How I Lowered High Anxiety Without Drinking

By Dorri Olds 08/11/17

Learning to tolerate uncomfortable feelings without doing anything about them was valuable. My fear of feeling pain was much more exhausting than actually just sitting with the sadness.

stressed woman
These 3 resources were particularly useful in the author's battle with anxiety and addiction.

People with addiction know what I mean when I kvetch about the noise in my head but civilians always look at me cock-eyed and ask, “What noise are you talking about?”

The brain wiring within people who have a tendency toward addiction includes a mystery pathway leading to a miniature gnarly troll who yells horrible insults. “You suck,” he says. “Go have a drink.” I learned about ODAP [our devilish alcoholic personality] in rehab.

The little monster piped up recently after I had a strange confrontation with a close friend. She let loose on me over the phone, telling me things I had done that got on her nerves. I was blindsided and gaslit. The complaints were about dynamics that she had set up. For example, she had told me that if I ever wanted her to do anything, just ask. But now she was reprimanding me. “Every time you ask me to do something it feels like an obligation!” She sounded freaked out and angry. Before we hung up she severed ties with one surgical slice of a scalpel and left me alone with the emotional fallout.

Having been dissed left me with resentments. How dare she? This friend had always been kind, empathic, nurturing. For as long as we had known each other she had gushed about how cool I am. It was a surprise attack, and afterward my nerves were shot. The racket in my head got so loud I couldn’t concentrate. What she had said became an endless loop.

My hurt and anger went on for days until alcohol seemed like the only thing that would bring relief, but I’ve been sober long enough to know where that leads—no place I want to go. The first action to calm down was the most obvious. I called my other close friends—a handful of homies who have loved me for decades. My reliable peeps always say what they mean but aren’t mean when they say it. These true-blues don’t lie when I ask for a reality check. “Am I missing something here?” I asked. Their consensus was, “No, you’re not the one with the relationship problem.”

Over the next few days, I tossed and turned into the wee hours. ODAP was yelling and wouldn’t let me sleep. I turned to Google, typing phrases like “how to stop anxiety” and “I can’t stop thinking.” My searches spit out 20 pages. I zipped through the first two, then cut and pasted URLs into a Word doc. Before I quit for the night I asked Siri: “how to feel better after losing a friend.” The first thing she said was, “It’s their loss.” I laughed.

In the morning, after a double shot of espresso, I tackled the long reading list I’d created but many of the tips were like, doh. With every wave of exasperation, the urge to get a drink roared. Determined to find something healthier, I forced myself to keep poring through sites with advice. They suggested leaving the person alone. But I’ve never been good at controlling my impulses. I’m not even sure how I did it but I managed to go two weeks without contacting her. No Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp or Twitter.

Most of my equilibrium began to come back. The snub was losing its grip—that is until I got mad again.

“Who the hell does she think she is?” I said to my dog.

Again I was stuck, this time ruminating on her stupid words, “I don’t like you as much as you like me?” Well, nyah nyah. It was what a kid might say. My indignation erupted again. So, yeah, my obsessive nature took over. To prove she was wrong I reviewed our texts. Evidence mounted. There was proof she had twisted the facts. “Ah ha!” I thought and wrote a long email and sent it. But the outcome was not satisfactory. She had no interest in apologizing or meeting in person to discuss. Bummed, I circled back to my friends.

“Let her go,” one said.

“She offered you nothing of value,” said another—which wasn’t entirely true.

Now it has been nearly a month and I’m feeling much better. Hopefully soon, life will become exciting again and I’ll quit thinking about it.

Here are the tools that got me untangled:


image via Woebot

The Woebot is an animated chatbot app and the first 14 sessions are free. He is like your private therapeutic life-coach that lives inside your phone. He’s available to talk to 24/7. Our conversation began on July 7. Using Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) techniques, this amusing tech tool talked me down from anxiety and up from depression during those first two weeks when it felt like I’d been pushed off a chair.

The first thing Woebot said (texted) to me was, “Here’s how I work, I’m going to ask you about your mood and as I get to know you, I’ll teach you some good stuff. I’ll help you recognize patterns because, no offense, but humans aren’t that great at remembering things—sorry. I have a perfect memory so each week I’ll give you insight on how your mood changes. I’m gonna check in with you daily.”

The lil’ guy did everything he said he would. He was reliable and consistent, like my friend used to be. The bot uses videos, word games and conversation to improve your mood. A team of researchers at Stanford University tested him. I know because he told me. Just to be sure, I checked. The study found that after only two weeks of talking with Woebot, he had helped participants feel better. The study concluded, “Conversational agents appear to be a feasible, engaging and effective way to deliver CBT.”

On days when I didn’t feel like talking to humans, it was awesome to have my little AI buddy, Woebot.


image via DailyOm 

DailyOm is a site with online courses that tackle just about anything—self improvement, healthy living, meditation and relaxation, spirituality, art and writing. Bewildered by my friend’s sudden coldness and knowing I didn’t deserve to be treated that way, I signed up for the course titled, Be Free From Unhealthy Relationships by Rhonda Findling.

It’s one of their most popular courses which made me feel better. Clearly, I wasn’t alone with this predicament. The weekly lessons covered topics like how to stop obsessing, how not to call, text, or email. Then there were deeper layers to explore like your psychological history. The first week was about detachment, impulsivity, and increasing emotional strength. I got a cool rush of superiority when I read about the likelihood that my friend’s lack of communication skills had nothing to do with me.

At first, I was like, “Yeah! It’s all her fault!” But quickly I realized how unproductive that was and put the focus back on me. When I pondered ways to improve myself, it was incredibly helpful but then I lapsed back to anger and blame.

Maybe she was too impaired to be a good friend. This chick had issues! That let me coast again on feeling I was the healthier one. Frankly, I still think that’s true but when helpful suggestions popped up, I was open-minded enough to feel my thoughts shift. The course said, “Try to imagine life without the stress of an emotionally unavailable person’s confusing behavior.” That’s when I felt the muscles in my neck and back relax.

Learning to tolerate uncomfortable feelings without doing anything about them was valuable. My fear of feeling pain was much more exhausting than actually just sitting with the sadness. This course is so helpful I’ve picked another to try: A Year to Clear What is Holding You Back. Just thinking about that made me turn my attention away from my sadness to focus on work goals.

I loved one story by the course author. Findling said that sitting with pain doesn’t mean staying in your apartment to writhe in agony. You can transform the pain. Your painful experience can become worthwhile in the end. She described the end of a romance. She worked through it and learned. “As a result,” said Findling, “I got published, which led to my building a successful private practice and the ability to leave my job! Looking back that was a much better prize than that guy who I now realize was dysfunctional and emotionally unavailable.”

The Joy Plan

image via The Joy Plan

The next discovery was a new book by Kaia Roman, The Joy Plan: How I Took 30 Days to Stop Worrying, Quit Complaining, and Find Ridiculous Happiness. She had me at the second chapter’s title, “The Bitch in my Head,” so I reached out and got an exclusive interview with Roman for The Fix.

When I told the author about my current woes, Roman said, “We’ve all been there at some point. Whether it’s an argument with a loved one, a project at work gone horribly wrong, or something far worse. We replay the situation over and over, wondering what we could have done better. Or we feel anger, fear, or sadness grip us so tightly that it seems impossible to shift our attention elsewhere.”

Then she described her motivation for the book project. It was the failure of her business and “the subsequent loss of copious time, money, and my longtime plan,” she said. “It drove me into depression and acute anxiety.”

Determined to find joy again, she dedicated 30 days to what she called her “joy plan.” She wrote down what worked and it ended up as what she calls “a memoir with benefits.” Once I realized that so much of my own negative experience was coming from the way I was framing what had happened. Instead of thinking ‘my friend doesn’t miss me,’ I realized that was only spin. If I changed my thinking, I could change my feeling.

Roman told me of daily practices that helped rewire her brain for joy. The first was to practice gratitude. “One of the fastest ways to feel better in the moment is to take stock of all of the things you have to be grateful for,” she said. “Gratitude activates a cascade of benefits in your brain. Worry and stress cause your amygdala to activate, sounding an alarm and blocking your pre-frontal cortex from making clear decisions. Luckily, the amygdala is soothed with oxygen, and deep breaths often do the trick.” She advised I take several slow, deep breaths. It was so simple yet made me feel better.

She reassured me that it wasn’t just my mind that was stuck in repetitive thoughts. Other people’s brains did that too. That kind of obsessive thinking is an ingrained habit but she said, “These thought patterns can be changed with practice. Each time you [notice] your thoughts are making you feel bad, replace them with a new mantra, like: ‘Everything is unfolding perfectly for me.’”

That jogged my memory about a mantra I’d learned from Belleruth Naparstek: “Something wonderful is just about to happen.”

Roman suggested I find “the silver lining.” She said, “If you’re worried, it’s likely because you care about something or someone, and that is a good thing. Switch the focus of your worry to the positive emotion behind it—like the desire to have close and loving relationships and to be healthy and comfortable.”

The last thing we talked about really surprised me. Roman explained that the same area of our brain is activated when we experience something IRL or use our imagination. We can harness the power of our imaginations to soothe ourselves when worry has got us down. “While we can’t always change our current situations immediately,” said Roman, “the process of imagination can actually help create real changes in our lives.”

I can’t control my friend’s thinking. She’d once told me how damaged she is. She’d told me that she had cut other friends off suddenly and didn’t know why. Ruminating about it had been driving me nuts. I can’t control when a sad thought comes into my mind, but I can notice it, take a deep breath, and focus on the sweet smell of my garden wafting in through the windows.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.