A Few Charms (Banner)

A Few Charms (Banner)

Friday, 29 August 2014

Advice on managing anxiety - from a turtle!

This well-worn little turtle (a Pandora knock-off) was the very first charm I earned, for my first day, of my first week, of recovery from my eating disorder - with the simple goal of not bingeing (or purging or restricting). Simple, yes. But easy? No.

There are usually two things that go along with an eating disorder: anxiety and difficulty feeling your feelings. Bingeing, particularly bingeing on sweets and carbs, can raise your serotonin levels which has a calming effect on the brain. It's a way of self-medicating. Bingeing is not very good for your health - or waistline - but much tastier than Prozac. It is also a distraction from what's worrying us - or making us angry, sad, etc. - and a way to stuff those feelings down. I'm making it sound simple. It's not!

In those first few days of my recovery, I discovered that when I had the urge to binge I needed to DO something different - like deal with my emotions. Radical concept, I know! What I needed to DO was slow down my worries, and slow down my thoughts. But rather than try to control or change those runaway thoughts, I learned it was more helpful to focus on slowing down my breathing. Simple. AND easy.

Most people, when told to take a deep breath, raise their shoulders up. But that just increases the tension in the body. And what you want to do is get OUT of the fight-or-flight mode that's causing the anxious thoughts. To do that you need to do diaphragmatic breathing - i.e. pulling down your diaphragm to draw breath into the lungs, which makes the belly extend. This has traditionally been called yoga breathing or belly breathing; I have recently discovered that it is called soothing rhythm breathing in compassion-focused therapy.

It may sound counter-intuitive but the best way to take a deep breath is to EMPTY your lungs. Breathe out completely. When you think your lungs are empty... breathe out some more... and more. Then relax. Try it! The lungs naturally refill with belly breathing, but the shoulders stay relaxed. Often, three deep breaths like that are enough to slow down the breathing, slow down the heart rate, and sloooooow... down... those... thoughts. Doing meditation on a regular basis makes it easier to tap into that relaxation response more quickly when needed.

Early in my recovery I participated in an eating disorder group therapy session through an organisation in our city called Hopewell Eating Disorder Support Centre. Actually I attended for quite some time BEFORE I was really ready to manage my bingeing - there was a lot to learn! The counsellor in that group was named Tauri. I wish I had a dollar for every time she told me, or one of the others in the group, to "slooooow down" - to not get ahead of ourselves. She told us she had a turtle in her office to symbolize the need to sloooooow down. So, on the first day of my recovery, in honour of Tauri, that became the meaning for the little turtle charm - "sloooooow down."

Squirt from "Finding Nemo"
As you can see in the photo, the old turtle has been replaced with an authentic Pandora turtle - a gift from my son. The first time my kids gave me gifts of Pandora my daughter gave me the little boy and girl charms. She told me that she chose those, "so you'll always have us with you and won't forget about us" - as if I ever could! When I asked my son his rationale, he just shrugged and said, "cause I like turtles, I guess."

My son Mitchell at 5 months
The turtle was originally on my Recovery bracelet but he now has the handle "Squirt" and "hangs out" on the turquoise mother-son bracelet I call "My Number One Son" bracelet. This bracelet has charms which remind me of the things I love about him, why I am so proud of him, and the funny things he has said and done over the years. But it also includes charms representing lessons that I have learned in my recovery - like "slooooow down" - lessons that I hope to pass on to my son. Our little mercurial man feels everything strongly - anger, frustration, sadness, etc. So I want to share with you how we have worked to keep a smile on this face - as you can see in the picture, he feels love, joy and excitement intensely too! Stay tuned for Part 2 with parenting advice from Squirt's Dad.