Imagine that you're standing at an intersection in Chicago. Just as you step off the curb to cross the street, a city bus whooshes by, inches away. You jump back and as the full realization of what almost happened sinks in your heart races and a chill shivers down your spine. Now imagine having that same, cold-sweat feeling of horror but you're lying on your comfy couch at home, and that feeling has just come over you out of the blue.
All my life I’ve had some level of anxiety buzzing through me like an electric current—sometimes nearly incapacitating, usually barely noticeable. It's my normal. I can’t even list all the ways I have let fear affect my life--places I wouldn't go, things I wouldn't do--and I hate that. As a kid, the more people tried to get me to “come out of my shell” or just be reasonable, the more deer-in-the-headlights I became. From childhood through college there were times I couldn’t speak, I was so paralyzed by the idea of talking to other human beings. There was a time in college when someone asked my name and I literally could not answer. I just sat there. I didn’t even know this had a name or that anyone else had the same struggle until my mid-30s. During a really bad weeks-long bout of what-the-heck-is-wrong-with-me, when I was waking up at 4:00 every morning and my heart was pounding so hard all day that I could see my shirt moving, I finally asked for help. I had no idea how one would go about finding a therapist, and I thought therapy was for the insane or the very rich anyway. My greatest fear was that I would be locked up and lose my children. (Looking back on that I do almost have to laugh. Drama much? I probably got that idea from reading I Never Promised You a Rose Garden in high school.) I just knew that I couldn’t go on like I was, so I got the courage to call a college friend/therapist who talked with me for a while and recommended that I talk to my family doctor about medication. I couldn’t even bring myself to call the doctor’s office—what would I say when they asked what the appointment was for? So I waited for one of my kids to get sick so I’d have an opportunity to talk to him. And I honestly thought that when I spilled out my story he would say something like, “Weird! I’ve never heard of that!” (He didn’t. He could not have been kinder or more understanding and helpful.)
That was a long time ago. But even now some days I feel like I can handle anything life throws at me, and other days I feel like I can’t function in the smallest ways. Most days/weeks/months I’m fine, but on a bad day I work very hard to act like everything is ok, and then when everyone around me believes that, my life feels like a lie and nobody really knows me. Last week I had a wicked panic attack. I haven’t felt that bad since 2008 when I said bye-bye to my ovaries (that’s a chat for another day but let's just say those bad girls matter). My heart was hammering. My stomach was in a knot. I was lightheaded and hypersensitive to every sound, movement, and thought. I was moving in careful, slow motion and it took all of my energy to “act normal” and get ready for work as waves of adrenaline and fear washed over me. I desperately wished I’d saved a few Ativan from 2008. I was frantic. (It’s a good thing I don’t drink, because I would definitely be a self-medicator.) But I was also determined not to make a fuss, call off sick, or call attention to myself in any way. And here’s one ironic detail: I work for a staff of therapists and a nurse practitioner!
I’m not going to get into the benefits of counseling and medication (which I certainly believe in) because that information is best addressed by a professional. The only reason I’m blabbing this at all is that maybe there’s someone like me who needs to read it, and I’d like to share some things that have helped me in the heat of overwhelming anxiety, when I need help RIGHT NOW. There's nothing new here--better information is out there--but only I can tell my story.
1. PRAY--I don’t meditate per se, but when I read about the health benefits of meditation I feel like that’s why God tells us to pray. Besides being a means of communication with our Creator, the One who made us knows how our bodies and minds work, and sitting quietly with our attention focused on a power greater than ourselves helps us in many ways.
2. BREATHE--Duh, right? But when I’m panicky my breathing is very light and shallow, which makes me lightheaded, which adds to the vicious circle. Certain types of yoga breathing are very helpful.
3. WATCH MY SELF-TALK—Here’s me: “What is wrong with me, why am I feeling like this, nothing is wrong, I’m just sitting here in my living room, I shouldn’t be feeling like this. This is ridiculous, just suck it up. Why am I so weak, am I sick? Is there something wrong that I can’t see? What if this is a heart attack, they say women’s symptoms are different . . . “ and on and on. Here’s what I try to remember: I wouldn’t tell a friend she’s a crazy loser. I wouldn't hand her a list of things to be afraid of in case she had missed any. If I wouldn’t say it to a friend, why would I say it to myself? And the word "should" is just a way to beat yourself up.
4. FIND A CREATIVE OUTLET--I might write down how I’m feeling to get it out. I might paint a picture or draw on a sketch pad, even if it looks like a kid’s refrigerator art. I’ve bought some cheap houseplants and arranged them around a room that needs some life. Sometimes I like to walk around a local antique mall. It makes me feel serene and gives me creative ideas for my environment.
5. SENSES—I recently read about “grounding exercises.” A quick technique is to find five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can smell, two things you can touch, one thing you can taste. Smell has a powerful effect on mood and I like to use essential oils (you can’t go on Pinterest or meet up with an old friend without hearing about essential oils so plenty of info is out there!) or wear a favorite perfume on a bad day. Smell something that smells good. Eat something that tastes good, even if it's a carb.
6. EXERCISE—Taking a fast walk when panic hits is helpful. It’s even more helpful (and preventive medicine) if I exercise regularly. Plus I’m less likely to pile on the guilt if I can pat myself on the back for exercising. Guilt—false or real--can be an anxiety trigger.
7. READ something inspirational or informational. I have a favorite devotional book that I suddenly remember to read on the bad days. Pinterest has lots of good (and bad) resources for coping skills. Look for legit ones, like university counseling centers or actual licensed therapists, not just any old pop-psychology sites. Studying my problem like a bug under a microscope takes some of the emotion out of it.
8. KEEP MOVING--Go to work. Go to church. Go to Walmart. I make myself be with people even though it’s the last thing I want to do. It gets me out of my own head—it’s a mess in there! Sometimes I do some “therapeutic cleaning,” where I use my nervous energy to clean a room or a closet or whatever mess I’ve been putting off. It burns off some energy and gives me a sense of accomplishment. Much better than hiding under the covers. (I know, because I’ve done that too.)
I find that DOING something to help myself makes me feel a bit better just because I’m taking action, and taking action reinforces to me that this will pass. And I need to remember that it WILL pass.