Welcome back, everybody. Today, we are going to have a discussion, and yes, I understand that I am here recording on my own in my room by myself, so it’s not really a discussion. But I wanted to give you an inside look into a discussion I had, and include you hopefully, on Instagram about a post I made about being busy.
Now, let me tell you a little bit of the backstory here. What we’re really looking at here is, is being busy a compulsion or an effective behavior? Here’s the backstory. I am an anxious person. Nice to meet you. Everybody knows it, I’m an anxious person. That’s what my natural default is. I have all the tools and practice using all the tools and continue to work on this as a process in my life. Not an end goal, but just a process that I’m always on, and I do feel like I handle it really, really well. In the grand scheme of things, of course, everyone makes mistakes and recovery is an up-and-down climb. We all know that. But one thing I have found over and over and over and over again is my inclination to rely on busyness to manage my anxiety.
The reason I tell you this over and over is it’s a default to me. When I’m struggling with anything, I tend to busy myself. Even when I had the beginning of an eating disorder, that quickly became a compulsive exercise activity because trying to manage my eating disorder created a lot of anxiety, and one way I could avoid that anxiety and check the eating disorder box was to exercise, move my body. Even though I fully recovered from that, and even though I consider myself to be doing really well mentally overall, I still catch myself relying on work and busyness as a compulsion, as a safety behavior to reduce or remove or avoid my anxiety.
I made a post on this and it had overwhelming positive responses. Meaning, I agree, there was a lot of like, “Oh, I feel called out or hashtag truth.” A lot of people were resonating with this idea that being busy can be a very sneaky compulsion that we do to run away from fear or uncertainty or discomfort or sadness and so forth. But then some of my followers, my wonderful followers came in hot—when I say “hot,” like really well—with this beautiful perspective on this topic and I really feel like it was valid and important for us to discuss here today.
Let’s talk about that, because I love a good discussion and I love seeing it from both sides. I love getting into the nitty gritty and determining what is what. Let’s talk about me just because it’s easy for me to use an example. Let’s say I have a thought or a feeling of anxiety. Something is bothering me. I’m having anticipatory anxiety or uncertainty about something. My brain wants to solve it, but because I have all these mindfulness tools and CBT tools, I know there’s no point in me trying to solve it. I know there’s no point in me ruminating on it. I’m not going to change it or figure it out. I have that awareness, so I go, “Okay, now I’m going to get back to life,” which is a really wonderful tool. But what I find that I do is I don’t just get back to life. I, with a sense of urgency, will start typing, cleaning, folding laundry, whatever it is, even reading. I will notice this shift in me to do it fast, to do it urgently, to try and get the discomfort to be masked, to be reduced.
And then, of course, I want to share with you, what I then do is when I catch that is I go, “Okay.” I feel the rev inside me and then I ease up on it. I pump the brakes and I try to return back to that activity without that urgency, without that resistance to the anxiety, or without that hustle mentality. But it is a default that I go to that often I don’t catch until later on down the track. It’s usually until I start to feel a little dizzy, I feel a little lost, a little bit overwhelmed. And then I’m like, “Oh, okay, I’m overusing busyness to manage my anxiety.”
The perspective that I loved was people saying, and one in particular said, “I want us to be really careful around that message because I think that some people can hear this idea that being busy is a compulsion and then start to question their own normal busyness throughout the day.” I’ll use the exact terms because I thought it was so beautifully said. They said, “You have to be pretty careful with how you explain this to some people with OCD because we’re told to lean into our values or live a ‘value-based’ life, and that does require us to be busy,” and I wholeheartedly agree.
I think that’s where I’m coming from. I want to offer to you guys that I want you to just check in and see if you’re using busyness, this urgent, rushing movement, or frantic experience in your body to avoid discomfort. And if so, that’s good to know. Let’s not judge that. Let’s not beat you up. Let’s not be unkind. Let’s just acknowledge that that is a normal response to having anxiety. In fact, it’s a big part of what’s kept us alive for all these years. That’s true. And we can return back. Once we catch that we’re doing those behaviors, we can return back to staying effective in our skills. But I don’t want you guys to worry that you are overusing busyness.
I think that the discussion I had online was to say, isn’t this a wonderful opportunity for us to see how anxiety or OCD or any anxiety disorder can make a really healthy behavior into a compulsive behavior? You might flip between the two, it mightn’t be all or nothing. An example of that might be prayer. Prayer is a beautiful practice for those who are spiritual. However, we can sometimes overuse prayer in a compulsive manner in this urgent, frantic, trying to get anxiety to go away manner, and then it’s being misused.
There may be sometimes you use prayer in this beautiful non-compulsive way and there’ll be other times when you’re absolutely using it as a safety behavior. Same goes for cleaning, same goes for thinking through your problems. There will be times when thinking through problems and solutions is a very effective behavior. However, there will be other times if you’re doing it with a sense of urgency to make the discomfort go away or you’re doing it to try and figure out something that you know you won’t figure out because there’s really no solution to it—that’s something for us to keep an eye out for.
There are so many ways in which this can get blurred. Asking for help and reassurance. It’s not a problem to go to your loved ones and say, “I have this really huge presentation at work, would you let me rehearse it to you and you can give me feedback?” That’s an effective behavior. However, if we are doing that repetitively and we are doing it coming from this desperate place of urgency to get certainty and removal of discomfort, that’s how we may determine whether the behavior is a safety behavior that we want to start to reduce.
I want to just offer this to you. If we’re being honest, this episode isn’t really about just the busyness. It’s being able to, again, for yourself, determine are the behaviors you’re doing being done because they line up with your values? Are they being done with a degree of willingness to also bring anxiety with you? I think that’s a huge piece of the work that I have to catch, which is, okay, I’m rushing, I’m hustling, I’m engaging in busyness just for the sake of trying to get rid of that discomfort. Can I pause and return back to that behavior? Because it might be a behavior or an activity I need to get done. But can I do it with an increased sense of willingness to bring anxiety along for the ride? Can I do it with a sense where I’m not trying to train my brain that anxiety is bad? Can I just say, “Yeah, it’s cool. Anxiety is here, let’s bring it along”?
I want to, again, reinforce to you guys, it’s okay that you haven’t figured this out because it’s probably ever-changing. There will be times when you are engaging in compulsive busyness and there’ll be other many times in which you’re not. What I would encourage you to do is not to spend too much time trying to figure out which is which, because that can become a compulsion as well. A lot of this is just accepting that nothing is perfect and just moving one step at a time moving forward as you can kindly and compassionately.
The only other thing I want to address here is this idea of a good distraction and a bad distraction. I think that this has been an argument or a complex discussion in the anxiety field for a long time. When I first was trained as an anxiety specialist, there were all these articles that talked about bad distraction, that distraction is bad and we shouldn’t do it, and we should just have our anxiety and let it be there and then focus on it and so forth. I actually don’t agree with that. In fact, I would go as far as to say, a real mindful practice would be taking the judgment out of destruction in general and saying that distraction is neither good nor bad. What distraction is, is up to you to decide whether it’s helping you and is helpful behavior that brings you closer to your recovery goals or not. I don’t want you to spend too much time trying to figure it out either, again, because I think it gets us caught in this mental loop of, am I doing recovery right? Am I doing my treatment right? Am I using the skills perfectly?
I think when we get to that point, we’re too far in the weeds and we have to pause and let it be imperfect and let it be uncertain and do our best not to try and solve that one, because often how would we know? There isn’t actually an answer to what’s bad and what’s good. I wouldn’t encourage you to place good and bad labels on those kinds of things because that usually will just keep you in a loop of anxiety anyway.
That’s just a few ideas on this idea of being overly busy being a compulsion. I really want to make sure I say one more time. I think there is absolutely an opportunity for us to consider that busyness is also neither good nor bad. It just is, and that you for yourself can determine whether it’s helpful for you to stay busy or not. What I will say—and I will use this as an example, I think I actually did a podcast episode on this—not long ago, my parents were voyaging across the Drake Passage, which is a very dangerous body of water that takes you from South America to Antarctica. It’s usually very, very calm or it can be incredibly dangerous to pass the Drake Passage. For the 18 hours that they were passing that, I engaged in a lot of busyness. I would say it wasn’t compulsive either. It was, I knew they were doing something scary. I knew that it would be probably fine, but it was still uncertain. I knew that there was nothing I would do to make my anxiety go down during that 18 hours. I knew I probably wouldn’t get a good sleep because I love them dearly and I want them to have a safe trip. I just said to myself, “I’m going to mindfully go from one activity to another. Because I don’t want to engage in a bunch of mental rumination, I’m just going to gently stay busy.” I think that’s fine. I think that that is effective. In fact, I was very proud of how I handled that. I was able to resist the urge to text them at two in the morning and be like, “Take a photo of the waves. I want to see that you’re okay.” You know what I mean?
I want to just offer to you that to check in whether your busyness is compulsive, be gentle with yourself either way to discuss with your mental health provider on what is a great way for you to engage in this kind of behaviors and for you to come up with your own protocol on how to determine when you’ve crossed over from being busy into compulsive busyness. That’s it. I think that from there, you can be gentle with yourself and practice being uncertain about what’s right and wrong.
I hope that was helpful. I’m very much just chatting to you. I didn’t do a whole ton of prep for this. I just wanted to include you in the conversation on “Is being overly busy a compulsion?” I wanted to give you some ideas and things to look out for and I hope that it helps you move forward towards the recovery that you’re looking for. Have a wonderful, wonderful day. If you guys want additional resources from me, you can head over to CBTSchool.com. We have all kinds of online options there for you. If you’re looking for one-on-one therapy, if you live in the state of California or Arizona, you can go to www.kimberleyquinlan-lmft.com and I look forward to chatting with you next week.
Hello and welcome back, everybody. We have an amazing guest today. This is actually somebody I have followed, sort of half known for a long time through a very, very close friend, Shala Nicely, who’s been on the show quite a few times, and she connected me with Dr. Ashley Smith. Today, we are talking about happiness and what makes a “good life” regardless of anxiety or of challenges you may be going through.
Dr. Ashley Smith is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. She’s the co-founder of Peak Mind, which is The Center for Psychological Strength. She’s a speaker, author, and entrepreneur. She has her own TED Talk, which I think really shows how epic and skilled she is.
Today, we talk about how to be happy. What is happiness? How do you get there? Is it even attainable? What is the definition of happiness? Do we actually want it or is it the goal or is it not the goal? I think that this is an episode I needed to hear so much. In fact, since hearing this episode as we recorded it, I basically changed quite a few things. I will be honest with you, I didn’t actually change things related to me, but I changed things in relation to how I parented my children. I realized midway through this episode that I was pushing them into the hamster wheel of life. Ashley really helped me to acknowledge and understand that it’s not about success, it’s not about winning things, it’s not about achievement so much, while they are very important. She talks about these specific things that science and research have shown to actually improve happiness.
I’m going to leave it at that. I’m going to go right over to the show. Thank you, Dr. Ashley Smith, for coming on. For those who want to know more about her, click the links in the show notes, and I cannot wait to listen back to this with you all. Have a great day, everybody.
Kimberley: Welcome, Dr. Ashley Smith. I’m so happy to have you here.
Dr. Ashley: I am excited to be here today. I’ve wanted to be on your podcast for years, so thank you for this.
Kimberley: Same. Actually, we have joint friends and it’s so good when you meet people through people that you trust. I have actually followed you for a very long time. I’m very excited to have you on, particularly talking about what we’re talking about. It’s a topic we probably should visit more regularly here on the show. We had discussed the idea of happiness and what makes a good life. Can you give me a brief understanding of what that means or what your idea about that is?
Dr. Ashley: Yeah. Oh, this is a topic that I love to talk about. When I think about it, I have a little bit of a soapbox, which is that I think our approach to mental health is broken. I say that as someone who is a mental health practitioner, and I really love my job and I love working with people and helping. But what I mean by that is our traditional approach has been, “Let’s reduce symptoms. Let’s correct the stuff that’s ‘wrong’ with someone.” When it comes to anxiety or depression, it’s how do we reduce that? And that’s great. Those are really important skills, but we’ve got this whole other side that I think we need to be focusing on. And that is the question of how do we get more of the good stuff. More happiness, more well-being. How do we create lives that are worth living? That’s not the same as how do we get rid or reduce anxiety and depression.
In the field of psychology, there’s this branch of it called Positive Psychology. I stumbled on that 20 years ago as a grad student and thought, “This is amazing. People are actually studying happiness. There’s a science to this.” I looked at happiness and optimism and social anxiety and depression and how those were all connected. Fast forward, 15 years or so, I really hit a point with my professional life and my personal life where I was recognizing, “Wait a minute, I need more. I need more as an individual. The clients I work with need more. How do we get more of this good stuff?” This is the longest preamble to say, I did a deep dive into the science of happiness and learned a lot over the years, and I want to be really clear about a couple of things.
When we talk about happiness, a lot of people think pleasure. “I want good experiences, I want to enjoy this.” That’s a part of it, this positive emotion that we all call happiness or joy. But that’s only a piece of it. There’s actually this whole backfiring process that can happen when we chase that. If I’m just chasing the next pleasant event, what that actually does is set me up to not have a happy life. Think about it. I mean, I love chocolate, and if I eat that unchecked because it brings me pleasure, at some point, it’s going to take a toll on my health. What does that actually do to my well-being and happiness?
What was really interesting getting into this area was, it’s not just this transient state of pleasure or enjoyment, but they’re the other factors that contribute to a good life. It’s things like relationships. It’s things like meaning and purpose. It’s engagement. It’s achievement even. It’s these things that are not always pleasant in the moment, but that really contribute to this sense of satisfaction with life or contentment with life. I think it’s really important that we need to be looking at what are the ingredients that really make a good life.
Kimberley: I love this, and I love a good recipe too. I like following recipes and ingredients. It’s funny, I’m actually in the process of getting good at cooking and I’m realizing for the first time in my life that following instructions and ingredients is actually a really important thing, because I’m not that person. First of all, what is a good life? When I looked at that, I actually put it in quote marks. What is a good life? What do you think? You explained it; it’s not chasing pleasure. We know that doesn’t work, otherwise, you just buy a bunch of stuff you don’t want and behave in ways that aren’t helpful. Not to also villainize pleasure, it’s a great thing, but what would you describe as a good life?
Dr. Ashley: On the one hand, it’s the million-dollar question. Philosophers and scientists and religious leaders and all kinds of people have been trying to answer that question for eons. I don’t know that I have it nailed down. I think I’m humble enough to say I have my own ideas about it. To me, what makes a good life, it’s really when the way we spend our time lines up with what’s important to us, when we’re living in accordance with our values to use some psych buzzwords, but when we’re doing the things that really matter. I think also part of a good life is having daily rhythms and lifestyle habits that support us as biological creatures. I want to contrast that with the demands of modern life, which are that we should be productive 24/7, that we should be multitasking. People sacrifice sleep and movement and leisure time and stillness. I think all of that compromises us. It impacts us on a neurological level. Our brains are part of our system. If we’re not taking care of our system, they’re not going to function optimally. That gets in the way of a good life.
When we’re sacrificing relationships, when I look at all of the research, when I look at my own experience, a huge component of a good life is having quality relationships. Not quantity, quality. Trusting ones that are full of belonging and acceptance that are two-way support streets, those are really important. I think a lot of times, modern life compromises that. We get pulled in all of these other directions.
Kimberley: Yeah. Oh my gosh, there’s so many things. I also think that anxiety and depression pull us away from those things too. You are anxious or you’re depressed and so, therefore, you don’t go to the party or the family event or the church service. That’s an interesting idea. I love this. Tell us about this idea of meaning. How do we find meaning? I’ll just share with you a little bit of my own personal experience. I remember when I was actually going through a very difficult time with my chronic illness and I know I was depressed at the time. It was the first time in my life where I started to have thoughts like, “What’s the point?” Not that I was saying I was suicidal, but I was more like, “I just don’t understand why am I doing all this.” I think that that’s common. What are your thoughts on this idea of the meaning behind in life?
Dr. Ashley: That’s a fantastic question. I have a vision impairment, so I’m legally blind. It’s a really rare thing and it’s unpredictable. I don’t know how much sight I will lose. Ultimately, the doctors can’t tell me there’s no treatment options. It’s just I go along and every so often, there’s a shift and I see less. For me, I hit that same point you were talking about back in 2014 when I had to stop driving. I was anxious and I would say depressed and really wallowing in this, “What does this mean for my life? I can’t be independent. People aren’t going to associate with me personally or professionally when they see this flaw.” It was a dark point. For me, that’s when I went back to the science of happiness when I finally got tired of being stuck and I realized my anxiety skills and my depression skills. They’re helpful and I practice what I preach, but it wasn’t enough. And that’s really what propelled me back into this science of happiness where I figured, you know what, someone has to have done this.
I did come across this theory of well-being called the PERMA factors. These are like the ingredients that we need. I’m getting back to that because the M in this is meaning. With this, the PERMA factors, P is positive emotion. That’s the pleasure, the joy, the happiness. Cool. I know some strategies for boosting that. E is engagement. Are you really involved and engaged in what you’re doing? Are you present? Are you hitting that state of flow? R is the relationships, A (skipping ahead) is achievement, but M is this meaning, and it’s a hard one to figure out.
I remember then, this started what I was calling my blind quest for happiness where I started to think about, what do I need to do? How do I experiment? How do I live a happy life despite these cards I’ve been dealt? We don’t get to choose them. You’ve got a chronic illness, I have a vision impairment, listeners have anxiety and depression, and we get these cards. I think of it like if life is a poker game, we don’t get to choose the cards we’re dealt, but by golly, we get to choose how to play them, and that’s important. I think a lot of times people can turn adversity into meaning.
For me, I’m now at a point where it’s not that I don’t care about my vision, it’s just I really accepted it. It is what it is, it’s going to do what it’s going to do, and I’m focusing on the things I can control. That has given me a sense of meaning. I want to help other people live better lives. I want to help other people crack the code of how our brains work against us and how do we play our cards well.
If we go to all of this, “meaning” is really just finding something that’s bigger than you are, finding something to pursue or contribute to that’s bigger than you. I think when we look at anxiety and depression, the nature of those experiences is that they make us very self-involved. I mean, people with anxiety and depression, in my experience, have giant hearts, tons of empathy, but it locks our thinking into our experience and what’s going on in these unhelpful thoughts.
When we can connect with something bigger than us, it gets us outside of that.
If I go back to grad school, writing my dissertation was decidedly not a fun experience. Would I do it again? Yes. Because it was worth it on this path to my reason for being—helping people live better lives. Sometimes I think when we have this meaning, this purpose, this greater good, it helps us endure the things that I want to say suck.
Kimberley: You can say suck.
Dr. Ashley: Yeah. That’s where it’s not just about how do I get rid of anxiety or depression. Sometimes we can’t. Chronic health conditions, anxiety is chronic. My vision is chronic. I’m not getting rid of this, but how do I live a good life despite that? I think there are a ton of examples throughout history and currently of people doing amazing things despite some hardship.
Kimberley: Yeah. I love this idea. It’s funny, you talk about being outside yourself. When I’m having a bad day, I usually go, there’s like a 10 minutes’ drive from us that looks over Los Angeles. If let’s say I’m having a day where I’m in my head only looking at my problems, and then I see LA, I’m like, “Oh honey, there is a whole world out there that you haven’t thought about.” I’m not saying that in a critical way, just like it gives me perspective.
Dr. Ashley: I think that’s so important, to realize there’s so much more. When it does shrink our problems, all of a sudden, it’s manageable.
Kimberley: Right. Let’s talk about just one more question about meaning. I’m guessing more about people finding what’s your why and so forth. What would you encourage for people who are very unhappy, have been chasing this idea of reducing anxiety, reducing depression, chasing pleasure, and feeling very stuck between those? Let’s say I really have no idea what my meaning is. What would be your advice to start that process?
Dr. Ashley: Experimentation. I think experimenting is a lifestyle that I wish everyone would adopt, because what happens is we want to think. We are thinkers. That’s what our minds were designed to do. That’s awesome and sometimes it’s really helpful, but I don’t think we’re going to think our way into passion or meaning or a good life. I think we have to start trying things. What will happen, if you notice, is your mind is going to have a lot of commentary. It’s going to say, “That’s dumb. That’s not going to work. Who are you to try that? You can’t do that.” It’s all just noise that if we look at what is it doing, it’s keeping you stuck. With the experimentation, I’m just a big fan of go try it. Whether you think it’s going to work or not, you don’t know. We want to trust our experience, not what our mind tells us. Trust your actual experience.
For me, I remember getting my first self-help book. It was actually called Go Find Your Passion and Purpose. Because I was at this crossroads, I had been doing anxiety work for a long time, had plateaued, and was feeling a little bored, and that coincided with the stopping driving. My whole personal world was just in disarray and I was like, “I’m going to go hike part of the Appalachian Trail while I can. While I do that, I’m going to find my purpose in life.” I did not find it, but it was an experiment. I go and I get this experience and I can say, “Okay, I’m not going to be someone who does a six-month hike. I made it four days. Awesome.” But go and experiment with things. I never thought that I would really want to write and I started a blog, and that has turned out to be such a positive experience. Prior to that, my writing experience had been very academic where it was a chore. Now, this is something I really enjoy, or talking to people.
I would say experiment and continue to seek out those new experiences. One, seeking out new experiences helps on the anxiety side because you’re continually putting yourself into uncertain and new, so your confidence level is going to grow, your tolerance for not knowing grows, and your tolerance for awkward grows. That’s my plug for go try new things, period. Somewhere along the way, you’re going to find something that sparks an interest or that sparks this sense of, “Yeah, this is me.” Notice that. I know you talk a lot about mindfulness, we need to notice what was my actual experience, not what did my head tell me. What did I actually feel? And keep experimenting until you find something. I think that’s really the key.
Kimberley: I love that you said your tolerance for awkwardness. I think that is a big piece of the work because it is a big piece. We talk about tolerating discomfort, tolerating uncertainty, but I think that’s a very key point, especially when it comes to relationships, which I know is one of the factors. Tolerate the awkwardness is key.
Dr. Ashley: Yeah. I think it’s huge. I’ve been seeking out new experiences since 2017. This is going to be my New Year’s resolution. It was such a transformational experience over the course of the year that I’ve just continued it, and I’m trying to get everybody to join me because it’s such an expansive practice. I think it’s great for anxiety and depression, it’s great for humans, it’s been great for me on this quest for a good life. But with this, it means I have put myself into some awkward situations on purpose. Sometimes I know going into it, sometimes I don’t.
I went to this one, it was called Nia. I practice yoga. That’s cool. That’s very much in my comfort zone. This was yoga adjacent, but it was also an interpretive dance with sound effects. You had to make eye contact with people and dance in these weird ways. I distinctly remember having this conversation with myself when I showed up, “What did you just get yourself into?” And then it was immediately, “Okay, you have two choices here. You can grit your teeth and hate the next hour, or you can embrace the awkward and dance at a three. Because she said, you can dance at a one, itty bitty, at a two or at a three and really go for it.” That for me was my, “All right, let’s just do this.” I embrace the awkward, and that was a turning point. That was amazing. And then now, when I think about good life, I feel like so many doors are opened because I’m not afraid of, “This is going to be awkward.” It’s going to be and you’re going to be okay or it’s going to make a hilarious story. I said, “Go for it.”
Kimberley: You’re here to tell the story. I love it. You didn’t die from awkwardness.
Dr. Ashley: No.
Kimberley: Can you tell me about the P? Can you go through them and just give us a little bit more information? Because I think that’s really important.
Dr. Ashley: Yeah. I love this theory because you can think about it as like, how are my PERMA factors doing? When you’re low, raise them. You know that those are the ingredients for a good life. The P is positive emotion. That is, we do need to spend time in positive emotional states. The more time we’re in the positive emotional states, the better compared to the negative ones like anxiety or sadness, or anger. Now that said, we know if we try to only pursue pleasure, it’s going to backfire. If I’m trying to avoid anxiety, I’m actually going to get more anxiety. But this is where behavioral activation comes in. Do things that are theoretically enjoyable and see if it puts you in a positive state. Again, theoretically enjoyable, because if you’re in the throes of depression, nothing feels enjoyable, do it anyways. And then notice, did it bring on a pleasurable emotional state? Cool. We want to do those things.
E is engagement. This is when people talk about finding flow or being in the zone. These are the activities that you’re fully engaged in it. Self-consciousness goes away. You lose track of time because you’re just in it. We know that the more consistently we are able to put ourselves in states of flow, the higher our well-being tends to be. Athletes will talk about this a lot. When they’re on the field, they’re in the zone. Musicians, artists. But there are other ways to do this. This is a place for me personally, I didn’t know. I was like, “Well, okay, great. I need E, I need engagement. What puts me in a state of flow?” It took experimentation and noticing. For me, writing does it. Web design, I’m not techy, but when I start to do design projects, I get in that state of flow. It has to be this perfect apex, this perfect joining of skill and pleasure, like enjoyment. If it’s too easy, you will not go into a state of flow. That’s just the P. If it’s too hard, we go into a state of stress or anxiety, so that’s not flow. We have to be right on the cusp of our skillset. It’s hard work, but we’re into it. That’s the E.
R is relationships. We need quality relationships where we are being open, where we are being vulnerable, we’re really connecting with other people. That is huge. I mean, if we look at what’s the best predictor of life satisfaction, it’s quality relationships. This also is doing things for other people. Altruism, ugh, I love this side note. The act of kindness thing hits on three different factors. It feels good to do something good for other people. If you want a mood boost, go do an act of kindness. That reliably boosts our mood. It also improves relationships and it can tap into that meaning. I love that as just a practice.
The M we talked about, that’s meaning. And then the A, that’s achievement for achievement’s sake. As humans, it feels good to conquer goals. It feels good to accomplish things. And that contributes to our well-being independently of the positive feelings that we get from it, or the meaning in the relationships or the engagement. I’m also a really big fan of set goals and then crush them. It can be silly little things like, I’m going to hold my breath for two minutes. Okay, cool. That’s a silly little thing, but then it feels good to do it. Or it could be something huge like crossing those bucket list things off your list.
Kimberley: You know what’s funny around achievement? I’ve got a couple of questions, but first I want to tell you your stories. Last year, I was struggling to do a couple of things that were really important to me for my medical health. I found an app called Streaks. Have you heard of Streaks? It’s a $5 app. But when you do the action, and for me it was taking my medicine, it does this little spiral and then it’s like, “You’ve done this for three days in a row.” And then tomorrow you click it and then it says, “You’ve done it for four days in a row.” You would think that the benefits of taking my medicine would be enough. But for me, it’s actually knowing I get that little positive reinforcement of like, “Look at me, I’ve taken my medicine for 47 days in a row, or now are like 300 days in a row.” I don’t think I deserve a medal for being able to take my medicine. But for me, that little bit of reward center on the achievement was a huge shift for me. And then it became, how many days did you practice your Spanish in a row? Even like, how many days did you do your Kegels? I’ve got all of the streaks happening and it’s really incredible how that little achievement piece does boost your mood.
Dr. Ashley: Yeah. But what I love about this is you’re also talking about how to hack the system. We’re talking about our brains and this is the stuff that just lights me up, because oftentimes our minds will say, “Well, you should just take your medication. You should just do these things.” Well, that’s not how it works. There’s a million reasons why we don’t do the things we know we should do. But can we figure out how to hack the system? Yeah. Our brains love streaks. They love streaks. it taps our reward centers, like you’re saying, and so let’s use the tools that work. That got you if your goal is to take your medication consistently. Using our brain’s glitchy wiring to our own advantage is something that’s huge. That did it. And then it does feel good. And then you get some momentum going and then you create a habit around that and it’s fantastic.
Kimberley: Yeah. What about those who are overachieving to the point that it’s bringing their happiness down? What would we do there?
Dr. Ashley: Yeah. I think that’s a great question and it’s something that comes up a lot, especially when we look at anxiety and perfectionism. At least the way I think about it is coming back to what’s driving this. Is this being driven by fear? Is this being driven by values? For me, I almost think of it as—I’m going to try to make sense with it—is it the -ing or the -ed? Meaning, the doING (I-N-G) or the -ed as in I did this past tense. What I mean by this is, I notice for me when I’m approaching something, say a big goal, like I want to write a book this year. If I can approach that from a place of, “I am doing this because this is important to me, I feel driven to get this message out into the world,” the -ing, the process of doing it, that feels like it’s going to boost my wellbeing when I start to get pulled into the thoughts of the outcome. I’m going to write this book and how many people are going to read it and is it going to sell? I’m really looking at all of this, and underneath that is fear. What if it doesn’t sell? What if people judge it? What if they think it’s stupid? Then I’m focusing on the outcome, kind of when it’s done. That I think is actually going to detract from my well-being because it’s not coming from a valued place; it’s coming from this feared place.
A lot of times with overachieving, we’re chasing this other people’s expectations or we’re chasing this promise of happiness. When you do this, then you’ll be happy. It’s not going to work like that. It may be for a moment and then the bar just changes again. Now you’ve got another target. We have to come back to this, I think the process or the journey. Are you doing this because it matters to you, or are you doing this because some sort of fear is compelling you?
Kimberley: Right. I’m just asking questions based on the questions I would’ve had when I was struggling the most. I remember hearing something that blew my mind and I actually want your honest opinion about it. I remember I used to chase happiness, like you talked about, even though I was doing all these things. I was doing all these things, but there was that anxious drive behind it. I remember hearing somebody saying life is 50/50. Even though you’re doing all these things, you’re still going to have 50% great and 50% hard. For me, that was actually very relieving. I think I was caught in and I think a lot of people experienced this like, “Okay, I’m at 50%, how can I get to 55? How can I get to 56?” What are your thoughts on also accepting that you won’t be happy all the time, or what are your thoughts on balancing this goal for happiness or this lifelong playfulness around happiness?
Dr. Ashley: I agree with you completely. I think we have this cultural myth that we should be happy all the time. If you’re not happy, there must be something wrong. You’re doing something wrong. It sets up even this idea that being happy all the time is possible. It isn’t. If we look at, again, happiness, what people mean by that is a pleasurable or enjoyable state, an emotion that we like. Humans are wired. Two-thirds of our emotions would be under that negative category. Just by the way we’re wired, we’re more likely to have negative emotions, and they’re just messengers. They’re just designed to give us information about a situation. Some of them are going to be dangerous, so we’re going to feel anxious. Or we’re going to lose something we care about, so we’re going to be sad. We’re going to mess up, so we’re going to feel guilty. It’s unrealistic to expect to not have those emotions. I think that is a hundred percent something that we need to work on, just accepting happiness all the time is not possible and pursuing it is like playing a rigged game.
The other thing, you know how on the anxiety side we talk about facing fears because then you habituate or you get used to them. But that habituation process happens on the pleasurable side too. This is why when we chase happiness, we end up on this hedonic treadmill where it’s, “Oh, I’m going to go buy this thing. And then I’m going to feel really happy,” and you are. And then you’re going to habituate. Your body goes back to baseline so that happiness fades. If you’re looking to an external source, you’re going to get caught up in this always chasing something bigger and better, not sustainable.
I like to look at happiness as the side effect of living a good life. Do the things that we know matter. Take care of your health and wellbeing. Sleep, eat well, move your body, practice mindfulness, the PERMA factors that we talked about, and live in line with your values. If you’re doing those things, happiness is the side effect of that.
Kimberley: To make that the goal, not happiness the goal.
Dr. Ashley: Yeah.
Kimberley: I think that’s very, very true. Again, for me, it was a massive relief. I remember this weight falling off of like, “Oh,” because I think social media makes it so easy to assume that everyone is just happy, happy, happy content, to feel all the things. It was delightful to be like, “Oh no, everyone’s got a 50/50.”
Dr. Ashley: Exactly. When we know that’s normal, then all of a sudden, you can accept it. Like, I’m anxious for now, I’m sad for now. To do that, it does keep us from piling on extra. I have this saying that I love, “Just because life gives you a cactus doesn’t mean you have to sit on it.” A lot of times, we sit on it because we’re ruminating or I don’t want to feel this way and we’re fighting it. And that’s just amplifying it and making it a lot harder. When we can say, “Oh, this is where I’m at today. I’m still going to choose to do the things that I know are good for me, that are part of me, living a good life by my standards or my terms,” that’s going to be the side effect, is I’m going to end up with more happiness down the road, but not chasing it in that moment.
Kimberley: I love this. Thank you for coming on and talking about this. I think this has been enlightening and so joyful to have these conversations. I feel a little lighter, even myself, after chatting with you, so thank you. Tell me how people can hear from you, get in touch with you, learn about your work.
Dr. Ashley: Yeah, absolutely. I have a blog that I publish every week, so if you’re interested in that, you can subscribe at PeakMindPsychology.com/subscribe, o you can just check out all of the blog posts. That’s probably the best way to follow me and follow my work. I also have a TEDx Talk that came out pretty recently and you can watch that as well. It’s called Is Your Brain Deceiving You, and talk a little bit about learning to play my cards well.
Kimberley: I love the TED Talk. Congratulations on that. It was so cool.
Dr. Ashley: Thank you.
Kimberley: Thank you again for coming on. This has been just delightful. Really it has.
Dr. Ashley: I appreciate you having me.
Hello and welcome back, everybody. I’m so happy to be here with you. This is not the normal format in which we do Your Anxiety Toolkit podcast, but I wanted to really address a question that came up in ERP School about how to manage 10 out of 10 anxiety.
For those of you who don’t know, over at CBTSchool.com, we have a whole array of courses—courses for depression, generalized anxiety, panic, OCD, hair pulling, time management, mindfulness. We have a whole vault of courses. In fact, we have a new one coming out in just a couple of weeks, which is a meditation vault. It will have over 30 different meditations. The whole point of this is, often people say to me that the meditations that they listen to online can become very compulsive. It’s things like, “Oh, just let go of your fear or make your fear go. Cleanse away and dissolve,” and all the things. That’s all good. It’s just, it’s hard for people with severe anxiety to conceptualize that. That whole vault will be coming out very, very soon.
But this is actually a question directly from ERP School. Under each video of all the courses, there is always a place you can ask questions, and I do my best to respond to them as soon as I can. But I did say to this student, I will actually do an entire podcast on your question because I think it’s so important.
Here is what they said: “Hi Kimberley, I love all the information you give us. I get so much more out of this than I do with a therapy session for one hour once a week. That being said, I’m feeling a little bit overwhelmed. There is just so much information and so many tools.”
Yes guys, I admit to that. I do tend to heavy-dose all of my courses with all the science. I can bring in as many tools as I can with the point being that I want you to feel like you have a tool belt of tools, in which you can then choose which one you want to use, so I totally get what they’re saying here.
They said: “When I’m at a 10 out of 10, I’m hardly able to function and it all seems to go out the window. It either seems that noticing works as I run through my list of tools or I can’t even think straight enough to check in with myself or even think about the tools I could use. So, where do I even start in those terrible moments?”
This is a really good question, and I think every single one of my clients in my history of being a therapist has asked this question. I know I have asked this question to my therapist because even as a therapist who has all the tools in those moments, it can feel overwhelming.
What I did here is I pulled all of my followers on Instagram and asked them to give me their tools that they find helpful, and then I’m going to weigh in myself, and then I’m going to encourage you to just practice any of them. Now, often what happens—and this is the case for what obviously someone’s bought a course from me—is when you have all of these options, we fall into the trap of thinking there is a “right” tool to use, and I want to reframe that. In addition, there’s another myth that that one tool will make all your discomfort go away or that will be the tool of all tools for recovery. I want to really normalize that there is no one tool.
The whole reason that I do Your Anxiety Toolkit is to remind you that you’re going to have to practice multiple different things, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket, and it’s okay if it’s not a 10 out of 10 win. Meaning, it’s okay if it’s not perfect. Often I’ll say to clients, use the tools, even if it’s 50% effective. That’s still 50% effective more than what it would be in the past, which might be 0% effective or 1% effective. We take any wins we can take and we use it not as a fact that you’re a failure if it didn’t work, but more as just data on what to use for the next time.
At the end of the day, the goals are: Did it give me a 1 or 2% improvement on how I handled it the last time? 1 or 2%, folks. That’s all I’m goaling for here. Was I kind as I practiced it? And, did it move me towards the five-year you, or the three-year you, or the one-month you? The you who’s in one month, does it move you towards that person that you’re trying to be? I often will think about me through the terms of, what would the five-year me do in this situation? What would the three-year me do? What would the three-month me do? It might be different, and then I just pick one. Knowing it’s probably not perfect, but that’s okay.
I have polled a whole bunch of people on Instagram because I honestly feel like folks who were in the thick of it actually are better at giving tools than even I am as a trained clinician who’s been through it. Of all of the different responses we got, I’ve actually broken it down into two separate sections per se. We’ve got mindset shifts and tools and actions. Again, these may actually feel again like, “Oh my gosh, now I have even more tools,” which is not a bad problem.
TAKE ONE MOMENT AT A TIME
But I want you in the moment that you’re at a 10 out of 10 to just pick one and be curious about it. I’m going to say here that the one I loved the most—I’m going to just actually give you one of the tools and actions first—is somebody (multiple people wrote this, in fact) said, just take one moment at a time. I have to say at a 10 out of 10 anxiety, that has been the most helpful for myself and for my clients. That when you slow down and you make it really simple, that’s actually the best way to respond.
We have these bigger concepts like ERP and habit reversal training and mindfulness and all these big concepts. What’s the saying? The rubber hits the road or something like that. When it gets really hard, simplify things, go back to basics, slow down, and just go, “Okay, all I have to do is get through this minute. What can I do in this one minute?” Slow it down. That’s one of the tools and actions.
BE AN OBSERVER
The second tool and action is somebody says, “I notice my five senses,” which is a more tactical skill of being present (be an observer) and in the moment, which is your mindfulness skill. For them it might be: What do you see? What do you smell, what do you taste? Some people play games with this. A lot of my clients have said, “When I’m at a 10 out of 10 and I’ve just faced my biggest fear, or I’ve been triggered, I find six different colors.” You’re not doing that to suppress your thoughts or make the fear go away. You’re doing it because that’s response prevention. You’re not engaging in catastrophization and mental rumination. Instead, you’re just being an observer of what’s in your present moment.
A lot of you folks said, “Breathe, that the only thing I do is breathe.” Again, I love this because it’s simple. Now, does that mean we have to breathe a certain way? A lot of people said three breath-in and four counts out, or box breathing. It doesn’t matter. Please don’t put pressure on yourself. For me, I just really put attention on my breath in and my breath out. I say to myself, “I’m breathing in knowing that I’m breathing in and I breathe out knowing I’m breathing out.” Very, very simple.
DO NOTHING! ACCEPT IT IS HERE
A next person said, “It feels awful, but I do nothing more than just talk to it, accept that it’s here, and breathe.” Again. These are really simple things. What I’m going to encourage you guys to do is just pick one of these things and play with it for a day or a couple of days, whatever it feels good. And then check in and be like, “How did that work? Was that successful at helping me stay present and reduce behaviors that actually create more problems?”
FEEL YOUR FEET ON THE FLOOR
Someone says, “I just feel my feet on the floor.” Again, these are so basic, but almost everybody’s response wasn’t like, “I practice these very complex skills.” They’re just talking about simple, really basic things. “I put my feet on the floor.”
Someone says, “I splash cold water on my face.” Again, simple. They’re just bringing their attention to sensations in the present.
CONNECT WITH YOUR SPIRITUALITY
Someone said, “I pray.” I love that some of you bring your religion into it or your faith. “I pray and I be quiet.” Some of you might call that a form of meditation.
FEEL YOUR EMOTIONS & CRY
This one I really love. Someone said, “I cry. I embrace crying. It’s such a good emotional release.” This one’s really hard for me, you guys. I’m a crier, but when I’m at a high level of anxiety, I feel like there are no tear ducts in my eyes, like I can’t get myself to cry. But really when I do allow myself to cry, it is such a cathartic experience, especially if I do it kindly.
Someone says they work out. I think that there’s some interesting piece to that. Let me just bring a little nuance to that. When we work out, really what I think we’re doing is we’re putting our attention on something that is very strategic, like 15 bicep curls. Or you get on the treadmill, you listen to some music, and so forth. I love this tool.
SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT (IF YOU ARE PRONE TO EATING DISORDERS)
One thing to think about, and the only reason I’m telling you this is just because I myself used to use working out as a skill and it was very helpful. But if you are someone who’s prone to an eating disorder or compulsive exercise, just keep an eye out for that because, for me, my healthy practice of working out ended up becoming a compulsive eating disorder compulsion. Now, for most of you, that’s probably not the case, but I think with any of these things, like any time we overdo it or we do it to make the fear go away or to avoid the fear, we can get ourselves a little bit into trouble there. So just keep an eye out for that. For me, when I heard that, I was like, “Oh gosh, no, I couldn’t do that.” But I think for most of you and many of you, that is a really effective tool. We do have research that exercise is a very, very helpful way of managing anxiety. I do still work out for that exact reason, but we have to be careful of becoming compulsive
Now, of the last of the tools, P.S. It’s actually mine. I did weigh in on the end. My tool and action that I would weigh in, in addition to all of these great ideas, is validate, validate, validate. One of the things I think we miss is when we’re at a 10 out of 10, whether that be anxiety, sadness, depression, stress, panic, whatever it may be, we forget to validate ourself by going, “This is really hard.” It makes complete sense that you can’t think about what tools. You’re at A 10 out of 10. It makes complete sense that this is something that is rocking your world. You could say, “Anybody in this position would struggle to find tools.”
Validate, validate, validate. That’s a self-validation, guys. A self-validation. It might be simply as much as you saying, “It’s okay that you’re struggling, I got you,” which moves me to the mindset shifts. There’s only four of them, but I thought they were beautiful. The reason I separated them is sometimes when we are in the 10 out of 10, naturally, our brain will send us to get away from here, fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. How can we make the fear go away and get out of this “dangerous” situation? If you can, often you won’t be able to. Again, there is some research that when you’re at a 10 out of 10, it’s very hard to actually have a mindset shift. But on the lower 6s, 7s, and 8s out of 10s, if you practice it, I think it gets a little easier.
Here are some of the things that a lot of the folks did weigh in on and say.
MINDSET SHIFTS TO CONSIDER
Number one mindset shift is, “I remind myself that I don’t have to solve the thoughts I’m having.” Great mindset shift because in those moments, we’re like, “What is the answer? What is the answer? We need to figure it out,” and so forth. I love that.
The second one is, “I remind myself that I’m resilient and strong.” Total shift, away from, “I can’t handle this, what do I do” to “I’m resilient and strong.” For me—I’ll weigh in here—I often say, “Everything is figureoutable. I’ll figure this one out.” That sentence has changed my life because it takes away the pressure of having to find solutions right now and says, “I’m in a process now. I’ll figure it out. We’ll get to the end of it. It might take some bounces and bumps.”
The third one is of course my all-time favorite, which is, “I can do hard things.” Today is a beautiful day to do hard things. So good. It can remind you that this is a moment to lean into.
I think this last one here is really important. someone weighed in and said, “I remind myself that being uncomfortable doesn’t mean dangerous.” This is gold, you guys.
There are some ideas of the people who weighed in and the most common responses. Let me also say, to be honest, a lot of people wrote, “I totally can’t handle it and I just fall apart.” A lot of people were making jokes like, “I throw a tantrum on the floor.” They were basically saying, “I haven’t figured it out yet.” I want to just really emphasize again the importance that it’s okay if you don’t have the 10 out of 10s figured out. We are not here to win all of the challenges.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately and I’ll actually use this as the final point. In our society and even in the community that I have built here, I have to also acknowledge that we can sometimes overdo the “Face your fears, use the tools, fix yourself, get better.” That message can be very, very helpful but also sometimes a little overachieving, a little condescending, a little pressured.
I want to just conclude here, if you are early in your recovery and you’re working on the 4s, 5s, and 6s out of 10, you’re doing enough. If you’re in the middle of your recovery or you’re accelerating in your recovery and you’re doing the 7s, 8s, and 9s, it’s okay that you don’t yet have the skills to do the 10s. Don’t focus too much on that. Just keep the expectations realistic. I don’t want you to leave today thinking, “Okay, now I have to go do those tools and I have to handle 10 out of 10s well.” That’s a lot to ask. I don’t handle the 10 out of 10s perfectly. Nobody does. I know so many anxiety specialists who also don’t handle the 10 out of 10s perfectly. Let’s not fantasize that or let’s not make that a thing so that you are constantly feeling like you have to be doing this perfectly.
Again, do what you can. Practice. This is trial and error. If it does work, great. If it doesn’t work, well good to know. Let’s just try again next time. It mightn’t work next time, that’s fine. Just good to know. We’re not here to always win every battle, but the fact that you asked this question, the fact that your inquiring shows me how much you value your recovery and how much you want to overcome this problem. For that, I applaud you. I applaud everyone listening. I hope that today was helpful for you.
Again, for those of you who are interested, go to CBTSchool.com. We have a whole vault of different courses you can take. We do have some new ones coming out here this year, which I’m super excited about. We’ve got courses for depression, all the things. You can go and listen to those. They are on demand. You have unlimited access. You can watch them as many times as you want. Take notes. Just listen, whatever you want to do, and I hope that you find them helpful.
Have a wonderful day, everybody, and I will see you next week.
Welcome back, everyone. I am so happy to do the final episode of our Sexual Health and Anxiety Series. It has been so rewarding. Not only has it been so rewarding, I actually have learned more in these last five weeks than I have learned in a long time. I have found that this series has opened me up to really understanding the depth of the struggles that happen for people with anxiety and how it does impact our sexual health, our reproductive health, our overall well-being. I just have so much gratitude for everyone who came on as guests and for you guys, how amazing you’ve been at giving me feedback on what was helpful, how it was helpful, what you learn, and so forth.
Today, we are talking about PMS and anxiety, and it is so hopeful to know that there are people out there who are specifically researching PMS and anxiety and depression, and really taking into consideration how it’s impacting us, how it’s affecting treatment, how it’s changing treatment, how we need to consider it in regards to how we look at the whole person.
Today, we have the amazing Crystal Edler Schiller on. She is a Psychologist, Assistant Professor, and Associate Director of Behavioral Health for the University of North Carolina Center for Women’s Mood Disorders. She provides therapy for women who experience mood and anxiety symptoms across the lifespan. She talks about her specific research and expertise in reproductive-related mood disorders. She was literally the perfect person for the show, so I’m so excited.
In today’s episode, we talked about PMS, PMDD, the treatments for these two struggles. We also just talked about those who tend to have an increase in symptoms of their own anxiety disorder or mood disorder when at different stages of their menstrual cycle. I found this to be so interesting and I didn’t realize there were so many treatment options. We talked about how we can implement them and how we may adjust that depending on where you are in terms of your own recovery already.
I’m going to leave it there and get straight over to the show. Thank you again to Crystal Schiller for coming on, and I hope you guys enjoy it just as much as I did.
Kimberley: Thank you so much for being here, Crystal. This is a delight. Can you just share quickly anything about you that you want to share and what you do?
Crystal: Sure. I’m a clinical psychologist at UNC Chapel Hill. I’m an Associate Director of the UNC Center for Women’s Mood Disorders, where we provide treatment to people with reproductive hormones across the lifespan—starting in adolescence, going through pregnancy, postpartum, and all the way up through the transition to menopause. We also do research. My research focuses on how hormones trigger depression and anxiety symptoms in women. I do that by administering hormones, so actually giving women hormones and looking at the impact on their brain using brain imaging and then also studying specific symptoms that they have with that treatment. We’ve given hormones that mimic pregnancy and postpartum, and we also use hormones to treat symptoms as women transition through menopause and look at, like I said, how that impacts how their brain is responding to certain kinds of things in the environment and also how they report that changes their mood.
Kimberley: Wow. You couldn’t be more perfect for this episode. You’ve just confirmed it right there. Thank you for being here. Before we get started, mostly we’re talking about what we call PMS, but I know that’s actually maybe not even a very good clinical term and so forth. Can you share with us what is PMS and What is the difference btween PMS and PMDD?
Crystal: Yeah. PMS stands for premenstrual syndrome. It actually is a medical diagnosis and it includes a host or a range of physical symptoms as well as some mild psychological symptoms. It can be things like breast tenderness or swelling, bloating, cramps, menstrual pain, as well as some anxiety, low mood, mood fluctuations. But those tend to be mild in a PMS diagnosis. PMS is really common in the general population. Some studies estimate 30, 40, 50% of women experience these symptoms. Very, very common. On the other hand, premenstrual dysphoric disorder is a condition that is associated with more severe depression and anxiety symptoms. The mood symptoms are more at the forefront, although those physiologic symptoms like the breast tenderness, swelling, pain, cramps can certainly be a part of it.
Most women with PMDD do have those physical symptoms as well. Pain is a commonly reported symptom in folks with PMDD, but the mood fluctuations are more severe. People spend about half their menstrual cycle usually with pretty severe symptoms. And then once the period starts, those symptoms go away in PMDD. That’s actually part of the criteria for the disorder that the symptoms have to what we call clear out or remit soon after menstrual bleeding starts. So, that’s for the formal diagnosis of PMDD.
But then all sorts of people with anxiety or depression have what we call a premenstrual exacerbation of symptoms, so it’s also possible to have, let’s say generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder, OCD, and have those symptoms get worse during certain periods of the menstrual cycle. We wouldn’t say that that person has PMDD; they just have a premenstrual worsening of symptoms. For some women, that occurs during that time, the week or two leading up to a period, but others have symptoms that are more around ovulation. Other women have symptoms that persist through the period. That’s the interesting thing. But also, the really complicated thing about this space is that there’s so many individual differences where some people have symptoms that sometimes, but not others. And then if you look at symptoms across the menstrual cycle and the next person, it may show a totally different pattern. But then over time, that pattern is maintained. It is clearly a pattern and a function of hormone change, but it can look different between different people.
Kimberley: Why is it so different for different people? Do we understand that yet, or do we not have enough research?
Crystal: We don’t have enough research. This is a relatively new area that one of my colleagues, Dr. Tory Eisenlohr, has been working on at the University of Illinois at Chicago. What she has been finding is that there are different subgroups or subtypes of people with this premenstrual worsening where, like I said, some people have it right before their period; others more around ovulation. Some people seem to have worsening symptoms when their hormone levels are going up. Other people have worsening symptoms when their hormone levels are going down. Some people have worsening symptoms anytime there’s a fluctuation or change. That’s what we see in my research as well. When I start administering hormones in some women, they almost immediately start experiencing anxiety and irritability. And then as soon as I take the hormone away, they feel better. Whereas other women feel terrible until their hormones even out again, and I’ve stopped messing with them so much. It’s really individualized and it probably has something to do with genetic predisposition as well as early environment. It’s this combination of factors.
Kimberley: Right. I could be so off base here, and please just tell me if I am. While we know it’s chemical, hormonal, biological, and genetic, is there also a small percentage of people who have these shifts from a cognitive component to where they’ve maybe had some depressive symptoms in the past, and so that when it comes on, they’re anxious about the symptoms coming on? Does anxiety increase during PMS? Is it as cognitive as well, or are you more looking at just the physiological piece?
Crystal: Both, for sure. First of all, you’re not way off base. That’s totally what I see in the clinic, that as folks have had these experiences with hormonal shifts and they had some anxiety or symptoms of depression during those times, it raises concern as they go through those similar hormonal shifts in the future. It becomes, in some ways, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like, “Oh my gosh, this time is going to be so horrible, I must prepare for it. Oh no, here it comes.” And then it is terrible because you’re expecting it to be terrible on some level.
Crystal: There are great treatment options for PMS and PMDD. That’s what we do in cognitive behavioral therapy for these very symptoms, is working through some of those expectations about how things are going to be and what we can actually do to prepare for it so that it doesn’t end up being bad just because we think it’s going to be bad.
But that’s not to say that there isn’t also a hormonal driver because for some people, there clearly is. Again, that’s what makes this work so interesting and complicated, is that it’s both for so many people. And that’s what makes treatment somewhat complicated. CBT can go a long way toward helping with these symptoms. Not everybody, of course, can afford to access CBT. There are medication options as well, but the combination of these treatments seems to work the best for that reason.
Kimberley: Yeah. CBT is good for so many things, isn’t it?
Kimberley: This is a perfect segue into questions I commonly get. I’m not a medical professional, everybody knows that. I’m a therapist. But people will often report to me that their doctor said, “There’s nothing you can do. It’s your hormones, it’s your cycle. You have to ride it out and ride the PMDD or ride out your OCD or ride out your anxiety or your panic and just wait.” Would you agree with that? If so, or if not, what treatments would you encourage people to consider?
Crystal: Okay, I want people to know that that is absolutely not true. If a medical provider tells you that, go see someone else because it’s just not true. I actually hear the same thing all the time from my own patients and from our research participants too. They raised this concern with their physician; it wasn’t taken seriously. That’s why I do this work because I think it’s really important. We do have good treatments that work. There are a whole bunch of different things that people can try.
Crystal: Because I mentioned there are different ways in which hormones influence mood symptoms across individuals, the unfortunate news is that we have certainly different medication for pmdd + pms treatments that work for a lot of people, but you have to work with a physician that you like to find the combination or the exact right treatment for you. It’s not like a one-and-done where you would go in and say, “Okay, great, you’re going to put me on this low-dose antidepressant and I will feel better and it will completely take care of this.” The thing that I would really encourage people to do is find a physician who’s willing to work with them and see them regularly in the beginning, once every few weeks, or even more often as they try these different treatments to see what’s going to work. I already mentioned cognitive behavioral therapy. That’s a first-line treatment option for PMDD as well as for this premenstrual exacerbation or cyclic exacerbation of underlying anxiety or depression.
The other thing that works well for PMDD is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. SSRIs that are used to treat depression and anxiety work well for PMDD but the mechanism is different, which is really interesting. A lot of people I hear from are reluctant to take SSRIs because they’ve heard that they’re difficult to come off of eventually if they wanted to, that you can become dependent on them. The good news for PMDD, for people who are worried about those studies, is actually, you don’t have any dependence on it because you only take it during that period of the menstrual cycle that’s problematic for you. You can take it just those two weeks leading up to the beginning of your period and then stop taking it once the period starts. That has been shown to fully prevent PMDD symptoms in some women. And then some other people take it all the time, like around the whole menstrual cycle just because it’s hard to remember to start it, or because they’re not exactly sure when their period is going to start. If you’re not super regular, it’s hard to know and you might miss that window of opportunity to start it before the mood symptoms. That’s another option. But SSRIs are another first-line treatment option.
And then some women have really good success with oral contraceptives. Low-dose combined estrogen-progestin contraceptives are what’s recommended. Yaz is the only one that’s FDA-approved to treat PMDD, but it’s not all that dissimilar from any other low-dose combined oral contraceptive. Sometimes it isn’t covered by all insurances. If that one is not covered, I tell people to ask their doctor about what are the other alternatives because you shouldn’t be paying tons and tons of money for your oral contraceptive.
And then the other thing that often helps, for women who have some symptom relief with Yaz or other oral contraceptives, is to take it continuously because, as I mentioned, it is often that hormone change that seems to provoke symptoms in folks. If you don’t have a period, then you don’t have any hormone change. It’s those placebo pills that cause a period, it’s the switching from a low-dose hormone to then having that withdrawal of progestin that causes a period. But you don’t medically need one. You can ask your doctor to prescribe the hormone continuously and not have a period at all. And that works well for a lot of folks with PMDD as well. And then you can combine all these different treatments.
And then, in addition, some other non-pharmacologic lifestyle changes to help PMS anxiety and PMDD. Exercise has been shown to help. Regular exercise I think enhances all of our moods. It has the same effect within PMDD. There’s some studies showing that taking calcium seems to reduce symptoms as well. For most of our patients, I just have them start taking a multivitamin and try to boost up that calcium a little bit. But like I said, a lot of people need a combination of treatments. Different SSRIs work in slightly different ways and may be more effective for some people than others. Just because the first SSRI doesn’t work doesn’t mean that you couldn’t try another one. Again, it’s just a matter of finding a physician that’s willing to work with you to find the right combination and dose of these various treatments. Also possible for some people that none of these things work and those cyclic mood symptoms persist. And then there are other more invasive options for folks who don’t have good success with any of these.
Kimberley: Right. I have a couple of questions about that. You’ve just given us an amazing treatment plan, or treatment options for someone who is experiencing PMDD or they’re having more onset of anxiety not to maybe that degree. I just want to clarify, for those who also have a chronic anxiety disorder, I’m assuming, but please again correct me, that they wouldn’t be one of the people who should be coming off of their SSRIs; they should stay on them if you’ve got an additional psychiatric or a mental illness on the side.
Crystal: Correct. I would never advise someone to come off of their SSRI if they’re still having some breakthrough cyclicity in their symptom exacerbation. What I would suggest instead is to try adding on some of these other options. If you’re already on an SSRI and not doing CBT, that’s maybe where I would start, is to first track your mood symptoms relative to your period. This is a step that many people skip. The only way to diagnose PMDD, but also an important indicator for this cyclic exacerbation of symptoms, is to track every day your mood symptoms. You can just do this really easily on a calendar, even in the Notes app on your phone. I just have my patients make a mood rating of 0 to 10. 0 is feeling terrible, awful, worst I’ve ever felt; 10 is the best I’ve ever felt. It can be as simple as that. Or you can even use a smiley face symptom like, okay, feeling happy, feeling terrible. It doesn’t have to be anything special. There are apps and things you can use as well to do this. But what we’re looking for is a regular pattern of mood change relative to the menstrual cycle. Once you’ve established there is a regular pattern, then a CBT therapist can help you, like I said, prepare for those times and use some coping skills or strategies to manage those mood symptoms.
But I think the treatments are largely the same for people with PMDD versus other anxiety and depressive disorders. But if you have more of a chronic picture that just has some change in symptoms around the menstrual cycle, then you wouldn’t come off your SSRI. That’s just for people with pure PMDD.
Kimberley: I’m thinking about questions I’m assuming people will ask, and what comes to mind is, as myself as an OCD Specialist and as an anxiety specialist, we use CBT, but there are different types of CBT. We do a lot of exposure and response prevention for OCD and so forth. When we are talking about CBT, I want us to really be clear about what that looks like compared to all these other forms. What would that look like specific to somebody who has these symptoms, particularly around their menstrual cycle? Would it be more focused on the cognitive component or would it be an equal balance between managing cognitive distortions and behavioral activation? If we did behavioral activations, what would that look like?
Crystal: I’m just going to lay my bias out on the table that I tend to lean more on the B side of CBT. I tend to be a behaviorist, and I do a lot of behavioral activation because, in my experience, it tends to work well in this space and for this population of folks. We do some behavioral planning. We track behaviors and mood symptoms. What did you do or not do when you were having that feeling of frustration or irritability and how did that work out for you? We get pretty in the weeds of like, what did you say, and then what happened next, and that sort of thing, and then we figure out like, okay, how do we prevent this kind of exchange from happening in the future when you’re feeling really frustrated or irritable, if it caused problems, because sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes anger, frustration, or irritability serves as fuel to make a behavior change that needs to be made. It’s a signal that something isn’t working well. I don’t want to pathologize all negative emotions because they’re not always bad.
Anyways, we look at what happened and where are the points at which we could have intervened and we rewind back in time to say, “Okay, how did you sleep the night before that thing happened that didn’t go so well? Were you eating that day? What was that like? Were you already pretty depleted going into this negative interaction with your boss?” How do we prepare for the next cycle to make sure that you are allotting enough time to sleep and protecting that sleep time, not staying up super late, getting emails done or something, but really taking good care of yourself, eating well, drinking enough water, taking care of yourself the way you would take care of a child? And then from there, we talk about, “Okay, let’s say this frustrating thing happens again and you’re noticing yourself getting anxious or frustrated in that moment. What are some tools or skills we could use to respond?” Here, we might use something like taking a break, like, “All right, I noticed I’m getting really upset. I need to take a break from this interaction so that I don’t say something that I might regret.” We might practice a skill like, “Thank you for that feedback. I’m feeling myself just getting flustered. I’m going to take five minutes and then I’d like to come back and have this conversation with you later, or an hour,” or “Can we come back and have this conversation next week,” depending on what it is and how out of sorts the person is feeling. And then using some skills to calm down. These might be mindfulness skills or any kind of self-care, emotion regulation skill that a person could use.
We tend to start with skills that folks have already had good success with. I’m not teaching Buddhist meditation on the first day of treatment, but instead, it might be simple things like, “Oh, I feel better when I get some sunshine and take a walk outside,” so that might be a good skill we could just use right off the bat. It’s pretty skill-based. And then we create a behavioral plan around that time of the month that tends to be more problematic so that we can keep people feeling well and well supported. A lot of times, that’s all it takes. It doesn’t require much more than that.
Kimberley: I love that. I love that you’re bringing in the mindfulness piece and a lot of self-care. This is really more of a question of curiosity, but I remember as a young teen, having a lot of PMS, being told you have to drink a lot of water. Is that like an old wives’ tale? Because now I’m telling my daughter. I’m curious, is that an old wives’ tale or is that actually a treatment or a part of the work?
Crystal: I don’t know. I mean, I think Americans probably go a little overboard on water consumption, but I think it’s a good part of self-care to stay well-hydrated as well as well-fed and well-rested. You do lose some water through menstruation, and so it’s probably good practice in general just to keep yourself well hydrated. That doesn’t mean drinking a certain amount of water every day, but just noticing when you’re thirsty and drinking something when you are.
Kimberley: Okay, I’ll be better about that because, like I said, as I tell my daughter, I’m always like, “This is probably an old wives’ tale.” Maybe we could talk this one through together. Let’s say I’m treating somebody. They’ve got severe OCD, severe panic disorder or severe health anxiety, severe social anxiety. They know and they’ve tracked using an app or, as you said, the notes on their phone or on paper, they’ve tracked it. They know around approximately that such and such day of the month, they’re going to probably have an onset of treatment. How prepared should they be in terms of what would that preparation time look like? Is there a strategy you would give people? I know for us, on the clinical side, I’m amping up homework skills for them to manage the actual disorder, but is there something they could be doing on the PMS side that we should remember to do?
Crystal: I think it’s in my mind really specific to the individual and the symptoms that they’re having that they find tend to get worse as well as the physical symptoms. If they’re having a lot of pain around that time, then we want to also work on some pain management. Because when you’re feeling a lot of pain, that can make your anxiety worse. That would be something I would think about in addition to the standardized ramping up of homework that you would ordinarily be doing. Pain management can again look more like mindfulness, some meditative practice, or it can mean talking with one’s doctor about how to manage pain because there are non-addictive ways of managing pain as well.
Kimberley: Right. You mentioned before talking to your doctor. Are you speaking specifically about just a GP or should they be going more to a reproductive doctor, OB-GYN? What kind of medical professional would you encourage people to reach out to?
Crystal: I think if you have a doctor that you trust, whether it’s a GP, OB-GYN, or even a psychiatrist, all of those are good options. Any of them can help treat these symptoms. Sometimes if the symptoms are really severe, then going to a specialist in reproductive mental health—that person would be a psychiatrist—can be helpful. There aren’t that many of us out there though. I have a number of really wonderful colleagues that I work alongside in our clinic and we treat patients together. I provide the psychotherapy and then they provide the pharmacotherapy and then I also have an OB-GYN on the team who provides the hormonal treatment. Not everyone can access this highly skilled team, however, and I do recognize that. I think starting with a GP or your OB-GYN is a good place to start. Again, if they’re not as knowledgeable as they need to be and they’re telling you, you just have to suck it up and deal with it, that’s not the right person.
Kimberley: I appreciate you saying that because I do think—I’ll be transparent—even to get somebody as skilled as yourself on the show for this was a really difficult thing. I was surprised how few people really understand it and are knowledgeable about the treatment options. It was harder than I thought and I’m so grateful for you to be here and talk about it with us.
Crystal: I’m really sorry to hear that. I think there are a growing number of people interested in this, and I have a number of wonderful colleagues. But like you mentioned, there aren’t that many of us out there. The bright spot, I would say, is that we have a training program at UNC Chapel Hill with lots and lots of applicants every year. We’re training clinical psychologists and social workers and psychiatrists to do this work.
Kimberley: Amazing. Thank you. Last question: Any final advice you would give someone who is experiencing symptoms of PMS and PMDD in regards to getting better or seeking treatment and help?
Crystal: You’re not alone. It’s not all in your head. You deserve access to treatments that work. There are lots of treatments that work. Unfortunately, our medical system is really complex and sometimes you have to really advocate for yourself in this space. But if you are persistent and know what you’re looking for in a provider, you, I hope, will be able to find one that can be a good advocate and supporter of you to recovery because you don’t have to experience these symptoms by yourself or forever.
Kimberley: Thank you so much for saying that. I think a lot of people feel like they’re crazy or they’ve been told they’re being crazy, which doesn’t help.
Crystal: Yeah. I mean, the word “hysteria” came from studying or psychiatrists working with women who they felt were hysterical and their uterus was traveling around their bodies. The roots of all of this are in this really misogynistic place where many of us are working really hard to overcome that unfortunate history, but there’s often still a lot of stigma and misinformation out there.
Kimberley: I remember in my master’s degree, that was the first part of the history of Psychology, that women who were just having PMS were being totally hyper-pathologized. Horrible.
Crystal: Yeah. Really horrible. I hope that the work that we do makes a difference. I’m so glad that you’re tackling this topic on your podcast. I think this will, I hope, reach a lot of people.
Kimberley: Thank you. Can you tell us where people can get ahold of you, where they might learn about you and the work that you’re doing?
Crystal: Yeah. I have a website, it’s CrystalSchiller.com. C-R-Y-S-T-A-L S-C-H-I-L-L-E-R.com. I’m actually starting to write a book on this topic, so I really appreciate you reaching out and to know that people have questions about this because that’s what I see where I’m at too. And then the UNC Center for Women’s Mood Disorders, if you just Google that, you’ll find our website and you can read more about the different research studies that we’re doing and about our treatment program as well.
Kimberley: Thank you so much and congratulations on writing a book. It’s a big challenge and a big accomplishment.
Kimberley: Thank you so much for coming on. It’s been an absolute pleasure.Crystal: It was wonderful being with you today. Thank you so much. Take care.