Every Friday I publish a new exchange with my mother, Marilyn Smith — psychotherapist, anxiety expert, and genetic wellspring of my neuroses — about anxiety, anxiety disorders, and anxiety treatments.
The series “Ask Dan’s Mom” has now been opened to questions from readers. If you have a question about anxiety you’d like me to share with my mother, please email me at email@example.com.
Hi Mom. I hope you’ve had a good week. I still have a lot I want to talk to you about regarding my own anxiety, but I’ve been getting a lot of questions for you from the outside. People want your sage advice! Are you willing to give it? Can I start sharing your wisdom with the world?
Hi Dan. It was actually a pretty awful week. There was a fire in my office! Can you believe it? My whole side of the building got burned down! All of my files, thank goodness, survived. But still, very stressful. I had to take lots of slow deep breaths to keep myself calm. I know — I’m still trying to pitch the benefits of the breathing. But that’s only because it works so well. To answer your question: yes! I’m ready and willing to help out your fellow anxiety sufferers. So let’s get started.
Dear Dan’s Mom: I keep waking up at 4:00 in the morning. Not always from anxiety (sometimes I just need to use the bathroom), but then my mind starts racing and I can’t fall back asleep. Next thing you know, my alarm is ringing. I’m constantly exhausted. Sometimes I’ll take half a Xanax or Ambien before I go to sleep but then I’m just groggy the next day. How do I turn my brain off? —Sleep Deprived
Dear Sleep Deprived: It sounds as if your body and mind are conditioned to wake up at the same time every night. It becomes a bad habit that needs to be broken and it can be. Here’s what to do: Rather than lie in bed allowing the mind to become a playground for runaway thoughts, if you wake in the middle of the night and don’t fall back asleep within fifteen minutes, get up and go into another room. Relax, have something warm to drink, like herbal tea, and when you start to feel sleepy again go back to bed. It sounds simple, I know, but often the simplest solutions are the most effective. (It’s also a good idea to limit your liquid intake before you go to bed. If you don’t have to pee at 4:00 am you might not wake up at all!) —Dan’s Mom
Dear Dan’s Mom: I am paralyzed with fear about insects, and bed bugs in particular. I have ceased going to movies because I’m convinced the theaters are all infested. I freak out when I have to stay in hotels. I dry clean all new clothing I purchase and inspect the backseats of taxis and couches in bars, which is revolting. Believe it or not, I’m way better about this now than I was last year. How do I put this out of my mind once and for all? Thanks! —Bugged Out
Dear Bugged Out: Don’t let the bed bugs bite! No one thought seriously about this cutesy expression until the media exploded with bed bug horror stories. But how many people do you know who’ve got bitten by those little ugly critters in a hotel or in a movie theatre? Not many, I’d guess. Probably not even one person. Every day there are thousands upon thousands of people who stay in hotels and go to the movies — and are just fine. You’ve probably heard some terrible tales in the newspapers. But don’t universalize based on individual stories. (Newspapers love to sensationalize: it sells newspapers.) I think it’s great that you’ve made so much progress this past year. That’s probably because you’re not avoiding hotels, cabs, and wherever else you see a risk. Keep doing what you’re doing. Facing your fear will conquer your fear. Whatever it takes is fine at this point, even if it means covering the seat in the movie theater. Over time, if you keep exposing yourself to fearful situations, the scary thoughts will subside and die of boredom as it takes the worry to keep them alive. And eventually you will no longer be bugged out. —Dan’s Mom
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