronic illness, can be at increased risk, especially if it’s a chronic pain condition.

So, how can we help? Please understand, in some cases, the best way to help someone is to call their medical provider or 911, if the loss of life could be imminent. Instead of focusing on what we can’t do, focus on letting that loved one know that there are organizations and programs designed specifically to help and support those suffering from mental health issues and life crises, who may be having suicidal thoughts.

Chester Bennington, the lead singer for Linkin Park, died by suicide in 2018. Talinda Bennington told CNN there had been signs of hopelessness, a change of behavior, and isolation. In 2017, Linkin Park released “One More Light,” a song that’s saved my life. A power lyric plays:

“If they say
Who cares if one more light goes out?
In a sky of a million stars
It flickers, flickers
Who cares when someone’s time runs out?
If a moment is all we are
We’re quicker, quicker
Who cares if one more light goes out?
Well I do…”

One life can mean everything. Please don’t let your light flicker out, and if you wonder who cares… well, I do.

 

If you are having thoughts of suicide, please know that you are not alone. If you are in danger of acting on suicidal thoughts, call 911. For support and resources, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.

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If You Can’t Accept A Queer Child, Don’t Have Kids

There’s nothing quite like being a teenager with a big, scary secret. As a youth, I spent the vast majority of my high school years on a never-ending loop of pretending I was fine when I really wasn’t. There was some major wear-and-tear on my emotional and physical well being, but no one caught on to anything being seriously wrong because I was an expert at acting like my problems didn’t exist. 

But even experts break down under enough pressure. 

While my peers assumed I was just your average skinny girl with a penchant for high achievement, they had no idea that I was quietly battling an eating disorder, self-harm, an addiction to diet pills, and ongoing abuse at home. They also didn’t know that I was hiding an even bigger secret that felt much more painful to keep on lockdown than all of the rest. I’ve known that I am bisexual since middle school, and no one around me had a clue about it. 

For some reason, this single truth hurt more to push down than any others during my childhood. As a young person, I worked hard to control my behaviors, words, and even emotions as a way of avoiding violent outbursts from my mom at home or the loss of friends at school. I obsessively managed my appearance, constantly monitored my body size, punished myself when I incurred undeserved trauma, and did everything to seem as traditionally feminine as possible. But crushing on girls? That was out of my control. And it fucking terrified me.

It’s no surprise that I felt anxious and fearful as a queer youth. We live in a society that teaches our kids to avoid embracing authenticity, especially when it comes to their sexuality and identity. The heteronormative standards set in place send a dangerous message that existing outside of them makes a child unworthy and even somehow damaged, and this lie chips away at the mental health of our LGBTQ+ youth. Mine was certainly demolished for many years, and it’s taken a long time to experience true and lasting repair. 

It’s also not lost on me that my decision to finally come out was due to a bunch of privilege and support that many kids and adults live without. And no one has summed up this stark truth more powerfully than Matt Bernstein, otherwise known as mattxiv on Instagram

 

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god said enough

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This queer NYC-based makeup artist and photographer has created a game-changing platform filled with striking images and quotes that shed light on LGBTQ+ issues and struggles. The most memorable post for me was a photo last month that showcased a myriad of painted letters on the side of his face with words that read, “If you won’t accept a queer child, don’t have kids.” 

 

 

With that single statement, Bernstein managed to encapsulate the isolating experience of being a child exploring their sexuality in home environments that shame them for discovering that they live and love outside of hetero and cisgendered norms. No kid deserves to feel unsafe being themselves, and no parent should dictate the course of a child’s identity as it relates to their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. And yet, as Bernstein regularly communicates in his work, so many of our world’s queer youth struggle and suffer greatly for simply existing as they are. 

According to The Trevor Project, LGBTQ+ kids contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of hetero youth and are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide. For transgender adults, 40% have tried ending their life, and a whopping 92% of those are under the age of 25. These children and young people are struggling mentally primarily because they are living in atmospheres that not only don’t support them, but regularly remind them that their existence offends, upsets, and even hurts others. Instead of encountering encouragement, love, and acceptance during some of the most vulnerable moments in their young lives, our queer youth are being led to incorrectly believe that they’d be better off not taking up space in this world at all. 

 

 

“When you ask an LGBTQ+ person about their struggles with their identity, most will tell you not that they’ve always hated themselves, but that homophobic and transphobic pressure created by unsupportive environments, family, friends, and religious groups made loving and accepting themselves an impossible task,” Bernstein writes in a post on Instagram. “The issue is not who we are, but how we have been taught to feel about who we are.”

At nineteen years old, I became hopeful that coming out to my younger siblings would help me feel more comfortable with embracing my sexuality. During a trip back home from college, I revealed to them that I felt attracted to women in addition to men. They were understandably a bit taken aback but otherwise supportive, and if the day had ended with this interaction, I would have chalked it up to a queer-friendly win. But my mom heard us talking in the kitchen and stormed in to stop us in our tracks. According to her, affirming my bisexuality meant that I was a damaging, inappropriate influence on her younger children, and she made this abundantly clear as she ridiculed, yelled at, and threatened me. 

That same day, I moved out of my childhood home to go live with my father, a man from whom I had been emotionally disconnected for much of my childhood. It would take sixteen long years after that to finally muster up the courage to officially come out to the world as a bisexual woman. 

Now that I’m a mom to two kids under five and a stepmom to a teen, a lot has changed. I’ve put myself through years of therapy, am currently in the process of healing a recent complex PTSD diagnosis, and have created an environment of acceptance, unconditional love, and trust for my children. When it comes to their evolving identities, I’ve made a promise to them and to myself that I will keep for the rest of our lives together. I will never place unjust expectations on who my kids are or how they need to be. Being a parent does not give me any right to force a way of living onto my children. My job is to uplift them and allow them to discover who they were always meant to be.

The bottom line is, my children can love whoever they choose, express themselves in whatever ways feel good, and communicate their needs to me safely and openly. As I present them with a household that welcomes all sexualities and identities, I will also give them what I did not receive myself but so desperately needed as a child. I will be generous with my time, energy, and attention as they each grow into unique human beings in this world. And I will do all of this to honor teenage Lindsay, along with all of the LGBTQ+ youth who grow up in undue fear and shame. Because we all deserve to be here. 

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Call It ‘Socially Awkward’ Or ‘Pandemic-Weird,’ But We’re All Suffering From It

Maybe you’ve overshared on Zoom lately. Maybe you’re embroiled in a he-said, she-said with a family member. Maybe you’re overly angry, or irritable, or anxious. Maybe it’s easier not to talk to people. Maybe it’s easier not to deal with social situations. Maybe Netflix looks a whole lot better than a Zoom party with your friends. Basically, we’ve all gone pandemic-weird, according to The New York Times: we’re suffering from the social unease and awkwardness that comes with long periods of isolation.

I’m no stranger to going pandemic-weird.

I’m overly anxious. I worry about everything: breathless, heart-hammering, stomach-clenching worry. My husband and I have a joke: every little symptom of any type of allergy (and it’s ragweed season) convinces us we have COVID-19. “You don’t have COVID,” we assure each other over and over. Stomach ache? COVID. Sore throat from snoring? COVID. Runny nose with no other symptoms whatsoever? COVID.

I’m also super-awkward with friends—more than usual. I can’t tell when it’s my turn to talk during a Zoom call. A friend’s chance comment may leave me puzzling for day: what did she mean? Does she still like me? Sometimes it’s easier to stay off Facebook and Twitter and Messenger and every other social media format, ignoring everyone, including my own family. When forced to interact, I get anxious and jumpy.

Pandemic-Weird Is Pandemic-Normal

The New York Times says that research on people who’ve spent extended times alone, like hermits, astronauts, or prisoners, shows that without constant exercise, our social skills wither. NASA says of the planned mission to Mars, “The more confined and isolated humans are, the more likely they are to develop behavioral or cognitive conditions, and psychiatric disorders.” Basically, we’re hardwired to go pandemic-weird, losing social skills and the ability to read subtle social cues, as well developing things like diagnosable anxiety.

We’ve long known that solitary confinement is unethical, with the former head of the corrections department in Colorado calling it “immoral” and “torture” to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. People in solitary confinement, who have no stimulation—some may watch TV or listen to the radio, but they’re denied visitors—can go outside for about 1.5 hours a day in a bare concrete area. While this is obviously far more harsh than what we’re suffering during the pandemic, research on these inmates has shown that “This environment can be psychologically destructive for anyone who enters and endures it for significant periods of time, particularly those with preexisting psychiatric disorders.” People risk “profound and chronic alienation” and “asociality”—i.e., they never want to be around people.

So if we’re becoming a little bit anxious, starting to feel like human contact isn’t worth it, or having trouble reading people—it’s no surprise. We’re going pandemic-weird. And that’s 100% normal for humans.

But I’m Fine…

You’re probably not. You’re probably pandemic-weird. You just don’t realize it.

Stephanie Cacioppo, the director of the Brain Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Chicago, tells The New York Times that being lonely or isolated is as much of a biological signal as being hungry. Our brain interpret it as “a mortal threat,” and when we don’t interact with people, it leads to “negative cognitive, emotional and physiological effects.” Even if you’re holed up with the fam, you’re missing out on vital interactions with other people: casual talk with coworkers and interactions with strangers at Starbucks.

The New York Times mentions, “Many of us have not met anyone new for months.”

My brain said “but the internet.” I realized the internet didn’t count and cried. I’m totally pandemic-weird.

So How Do We Deal With Being Pandemic-Weird?

Space and grace, people. Space and grace.

We need to realize that this is happening, first of all: every one of us is going through a significant experience, and no one is going to come out the same on the other end: values-wise or personality-wise, says The New York Times. So be ready for people to change— don’t expect that when this ends, everything’s going to return to situation normal. Those are the people, says British physician Beth Healey, who spent a year on a remote part of Antarctica, who do the worst when they try to reintegrate.

On the other hand, the people who recover best from being pandemic-weird are those who spend their time in isolation reaching out to others. The prisoners in solitary confinement who fared best afterwards were those who realized the isolation “a serious threat to their sense of self and security” and reached out to other people.

In other words, if you want to stave off that pandemic-weirdness, you’d better take that Zoom call.

We’re worried about kids. But we should also be worried about ourselves. “Social interplay,” The New York Times says, is one of the most complicated things we’re wired to do. So don’t expect much from other people in the next… while. Realize we’ve all gone pandemic-weird: we’ve been through a serious length of social confinement that’s changed us in a fundamental way, and we’re still finding our feet in social situations. Be tolerant of others and realize that no, they probably don’t hate you. But extend yourself the same grace as well.

You’ve gone pandemic-weird. It’s okay. We all have.

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The Side Effect Of Being A Cancer Widow I Don’t Admit

I write often about grief. I speak relatively openly about the struggles and heartaches I run into as a young widow and solo parent to two grieving children. I’ve detailed my husband’s illness to thousands. And yet, there is one part of my widowhood that I have never admitted to anyone other than my sister-in-law: illness anxiety.

The other day I went for a long run. My first since quarantine started. I pushed myself beyond where I should have pushed myself but I loved being outside and moving—going. A few days later, I woke up to find a bruised toenail.

The logical part of my brain thought this: you ran too far without training in inappropriate sneakers, and now you have a bruised toenail. They are common for runners, and if you Google “bruised toenail,” the first articles you find will be about runners.

The cancer widow part of my brain began Googling a rare skin cancer that begins as a dark line often under finger or toenails as a pit of anxiety landed like a wrecking ball in my stomach.

The logical part of my brain responded to the cancer widow part with more logic: well, then let’s go to a podiatrist and get the toenail checked out. If it’s actually skin cancer, or any cancer, the earlier it’s diagnosed, the better.

The cancer widow part of me was too paralyzed with fear to even Google a podiatrist. Because what if. What if the doctor does a few tests and comes into the room and says the words I’d heard once before when my husband entered a doctor’s office with a headache? What if the nightmare starts again?

The logical part of me could not talk sense into the cancer widow part of me. My decision was to worry into a vacuum. To paint the toenail a bright pink to hide the bruise and simply worry. Not a smart plan, and yet the one I went with.

In the time before—before I ever heard the word brain cancer and watched my forty-year-old husband die from it—I wasn’t one to diagnose myself with anything. The opposite, in fact. A bruise was a bruise because I must have bumped myself somewhere. A headache was a headache because I hadn’t drank enough water. A cold was a cold because people get colds.

But now, after my husband presented with a headache that turned out to be an aggressive and vicious type of terminal brain cancer, that sense of security is gone. A bruise might be blood cancer. A headache may be brain cancer. A cold could be a sign of a failing immune system because a cancer is attacking some invisible part of the body.

Even routine cancer screenings leave me in a state of high emotional distress. I have a visceral, heart-pounding, sweat-soaked, inability to breathe reaction to any routine cancer screening. I brace myself for the results of blood tests or doctor’s examinations. Each time I am sure this will be the time I hear the words: we found something suspicious and it’s cancer.

I have a few theories as to why this illness anxiety has gripped me during widowhood. One, it’s too easy to close my eyes and summon up memories of waiting rooms and hospitals—how they sounded and smelled, how they looked and felt. That’s my trauma rearing its head. Cancer is scary. Cancer doesn’t discriminate and chooses victims regardless of how much light and love they bring to the world, and that’s scary.

Two, as a solo parent, I’m highly vigilant about my health and safety because I am the only parent my children have left. It’s a responsibility too important to take lightly in any way.

And three, and likely the driving factor behind my newfound illness anxiety, is this truth: my husband was the better of us, smarter and funnier and with a confident way about him that just made him lovable to all. And if cancer could happen to him, of course it could happen to me. If his headache could turn out to be something life-threatening, mine could, too. That’s just logic, isn’t it?

The truth is worrying into a vacuum about something won’t resolve anything. There’s a line between vigilance and paranoia that I haven’t yet learned to walk during my widowhood journey. But I may never learn how to walk that line. I’ll probably always be a little hyper-vigilant because I can too easily picture the doctor walking into the exam room, with the chart filled with bad news.

I can’t cure my illness anxiety. I definitely can’t give any advice to cure anyone else’s. The best I can do is tell my story. Because what I have learned during my widowhood journey is that I shouldn’t be afraid to tell my story, give my truth. Being honest about the things I’m struggling with in widowhood may end up helping another young widow feel a little less alone in their journey.

It’s the very least I can do.

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