HOW TO WRITE COMPLEX EMOTIONS

Posted on Category:The Little Panic Blog

From the time we’re small, we’re all taught how to see and think.  Advanced study will teach you how to look at scholarly work as a pattern that can be taken apart and studied. While being able to know what we think about the things we read and see are obviously critical, the more dedicated we are to the mind, the less connected we become to ourselves. In my writing class, I am going to teach you what school never did: how to feel. 

In Writing Complex Emotions, we are going to learn how to feel our somatic sensations; to identify the splashes and pulses trapped beneath years of avoidance and academic discourse, and learn how to capture their textures on the page. 

Whether you’re a literary wonder like George Saunders or a beginner, understanding emotions aren’t enough. You must feel them. Let me show you how.

This is a 4-hour workshop, split into two sessions. I am charging just $50 for this first two-session workshop. If it goes well, I will move the price to $100. So, if this interests you and you want in on the cheap price, please sign up now! 

Email amanda@amandastern.com with the subject line EMOTION.

Payment via Venmo, Paypal or Zelle.

THIS CLASS MEETS VIA ZOOM on MAY 16th and 17th from 10 am-12 pm. You will get a private Zoom link the day before the workshop.

LONGER DESCRIPTION

Feelings are hard to describe, much less write. Most writers rely purely on the physical to get their emotional point across. To indicate loss to the reader, the writer might rely on subtext, and by doing so they write about things on the surface: a bereft father catches sight of a man swinging his young daughter around on the beach. We understand and feel the gulf between what one man has lost and the other takes for granted. The more details we provide about both of these men and their daughters, the more we will feel because these details will signal the weight of absence. Often, in literature, what’s seen represents what’s not there. 

Writing emotion through staging and subtext works to elicit the appropriate feeling in your reader, but sometimes that isn’t enough. What if your aim is to offer readers articulation for the unsayable? Instead of nodding toward the gulf, how do we describe what the gulf feels like inside our bodies? 

In this class, I will take you through methods that will teach you to identify and write all possible emotions. You will learn how to drop inside your body for exploration, pulling the somatic sensations into your throat and onto the page. I will also teach you how to create emotion in the atmosphere. At the end of this class, you’ll have learned how to elevate not only your prose but your communication skills.

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ANXIETY & THE BODY

Posted on Category:The Little Panic Blog

When you have anxiety as a child, you lack the words for what you feel inside your body, and what you feel inside your body is so acutely awful, so wretched and horrifying, most anxious kids will spend their time actively looking for ways to avoid feeling the percolating dread filling their chests, bubbling into their throats and tingling down their arms.

The more they turn away from their own feelings, the more they suffer. If no one intervenes, they grow into teenagers who can easily find unhealthy ways to numb their suffering (which achieves their goal of avoidance) through alcohol and drug use. By now, these kids have gone so long trying to avoid what’s in their bodies, they’ve grown to fear not just the feelings, but the bodies that contain the feelings. They can’t drop down into their feelings, so they rise up and get trapped inside their heads.

This disconnection between head and body makes ignoring your body easy. When they grow into adults, this separation can be so acute that in order to actually feel their bodies they need to overeat or undereat to the point of discomfort. They drink to excess or rely on drugs to either numb or amplify their terrifying feelings. Their relationship to their body becomes dysregulated and they’ll spend years trying to work through it all.

If you have children, how do you prevent all this from happening? Well, you must start teaching your child how to listen to her body. When she’s angry, ask her where she feels it and what it feels like. Don’t let her get away with “I don’t know” or “You’re so annoying.” Make this question a habit. Ask her to point to where she feels her sadness, her gladness, her laughter.

If we can begin to train our children to listen to themselves early, we have a much better chance of reaching them when they’re teenagers. And they have a much better chance of developing a healthy relationship with their body.

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Anxiety & REALITY

Posted on Category:The Little Panic Blog

I’ve had a hard time writing blog posts about mental health this past month. There’s more than enough to write about, but I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by reality.

Anxiety is basically a fear of feeling fear, which means it’s a fear of experiencing and facing reality. And the reality of living in this world is very hard to face, even if you’re not the one in the direct line of suffering.

It’s hard to write blog posts about mental illness when kids are being separated from their parents at the border when black and brown people are killed because they’re not white, when white supremacists are bringing back the Swastika, when women’s rights are still up for debate, when patriarchy is still our default mode, when discrimination leeches its way through every category including gender, when the president of the United States is a white-nationalist leaning sociopath.

Our systems and institutions are so dysfunctional and dangerous they give rise to mental instability and it’s us, the people, who are persecuted for these structural deficiencies.

All this is to say, hi. I’m still here. I’ll write more soon, I promise. I’m just taking a mental health break from my mental health blog to shore myself back up.

Love, Amanda

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LOW TOLERANCE OR HIGH OVERWHELM?

Posted on Category:The Little Panic Blog

Sorry for the silence, I’ve been…overwhelmed.

I am overwhelmed by the large things that loom, the various and tedious tasks linked to each large looming thing, the subtasks and those subtasks, the accumulating emails, the highly un-editable online W-9 pdfs, this side hustle, that side hustle, the newest side hustle I agreed to before thinking it through, the following through, the reaching out, the unaggregated notes written in a variety of places offline and on, the labyrinthine hell of trying to get a refund, the children, the children, the parents separated from their children, the children, the children, the children.

Please consider donating to my fundraiser to RAICES. Advocates say the most meaningful thing we can do is pay the bail for these children.

BAIL.

FOR CHILDREN.

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WHAT IS A PANIC DISORDER?

Posted on Category:The Little Panic Blog

In the past year, while I’ve been traveling and talking about my memoir LITTLE PANIC and my life long panic disorder, I’ve noticed something interesting: a lot of people claim to have something they don’t actually have.

Do you have a panic disorder?

Probably not.

Do you have an anxiety disorder?

Perhaps.

A panic disorder is the chronic suffering from repeated and frequent, unprovoked panic attacks. There are no triggers. It’s not anxiety a person feels in those periods of time, it’s pure, unadulterated panic. Life-threatening panic. I lived for 25 + years with a panic disorder. My life was interrupted by frequent seizures of unprovoked terror. The distinguishing feature of a true panic disorder is a person’s fear of having a panic attack. This fear becomes so intense that the sufferer will go to great extremes to avoid suffering from a panic attack. Their lives get very small, and often people become agoraphobic.

It becomes an untenable way to live, and often, depending on the type of person you are, the will to be freed from fear’s dictatorship, forces a person to make a choice: succumb or fight back. I fought back, only after succumbing.

It’s not a badge of honor to claim something that you don’t suffer from, but for some reason, many people claim to have a panic disorder when they don’t. This makes it harder for people who truly suffer to be seen and heard, and taken seriously.

So…you might have occasional panic attacks, and you might have a ton of anxiety, but unless your life has been altered daily by frequent bouts of panic, you, my friend, are in the clear.

And you know who else is in the clear? Me. I still have panic attacks, but only about two a year. I am in remission. I’d like to get clear about who suffers and in what way so that we don’t muddy the waters for those who truly need care. So, the next time you have a panic attack, you don’t need to worry that you have a panic disorder. You probably don’t.

BUT…if you do have frequent and chronic panic attacks that interfere with your everyday life, please go see a psychiatrist and a therapist. No offense to primary care physicians, but I find they don’t take mental illness as seriously as those in the mental health business.

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STOP LYING TO YOUR CHILDREN

Posted on Category:The Little Panic Blog

Slate has a new parenting advice blog. In a recent post, a mother wonders…

“Should I Tell My Daughter About Her Dyslexia?”

She explains “I don’t want her to feel different, but does she have the right to know why she struggles where others don’t?”

Obviously, the question enraged me. But what enrages me, even more, is that it’s 2019, and parents are still wondering whether to treat their children as human beings.

So, as a person with very little patience for this kind of bullshit (my patience goes exactly where it should–to children, all of them, any age, all the time) I want the opportunity to answer it my way.

LADY, OH MY GOD, WHAT THE FUCK? Should I tell my daughter she has dyslexia?? Does she have the right to know?? First, fuck you. Second, she already knows. Your daughter knows she has Dyslexia, she just doesn’t know what it’s called because you are holding her hostage from her own reality. She is eight years old! Her problem isn’t that she has learning disabilities; her problem is you.

PARENTS! PLEASE, CAN I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION! Your children are human beings. You are afraid to fuck them up so you withhold the truth of who they are from them, and you withhold the truth of the world. You want them to continue being wholesome, innocent creatures, and you’re afraid that by telling them the truth you will corrupt them. The truth doesn’t corrupt them. Lying corrupts them. By not telling them what’s going on, ESPECIALLY WHEN THEY KNOW SOMETHING IS GOING ON, you are lying to them.

We protect our children, not by hiding the world from them, but by teaching them how to handle each hardship the world hands us. You want to raise healthy, strong, vibrant children and you want them to one day leave the bubble you have created for them and thrive, but for some reason, you don’t want to teach them how to face adversity and grow. You say you’re parenting, you insist that you’re a good parent, but parenting is teaching your children life-skills. It’s showing your children who they are, and who the world is, and then modeling for them how to manage these truths. Parenting is teaching your children to live independently in this world without you.

So please, I beg of you, do not coddle your children in this way. Do not hold them hostage to the world by keeping who they are from them. My entire life I was tested. Those results were withheld from me, and when I asked what was wrong with me, I was told I was a “slow learner,” and to this day, in my 40’s, I have trouble believing anything else. But I am not a “slow learner.” No one is a “slow learner.” The paradigm that exists to teach children is a one-size-fits-all model, and I am not “all.” I am me, and I learn through experience, not by sitting in a chair and listening to a teacher who is clearly bored by having to recite the same shit every day.

“Miss Sixty Jr Adv, Catalogue” by D-image studio is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

What was wrong with me was that I had a panic disorder, and I didn’t learn that fact until I was 25 years old. If at 8 years old, someone had told me what was wrong with me and had helped me learn how to manage it, I would not have suffered unnecessarily for a majority of my life.

So, my eight-year-old self is begging all of you to be honest with your kids. Tell them who they are, because they already know, they just don’t know what it’s called.

(here’s the original post from SLATE: https://slate.com/human-interest/2019/05/when-to-tell-children-about-disability-care-and-feeding.html)

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SECOND RESPONSES

Posted on Category:The Little Panic Blog

Whenever something feels off in my body, it’s cancer.

Whenever someone says they “have to talk to me,” they’re going to end our friendship.

Whenever something even slightly out of the ordinary occurs, I respond the same way–with an automatic over-reaction. This is anxiety. It’s the most reliable feature of my personality and if you have anxiety, it’s familiar to you, also.

Last week, I gave a big talk and was interrupted from the audience, by the woman running the show, telling me to hurry up and finish because people were walking out (actually, two women were just going to the bathroom). When the event ended, I was rushed out of the hall by another woman and into a smaller room to record a podcast. No one said thank you. No one emailed me the next day or the day after that. Obviously, they hated my talk and they hated me and I should just impale myself on something so that I am unable to ever travel and give talks again.

TEDxMtHood2016-233-DSC09868
“TEDxMtHood2016-233-DSC09868” by TEDxMtHood Planning Team is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Not once did it occur to me that their behavior was unprofessional, or even–the horror–rude! Nor did it occur to me that not everyone is gracious, or even good at what they do. Nope, it was me. It’s always me. ME ME ME ME ME. I’m the worst. I’m the ugliest. I’m the dumbest. I’m the most pathetic. These are my first reactions always, and they are not healthy or good for me, and they are never correct (but they sure are narcissistic!)

Anxiety is all about the first reaction, and that first reaction is often never right. And that’s why creating a second response to every situation is important, because most likely the second response is the one that’s more accurate.

Here’s an example: have you ever run into someone you know who has to hurry away, or can’t stop and say hi, or just waves and keeps going and you think: shit, what have I done? Then you worry all day that this person is mad at you for reasons you cannot guess, but you know MUST exist? And then you get an email a day later from the person apologizing, and explaining that they had just left therapy, or had been broken up with, or got rejected from law school or were withdrawing from meds or a hundred other things that happen to us on any given day.

Think about all the times you went to a fantastic party, sang its praises to everyone for weeks after, but for some reason never emailed the host. You didn’t hate the party. You were so caught up in the post-party reverie, it slipped your mind. There are so many things that we let slip that hurt other people and we don’t even know. Just how we become gripped by anxiety at other people’s foibles, so too are we causing others to feel anxious. We just don’t know about it.

Building a second response is fairly easy, and here’s how it’s done: Start writing down all the times you thought something was your fault and it ended up not being your fault (they weren’t mad at me, they were heartsick!) Write down every time you were wrong about why someone was late (they didn’t die! They were just on a stalled subway!) After a while, you’ll see that your reasons and the actual reasons don’t line up, and you’ll come to accept that there are tons of reasons why things happen and you are almost always wasting your time guessing.

Next time someone snubs you, or turns up late, or calls at you from the audience to tell you that people are leaving, you’ll have an arsenal of options for what might ACTUALLY be going on. First responders may be heroes, but for people with anxiety, second responders are who we want to be.

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SIGNS YOUR CHILD HAS ANXIETY

Posted on Category:The Little Panic Blog

This is a quick one because the paperback of LITTLE PANIC comes out tomorrow and I’m juggling a thousand tiny things.

Anxiety in kids manifests in a variety of innovative ways. I want to go over some of them so you know what to look for. Some of these ways don’t register to parents as anxiety because not everyone knows what to look for. So, here is your cheat sheet for some obvious expressions of anxiety in kids. (This is a VERY ABRIDGED list. I’ll add to it in time!)

OBVIOUS:

Your child doesn’t want to leave you
Your child is stuck in a rumination loop, and won’t stop asking you “what if” questions
Your child is always worried
Child complains of headaches and stomachaches on the eve or day of any large or small event
Your child won’t let anyone come for a sleepover
Your child clings to you and cries when one of you has to leave
Somatic symptoms like heart flutters in their chest and stomach, sweaty hands, dry mouth and a sense of being distant or far away.

NOT SO OBVIOUS:

Your child becomes extremely quiet and withdrawn
Your child throws temper tantrums
Your child is profoundly self-critical
Your child has very low self-esteem
Your child doesn’t try if there’s a chance they might fail (also known as a perfectionist)
Self-grooming behaviors (picking at skin, biting fingernails, toe-nails, hair pulling)
They suck their fingers or thumb and have trouble stopping
They have trouble focusing
Your child perseverates under stress
Your child’s voice sounds strangled, choked, more high-pitched than usual or tight.

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Teachers, Stop calling on students whose hands are not raised.

Posted on Category:The Little Panic Blog

When you have an anxiety disorder, your entire sense of self is thwarted by your anxiety’s sense of self. Imagine anxiety as an adult arm-wrestling a baby. Your true sense of self is that baby and it’s always losing to the preternatural strength of anxiety. A haughty glance from a stranger doesn’t stick to the average passerby, but for those running on anxious fuel, it can topple even the most sublime morning.

Remember being a middle schooler walking down the street and that sense of flop sweat you got when cooler kids knocked you when passing, laughter cackling in their wake and up your spine? The minty dread filling your lungs, shame heating your skin as the flap of reality you try to keep nailed shut lifts, exposing the truth everyone else can see just looking at you–that your existence is not only unfortunate but a misfortune? For a kid with anxiety, these moments are “small t” traumatic, but they happen so often they shape your life. They accumulate, filling your days and dreams, your diary entries, your entire identity.

Middle school is made up of hundreds of those moments. For kids free of anxiety, these moments suck, but they manage to recover, reset and start again. For those with anxiety, these moments are torturous and paralyzing. They stick, and like sick cells, they metastasize. You grow more aware that something is wrong, but for the life of you, you can’t quite identify it. It’s not concrete, it’s abstract. One day you realize that what’s wrong with you is…you. There is literally nothing you can do but work day and night to hide this central fact from others. Something about who you are is fundamentally wrong. Your biggest fear is that others will begin to see what you’re desperately trying to hide. To be exposed for this wrongness–one you know means you are broken and disposable–equals the end of your life. That’s how you think, how you feel when you’re a child.

Photo by Yannis A on UnsplashPhoto by Yusril Permana ali on Unsplash

For a young person with anxiety, being exposed for the wrongness that lives inside you is a terror that never goes away. You are constantly trying to dodge the thing that makes you most ashamed. You pray thousands of times a day that no one will call attention to the wrongness running inside you that makes you so unlike the others. You thank the God you don’t believe in every night that you escaped the day without being found out, that you’ve succeeded to evade the inevitable spotlight that will burn your shameful flaws into the slow-drying cement of people’s minds. But your body thrums, every day, with the vibrating fear that you’ll be known for the thing that shames you most.

You have no control over who will out you; when it will happen or even how, but a few times a week without fail, it’s always an adult who does the most damage. Some teacher calls on you when your hand isn’t raised, threatening to topple your entire empire. In that moment, when all heads turn from their desks to look at you, when the teacher is waiting, when you haven’t heard what’s been asked because your brain has been filled with nothing more than the cacophonous prayerful incantations of DON’T CALL ON ME, DO NOT LOOK MY WAY, I AM BUSY DOING IMPORTANT NOTE-TAKING, PLEASE I BEG OF YOU, DO NOT ASK ME ANY QUESTIONS BECAUSE I DON’T KNOW, I AM SO DUMB, I AM WRONG, AND MY LIFE WILL END IF YOU EXPOSE ME. PLEASE DON’T MURDER ME. Your heart has been knocked loose from its shingle, the creases in your palms have grown humid and damp, and that slow creeping mortification has dropped like a wig to the floor. All the faces are waiting on you, smirks, eyes alive with schadenfreude.

Photo by Yannis A on Unsplash

When you call on a kid with anxiety, you are doing nothing more than “small t” traumatizing them. You are discouraging them from participating, you are creating in them reasons to avoid you and your class. You are hurting these forming brains more than you are helping them. TEACHERS, PLEASE STOP CALLING ON KIDS WHOSE HANDS ARE NOT RAISED.

Kids don’t learn when they’re afraid. Kids don’t learn when they’re forced to participate. Kids learn when they trust you. When they’re comfortable. When they’re engaged in positive, idea-generating ways. “But how do we get a student out of their comfort zone?” you might ask. Well, why not ask your student, in private, after class, how you can work together to get them out of their comfort zone? Because here’s the thing, it’s not up to you to decide the parameters of a child’s comfort zone. We have different learning styles, and a classroom environment doesn’t work for all of us. The environment itself, for many kids, is already outside of a kid’s comfort zone, and they’re existing in it all day, every day. They are trying to stay inside their comfort zone because they are so fucking uncomfortable inside the one that exists. For many anxious kids, the system itself is a danger zone, and it’s the system that needs to change so that it’s more comfortable for all kids. Yet we force even our most sensitive children to make their teachers more comfortable by meeting the teachers where they’re at, instead of demanding that teachers meet students where they are at.

We pressure our kids to conform to the institutional machinations of our world without ever questioning the institutions themselves. Human beings are variant, ever-evolving people. We are not meant to all exist inside the exact same framework. So, instead of forcing our kids to bend to meet our contours, how about spending more time teaching teachers how to bend to their students?

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HOW TO HELP YOUR CHILD WHEN THEY’RE HAVING A PANIC ATTACK

Posted on Category:The Little Panic Blog

When your child is having a panic attack, do you know how to help them? Do you tell them that they’re okay? That they’re fine? Do you tell them to breathe?

Yes?

Okay.

Please stop doing that.

When your kid (or your sibling or friend or loved one) is having a panic attack, they are not fine and they are not okay. They know this. You know this. So, when you tell them that they ARE fine, when they are very clearly not, the person having the panic attack knows you are not someone they can rely upon. You are not being in charge of reality, which is what the anxious person needs. Having a panic attack is losing control–a terrifying place for an anxious person to be. If they are going to be soothed by you, you need to prove to your anxious loved one that you are capable of being the one in control, and in order to do that, you need to tell the truth.

“Crying Child” by A.MASH is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Anxiety gets worse when it’s denied or hidden. Telling someone they are okay when they are not, makes their anxiety worse. Acknowledging that someone is not okay does not in fact trigger their anxiety, rather it allows the anxious person to relax a little knowing that someone is completely there with them. A person having a panic attack is afraid of what’s happening to them, and when the person they are with is calm and stable, able to recognize the situation for what it is, the anxious person can begin to feel safer.

So, are you supposed to tell the panicking person they are NOT okay?

Sort of, and no. A good approach is to acknowledge what’s happening, and that you’re there and will get through it with them. Ex: “I know you don’t feel okay right now, but I’m here with you and we’ll get through this together.” Remind them of the last time this happened, point out that they were scared then that they would never stop panicking, but that they did, and they will again.

Be conscious of mirroring back to your child whatever it is they’re afraid they’re doing or not doing. If they feel they are unable to breathe, tell them you are watching their chest and belly rise and fall, that even though they feel their body is shutting down, the person not panicking is watching and able to see that their body is not shutting down. “Yes, I know it feels like your body is closing down, this is what panic attacks do, remember? I am your emergency contact and I’m here with you, and I can tell you that you are going to be okay.”

Try and point out that feelings are not facts. Yes, your child might be CONVINCED that you’ll forget they exist after they’ve left for their school trip, but that’s just a feeling, some bad information their anxious brain is sending them, but it’s not a fact. The FACT is that you have never forgotten your child in the past, the FACT is that your child has never forgotten they have a parent, so it makes logical sense that no parent could forget they had a child. Separate their worries from reality with logical, evidenced-based facts.

“i’m gonna cry…” by sashomasho is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 


Sit with them. Do not be busy doing other things while your child is panicking. Hold the anxiety with them. If they are hyperventilating, it is appropriate to have them breathe, but breathe alongside them. Show them how you would like them to be breathing (slowly in for a count of six, slowly out for a count of six. Keep doing this a few times). If they are not hyperventilating, having them breathe might actually induce hyperventilation, so do not tell them to breathe unless it’s necessary.

When they breathe, tell them to imagine they are inhaling blue, safe, clear and clean air and exhaling hot red, polluted mad air.

Remind them that panic attacks are false alarms. That their alarm has gone off when it didn’t need to, and now you just have to sit and be patient until the alarm begins to quiet. Their alarm is more sensitive than others so things that other people wouldn’t think are dangerous, threatening, or scary are all of these things to a sensitively-alarmed human.

Whatever you do, do not deny their experience. Do not diminish what is happening for them. Don’t tell them they are being ridiculous or over-dramatic. When you panic from actual danger, imagine if everyone dismissed your fear, telling you that you were being ridiculous and over-dramatic. Just because you don’t have the same fears as your child, doesn’t make them less traumatic for them to live through. Anxiety attacks happen when we mistake a non-threatening thing for a threatening thing. There are ways to acknowledge that the thing itself isn’t dangerous, that feeling afraid won’t kill you, while also communicating that you understand the fear is very real to them. Be your child’s life coach, their mental health advocate, their best friend. Treat them the way you want them to treat themselves. They are learning all of their behavior from you. Be their role model. It’s what they’ve always wanted from you.

You got this.

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