Why Being positive is bad for worriers

Posted on Category:The Little Panic Blog

As a professional worrier, I feel I have the authority to say that telling a worrier to think positively is as helpful as telling a sniper to loosen up. This is not only useless advice, it actually makes worriers more worried. You see, worry is a strategy we use to adapt to reality, which to us, feels uncertain, threatening, dangerous and harmful. The more a worrier worries, the safer we feel. You know what scares us? “Being positive.” If we were to start “being positive” we’d stop worrying, and worrying is what keeps our loved ones alive, the plane from crashing and our lab results from coming up terminal. Worry protects us; it keeps us safe. It’s our life-vest and telling us to be positive is asking us to remove the thing that keeps us afloat. You want us to be positive? Okay, then you go be anxious because SOMEONE HAS GOT TO WORRY OR THE WORLD WILL EXPLODE, AND MELT INTO LAVA AND FLAMES.

I can’t remember who made this image. Maybe Margaux Williamson?

One of anxiety’s hallmarks is a fear of uncertainty. Worry tricks us into believing that worry will reduce this uncertainty. We become convinced that we are controlling our environment when we worry. Telling us to stop doing this is useless and naive. The truth is, worry is an avoidance technique. Worrying helps us avoid the thing we most fear. If you ask a worrier when they are actively worried, what they are most afraid will happen, they’ll be hard-pressed to tell you, truly, what they are afraid of.

When I ran my series Happy Ending, I had to get onstage and perform. I was terrified, but I did it because despite having a panic disorder, I was also born with a need to perform, so it’s also exhilarating. But I was always afraid of bombing. If you asked me what I feared the most about doing badly onstage, I would have said: “I’ll die.” But that wasn’t actually the fear. I was too anxious to even allow myself to think of my real fear. Anxiety is a tool we employ to avoid thinking of the worst case scenario.

Me freaking out (in a terrible outfit) in the green room at Joe’s Pub, before a show.

My actual fear of bombing would have been that I would have been exposing, to the entire audience, that I am fundamentally flawed. That I’m not good at the thing I pretend I’m good at, that I don’t belong on stage, that someone else would do whatever I’m trying to do much much better than me. My actual fear was that I would be revealed as an imposter. But this nugget of truth is what anxiety is protecting me from knowing–not helpful. And telling me to “stay positive” is bringing me even farther away from knowing what’s truly at the center of a worry. On top of this, that advice makes your worried friend feel farther away from you, more convinced that you will never understand them.

Me onstage at Happy Ending pretending to be the musical guest.

The truth is, telling someone to “look on the bright side,” is a way to help them escape their worries, not confront them. Aphorisms like “You just need to love yourself” or “You need to believe in yourself how I believe in you” are techniques that set the worrier up for more worrying. The worrier is scared of uncertainty. When they’re terrified, they’re stuck at one end of an extreme, and you’re trying to make them feel better by pulling them to the other side of the extreme, but where they need to be is in the uncertain middle. We need to help our anxious friends and loved ones learn that uncertainty is not dangerous. That it’s okay to feel afraid. The only way we can move through our fears is if we move toward them, not catapult over them. Perhaps, they are not the only ones afraid of the uncertain middle.



Posted on Category:The Little Panic Blog

It’s easier to be a good parent when you are not a parent at all. I think if I actually were a parent (to a human child and not a dog child) I would not be able to respond to the daily traumas as rationally as I can with someone else’s child.

A couple of weeks ago, I was out of town with a few families and their children. There were several houses on the property, and we were all in one of the houses together, when one of the children, a four-year-old wandered out. Not long after, someone else brought him back in and he was crying. He’d gotten lost, the grown-up person explained, and was wandering outside, scared. His mother felt terrible and held him. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry. That was a rare event. It won’t happen again,” she said to soothe him.

But, because I was that child, (and in some ways, still am that child) one afraid of not knowing what to do if I get lost, I over-identified with his experience and knew that what she was giving him was only half of what he needed. When she finally put him down, and we all went back to talking I felt unresolved on his behalf and knew that if no one closed the circle for him, he would not learn what to do when he got lost, and he would never feel safe enough to venture away from his mother.

He wanted to go back to the other house and play, so I asked his mom if I could take him. She said yes, and off we went. Outside I asked him to show me what happened when he got lost, and he walked me to the front door of the other house and reached his hand up to the knob, which was a good two feet too high for him.
“Oh!” I said. “The handle is too high for you. What should we do? What are some ideas for how to get in if we can’t reach the handle?”

He thought about it, but couldn’t come up with an answer. “What if you tried to knock on the door? Knock hard so even a person with hearing aids can hear you.” When he knocked, a bunch of voices called out “COME IN!” but he couldn’t reach the handle, so he couldn’t come in. He looked confused. “Let’s knock again until they answer the door,” I said. So he did that, and the door opened.

And presto, we were inside. We hung out for a bit and when we left to go back to the other house, I asked him to tell me what he would do the next time he got locked out of a house, and he told me. It felt so easy and obvious to me, but if I were his parent, I don’t think it would have felt so easy and obvious. I would probably have done exactly what his mother did and soothed him, felt terrible on his behalf and left it at that.

Reality was terrifying to me as a child. I often didn’t know what to do and got lost. I was soothed all the time, but no one ever took the time to teach me the tools and skills for participating in reality; to prepare me for what to do when things went wrong. Soothing me without teaching me what to do, taught me that I was right to be afraid, that the world was too hard for me and that kept me in a state of fear. I had to learn how to undo it all once I became an adult. I’m still learning. Teaching other people’s children to do what no one taught me to do is healing, and I hope that some of these blog posts can help some parents to realize that soothing their children is just one part of making their kids feel better. The other part is teaching them what to do when things go wrong. Because a lot of things go wrong.



Posted on Category:The Little Panic Blog

So many people raise their children in opposition to how they were raised. They decide in advance what they will do differently, how their methods will ensure that what happened to them won’t happen to their own child. This is understandable on many levels, but it’s not practical, and more importantly, it’s not fair. You can’t base the parenting choices you make on the choices your parents made when they raised you. I mean, you can. Go for it, but you’ll simply be perpetuating the very cycle of parenting styles you are hoping to break. When you have a child, you don’t give birth to a mini-version of yourself. Certainly, your child might LOOK like a mini-you, but internally, they are their own person, and it’s that person that needs to be raised.

I don’t have children, but I have read more parenting books than most parents. And I’ve done this because I was a panicked-disordered little kid who needed to be raised differently than I was–but how? Parenting books have told me, and I’ve been able to understand what I needed versus what I got. Knowing this has taught me the reasons for some of my disabling fears, and in understanding what I got vs what I needed has been incredibly valuable for recognizing why I am the way I am, and how I can teach myself the things I never learned. It’s also taught me about the fundamental mistakes that parents make and the most fundamental mistake is this:

Parents so often raise the child they want, and not the child they have.

Little Panicker dancing

Here’s what that looks like. Your child is struggling in school. She’s getting bad grades. You ask her whether she can see the board, hear the teacher. She says yes, but just in case, you take her to the eye doctor, and to an audiologist. When everything comes back all clear, you take her for an educational assessment. You’re told she has a learning disability, and so you meet with her teachers to inform them, sit with her while she does her homework, get her a tutor, ask if she can work one-on-one with the teacher after class. These feel like the right things to do, but each one of these efforts has one thing in common–YOU. You are worried. You don’t want your kid to do poorly. You want your kid to succeed and you want to set her up for that success, and so you do all the things a parent is supposed to do to guarantee your child has what you didn’t. In your search for the answer, you are not only ignoring your child who actually HAS the answers for what is going on with her you’re also sending her the message that there is a way to be, and she’s not being it. You are working hard so that your kid matches the kid you expect her to be and not the kid she is.

But she has a learning disability, you’re saying! Okay, sure. She learns differently from you. But guess what? You learn differently from her. So, do you have a learning disability? There isn’t one way to learn. We are not all the same. The way you learn might work better for the type of educational system that we’ve instituted for all our children, but just because it’s not right for her, doesn’t mean she’s the one who’s wrong. We spend so much of our time trying to bend our child to fit the world, and never work to bend the world to fit our children.

When I was little, my best friend was deaf. She could read lips, and she didn’t sign. It was up to HER to keep up with us. But what if we had all learned how to sign? What if we had helped prepare her to be part of the deaf world as well as the hearing world? We would have learned a new language, she would have felt included and she wouldn’t have had to bear the brunt of learning at the same rate as the hearing kids.

Our children shouldn’t have to prove themselves to us. We should be proving ourselves to our kids. I know people who are constantly pushing their kids to prove to adults how well they can read, or how well they can dance. And when the kid doesn’t measure up while “proving” how well she reads, the parent apologizes on her behalf, assuring the audience of adults that she in fact “can read very well for her age, she’s just being shy.” These demands and apologies send the message to your child that the things about her that are valuable are the things YOU think are valuable. What does she value? What does she feel? Why not celebrate those things?

“Children of Langa” byznagelphotography is licensed underCC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Our children have so much to teach us, but when we’re so focused on getting them to fit into the world as we know it, we’re actually overlooking the essence of what makes our kids so interesting and individual. Let’s spend more time allowing our kids to show us who they are, and a bit less time telling them how we want them to be.


A New Model for Being Human

Posted on Category:The Little Panic Blog

We are solitary creatures whose lives are as unknowable to others as they often are to ourselves. The messages I received early on suggested that there was a right way to be known, a correct way to be a person and I wasn’t being it. So, I looked to others as my barometer for how to be. This constant looking out to define myself based on the world’s idea of what was good and right was my attempt to become “normal”; to fit inside the world’s standards.


The Sickness Chapter

Posted on Category:The Little Panic Blog

In honor of my sickness and my obsession with what getting sick might mean for me, I have resurrected a lost chapter from LITTLE PANIC, one on sickness, that was killed, swiftly and painfully, at the last minute. I present it to you now…


            There is no reason for my back to hurt, but it does just like that and out of the blue, and that’s why I think it’s cancer. Alex’s sister’s back hurt and she ignored it for months and when she finally went to the doctor they told her she had cancer of the soft cells and she died four months later. I didn’t do anything strenuous, so there’s really no explanation for it. If I have cancer then I’ll regret how much of my life I’ve wasted and I’ll be paralyzed because I’ll know it’s too late now to even try and achieve my goals. If it still hurts tomorrow, it’s cancer. Maybe I should take something. I’ll take something. If the Advil doesn’t work, it’s cancer.

            Cancer would explain my relentless exhaustion, which I’ve Googled and is definitely a symptom. I’ve been exhausted for months, and I don’t know why, but now my back hurts and I can feel a new, terrible reality descending on me. Also my pee is pretty dark, which the Internet says is dehydration, but I know it’s other things, too. Just in case, I drink some water. When I lie down I feel a sort of throbbing in my sinuses, which makes me think that maybe it’s a sinus infection that’s making me so tired. When I look it up, I see it’s a symptom. I follow the links in the comments section and wind up on an allergy site and read an article on inflammation, then follow the links in that comments section to a natural remedies site. I love natural remedies. Anything that promises to change and fix me, I believe, and buy. I learn about Edgar Cayce, the father of holistic medicine, who discovered an ancient healing technique that offered instant cures. All you need is hemp or wool flannel, a towel, a heating pad, a glass jar, a plastic bag, a spare bed sheet and Castor Oil. After buying all that, I come across other anti-inflammatory cures: turmeric soaks, Colostrum pills, oil pulling, nasal rinses, tea tree oil and lavender for the bottom of your feet, and a raw CURES EVERYTHING ginger, apple cider vinegar and garlic shots. Soon, it’s four hours and ninety-three unanswered emails later.


I am sick

Posted on Category:The Little Panic Blog

I don’t feel well. I’ve been fighting off a cold for two or three weeks, but now it’s descended upon me and I’m sick. As an anxious person, getting sick is always a little scary. If a new symptom arises, one that’s not normally associated with the cold I’m used to getting, I become worried that I have Cancer. I am always afraid I have Cancer. My back hurts a bit and I immediately worry that it’s terminal. This is because I’m afraid of death, and I’m afraid of death because I have extreme separation anxiety, and–get ready for this one–I’m afraid to be away from the people I love after I die (despite not believing in an afterlife). I’m also afraid I’ll be forgotten.

But, back to getting sick. I get sick a lot. I get sick when there is something big on the horizon I don’t want to get sick for. I get sick when I start dating someone I REALLY like. Essentially, I have mastered the art of willing myself ill. I don’t like having low energy. Or feeling too unwell to get out of bed and walk my dog. When I’m sick, I worry that I’ll never get well. That this is the sickness that will last forever. That I will be the one person in the world to catch the UNcommon cold, which never ceases.

“sickness spreading” by bornazombie is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Because I grew up with a heavy mist of dread taking up all the room inside my body, I am not a fan of feeling symptoms that suggest I am not well. Until I went on Anti-Depressants when I was 25, my anxiety was relentless, all-encompassing, and it scared me. When it grew thicker and more ominous, I often couldn’t move because I was afraid I’d knock something loose and the dread would grow worse and kill me. So much of my childhood was spent being held against my will by the symptoms inside my body, that now, when I get sick, it scares me in the same way my anxiety scared me growing up.

And, because whatever was plaguing me didn’t plague other kids, I naturally assumed I was the only person in the world to be suffering in this particular way. Now, when I get sick, I often need to announce my ailments and ask other sick people what their symptoms are, just to make sure ours match and that I don’t have a rare form of something that might kill me.

This is all to say that anxious people, when sick, are unhappy in a very specific way.


Anxiety is not Negativity

Posted on Category:The Little Panic Blog

One of the most annihilating feelings is to be misunderstood. For people with anxiety, who already feel alienated and afraid of so much, being perceived as negative is especially confounding and isolating. In all my years of being a human being, there has never been a girl or woman to ever–to my face, at least–call me negative.

Men, not all--obviously, seem to register anxiety as negativity or complaining. My guess is that their inclination is to fix problems by offering solutions and when the anxious person remains anxious, even after the solutions are proposed, men can’t help but mistake the continued ruminating for complaining, which to them feels negative. This is totally valid, but it’s not what’s going on.

It’s not difficult to identify anxious thinking once you know what to look for. When someone repeats the same worries on a loop, and the solutions you offer are tossed aside, you are dealing with an anxious person. Ask yourself if they’re in a time of stress. Do they have a book coming out? Then they’re fucking anxious. Are they moving, having to take a plane, starting a new job, going on a first date? ANXIOUS ANXIOUS ANXIOUS. Yes, it can be annoying to be around an anxious person. But, instead of doing what you’ve always done, why not try a different tactic. Next time, say: “You know what? I just realized you might be anxious, and it’s not solutions you need, but reassurance.” If you say that, you will be the most ideal human anyone has ever met.

Anxious people are constantly scanning for danger, and in so doing, train their brains to pay attention to possible threats. Because we fear uncertainty, anything ambiguous reads to an anxious brain as dangerous. Something positive is understood as positive, but we’re on the lookout for danger, and that’s where we get stuck. Anything that an anxious person finds anxiety-producing is something they’re afraid will hurt them. All human beings are hard-wired with a negative bias, but anxious people seem to have gotten a larger dose. This doesn’t mean we’re negative (just as non-anxious people aren’t instantly negative because they too have a negativity bias) it just means that our hypervigilance to things we fear is our loudest channel.

While many understand that people get anxious when outside expectations are placed upon them, anxiety has other expressions. Something happens when an anxious person has–against a lot of odds–met or exceeded their expectations and the world overlooks their achievements. This type of anxiety manifests as a focus on absence, on not being included. For instance, when LITTLE PANIC came out, I was hyper-aware of all the other memoirs about mental health and illness that were getting the attention I wanted for my book. When literary blogs would list the 50 summer books they were most excited for and mine wasn’t on any of those lists, I didn’t simply feel excluded, I honestly worried that no one saw my book, or even knew that it came out. Anxiety makes us believe that being ignored is akin to not existing. Often people with anxiety disorders grow up feeling invisible because they suffer from an invisible illness, and the core of their true suffering is often ignored. Anxiety gets attached to this reaction pattern, and so we treat the world as though it’s ignoring us also.

When I was left off of lists I felt invalidated and ignored. It’s not that I felt entitled to be on any lists, it’s that the absence of recognition confirmed my deep-rooted fears that I wasn’t a person to ever take seriously, that no one would ever actually SEE me. The frustrating thing for those who suffer from anxiety, and for the people around them, is that an anxious person is often unable to take in the positive things, and focuses instead of the negative things, which, in turn, is construed as negativity, but it’s not. It’s a reliance on a deeply developed pattern of receiving information and protecting the self from being exposed as a failure. People are deeper and more complicated than you realize. Just because you think a person is complaining and negative doesn’t mean that they are.

Anxiety in action is an obsessive rumination. When you are having an anxiety attack, you get trapped within a closed spiral of thinking, and you have a tremendously hard, if not impossible, time focusing on anything else. In certain circumstances, all we really need is reassurance that we are seen, heard, visible and valued.

So, next time you think someone is being negative, take a second and ask yourself if there’s a chance you might be wrong. Ask yourself if this person has a reason to be anxious. Most likely, the answer is yes.


Raising parents

Posted on Category:The Little Panic Blog

Dear parents of Little panickers,

I am your kid, all grown up, and I’d like to tell you a few things you may not know about the child you raised from scratch.

Your child is not acting out “to be difficult” or “for no reason.” If your child is coming to you, complaining they can’t sleep when they haven’t even tried, there is something going on, they just don’t have the words to say. You need to help them. If your child is having tantrums that you can’t explain, that are getting worse, the tantrum is the frustration they feel being unable to express themselves and what they need. Your anxious kids have extraordinary feelings. They register the world with their bodies first and foremost. Those registers don’t always break down into words, which means they cannot express themselves to you the way you are accustomed. You must learn the language your child speaks before trying to teach her your language, which is the language the world will demand of her.

Ordinary children experience the world with their minds AND their bodies. When they are worried, they can reach into their arsenal of reason and logic. They don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, or the next day, and they’re just fine with that. Things are vague and abstract? Not a worry. But anxious kids are not fine with that. They need things to be concrete; they need to know what’s going to happen. This is what anxiety is—the dread of uncertainty. The dread of discomfort. The fear of feeling fear. Of course, no one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow or the tomorrow after that but teaching your child how to break down abstract concepts like time, is a good place to start.


Panicking in public

Posted on Category:The Little Panic Blog

I grew up with a panic disorder that went undiagnosed until I was 25. No one knew why I couldn’t leave my mom without fearing she’d die or disappear, why I refused invitations to slumber parties and didn’t believe I’d be returned after a weekend at my father’s. When I had trouble learning to tell time, the adults wondered if I had a learning disability. So began a decade long odyssey of auditory, cognitive, behavioral and intellectual testing. No one told me what they were me testing for, but I knew intuitively my unrelenting fear was the problem—I couldn’t tell time because time meant leaving my mother and I didn’t want to learn more ways to say goodbye. It was dread that held me back, not my brain, but I was too young to have words to explain. Feelings were ruining my life, and testing made me worse.  

Everyone is watching me die in public.