Anxiety Archives

The #1 Medicine For Improving Pretty Much Everything About Your Health

Imagine you could lose weight… have control over your anxiety and depression… prevent dementia and other debilitating side effects of aging… improve your brain power at any age… all without taking meds or making trips to the doctor.

Well, you can, says John J. Ratey, M. D., author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

Yep, you guessed it. Exercise is the best medicine.

If an inexpensive pill came out on the market that could do all that, with no negative side effects, we’d probably be all over it.

But the word “exercise” can tend to make one recoil. It’s work, after all.

I spent most of my adults years thinking exercise was good for cardiovascular health, maybe losing a few pounds or at least preventing future weight gain, replacing fat with muscle, and that’s about it.

As it turns out, those are probably the least of the reasons you should exercise.

The Mind-Body Connection

Dr. Ratey says “exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function.” This is based on hundreds and hundreds of research papers published within the last decade.

He has chapters devoted to how exercise helps with learning, stress, anxiety, depression, ADD, addiction, hormonal changes, and aging. I’ll focus on just three of these in this post.

Anxiety: Nothing To Panic About

A group of cardiologists took psychiatrists to task in a 2004 New England Journal of Medicine article for failing to note that exercise is an additional means of treating anxiety.

These doctors said: “Exercise training has been shown to lead to reductions of more than 50 percent in the the prevalence of the symptoms of anxiety.”

Dr. Ratey says there’s nothing wrong with taking medicine, but if you can achieve the same effects through exercise, you build confidence in your own ability to cope.  “Teaching the brain that we can survive is crucial to overcoming anxiety.”

Depression: Move Your Mood

A landmark study in 1999 at Duke University found that exercise worked even better than medicine over the long term.

Dr. Ratey says:

Unlike many anti-depressants, exercise doesn’t selectively influence anything – it adjusts the chemistry of the entire brain to restore normal signalling.

It frees up the prefrontal cortex so we can remember the good things and break out of the pessimistic patterns of depression. It also serves as proof that we can take the initiative to change something.

Aging The Wise Way

Getting old is unavoidable, but falling apart is not. Exercise is one of the few ways to counter the process of aging. According to Dr. Ratey:

The major implication is that exercise not only keeps the brain from rotting, but it also reverses the cell deterioration associated with aging.

Here’s how exercise helps keep you going when you’re old:

1. It strengthens the cardiovascular system.

2. It regulates fuel (keeps glucose levels from skyrocketing).

3. It reduces obesity.

4. It elevates your stress threshold (i.e. combats the effects of too much cortisol, which brings on depression and dementia).

5. It lifts your mood.

6. It boosts the immune system.

7. It fortifies your bones. Did you know more women die every year from hip fractures than from breast cancer? Eek.

8. It boosts motivation by increasing dopamine, which in turn guards against Parkinson’s.

9. It fosters neuroplasticity, which improves your brain’s ability to learn, remember and execute higher thought processes.

Mental exercise is just as important for the elderly. Dr. Ratey mentions an ongoing study of several hundred nuns over the years in Mankato, MN. These nuns challenge their minds constantly with mental puzzles, public debates about issues, keep teaching long past retirement age, etc. Many of them live to be one hundred or more. They all donate their brains to science after they die. Here’s what Dr. Ratey says about one of the nuns:

The interesting thing about Sister Bernadette is that she scored in the 90th percentile on cognitive tests right up until she died, but when her brain was examined postmortem, it showed massive damage from Alzheimer’s disease… In other words, she should have been utterly lost to the ravages of dementia. Yet despite the damage in her brain, she remained mentally sharp.

So what types of exercises are the best medicine according to all these studies? I’ll write a post about that soon. In the meantime, feel free to read the whole book and find out.


Your Test

Image and video hosting by TinyPicThe test of a psychologically mature person, and therefore spiritually mature, will be found in his or her capacity to handle what one might call the Triple A’s: anxiety, ambiguity and ambivalence. – James Hollis


Your Agenda

Image and video hosting by TinyPic“Your fears must be your agenda.” –James Hollis

To put it another way, if we’re going to be fully present in our life, then we have to study the role our fear management systems play in our life.


There, there you poor super rich people

Image and video hosting by TinyPicIs there anything harder to have sympathy for than the burdens of the super rich? Yet I keep stumbling across articles about how the super rich have lots of anxieties and problems these days.

According to a recent survey by Fidelity of 1000 millionaires, 42% of them don’t feel wealthy. Because their investable assets total “only” $3.5 million, perhaps their anxiety is understandable, so surely the super rich (those with assets of $25 million or more) have it easier?

Not according to the article Secret Fears of the Super Rich in the current issue of The Atlantic.

A super rich person’s closet of anxieties is stuffed to the gills, according to this article, which analyzes a study of 165 super rich households, who average a net worth of $78 million.

Here are some of their anxieties:

They are frequently dissatisfied even with their sizable fortunes.

They do not consider themselves financially secure. I can’t resist quoting this example:

One respondent, the heir to an enormous fortune, says that what matters most to him is his Christianity, and that his greatest aspiration is “to love the Lord, my family, and my friends.” He also reports that he wouldn’t feel financially secure until he had $1 billion in the bank.

Consumption becomes so commonplace that it loses all psychological benefit.

They have lost the right to complain about anything for fear of sounding ungrateful.

They are expected to give really good presents.

They worry about screwing their kids up and that their kids will lack the motivation to work hard and will lack empathy. Their #1 anxiety is their children.

They know many despise them or envy them. According to one of the researchers:

Often the word rich becomes a pejorative. It rhymes with bitch. I’ve been in rooms and seen people stand up and say, ‘I’m Bob Kenny, and I’m rich.’ And then they burst into tears.”

Relationships with people with little wealth are difficult for them, and efforts to keep up with people even more rich than they are often leave them financially depleted.

Not having to work for a living is often a curse – their co-workers resent them for taking a job a less affluent person could have and if the don’t work their days have less meaning.

Then there’s all the complications of romantic relationships. “Does he only love me for my money?”

Are you going, “there, there you poor super rich people” yet? Neither am I.

The super rich have the option of giving away much of their money if it’s such a burden to them. The poor do not have such a quick fix for their problems.

It’s fun to imagine a reality show like those hoarding shows, except instead of the hoarding of household stuff, it would reveal how much money a particular person is hoarding and show what could be done with that excess money instead.

While accepting the Nobel Peace Prize ten years ago, former President Jimmy Carter said that the greatest problem of the 21st century is the growing gap between the richest and the poorest people on earth. Citizens of the ten wealthiest countries are now 75 times richer than those who live in the ten poorest ones (contrast that with the early 1800s when the gap between the wealthiest region of the world and the poorest was four to one).

The results of this disparity are root causes of most of the world’s unresolved problems, including starvation, illiteracy, environmental degradation, violent conflict, and unneccessary illnesses that range from Guinea worm to HIV/AIDS.


But tragically, in the industrialized world there is a terrible absence of understanding or concern about those who are enduring lives of despair and hopelessness. We have not yet made the commitment to share with others an appreciable part of our excessive wealth. This is a potentially rewarding burden that we should all be willing to assume.

Now that’s a burden worth carrying and one all of us can share, not just the super rich.


My favorite definition of neurosis

Image and video hosting by TinyPicA neurosis is wherever we are allied against our true nature.” – James Hollis

A more roundabout way of saying it is: “some profound energy or value has been repressed, pathologized, and is now reasserting its will upon us. Whenever we force ourselves to do what is against our nature’s intent, we will suffer anxiety attacks, depressions, or addictions to anesthetize the pain of this inner dislocation.” – James Hollis

Other neurosis definitions:

“Neurosis is the flight from authentic suffering.” – Jung

“Neurosis is symptomatic of a reduced vision of life, a worldview of insufficient amplitude.” – James Hollis

“A neurosis is often a rebellion of an unconscious psyche against forces which it perceives as threatening to its specific nature.”  – June Singer

Jung said our neuroses are forms of suffering that have not yet found their meaning.

“Is not our chief neurosis – by which I mean our estrangement from nature – our desire to hold fast to what is forever transforming, to freeze the familiar, to submit motion to stasis, to solicit immortality through rigidity.” – James Hollis

Don’t forget to rock your neurosis.


On the Nobody-Cares Bears and blogging

Did you know Care Bears grow up to become Nobody-Cares Bears?

Kelly Parkinson, in a fun post on her blog, introduced me to the concept of Nobody-Cares bears.

While reading her post I also realized that there are certain Nobody-Cares bears that surround me as a blogger.

Here are some of them:

1. That’s-Not-Funny Bear – Erma Bombeck said it’s easier to make someone cry than to make them laugh.

This is why people are often prone to tell sad stories or to whine about stuff.

Whenever I write something I think might be funny, the That’s-Not-Funny Bear shows up immediately.

Because of that bear I’m sometimes reduced to showing the post to one of my older daughters first, to make sure it’s not lame.

2. What-Will-Your-Friends-And-Family-Think Bear. This bear is especially chatty and is the most ruthless of the bears.

This bear knows that having people who know you read your posts can be anxiety-inducing and milks it for all it’s worth:

“What will your friends/family think if they see that you read a book like that?”

“Your friends/family are going to roll their eyes because this post will make you look really shallow/silly and they will like you a little bit less as a result.”

“Your friends/family are going to laugh at how confident you sound in that post because they know you really are a wimp.”

“Your family is going to say, ‘Yikes, I’m related to her?” when they read that.”

“Your friends will say, “I used to think she was an interesting person but then I started reading this blog. Oh well.'”

I told you that bear was ruthless. :)

3. TMI Bear – This is the bear that is very, very afraid what you’re about to post has Too Much Information (TMI) about your life or weaknesses.

When the TMI Bear shows up, I remind myself  how this post is one of the most popular posts on my blog.

More people bought copies of the book I mention in that post than any other book I’ve mentioned on this blog (I know this because I get a teeny tiny commission on Amazon purchases readers make from my Amazon links).

In that post I share how I didn’t at all have my act together that day and I guess it resonated with people. So there, TMI Bear.

4. Who-D0-You-Think-You-Are Bear. This is the bear that I can count on to say, “Who do you think you are to write anything about anxiety/depression/marriage/friendship? You’re not a counselor/professor/author.”

5. OMG Bear – This is a catch-all bear that brings up anything the other bears may have missed. “OMG, why are you wasting time writing blog posts?”

Maybe you face the Nobody-Cares Bears too even if you aren’t a blogger.

Anyway, if you ever thought blogging was about personal fulfillment or ego, then I hope this post has showed you how that’s not at all the case.

Blogging is instead about fighting the Nobody-Cares Bears, sipping from the elixir of anxiety, discovering who you really are beyond your roles in life and ultimately, I hope, becoming a better person in the process.

Off to do some bear hunting…


Anxiety is an elixir

Yeah, I did a double take when I first read that too.

I just discovered the author James Hollis, Ph.D. He is director of the Jungian Studies program at Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco and I’m reading his book Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up.

It has never occurred to me to think that anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing but here’s what Hollis says:

The daily confrontation with these gremlins of fear and lethargy obliges us to choose between anxiety and depression, for each is aroused by the dilemma of daily choice.

Anxiety will be our companion if we risk the next stage of our journey, and depression our companion if we do not…

Not to consciously choose a path guarantees that our psyche will choose for us, and depression or illness of one or another will result.

Yet to move into unfamiliar territory activates anxiety as our constant comrade.

Clearly, psychological or spiritual development always requires a greater capacity in us for the toleration of anxiety and ambiguity.

The capacity to accept this troubled state, abide it, and commit to life, is the moral measure of our maturity.

He goes on to say we should choose anxiety over depression:

Faced with such a choice, choose anxiety and ambiguity, for they are developmental, always, while depression is regressive.

Anxiety is an elixir, and depression a sedative. The former keeps us on the edge of our life, and the latter in the sleep of childhood.

Well then.

As an entrepreneur, I face anxiety and inner feelings of resistance almost every day because, believe it or not, it can be terrifying at times not having a boss telling you what to do.

As a parent I struggle with anxiety too, with the What If Something Bad Happens To My Kids character hogging up most of the space in my closet of anxieties.

But maybe, as Hollis says, anxiety isn’t such a bad thing after all. Hmmm.


Yesterday afternoon I experienced three hours of severe stress.

I received a notice in the mail that our health insurance will be cancelled effective June 1.

Once a year we have to update our insurance info to make sure our family info is current and I did all that even though the notice said I hadn’t.

My hands started shaking and I recalled stories I’ve heard of people getting their insurance cut off in just this way with no mercy.

I immediately emailed the clerk and waited in dread for her reply.

During those three hours I took my youngest daughter to the library and barely listened as she happily chatted.

I had intended to try a new exercise routine outside today but I couldn’t begin to fathom doing that.

I had a humorous blog post in progress but couldn’t imagine writing anything funny ever again.

Mostly I LONGED to think about my regular worries again. Those worries suddenly seemed like luxuries compared to the prospect of losing insurance.

Being overcome with fear, when the limbic brain is at high alert in the face of an imminent threat, isn’t a fun thing.

We often use the terms fear and anxiety interchangeably but they are two different things. Anxiety is what we feel about things that may or may not happen and results in constant what-if self-talk.

Which reminds me of the 1980s Bloom County comic strip character Binkley and his closet full of anxieties (click here to see a fun collection of strips about his closet full of anxieties).

Anxiety doesn’t protect you from danger, the way fear does. It mostly prevents you from doing great things.

Anyway, the clerk emailed back and said, oops, she hadn’t seen the info I mailed in last week until that moment so she processed it and marked the continuation of our insurance as “approved.”


I felt no anger toward the clerk because I recalled the time when I accidentally suspended someone’s driver’s license and caused him extreme inconvenience one afternoon.

More than a decade ago I worked as a court clerk and part of my job was to suspend driver’s licenses when people failed to pay their citations.

My first day on the job my boss said, rather dramatically, “You WILL accidentally suspend someone’s driver’s license at some point. It’s gonna happen. Just try not to do that, OK?”

The man whose license I accidentally suspended had to have his car towed because the police offier who pulled him over for another matter wouldn’t let him drive it after noticing in his record that this man was driving with a suspended license.

The man was furious, of course, and contacted me. I felt horrible about how my clerical error caused him trouble and reimbursed him the towing fee from the village funds. I offered to my boss to pay the fee with my own money but he said no.

So, yeah. No anger toward to clerk.

I also mentally made a list of people who I knew would react with compassion if our insurance really had been cancelled.

I’m deeply grateful for insurance and for not having to tell my two oldest daughters, who have health needs that require very expensive medical supplies each month, that we don’t have insurance.

I’m so glad I don’t have to be in the throes of fear on a regular basis like some people do.

Now that I’ve been set free from that fear, maybe I’ll not only be grateful for my regular, ordinary closet full of anxieties, but actually start cleaning out that closet today.


Last summer I spent some time in Door County Wisconsin with my youngest daughters.

We spent one morning at the hotel pool and my seven-year-old daughter struggled to follow her big sister’s instructions on how to float properly.

“I can’t!” was her constant refrain that morning.

There was no reasoning with her because she was worked up with anxiety.

Later as we enjoyed hamburgers at the nearby diner I told her she should stop letting “Can’t” sneak into her mouth.

We started talking about “Can’t’ as if it was a character in her story.

This made her feel as if she actually had power over “Can’t.”

The next time she was at the pool, sure enough, “Can’t” barged in again.

But she would catch herself, smile, and put her hand over her mouth.

Adults are perhaps even more susceptible than kids to “Can’t.”

But does “Can’t’ really deserve a place in your everyday narrative?