Facing My Panic: A Psychologist's Anxiety JourneyJul 31, 2023
From Panic Attacks to Personal Triumph: An Insightful Journey into Anxiety Disorders
Hello everyone! I'm Erica, your friendly podcast co-host, here to help you as you to navigate the overwhelming world of anxiety. Today, we're sharing a deep-dive discussion with Dr. Charles Barr about his experiences and symptoms with anxiety, as well as his strategies for dealing with anxiety and panic disorders.
Anxiety: The Great Mimicker
Anxiety can be a tricky and overwhelming companion that often likes to mimic other conditions. Dr. Barr perfectly describes it as the great mimicker. It can manifest as a heart attack, a stroke, or a range of physiological symptoms that may not even make medical sense. But here's the thing - the feelings are incredibly real to those experiencing them. As someone who's gone on my own anxiety journey, I know this all too well!
The Power of Panic: Dr. Barr’s Personal Experience
In 1987, during the Whittier earthquake, Dr. Barr experienced his first panic attack. He describes the sensation of depersonalization and derealization, feelings that make you feel detached from reality or yourself. It's hard to believe that such intense feelings can stem from just stress. But over time, our bodies can shift into a state of hypervigilance, with anxiety taking control.
Challenging What-Ifs with So What?
A common thread amongst us anxiety sufferers is the tendency to engage in "what-if" thought patterns. These automatic thoughts sneak in and enhance our fear, essentially making us scare ourselves. By shifting this perspective to a "so what" approach, we can begin to challenge and change these patterns.
A Journey towards Control
The truth is, anxiety can be debilitating. It can shrink our world, making us housebound or leaving us white-knuckling through everyday tasks. But the good news? There's a way out! Cognitive-behavioral tools, relaxation training, and controlled breathing are key components of the CHAANGE Anxiety Treatment Program that can help regain control over our lives. Trust me, as a former anxiety sufferer, I've seen the transformative power of these techniques firsthand.
Beating Anxiety, One Breath at a Time
One of the first tools introduced in the CHAANGE program is controlled breathing. I recall being skeptical initially. When I had previously attempted breathing techniques, it seemed to offer temporary relief, but I failed to understand the need for constant practice and conditioning. Over time though, with Dr. Barr's guidance, I discovered its power to calm the mind and regain control over my life.
It's normal to have a million questions, and even more normal to be skeptical. However, let's remember that there is hope, and there's a way out from under the heavy blanket of anxiety.
EPISODE: Facing My Panic: A Psychologist’s Anxiety Journey
[00:00:00] Erica: And we are back. But I'm glad to be back with you. Today, in this episode, you get to meet Dr. Barr, you get to hear about what was that bad experience with an earthquake that he had. I'm going to kind of interview him. It's an important one. It's about a therapist who was specializing in anxiety and thought he really knew what anxiety was.
[00:00:18] He thought he understood it. He thought he knew how to help people in this office until one day he was in his office and being in Southern California, there was a huge earthquake. I'm going to let you hear him tell this story, but from there he had to find ways to cure himself from things like depersonalization, panic attacks, fear of an unexpected earthquake at any time.
[00:00:40] And you're going to hear a pretty relatable story from a therapist himself. So let's get to that right now.
[00:00:46] Erica: Welcome to the Life Free of Anxiety Podcast, where each week we'll bring you another discussion to help you on your way to overcoming your fears. I'm Erica and together with Dr. Charles Barr, a licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in anxiety, we'll be your guides on this journey. Because you are not broken, you are not alone.
[00:01:17] And you are on your way to living a life free of anxiety.
[00:01:21] Meet Dr. Charles Barr PhD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Anxiety Specialist for over 30 Years
[00:01:21] Erica: All right. Well, welcome my name's Erica and I am joined by Dr. Charles Barr. Dr. Barr is the best. I went to him myself. It's kind of what makes this podcast unique is that I am. Actually a client of Dr. Barr's, who is a licensed clinical therapist. Dr. Barr, please let's say hi before we get into all your fancy education.
[00:01:45] Dr. Charles Barr: Well hello, Erica. It's nice being with you again. And certainly having had some wonderful experiences together and difficult times also. It's nice to be on this kind of a format and be able to share some of what we've learned together.
[00:02:02] Erica: Yes, definitely. And you're a real pro. At least what you told me.
[00:02:06] Dr. Charles Barr: At least licensed. And I think that I have a lot of experience in this field. Just to give you my background a little bit, I am a licensed clinical psychologist and I've been licensed since 1979, which kind of makes me an old guy.
[00:02:23] Dr. Barr's First Panic Attack
[00:02:23] Dr. Charles Barr: So I've had a lot of experience doing this because I specialized in this, in anxiety disorders, in 1988. And there's a particular reason why I specialized in 1988 and that's because in 1987 we had the Whittier earthquake and I was in my office at the time of the earthquake. And I thought I was going out my window and I completely had a panic attack.
[00:02:52] Erica: When you say you felt like you were going out your window, for those non-California people, because we are both Los Angeles based, can you explain what that's like? I mean, I've never even felt like I was going out the window. I was lucky enough to sleep through our big earthquake back some time ago.
[00:03:07] What does that feel like?
[00:03:08] Dr. Charles Barr: I was sitting in my office chair. Talking on the phone with a client in San Francisco. And I was facing the window when the earthquake hit. And so my chair is on the rollers and if you've ever been riding a wagon or been sleigh riding and you wanted to get the sled going, you kind of give it this forward jerk to get yourself going.
[00:03:31] And I found myself with that motion moving toward the window and at the same time my bookshelves were banging against the wall, like crazy. Because the shockwaves were coming that direction and I completely lost it, which took me by total surprise, because I always had considered myself a very stable, very good under pressure person.
[00:03:59] And all of a sudden I dissolved in a panic attack and we can talk about the symptoms of a panic attack in a few minutes, but I had most of them. And one of the ones that I particularly had was I had the depersonalization, the realization and that was very disturbing to me.
[00:04:22] And the net effect of that, now I feel like I'm fortunate because a lot of people develop those kinds of feelings without having an external stimuli to cause that. But I had an external stimuli. I knew what had caused it, but somehow it still didn't seem like it was strong enough that I should have had that response.
[00:04:44] Erica: Now real quickly. What is depersonalization? Just so we don't confuse anybody who might be wondering.
[00:04:51] Dr. Charles Barr: Depersonalization is a feeling of unreality. It's like somehow you're losing a grip on yourself or you're not quite there. And the other thing that is sometimes is called, derealization or depersonalization is just being detached or being beside yourself.
[00:05:10] And I was so detached that the day of the earthquake, apparently one of my office mates had walked by and three days later, she said something about that. And I said, "you were here during the earthquake?" And she said, "well, yes. Don't you remember seeing me?"
[00:05:25] Erica: And you're a full-blown professional therapist at this point. This isn't you in some other job or career at this point, you're actually a therapist at this point, correct?
[00:05:34] Dr. Charles Barr: That's right, I've already been in my practice for almost 10 years. And, I had no memory of having seen her. I was somewhere else. And that's what depersonalization and derealization is about.
[00:05:47] Erica: And could I just add something... just in case we're making anyone a little bit nervous or uncomfortable with what we're explaining? I had these symptoms too. I have friends who have very different symptoms. I used to think my symptoms were worse or more important or more severe, whatever, then somebody else's.
[00:06:07] And I just want to add, anxiety can look like really anything. So if you do or do not have symptoms like what we're describing, it doesn't really mean anything. Anxiety can look any way for any person.
[00:06:20] Anxiety: The Great Mimicker
[00:06:20] Dr. Charles Barr: Well, that's a wonderful point that you make. I call anxiety the great mimicker and it can mimic a heart attack. It can mimic a stroke. It can mimic all kinds of strange physiological things that medically don't even make sense. And yet they're very real to the person experiencing them.
[00:06:39] And it manifests very differently for each person. It's a very complex disorder because it does manifest in so many ways and each person experiences it uniquely for themselves.
[00:06:55] And yet when you put the whole field together, they're strangely similar. It's like we all have similar responses and similar feelings. And yet we all experience it so differently and in different intensities.
[00:07:12] So for some people, it shrinks their world so small that they end up becoming housebound. It's called the housebound disorder. Sometimes, this can be debilitate you. It can shrink your world so much that you feel like you don't even recognize your former life. Because you did have a life before panic,
[00:07:33] Erica: Right. Yes. That's definitely where I was. When I came to you. I had been to several different therapists.
[00:07:42] I had spent hours talking about my problems, thinking that if I could just reveal the right information to account, or if I could explore what happened in childhood deeply enough. If I could really get honest. If I could stand on my head. If I could, find out what somebody else did that really worked and a potion..., you know, anything. I was at such a point where... and I've heard before that anxious people are very determined people, because it's awful.
[00:08:10] It's awful being anxious.
[00:08:12] Dr. Charles Barr: Well, and that's why I ended up specializing in anxiety disorders in 1988, after I had had this experience. It just threw my self-concept into complete disarray. And I felt like it threw me in the air and I didn't trust anything about myself anymore. And I also had this sense that...
[00:08:34] I had worked with several people who had had panic disorder before and thought I had done a fairly good job, but, it was like, well, if this is what people are talking to me about when they come in and they say they have panic attacks and they're, they're feeling panic. If they feel anything, like what I felt, that's absolutely horrible.
[00:08:54] Textbook Learning About Anxiety vs. Living It
[00:08:54] Erica: And you didn't know, so all this time you were looking at it from kind of a textbook perspective. You heard their symptoms. You thought that sounded unpleasant, but you had no idea what it was actually like until you experienced this firsthand.
[00:09:07] Dr. Charles Barr: That's right. That's right.
[00:09:10] And I think if you've never, if a person has never experienced panic, they really have no true concept of just how strong it is. Just what a complete experience it is because it sort of changes everything. It's almost like it changes your physiology. I don't know for sure that it does, but we're looking into that.
[00:09:32] The field is progressing in biological ways to look at those kinds of influences, but it's almost like it just changes everything. It changes your nervous system. It changes how you see the world. It changes how you see yourself. Changes how you relate. Changes what you thought you knew about yourself.
[00:09:52] So it was just a devastating kind of thing. I feel so badly for all those folks up in the Ridgecrest area here in California, who went through the terrible earthquake. Yes. We felt that down here, but we certainly didn't get the kind of shaking that they did. Now, the interesting thing is I've shared my story with a lot of my... well with probably every one of my anxiety clients.
[00:10:18] So a lot of them are always concerned about me whenever there's an earthquake. So they'll be checking on me, Dr. Barr are you okay? You know, it's like, yes, I am. And I've learned that I am okay. And I have not had a repeat of that. Although I tell people and it may well be true... I say, if you're with me and we had the big earthquake that they keep saying, we're going to have, you may get to witness me panic. But it will not do what it did to me before, because I understand panic. I understand what the feeling is now. I understand where it came from. And I may still panic because in a larger earthquake, that's the common response because it's a common enemy or a common danger.
[00:11:07] Erica: Is that what your fear kind of became a fear of earthquakes after that? Along with feelings of depersonalzation, is that kind of what you do?
[00:11:15] Dr. Charles Barr: Oh yes, it was very, very much the fear of earthquakes. It was very interesting because just about the same time that the Whittier quake happened. Universal city opened up an earthquake exhibit where they had mimicked an earthquake in San Francisco. And, I thought that was the dumbest, single dumbest move I could ever think of. That that would be entertaining in any kind of way.
[00:11:41] Of course it was a smash hit, but, it took me probably... well, I got past the anxiety part, but I still couldn't go to that exhibit probably for another couple of years. I finally did go to it and saw that it was actually instructive to see that you have, this is what might happen in an earthquake.
[00:12:02] Erica: It might've even felt a little insensitive at the time when it came out. Because I mean, maybe not, but for me, everything was so personal. It wasn't really in my anxiety.
[00:12:11] Dr. Charles Barr: Yeah. Yes. So earthquakes became my big fear, which meant, " well, okay what if I'm in a restaurant and I get an earthquake and what if I'm in the movie theater and there's an earthquake? What if I'm in a stadium and there's an earthquake?" All the "what-ifs."
[00:12:28] So what if I'm alone in my office and there's another quake, because I was alone in my office on the first one. What if I'm in the parking structure and there's an earthquake? The "what ifs" just run rampant.
[00:12:41] Erica: Right? Which any person with anxiety knows pretty well, unfortunately.
[00:12:46] Dr. Charles Barr: Well, and if they don't know, let's be very clear about that. That is one of the things that we really stress in treating this disorder is. Stopping the "what-ifs." Trying to catch those and change them. And one of the effective ways of doing that is to start saying "so what?" to them. "So what? That is just a scary thought."
[00:13:11] Now at first, that's hard to grasp because you're thinking, "yeah. But what if? And did you hear what I said?" "Yeah, but what if?" And so every time you say, "so what?" there's a "yeah, but..." just waiting for you to undo that. And so those thought patterns are very powerful and they're automatic. They sneak in before, you know what's happened and it's very scary.
[00:13:44] It's fear enhancing. You're scaring yourself and I'm very good at scaring myself. Just like everyone else who's ever had panic scares themselves afterwards.
[00:13:56] Erica: And that's what I recall from the first time we met is these talks about "you're scaring yourself" and me being kind of like, "okay, I'm scaring myself. Huh."
[00:14:06] You know, I knew that in a sense but I think it was... I think I just didn't know what was going on anymore. Honestly. To feel that it was me was something... that concept had to kind of grow on me in order to make sense. When the first time I heard it. I don't know that I really believed you or I was so skeptical at this point that anybody really understood what was happening.
[00:14:31] Anxiety Is Suffering... But Doesn't Have to Be
[00:14:31] Erica: But I do remember one of the first things you said to me was, "I really want you to know that I understand that you're truly suffering and I'm really sorry about that."
[00:14:42] And I remember that hitting me so effectively, because nobody else had ever said anything like that from a clinical perspective.
[00:14:52] I mean, everybody else was very compassionate, but I don't remember anybody really, truly understanding what I was going through and calling it suffering. Because that's really where I was at at that point. And it sounds exactly where you were at after the earthquake.
[00:15:07] Dr. Charles Barr: Oh, it absolutely was where I was at and I do consider it true suffering.
[00:15:12] The feelings were so powerful and it's just remarkable. The strength of it, you know, the, the power of it is just incredible.
[00:15:21] Erica: And for a spoiler alert, is there help for this? I mean, you seem to have gotten better.
[00:15:27] How Dr. Barr Overcame Anxiety
[00:15:27] Dr. Charles Barr: That is the good news. The good news is there is help available and you don't just have to suffer and you don't just have to live with it and white knuckle through everything.
[00:15:41] Know that when we were talking about people becoming agoraphobic, that is one of the responses, is they just, their world shrinks down like that. The other thing that happens is, some people go ahead and function, but they're white knuckling through everything.
[00:15:57] And so it robs you of all the enjoyment. You may still be able to go to work, but you're going to work with white knuckles and then you can't get on an elevator. So you will have to walk up five flights of stairs and you can't even go to the bathroom by yourself anymore. You know, that kind of thing.
[00:16:14] Erica: It was it 13 flights. I can try to remember what was the most I ever took to avoid the elevator. Cause that was such a big one for me.
[00:16:23] Dr. Charles Barr: Oh, that's right. That was one of yours.
[00:16:25] Erica: Probably in great shape at that point, taking all those stairs. But
[00:16:30] Dr. Charles Barr: Well, there's an advantage I don't know that it's worth it.
[00:16:35] Erica: Nothing was more humiliating than that for me, I think. That was kind of the breaking point where I was like... I can't... I can't not... I was wondering if there was going to be an elevator the second I was on the phone making a doctor's appointment or the second I was planning to go to a friend's house.
[00:16:54] So I was always so many steps ahead of getting ready to be afraid. And talk about scaring yourself! I can kind of piece everything together now. Oh, I was already plotting fear.
[00:17:07] Dr. Charles Barr: Yes. That's an interesting way to think of it and to say it is getting ready to be afraid. And I think that's exactly what happens.
[00:17:15] Erica: And by the time I came to you, the first thing I did was look for your stairs. It was less embarrassing to admit to a therapist. I think I'd probably asked you on the phone, you have stairs, which is less embarrassing because you're used to that kind of stuff.
[00:17:29] But it was not nearly as convenient as taking your elevator, which eventually I was doing. Which is funny because I think that was only within 10 weeks that I was taking the elevator to see you. Maybe nine. And what was funny about that is you are the therapist I have spent probably the least amount of time with, because I got better so much faster.
[00:17:52] It's nice for people to be listening to somebody who truly knows what they're talking about. I don't know if you remember how I was when I first came in, but I felt that I was barely getting by. I probably looked like I was doing just fine to those who didn't know me well.
[00:18:08] But I also had an elevator at the time in my apartment I never took. So I had a parking garage situation where I would go all the way around and take up groceries and all that. And boy, was it a relief when I started being able to take the elevator from the garage straight up?
[00:18:25] Dr. Charles Barr: Yeah. Very, very good.
[00:18:28] Erica: But that was something that I never, never thought I could do, walking in.
[00:18:32] I had a very cynical attitude by the time I had gotten to you.
[00:18:36] The Causes of Anxiety
[00:18:36] Dr. Charles Barr: It's an unfortunate thing for a lot of folks who have agoraphobia or who have had panic disorder for some of them for many years. Lots of people have sought help. It's not because they haven't been looking. They've sought help. They've spent a lot of money. They've seen maybe eight or 10 doctors of one kind or another searching for the answer.
[00:18:59] The other thing is it's so hard to believe all of those symptoms that you feel ,all of these terrible feelings that you have, can be caused just by stress. And I say "just" and people get mad at me when I first introduced that word, because sounds like a put down or it's diminutive.
[00:19:17] It is lessons their... the importance somehow. And it's like, how can all of this just be because just by stress? Well, because you've learned how to do this over time. And your body has done a shift and has become hypervigilant. And now, it's running its own course. It's like the anxiety takes on a life of its own and it's running your life instead of you running it.
[00:19:48] Erica: Right.
[00:19:49] You Can Walk Your Way Out of Anxiety
[00:19:49] Dr. Charles Barr: So we've got to teach you how to be back in control through a series of cognitive behavioral things and through breathing and relaxation training. And there's a certain set of tools. That you need that if you will practice those tools, you can walk your way out of this disorder.
[00:20:12] It's very hard. It's hard for people who believe that "Dr. Barr, you're full of it because I've spent thousands of dollars on various therapies and tests and doctors and what do you mean I can walk my way out of this?" And yet that's the good news! I think that you really can.
[00:20:30] And I believe that. I watched myself do it. I've watched multiple other people do it. I watched you do it. And that's the thrill for me is to work with folks and watch them just work their way out of this and get back in for life.
[00:20:48] Erica: Right. And I recall you mentioning breathing exercises, which I had already been introduced to with my past therapist.
[00:21:00] And the thing that really concerned me about those was that I seemed to feel better maybe in the moment or maybe for a little while after, but I didn't understand the conditioning that needed to happen. The practice that needed to happen. And we can get more into that later. But for those who might be sitting here saying, "well, how do I do this?"
[00:21:25] My question was always, how many times a day? What am I really supposed to be doing to get better? Like I said, I was very determined. And we can. That's something that we hope you guys will stay with us to hear more of. Because we're definitely gonna direct you to the right place and hopefully be a source of friendship here for you guys.
[00:21:47] And just a place where you can kind of get a lot of your questions answered. Because if there's anything I remember about being totally anxious, it was having a million questions.
[00:21:59] Dr. Charles Barr: Well, and I think that it's normal to have a million questions, and I think it's normal to be totally skeptical about this.
[00:22:06] So if our listeners are sitting there going, "yeah, I've heard this kind of thing before." Maybe you have, maybe you haven't, but it's normal for you to feel skeptical. And I'm not put off by that. And that doesn't disturb me that you're skeptical. But if folks are willing to see, we think that this is a learned complex disorder, and this has been learned over years and years.
[00:22:31] Not meaning to learn this. None of us meant to learn this. But we did. We managed to learn it and for some people they have a specific time and date and they can tell you almost like my earthquake. They can tell you when their very first panic attack was. Yes, that's very common. And other people, they've kind of just always been anxious their whole life and didn't even have a word for it.
[00:23:02] They've just kind of always been anxious in their life and all of a sudden something changed and it overwhelmed their system.
[00:23:11] Erica: Okay. Well, you just heard Dr. Barr's story. Pretty interesting stuff. We are going to be back with you next week for something good. Don't worry. It's always something good here. Again, you can find more information on the CHAANGE Progam that helped Dr. Barr get better. And me! That's CHAANGE.com with two A's. And also feel free to shoot me an email at [email protected]. And I always do love to hear from you.
[00:23:36] Okay. I will talk to you soon.
[00:23:38] Thanks so much for tuning in today. I hope that something in today's conversation provided you with a feeling of hope, determination, or purpose. I know what you're going through, and that's why I want to give you some of the tools that helped me in my anxiety journey. To get a free copy of Free From Fears head to freefromfearsbook.com to find out more about the CHAANGE Anxiety Treatment Program.
[00:24:04] Find us at CHAANGE.com Thanks again for listening.
[00:24:09] And remember you are not broken You are not alone and you are on your way to living a life free of anxiety. See you next week
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