How I Overcame A Nervous Breakdown

flo2bwFlorence Strang, Registered Psychologist

“Nervous breakdown”, I am so glad they don’t use that term anymore.  It suggests weakness and an inability to cope.  The term actually implies that you are somehow broken!  I guess that is why there was so much stigma and shame attached to it when I struggled with an anxiety disorder nearly 20 years ago.  Thankfully, people are more open to talking about mental health issues today, and the stigma is slowly disappearing.  But back in MY day…..

I was in my early thirties, with two small kids, a demanding career and the first stirrings of discontent in my marriage.  I felt fine when I set off to Corner Brook for a psychology conference, but I found myself running late for my first session and that worried me.  If there were going to be a lot of people in an enclosed space, I liked to get there early to get the chair nearest the door.  From an early age, I had a kind of phobia of being surrounded by people in a room with closed doors.  When I walked into the conference room, however the door seats were all taken.  The room was already full, with about 200 people jammed in there.  I scanned my surroundings for a seat.  The only one available was smack dab in the middle of the crowd.  I shuffled my way to the seat, brushing knees with my colleagues along the way.  Already I could feel my face becoming flushed.  Just as I sat down,  something happened that put my anxiety over the top:  they closed the doors!

My heart started to pound.  My breathing became quick and shallow.  My throat started to constrict.  My legs went to jelly and my hands began to shake.  Everything around me became surreal, like I was in a fog.  My mind raced, “I have to get out of here or I will die!”  Logically, I would later realize that nobody ever died from sitting in a crowded room.  However, when that panic set in, there was no convincing me otherwise.  I just had to get out of there!

I went back to my hotel room and waited for it to pass.  I had experienced panic attacks before so I knew the routine.  First that aura of impending doom.  Then the actual panic attack, lasting about five minutes and slowly subsiding, leaving me feeling weak and exhausted.  But this time was different.  After about an hour of pacing the floor, wringing my hands and crying, I started to fear that the feeling…..anxiety…..would never go away.  I was doomed to live my life with a never-ending feeling of fear, or at least that is what I thought at the time.

Over the next several months, things that I took for granted became monumental tasks for me.  I could not go to work.  I could not go shopping or even get my hair styled.  I was even afraid of being left alone to take care of my kids.  My future looked bleak and hopeless.  Eventually, I gave in to my doctor’s pleas and saw a psychiatrist, and that was the beginning of my recovery.

I had resisted medication, fearing that I would become addicted or turn into a “zombie”.  However, this doctor educated me on a then “new” type of medication, SSRI’s, which were gentle and non-addictive.  After about three weeks of taking them, I felt the anxiety slowly subside.  More important than the medication however, was the anxiety reduction techniques that I put into practice.  As a psychologist, I already knew about these techniques and had used them with my clients.  However,  just like a surgeon cannot perform surgery on him or her self, I needed that expert to guide me. The combination of medication with these techniques really worked!  I have not taken anxiety medication for about 15 years, but I continue to use my anxiety reduction techniques on a daily basis, and I have never felt better!

So what are these “magical” techniques that I speak of?

-Cognitive restructuring

-Mindfulness

-Deep relaxation exercises

-Abdominal breathing techniques

-Building and strengthening the neural pathways for relaxation

It sounds complicated, but really these techniques are easy to learn and to incorporate into your daily life.  About 90% of the clients I see in my psychology practice have issues with anxiety, such as panic attacks, OCD, self-harm, or just constant worry.  Through a program called Mindful Mood Balance, I help them to manage stress and anxiety and find peace of mind.

On Saturday, Feb. 4th, I will be offering a free session in St. John’s for anyone who would like to try out these techniques.   I also hope to offer a free online session.   If you would like to register, please indicate whether you are registering for the St. John’s session or the online session. 

Here is the link to register:  https://www.florencestrang.com/upcoming-workshops

Peace out!

The Golden Years

While visiting my parents a few days ago in my home town of Lawn, a sign on a building grabbed my attention:  The 50 Plus Golden Age Club.   While I have seen this sign many times, it startled me to think that in just a few short weeks, I could technically be a member of this club.  Suddenly I had visions of myself playing bingo and card games with the other ”Golden Agers” for the coveted prize of  bucket of salt beef.  Golden age.  The twilight years.  Big girl panties.  Am I ready for all of this?

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Have you ever bumped into an old class mate you have not seen for years and thought, “Wow!  She has really aged!”   Well guess what, she is probably thinking the same thing about you.  I am not suggesting that you LOOK old, but that we all age. It is just that we sometimes forget that our bodies are aging, because of our “mental age”,  which is the age that we actually FEEL.  Mentally,  I am around 25, that carefree age just before I got married, had kids and still had my own boobs.  (A problem arises however, when you try to party like a 25 year old in a 50 year old body!)

I recently overheard a colleague of mine say that she dreaded turning 50.  Not me!   After fighting cancer and narrowly escaping with my life, I cherish each and every birthday.  Besides, the way I see it, 50 is the new 30.  It has taken me this long to finally feel grown up enough to say  the word “fuck” in front of my parents. 

Oh well, you know what they say:  Youth….it’s wasted on the young. Wisdom truly does come with age and I am sure you are all wondering, what pearls of wisdom I have gained in my 50 years on this planet.   Well, you are probably not actually wondering that, but here goes anyway:

Flo’s  Pearls of Wisdom

-Your health REALLY is the most important thing in your life. (Sometimes it takes getting sick to actually feel that truth of that statement.)

-When times are bad always remember, “this too shall pass”.

-When times are good, also remember that, “this too shall pass.”  (In the ebb and flow of life, the good and the bad will come and go, so just hang in there!)

-No matter how badly you have been hurt, you will love again.

-Doing everything for your kids does NOT turn them into selfish brats.

-Money is meant to be enjoyed, not hoarded.

-Being a parent is the most important job in the world.

-The only person you hurt by refusing to forgive is yourself.

-Cherish your friendships. 

-People will come and go in your life, but you can always count on family.

-It ALWAYS pays to be nice.

-What you give out will come back to you, so be generous with your time, your love and your money.

-Living in the past causes depression.  Worrying about the future causes anxiety.  Peace can only be found by living in the present moment.

-In the grand scheme of things, your greatest assets are the people in your life.

-Do yoga.

Wishing you a year filled with health, happiness and prosperity.  Namaste.

 

 

 

Mindfulness

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“You are the cause of about 90% of your own mental anguish and suffering!”

When I make that statement at one of my group therapy sessions or stress management presentations, I usually get the evil eye.  But by the end of my session, every head in the group is nodding in agreement.

Look around you right now.  Are you safe?  Are you comfortable? Is there anything happening to you right at this moment that is causing you mental anguish?  At least ninety-nine percent of you will answer “no” to that last question.  When you think about it, NOW is a good moment.  In fact, most of your moments are good moments.  Yet you suffer from worry, fear, frustration, sadness, regret, guilt and a host of other unpleasant emotions and mental suffering. 

Why?  Because most of the time, you are not truly in the present moment.  Most of the mental suffering that you experience is not caused by what is happening in your life right at this moment.  It is caused by you allowing your mind to go to the past:  recalling that cancer diagnosis; reliving your divorce; replaying the fight you had with your sister; or going back to your dysfunctional childhood.  Or, for many of you, mental suffering is caused by allowing your mind to go to the future: what if the cancer comes back?; What if my son gets into a car crash tonight?; What if I can’t pay the bills next month?

Living in the past causes depression.  Living in the future causes anxiety.  Only in the present moment can you find peace.

So how do you bring yourself back to the present moment?  The best way I have found is by tuning in to my senses, a technique which is known as mindfulness.  Stop what you are doing right now and take one moment to look around you.  Notice everything you see in your surroundings.  What grabs your attention?  Now take a moment to listen.  Just be mindful of what you hear.  Next, if you have a nice body lotion, apply it slowly and mindfully to your hands, just enjoy the sensation of touch.  Now, if your lotion is scented, take a deep sniff and savor the smell.  Finally, if you have a small food item, such as a candy, eat it, very slowly and very mindfully, enjoying the sensation of taste.  (Every time I do this session with a group of students, one of them will say, “Miss Strang, that is the best Skittle I have ever eaten!”   That is true because most of the time we are not mindful of eating and so we miss out on the pleasure of our food.)

The exercise you just did is a technique I use to demonstrate HOW to be mindful.  Practicing mindfulness however, does not mean sitting down with a bag of Skittles and a bottle of hand lotion to tune in to your senses for five minutes. Mindfulness is really all about using your senses to bring you back to the present moment in your everyday life.  For example, you can be mindful of taking a shower, just by turning off your thoughts for a few minutes and really paying attention to the feel of the water on your skin and the smell of the soap.  Practicing mindfulness just means having more mindful moments during the day; more moments where you get out of your head and simply pay attention to what you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste.  

I once had a client who came to me because she was a constant worrier.  She worried about her children, she worried about her health, she worried about her husband and so on.  I think if she didn’t have something to worry about, she would make something up!  I suggested that during her lunch break she take a walk around a beautiful trail that was near her work, since spending time in nature is such good medicine for the soul.  The following week however, she reported that it did her no good.  She spent her entire walk worrying and overthinking.  I suggested that on her next walk she just listen and come back to tell me everything she heard on her walk.  The next week a very different client came to my office.  She was smiling and very eager to tell me all that she had heard on her walk:  children laughing; rocks crunching under her feet; the wind in the trees; the water lapping on shore; birds singing; cars driving by; etc., sounds that she had never before been aware of.

“Was your mind occupied with your worries?”  I asked.

“No”, she laughed, “I was too busy listening to worry about anything.”

That is mindfulness. 

Not every moment is going to be a good moment. If you recently experienced a loss you can’t just eat a skittle mindfully and make it go away.  But if you find that you are spending much of your mental energy in the past or in the future, it will cause you suffering.  Peace can only be found in the present moment. 

I wish you a peaceful day, filled with many mindful moments!

Finding “Flory”

So it seems that I recently earned myself a new nickname: Dory.  The Dory that is my namesake is the delightful, yet very forgetful fish from “Finding Nemo” and of course its sequel, “Finding Dory”.  No offence to you, Ellen, but if I were to choose to model myself around an animated character, Dory would not make my top ten list.  I envision myself as more of a smoking hot Jessica Rabbit, a dignified and regal Pocohontas, or even a smart and sassy Lois Griffin.  But Dory?  Come on!   You know I can do better than that!

Ok, so I guess you are wondering HOW I earned the nickname.  Well, I guess it is pretty obvious.  I forget stuff.  Not just the normal stuff that people forget, like the names of colleagues, friend’s birthdays or the whereabouts of keys, but big stuff, like entire conversations and the whereabouts of my car.  You may be thinking, “Who doesn’t forget where they parked their car from time to time!”  That’s not what I mean.  What I mean is, I almost called the cops once and reported my car stolen because I forgot that I had loaned it to my daughter the night before.

I was pretty excited when my sister, Lessy, told me that she was coming home from Alberta to visit.  I was equally as excited the second time she told me, the third time she told me, and even the fourth time she told me.   That’s when I earned my nickname.  “Mom, for God sakes, you have the memory of Dory”, said my daughter, Kaitlyn, “That is the fourth time that Aunt Lessy has told you that she is coming to visit, and each time you act as if you are hearing it for the first time!”   That’s because it IS like I am hearing it for the first time.

It has gotten so bad that my carpool partner, Khyla,  has made a sign that says, “Heard it before!”, which she pulls out from under her seat and flashes at me each time I begin to repeat a story.

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Many times my partner, Steve, has made the comment, “Flo I’m getting worried about you,” whenever I repeat a question that he has already answered about a dozen times.  And then there are the embarrassing times at work when I fail to remember details of conversations.  I once thought that one of my colleagues was psychic because she could name the very book that was sitting on my night stand at home.  Not only did I forget that we had discussed the book the day before, but I was also oblivious to the fact that she is a member of my book club!  Don’t even ask me her name.

I am proud to say that I have come up with some pretty ingenious ways of getting around my memory deficits.  For example, remembering passwords used to be a real pain in the ass for me.  So I changed all of my passwords to the word “incorrect.”  That way, I am guaranteed a reminder each time I mess up: “Your password is incorrect.” I also find it useful to write little reminders on the back of my hand.  Not only do these markings remind me that I have to do something, but trying to figure out what the abbreviations mean has turned into a great game between me and my kids.

“Hey Donovan, I have the letters b.b. written on the back of my hand.  Any idea what that might mean?”

-“bewildered bear?”

-“baby beluga?”

-“bacon bubbles?”

-“baboon butt?”

-“black beans?”

“Yeah, that’s it, I need to pick up some black beans on the way home from work. Thanks!”

Another strategy that has served me well is one I call “fake a memory”.  It goes something like this:

Kaitlyn:  Mom, what movie would you like to watch on Netflix tonight?

Me: I’ve been dying to see “Daddy’s Home”, let’s watch that.

Kaitlyn:  Mooooom!  We watched that last month.

Me: Oh riiiiiggghttt!  I remember now (barefaced lie). It’s the one about the dad who comes home.  Yeah, we watched it together, I remember.

I also have a little technique, which is similar to “fake a memory” in which I actually pull the desired information from the person I am talking to.  It goes something like this:

Steve: Hey Flo, where would you like to go for dinner tonight?

Me:  How about Oliver’s?  We haven’t been there in ages.

Steve: We were there just last week. Don’t you remember?

Me:  Ha ha (nervous laugh). Of course I remember.  We had that delicious little appetizer.

Steve: Right, bruschetta.

Me:  Yeah, I really enjoyed that bruschetta.  And you ordered the special. (He usually does)

Steve: I sure did.  The cod was delicious.

Me: Of course, I over-did it on the wine again. (Pretty safe guess there)

Steve: Thank God you remember.  I was starting to get worried about you!

I know it is normal to get more forgetful with age and wine consumption, but my sketchy memory was becoming really worrisome.  After watching the movie, “Still Alice”, I had myself convinced that I was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.  That’s when I started to talk to some of my survivor sisters at my breast cancer support group and I learned that many of them are dealing with the same issue.  We have the memory robbing culprits narrowed down to two things: chemo-brain and Tamoxifen (a drug I take to reduce the chances of having a cancer recurrence).

Despite the fact that both chemo and Tamoxifen have debilitating side effects, not the least of which is memory loss and cognitive impairments, they also have another, more desirable side effect: Life.  While I am a firm believer in natural, complementary and holistic approaches to treating cancer, I also have faith in conventional treatments.  Chemo destroyed the cancer cells that were invading my body, while Tamoxifen and my lifestyle changes have kept the cancer from coming back (at least to this point in time).   So the benefits for me outweigh the side effects. Besides, despite my memory problems, I am enjoying life to the fullest.  Right now, for example, I am over the moon with excitement!  My sister, Lessy just called to tell me that she is coming home for a visit.  YAY!  I can’t wait to tell Kaitlyn the good news!

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Help For Cancer Patients

Recently, I was contacted by a young woman who is reaching out to help those going through treatments for cancer.  Rather than me tell you her story, I will let her tell it.  So here is Holly:

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Holly Porath

Hi! My name is Holly Porath.  In 2010, cancer rocked my family’s world when it struck my Mom with Triple Negative Breast Cancer. When my Mom was first diagnosed, I was living in California, which felt like a world away from our hometown in Michigan. I felt so helpless. All I wanted to do was sit next to her during her lengthy chemo treatments but all I could do was be a support for her from afar.  That’s when I came up with an idea of how I could send my love and support, even though I could not be with her physically. 

holly3Holly and her mom, Marsha

If you’ve ever had a loved one with cancer, you know all too well there are limited items out there to help them feel better. To be honest, it’s a near impossible uphill battle to feel comfortable during treatment. I found my Mom was soon overwhelmed with pink ribbon branded items: t-shirts, socks, key chains, etc. But none of these items helped her feel better in a practical way, when she needed it most. I took to the Internet and searched for anything and everything that might take away even a little bit of her discomfort from nausea, dry skin and dry mouth.  That’s when I came up with the idea of “Brave Box”.  Brave Box is a care package for those going through chemo, which contains practical items to help them feel better.

Sadly, my Mom lost her battle in May 2014.  However, to honor my mom’s memory, I took the idea of a cancer care package and ran with it.  Through lots of hard work, Brave Box is now a real, tangible, product that eases the discomfort of those still fighting.

Six years ago when my Mom was first diagnosed, the idea of a care package to help ease her discomfort was just an idea.  For four years, I thought about ways I could ease her struggle. I took note of her favorite products, and the items that brought her comfort. Then, finally,  I took the plunge. I built up the courage, ignored all the reasons why it wouldn’t work, brainstormed a name, designed a box, built my own website and ordered in bulk.  Finally, my dream is a reality!

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Two years ago, when my mom passed away, my world came crashing down. Today, I’m in a MUCH better place hoping to provide a presence (through Brave Box, my blog, and community involvement) that allows me to help as many people afflicted by cancer as possible.  Not only am I honoring my mom’s memory, but Brave Box also allows me to ease the discomfort of those who are still fighting. 

It’s incredibly easy to feel helpless when watching a loved one fight this disease. Let’s work together, as a team, to take some of that helplessness away and bring back some strength to the fight.  Let’s help one another be BRAVE!

  You can learn more about Brave Box here:     www.bravebox.org

Dana’s Gift: A Tribute

 

“What room is Dana in?”  was the question on nearly every woman’s lips at our annual breast cancer retreat.  We all knew that where there was Dana, there was fun, laughter and music.  With more than 200 women attending the retreat each year, it is impossible to get to know everyone.  Over the years, we have formed our own little groups, or cliques you could say.  But everyone seemed to know Dana and she was considered a part of every group.  She “belonged” to all of us.  She was our Rock Star!

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“Believe” was Dana’s motto.

Dana was the first of my survivor sisters to reach out to me after I was diagnosed.  Soon after discovering my blog, she messaged me on Facebook to assure me that everything would be ok.  She had battled and beaten stage 2 breast cancer just one year prior to my diagnosis.  I cannot tell you what a relief it was to read the words of encouragement from her.  At 44 years old, my experience of breast cancer was, for the most part, hearing about little old ladies, who eventually succumbed to the disease.  But there was Dana, a survivor at just 32 years old.  “Just because you have cancer doesn’t mean that you have to die, Flo,” she encouraged me.  “We have lots of years left to live!”

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Dana and I at our annual breast cancer retreat.

Over the following months, as I underwent chemotherapy, radiation treatments and a mastectomy, Dana was always there, cheering me on.   Although we had not met in person at that time, she became my mentor.  I opened her emails and Facebook messages as if they were a gift: The gift of hope.

Then, just three months after she first contacted me, she sent me a message that turned my world upside down.  Her cancer had come back and this time it was stage 4.   I was devastated!  At that point, I was still going through my treatments and I didn’t know what the outcome would be for me.  Dana was my hope and my inspiration.  Because she had beaten cancer, I believed that I too could beat it.  But with her stage 4 diagnosis, I lost faith in my own ability to survive.  However Dana remained positive even in the face of this terminal diagnosis.  She never lost hope, and she never, ever lost her faith and will to live.  Seeing her strength and her will to survive gave me back mine.

Dana was a friend to all, and a better friend you could never ask for. I was privileged  to meet some of her family and through them, I learned how Dana excelled, not just at being a friend, but also at being a mother, a wife, a daughter and a sister.   Sometimes when I was worried about Dana, I would creep her Facebook page to see what she was posting. Like me, she was very open about her disease and would sometimes post about her health status.    One night, just about a week before she died, I could not get her off my mind.  I checked her Facebook page and there was a post, “Dollhouse for sale.”  I smiled believing that death could not be close if she was still dealing with mundane, day to day things like de-cluttering her home.  But that was Dana; being a good mom right to the end.  Her husband, Todd, told me that after she passed, he was becoming frustrated with some paper work that he had to do.  Then he discovered that she had filled out these papers before she died, to save him the frustration.   Even in the face of death, Dana continued to take care of her children and her beloved husband.

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Dana and her beautiful family.

Although I could see Dana getting sicker and weaker over the past several months, she continued to live every moment to the fullest and spread love and joy everywhere she went.  What continues to inspire me most about Dana however, is not how she lived her life, but how she faced her death.   I recently read this passage, written by Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl:

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he picks up his cross, gives him ample opportunity-even under the most difficult circumstances-to add deeper meaning to his life.  He may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal…….It is true that only a few are capable of reaching such high moral standards. 

Dana is one of the few who was truly capable of reaching these high moral standards.  I can only imagine the anguish that I would suffer at the thought of leaving three children and a loving husband.  But just weeks before her passing, Dana said that she was not afraid, nor was she bitter or resentful.  She told her friends that she experienced a peace that was beyond understanding.   She remained brave, dignified and unselfish to the very end.  Dana died just as she lived her life: with grace.

There is an old expression, “Only the good die young.”  I believe that there is some truth to that.  I believe that our souls come to this earthly plane to achieve greater levels of goodness (or Godliness), and to help other souls to grow and to evolve.  There is a key truth that our souls must learn, but not only learn, we also must live this truth before we are ready to leave this world.  Some learn to live that simple truth in a short life span, while others die after living a long life without ever having discovered it.  The truth is this:  Love is all that matters.  Dana lived that truth every day.  The love that she showed to her friends, her family, Johnny Reid, (who was as much a fan of hers as she was to him), and all who she met, was so pure and genuine.  Dana just had that way of spreading love and joy everywhere she went.  And that is why we, her survivor sisters, swarmed to her like bees to honey.  Just to be in her presence was a gift.

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Dana was a great fan of Johnny Reid, and he was a fan of hers.

The last words I spoke to Dana were through the same medium as the first words we spoke, a Facebook message.

-“Sending you lots of love, Dana.”

-“I love you too, Florence.  Xoxo”

Thank you for the gift of your friendship and for the gift of your love, my friend.  Rest in peace.

Dana singing her song at the launch of “100 Perks of Having Cancer”