my space tracker

Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: June 2011

Monday, June 20, 2011

Night Panic

"If I'm feeling hysterical, its usually historical." ~ anonymous

Someone once told me that nothing good happens after 10:00 at night. Of course I know that this is not a universal truth, but for anyone who is prone to worry or panic, or sleep disturbance, late night can bring anxiety to new heights.

At night, paranoid thoughts can increase, self attack intensifies, and what may have seemed like forgivable mistakes can become relentless self doubt. A friend of mine, who has some humor about her night panic, tells me that some nights she is convinced that there are goblins in her hallway, monsters under her bed and aliens on her roof. Her boss is waiting to fire her; her doctor is waiting to give her dire news and her husband has three secret other wives.

She knows its her brain on rev, but still and all she worries. And the worry is real, and it is painful. She worries about her kids, her marriage and her financial situation. Some nights the worry turns into obsession and the obsession turns into sleeplessness, and the sleeplessness turns into more self attack.

Physical and mental exhaustion, hormones, biorhythms, brain chemistry can all contribute. So can an unresolved bad feeling in a relationship. So can the darkness itself. And one's personal history, even if the connection is not readily apparent. Somehow, late at night the mind can start conjuring up a parade of bad thoughts. An attack of "what ifs" or a barrage of "awfulizing" can take over rational thought. When the anxiety gets really bad, it can leave you longing for relief, but believing that none is really possible. If only there were an ice pack for the brain.

So what helps?

Well, I think that sufferers of night panic have a few choices, and any one or a combo can bring relief at one time or another. And first things first is being willing to believe that relief is both okay and possible. If you are stuck in the thought, however subtle, that the worry is actually keeping you safe from anything bad actually happening, you may need to address this belief first. Planning, consulting and considering can bring good results but when we are stuck in panic, obsession and rumination the pain can be intense and can block the way to solving real issues or getting relief from relentless worry.

Here are a few ideas, in no particular order, that can help with night panic:

~Listen for the thoughts under the panic. Write them down in a stream of consciousness, no holding back fashion. Look over them the next day and see which thoughts are fueling the feelings. Come up with a few good reassuring answers to the panic thoughts (even if you don't believe them 100%.)

~Come up with a few reassuring mantras to say to yourself such as "this too shall pass," "the worry is always worse than the actual event," or "even if something bad happens I can find support and get help."

~Talk back to the panic. Tell it to leave you alone, get lost, that feelings are not always facts and you will not let its panic messages ruin your night.

~Go to bed earlier. I don't mean to sound glib, but for night worriers, turning in earlier can help.

~Distract your mind. Read. Watch TV. Listen to music.

~Take a personal history. Think back to what bed time was like when you were a child. What are your memories? What were your parents doing late at night? Where were they? Did they tend toward calm or toward anxious? What feelings come up? Consider connecting the dots between your experiences now and the experiences that may have shaped you as a child.

~Make a list of everything and anything that is on your mind from things to do - to things that are worrying you. Leave nothing out. Then put the list away to review during the day.

~Make a gratitude list, a victory list, a list of things that are good and right with you, and in your world.

~Follow the feeling and see where it takes you. Don't fight it, study it. Get curious and wonder if it is new or old, familiar or strange. What or who does it remind you of? Might it have a benefit, a message, or a purpose?

~Talk, talk and talk some more. Talk about the things that may be making you feel angry, frustrated or helpless.

In the back and forth between accepting and feeling your feelings and actively using cognitive or behavioral techniques to help bring on relief, consider that there may be many good roads to relief. Often times there is meaning in our experiences, and when we are willing to tap into what that meaning is, we can end up with a richer life experience and better nights.

Monday, June 6, 2011


A few days ago I took a long walk with an old friend. Sheltered by the trees and the quiet, she spoke of how very much she wished she could get a deeper grasp on the subtle facts of her own life and perhaps tell a new story. She was referring to the nuances of her emotional life, such as her constant worry about her professional success, her preoccupation with trying and failing to write great poetry, her feeling that most people don't really care all that much about her and her resistance to spending money on herself.

These things interfere with her enjoyment of a day, with her feeling contentment from her many accomplishments and blessings, and with her making progress professionally. As I was listening, I wondered, as I often do when I listen, about whose story she was telling. Her own, of course, but not only.

Her sister is a competitive, very successful, somewhat famous medical practitioner. Her mother is a musician who longed for fame, but never quite excelled. And her father, though kind, always made it clear that he sacrificed many of his own needs and dreams in order to support her and her sister.

I wondered if she had given any thought to her own narrative as it relates to her early experiences in life, and the experiences of those closest to her. Had she paused lately to think more about what has shaped her deeper and more subtle (unconscious) beliefs?

We were in the shelter of a great park, but we were not walking a therapy walk together, though the conversation certainly leaned that way. But it reminded me yet again how much we really can gain from taking the time to consider our narratives. Of course, in therapy, in the shelter of these four walls, the conversation often leans that way, when it seems it will be useful. Studying narratives can shed light on the connection between our current emotional lives, the lives of those we love and may have been shaped by, and the obstacles to having more of what we might like.

People who come in to therapy often tell me that they feel a quiet (or not so quiet) discontent. They wish somehow that they felt more serene, more content in the day to day. Yes, they want to achieve, to accomplish, to excel, but they are seeking a balance between the desire for success and progress and the wish for a deeper sense of internal peace. I think it's possible. Probable even. And I think that considering our narratives, and connecting the dots between our internal lives and those of our family can help shed light on what holds us back, what it will take to move ahead, and how best to be both mindful and content, while making satisfying forward motion in life.