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Episode 98 Transcript: Overcoming Anxiety, OCD and Panic Disorders with Wendy Tamis Robbins

Wendy: This diagnosis put everything I had learned to the test. Because when you’re in the midst of chemotherapy, there’s no place to hide. There’s no alcohol, there’s no work, you know, none of that buffering is really available. I could only sit and listen and heal and reflect and really reexamine my life and my goals and my values. And that was the turning point. 

And in the midst of that, I had been talking to so many women across so many different disciplines, professionals, and their needs were aligning with what I wanted to become and give back. And that’s where Cave Club was born. 

Nancy: Welcome to Your Permission Prescription. I’m Nancy Levin, founder of Levin Life Coach Academy, bestselling author, master life coach, and your host. I train life coaches, aspiring coaches, and anyone who wants to add coaching skills to their current career to elevate their life and their business. I’ve coached thousands of people to live life on their own terms, and now I coach, train, and certify other coaches to do the same. 

If you are ready to give yourself permission to finally make yourself a priority and mobilize your vision, you’re in the right place. Let’s dive in. 

Nancy: Welcome back to another episode of Your Permission Prescription. I am so excited to introduce you to my guest today, Wendy Tamis Robbins is an internationally recognized anxiety expert, mental health and wellness coach, speaker, author, and advocate. She chronicled her journey to finding freedom from almost 40 years of anxiety, obsessive compulsive and panic disorders in her best selling book The Box: An Invitation to Freedom from Anxiety

After pivoting out of her 24 year career as a corporate tax and finance attorney, Wendy founded Cave Club, a wellness community exclusively for professional women. Providing individual and group coaching, peer support groups, expert workshops, wellness activities, yoga, and guided meditations. Wendy has been a guest lecturer on mental health and wellbeing at Harvard Law School, and has been featured by BBC Studios, NBC, and Fox News. She is a frequent contributor to Thrive Global, Law 360 and Stepmom Magazine. She hosts the Perfectly Panicked Podcast and lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts with her husband and two teenage stepchildren. 

Welcome, Wendy. 

Wendy: Thank you so much. There’s a lot of like tongue twisting. Yeah, You did a great job. Great job. 

Nancy: Well, thank you. And I think you really have a fascinating background. And not only in terms of your own 24 year career in corporate America, so to speak, combined with your own dealing with, throughout your life, anxiety, obsessive compulsive and panic disorders. And I’d love to begin with, you know, I know at one time you were really holding down two full-time jobs, the law and your wellness platform. And I’d like you to share what specifically had you pivot to leaving corporate and really going out on your own? 

Wendy: Yeah, it was really my cancer diagnosis. Unfortunately it came to that. Which is part of my message now, please don’t wait for such a devastating permission slip, right? 

Nancy: Yeah. 

Wendy: Please find a way to give it to yourself before that. But for me, it had been decades of I can fix this myself, I can work myself to the bone, I can put everyone else’s self-care before mine, even growing up in a culture of self-sacrifice. And that’s, you know, that’s who we look up to, the people who put everyone else before themselves.

And I was, I could see how much of a destructive effect it was having on me, mentally and physically. Having written the book I felt like I had arrived in some way that really doesn’t exist and is an illusion. But then to really have this diagnosis put everything I had learned to the test, because when you’re in the midst of chemotherapy, there’s no place to hide. There’s no alcohol, there’s no work, you know, none of that buffering is really available. I could only sit and listen and heal and reflect and really reexamine my life and my goals and my values. And that was the turning point. 

And in the midst of that, I had been talking to so many women across so many different disciplines, professionals, and their needs were aligning with what I wanted to become and give back. And that’s where Cave Club was born. 

Nancy: Mm. I really resonate with this, and I’m so glad you’re sharing this with the listeners. And while I have not had a cancer diagnosis, I certainly relate to the idea of, we wait for a crisis before we make a change. And so your message of, you know, don’t wait for the crisis is, is really resonant and very powerful. So thank you for sharing that. 

Wendy: Yeah, absolutely. 

Nancy: So let’s, let’s talk about the book The Box: An invitation to Freedom from Anxiety. How did you come to write this book?

 Wendy: It really began as a way to save myself. Writing has always been very therapeutic for me. It started with, which I know is very similar to your story, it started with poetry in like middle school and high school that when I look back some of that poetry’s in the book, because I wanted to share poetry that came from the moment that I was sharing, in the book itself. And so had been written in real time, essentially. 

And I see so many of them now as a cry for help. You know, like how, how scary and devastating can I make this? And everyone was like, oh, that’s interesting. You know, like, hopefully that doesn’t come back around again. But so I had started to use that medium, that writing just as a therapeutic process to start to put the pieces together of my life because what was happening on the outside, my outside world was so astonishingly different than what was happening on the inside. I was unraveling inside and I was so put together with the perfectionism, the destructive perfectionism, and the people-pleasing and the accomplishments that I had been using as a way to distract people from what was going on inside of me. 

And I, I really, in the beginning of the book describe it as there was, I was in this dark night and I could see stars in the sky, but it was chaos. And the writing was a way for me to start to connect the dots of those stars. Those were all of the experiences I had had and all of the good characteristics and you know. And eventually the constellation started to appear and they started to make sense. And that’s when really speaking your truth, examining your life and what has been done to you, what you’ve been through, really becomes so empowering. And so then about halfway through the book, I saw this process and this exploration that I thought others could benefit from, if not as a self-help book,but just as a way to share our stories and help each other carry the weight of what that feels like. 

Nancy: And how would you either describe or categorize, if you look back at yourself younger in the throes of your anxiety or compulsive or panic, what did that look like and how, how is it showing up for you now? Is it that it’s not showing up or that you’re able to manage it? What does it look like? 

Wendy: Hmm. So then it was, it was something that felt outside of myself that was completely in control, completely in the driver’s seat. It was a part of me that was hypervigilant trying to control my surroundings at all times. So even I had such a phobia of the rain, I mean, little things that no one would ever think of, that to me became ways that we could all die and be destroyed. And it was just complete catastrophizing all of the time because of the instability or volatility in my home at the time. 

And so that felt extremely isolating. I was very lonely as a child and was always in my own little world, my own little space where I could create this, this artificial sense of safety. And then the OCD intrusive thought started, so then my own inner world became very unsafe. So then there was no place for me to hide, which, you know, is very difficult. Now, I mean, and as I grew, that just became, it became more, more unpredictable and more difficult to control. 

Now it has become, I see it as a superpower now. It is truly my superpower. It guides me, it informs me, it brings me to places that I never would have thought of going before. Because now when I feel resistance, I see that as an amazing space to build resilience and push myself beyond those boundaries, right? 

I had the lines in the sand become so restrictive, that’s why it’s called The Box. I mean, I really had created a prison for myself. And now having realized that the door of that prison right, was always open, or it was self-inflicted, I’ve not gotten rid of my anxiety because that’s never the goal. That’s a very primitive protective response that we all need, but we need to have it be controlled in a way that does work for us in a constructive way, not a destructive way. 

Nancy: And what tools have you learned along the way that support you best in being able to be with your anxiety, be with the OCD, be with the panic? 

Wendy: Mm, it started with the healing process. I used the anxiety to show me the open wounds, the pain points, the pockets of pain in my body that were still places that needed attention and healing. And it started with that and then it moved into, and that was a lot of re-parenting that I did on my own through meditation and visualizations. And then a lot of exposure therapy. 

We talk about those lines in the sand that we draw and taking that one step beyond it, and then maybe two and then maybe three in realizing that not only did you survive, but you’re exhilarated by it and maybe your anxiety was just excitement and adrenaline misinformed, right. 

And then I really started a very strong meditation practice, yoga, exercise, journaling. So the writing was always a process that has helped me. Yeah. So those were really the big stepping stones throughout the probably decade of, of healing. And now just that reminding myself that that self-care practice has to be prioritized because I show up in the world in such a different way. And it’s so important for every life that I touch every single day, not just for me. I keep preaching that now. It’s not like it’s a selfish practice. It’s really a revolutionary one if you think of it in terms of how many lives you touch and how many lives you can affect in a positive way if you’re taking care of yourself. 

Nancy: Amen. You’re preaching to the choir. 

Wendy: I know. If we were just you and I, I may not have said that. I know, you know. 

Nancy: I do. So, you know, I’m curious about some of the things you shared, and there’s such a resonance about really putting myself in a prison, creating a rigid, you know, rigidity around me. You talked about sort of being on high alert or hyper vigilance, and I’m curious about how it was for you being an attorney, with everything that you were working with inside of you. 

Wendy: Yeah. So looking at that recently, so many people in the last few years around the book have asked, you know, why did you become an attorney? Do you think attorneys are particularly susceptible because we are affected by mental health issues and substance abuse disorders disproportionately to the general public. And why is that? Is it just the work? Is it just the pressure? 

And for me, and I think for a lot of people with that personality that would go into that line of work, I think it was a sense of where do I find my worth in value? Where can I get this external validation, right. You talk about that all the time.

Nancy: I do. 

Wendy: So that, and from, as a child, I, I wanted to be a superhero. I always said that I wanted to fight for truth justice in the American way. And the only way I knew how to do that was to become a lawyer. That’s what I saw on tv and I saw how revered they were nd I would always think like, my parents will be, they will have to love me, they will have to be proud of me. They will have to pay attention to me. They will, as will everyone else. You know? 

And so I think that was a big driving force, and I think kids who want to be saved adopt a savior complex. So I thought, well, you know, I was sort of twisting the story the way that children do because they don’t have the words or the context or the skills to really understand what’s happening in their world. And so I really adopted this, I will save other people and then I will be loved and accepted and revered and all of that, those things. So that’s where it started and then bringing it in, of course, just disrupted any sense of stability I had found in high school. High school was sort of my sweet spot. And then after that, the unraveling really became impossible to really take care of myself. 

And the law just has that it’s set up in a way that can be inhumane and unsustainable. The things that we, that we require in that profession without great support systems, without making people really prioritize their wellbeing. So it definitely exacerbated my symptoms until I was able to sort of reset my compass. 

Nancy: And I’d love for you to share a bit about the actual experience of leaving your position, of quitting your job. Because this is such a massive fear for so many. And I know that, you know, I have left, I left my corporate job at HayHouse after a dozen years went out on my own. You left the law and went out on your own. And I think the more that we can share these stories, the more it helps others have confidence and courage to do the same. 

Wendy: Hmm. I literally just wrote my resignation like the minute we, the minute before we started this, because I had started on a long-term leave and then that had become not really workable. So I’m really in the throes of it. And the way that I would describe it is, last year, right before my cancer diagnosis, I knew there was something wrong. I could sense that there was something wrong inside of me. 

And I went and I did what was called a soul journey. And it was just like a visualization where this man was guiding me through just sort of like, what do you see? And, and he was hitting a gong, which I don’t know if like sound healing ever resonates, but it was really this powerful sort of sound in the room. And so I was visualizing this beautiful area outside of wildflowers so high that I couldn’t see really the edges of where I was. And I was running around really elated in this sea of wildflowers. And then all of a sudden I got to an edge and I was terrified.

And I had all of these thoughts like, see, nothing’s ever going to be perfect or carefree, there will always be a threat. And it was sort of that hypervigilant little girl coming back. And then in the next moment I jumped off and in that moment I grew wings and started to fly. 

That’s exactly, I didn’t know that in the coming weeks I would be diagnosed and in the coming months I would leave my law practice. I had no idea. But that’s exactly what it feels like. It feels like, yes, there are comfort zones that we create, which would be that field of flowers, right? And, and it’s fine to stay there, but if you do choose to leap off of that edge and and see what happens, it’s terrifying because there is that question. But it does really feel like I’m growing wings as I’m going. 

So there’s still fear. Like there’s still times that I feel like I’m going down and then I’ll get an email or I’ll get a message, or I’ll get something where I feel like it’s a puff of wind that keeps me afloat for another day. And I guess that’s the best way to describe it right now. 

Nancy: Yeah. I’m curious too, if you felt, I’m not quite sure how to put this, so I’ll just say it. Did you feel sort of more prepared for your cancer diagnosis after you had written The Box? Found your way out of the box, so to speak? Did you feel more prepared? 

Wendy: Oh, no question. No question. Everyone in my life said, thank God you got this diagnosis now and not before. 

Nancy: Right. 

Wendy: I’m, I’m a completely different person having gone through the process of finding my way out of the box and learning how to sit and feel my emotions and be informed by them and be guided by them and be very comfortable inside, you know, my inner world. Like spending time in those spaces. And without that, I mean my OCD was sensory motor OCD, it was poison OCD. It was a lot of things that weren’t necessarily, they didn’t present as like the light switching or the cleaning or the washing. It was, it was more intrusive thoughts.

So taking just an aspirin would really set me off. So taking chemotherapy, which they’re showing you is a hazardous material, like my husband couldn’t even kiss while I was on my, my drip. That would have sent me into a tailspin. I really don’t know how I would’ve dealt with that, not having already gone through all of that healing work. 

So it was definitely a blessing in disguise, but it was also like, I thought I had gone through my hero’s journey and then looking back I’m like, oh, of course not just when I thought it was over, it was really just the beginning. Like, okay, now you’ve learned all of this, now let’s see you bring it into battle. Now let’s see how you deal with this test.

Nancy: On Saturday, April 22nd, I’m hosting a daylong workshop titled Mother Hunger: An Exploration – What It Is, How It Impacts You, and Ways to Heal.

Mother Hunger was named by licensed professional counselor Kelly McDaniel. And in her groundbreaking book by the same name, she offers insight into this attachment injury and the repercussions to bonding to an emotionally compromised mother. I’m so honored to be one of the very first Mother Hunger Trained Facilitators and to bring you this profound work. 

Mothers provide three important developmental needs, nurturing, protection,and guidance. If any one of these three is missing, we grow up with an achy loneliness that distorts our self-concept and capacity for healthy relationships. Hunger pains, need relief.  Food, sex, romance, work, alcohol…anything to numb the inner longing for love that’s missing. 

Please visit nancy levin.com/motherhunger to join me on Saturday, April 22nd for a daylong Mother Hunger interactive exploration.

Nancy: Let’s talk a little bit about Cave Club. What had you created, why is it only for women? What does it mean? 

Wendy: So Cave Club, the name started with this quote that I have in the book that you’re probably familiar with, is from Joseph Conrad. He says, “The cave that we fear to enter holds the treasure that we seek.” And that, of course was so true for I think both of us in our hourneys.

Nancy: Yeah. 

Wendy: And then I use the acronym to name the values of the club. You know, C is courage and A is authenticity, and B is vulnerability, and E is empathy. So we have our club values in the acronym as well.

And I created it, it’s really, it’s inspired by the women that I had talked to about what they were struggling with, what their needs were, what the support they were looking for, looked like. Also a lot of research around the gap between what companies are providing in terms of their employee assistance programs and telehealth and things like that that get, they’re so underutilized. They’re used like less than 10% of the time. And what people are actually looking for in terms of individualized coaching and wellness programming and things like that are more holistic and related to the human, not just a voice on the phone. I looked at a lot of that. 

And then, then I also, it was really informed by my own experience, you know, going through being a professional for so long and being able to speak that language and know the stressors, especially in a male dominated culture, but also having this mindfulness and meditation and the other more spiritual aspects. So it’s really about the sweet spot between the two of those. 

And I decided to make it only for women because I do feel that we have unique struggles. We’ve gone through the pandemic in a very different way because of the caregiving roles that we have. And that has created and had a disproportionate negative effect on the mental health of women, especially professional women. So I had thought about having it for men and women, and I talked to a few male CEOs in the weeks of sort of, you know, going back and forth. 

And honestly, they were the biggest supporters of having this remain only for women because they said, I see my women struggling, I can’t relate, I don’t how to help them. And that’s the magic of Cave Club, that they need a space to feel safe enough to be vulnerable and to support one another. 

Nancy: Beautiful. So now that you are, you know, as I would like to say, doing your own thing.  And you’ve, you know, you’ve left, you’ve left the corporate structure, what now are you really committed to in terms of your own non-negotiables? What are the practices that support you each day? How are you providing this care for yourself? 

Wendy: That’s a great question because so much of this decision was about putting my own self care first. I know, like after the book was published and I started being in both worlds and having two jobs and trying to really impose on people the importance of, I was losing it myself. I became like my worst clients, you know, I could not keep up. 

And so I know myself well enough to know that that’s my behavioral fallback. I will sacrifice my own wellbeing for the wellbeing of others. So I feel like in doing this, I want to model from the top. It’s going to keep me accountable, to myself, so that I am modeling the behavior for the women that are in this community. And I’m doing that by using my food as medicine, really feeding myself as healthy, healthfully as I possibly can, and being very mindful about that. Getting an enormous amount of sleep, you know, eight to nine hours a night. I know that that’s so important for my body to continue to detoxify into, I see chemotherapy, I got through my chemotherapy as envisioning it as excessive pruning. We have these trees outside that at the same time, like our tree doctor said, the only way this will stay alive is with excessive pruning. 

And I saw it happen as I went through my own journey, and it was the only way. So if I’m going to really feed that internally inside of me, then I need to eat, get, sleep, meditate at least every day, if not twice a day, work out every day on some level, even if it’s just restorative. And then really keep that, that writing going. Because I find that with writing, I access places within myself that I can’t access in other ways. There’s sort of things that fall into my subconscious that, that I really need to pick up the pen to pull out. 

So those are my go-tos, and that’s a lot. That’s like a part-time job. It feels like right now, you know? 

Nancy:I Get it. I agree. I agree completely.

So you know, the title of this podcast is Your Permission Prescription, and I’d love to know what you invite the listeners to give themselves permission for. 

Wendy: So many people are looking for permission to take care of themselves honestly, on every level, spiritually, mentally, physically, they’re looking around themselves for other people to model that behavior. They’re looking at their employer like, is anybody else doing this? Is this allowed? How will it look? Their partners, if they’re raising children, everywhere around them, is sort of a place to abandon themselves, really and put everyone else first. 

And when we lose that connection with ourself, we become an unsafe place, right? We can’t rely on ourselves. So there’s so many, not only when you give yourself permission to put yourself first, knowing that it’s great community service, it’s a great way to show that you love your family because you will show up for them in a more present, less triggered, less anxious way. But you really sort of fall in love with yourself again because you become your greatest caregiver. And it’s just such an amazing gift of self-love. So I would ask them to give themselves permission to do that.

Nancy: Hmm. And what is the best place for people to find you and follow you? 

Wendy: So wendytamisrobbins.com has everything. Caveclub.us will bring you straight to the Cave Club page on that link. That may be easier to spell. And everything flows from there. The book is there, the podcast is there, Cave Club is there, my one-on-one coaching’s there and then also my corporate wellness programs are there. 

Nancy: Great. Is there anything that you feel called to leave us with? Is there anything we didn’t cover? Is there a piece of your message or your heart that is wanting to get out here? 

Wendy: I think just the last thing that came to mind, because I never know why things pop in my mind, maybe somebody needs to hear this, but as part of the permission piece, you know, permission to share your story. It’s not about shining a light on you because you seek attention, it’s really when you share your own story with the world, you’re giving others permission to step into the light and share their own. And that’s where the magic happens. That’s where the healing happens. So share it. Give yourself permission to share your own in that way as a gift to the world really. 

Nancy: Wendy, thank you so much for being with us today, and I look forward to our next conversation, wherever it may be. 

Wendy: Thank you so much for having me. 

Nancy: Yes, my pleasure and everyone listening, I look forward to being here with you again next week. Bye for now. 

Thanks so much for joining me today on Your Permission Prescription. For even more, I invite you to head on over to nancylevin.com and sign up for my newsletter, The Practice, and follow me on social media. 

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See you next time.