Friday, February 27, 2009

Coping With Social Anxiety (without drinking)

When social anxiety has come upon me in the past, my first instinct has always been to drink. And then drink some more. And drink some more. But, because of a recently diagnosed health condition, it has been recommended that I abstain from alcohol. Frankly, I haven't been able to enjoy drinking for at least a year and a half. Even one drink makes my body feel really uncomfortable, because alcohol is a vasodilator, and vasodilation is one of the conditions, along with dehydration and blood loss, that causes my symptoms to become much worse.

It took a while for me to get used to turning down drinks. It's hard to stick to your guns when other people seem to be invested in having you drink with them. It's also very hard for me to stick to my alcohol-free plan when I am feeling socially awkward, because I have used alcohol as a means to feel socially comfortable for a very long time, and until recently, I hadn't developed many alternative techniques. And, I used to really enjoy drinking and considered myself a connoisseur of many types of alcohol (including single malt scotch whiskey), so the temptation is definitely there.

But, at a certain point I had to weigh how much I wanted to drink vs. how much I wanted to feel like crap and drinking didn't win. Because I have a feeling I'm not the only person who has found myself in this conundrum, I've decided to post the things I've found that can help bring comfort to a social situation, for whatever reason it's needed. Please note that I am no expert and I am still not good at doing these things. This is sort of an experimental how-to that is directed toward myself as much as anyone else. Here goes...

What to do when you're feeling socially uncomfortable, but you don't want to drink:

First, whenever you're feeling anxious, tune into your physical body. Breathe deeply and try to relax yourself physically. The bathroom is a good place to take a few minutes and collect yourself. You can employ some of the techniques I outlined for getting through a bad mood or use meditation or prayer. See if there are any feelings/thoughts that are potential obstacles to having a good time. Try to change your focus to something more positive by reminding yourself of all of your best qualities and the reasons people like you -- and the reasons you love other people. Then, try to figure out why you are feeling socially uncomfortable and anxious in this particular situation.

Ask yourself:

Why aren't I comfortable? Did I come to this social event because I wanted to come or because I felt obligated for some reason? Do I want to be here? If not, can I leave? If I can't leave, can I create a reason why I might want to be here / a mission for myself? (It could be something totally random, like counting the number of people with blue/green/brown eyes.) Do I enjoy talking to people when I'm not feeling self-conscious? Yes? Great! Jump in! You could talk about the weather, art, politics, or you could ask a question, like, "What was the first musical recording you ever bought with your own money?" or "Where have you traveled?"

If you're distracted because you're fixated on the idea that you would be more comfortable if you had a drink and/or because you're having trouble saying no to someone who keeps offering you a drink, ask yourself, "How do I think I would feel after having a drink? Can I imagine/remember what it feels like to be more relaxed and less inhibited? Is it possible for me to create those feelings without alcohol using sense memory techniques?" (I swear, sometimes just being around drunk people makes me feel drunk without the side effects!)

One breath at a time and one moment at a time, you may start to feel more relaxed and at peace with your situation. You may even have some fun.

What methods have you used to deal with social anxiety?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Food For Thought

"When we try to explain why negative events occur, we may often overlook our own role in their existence. Avoidance, procrastination, and coercion are three types of behavior that foster self-fulfilling prophecies. The avoider eschews interactions with people and explains her lack of relationships by claiming there are few good people available. The procrastinator claims that it will make him anxious to work on the project, not realizing that the reason that he is generally so anxious when working on these projects is because he's put them off until the last minute. The coercive or punitive spouse complains about his wife's coldness, not recognizing that his criticisms have led her to withdraw... Are your problems the result of how you yourself make your predictions come true?" - Robert Leahy

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Taste Test: Organic vs Conventional

I am thinking of doing a taste test to find out if there is any significant taste difference between organic and conventional fruit perhaps next week when I am home visiting my parents. What do you think I will find? Will a blindfolded subject be able to tell the difference?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Coming to terms with magical thinking

I came across an exercise in one of the books I'm reading that posed an unexpected challenge to my current way of thinking. The name of the exercise is "Feared Fantasy Worry". It is in the chapter titled "Evaluating Worries". The author says,

"People often worry because they are trying to avoid having an image or thought that is very upsetting to them... All of [their] cognitive energy is deployed in trying to prevent this terrifying thought from occuring... But what if these patients practiced their feared fantasy worry?"

He includes a transcript of a therapy session in which he asks a patient to identify his worst fear, which in this case is that he will go broke and end up homeless. Next, he tells the patient to imagine himself broke and homeless in as much detail as possible. Then, he tells the patient to repeat over and over again, "I will go broke and end up homeless." At the beginning of the exercise, the patient reports being extremely anxious. After he has repeated the phrase for about 10 minutes, he is no longer anxious at all.

I was very curious about this exercise, because my initial reaction to it was very negative. When I was younger, I used to buy into the idea that repeating positive affirmations could have an effect on actual events, so that the idea of repeating something I didn't want to happen would have been the last thing I would have wanted to do. My views about positive affirmations have altered slightly, as I stated in a recent blog post, in that I think it's important to remind myself frequently of the positive aspects of my character and positive things that have happened in my life to perhaps counterbalance my automatic habit of immediately recalling and dwelling on negative things. But, I am not able to see why it is a good thing to repeat things that are not true with the wish that they will become true. Like, "Everyday, more and more people will read my blog and enjoy it." At best, it seems like a misappropriation of energy, when I could be concentrating my efforts on my writing technique and networking tactics. At worst, it is superstitious. The belief that repeating a particular phrase will create my desired outcome is simultaneously a belief that if I don't repeat the phrase, I will not get my desired outcome. It is a belief that my thoughts can control reality, which is stressful and unhealthy. If you think that if you concentrate your thoughts hard enough you can prevent bad things from happening, you will end up very tired.

So, since I don't believe I can control reality with my thoughts, I was surprised at my resistance to the idea of repeating something I don't want to happen. There was (and maybe still is) a part of me that thinks something is more likely to occur if I say it out loud. But, since I had already benefited from several other exercises in the book, I felt like it might be a good idea to try this one and challenge my brain's bias. I reasoned with myself, if I were to repeat, "I am a pigeon." over and over again, would I be more likely to become a pigeon? Would I suddenly turn into a pigeon? (No. I don't think so.) With that reasoning, I went ahead and tried the exercise. I imagined in my mind something that I very much do not want to happen and then repeated a statement that it was going to happen over and over again. What happened next is something I could never have predicted. I felt a sort of euphoria come over me. I actually started to laugh. I felt an immense feeling of relief. Then, I tried the exercise again with another fear. This time I didn't feel euphoria. I didn't start laughing. But, I started to relax and felt like maybe I wouldn't die if my fear did become true.

I have long thought that resisting pain hurts more than accepting it, so in that sense, the exercise makes total sense to me. By trying on my worst fear to see just how bad it might be, I discovered that the fear itself wasn't as bad as my fear of the fear.

Food For Thought

"Music is a basic need of human survival." - Karl Paulnack
This article really moved me.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Negative Thinking and Depression

I recently finished reading one book and am in the middle of another about cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a type of therapy that has been scientifically proven to be at least as effective, if not more, than antidepressant medication in the treatment of depression. According to both authors, when you are depressed, you are much more prone to automatic negative thoughts. In fact, the main idea behind CBT is the belief that negative thoughts are actually what cause depression. CBT teaches the patient to identify habitual negative thoughts and then learn to analyze and refute them. So, if you all of a sudden find yourself feeling bad, you can think back to what negative thought caused you to start feeling bad, analyze and refute the thought, and then start feeling relief from its negative emotional consequences. Even though I haven't known about this concept very long and it is really rather simple, it has already proved very useful to me, so I am definitely a fan.

For example, when I am not feeling my best, I will often assume that when someone approaches me or walks by looking distressed or unhappy that I am the person who caused their unhappiness, that they are upset with me, that they think I'm not doing my job well enough, or something along those lines. Conversely, if someone smiles and looks very happy, it would never occur to me that it had anything to do with me. This hypocritical way of thinking is just one negative pattern that can be "cured" by cognitive therapy. Another example is a tendency to exaggerate failures and minimize successes to such a degree that each new failure or rejection lead to thinking,

I am such a loser. I am always getting rejected.

The first step in overcoming these cognitive distortions is to become aware of them. The next time you find yourself feeling depressed or anxious, ask yourself, "What thought caused me to start feeling bad?" And then, once you've identified the thought, analyze it. Is it true? If so, how true is it? What other relevant information am I ignoring in order to continue believing this negative thought?

A little over a month ago, I was rejected from the San Francisco Opera Chorus. I waited over a month for the result after taking the audition and in the meantime had put a lot of importance on it in my mind. When the letter finally came politely stating that the chorus master would not be able to offer me a position, I found myself overcome with emotion. I couldn't help but think of how long I had been waiting, of how hard I had worked to prepare the audition, and of what a great opportunity (one for steady musical employment with a very well-respected organization) I had lost out on. And then I started thinking about what a loser I am, how I am always getting rejected, how that must mean I am a terrible singer, that I am a terribly unorganized and irresponsible person, full of flaws that make me essentially an unsuccessful person who will never achieve anything. It took a lot of moral support from someone close to me before I was able to start looking up a bit and see that I need not be so discouraged. Later, I even learned some things about the financial health of the organization that made me wonder how they were even able to hold auditions in the first place. And, of course, I had to admit that the competition was very stiff and that (of course!) I need to take more auditions in order to increase my odds of winning one. But, at the time, wallowing in my own self-pity, I was not able to see that my negative thoughts weren't true.

Here's how CBT techniques might have helped me by analyzing and refuting each negative thought. Here are the thoughts:

I am a loser.
I am always getting rejected.
I am a terrible singer.
I am unsuccessful.
I will never achieve anything.

The idea is not to turn them into positive affirmations in the sense that I'm lying to myself and telling myself something that isn't true or exaggerating something so that it makes me feel better. The idea is to acknowledge the truth -- the positive truth that I was ignoring when I was wallowing in my downward spiral of negativity.

Let's start with the first one, "I am a loser". Well, what is the definition of loser anyway? If it means that I lost the audition, well, that's true. I did not win that audition. But, if it means that I am always losing everything, that's simply not true. I have had a lot of blessings in my life to be very thankful for.

"I am always getting rejected". The truth is, of the seven musical organizations I have auditioned for since arriving in California, I have been welcomed by six of them.

"I am a terrible singer". I have no reason to believe this is true. People often tell me they like my singing.

"I am unsuccessful. I will never achieve anything." In relation to the extremely ambitious goals I set for myself when I was much younger, I have not been nearly as successful as I had hoped. But, I have done a lot of cool things in my life and I'm sure I will do many more. This is a bit of a sore spot for me and an area I could use more work on.

This is an extreme example of a situation in which CBT techniques might be useful. When faced with major rejection, it is surely hard to see things in perspective immediately. But, I have found that even in a very short time, the brain does respond pretty well to retraining. The trick, I think, might be not only to learn to respond to the negative thoughts, but to remind myself of those positive truths more often, so that they are not so far from the surface.

For further reference, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns is an easy read and addresses many helpful issues. Cognitive Therapy Techniques: a practitioner's guide by Robert Leahy has been even more useful to me, but I am doubtful that would be the case for most others. Leahy actually writes out the script of a number of therapy sessions so that the reader can understand exactly how he applies each technique with the patient. For me, it has been fascinating to peek into those sessions to see the humanity of others who are destructively self-critical and go along for the ride as their negative arguments are deconstructed and they are forced to admit the faulty nature of their critical thinking and subsequently find great relief and hope.

Just curious...

Do you know any bald vegetarians?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Food For Thought

"The thing about perfection is that you will never achieve it. But you can always make progress." - Robert Leahy

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Getting To Know You

for Bryan, who only likes questions which are thought provoking and/or interesting.

1. How do you feel about aleatoricism?

2. As far as we know, we humans are barely specks of dust in this vast universe, yet most of us feel that our lives are important and have purpose or feel depressed when we feel that is lacking. Why do you think that is so?

3. Have you read any books by Fyodor Dostoevsky? Are you a fan? Why or why not?

4. How do you feel about western vs. eastern medicine?

(me: 1. I hate random "music". It does not mimic nature at all. Nature has order. I like the idea of John Cage's pieces that were written using maps of constellations, but I don't recall that I actually liked the music.; 2. The force that creates life in the universe, which some call God, gives (encodes) living things (with) a desire to stay alive. I think every living being feels it. Who knows if it makes any sense?; 3. Yes. Huge fan. I am very interested in how he looked at the world. His philosophy is fascinating.; 4. X-Rays, Sonograms, and blood tests, etc. are great tools for helping to diagnose problems. However, looking at the whole person and everything that is going on instead of looking at just one symptom and treating it without regard to other factors makes much more sense. I think an integration of various methods is the best approach. Look at everything that is going on. Where it is useful and helpful and necessary, use western tests, use western medicine. Where it is useful and helpful and necessary, use eastern approaches to wellness.)

Saturday, February 07, 2009

What Should I Write About?


I'm in the middle of reading three books: Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White by Frank H. Wu, Cognitive Therapy Techniques by Robert L. Leahy, and Feeling Good by David D. Burns, M.D. I don't even know where to begin.


Last night I played the game, Munchkin with some friends. I was terrible at it. I am also terrible at Settlers of Catan. I used to be terrible at Fluxx, but now I'm not so bad at it. Once I get to know a game, I'm not so bad at it, but I get really frustrated during the learning phase and it seems like people are always suggesting we play games I have never played before. So, it's not just that I need to get better at the individual games. I need to get better at learning new games in general. Or, at least, more patient and perseverant.


Tonight we went to see Coraline. It was very good. I enjoyed it very much, but I have to say if I was a little kid I would have been pretty freaked out by it.


We've been eating a lot of Trader Giotto's Roasted Vegetable Pizzas, which are delicious. They are the Trader Joe's version of Amy's Roasted Vegetable Pizza, but for half the price. Also high on the Trader Joe's list of staples are Mikawaya Green Tea Mochi Ice Cream, Trader Joe's brand hummus dip, Masala Tandoori Naan, and Triple Ginger Snaps. Yum. I love Trader Joe's.


Here is a picture of Nashira with her new catnip mat/blanket and her new catnip monkey toy.

We feed Nashira food called Innova Evo. They advertise it as "the ancestral diet". It is made entirely without grain. Nashira is totally healthy and definitely a little on the plump side, but I'm still not totally sure I think it's natural for a cat to eat no grains at all. Our vet says it's really good food, though.


My brother and sister-in-law gave me this for Christmas. It's up on the refrigerator.

(Sorry for the blurry photos.)

Friday, February 06, 2009

Food For Thought

"A human life is an ongoing process that involves a constantly changing physical body as well as an enormous number of rapidly changing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Your life therefore is an evolving experience, a continual flow. You are not a thing." - David Burns, MD

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Getting To Know You

1. Do your fingernails or toenails need cutting?

2. What board games and/or card games do you own?

3. Do you own a lot of shoes that you never wear?

4. Are you reading more non-fiction or fiction at the moment?

5. What beverages do you have in the house that you could offer to a guest?

6. Do you own any clothes with holes in them? If so, why don't you get rid of them?

7. What sort of shampoo &/or conditioner do you use?

8. What did you eat for dinner (or breakfast or lunch -- whatever you ate last)?

9. Is anyone else in the room with you?

10. Grab the nearest book, turn to page 12, what's the first full sentence on the page?

(me: 1.yeah, both; 2. Balderdash, Scattergories, Trivial Pursuit en francais 80s version, regular cards, UNO, SET, Monty Python Fluxx, Fluxx (regular); 3. yes. lots of heels; 4. non-fiction; 5. orange juice, beer, water, tea, coffee, kahlua, vodka; 6. yes. i can't do it.; 7. aussie moist; 8. dinner - cereal; 9. yes. ian and nashira; 10. "I hear the window rattling.")

Sunday, February 01, 2009


My mom went snowshoeing with a friend in Highland Forest today and took this really neat picture. I think it's really artistic.

Listen to my friend, Terri, y'all!

My friend Terri just posted some songs on My Space. She is so great! Check it out!