Once I accepted that what I was experiencing was mostly panic and anxiety, I started to read. One book I picked up at the library (I can't remember the name of it and I didn't read it all anyways) pointed out that worrying is an adaptive response, it keeps us safe. Many of the most successful people are successful because they are very good worriers. They can look ahead and imagine all the things that could go wrong, then take steps to prevent them from happening, or develop strategies to employ in the event that they do go wrong.
I have always been a good worrier in that way. As a child, I competed at horse shows, which involved significant preparation the night before and morning of. Even as young as 12, I'd calculate backwards from the time I'd need to arrive (leaving enough time to tack up and warm up once there), and consider how long it would take to get there (sometimes as much as 2 or 3 hours) and how long I'd need to prepare in the morning before we left, then set my alarm accordingly. Sometimes I was getting up at 3 a.m. I also made lists of everything I had to do, and would do as much as possible the night before. I couldn't stand the thought that I might forget or not have time to do everything on the list, and it would be catastrophic if I were late for the show (I've always been compulsively punctual, probably my parents almost always made me late if they had anything to do with it). I always had to wake up my dad with enough time to do everything we needed to do together (he always drove me and the trailer with the horse in it). I remember he often complimented my ability to get us out the door on time. My anxiety dreams were almost always arriving at the show so late that it was empty and everyone had gone home.
Anyways, worrying can be a very good thing, from both a safety and success perspective. The stress response that causes panic attacks is also an important defence mechanism. It helps us recognize life-threatening situations and identify the best life-saving response. But sometimes it gets out of control and becomes paralyzing and crippling, like it was with me.
I remember my brother once telling me that being nervous is ok; it means that something is important to us, and it makes us pay more attention and do better on the important thing. I believe he was on to something there, and I still tell myself that when I'm uncomfortably nervous about an upcoming job interview or other performance.
When I started seeing the counsellor, I thought he would give me the answers and tell me what to do. But this wasn't the case. I had to come up with the answers myself, and he was just a guide. However, at the first appointment, he did give me some techniques for the next time I had a panic attack.
One was the sort of cliché you hear about. He helped me identify a happy place, and to situate myself in that place and think about all the sensations that I feel there. I imagined sitting on the warm sunny dock at my parents' cottage. It's on a small lake, and it's very peaceful and warm. Mostly I just felt the warmth of the sun relax my muscles.
The second seemed totally bizarre. I was skeptical of both. The second one involved tapping lightly on various body parts in a specific order. I can't remember the order exactly, but you take your index and middle fingers and tap twice at each place:
1. the middle of your eyebrow,
2. the middle of the occipetal bone under your eye,
3. about an inch from the outside edge of your eye near your temple,
4. between your nose and upper lip,
5. in that indent between your lower lip and chin,
6. in that little hollow at the base of your throat just above your breast bone,
7. hmmm this is where things get foggy... I think the next one is near the side of your breast under your opposite arm,
8. between your breasts in the middle of your sternum. And that's it.
I thought they were both a lot of hullabaloo, but since I'd already tried drugs unsuccessfully, it was my last chance.
Around this time, I'd found a barn that I had started taking a riding lesson at once a week. It required me to drive a half an hour each way, but I really wanted to ride again, I needed something in my life, so I did it. The next time I went up there after my first session with the counsellor, I started freaking out on the drive. So I pulled over and tried the first technique. The thing is, it was SO hard to drag my mind away from the panic and focus on something else. It didn't work. I've always felt that if I can think of bad things happen before they happen, either they won't happen, or it won't be so bad if they do. In the midst of a panic attack, it felt like if I stopped thinking about the bad thing about to happen (usually vomiting), it would happen. It was like watching a predator creep around me; if I let my attention wander even for a second, I'd be overcome by it.
So I tried the tapping thing, and because I didn't have to consciously take my mind away from the panic, it worked. I was shocked. I actually felt less panic. I did it again, and I was good to go. I got back on the road and went riding, but it didn't take me many lessons to discover that you can never go home again. Suddenly the back of that horse was SO high up and I just didn't like spending 2.5 hours of my short evening doing it, so I stopped.
During the time of reading, I remember seeing on a website somewhere advice for dealing with a panic attack. It said to ask yourself in the middle of a panic attack, “What if this is as bad as it gets? What if what I'm feeling right now is the worst of it?” Any time I've had a panic attack, the answer would be, well, I can handle it now. I AM handling it now. This was also a good technique for me. It's a way of trying to keep yourself in the moment, because panic attacks are really all about worrying about the next moment when you might die or you might puke or whatever.
During the next sessions with the counsellor, we tried to look at why my anxiety defence mechanism was being so over-protective. I talked about some of my past experiences, like the food poisoning and the McDonald's thing. I think I have pretty high standards for myself in many respects. I was still in the frame of mind from university, I think, feeling pride in my apathy, believing that it's cool to be laid back. I think I had felt like those two incidents were not big enough to be scary, that it wasn't right to be scared by such things; it's not like we're talking war or rape or murder. One thing the counsellor did was validate that it's ok to be scared by those events. They were traumatic. He gave me permission to accept myself and my fears, and just accepting them seemed to lessen them.
He also told me about a time that his wife got caught short in Toronto, downtown, I guess maybe one of those parts where it's all unfriendly high rises and no shops or cafes with toilets you could use. Anyways, she had to shit in his hat, which he then disposed of. A few things struck me about this: 1) that other people have shitty incidents and it doesn't kill them. It sucks and I'm sure she wouldn't want to repeat it, but she survived and continues to live her life. 2) People will help you, even if it means letting you shit in the hat off their head. Ok, so it was her husband and all, but seriously, that's pretty cool.
I think his story also made me examine my fears in more depth, to ask what was the worst thing that could possibly happen. And I realized, and really accepted, that I might shit my pants one day, but it wouldn't kill me. I might vomit on myself in front of a large crowd, but it also won't kill me. I could even, Heaven forbid, have both happen at once and chances are I would survive – I'd just make sure to burn those clothes as soon as I could get out of them.
One session my counsellor suggested that I try some dream work. So that night when I went to bed, I asked my subconscious why it was being so overprotective. I did have a vivid dream, but it was about my mother-in-law so I immediately discarded it. At the time she was very critical of both Sugar Daddy and I and was constantly trying to convince us to get married. Never mind that I would have jumped at the chance if Sugar Daddy had been the slightest bit interested, but it was quite annoying to have someone trying to tell us what to do so forcefully. I think a large part of me couldn't give her the satisfaction of stressing me out. So I went to the next session and told him about how the dream work failed.
But he didn't think it had failed at all. He thought my dream was quite telling, so I began to accept that my mother-in-law WAS a source of stress. That was another thing that once I acknowledged it, it mostly stopped bothering me.
My counsellor also helped me realize that I'd been avoiding developing any networks here, so intent was I on moving to another city to be closer to my family. For years I scoured job ads and applied for jobs just waiting for a chance to move. Once I realized that I had almost no friends or supports here, I decided that maybe we would move away eventually, but in the meantime I would make this city my home. I started hanging out with people I met at work, and a few months later I saw a flyer for belly dance classes, which I'd been wanting to learn for a while. Six months after that, I decided that life in this city was pretty good, and that other city was pretty depressed with fairly lousy job prospects, so maybe I should plan to stick around.
The belly dance classes were significant. I'm pretty sure it's widely known that exercise is good for your mental health, and it can do wonders for anxiety and depression. But I found that most exercise didn't really get me out of my head, out of my anxious monologues and worries. You can walk and still have your mind going a mile a minute, not taking in a single detail of your surroundings. But belly dance pulls me out of my head and firmly re-inhabits me in my body. I think it's because you have to use your mind to watch the instructor and then try to make your own body move in that way. So it's a combination of exercise and learning that's key for me.
I loved seeing a counsellor. He was a personable guy and I am a chatty person, so I loved having a captive audience who even feigned interest. And he helped guide me to wellness. Although I've always been a somewhat anxious person, the out of control anxiety was most certainly caused or exacerbated by stress, the stress of an uncertain job on a monthly contract, the existential stress of being finished school and trying to figure out what I want to do for the rest of my life, and the not uncommon stresses of family and relationship dynamics. I've known a lot of people who have had mental health problems during their twenties, and as hard as being a teenager is, I think it's harder to be in your early twenties. People expect more of you and you're supposed to be a grownup even though you don't feel like one (does anyone EVER feel like one?).
So, just to summarize, if you're struggling with anxiety, I highly recommend:
- B vitamins
- a diet rich in vegetables, whole grains, Omega 3 fatty acids and not many processed foods... a lot of research has shown that Omega 3 fatty acids play a crucial role in brain chemistry, and it would be my first line of defence for any psychological problem; also whole grains don't fuck with your blood sugar the way simple carbohydrates do
- examining yourself and your stress honestly, maybe with the help of a counsellor
- asking yourself what's the worst thing that could possibly happen and inhabit that possibility
- learning techniques to cope in the midst of panic
- taking up dance or some other physical activity that requires you to learn how to do it (walking, running and biking just don't cut it)
If any of this series of posts has helped anyone, I'd LOVE to hear from you. Please let me know that I didn't bore the pants off some people for naught. If you're not comfortable commenting, drop me a line at cinnamonfemail (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks!