The Anxiety Reduction Plan

outlivingit

As featured on First Descent’s Out Living It blog

This blog was featured on First Descent’s Out Living It blog. First Descent’s is a non-profit that offers young adult cancer survivors (FREE) adventure trips where they learn the healing power of community and nature through participating in activities such as kayaking, rock climbing and surfing. In September 2016, I attended a First Descents Surf Program in Santa Cruz, California. Read about that here. If you’re interested in learning more about this wonderful organization, check out their website, https://firstdescents.org.

If you’re reading this, you don’t need me to tell you that cancer is a sneaky trickster. The disease invaded every corner of my life and just when I think I’ve got it figured out, it jumps up and grabs me from behind. It’s latest surprise – anxiety.

I was diagnosed three years ago. In retrospect, it’s pretty incredible anxiety only recently crept into the equation. For some reason, I thought I would get by unscathed by this common side effect of cancer.

My relationship with anxiety started one morning in March. I woke up to a missed call from my doctor’s office. It wasn’t even my oncologists office, but the mere presence of a doctor’s number in my call log triggered a misfire in my brain causing me paralyzing fear. I could not do anything the entire day but obsess about how I was going to suffer and die. Instead, I spent my waking hours crying, clenching every muscle and felt as if my lungs were closing in on themselves. The next day, I was fine.

A few weeks later, it happened again.

I often see articles suggesting anxiety victims to relax, exercise, meditate, get enough sleep, focus on the positive, etc. Admittedly, I might have even doled out some of this terrible advice myself in the past. After much thought, I realized the reason this is bad advice is because it’s not specific enough. Talking with my therapist, she explained that in the midst of anxiety, our brains do not function sufficiently where we can even come up with ideas to make ourselves feel better. She then urged me to create an Anxiety Reduction Plan consisting of specific activities I can execute when anxiety strikes. Here’s what I came up with for myself:

Go for a walk, run or to yoga
Call a friend to hang out
Memorize, write out and repeat to myself (I can now recite three Maya Angelou poems, the seven axioms of yoga teacher training and countless famous quotes)
Do a (yoga) forward fold (this pose has been proven to reduce anxiety)
Close my eyes and take 10 (or 100) deep breaths
Write a reminder message on my hand (“You’re okay,” is my go-to)
Write a list of 100 things I’m grateful for
Clean the fridge, floors, garage (I love organizing)
Go to a park with some markers and a coloring book
Send a card or gift to someone I’m thinking about
Do a random act of kindness
Paint something
Take a bath or shower (something about water and being clean makes me happy)
Create and execute a schedule (7-7:30 drink coffee and catch-up on news, 7:30-8 shower and get ready, 8-12 work, 12-1 lunch, etc., etc. Sometimes, I just go through the motions, but it’s better than obsessing all day)

Now, when I wake up and feel the walls closing in, I pull out my sheet of paper and start running down the list. As a disclaimer, I’ll admit that going through these motions does not always take away or reduce the anxiety, but for stretches of time I am redirected, which provides doses of solace.

As it turns out, my therapist and I are not on the brink of discovering a new physiological method. I recently listened to the Good Life Project podcast and later found a Ted Talk describing the approach the American Psychological Association calls, Positive Activity Interventions. Their studies also show being told or trained to “think positive” and/or confronting past trauma isn’t enough. Instead, their research revealed consistent simple actions, such as those listed above, not only make the miserable less miserable, but, over time, reinforce positive states of mind and improve levels of happiness.

So, what’s on your plan? Now, write it down, fold it up and put it in your wallet. Hopefully you’ll never have to use it.

Listen to The Good Life Project podcast: On Awe, Positive Actions, Anxiety and Depression

Read the full study, Upregulating the positive affect system in anxiety and depression: Outcomes of a positive activity intervention

Watch the Ted Talk, The New Era of Positive Psychology:

Pausing, Slowing Down & Reducing the Noise

87WSyMSm

As featured on curetoday.com

In his book “Information Anxiety” (1989), Richard Wurman claims that the weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person in 17th-century England was likely to come across in a lifetime. I am curious how that statement would change given the speed of information and life in 2017. Of course, I am so grateful for the significant impact this surge of information has created in the cancer world. However, the biggest downside of the increased velocity is a world with so much noise.  Add cancer to this equation and it’s no wonder anxiety accompanies the disease.

Gandhi said, “There’s more to life than increasing it’s speed,” and it took a cancer diagnosis in September 2014 for me to understand the meaning of this quote. Information overload and busyness has become a chronic disease in our society. It seems as though everyone wants to move through life as fast as possible and news pours on us before we can formulate our own thoughts. I think it’s quite sad. None of us will be on our deathbed wishing we moved through this world more rapidly. Everybody and everything wants our time and attention, which are two of the most precious commodities for a cancer survivor.

Illness did not just force me to slow down – there was a chunk of time where it pretty much stopped me in my tracks. I went from endurance athlete to bed ridden in a matter of months, which was humbling and an experience filled with valuable lessons. As a result, I learned that the slower I go, the more I can actually accomplish well. Slowing down allows me to live with quality, in the moment.  And most importantly, decreasing my pace has made me acutely aware of the outside noise that distracts us from the life’s most important things, which aren’t things at all. They are our relationships and health.

I am very fortunate that I did not have (or want) to jump back into a busy life after going through active treatment. My life gives me the option to say, “no,” which I do often. When I’m in a particularly noisy period, I don’t just slow down the intake of information and activities, but do my best to pause all together in order to put all my time and attention into my personal self-care. I give myself the time and space to do my favorite things which include writing, yoga, reading, sleeping 8-9 hours, taking naps, meditating daily, writing my prayer and gratitude list, taking walks (gasp) without a device and reduce my time on the internet.

Whether you’re a cancer survivor or not, EVERYONE could benefit from slowing down, pausing and reducing the noise to enjoy the only guarantee any of us have, which is the present moment we are in.

Read all my articles with Cure.

Cancer and Minimalism

87WSyMSm

As featured on curetoday.com

After a lot of thought in December, I decided that what I wanted most out of 2017 is to be more present in my life, something that has been a problem for many years, especially since my cancer diagnosis in 2014. I spend days worrying about the future and reliving the trauma of treatment in my head, which only creates anxiety. For me, I’ve found the best way to cope with this anxiety is to focus on how I feel in the present moment because 99.9 percent of the time, I’m feeling great. I remind myself the moment we are in, right now, is all any of us are guaranteed. As the famous Bill Keane quote goes, “Yesterday is history, tomorrows is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.”

Once I resolved to be more present, I started thinking about the tools that would aid me in being successful. One of the to-dos I jotted down on my list was to watch a movie on Netflix called Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. The title intrigued me. I thought you could replace the word minimalism with cancer since the moment you’re told that you or a loved one has the disease, your whole thought process of what is important changes. The Netflix description reads, “People dedicated to rejecting the American ideal that things bring happiness are interviewed in this documentary showing the virtues of less is more.” Cancer survivors know this, but in theory, how much are we focusing on the important aspects of our lives instead of things? None of us will be on our death beds saying, “I sure wish I would’ve gotten the iPhone 7 when it came out.” We’ll be saying things like, “I wish I spent more time with my brother” or “I should have taken that trip to Africa.”

So, what is minimalism? The film’s website describes it as, “a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth and contribution.”

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A clean, organized book worthy space

If you’re like me and most Americans, you have too much stuff. Inspired by the film, I resolved to declutter. I made a list of the areas in my house I wanted to go through and set my timer for 20 minutes each day. Often, once I got started, I’d spend way more than 20 minutes. Within a few weeks, I decluttered my entire house, donated several bags to charity and remodeled my writing space. While my intention was to organize, I didn’t expect to experience the same radical transformation as the two subjects in the film.

I find myself much happier and living my resolution of being present with ease. Because I am not surrounded with stuff, I can breathe a bit easier. I have less general anxiety, all because my home and life are clean and organized.

Minimalism has also transformed my cancer journey, by making my life more fulfilling. A cancer survivor’s hottest commodity is time, and working towards minimalism has not just resulted in more hours in each day, but has given me quality time I can spend with my husband, friends and chasing pursuits I love, such as writing and yoga.

It has only been a month, so I’m hoping I can continue the lifestyle. My next steps are to reduce my social media presence, tackle digital clutter, comb the house again and unplug the internet one day a week – an idea that might be a hard sell to my husband.

If you’re interested in reducing anxiety, increased quality time with loved ones and pursuing your passions, I encourage you to check out www.theminimalists.com where you’ll find details about the documentary, their podcast, books and social media pages.

To read all my articles with Cure, click here.