Anxiety: The Attack No One Sees Coming And 5 Ways You Can Help

I never thought it would happen to me.

To David Horning – the dude who preaches mental toughness, emotional intelligence, and leadership when others experience stress. I had my first anxiety attack earlier this week, and, for a moment, it crashed my entire worldview.

For awhile, I resisted it, throwing away everything I’ve learned and taught others about dealing with stress, overcoming adversity, and accepting reality. It shook me to my core, crumpling up my identity like a discarded joke premise and throwing it into a California wildfire, then dousing it with hundreds of gallons of water, and backing over the ashes with a big rig. After all of these years of preaching to “Accept the present moment,” “Look for the opportunity,” and “What can I you with what you know?” I became someone who was saying, “You’re a piece of shit,” “You’re not worth it,” and “Everyone should feel bad for me.”

Talk about a 180.

After a few days of reaching out to people around me – my family, my girlfriend, and my roommates – I came to the realization that this was a test to challenge the mettle of the identity I had created for myself over the years. And now, sitting in a crowded coffee shop as the aroma of chai lattes and the sounds of ambient music fill the air, I realize that now I have a chance to create a connection with those struggling to connect with others experiencing difficulties – whether they’re colleagues, friends, or family. All it took was a fresh perspective, and that’s what I hope to share with you through the 5 things you can do when someone you know is suffering from anxiety.

1. Communicate That You’re There To Support Them By Listening

This can be as simple as a comforting hand on their shoulder, eye contact, or a smile. It can be verbal reassurance that you’re willing to take the time to simply be in the room. It can be in the form of a card, a voicemail, or an invitation to lunch to just hear their side of the story without any judgment. Sometimes just offering an ear can help them verbalize what they’re going through in a way that helps them discover the light at the end of the tunnel.

2. Don’t Give Advice Unless They Ask For It

The last thing you want to do is to tell a person going through a bout with anxiety what they should do. Sure, what you’re saying may make objective sense, but someone going through anxiety’s fight-or-flight response cannot see the full picture, no matter how sensible you are. It’s not that they don’t want to feel better – they do (duh) – but if they’re not ready, you’re only going to contribute to the anxiety. Giving advice will make them resist what you’re saying through argument (fight) or simply shut off to you and turn elsewhere (flight). Or they’ll just punch you and run away (fight-AND-flight). Unless they explicitly ask for your help, simply being there is the best action you can take.

3. Share Your Experience

Be real. Share the most gut wrenching story from your life; was there a time you faced crippling anxiety? Depression? Even suicidal thoughts? The moment that began shaking me were hearing from my dad – one of my role models – share how he couldn’t sleep for days at a time, had lingering pains in his chest, and cold sweats while he struggled to raise a young family amidst unemployment and a bad economy. Then, a good friend reached out to me about how he contemplated suicide amidst the worst anxiety attack in his life. Finally, my roommate – whom I’ve known for all of two months – opened up about his bouts with anxiety. Sharing that you’ve experienced the same symptoms, but have a different story offers a fresh perspective that can shake the sufferer out of their current tunnel vision. Notice how none of this involves giving advice.

4. Offer Perspective

Whatever they’re going through, there’s someone, somewhere who has had it worse and overcome it. When someone is experiencing extreme anxiety, all they’re thinking about is how bad they have it in that moment, and it’s incredibly difficult to shake this perspective. Telling a story about someone you know, someone you’ve heard of, or even sharing a humorous anecdote can provide a jolt of, “It could be worse.” The other night, I was wandering aimlessly through the grocery store on the phone with a buddy of mine. As I tried to pick out the Holy Grail of avocados (why are they only ripe for seven minutes!?), he put the image of living in the Middle Ages through the bubonic plague in my head. As stupid as it seems, it made me feel silly for thinking my problems were so bad and shook me out of my funk for the time being. Oh, and I found the perfect avocado.

5. Ask Open-Ended Questions

When they ask for your help, it may seem natural to simply tell them what to do next, but that’s not what they really want. They just want to know how to break out of their funk, but doing it in a way specific to them, and the best way to point them in that direction is to ask them open-ended questions that will help them find their own answers (no closed-ended questions that lead to yes or no answers). The goal is to help them discover answers that make them feel better about themselves, reframing the situation so they can find a path up, and asking them what actions they can take to get there. In doing this, I was able to see that the anxiety I was feeling was all self-inflicted, that I’ve overcome every roadblock ever put in front of me, and that I have growth opportunities all around me. Now, I have an action plan in place to grow myself, discover new things, and use this experience to help others. That’s why I’m posting this now – I was in the middle of reaching out to secure new speaking gigs when inspiration struck from a question my dad asked me: “What are some things you can do now?” If I can leverage my experience to offer ideas to people who are dealing with others with anxiety (or dealing with anxiety themselves), I have to take the opportunity to do so.

Without others lending a hug, empathy, perspective, and asking perspective-expanding questions, I’d be in a much worse place right now. If you know someone going through anxiety, reach out, and at the very least, let them know you’re there and just listen.

Who knows? You may be saving a life.

Humor and Grief: Putting the ‘FUN’ in Funerals

When a close relative of yours gets murdered, it shakes the foundation of your existence; it can send you on a downward spiral of depression, dependency, and regret. One of the toughest moments of my life was learning of the passing of my aunt, Kristie, at the hands of her own daughter – my cousin Taylor. I was lying in bed around 7 AM after a late night of shock and questioning reality – we had already known Kristie had been killed, but when we went to bed, we didn’t know the culprit – when my dad burst into my room with hate in his voice, declaring, “Taylor did it.”

My first thought was, “Christmas is going to be awkward this year.” I stopped myself from laughing: “This isn’t the time to make jokes.” The next few weeks were miserable – every day we learned more and more gruesome details about the murder. If you were to drive by our house, it would’ve been the one with the black cloud hovering above it. You always hear people say things like, “That kind of stuff happens on the news, it doesn’t happen to us,” so none of us really knew how to cope. We spend a lot of time together, consoling and comforting one another. In college at the time, I confronted my vulnerability by skipping two straight weeks of class – the only percentage I got was the .09 I blew into a breathalyzer. Needless to say, none of the family could find a way out of the black hole we were stuck in… until the funeral. That’s when I finally gave in to the humor of the whole situation.

During the eulogy, the minister said, “This is a celebration of life!” I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “celebration,” I think “party,” and not one person was partying. Besides, if you were to invite me to a party, then inform me it’s at a church, everyone would be crying, and the DJ would be bagpipes, I’d politely decline. And one more thing: he called it a “celebration of life…” with a dead body in the middle of the room – you couldn’t get more contradictory. That’s like having an open bar at a sobriety party. I had to laugh – and the moment I did, it was like a weight was lifted off of my chest. I began to notice even more incongruities: the first three letters in ‘funeral’ are ‘F-U-N,’ Kristie found joy in the happiness of others and, ironically enough, EVERYONE THERE WAS CRYING, and a stranger no one there had ever met sobbed uncontrollably into the microphone for five minutes, blubbering on about how he wished more people had known Kristie, while we wondered who the hell knew who that guy was.

In the face of tragedy was the moment I realized the power laughter has over our fears, stress, and sadness. But it shouldn’t come as such a shock: science has known this for some time now

A study from the University of Berkeley, bereaved widows and widowers able to laugh about their loss were observed to be happier, better equipped to deal with distress, and better socially adapted.

A study done at Kent State and reported in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care revealed that humor was present in 85 percent of 132 observed nurse based visits. Amazingly, they found that 70 percent of the humor was initiated by the patient.

Humor provides us with relief, not by washing away bad feelings, but by activating them, along with positive ones, so that we can enjoy a complex emotional experience. Tragic circumstances are an effective breeding ground for humor because they provide the same release as horror movies, allowing the participants to confront their emotions head-on.       –Scott Weems (author of Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why)

How have you used humor in the face of tragedy? How have you helped others experiencing tragedy, trauma, or even just a bad day smile?

Each of us has had a “Christmas is going to be awkward this year,” lean into it and let yourself laugh.

 

Gun Violence and the Solution That’s Right Under Our Noses

Last month, President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos hosted a roundtable discussion where they invited victims of school shootings to the White House to discuss their experiences and ideas for solutions. Regardless of your position on the president and Mrs. DeVos, this was a welcomed development in the debate over gun violence. Instead of debating, arguing, and the typical candor between politicians, real people came together to share solution ideas for a problem that has divided us for years. Not one to watch the news (or what I call “the noise” because I’m just so damn clever), I was transfixed. In a culture where we’re focused on who’s right vs. who’s wrong rather than “How can we come together to create a solution?” for once those in attendance had a common goal: create a culture of safety. Not five minutes after the meeting ended, came the hot takes from pundits and social media accounts focused again on who was right and who was wrong, why the president is an asshat, and his meeting notes, including a reminder to “hear” those voicing their concerns. We were right back to focusing on problems instead of creating solutions. In all this noise, we missed out on the solution to the problem that was offered during the meeting that doesn’t just take care of the symptoms like mental health reform, banning certain guns, or arming teachers: a cultural shift focused on how we see one another.
During this meeting, one person really stood out to me: Darrel Scott, father of Rachel Scott, who was killed in the 4/20/97 shooting at Columbine High School. This was the school shooting that brought the topic of gun violence into the national spotlight almost 21 years ago, and still, few solutions have been reached. In fact, mass shootings have only intensified, because in these twenty-plus years, Columbine has dropped out of the top 10 list for deadliest shootings (um… yay?). It’s time for new ideas, because the ideas we’ve been working with for over two decades are clearly not doing the trick. What Scott said struck a chord with me since I study and share how to create positive workplace cultures for a living. Scott has a brief opportunity to get to the core of, not only the issue of gun violence, but the issues of violence in general and the underlying lack of happiness plaguing the country. Scott isn’t just talking about it a solution, he’s actively doing something to fix the deeply rooted cause of violent behavior: a lack of human connection.
Since his daughter lost her life, Scott has founded Rachel’s Challenge,* a nonprofit on a mission to create a positive climate focused on making schools safer, more connected places where bullying and violence are replaced with kindness and respect. According to Scott, the program has touched 28 million students since its founding in 1998, has prevented 7 school shootings, prevents an average of 150 suicides a year, and has seen improvements in the schools with whom they have partnered. According to the website, this includes gains in community engagement, faculty/student relationships, leadership potential, and school climate, as well as reductions in bullying, alcohol, tobacco, and drug use. While debates rage on over whether to arm teachers, ban automatic weapons, or apply stricter background checks when purchasing a firearm, Scott, a private citizen just like me and you, free from the entanglements of bureaucracy and politics, is, putting it bluntly, getting shit done.
Scott’s solution: “We must create a culture of connectedness. We must create a culture in which our classmates become our friends.” He goes on to explain how he has seen students connect with one another and makes a fascinating point: “Every single one of these school shootings have been from young men who are disconnected.”**
In his book, Flourish: positive psychologist Martin Seligman lists positive relationships as one of the five elements of human well-being.***

“Selfish-gene theory argues that the individual is the sole unit of natural selection. Evidence shows that the group is a primary unit of natural selection.”

Sure, I have read books in the field of positive psychology that re-affirm this, but it’s through my research in other fields like leadership, history, and, yes, even improvisation that have led me to go as far as to say that a lack of human connectedness is the causation of aggression, violence, and discrimination.
From Simon Sinek in his book Leaders Eat Last:

“When we cooperate or look out for others, serotonin and oxytocin reward us with the feelings of security, fulfillment, belonging, trust, and camaraderie.”

Humans are wired to get along, but we’re conditioned to covet personal gain, which goes against this biology, and costs us opportunities to make connections, become happier, and grow exponentially. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian Yuval Noah Harrari wrote:

“Evolution favors those capable of forming strong social ties. In addition, since humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialized far greater than any other animals.”

To solve the problem of gun violence, we must create a culture focused on humans connecting with one another in order to make each other better and to make the world a better place, which is what Darrel Scott and his wife are doing with Rachel’s Challenge. I believe that the long-term solution is an overhaul of the education system where the goal is for students to learn to connect with one another and work together, rather than work separately for individual accomplishment. Until then, each of us can play a small role on creating a culture of connectedness in our own lives and circles. Though each of us as individuals has a small voice, we have an opportunity to come together and connect as a cacophony of voices on a quest to create safety, happiness, and love. It is in the pursuit of creating something we all believe in that can connect us, rather than arguing over who is right or who is wrong, which denies us the chance to create connection.
Darrel Scott is just one voice who has brought together a chorus of many voices to make a difference and bring us closer to a more human culture:
“The focus must not be just on unity or diversity, because if you focus too much on diversity, you create division. If you focus too much on unity, you’ll create compromise. But if you focus on relatedness and how you can relate with one another, then you can celebrate the diversity and you can see the unity take place. The focus really needs to be on how we can connect. That’s something our organizations have learned: how to connect students with each other, with themselves, with their teachers, and with their parents.”

Imagine the freedom of walking the streets without the fear of violence – with a feeling of confidence that every person you pass has your best interests at heart. We have the choice to focus on how this isn’t possible, which is what has been happening, or we can shift our focus onto how we can come together and create this culture. One thing you can do today is not to debate, but to listen to the ideas of others and remember that no matter who we are, we all want to feel safe and loved. How can you help make this happen and connect with others today?

“The most important decision we make is whether we believe in a friendly or hostile universe.” – Albert Einstein
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in looking with new eyes.” – Marcel Proust
*Darrel Scott speaks at about 33:50 in this video:
https://www.denverpost.com/2018/02/21/darrell-scott-columbine-shooting-donald-trump/
** Learn more about Rachel’s Challenge and how a culture of connectedness is helping students all over the country build relationships with classmates, parents, teachers, and themselves.
***The other four are positive emotion, engagement, meaning, and accomplishment.

Why Does This Keep Happening?

When you turn on the news, how do you feel?

When you think about how a human being can do something so barbaric, how does that make you feel?

When you hop on your social media and read people’s comments, what feeling does that create?

When you hear stories about the kindness, generosity, and heroic sacrifices of others, what do you feel?

Which of those feelings do you want to feel more of?

Is this going to be a blog post with only questions?

Allow me to answer that with a question: with so many people offering the same right/wrong, black/white, conservative/liberal opinions, wouldn’t it be nice to hear something different?

How can we bring more feelings of inspiration, love, abundance, joy, compassion, and meaning into the world?

What if each of us set out on our days to spread these feelings to others? What if we refocus our perspective of work, success, and life itself onto making the ultimate goal the spreading of those feelings?

What if, every day, we focused on bettering ourselves rather than being better than others?

What if, no matter the ideologies, opinions, and actions of others, we still responded with compassion and love?

How would your personal relationships be different?

Would your professional relationships become more personal?

What if we spent more time educating our children on kindness, working together, and understanding those different than us?

What if we were to measure our success by the number of people we serve?

What if we smiled more at strangers?

What if we accepted the imperfections of our humanity and laughed more at ourselves?

What if we looked at our differences in thought, belief, and action as opportunities to understand more about each other?

Would this make it easier to work together?

How could our different perspectives be combined to make the world a better place?

How would the world be different if we focused on solutions instead of the severity of problems?

If, every day, most people felt love, joy, compassion, abundance, inspiration and meaning, do you think they would want to inflict harm unto others verbally, emotionally, or physically?

What does that world look like?

How does that make you feel?

How can you share this feeling with everyone around you?

Can darkness exist where there is light?

Can fear, anger, bigotry, and hatred exist where there is love, compassion, understanding, and joy?

Does pointing out the faults of others show them how to grow?

Is fighting anger, hatred, and fear with anger, hatred and fear creating less anger, hatred, and fear?

What feelings does every human being strive for?

This keeps happening because we keep responding the same way. This has nothing to do with politics, being right or wrong, or even guns; it’s much more basic than all of these things. This has everything to do with being a human being, and the most human feelings we can feel are love, joy, compassion, understanding, freedom, kindness, and a desire to grow.

So what can you do to create those feelings within yourself?

What can you do, starting now, to inspire those feelings within others?

Start now. Share with others.

Let’s change the narrative and make the world and the people in it better together.