Tag: Overwhelm

Facing Frightening Fears

Matthew has not learned to swim. Over the last several years my 7 year-old son has participated in a number of swimming lessons – to no avail. He refuses to put his face into the water. When he is part of a group lesson, the teacher simply does not have the time to coax or calm his fears because children are waiting in line. One well-intentioned instructor actually increased his fear by dunking him under the water – to prove there is nothing to fear. Yeah, that’s going to work! His approach sounded good in theory but did not calm an already anxious brain that needed a specialized solution during a highly anxious moment.

I have been excited this summer to help my son learn the basic skill of swimming. It is my desire for him to know how to swim so he will not drown in case he ever falls or is pushed into a pool without his “swimmies” on. I decided to pursue private lessons in order for him to have an experienced teacher take the time to help him learn this new skill and overcome his fears.

Thankfully, I found a wonderful girl in town who agreed to give both of my sons swimming lessons. Last week we went to her pool for the first lesson. It started out well. Matthew enjoyed his time in the water – up to the point she asked him to “bob” under the water and submerge his head. He quickly resisted her request, and expressed his fear about getting water up his nose. At this point she gently taught him the trick of blowing air out his nose when he dips under the water. After some practice he lowered his face under the water and blew air out of his nose. With a big smile he was delighted to report no water seeped into his nose!

I thought this was the end of our water struggles. Once he practiced putting his face in the water and blowing bubbles, she then asked him to try “bobbing” under the water by keeping his face under for a moment. With some energy he said “NO!” then started crying saying he was going to sink if he went under the water. I felt my stomach drop and tried to calm him down – to no avail. He then climbed out of the pool, curled into a ball and cried. He then begged to stay out of the water. I knew he was having big feelings at this point and his brain’s relational circuits were offline.

I took a breath and tried helping him calm down some more. In desperation, I next tried to bribe him with ice cream if he followed the teacher’s instructions. I tried reasoning with him and pointed out that he was not going to sink. After all, the teacher was right next to him and could help him if he needed a hand! Nope. Nothing. No words helped as his brain’s survival circuit at this point was kicked into full gear so it was time to feel safe – outside of the pool. We finished the lesson with Andrew, my 5-year old, paddling around and going under the water like a fish, begging to jump in again and again.

On our drive home Matthew was still visibly upset. He looked at me and said, “I wish I was like Andrew, because he is not afraid of the water!” I felt my heart sink. He genuinely wanted to follow the teacher’s instructions. He really wanted to swim. There was only one problem. His will power was no match for his big fears. You see, he was feeling terror in the brain’s emotional control center, what we call Level 2. You can read this article for more on this part of the brain but the fear responses at this level are big, bad and scary. This is not a relational part of the brain so we simply react and try to survive a scary encounter.

I knew that words and information would not fix this problem – nor would bribes or pleas. This part of the brain is subcortical (below the brain’s cortex so it’s deep) and is not subject to will power or coercion. This is the area of the brain where phobias, fears and post traumatic stress strikes so the reactions are intense, unmanageable and overwhelming. I knew my son needed a better intervention if he was going to put his head under the water.

When we arrived home, I pulled him aside and talked about his fear. I said, “Matthew, I also feel really afraid of things, like being too high off the ground.” He was now curious to hear how I handle my fear. I knew this was the perfect time to tell some good stories demonstrating how I faced my fear of heights. I pointed out how his water fear is similar to the fear he used to have with bees, only now he has learned to calm himself instead of panicking when a bee approaches. We reviewed how he calms down when bees buzz around him. He starts by taking deep breaths. He notices how he feels in his body, which helps to activate the captain in the brain’s control center, what we call Level 4. This is the brain region God has given us to calm our strong Level 2 reactions. Now Matthew was eager to try the same “trick” to see if it would help his swimming fears.

When it was time for the next lesson, we reviewed what to do if he was afraid. We practiced deep belly breaths. We noticed how how his body felt. I assured him that if he was too afraid, he did not have to put his head in the water. This was his choice. I am glad to say, the lesson was a success! Yes, he was nervous. Instead of amplifying his fear he calmed  himself by taking deep breaths like we practiced. He put his head under the water. With the help of an incredibly patient teacher, Matthew was improving his ability to “dip” and “bob” in the water. At the end of the lesson he said, “Mommy! I am not afraid of the water anymore!” We celebrated.

In this case Matthew was able to override his strong fears. It is important to say that not every fear will resolve this quickly and cleanly. In fact, Matthew’s fears will likely arise again, so we will need to practice his quieting skills over and over. There is the glorious hope that each of us no longer have to miss out on the things we want to do in life because of our fear. Once we learn how to activate the captain in our brain (Level 4) we can greatly improve our ability to handle the situations where we feel the intense Level 2 fear. We can also learn how to process pain and disarm the landmines that rob our joy.

You can learn more about the power of stories here.

Read how Jesus disarmed fear and conquered a scary snow monster here.

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I Missed My Son’s Stop Sign

Hi there. This is Chris, Jen’s husband. Jen invited me to share this week about a time I missed my son’s stop sign. I hope you find this helpful.

Recognizing overwhelm signals (Skill 9) and staying connected during intense emotions without going over the top, known as interactive quieting (Skill 15), are two key skills we need to sustain healthy relationships. In an ideal world, we develop these skills early in life because parents, family members then teachers and coaches, use these crucial skills to interact with us. While these brain skills sound easy on paper, practicing them in real life is hard work.

Do you know anyone who frequently runs people over with their words and intensity? What about someone who loses it at the drop of a hat? What about a person who can’t seem to stop once they start? Do you know anyone who uses anger to get results? These are all signs Skill 9 and 15 are needed. Sometimes the symptoms are more subtle and we simply avoid conflict or fear making people angry or upset. Using these skills in live time, with big emotions, under intense pressure requires purposeful effort and focused training.

For a number of years now I have practiced these skills but every now and then I drop the ball and fail to utilize these invaluable skills. After a recent bout of sickness, I finally felt good enough to get back to life. I missed my sons, so I sought them out. I found my 5-year old son Andrew playing in his room. Peeking in his room he saw me and responded with a big grin on his face. I walked in and started playfully tickling and wrestling with him. We were having a ball and for fathers, this is a common way dads like to bond with their children. It is also an ideal time to train brain skills. After a few moments of interaction, I was tickling him when he said “Stop!” “Stop!” “Stop!” while laughing. Wanting to get in a few more good tickles, I gave him a last round of tickling before saying, “Ok, buddy. That was fun! But now Daddy is going downstairs. I really missed you!” After a hug he said, “Ok Daddy” as I walked out.

Because he was laughing I didn’t give this much thought but I just broke my own rule for our household. When someone says “Stop” you stop. No more tickling or playing. You simply stop. I also interrupted his play instead of waiting for him to approach me which does not foster a secure attachment. In all honesty, at the time, I didn’t think about these things until my wife told me 10 minutes later that Matthew, our oldest son, said to her, “Daddy never stops.” When I heard this a knot formed in my stomach. While I knew he was exaggerating by saying never, he was also right. He was listening to the recent wrestling match between Andrew and I where I failed to stop the first time. I knew I needed to repair and update minds  with my sons.

On my way to talk with Andrew I saw Matthew playing with his new robot dinosaur. I paused and said, “I am very sorry to know that you feel Daddy never stops. How frustrating for you! This makes me very sad because it’s important that Mommy and Daddy both stop when you and brother say stop. I am very sorry for this. Will you forgive me?” He looked at me and, still holding his dinosaur, said, “Mr. Dinosaur gets mad at you when you don’t stop and you didn’t stop when Andrew told you to stop.” “Yes I bet he does!” I said. “I get mad as well when people don’t stop. I am very sorry for messing up.” Knowing this was a golden opportunity for repair, I stooped down, looked my son in the eye, then I looked Mr. Dinosaur in his robot eyes, and reiterated what I said previously adding, “Matthew and Mr. Dinosaur, will you forgive me for not doing a better job stopping? I am very sorry this happened and I hope you will give me another chance.” With the help of Matthew, Mr. Dinosaur nodded in agreement then Matthew mentioned, “Mr. Dinosaur is also mad at you that we are moving.” I knew my son is processing some big feelings so I validated both Matthew and Mr. Dinosaur about how hard moving is, and how sad it is to leave behind special friends. I said, “I hope you and Mr. Dinosaur will give this move a try and we will see what fun we can discover in our new home.” I received a nod from Mr. Dinosaur and while I knew we would be talking more about these matters, I thanked Mr. Dinosaur and Matthew for expressing these feelings with me. I said, “I am so, so proud of you and Mr. Dinosaur for speaking up about these important things. Thank you!” With a smile on Matthew’s face and some dancing from Mr. Dinosaur, it was now time to repair with Andrew.

I walked into Andrew’s room and sat next to him on his bed. I said, “Buddy, I am really sad right now. You know why?” “No, why Daddy?” he said looking perplexed. “Well, I did not stop when you first said to stop when we were playing. Instead of stopping I kept tickling you. I broke our house rule and I am very sorry. Will you be able to forgive me?” Andrew paused for a moment then said, “YYYEEESSSS, I forgive you.” With a smile I said, “Thank you Andrew. I want you to tell me when I forget to stop, ok?” He agreed and after a few moments of chatting I gave him a hug and thanked him for being such a good son.

With Overwhelm Recognition, Skill 9, we simply need to stop once we notice that we or the person interacting with us has reached their peak and needs to rest. Stopping once we start talking, playing, splashing, tickling and interacting in general requires self-control and vigilance. If we have the skill this will feel natural for us. If we do not have the skill we keep going and push, yell, stare, splash, tickle, etc. without noticing we ran through the big red stop sign.

Interactive Quieting, Skill 15, builds on this foundation but is more demanding because, instead of simply stopping, we continue the interaction at a high level of energy reaching the very edge of the overwhelm cliff  – without going over. What makes Skill 15 so difficult is that we have to do two things at once. First, we regulate our own emotional intensity while we continue the interaction. Second, we carefully observe for signs the other person is close to maxing out then we delicately interact at high levels of intensity with brief moments to pause in order to keep the high-energy interaction going safely and smoothly. It is here where the lack of training shows up. People who cannot regulate their own emotions and do not respect the limits in themselves and other people end up getting into altercations, become argumentative, overly aggressive as well as verbally and physically abusive. Trust is broken and relationships are painfully ruptured.

Imagine a world free from violence, abuse, mockery, contempt or road rage! Imagine what would change if every person knew when to stop and avoided relational casualties because they remained relational without going over the top. Fathers are the ideal people to train these two skills but for many of us, these skills are simply not in our relational arsenal so we pass on our deficiencies without realizing it.

The good news is this. Every one of us can learn these invaluable skills! Learn more about relational brain skills in my new book, Transforming Fellowship here. While my scenario was minor and low on the intensity spectrum these are often the times we minimize the impact on others, because we were having fun, we were not fighting or arguing. Yet, the skills are just as essential under these conditions for the health of our brain and bonds. I hope you learn from my mistakes and press the brake pedal when it’s time to stop.

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When Sparks Fly

This evening ended peacefully with Matthew and Andrew working alongside each other. Andrew enjoyed helping big brother complete the 3-foot tall dinosaur robot that Matthew has been trying to build for several months. You wouldn’t know it by the picture, but the day did not start this peacefully.

Bickering, teasing, whining, fighting and tears mostly defined our household the past few days. Doesn’t that sound fun? Now that school has ended for the summer, the boys have been together for two weeks without much of a break. Usually the brothers enjoy their time together. They tend to be close and cooperative but this weekend they mixed together about as smoothly as oil and water. Both boys were getting on each other’s nerves. It seemed that no amount of refereeing could calm the chaos.

My husband Chris was sick in bed for the last three days which didn’t help. It also didn’t help that I have been feeling “off” both emotionally and hormonally, which deflates my emotional capacity because, well, I simply don’t feel well. We are still in the midst of a major transition trying to move out of state which also pulls on our emotional batteries. It is safe to say our crew has been out of sorts lately.

As much as I hate to admit it, and yes, it drives me crazy every time my dear husband points it out, we the parents set the tone in our house. If I am in a lousy mood, low on my reserve of patience, (my relational circuits are missing in action), I can expect my boys will also feel this and end up having a rougher day than usual. These are the days we see an increase in fighting, whining and bad behavior. Whether I like it or not, there is a direct correlation between the joy levels and overall well-being of parents with the joy levels and well-being of children. This reality motivates Chris and I to pursue a life of joy, peace and healing.

Anyhow, this morning the boys and I piled into the car and drove to the dentist. I apologized to Matthew and Andrew for my short fuse and my sour mood. I pointed out that all of us seemed to be having a rough day, and we could use some quieting and appreciation. At this point we took a few minutes to quiet ourselves in the car. Next, we shared some things we appreciated. Once the appreciation faucet was turned on, the boys didn’t want to stop the fun. I had to cut them off once we arrived at our destination. It was obvious we were all thirsty for some life-giving gratitude and joy.

Thankfully, these exercises uplifted our moods for a good couple of hours before the next blow-up occurred. Later in the day I walked up the basement stairs to hear both boys hysterically crying. They apparently spiraled into some sort of quarrel and verbally hurt each other’s feelings along with some pushes and scratches. Alarmed by this, I decided they needed a break from each other.

I sent the boys to play in their rooms by themselves for a while with the rule they are not to interact. A short while later I heard giggling sounds emanating from their rooms. Curious, I investigated and discovered that, after a short period of calming down, they snuck into each other’s rooms to apologize and share peace offerings of gifts with each other. “Are these my children?” I wondered.

While my sons did break the “No Interacting” instruction, I was delighted to find out they apologized to each other, and wanted to return to joy together. While my first inclination was to be upset they disobeyed, I caught myself. I was able to focus on the fact they wanted to repair with each other and they did not want to leave the other feeling sad because of hurtful words and actions.

As a whole, the day had its ups and downs, however, I was encouraged to see how a change in my tone transformed the overall tone of the day. I was especially excited to see my sons learning from my example in how they were able to self-quiet, then repair after realizing they messed up. If the times I mess up and repair better equip my children to repair when they make a relational mess, I will be one happy mother! This is good news for all of us. Our blunders can be redemptive as we quiet ourselves and work on repairing ruptures and returning to joy where joy is needed.

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Marshmallows, Moving and Michigan

My family is in the middle of a major transition. For over a year Chris and I have sensed God is up to something. While in prayer for God’s direction and clarity, we felt like our time in Illinois was coming to a close. We had the sense Immanuel was calling our family to a new adventure in Michigan. I felt a sense of excitement along with some dread!

You see, about 11 years ago we moved to Illinois from Michigan. Since that time, we have dreamed of returning one day to the land of lakes, ice cream and cherries. My husband and I have the flexibility to continue our ministry from wherever we live, so this direction worked out well to continue doing the work we love from the place we love.

To be honest, I am not a big fan of change. The prospect of moving was scary. From the moment we felt God nudging us this direction we began working during the winter months to get our house on the market. We began praying for God’s timing with the sale of our house. The last two times we felt God guiding us to move, He worked in miraculous ways to quickly sell our house and settle us into our new place. Because our intention this time around was to keep our sons in school here in Illinois until the end of the school year, we expected this move to be different than previous transitions. Little did we know.

As soon as our home was on the market and ready to sell, I began to fearfully question whether Chris and I were doing the right thing. Keeping our home in “perfect showing condition” with 5 and 7-year old boys along with my husband’s dear 94-year-old grandmother, has been stressful. While God continues to encourage and faithfully guide us along in this new adventure, I find myself dreading the thought of starting over. Starting from scratch feels, well, it feels overwhelming to me. Can you relate?

Anyhow, now that the boys are done with school I feel restless. I am eager to sell our home. The urge to, “Get this move over with already!” becomes stronger with each passing day.

Recently, I was praying and expressing to God my desire to have our house sell. “Sooner rather than later would be GREAT God!” I desperately pleaded. I then sensed Immanuel remind me that when I feel afraid, my way of handling fear is that I simply want to get it over with. Quickly. Now.

I sensed Immanuel tell me that He knows I am scared about the process of finding new friends and getting plugged in to a new community. He understands I feel worried about getting the boys settled. Yet, I sensed Him saying, “I have everything covered. I am going before you and preparing your path. My timing is for the best possible transition.”

After hearing this from God I felt a deep, profound peace settle over me. It was at this point an odd thought popped into my mind. “Do you want one marshmallow or two?”

This thought reminded me of the study on delayed gratification a team of Stanford researchers led by Walter Mischel first performed in the 1960’s. Basically, they left a young child in a room with one marshmallow in front of them. The children were given instructions they could eat the marshmallow or wait until the adult returns and have two marshmallows instead of one. Sounds easy, right? Well it was not so easy. Those who waited for a second treat often creatively distracted themselves in some way while waiting up to 20 minutes for the adult to return. Those who gave in to their cravings would usually sit and stare at the marshmallow before gobbling up the treat.

I felt like God was showing me that waiting on His timing would bring the best possible outcome for this transition. If I push for my timing to “get this move over with” I will be settling for less than the best that He has for me and my family. I sensed Immanuel asking me to trust Him and rest in His timing. I quickly answered, “Yes!” Then I proceeded to give Him permission to help me during the inevitable moments I begin to doubt and worry. I felt comforted that God has all the timing worked out, including Chris’ travel schedule, our July THRIVE Training, the boys starting school, etc. As only God can, I sensed He is going to work everything out. At this point I took a deep breath and relaxed.

While I still check in with Immanuel for daily doses of peace, I am excited to see what the Good Shepherd has in store for my family. Where do you need some peace today?

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Jesus Met Me In My MRI

Continued from last week…

When I arrived at the hospital I was immediately interviewed by an admitting nurse about my symptoms. In addition to the numbness and tingling in my arm, I was showing signs of weakness in my right arm and leg. These symptoms concerned the nurse so she called a doctor to examine me. He quickly notified the stroke team then they cleared a room for me. Here is when the craziness started!

Suddenly there were 14 people in my room asking me questions. They began poking and touching me to identify what I could feel. They asked about my family history and pressed me about previous medical conditions. I answered, “I have none!” They asked, “If you had to live with your current symptoms, how would this impact your life?” Surprised by this question, I noticed my head start to swirl. I wasn’t sure what to say.

The medical team informed me they believed I was having a minor stroke. The big question was whether to give me a “clot-busting” drug. At this point they told me 6% of people who take this drug end up with catastrophic bleeding on the brain, 30% of people experience relief from their symptoms, and the remainder experience nothing. Because it took me so long after my initial symptoms to get to the ER, I had 30 minutes left in order to decide what to do before the window closes to take the medicine. No pressure!

There was no time for an MRI to confirm or rule out a stroke. This information would have been helpful to make a decision about the medication. I noticed my anxiety levels increase. My breathing grew shallow and knots rolled and formed in my stomach. I called Chris and explained the decision. Before we could discuss anything, the doctors asked me to call him back so they could talk to me. They recommended against the medicine because my symptoms were minor. Weighed against the risks of taking the drug, they felt I should not take it. I was relieved to hear their recommendation! Their thoughts lined up with my thoughts.

I was still very overwhelmed. My head was spinning with all the information, the risks and the unknown. They decided to take me for an MRI to look at my head and neck. While I don’t consider myself claustrophobic, I do have a fear of heights. Both fears come from the same region in the brain’s emotional control center. I wondered how I would last packed into the loud and narrow machine.

This was the first MRI in my life. Once they wedged my head into the headrest and moved me into the tube, I started to panic. I closed my eyes and focused on taking deep breaths. Quieting is what the brain needs when we experience intense fears so I noticed how my body felt as I calmed down. Paying attention to our body helps to activate the “Captain” in the brain that can override the fear center responsible for phobias. I began to share with Immanuel that I was afraid and I did not like feeling smashed into this tube. I asked for His peace.

As the words floated out of my mind I noticed an overwhelming sense of peace wash over me. My heart rate slowed down. My breathing steadied and I felt calm. Despite 45 minutes of jackhammer sounds echoing all around me I felt so relaxed I almost fell asleep! This Immanuel peace was exactly what I needed to quiet after the chaos.

When I returned from the MRI, Chris was waiting in my room. Everything moved slowly and calmly from there. The staff admitted me for the night and continued to run tests. Eventually we received the MRI results which showed no signs of a stroke. By the next morning my symptoms were completely resolved. The stroke team returned to my hospital room and shared their conclusions: “Well, we have no idea what happened to you!” They went on to say they ruled out a long list of concerns and by all appearances, I was the picture of good health.

I still do not know what caused the strange symptoms, but I am relieved to feel normal again. I am grateful for the prayers of many friends and family members while I was in the hospital. I feel thankful for Jesus’ profound peace in the midst of the chaos and the unknown. I am glad to have practiced the quieting skills as well as the interactions with Jesus that calmed my big emotions. Practicing these skills in the calm times made them available in the stressful, scary times.

It is much harder to learn to quiet or interact with Jesus for the first time in the midst of high stress and anxiety. I encourage you to start practicing these skills now when things are calm so they are available to you when you most need them. Take a look at the 19 skills here or read more about the skills in my husband’s new book, Transforming Fellowship here or on Kindle here.

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My Skills Saved The Day At The ER

As some of you heard, I recently endured an unexpected trip to the emergency room to rule out a stroke. Of course, what trip to the emergency room is really expected?

The boys and I enjoyed a fun day together. We started out with lunch followed by ice cream then some running around at a local bounce house that is useful for children to run off their limitless amounts of energy. This inside playground was especially helpful because it was rainy and wet outside.

During lunch I began to notice increasing numbness in my right finger. By the time we arrived at the bounce house the numbness and some tingling traveled up my right arm. Feeling concerned, I took some deep breaths to calm myself then I reviewed with my sons what to do in case of an emergency. I asked, “What is Daddy’s phone number?” then I calmly shared that if something strange happened and I was sick, strangers would try to help them. In this case, they should ask someone to call their father. Confused, they asked me why I was saying this. I assured them that probably nothing was going to happen to me, but, if something did happen they would be less afraid if they knew what to do. The boys nodded their heads in agreement and ran off to play again. At this point I called Chris and shared that I was feeling weird. He suggested I call our family doctor, who referred me to a walk-in clinic nearby.

I loaded the boys into my van and told them I needed to visit a doctor, but hopefully we would return to the bounce house for more fun. As expected, the boys were disappointed but I stayed grounded, kept the conversation light and calmed my fears so they would not become worried or anxious. We drove to the urgent care clinic and only later did I realize this was probably not a wise decision since I could have been having a stroke, but, at the time, no one even considered the possibility that I could be experiencing a stroke.

When I arrived at the urgent care they took me right in to see the doctor. The doctor tested me with the common stroke tests and felt it was unlikely I was having a stroke. However, she shared that the only way to rule out a stroke was to visit the hospital. When I asked if I could drive myself, the doctor gently laughed and said, “No, you need to go by an ambulance.” This response surprised me. After all, my 5 and 7 year-old boys were with me and my husband was over 35 minutes away. I asked if my sons could ride in the ambulance with me. The nurses were incredibly kind and they decided to call the ambulance service and ask about this. The office said this was not possible but a supervisor graciously offered to drive a second vehicle so my boys could follow the ambulance to the hospital. “Thank you Lord!” I whispered to myself. I sensed God’s provision.

I took a few deep breaths to make sure I was calm and peaceful, then I explained to Matthew and Andrew they were going on an adventure. I said, “Mommy is going to ride in an ambulance and you can follow me in another emergency vehicle!” They looked intrigued. At this point the boys helped the nurse find our van to retrieve booster seats and then the ambulance arrived. I was quickly loaded in then a flurry of tests were started as we drove off.

When we arrived at the hospital my husband was waiting to meet us. Matthew and Andrew jumped out and were all too eager to share about their exciting ride in the emergency vehicle. Their hands were filled with stickers and suckers the supervisor had given them. I was swiftly wheeled to the ER waiting room. Because the rooms were all filled, I was taken over to the admitting nurse so she could interview me about my condition. Chris and the boys waited in the lobby to see what would happen next. When I asked about the timeline, the nurse said it was likely I would be at the hospital for several hours. I encouraged Chris to take the boys to his parent’s house so they could get settled for the evening.

I am deeply grateful for the kind people who served me. I am relieved I could calm myself during the distressing situation so the boys would not feel afraid by the intensity of the circumstances. Because of these ingredients my sons thought the day was a fun adventure. If I would not have remained anchored during the storm because of the quieting skill, I believe this ordeal would have turned out much differently for all of us. Next week I will share more about my ER visit and how Immanuel met me during a stressful MRI test.

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