Awareness for mental health has grown, which helps break stigmas and opens up a lot of discussions. But do people truly grasp the debilitating effects of anxiety? According to today’s guests, we have a long way to go when talking about the seriousness of mental health issues. Joining host Whitney Lauritsen today are The Anxiety Sisters Abbe Greenberg and Maggie Sarachek. They define anxiety and discuss the importance of bringing awareness to the physical symptoms and the science behind the disorder. The three of them also discuss the controversy surrounding seeing anxiety as a “trend” and people’s misconceptions about it. Tune in as they share valuable insights from their book, The Anxiety Sisters’ Survival Guide: How You Can Become More Hopeful, Connected, and Happy.
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The Anxiety Sisters’ Survival Guide: How You Can Become More Hopeful, Connected, and Happy With Authors Abbe Greenberg and Maggie Sarachek
We are going to focus on a topic that I hear comes up more and more which is anxiety. The two women here that I have as guests are the Anxiety Sisters. I feel very connected to anyone who has sisters because I have a great relationship with my sister. I wish my sister would write a book with me and do a show with me but we work in completely different fields. One thing that my sister and I have in common is anxiety. The two of us end up talking about that a lot more than we used to.
I do not know if that is because we are growing older and becoming more self-aware or if it is that society and our culture have brought anxiety more to the forefront. I wanted to begin with this area of anxiety with Abs and Mags, the Anxiety Sisters. What have you seen that shift in this world of anxiety? How does that compare to the past in terms of your careers? How you have seen the conversation around anxiety evolve over time?
Do you feel like in 2022 that it is talked about more comfortably and openly? Is it talked about a little too much and maybe out of context? Are people understanding anxiety in a different way or perhaps even in more of a trendy way? That is part of my curiosity. Is it becoming a trend? Is that diluting the value of anxiety? Is it a good thing that anxiety is spoken about more often because it is helping people feel more comfortable with acknowledging when they experience it?
First, let me start by correcting you in that Mags and I are not actual sisters, although we are soul sisters. When we met in college back in the 1980s, people did not talk about anxiety. That was not in the conversation at all. We did not even have the vocabulary to talk about any mental health issues back then. It was something that was not in the mainstream at all. From that perspective, we have come a long way. It is not far enough but we have come a long way.
When Mags and I met, we both were struggling with anxiety but we did not know to call it that. What we knew was that Mags had terrible stomach issues. She constantly was either nauseated, could not eat or sick to her stomach. She used to say to me, “I do not know what I have but I am sure it is bad.” I had all of the cardiac symptoms. I had a racing heart, dizziness and all that stuff. I did not know it was anxiety. I just assumed I had a bad heart. We both pretty much thought we would die from whatever it is that we had. That kept us in fight or flight for a good part of our college time.
It was not until many years after college during our decade of the -ist. We spent ten years going to every -ist that existed. We went to a nutritionist, cardiologist, therapist, psychiatrist, hypnotist and past life regressionist. You name it. To anyone who would take our money, we would go because we could not understand what we were feeling and how this was happening to us. There were practitioners that were saying things like, “This is anxiety,” but we did not believe it because it was so physical.
It took us a solid ten years of going to various specialists and doctors, trying medications and doing everything until we have begun to believe, “This is possibly anxiety as hard as that is to believe because it is so physical.” That answers the first part of your question. In terms of whether we think it has become a trend, I do not know about a trend. We are delighted that people are willing to talk about anxiety, depression and other brain disorders all the time.
For us, there can never be too much talk about it. That may be because we are the Anxiety Sisters. The trend of celebrities talking about their mental health struggles is positive because that helps those of us who are not celebrities feel more comfortable to say, “I am experiencing that too. If that person is dealing with it then I can maybe deal with it.” Why Mags and I started the community was so that people could find their tribe of fellow anxiety suffers. Does that answer your question enough about the trend part?Is this anxiety, or do I need to go to the emergency room? Click To Tweet
It does. I am also still smiling over here because I was fully convinced that you were actual sisters. It is the dynamic between the two. If I got the information that you were not sisters ahead of time, it completely dissolved in my mind because as soon as I met the two of you, it felt like you had this great bond. That also comes around to how we define sisterhood. It does not have to be this biological thing. It can be this deep connection that we have with one another, which is something else I can relate to with having some close female friends who practically feel like sisters.
One of my good friends calls me her sister twin because we are so similar that even her husband got us confused one time when I was visiting. We look the same. He walked into the room and thought that I was her for a moment. We will never forget that. That idea of being sisters when you are not biological is neat about the two of you. Do people think that you are sisters all the time? Does that come up a lot that you are actual sisters? Do they know upfront that you are not?
Usually, it does not come up. People do ask us a lot if we are sisters. Neither one of us has a biological sister but we are sisters in every way that matters. We are soul sisters or chosen sisters. We always say, “We are not biologically related but we fight like we are.”
The signal to me is the way that you speak to each other. I would not say it is fighting but it is the energy. My sister and I have that. Some people think that we are being mean to each other but it is just how it is. Mags, I would love to hear if there is anything you would add to what Abs said about whether or not anxiety feels like it is trending or how it has evolved over time. How do you feel about the shifts that we have seen in the conversation about anxiety?
On the one hand, I do think it is so important that we at least are bringing up this idea of mental health more and talking about anxiety, depression, bipolar and all these different issues that were swept under the rug. I grew up in a house that was fairly open to talking about all of this but still it was not part of the whole culture. We did not connect the dots a lot of times. The thing about anxiety is that it is so physical that you are getting a rash or cardiac symptoms, you can’t breathe, you are claustrophobic or you are afraid to drive.
There are so many physical symptoms. Often, people still do not connect those dots that the physical symptoms I am feeling are anxiety. It is a very hard concept for us to understand, even us. There are times when something will happen and I will have physical symptoms. I will call Abbe and say, “Is this anxiety or do I need to go to the emergency room?” Even now, it happens less. I usually call her and I know it is anxiety but for all of us, it is a hard thing to come to terms with. What our body can do based on anxiety and from our anxiety is a big one.
The piece that is important for me is how do we teach our children, teens and adults to take care of their health in general. I hate to separate physical and mental health because they are not separate. How do we teach people to talk about their feelings, needs and worries? How do we teach them to respond when other people are talking about it? How does this all translate into the real world and in terms of how we go about things in our lives and the structures of our education? We still have a long way to go with that piece.
Isn’t that interesting? I feel like we are simultaneously in this time where it is more commonplace and open to talk about anxiety but it also feels a bit misunderstood to me. I am curious if you two would agree with that. I do not know if people are mixing up the definitions. A fantastic idea that comes to mind that I was taken aback by was on the show The Bachelor, which I watch as a “guilty pleasure,” although I do not feel like we should feel guilty about watching a TV show. It was the season that started airing at the beginning of 2022.
One of the contestants shared that she had ADHD. There was another contestant that she was bickering with who started to use that against her and she started mocking her for that. I started uncovering where I am at on the spectrum of even autism and ADHD, which I did not even know. This was a personal experience of mine of being grateful that people were talking about these things because I have gone so much of my life struggling in ways that I did not even feel conscious of.
I thought, “This is me. These are my struggles. I have to deal with them. They are not going to change. Nobody is going to accommodate me.” That was something I internalized a lot until I started working with a therapist who helped me identify how much anxiety I was facing under the surface. When I started to learn more about ADHD, I grew a lot of compassion for other people that have that. When I saw this on the TV show, I felt so simultaneously heartbroken and taken aback.
In 2022 or 2021 when they recorded the show, these women in their twenties who as a generation seemed very woke, open-minded and accepting of one another still feel confused and not accepting of other people’s mental health. That comes up a lot more than we even realize if we are not showcasing it on a reality TV show or social media. I still feel a bit perplexed. Why does that happen if we are talking about mental health so commonly? What do you two come across in your work and discussions on podcasts about how the world maybe does not fully accept mental health issues, even the common ones like anxiety?
The good news is that people are willing to talk about symptoms and the experience of anxiety, depression, ADHD and other similar disorders. That part is great. Mags and I celebrate that. What we are about too is deepening that conversation. We also feel that we have a long way to go when it comes to people understanding that someone’s anxiety or depression might keep them from, let’s say, keeping a commitment or showing up to the carpool line to pick up their child.
In other words, it is all well and good that we claim to have anxiety and depression and that is something people now say, “That is a legitimate thing,” but we still believe that people do not understand how debilitating it can be somehow because it is an invisible illness or disorder. We are not wearing a cast like you do when you break your leg. There is no blood test yet that tells us that we have anxiety. It is invisible to the outside.
This means that when you tell someone, “I am having such a rough day with my obsessive-compulsive disorder. I do not think I can make it to the book club tonight,” then you still get met with, “We are not going to be doing anything. We are just going to be relaxed and hang out together.” That says, “I do not understand what anxiety disorder is.” The same is true for depression. It can be true for ADHD. That is where Mags and I fall in terms of we believe we have come a long way. We are celebrating the conversation that is out there but we have a long ways to go.
I love that you brought up that example because learning more about this has opened my eyes to all the times in my life where I have either felt things like that personally but I was afraid to share with others out of fear of being misunderstood but also the times that other people have expressed things like that to me and I did not understand them. One of my close friends since we were a few years old, I have been fortunate to know her since nursery school, when we were teenagers, shared that she had anxiety. I did not know what that was because we lived in a different time back then. It was not commonly openly discussed.
I remember her what I perceived as making excuses like, “She says she is not doing this because of her anxiety.” I was ignorant. I am sure that it caused a lot of judgment. I was not a very supportive friend because I did not have that awareness. She did not know as a teenager how to tell me about it. Looking back, I feel amazed that she even knew to use those words, especially given how much the conversation has shifted in all of these years.It's impossible to tell someone how you're feeling when you don't know how you're feeling. Click To Tweet
There are countless examples of when people are even afraid to say that is the reason why. They just say, “I am not going to come to the party. I am not feeling well,” or they cancel on you last minute. I felt many times of feeling frustrated like, “Why are they late? Why are they canceling? Why do they never show up?” Now I have started to look at it through a different lens like, “Maybe they are going through things that they are not comfortable sharing with me. They are afraid of being judged or they think that I am going to think it is an excuse.”
In turn because I felt that way towards other people, I found myself holding back and not telling people that I am feeling anxious, I am having a low-mood day or I am struggling with my neurodivergence. It makes me want to advocate for it more. It makes me grateful for the work that you two are doing. I am curious what practices come up on both sides whether we are the ones feeling anxious and we need tools to better communicate that. How can we be more supportive of other people who are going through that whether they communicate that to us or not?
Abs and I had a support group with a group of women. Someone said, “Many of my friends have fallen off during the pandemic.” Someone who has experienced a lot of anxiety and depression herself said, “I am feeling so isolated and all these friends drifted off.” Abbe said to her at that time, “I know it may seem like that but you may want to do a check-in because you were feeling isolated. You could not reach out. Maybe you have friends feeling like that too and you think, ‘They are ignoring me and going on with life,’” but everyone is feeling that way.
It is that idea sometimes of doing that check-in with someone and saying, “I have struggled sometimes. I noticed you have not been calling me back.” It is whatever you are noticing, “I noticed something or whatever it is. I am wondering. I want to check in with you.” Gently do that. In terms of ourselves, putting out what we need and what is going on with us, a lot of it is having the vocabulary ourselves because it is impossible to tell someone else, “This is what I am feeling,” when you do not know what it is that you are feeling. It is not always easy to recognize our depression or anxiety, even now. I am a social worker and I do Anxiety Sisters for a living. There will be times when Abbe will say to me, “I think you are depressed. You are a little down.”
Depression is very hard for me to recognize. I am a little bit more comfortable with anxiety because I have experienced so much of it. It is familiar to me. For depression, although I have been depressed and experienced depression, my primary symptoms have always been anxiety. Abbe will say, “That is depression. It constantly has that time to understand what we are feeling or having people in our lives, which is so important, who can give us that feedback.” That is the real conversation there. The real conversation is not like, “I have anxiety or depression.”
There is also neuroscience. Mags and I have immersed ourselves in neuroscience because we find that it speaks to people when we can show them what is happening in their brain, show a functional MRI on a slide and say, “This is what a brain on anxiety or depression looks like.” It helps people who do not experience and are lucky enough to not have anxiety or depression say, “Look at that light up. I did not realize it.” It is sad that we have to have pictures to legitimize this but it helps.
I am constantly taking neuroscience courses and educating myself as much as I can because I find that talking about science is one way to reach people who do not understand anxiety. Also, we do a Tuesday Night book club on Facebook with our people and always start with neuroscience. The feedback we get is, “I was always so afraid of that but you make it understandable so that now I do not feel so much shame. I can see that it is not my fault. I am not flaky. I do not have a moral failing. My personality isn’t off. None of these things that people have said to me are true. This is a disorder. It is not a decision.”
That does circle back around to my reaction on The Bachelor of how could somebody position it as, “You are just deciding to be this way,” when they have already disclosed to you that they have a disorder or a condition. It is that ignorance. I do believe that neuroscience does play a big role. It seems like we have a ways to go to legitimize something like this, even if it has been around for a long time. I also think there is a lot of work that we need to do to break the stigmas.
To your point, Abs, it is great that we are seeing more discussions around mental health even if, in my opinion sometimes it is used in a way that feels like a trend. I know it is not but I see people capitalizing on it, I suppose and using it to make money in some ways that do not always feel authentic or about helping people. We see this a lot in health like, “How can we make money from somebody’s challenges in life?” That is unsettling but on the plus side, the ongoing conversation around this has been wonderful. On the other side, coming back to something I brought up earlier that is worth revisiting is what even the definitions of anxiety are.
Maybe people are confused about that. To your point, Mags, when you are struggling to even identify something like depression, maybe that is related to not being clear about what the symptoms are or even the difference between being stressed versus anxious. Perhaps the two of you could share what anxiety means to you. What have you learned from a scientific perspective but also your personal experience of anxiety?
The way that both of us look at it is that anxiety itself is not a bad thing. That is why we get up in the morning and get dressed. A little bit of anxiety is why we participate in the world. We try to get food, make connections with people and have a house to live in or an apartment. Those are the things that move us forward. It is some anxiety. We always joke that we were giving a workshop one day. A much older woman was talking to us. It was in Vermont.
Her car had spun out a couple of times on the way to the session. She said, “Even when it was spinning out, I was not getting anxious.” I was like, “Maybe she should not be driving anymore.” There is that anxiety when our car is spinning out. We are supposed to feel anxious and like, “I am in an emergency.” That is our fight and flight response. It is so important in keeping us safe.
We always think anxiety enters the problem stage when it is making the decisions about where you go, who you see and what you do. When you are planning your life around your anxiety, canceling things because of your anxiety or deciding, “I can’t go for this or that. I can’t try this because I am going to be too anxious,” we call that Shrinking World Syndrome often.
It is this idea that your world gets smaller due to your anxiety. We do not just mean geographically and certainly, that happens but we also mean emotionally because you start saying, “My friends are all doing that.” It is not that you should always do what your friends are doing but it is like, “I would also love to travel but I can’t get on a plane. I will be too anxious to be there for a while.” It is that whole idea of how much your anxiety rules the worst.
That leads me to a subject that I want to hear more about. First, I want to see if Abs wants to add to that.
When I wake up and anxiety is there, which happens from time to time and it is still hanging out, I will say, “That is fine. You can be here but you can’t drive.”
That leads cut into this question I have about if you are going to be present to how you are feeling each day, which is something I have started to become passionate about and if you have the option to adjust your day based on how you are feeling, which to me is the ideal. It is sad that our society is not necessarily set up for us to do that. Our mental health is not something that we have so much control over. At least for me, how it manifests is sometimes I am hit with a wave of anxiety, a low mood or maybe depression. Mags, like you, I struggle to even identify when it is fully there. It is stress even and the nuances of the challenges that I am having. I have trained myself to take a moment to examine it.Anxiety is a disorder, not a decision. Click To Tweet
There are a lot of times when I feel like I can’t or I do not want to shift my day. I am like, “I do not want to inconvenience somebody by canceling or postponing something.” In a way, I wish that we were set up more to do that and have more flexibility so that we can respect ourselves. Fear comes up for me. It is like, “What if it never goes away? What if I am always going to feel anxious? What if this is part of getting through life?” I am curious as to what your perspectives are. Do you think anxiety is something that once we have it is permanent? Is anxiety something that we can “cure” or minimize? Does it always fluctuate? Is it like other elements of life where we are learning to live with it?
That idea of taking time every day to be in touch with how you are feeling and what you need that day is so important. It is not something that we automatically learn to do. It is something that we have to be intentional about learning. It is not like, “I got it. I know all my feelings.” It is a constant practice of being able to quiet ourselves enough to know what we are feeling. Often those feelings are in our body, not just in our intellect, knowing what we are feeling and how we want to manage what we are feeling. Abbe and I say, “We are wired anxious. That is how our brains are wired.”
I am and so is Abbe, going to be someone that has anxiety and sometimes has depression. This is part of who I am for the good things and the not-so-good things in that. Particularly with my anxiety, I find there are all sorts of things I can do to help manage the way I talk to myself and the things I do prevention-wise to keep myself from getting over-anxious. I am going to be anxious but I have learned that, for me, if I start avoiding things because I am anxious or I decide not to do something due to my anxiety, I can have real problems with that.
The idea is that I can know what I am feeling and still decide to go ahead with my day. Occasionally, that is not the case. Occasionally, we all have to say, “Not today.” For us, 98% of the time, one of us can say, “I am pretty anxious but I am still going to get on that plane or go to the doctor’s.” It is because we know now how to talk ourselves and deal with our sensory systems in a way to get ourselves to still be able to function like that. It is a skill that you learn and practice.
Our brand of happiness is anxious happiness.
I have never heard it put that way before. I am very curious about social anxiety because this also ties into all of this. It is interacting with other people. I tend to feel anxious thinking about something I am going to do socially, even with the show. Almost every time on the day of recording, I start to feel a little anxiety. I am sure there is maybe performance anxiety or the fear that I am not going to do a good job.
I also feel like a lot of tension in my body about connecting with new people, being in environments that I have not been and even in a nuanced way where I have sat here at my computer and been at this literal physical place but the environment of a social conversation and the energy of that is a new environment. That gives me anxiety.
I always feel fascinated after I finish recording an episode. I think to myself, “That was not so bad. Why did I feel so anxious about this?” I am not sure. Is that social anxiety? That would be part one of my question. Part two is if that is not social anxiety, the nuances or the true definition of social anxiety, I certainly feel like I have experienced that in in-person events. That, to me, feels very clear.
I was not aware of that. COVID helped me recognize how much social anxiety I had. That was fascinating. I started to wonder, “Did I develop more social anxiety because I was not as exposed to people? Was it always there because I was not interacting with people as much as I used to, especially not in person. Did I become more aware of something that was always there?”
Here is an interesting statistic for you. Before the pandemic, approximately 9% of the population identified as having social anxiety. Since the pandemic, that number has gone to almost 40%. You are not alone in feeling that the pandemic has not only made you more aware of possible social anxiety but maybe even exacerbated it. That has been the case for many people. Certainly, our community grew so much during the pandemic. A lot of our sufferers deal with social anxiety.
To define it a bit so people know what we are talking about social anxiety is not what people think. People think it is being shy or introverted. That is not the case. You can be shy and not have any social anxiety. Social anxiety is a phobia of being judged. It is a phobia of evaluation. People who experience social anxiety disorder are people who do not want to put themselves in situations where they feel that they are going to be judged by another person.
That could be a public speaking situation, a meeting at the office or a podcast. It could be any situation. It could be going to a restaurant with someone and being afraid that you might drop some food on your shirt and that you would be judged for that. These are all examples of social anxiety disorder. It is not being antisocial. People with social anxiety want to connect.
They sometimes are lonely that they feel that they can’t and that they have to give up some of that because of their anxiety. Social anxiety is a very misunderstood anxiety because people think that it means that either you are antisocial and you do not want to be with people or you are a hermit. It is not by choice. It is that fear of being judged or evaluated that causes people with social anxiety to avoid situations where they might be at parties or with other people.
Thank you for defining it that way because that is a big eye-opener for me. In my life, people have said little things to me, “You are antisocial. Why do not you want to come to this party? Why do you want to leave as soon as you get there?” The more that I have become more self-aware, I noticed that if I walk into a party or an event of any type, I am hit with this wave of anxiety. I feel it on the way there but when I enter a room, it is present for me. I often feel a desire to escape as quickly as possible or to cope in some way or another, “Can I latch on to this person where I can hide behind them? I will let them do all the talking. I will let myself warm up.”
I start to become hyperaware of myself, “What am I doing? How am I dressed? Am I on my phone too much?” A lot of people also cope by being on their phones. That also helps me feel less judgmental because I tend to get very irritated with people that spend a lot of time on their phones in social situations. I would ask the two of you. Is that a big indicator of social anxiety to people cope by looking down at their phones? They want to be there because they are not antisocial. They want to be at the party, event or wherever they are at but they feel that anxiety. They turn to their phones so that they can simultaneously be part of something and cope with how they are feeling. Is that right?
Yeah. Some people even find texting helps. For a lot of people with social anxiety, doing something like ordering food, talking on the phone or making an appointment is very difficult because they feel like they will stutter, won’t be clear or any of that. Social anxiety is pretty all-encompassing. It does not have to be about parties or public speaking. One other thing that you said struck me. You talked about discovering your neurodivergence.You can't halt anxiety, but you can ride it out. Click To Tweet
One of the things that, for some of us and I include myself in this, gives us a lot of anxiety is that many of us who are Anxiety Sisters also call ourselves Sensory Sisters. Our bodies and brains are very either reactive to things that may not bother other people. That might be labels on your shirt or lights. For me, it is lights. Even sometimes, sunlight can start to bother me. It could be noise. You seem to hear more noise than other people do. For Abbe, it is smell. She smells everything.
That goes along with neurodivergence and also with anxiety because we do because of the way our brains are wired and our amygdala. We are always heightened. We are on high alert and that means our senses are on high alert. Some of us with those issues are sensory seekers too. We may be both at different times. You will see people who need a lot of hugs, not just for the connection but because they need the feeling on them. They need weighted blankets to help calm them.
All of that is connected with social anxiety. It is not that if you have sensory issues, you necessarily have social anxiety. For me, there will be certain places where Abbe and I will go to conferences or somewhere. I am exhausted by it in a way that is intense exhaustion. It is not by the people so much. It is by the sensory input. I get very disorganized in my thinking. My body feels it. Especially for people with ASD, it is connected, the social and sensory piece.
A lot is coming up for me as you are sharing that. I am so thrilled that you shared that. When I did some self-diagnosis and I have explored getting diagnosed professionally, I was shocked at how many ways I fall into the spectrum. For you sharing that, it is this wave of relief. Also, a lot of intense emotions come up when you are faced with something that you have gone your whole life experiencing but no one has ever pointed out. People have criticized me for a lot of those things. I imagine I am not alone. I have seen the antisocial thing you brought up like, “You are antisocial.”
I internalize that I must be antisocial. There must be something wrong with me. It is the number of people who have said little things like that. To your point, Mags, about the sensory things, I am incredibly sensitive. Lighting in general, I am particular about. I am very sensitive to sounds. Sounds seemed to irritate me. I pick up on sounds that other people do not seem to notice. It drives me nuts but a lot of times, I feel like I have to pretend like I do not hear it because a lot of times in my life, I would bring up my feelings about lights and sounds and people would disregard it like, “It is not a big deal. Do not worry about it. It is not bothering me. Why should it bother you?”
I have been told that in big and small ways throughout my whole life. It was not until I started digging into this neurodivergence and being highly sensitive or being sensitive to sensory things like that. It is simultaneously comforting yet makes me emotional because I feel sad for myself that I had to spend so much of my life thinking I was weird or there was something wrong with me. I had to pretend like it did not bother me to comfort others. I am going to one of the biggest events happening since the pandemic started. I feel so much anxiety about it for a lot of the reasons.
I am curious how the two of you navigate in-person events especially with large crowds, which can be intense at times, in convention centers like I am going to. I have a lot of my COVID anxiety that is coming with me, which is new but I also have all the old things that I faced before COVID, which are the poor lighting in convention centers and the tons of people around. I always attributed my reactions to that as being introverted. I thought, “I am being drained. I am an introvert. I need time to go recover.” With everything you are sharing, Mags, I am like, “I do not know if either that is it or I am introverted and anxious. I am introverted and neurodivergent.”
This stuff is bothering me on a level that I do not know if it is bothering other people. I should pay attention to that versus trying to hide from that. I am curious how have the two of you go about those types of big events where they are very draining to you? I have a weighted blanket. I wish I could bring my weighted blanket with me to the convention or wear a weighted robe and walk around feeling comforted by that. To my knowledge, I can’t do that. What are the things that have worked well for you in those environments?
Mags and I are huge believers in something we call a Spin Kit. We should first say why we call it a Spin Kit. For Mags, me and many other anxiety sufferers, when our brains hear the word panic, we think it is a command. That word is fraught and even the concept of an anxiety attack. It is a scary way to think about it. We changed the term for acute anxiety or panic to spinning. First of all, it is because it is an apt metaphor. If you have ever suffered from it, you do feel like you are spinning. Second of all, it is because the way that we communicate about things shapes our experience of them.
If we can come up with a kinder and gentler way of talking about things that are scary to us, we can take some of that fear and anxiety out of even discussing it. We believe in a Spin Kit, which is a portable first-aid kit for anxiety. If you have an allergy, you would carry an EpiPen. We carry Spin Kits. You can keep it in a bag, a box or whatever you can carry with you. Mags had a Ziploc for the longest time. She has graduated to a makeup bag. It does not have to be anything fancy. What you want to have in your Spin Kit are the things that are going to soothe your senses.
You mentioned that bright lights can affect you. Maybe you want to have one of those nice eye pillows in your Spin Kit so that you can find a place that is not as bright. Put that eye pillow on for a few minutes to take a break from all of that sensory activity in a convention. For me with the smell, I always carry a piece of fabric that has lavender on it so that when I am starting to smell things that I do not want to smell then I can put my fabric up to my nose and smell lavender. That is going to soothe my senses that are in overdrive.
Another type of thing you might want to have in your Spin Kit is something to distract you so that while you are spinning, you have something to keep your hands busy like a fidget spinner. Mags always brings her crochet needles with her no matter where she is because she knows that if she starts to feel like she is spinning then she can start with the crochet. It is enough to distract her. It is tactile so her hands are busy. We do not believe you can stop panic or anxiety. You can’t halt it. What you pay attention to grows. What you can do is ride it out. You want to have things in your Spin Kit that will help you ride it out.
For me, I have pictures of my cats. When I look at my cats, I feel better. I see their faces. It is soothing to me. If Mags were to see the faces of my cats, it would make her panic. She would not keep those in her Spin Kit. You can see everyone has a different Spin Kit. Also, a great thing to keep in your Spin Kit is anything that might help you with symptom relief if you are someone like Mags who gets bad stomach situations whenever you are spinning. She will carry with her Gas-X, TUMS, Mylanta some ginger tea or anything that can soothe her stomach.
If you happen to take a sedative then that would be something you keep in your Spin Kit. If you are having a racing heart then you can have a sedative. It would be different for each person but you want to have this kit and be prepared for panic. That is the big takeaway because if you are walking around with a Spin Kit then your anxiety can’t sneak up on you. By the definition and you carrying a Spin Kit with you, what you are saying is, “If anxiety is going to be here, I am ready for you.” Taking away that element of surprise or shock value cuts the anxiety in half. It takes the power away from it. We are huge believers in Spin Kits.
From the sensory perspective, I understand that it is disheartening to think that your needs were not recognized. You were struggling with all this stuff and often blaming yourself. The powerful thing that I have seen having a child with ASD is, like what Abbe said about the Spin Kit and panic, you can start to shape your days and time a little bit more once you know what you need. If we go to a conference, Abbe always knows water is very soothing for me. She will always say to me, “Why don’t you go for a swim after the day?”
I will say to her at some point in the day, “Things are starting to spin around me. The voices are starting to reverberate in my head literally. I am going to take a walk and bring us lunch or I am going to go up to the room for a few minutes.” We can spell each other out. She has other things that she asks of me and I will say, “I will deal with this and you deal with this.” Once you start to understand your needs, you also can start to understand how to pace yourself throughout the day.When you understand your needs, you can pace yourself throughout the day. Click To Tweet
Movies are very loud for my son but when his friends want to go to the movies, he does not want to be the only one not going to the movies. He does have to think a little bit about, “What do I need to do before I go to the movie? What calm space do I need before this or after something? How do I pace myself?” It is a sensory world and the movies are not going to turn down the volume for him unfortunately or the lights in the convention center are not going to turn down for me in general. That pacing piece is important when the sensory issues are strong.
It is interesting hearing that in the context of how I will be at this event. I have felt like I had to start pacing myself weeks or months ago. A lot of people have also pointed out something about me that is fascinating to think of in terms of what you said, Mags. People see me as being prepared and hyper-organized. That, to me is incredibly comforting and soothing. I feel better when they have the information because my brain starts to think about how I will be in the context of that.
I have been called a control freak a lot throughout my life, which is a very harmful and hurtful term. People say that because they see me as being controlling. For me, it is coping and to your point, pacing, I feel the need to be hyper prepared because then I feel that I can pace myself better versus I feel extremely anxious in settings where I have had zero preparation. When plans are changed on me, it is hard. That is another thing that I have been teased about.
There is this lack of understanding like, “You have to go with the flow and be able to adjust on the fly.” It is those types of terms. To your point, Mags, we are not living in a world that is set up for someone with our types of brains because they are disregarding the fact that it is key for us to feel good. To be prepared for something is soothing. It is not controlling. Abs, I am curious. How does that manifest for you? How do you manage that?
I am proud to be a control freak because that is part of my personality. The people in my life who love me also respect the fact that I need to be in control. Mags and I always joke around that our relationship is so great in our business because she does not want to be the boss. I do not think I could work with someone who would not let me be the boss. We work beautifully together. We are like yin and yang for each other. I need certainty, planning, charts and an Erin Condren.
All these things are important to me. They make me feel good when I keep track of everything that I am doing, plan for the weekend and send Maggie the activity report about what we are doing for Anxiety Sisters that week. That is because I need it. It is not because Maggie needs it. She has her own system but my system needs to be written down in advance. There need to be confirmation letters. I want as much information as I can get ahead of time.
I have tons of executive functioning issues. I am not good with executive functioning and organization. Abbe is excellent with it luckily. If we are going to meet up somewhere, I will say, “Can we decide on Tuesday?” She will be like, “No. I have to know beforehand. I can’t decide and then just go,” which I know and respect. She will give me a ton of charts. Every time I will see her, she will be like, “I have a surprise for you.” It will be a notebook full of charts.
For me, a chart is fairly useless because, unfortunately, my mind does not understand them. I understand them but not fully. I understand them intellectually but they do not make a lot of sense to me a lot of times. I am like, “Okay.” She has this huge notebook for me too that is full of charts and this and that. I am like “That is excellent.” I am appreciative of all that she does.
The things that soothe each of us and the things that each of us needs are different. The nice thing for us is that they complement each other because if plans change, I do not care. I can take the lead on that and Abbe can take the lead on making sure we are organized. That all works out well for us as a duo. It is funny at times. We both appreciate the thing the other has that we do not. That is a very important part of our relationship.
As somebody who appreciates being in control, I respect and sometimes envy Mags’ ability to go with the flow. I think to myself, “That must be so cool because I do not know how to do it.” I watch what Maggie is doing and it looks scary to me. It does not look like something I would want to do but yet, it is a real superpower. In that same way, Mags will look at me as being hyper-organized. We call each other Felix and Oscar because we work so well together even though we both have completely different strengths.
I am the Abs of most groups that I am in. It is interesting because a lot of times, people are grateful for that. A lot of people turn to me and think, “Thank God you are doing that because I do not want to do that.” People will say, “Their brain does not work that way.” I am a spreadsheet person. Abs, I am sure you and I are so similar in these ways. Spreadsheets bring me joy. In a lot of work environments, I am the person doing that. I have learned over time that it is pretty rare. Maybe that should have been a signal for being neurodivergent.
What was also interesting is some people are grateful for it but a lot of people have ridiculed me a bit for this type of behavior. At this moment, reflecting on that, that is because their brains do not work that way. They are going to see me as odd. Maybe I was trying too hard to force them into being like that too. The context that Mags is sharing of receiving something and appreciating it but knowing that it does not work for you, Mags is key. For so long, I was trying to fit people into my box like, “You should be into spreadsheets too. We need to be organized.”
I was getting frustrated with people that are not doing it my way. They would simultaneously come back and be frustrated with me for wanting to do it my way. The way that you two have learned to coexist is a great example and something that I strive to be more like. The reason that I would get frustrated, resentful or some of these negative emotions is because I did not realize that was representing my fears of not being able to cope with my fears of being anxious. I do not want to feel anxious. When somebody would reject my ideas and ways of doing things, deep down, I was afraid that I would not be able to perform and get through something.
I would be uncomfortable and frustrated like, “Let me be comfortable.” Deep down, that is what I wanted. I was seeking the control to feel comfortable and get by. Maybe it is also that built-up resentment of going so long in my life of my needs being pushed aside. A lot of us that have experienced that have some trauma from that of thinking, “I do not matter. My needs do not matter. They are not going to accommodate me.” There was a guest on my show. We were talking about this. Even in terms of food, I have very specific dietary choices and preferences.
I have been used to people not accommodating that. I am used to people mocking me for it and showing up at restaurants or parties and not having anything to eat. I am used to having to prepare and bring my own. There is a certain amount of frustration that boils down below the surface of feeling like my needs are not being met or I am not represented and I do not matter because I am different. I imagine the two of you have gone through that personally but also the people in your life and your communities. I love to hear more examples of how that has manifested for you.
Is it how we see neurodivergence in our community?There's nothing more debilitating and anxiety provoking than shame. Click To Tweet
It is more of that feeling of being misunderstood and the outcast. Maybe you two have experienced that. I am guessing that you do not because you work but have you felt senses of frustration or even resentment because it is so disappointing that your needs haven’t been met or that you have felt like an outcast? Has that shown up?
Mags and I started the Anxiety Sisterhood because it was the community we needed. We were feeling very alone. We were a sorority of two. Now we have over 200,000 members around the world. Thirty percent of our members identify as male. Gender does not matter. Any gender and amount of anxiety, you are welcome in the sisterhood. That is Mags’ and my experience so we call it Anxiety Sisters. It seems a little more catchy than the Anxiety Community. We developed the Anxiety Sisterhood because we wanted a place where we could feel we were with our people.
The reason that Mags and I fell so deeply for each other when we met was that we were each other’s people. Even though we have different needs, we had a lot of similar experiences with anxiety. That made us compatible because our experience of the world was through an anxious lens. After many years of friendship and more than friendship or sisterhood, what we realize is that the community that Mags and I had together was the single most healing thing that either one of us experienced, despite the fact that we have each been on medication, been in therapy and gone to a psychiatrist.
We have done all the -ists. We follow all of our techniques, do our breathing and meditation and take walks in the park. We do all those things but the most healing thing for us has been our connection with each other because we both felt so alone. It is lonely to have anxiety and be neurodivergent. At this point, we do not feel alone anymore because we are in a group of 200,000 people so we feel very much like we have found our people. We hear from our followers and members that they found their people too. That is gratifying.
We want to keep doing that and build it even bigger so that no one is feeling like they are the only ones. We do not want anyone to feel the sense of being outside of the tribe because that is what shame is. Shame is defined as not feeling like you belong with your group. There is nothing more debilitating and anxiety-provoking than shame. I do not know if that answered your question. We did for many years feel outside of the mainstream or the group but we do not anymore. We are hoping that our community can make it so that lots of people do not anymore.
I am curious, how does that carry with you if it does outside of your community? They are not always going to be there. I am thinking so much in the context of this event I am going to. I will get there and feel alone because they do not have all the other people that understand the anxiety around me. I have to enter into a space where I feel alone and misunderstood again. Even though you might not feel that isolation or difference in the context of your community, what happens outside of it? What is the ripple effect that community has had on your lives?
Abbe, you would agree with this. When you have had the support of the community, we use the word community all the time and people are like, “Snooze. Tell me how to do this or that. I do not want to hear about community.” Our personal experience and so much research show the unbelievable effects of community in every aspect of our health. You are better off having community and support around you than if you were a gym rat who never smoked.
You are better off being a fat smoker. I am not using fat in a pejorative way. I am identifying with myself, although I am not a smoker. You are better off doing all these “health things” that are not necessarily great for your health rather than being lonely or not having social support. One of the keys to your physical and mental health, which are the same thing is having that community and social support. When you have it, you have a base with which to go out into the world.
It is similar to when you see a child with a healthy family. Adults then can go out into the world and carry that family within them even if they are not right next to them. We do not all have that but the community does much the same thing for you in that you have a real understanding of yourself. You go to the conference and understand why you are feeling what you are feeling. You are anticipating your needs and thinking about, “How can I take care of myself here in a healthy way?”
You are looking for other people that you can connect with because you know that there must be someone else out there and that you will find someone or maybe not. You have come with all these tools then. That is what the community does. In America, we are such an individualist culture. We vastly underestimate the power of community. It is one of the most powerful things around.
We constantly get notes from people saying, “I thought I was the only one.” That is a note we get almost on a daily basis. It could be like, “There is a weird symptom. I was feeling like I am not quite in my body.” When you get very anxious, you might feel that way. People call it disassociation or depersonalization. We tend to call it floating. You feel like you are not quite in yourself.
People will say, “I have had that for 40 years but I did not know other people felt that way. I thought it was just me. I was afraid to tell anyone because they would think there was something massively wrong with me. I tried to tell someone and no one understood.” For people, we can hear it. Knowing that other people have the same struggle and situation that you do makes all the difference in how we approach the world.
As a point of logistics, Whitney, you now know that you have two Anxiety Sisters over here who understand you very well, think you are a beautiful person and love your neurodivergent mind because we have similar ones ourselves. You can text us, email us or get on our Facebook page when you take a break at the conference and say, “These people are driving me crazy. They do not understand me.” We will say, “We know. We get you. We are with you in spirit.”
That is what we do with our community. We act as each other’s designated anxiety buddies or DABs. You should see us on Thanksgiving and Christmas every year. Mags and I spend 24 hours of those two days on Facebook and Instagram so that we can be there for all the people that are having such difficulty when they have to go to their families and be with people that do not understand them.
They are all struggling. We sit there on Facebook and have the best conversations with these people. People will say, “I am in the bathroom at my Thanksgiving dinner. I had to get over here to talk to you people who understand me.” It is connecting, even being able to reach out in the community when you are in a place where you might feel misunderstood. That is so powerful too because you have a tribe.
I was thinking about that as you were talking, even the idea of it or the visual. I almost think of it as having someone on your shoulder that you can turn to when you have those moments and knowing that you can go to your phone and check-in with somebody. Maybe that is part of the Spin Kit that you put together. That is one of the best pieces of advice I have had in a while because I have my version of a Spin Kit right here at my desk. I have aromatherapy, which makes a massive difference for me.Everyone is beautifully different. Click To Tweet
I always have something to fiddle with. It is this pen. I usually have something very soothing to have in my fingers. I have never thought to bring this with me to an event. For me, it could be putting something in my pocket. Maybe I will bring a stone or a crystal with me. I find that comforting. It is being able to hold on to it and move it in my finger when I am at this event. It is more subtle. Some people will do that with jewelry like a ring or something. I have even seen cool fidget rings.
I am spraying myself with a scent and dabbing underneath my nose since I will be wearing a mask at this event. I am putting it on my mask so I can breathe in the scent, which is a cool benefit to wearing a cloth mask or something because it is right there over your nose. You can smell and block out sense. I imagine for you Abs, wearing masks to protect yourself from COVID is also cool to protect yourself from other bad smells, which I have found to be a little side benefit.
Thank you so much. That is needed because I can feel the anxiety building in me. There is one last thing I wanted to touch upon before we wrap up this wonderful conversation, which could go on and on. I am so grateful that you have that incredible community. Here is the last subject that came up in my mind that I was not even planning to cover. As we are talking about anxiety, I also think about attachment styles. I am curious if this is something that you focus on in terms of our romantic relationships generally.
There has been a lot of work. I have covered this on the show with at least one guest in the past about attachment styles. Those are generally broken down into three different types. There is the anxious attachment style, the avoidant attachment style and the secure attachment style. It is no secret that I have an anxious attachment style in romance as well. I do not know if you are an anxious person and you are automatically anxiously attached. Is this something either of you has looked into? It is something to reflect on.
I imagine at least seeing how your anxiety could not show up in your relationships, even if it is not about your attachment style. Being in those romantic dynamics, we feel very vulnerable and may feel incredibly triggered. I know I have been when I do not feel understood by my partner. The shame can manifest and the frustration of not being able to communicate. I am curious about how romantic relationships specifically come up in your work when it comes to handling anxiety.
We have people in all different life stages from teenagers that we deal with and all kinds of mental health issues. I hate calling it that because I do not think mental and physical health are so different. We do not think that. Depression, anxiety, OCD, panic attacks, phobias and all of those come into relationships. I hear what you are saying about the different styles of connecting. What we try to focus on is how to communicate with your partner. It does not have to be a romantic partner. It is the other people in your life that love you and that you are in close relationships with.
Those are equally important relationships. We try to focus on how to communicate what you are feeling and what you need. We talk about that a lot. We have a book, The Anxiety Sisters’ Survival Guide. That is a place where we talk about that a lot because a big issue for so many people is how we communicate and how we express needs. That is where our focus is more although I am familiar with the attachment styles.
Sometimes, both of us struggle with labels because we can all find ourselves in all these things. We can all find ourselves in healthy attachments, anxious attachments and all these places. Sometimes the labels can help us understand certain things or labels can limit us. It is not that I am saying those labels limit us. We just try to focus on, “Where do I take this now? How do I continue to make choices about my life? How do I continue to find my sense of agency within the context of where I am and where I can grow to?”
We always say to our community and anyone who will listen to us that one size does not fit all. One size might not fit the same person two days in a row. We have had that experience too. We embrace that philosophy. It fits with the idea of the different styles of attachment. We have had people asking us about personality types. There are so many different taxonomies out there and ways that we can sort people, including the diagnostic manual. The DSM sorts us very nicely.
I have a couple of those sortings for myself. The thing is that we believe that everyone is so beautifully different. We want to celebrate that difference. That is why we talk about not having one particular technique for anything. We have hundreds of techniques because what worked for you on Monday might not work for you on Tuesday. What works for you, Whitney, may not work for me. What works for Maggie may not work for you either. In other words, we all are so different but we want to celebrate that.
We think that where Western culture has gone wrong is not celebrating that. We do try to the best of our abilities to avoid any system of sorting. We go through the effort to explain to people what the labels mean in whatever diagnosis we are given. It is important to understand the lingo because you have to be your own advocate. You need to understand the system but as much as possible, allow yourself the freedom to fit in lots of categories.
That is a fantastic way to wrap up this conversation. I am so thrilled that you brought that up. I love this idea of not only one size does not fit all but that we as individuals are constantly changing. Who we were even five minutes ago can shift. That goes back around to us being so present and doing our best to make room in our life for that fluctuation. It is just like we have different-sized clothing to wear when our bodies are in one shape or another or when we are feeling confident versus when we feel less confident. It is nice to have different things that match the way that you are feeling in every moment.
One thing I have been working on is giving myself breathing room. One thing I added to my schedule is time blocks for energy. I started to take notes on when I felt low energy and put it on my calendar. No one can book during that time and schedule anything. That is my time because I want to accommodate myself whether I am low energy or not. I am noticing my patterns but I have also learned that it is not always easy to predict. Having at least one block of time every day for wherever I am at has made a big difference. Mags, it sounds like you can relate to this too.
I am a social worker so I have learned so many different theories. One of the things that always hits me is what you were saying, which is we do not stay the same. It is like, “You have this or that attachment style.” We do not stay exactly the same. Hopefully, we grow throughout our lives. We also interact with different people in different ways. There is this idea, particularly in Western culture, “I have this attachment style. Therefore, in whatever situation I am in, I am going to express that.”
A lot of research has not borne that out. Different people trigger different things in us. Some trigger healthy things in us some trigger more unhealthy things in us and we are triggering them. Abbe always says, “We are doing to dance with our partners. We are in this constant dance.” There are great parts of the downs and less great parts of the dance. You are hoping that it is a good dancer overall.
It is that idea that we are much more fluid as human beings. That is that community piece too. I am sure you felt it. Get with the right people. You are not so introverted or shy. You feel like yourself. You find yourself. It is not that there is anything wrong with being introverted or shy but it is all about who you are with at the time. It is the same with romantic relationships.
It sounds like you are doing a lot of exploration, which is amazing. We are always too about who you are, how you want to be in this world, what you need and how you want to interact in this world. That is something that never stops. We have been a teeny bit older than you for a couple of years. Hopefully, that never stops for any of us. It is this coming into ourselves more and more.
I hope so too. It is such a great reminder, even that visual of being fluid. I think about myself but also in terms of other people. This conversation has reminded me to be gentle with myself but mindful of other people I am interacting with and not make assumptions. Something that came up was not assuming that the people that I interact with are going to be the same as they were the last time I interacted with them.
That goes back into these definitions we are talking about and these categories that we put people into as if they are not constantly changing as well. We could all get into that fluid mindset of knowing that people are going through so many shifts second to second. Anything could shift within them and within their lives to ground ourselves in our self-awareness but also communication skills.
That is one of the big takeaways. It is that power of community too of having these supportive spaces where we can practice that awareness, openness, discovery, acceptance and everything that you are embodying through your work. I am so grateful for everything we have explored, the resources, your wonderful community and your book. Thank you, Mags and Abs for being here and continuing to create such supportive spaces and resources for people. It is deeply needed and appreciated.
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About Abbe Greenberg and Maggie Sarachek
Abbe Greenberg, MCIS, and Maggie Sarachek, MSW are trained counselors, mental health advocates, researchers, educators, writers, and long-time anxiety sufferers. In 2017, they launched their online community which now includes more than 200 thousand people in 200+ countries and territories. Together the Anxiety Sisters write an award-winning blog and host a monthly podcast (The Spin Cycle). Having learned to live happily with anxiety, they spend their time coaching anxiety sufferers and conducting workshops and retreats.