Game Therapy

This post has taken me several days to start and nearly a month to publish— hence my post-a-month New Year’s resolution’s spectacularly late debut. It’s not because I have been uninspired, or because I have nothing to say. I’m actually — intellectually speaking— really, really excited about the subject matter I’m researching this month.  Unfortunately, a new medication recommended to help with persistent anxiety about the impending changes in my life backfired, sinking me into a three-week-long depressive haze thicker than any depression I have previously experienced (more on that next time). All motivation and sense of purpose left me, and I lacked the energy to pursue even a thought, let alone a tangible goal, to fruition. Thankfully, it seems that my doctor was right, and this crazy period was in fact my body adjusting to the new medication. After cutting my already-tiny dose in half I feel much more functional and am ready to write again.

So, I want to talk about video games!

Weird, I know. For those of you who know me personally, I am decidedly not a gamer. In fact, until a few weeks ago I fell decidedly into the category of girls-who-categorically-express-disdain-toward-all-video-games-and-those-who-play-them while never bothering to understand what all the fuss was about. The most mainstream iOS fad games that even my non-gamer friends played obsessively held no appeal— as my ballerina compatriots whiled away their subway rides with Candy Crush and explored the city with Pokemon Go, my phone remained sans games— and the hardcore games I’d heard of, like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, sounded downright repulsive. Video games of all varieties seriously felt like an unexciting, mildly addictive, despicably passive form of entertainment, like eating dollar-store potato chips mindlessly out of a bag for hours on end.

I grew up hearing that video games are bad for you, and that gamers are essentially those who have given up on real life. However, a few months ago I moved in with my best friends, a pair of avid gamers, and they are intelligent, complex, interesting people. They aren’t remotely violent, apathetic, or overly sedentary. In fact, they argued that for them, video games could actually be valuable, even therapeutic. I was skeptical, but undeniably intrigued at the discrepancy between my mental construct of gamers and my real-world experience of them. I began to research video games’ potential cognitive benefits, and the more I considered the facts, the more it seemed like my roommates might be right. I had read about virtual reality studies’ efficacy in treating anxiety, especially PTSD, and depression, and wondered if video games might be a similar, if less targeted, experience. I read a lot on the subject, and while there is definitely some contention, studies truly seem to suggest that the correlation between gaming and having a mood disorder might likely be correlative rather than causative. In other words, the latest hypothesis goes something like this: generally speaking, people don’t get depressed and isolated as a result of playing video games; people who are already depressed and isolated play video games as a form of self-medication, and it may actually work. You can read one of my favorite articles on this subject here, and try a new online game specifically made to help with mental health issues from social anxiety to alcoholism:    http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2015/11/how_video_games_can_teach_your_brain_to_fight_depression.html

Certain types of gaming may also act as a kind of therapeutic playground for people with social anxiety. Multi-player RPGs (Role-Playing Games, for the uninitiated) like my personal favorite, Final Fantasy XIV, allow people, in the guise of their characters, to exist in a populated world with predictable rules and modes of communication that provides a structured, low-stakes microcosm of real life social interaction. A study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior (Vol. 56, March 2016, p. 127-134) found that players of such games experience less social anxiety and loneliness online than in real-world interactions, and that such games provide “a highly social environment that encourages cooperation, communication, and friendship”. I do think it’s important to note, as McGonigal does in her article above, that the key to allowing video games to be helpful and not merely escapist lies in the conscious translation of online, in-game experiences to real-world situations, but these findings are significant, and I’ll be interested to see what insight further research brings.

Obviously gaming is not a panacea; it depends what kind of games you play, and your capacity to balance your life. Video game addiction is real, but then again so is alcoholism, and I like many others can handle an occasional drink without risk of dependence. I still adamantly shun graphic violence in all media, and I don’t think pretending to wreak wanton havoc and destruction, committing violent crimes and such onscreen and being rewarded for it, is healthy. I’m still very new to video games, though, and I’m not ready to make judgments about what will or won’t work for people. What I do know is what the latest research, like Ms. McGonigal’s, demonstrates: taking the mentality and structure of a video game and adopting a ‘gameful mindset’ toward life is actually an excellent coping mechanism when anxiety or depression or regular old life stress or exhaustion makes things tough. It worked for me: in those awful three weeks of crippling depression, playing Final Fantasy XIV with my roommates helped in ways that nothing else could. When fighting my own periods of finicky mental health, my instinct is to push hard: try to go to ballet, get outside, meditate, write, process. Sometimes, though, I’m learning that I just need something physically and cognitively easy. It doesn’t take much energy to sit on a couch with a controller in hand, but that doesn’t mean playing isn’t cognitively valuable: just as children play to learn new skills and makes sense of the real world, I play to practice skills I find difficult in real life: as my character explores unfamiliar territory, talks to strangers of all shapes and sizes, and goes bravely into (very magical, nonviolent) battles, the real me can take those safe, comfortable, but still-exciting experiences and translate them into real-life adventures of my own. In life as in the game, I am learning to trust myself and those around me. I have tools at my disposal, friends by my side, and a series of achievable quests to accomplish, both in parties and alone, and each of these small achievements advances my life and builds my identity and skill set in a small but meaningful way.

 

Please comment! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

xx

Sophia

Well, that happened.

I have a single Google Alert, set to collect articles containing the keyword “anxiety” in their titles. I use this daily email to keep abreast of the latest studies, treatments, journal articles, and pop-culture news surrounding anxiety disorders, but invariably several entirely unrelated entries pop up each day that are irrelevant to clinical anxiety but also happen to contain the word. It’s an interesting little way to gauge what things are causing anxiety in the public consciousness. Range anxiety for Tesla’s new electric car was a big one a few weeks ago.

Unsurprisingly, over the past couple of days my  Google Alert email has brimmed with articles discussing election anxiety: who has it, who should have it, how to deal. I was a very minimal election-anxiety sufferer; the New York Times and the polls both seemed to think that a Hillary presidency was all but inevitable, and I let myself believe them. Election anxiety, I thought to myself smugly, is probably the one kind of anxiety I don’t have. I congratulated myself on my calm rationality.

This is quite possibly the first time in my life I’m looking back on a situation and kicking myself for not having been more anxious. I wasn’t terribly politically active this election year. I stayed out of discourses and kept my political opinion largely out of my social media presence, partially because I didn’t feel informed enough to make judgment calls on specific policy issues and partially because some part of me just didn’t believe a Trump presidency was possible. The whole thing felt like a poorly-premised reality TV show, and I just kept waiting for it to fizzle out.

In a lot of ways, I still feel that way. This is a strange in-between time; it’s useless to ruminate on all the things I could have done leading up to this election, and dubious whether being more politically active could have made a meaningful difference in the outcome. It’s equally useless to cower in frightened anticipation of what will or will not happen in January when The Donald officially takes office. He seems to be entirely facade. Like his giant, gauche edifices, he has an exaggerated exterior that undeniably attracts attention, but there is no interior world to match his gleaming display. He is himself entirely surface, expensive and in-your-face and designed for publicity. This man was elected for his otherness and for the savvy, nouveau-riche tycoon he professes to be, not what he stands for; it’s unclear what his true stance is on many policy issues, and may remain so until he is given the power to take decisive action. Scary. Donald’s bark is loud and angry and apparently galvanizing to millions of dissatisfied blue-collar workers, but the nature of his bite remains to be seen.

I’m still stuck in a vaguely shocked state, but I’m sure the anxiety will hit me eventually, as it already has for so many of my friends. When it does, what should we do? My best guess is this: we stay present, we extend love and support to our environment and to the people around us, and we wait. I don’t know quite what to think, or if there’s anything to be done on a macro scale. However he attempts to rule us from his ivory tower in D.C., whatever hateful or ignorant rhetoric he tries to feed us, Donald cannot reach into our everyday lives and change us unless we let him. He cannot get into our hearts, governing our personal choices with doubt and fear and self-interest, unless we let him. We have the power to try to live more sustainably, to smile at each other in the streets, to respect each other’s differences and create inclusive communities on a person-to-person, everyday level, which is ultimately the scale on which all of us live our lives. We can’t change the reality of whatever will happen when he takes office, and we can’t fix the unutterable suffering of the immigrants and minorities and women who may be affected by his presidency. We can, however, choose to take this loss as a challenge to be the best, most generous versions of ourselves. Given how limited my individual agency feels at this point, it seems like the only decent option we have.

Thoughts? Comment below!

S

You Can Be Your Own Best Friend

When things aren’t great and you don’t feel like you have anyone to talk to about it, or if you aren’t sure what words to use or if talking would even make a difference, you can quite literally be your own best friend.

Try writing to yourself. Make a note on your phone, open your journal, scrawl in Sharpie up your arm– whatever does the trick. If writing isn’t convenient, you can even just think the words to yourself– it might feel crazy, but I promise, it helps. Pretend you are someone else, someone who loves and cares deeply about you, and advise the real, suffering you on your problems. We are, in general, far more apt to criticize ourselves when we aren’t feeling our best than we are to criticize a friend in distress. I imagine you’ll feel surprised by how much you can help yourself just by creating that small amount of distance, and by approaching your suffering with love and a supportive attitude.

I’m writing this post precisely because I’m not feeling my best today. I had a week at home with my family, and reentering my life after that has been a bit of a struggle. I’m not sure exactly what changed, but in the week that I stepped away from my normal living situation something shifted in my perspective, and I feel like an outsider in my own life. I can’t tell if this feeling is coming from just me or from outside, and I’m trying not to get too close to anyone, physically or in conversation, for fear the feeling of non-belonging isn’t just in my head. This is one of my particular insecurities: I feel unsure whether it’s my place to contribute or receive anything emotionally from the people around me, so I draw deeper inside myself. I imagine this doesn’t help the situation, but I don’t know what else to do, what to ask for.

It’s clearly time to take my own advice. So here I am, writing to myself, trying to be my own best friend.

Dear Me:

We all have bad days, and sometimes even bad weeks. For you, it’s only been since Thursday, which was three-and-a-half days ago. Yes, those three-and-a-half days have felt long, but it’s such a small amount of time in the grand scheme of things.

This small, rough stretch doesn’t mean you need to move away right now, or make any other drastic changes. You just chopped off all your hair, for goodness’ sakes, and I know your feelings about that are complicated. Remember that you value perseverance! There is courage to be found in the simple act of continuing to exist when you feel like shit. Change is coming soon enough either way (but you don’t need to worry about the spring right now! Give yourself a break from all that). Wait it out a little longer, let yourself re-acclimate. I’m glad you came to me for advice; the good news is that I know a lot about you (probably because I am you, but let’s put that aside for a sec), so I can probably help.

There’s no need to be angry with yourself. I know you long to be truly known by someone (not in the biblical sense, though that probably wouldn’t hurt). I know you hurt inside, that you feel like you’ve been trying all the ways you can think of to not be lonely anymore without actually involving anyone else. I know that you hate how lame you feel when you try to describe this. I know that trusting that the people around you love and care about you through all the mundanities and minor tribulations of everyday life is SO HARD when they have no logical reason to. I know your style: you try, as you always have, to make up for this uncertainty by making yourself an even-more-useful presence. Having someone around who can do dishes and help take out garbage is convenient, you reason, so people will be more likely to keep you around even if they don’t like you very much, even if you make almost no money and aren’t very fun all the time. You need to learn trust, if only to preserve your sanity.

Intangibles are hard to trust. I know. You’ve never been in love with someone who’s in love with you, so it’s so hard to comprehend the nature of the glue that sticks people together. At the same time, you want someone to stick to, to end the strangely empty feeling of having so much to share and no one to share it with. It’s ok, my friend. Twenty-two is a completely legitimate age for loneliness. Give love to your plants, to the strangers you smile at in the street. Radiate it to suffering people in faraway places, or pretend to, since you aren’t sure if that quantum action-at-a-distance stuff works on a macro level. Most of all, though, use this experience as an opportunity to be generous with your suffering comrades-in-loneliness. Share the difficult moments of this phase of your life to try to share hope and insight and empathy with the thousands of people out there who probably feel exactly like you do right now. This is not altruism; it will serve you as well. You are unique, yes, but not that unique. Your suffering is not unique.

Now I want to commit the ultimate act of hubris, and quote you to yourself. In public. From the first draft of the novel you’re trying to write in 30 days, ostensibly as part of National Novel Writing Month, but really as an act of emotional self-translation and sustainment. Yes, I know you’re cringing. Those words weren’t ever supposed to see the light of day, much less in unedited form. It’s good for you– Yup! It is. And even more importantly, it could theoretically be useful to someone.

“One couldn’t ever truly be lonely, she realized. The act of loneliness itself gave you exclusive membership in a club that expanded not horizontally but vertically, stretching back through time, connecting all the people who’d ever been lonely. The lonelier you were, the better, really. The lonelier you were, the more you belonged”.

 

If that thought doesn’t work, though, remember this: the bad days make the good days feel like a lie, but that doesn’t mean they were. Bad days don’t treat you well, so why would you choose to listen to them? Remember the feelings of light and warmth and hilarity and belonging, the ones that made you smile instead of crying when you closed your eyes at night and woke you up laughing and made car trips feel like adventures. Remember that the facts of life have likely changed only a little, that your mindset is the real culprit here. The good thing about the capricious nature of your thoughts is that things can get better just as easily as they can get worse. That, my friend, is a realistic kind of hope, and if you stay present with that feeling, the layers of defensive self-pity and hurt and rumination within which you’ve cocooned yourself over the last few days might just begin to unravel.

S

 

*Update: This happened a couple of days ago, and over the course of writing and editing it I’ve gotten to a much happier place.

Have you ever used writing to get yourself out of a difficult headspace? Please share your favorite techniques in the comments!

 

Life update No. 152 (approx.)

Hello, lovelies!

It’s been awhile. The last couple of months have been an intense period of decision-making, introspection, experimentation, and self-discovery, and I’ve been so engaged with the zigs and zags of daily life that it’s been difficult to push an idea through the requisite layers of edits into publishable form— it seems that my life, or at least my attitude toward life, has been changing more quickly than the time it takes to finish a draft.

I’ve been told that’s how your early 20’s are supposed to be, and in a bizarre paradoxical twist it seems it’s taken leaving the city for a quiet life in the country for me to finally feel properly young. Medication is helping, for sure, but it’s really the sense of community that does it— feeling like a valued member of my household, town, and local arts community reifies my sense of accountability and lends meaning to my daily actions on good days and less-good-ones alike. In the city, I felt a bit homeless; a sense of fundamental restiveness and perpetual difficulty in feeling like I belonged in the world distanced me from the goings-on at Columbia and around my neighborhood. Some people feel suffocated by small-town life, but here, with the support of close friends and family nearby, I feel less unmoored and more free. I know, bittersweetly, that I must eventually outgrow this phase, that I have further things to do and places to go in my life, that I want a degree or three and a performance career and a relationship and who knows what else, but I also feel a new and wonderful sense of belonging. Returning to my hometown as one of not so many young single adults in a community of new families, deeply rooted local artisans, and aging farmers, I sense that I am not an anomaly or a failure but an integral part of a centuries-old cultural ecosystem, a fundamental structure for teaching and learning and passing on traditions, and I can learn from and teach those around me who are in different stages of life just as I learned from and taught my older and younger peers in the multi-age classrooms of my Montessori school.

All this being said, my formal education is currently on hold, though I’m learning more than ever. I am technically on a semester-long leave of absence from Columbia, though I have little desire to return— I hate to give up on anything, especially my vestigial-yet-romantic dream of the Ivy League, after just a year, but GS too expensive to continue attending unless it’s truly the right fit for who I am now, and it isn’t.

Columbia is an excellent place for those who enter college already knowing exactly what they want to pursue. Nearly all courses there require previous knowledge in the subject area, if not actual course prerequisites, and the extensive list of core requirements plus an even longer list of major-track courses leaves very little room for academic experimentation. I returned to academia after four years away, and I’ve just begun to think about what a career that isn’t only dance might look like; I’m not in a place where I can commit to a major without trying out a whole lot of classes first. Also, and perhaps most importantly, I sincerely doubt that a single-subject major supplemented by a standardized core curriculum is the best possible structure for my education. My love of learning is fundamentally interdisciplinary; no matter what I choose to do with my degree, it will draw from the humanities, arts, and sciences. I can’t imagine picking just one discipline; it’s entirely contrary to the primary value I see in the disciplines as a whole, which is the ability to use them against and within each other as triggers for new modes of thinking, breaking out of unproductive thought patterns and cycles, and providing contrasting yet symbiotic systems of metaphor and comparison by which to inform the worldview perpetuated by each. I believe that interdisciplinary knowledge makes for success in any chosen field; the poet Mary Oliver has a biologist’s eye for the natural world, bringing a scientific lens to her artful verse; today’s jazz musicians interact with fMRI technology to lend science new insight into the neurobiology of creativity; and recent performances by Pilobolus and other prominent dance groups at TED conferences have demonstrated the glorious aesthetic beauty and insight that comes from the union of art and science as a teaching tool and catalyst for progressive thought.

I am not sure what form my future career will take, but I imagine that my professional self will reflect this intrinsic part of who I am as a learner, drawing from disparate fields to generate unique ways of helping others. If I am to develop this blog, which is essentially a creative project that I hope can be used as a therapeutic resource, I need to know more about creative writing, psychology, marketing, and programming; to develop as a dance teacher I would like to deepen my knowledge of anatomy and physiology; to work as a professor-researcher in the humanities and become a “militant intellectual” in the style of Foucault (a more serious goal than you might think) I must develop my knowledge of history, philosophy, and foreign languages. I am recreationally intrigued by German literature, quantum mechanics, Japanese, and computational linguistics; equally by choreography, sustainable agriculture and design, and fine art. This semester I have been incredibly lucky to be able to pursue some of my interests informally, taking an online course in Pre-Calculus to get my math foundation securely under me, auditing an Intro to Computer Science course at Bennington College, and being tutored in written and spoken Japanese by a friend in preparation for a six-week-long trip to Japan this winter. I am also in conversation with the coordinators of the Justice in Education program at Columbia, which I was involved with as one of two non-incarcerated students in a joint Humanities seminar integrating formerly incarcerated and non-incarcerated Columbia students, about developing an iPad-based coding education program for inmates at Rikers using Apple’s new Playgrounds app. I hope to continue my performance career in dance as well.

I know that I am a serious paradox; learning and anxiety, the two guiding elements of my life, are often mutually-exclusive opposites, from the ideological all the way down to the chemical level, Fight-Or-Flight vs DHEA. Panic shuts down the higher learning processes of the brain, while taking in knowledge is a fundamental part of feeling safe in one’s environment. Paralyzing fear of failure, which I have suffered from all too often (especially in high school math), is learning’s greatest inhibitor; when I feel too stressed by my environment, my affective filter kicks in, and my mind goes summarily blank. This, of course, leads to a vicious cycle of intimidation when presented with new material, hence my belief that I am fundamentally incapable of higher math when in reality I was only fundamentally terrified of it. The last couple of months have taught me that, if I surmount the fear, comprehension and command do follow— I have an A in pre-calc at the moment, a course I nearly failed in high school, and I intend to move into Calculus next semester, either online or at school.

My one goal in life used to be overcoming anxiety; I worked on this by putting myself in anxiety-inducing situations and attempting to stick it out without fleeing. This form of exposure therapy is effective on a small scale, but spending all day every day fighting anxiety was anxiety-inducing in and of itself, and made other aspects of my life feel meaningless. Daily existence was an endurance mission and left me emotionally depleted, with little energy reserve to channel toward social activities or facing challenging subject areas in the classroom. Thus I stuck to courses in fields— humanities, dance, art— with which I was already comfortable, dropping math and science courses for which I was emotionally and practically under-qualified. I lasted exactly one day in Columbia’s Intro- level Computer Science course, a massive lecture-hall of 400-plus students, before deciding that CS wasn’t going to happen for me.

This fall I tried a different approach, fighting anxiety not with grim determination but by placing myself in situations where my values could outweigh my fears. I am now nearly halfway through my Intro to CS class at Bennington, a small course of 16 students and one TA which allows for extremely high levels of student-teacher interaction. I am happy to say that I am now seriously considering using CS in some capacity in my future career. Classroom culture is an incredibly important factor in my success here— far more than so-called talent or aptitude. I would likely not have returned to CS if I hadn’t had a friend strongly suggest that I enroll in this course, and it’s now a huge part of my life and a major interest of mine.

I now know that I need school to be above all a safe space to explore the subjects that feel frighteningly — intriguingly — beyond me. I loved my Columbia classes, but they played essentially to my strengths, and the feeling of imbalance I’d suffered from when I was solely dancing lingered despite my return to academia. Moving forward, I hope to study somewhere where I am limited only by my own creativity and the amount of energy I am willing to invest. I am ready to fight fear not with brute endurance but with learning, to replace the isolation of extreme anxiety with the intellectual and social connections engendered by a self-made, interdisciplinary plan of study. At least, that’s my hope!

As always, I love to read your reactions in the comments!

(Sorry this got so long!!)

S

Anticipatory Anxiety

I’ve always been what my mother calls a “pre-worrier”. Even before I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, I would plan meticulously for new events and stay up worrying about them the night before, turning possible outcomes over in my mind. After my first panic attacks, this habit of anticipatory anxiety became debilitating. Now, I didn’t just fear frightening future events– I was effectively terrified of the power of my own fear as well. My symptoms became physical as well as mental: a lightheaded, vertiginous feeling; an inability to focus; constriction in my chest. I constantly defaulted to an overwhelming and highly imaginative stream of “what-if?” thoughts, crafting and predicting a literally dizzying array of dangerous, unpleasant, disappointing, and otherwise negative outcomes.

I’ve recently started taking anxiety medication on a trial basis, so I’ve been attempting to direct mindful (nonjudgmental!!) attention toward noticing what parts of my anxiety have or haven’t changed as the daily pills take effect. Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed that, while my ability to stay physically calm and mentally rational in previously anxiety-inducing situations is improving, my anticipatory anxiety hasn’t gotten the message yet. As a result, I’m somewhat back to my pre-panic-disorder version of anxiety: spending a disproportionate amount of time mentally fearing/attempting to prepare for/trying to find all the ways I can theoretically control negative outcomes of future events that, when they finally arrive, are both a) not in my control and b) not such a big deal.

I imagine that noticing this tendency toward anxious anticipation is the first small step toward turning it around. I can feel my reluctance to let go of the habit of anticipatory anxiety: what if I stop worrying, and then something does go wrong that I haven’t mentally prepared for? (Of course, this is the anxiety talking. My rational self understands that worrying about the future doesn’t actually give me more control over what will transpire– it only sets me up to be more worried as whatever happens, happens). My guess is that, because I’m so habituated to preparing for the worst, it will take several rounds of positive experiences in each of my various fear categories (solitude, driving, etc) before my expectations for those situations recalibrate accordingly.

I’m interested to hear all of your experiences with anticipatory anxiety. Is this something you experience often? What is the relationship between your anticipatory anxiety and the situational anxiety that occurs when actually doing something you fear? Please share in the comments!

xx

S

Medication.

Buspirone, to be precise. It’s a mild anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) drug in the azapirone class, meaning it works on the neurotransmitter serotonin, but in a slightly different way from standard SSRIs like Prozac and Lexapro. I really thought I was done with medication, but two weeks ago, after meeting with my doctor, I agreed– after much hesitation– to give it a try.

Saying yes to medication wasn’t easy for me this time around. I’d tried a few different anxiety medications as a pre-teen when my panic attacks first hit, with little success, and had been essentially med-free since (excepting the first few weeks of a particularly dark time four months after my dad’s death, when my doctor prescribed as-needed Xanax to help release me from a seemingly endless cycle of panic attacks). Shortly before I left New York in May, I finally had the courage to throw the last of those pills away. Though I hadn’t taken one in nearly four years, just having the bottle around felt like a crutch I no longer wanted to rely on. I promised myself I was done with drugs; though I was still definitely struggling, I wanted to stick to healing myself through physical activity, diet, mindfulness, and formal meditation. I was proud of this decision, and felt like any extra discomfort on my part would be made worthwhile by the knowledge that I was living by my values.

By the end of the summer I was feeling pretty good, emotionally speaking, but was still having problems with dizziness and vertigo, which I’ve dealt with for several years. It’s a chicken-egg conundrum; Neither my doctor nor I can really tell if my dizziness is causing anxiety or being caused by it. I went to see a neurologist, who pronounced me fine, and thought that I should try treating my anxiety more aggressively before looking into other options like migraine drugs or allergy shots. At the time, I didn’t really think about the fact that her suggestion meant giving medication another try, so it came as rather a surprise when I got a call from my primary care doctor asking where she should call in a prescription. My initial reaction was to call off the whole thing, but– having spent the last year working on mindfulness– I decided it might be prudent to schedule a meeting with my doctor to discuss my options. Following this, I conferred with my mom and sister, and a couple of trusted friends.

Here is what I realized:

Often, when I don’t want to do something, my hesitation is based on fear; deciding whether or not my fear is legitimate, or at least worth paying attention to, is a big part of my mindful decision making process. I’m not against medication in general; I know it does great things for some people, and I completely respect those who choose to use anxiety medication and would love nothing more than to help eliminate the ridiculous stigma it still sometimes carries. Given that I have never had a problem with other people using medication, I wondered why I was so frustrated and angered by the prospect of ingesting it myself. After a bit of thought, I realized my anti-medication stance might be less of an evolved intellectual position, and more of a gut-level reflexive fear. It’s amazing how some of our highest ‘values’ are really driven, at their core, by simple, base instincts!

After attempting to think hard and honestly about my real reasons for not wanting to take medication, I came up with quite a mixed list. Some, ultimately, were legitimate and pretty well-founded: the research around anxiolytic drugs is mixed, I don’t really trust pharmaceutical companies, and the long-term effects of many of these medications is pretty unknown; some can be quite addictive. Yet some of my fears were uglier, trickier to articulate, and these were really the issues forming the core of my resistance: I was afraid of social stigma, of uncomfortable side-effects, afraid of feeling undefinably weird, afraid of ceding control of some part of my brain to a chemical I didn’t fully understand. Partially, it was an issue of control: taking a pill felt like a very passive solution to a problem that I felt I should solve with hard work and education. I didn’t want to hand over the reins. I really thought that taking a pill would turn me from an empowered individual working  to make a better life for myself into a helpless victim.

These, I realized, were childhood fears, vestigial remnants of the mentality I had had when, as a terrified pre-adolescent new to anxiety, I was handed medication for the first time. It turns out, oddly enough, that I am not that scared child anymore. Taking a pill doesn’t mean I have to be passive, or that I need to drop everything else I’ve learned and cling to medication as my lifeline: I can use the years of self-discovery, of meditation and breathing exercises and research, to create a mindset conducive to allowing the medication to work for me in tandem with tools I’ve already learned. I realized that not giving medication a shot would be a decision coming from a closed-off place of fear as opposed to one of openness and strength. In my case, saying no to medication without trying it first would be just another way of succumbing to anxiety, allowing my mind to be closed by fear. Thus I decided to give this Buspirone a try.

 

I’m still not totally comfortable with the idea of being on medication. I’m not a fan of Big Pharma, I don’t love that modern medicine still doesn’t really know how these drugs work (when they do, which isn’t always), and I still believe in the power of self-healing through other means. Also, quite honestly, taking a pill for anxiety makes me remember some pretty tough times in my life when I’ve really felt like I needed medication, and that mentality is one I’ve expended considerable time and effort moving beyond. However I’ve decided that, while I’m not 100% comfortable with medication, it has the potential to drastically improve my life, and to ease the burden on those around me. Also, I get to decide what kind of a medication-taker I’m going to be. I’m going into this with as much  information as I can: I’ve done my research on Buspirone and am continuously learning as much as I can about what it’s theoretically up to inside my head. As a result of this, I haven’t fallen back into the kind of passive victim mentality I was afraid of. My best friend gave me a great metaphor when he asked me to consider thinking about medication as a dance partner: yes, it can assist me in doing things that I couldn’t otherwise accomplish, but have to do my part as well, or nothing will happen. I take a pill every day, but I don’t spend my life passively waiting to see if it helps. On the flip side, I try not to be hyper vigilant, falling into the trap of constant self-monitoring for symptoms or improvements. If it works, it works; if it doesn’t, I can (under my doctor’s supervision) stop using it. In an effort to feel more engaged in my treatment plan, I’ve also set up a system of charts, based on my research into various anxiety scales and accompanied by a daily journal, so I can more objectively gauge the medication’s effect over a six week period. I still meditate and work out and dance and write and do yoga and try to eat mindfully and learn about alternative forms of treatment, and I think it’s possible that one day those things may be enough to give me the full and dimensional life I want. For now, I’m borrowing an Oliver Sacks-ian philosophy of life as a series of experiments and adventures.

How do you feel about medication? Do you currently take anything that you find to be particularly helpful? Share your story in the comments!

 

(Portrait of the bucolic bliss that is Marlboro, VT by yours truly. I am taking a semester off from Columbia to live with friends in Westminster, VT. I am incredibly grateful to live in such a beautiful place.)

Strike a [Power] Pose

Years of dance training have taught me that the shapes we make with our bodies can have a profound influence on our moods and emotions. Perhaps nowhere has the mind-body connection more been more evident to me than in the dance studio; the way a student feels about a step, a correction, or a part of their body is almost always so apparent in the way they physically approach the challenges of codified movement. Science is beginning to support this notion as well: Amy Cuddy, a former professional ballet dancer, traumatic brain injury survivor, and current behavioral psychologist, has explored the notion that body positions can affect mood in people as they prepare for stressful events, and while her study– as all scientific studies should be– is a topic of heated debate, testimonials have been pouring in from people whose lives have changed for the better. “Power poses”, as the media has dubbed them, are brief postures that just about anyone can learn. They’re free, accessible, and have no side effects other than people looking at you strangely if you choose to execute them in public… So in my opinion, they’re absolutely worth a try.

Here are the poses, as demonstrated by study participants:

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To learn more, listen to Amy Cuddy talk about power posing on this episode of the (wonderful) podcast 10% Happier:

And here’s her wildly popular TED talk:

 

…As Dr. Cuddy says:

Fake it until you become it.

S

(image credit: comicbookbrain.com, jamesclear.com)