Max's shop of horrors

Warning: imagination testing site. Enter at own risk

Month: June, 2016

Thank Yourself

Gratitude is a powerful emotion. Taking a moment of remind ourselves of how lucky we are, of all the good things in our lives, can be a fantastic antidepressant, right up there with hot chocolate, whoopee cushions, and fighting a losing battle against 12 puppies. But all too often when we do this, we focus only on external factors; on how thankful we are for our friends, our family, for things independent of ourselves. Not that there’s anything wrong with being thankful for such things, of course. However, we should never forget about the person we should be most grateful to; ourselves.

I know that this can be hard for a lot of people. Truth be told, I sometimes find it difficult myself. When we’re having a hard time, it’s easy to lay all the blame on ourselves, to see everything that’s wrong in our lives as our fault, and to see others as saviours.

But who is it that gets you through every second of every day, no matter how difficult or painful it is? Who is it that fights your way through all the stress and struggle and chaos of daily life? You do that yourself. Stop and give yourself the credit you deserve for that. For persevering. For fighting. For making it to where you are now. Nobody, not even your best friend, your closest family, or your partner could have done all this for you. You are here today because of you.

It’s good to be grateful for those around us. Just don’t forget about the one who deserves it most.

Impulse Power

First off, a digital high five for those who get the title reference. If you don’t, no hard feelings; like a recently harvested Middle Eastern palm tree, it’s rather outdated.

Anyway, impulse control is a common challenge for both people on the spectrum and those with OCD, and it’s something I haven’t really talked about on this blog yet. It’s kind of hard to describe for those who don’t experience it, but for those who do, resisting our impulses can be kind of like trying not to smile, move, or laugh when you’re being tickled, or trying to hold back a sneeze.

Sometimes the impulse can be blatantly illogical or just plain silly. For instance, when I was a kid I used to lock the door when I was travelling by car because otherwise my brain would start going, “how easy it would be to fall out of the car, all you’d have to do was unbuckle you seatbelt, and step out the door”. It wasn’t that I wanted to hurt myself, just that my brain would fixate on a thought, no matter how absurd, and the urge to act on it would kick in like the urge to scratch an itch. Now, I’m sure I never would have actually jumped out of a moving car, but still, locking the door made me feel safer.

Excessive handwashing is another common one, and something I still struggle with to this day. I’m also not proud to say that sometimes these impulses have compelled me to act in hurtful ways, many of which I still deeply regret.

So, how can we tackle these impulses? For me, the most important step is metacognition; to consciously make myself stop and analyse the thought process itself, and see how ludicrous it is. This doesn’t eliminate the impulse, but it does help in two key ways. Firstly, while resisting an impulse can be very difficult, every time I do so I’m showing myself that I can, and over time it gets easier. Secondly, impulses can be a short-lived compulsion, and by stalling, I give it time to die down, making it easier to overcome. The first few seconds are the hardest; if I can resist it that long, the worst is over.

Like anxiety, impulse control can be an ongoing battle, but I’ve found it’s a bit like asthma; it might not be permanently curable, but it can be managed to the point where it’s impact on my life is relatively minimal.

 

One panic attack in five months

When I was 18, I would get multiple panic attacks every single day. Full blown ones; hot and cold flushes, difficulty breathing, nausea, light-headedness, chest pains, tremors. Any number of things could set me off; a discarded tissue, cigarette butt, or band-aid on the floor, somebody coughing/sneezing nearby or brushing passed me, the kind of things you just can’t go through a day without encountering.

The other day, it dawned on me that so far this year, I have only had one such episode. One major panic attack in over a hundred and fifty days, where 9 years ago, I was probably having about five attacks per day.

To crunch the numbers, that’s approximately one attack now for every 750 I used to have in my late teens. Really puts things in perspective.

So how did I manage to reduce them so drastically? Well, first of all, practice. I’ve had many years now to learn to cope with my OCD, avoid triggering attacks in the first place, and defuse them when they do occur. I try to view each episode as a lesson; I take note of what set me off, whether it’s something I can avoid or something I need to adapt to, and which coping techniques work best.

In my case, the most helpful tricks were cognitive and breathing exercises, such as slow deep breathing, (six seconds in, six seconds out, while trying to keep my shoulders level and pull air all the way down to the bottom of my lungs) or counting slowly down from a hundred and seeing how I felt once I’d finished and the initial shock had worn off.

Secondly, to be brutally honest, medication has helped a lot. A combination of risperidone and clonazepam really took the edge of the attacks; it didn’t get rid of them, but it acted kind of like training wheels, giving me support while I learned how to fight them off.

Thirdly, starting in my early 20s, I embarked on an ongoing program of progressive desensitization. I figured my brain is like an immune system; if I deliberately expose myself to my triggers in a gradual and controlled fashion, I’ll build up a resistance to them. And it worked; many things that used to terrify me barely faze me at all any more, while others that are still uncomfortable have lost a lot of their bite.

Of course, it’s a work in progress; I still find it difficult and scary using public toilets for example, but it’s encouraging to look back at how far I’ve come. And I’ll keep pushing, I refuse to live the rest of my life being held back by fear.

If you’re someone who experiences anxiety attacks, I know it might seem like they’re just an inevitable part of life that will never go away or get better, and I used to think that too. But I was wrong, and I’ve since reduced my panic attacks to a mere 1/750th of their former frequency. And I don’t see any reason why this ability would be unique to me.

Kamikaze

Two weeks ago when I was writing about the fear of not failing, it occurred to me that, as the crime author said when confronted by the police about his google search history, there’s another side to the story.

In that entry I talked about subconscious self-sabotage, but what about when it’s conscious and deliberate? Because I for one have purposefully crashed and burned more times than a pyromaniac moth left alone with a Bunsen burner.

The most common example was when I would intentionally lose at sports or a video game. While this can partly be explained by the logic of my previous post, where losing is an easy way out because it alleviates the pressure to win, I also think it has to do with control.

By choosing to lose, I could at least feel like I was still in control of the outcome. It wasn’t that the world or other people had beaten me; I had ended the game on my terms. In a terrifyingly chaotic and uncertain world, maintaining some degree of control over what happened to me helped to ease my anxiety. It allowed me to enforce some comforting stability on life’s hectic turbulence.

The tricky thing, however, is that while the decision to lose on purpose may be conscious, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re conscious of the reasoning behind it. Indeed, as a teenager I’m not sure I could have articulated why I felt the need to screw up on purpose. The key to solving this issue, for me anyway, was to drag these thought processes kicking and screaming out of the shadows of my subconscious and thrust them into the floodlights of conscious scrutiny.

Whether deliberate or subconscious, self-sabotage is like addictive psychological junk food; it may give us some relief in the short term, but at the cost of long term damage. It inhibits our growth, shackles our potential, and robs us of the success we deserve. But here’s the good news; since self-sabotage comes from ourselves, the power to stop it is ours as well.