I’ve waited a few months to really talk about this because, well, it’s ridiculous. I try not to let it slow me down, or talk me out of doing fun things, and I certainly don’t let it define me.
But I realize that although it’s something going on in my life I haven’t really been talking about it, and the not talking about it is starting to feel weird. So I’ll talk about it.
A couple of months ago, I was lying in bed, and my heart was pounding. I’d been noticing this weird, sudden heart pumping in the past few weeks, and wrote it off as one thing or another. But there, in my bed, I recognized it for what it was: a panic attack.
I realized then that I’d actually been having panic attacks for about a year, and I haven’t recognized them for what they were. When I was a teenager, I was first diagnosed with panic attacks and prescribed Zoloft, to disastrous results. Yes, if there’s a weird, rare side effect to medication, I’m the one patient that will get it. Zoloft helped a little bit, for a little while, but it wasn’t my solution.
Part of it was changing my environment. High school is a terrible, crowded, noisy and high-stress environment that can only contribute to anxiety. What I learned about how anxiety was functioning within me during this time in my life became a really formative part of who I am today.
I was reading a post written for Harry Potter fans, when someone with a Reddit handle pointed out how happiness wasn’t just a state of mind in the Rowling universe, but it could be weaponized, it could become a tool with which to fight the evil in the world.
I can relate to this. I have weaponized my happiness. I am a freaking Mary Sunshine to my friends. I can find the light deep inside the dark intestines of a shitty situation. For even deep within, this too must pass.
The main dementor in my life has been depression. I’ve talked about energy cycles, and how I manage my own spurts and lulls in a way that is kind to myself and ensures I make the most of the energy I have, when I have it.
But this anxiety, this return of the panic attack, this is new. Or maybe it’s just very old.
I realized, in retrospect, that I’d been having panic attacks for at least a year, but I hadn’t recognized them for what they were because I had so much going on in my life (my mother’s illness) and my home (terrible housing that we couldn’t afford to leave for three years) that I hadn’t noticed when something was a panic attack or a genuine crisis, since both would happen on a fairly regular basis.
Now, since May, we have found blessed relief and stability. I talk about grieving my mother’s loss, and the recent loss of my beautiful animal friends, and I’ve talked about how grief likes to shape-shift, transmute from sadness to anger to fear and yep, into anxiety.
So I lay there in bed and said to Sweetie, “I think I’m having a panic attack.”
Sweetie has lifelong, much more severe anxiety that I’ve ever experienced. She’s a freaking grand-champion ninja of managing her anxiety symptoms in productive and creative ways. So she knows enough to not try and fix it, but to just be with me as I observe from that weird detached part of myself, my adrenal system do backflips and pump me full of enough adrenaline to rip a phone book in half.
For no reason at all.
That’s actually the beauty part. Life is so good, so safe, so stable, and my body and brain is so used to being tested to the extreme, that it’s continuing to freak out every once in a while even though everything is just fiiiiiine.
So here’s my plan, here’s what has worked for Sweetie and I in the past, and here’s what we’re going to move forward with. I waited a couple of months before really talking about this because I wanted to make sure I felt like my coping skills were still effective. I haven’t used them since I was a teenager. They still help. Here they are:
Oat Straw tea.
Really inexpensive, and better if you use fresh loose herb. It supports a rational adrenal response. You have to drink a lot of it, regularly. Treat it like a medicine, because it is. It’s also just good for you. Lots of vitamins and minerals, cheaper and more digestible than a vitamin pill. Read about it in Susan Weed’s books, if you like.
I like to pack a half a cup into a 1 L mason jar, and then I fill that jar up with boiling water and pop a lid on it (to make an infusion). I let that jar sit for 10 minutes (any longer and it starts to get bitter.) Then I strain the oat straw out of it, pour some into a mug and the rest into the fridge. Oat straw tea tastes pretty much the same, whether warm or cold, so I like to drink at least 500 mL of it in the morning, after my coffee. It tastes kind of like dried grass, because that’s what it is. It’s not bad though. You can get fancy with peppermint or lavender if you want to add different flavours.
Consider giving up coffee.
Okay you can stop laughing, but it’s something to consider. At least give up caffeine after that initial morning get-my-ass-out-of-the-house-before-9am cup will help. Seriously it will. I notice a difference. It’s the difference between being able to breathe through a panic attack and actually crying and having to hide in the toilet.
Consider giving up alcohol.
STOP LAUGHING. Just like coffee gets you up and out the door, sometimes wine, beer or if you’re me, vodka, will help get you down for the night. Once in a while as a fun celebration, it’s fine, but for me, I notice if I really lean into the alcohol (I’m a lifelong teetotaler so for me “really leaning in” is more than a single shot of vodka in my Orangina) I’m probably just feeding a negative cycle. For some reason alcohol is a lot easier for me to give up than….
Sugar. Stop with the sugar.
Yeah I know. It’s a good idea in theory, but for me, this is my go-to coping mechanism. I have managed to cut things down to very specific treats at a certain time of day eaten with intention. Thank god for my nutritionist or I’d probably just give up and attempt to self-medicate with cheesecake and ice cream every night before bed. THAT, I no longer do. But I did, guys. While my mom was sick, I had ice cream every day.
It’s cumulative, all this crap we sometimes have to experience. It stores up as emotions in our bodies, weight (or lack of) under our skin and anxiety crackling through our brains. I remember “waking up” while looking in the mirror at our new house, thinking “What have I done to my body?” I did not notice any of that happening. Because that’s what your brain does, and it’s so very very strange.
Next thing: Exercise.
This has been such a comical effort in my life. Sometimes it feels like my body is fighting my brain because it really wants to turn into a sloth. So when I exercise regularly on the machines at the gym, I get injured. It sets things back. I do my physio, I attend to my lazy ass cheeks and I go back to the gym. Yeah I’m back, you silly body. I go swimming because my knee is still bugging me post-workout, and I like swimming a lot. Then I get an ear infection that sets my life and my business back several weeks. I clear the infection. I see my legs have grown a covering of sloth-like fur. It’s official – my body is trying to turn into a sloth.
So far, in this list, Oat Straw is easy and everything else is hard. That’s just how it is. What’s hard too, at times, is doing things *despite* all the anxious energy inside me screaming to just go home and put on pyjamas and not speak to anyone. That is *not* what you do with anxiety. Giving in makes it worse. Sweetie taught me this.
J.K. Rowling responded to a fan with anxiety by saying, “Anxious is something you feel, it’s not something you are.” And I believe this. I do not talk about “my anxiety” it is “THE anxiety I feel.” I may feel anxious about my meeting with my hospital boss, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually a bad thing . (It turned out to be a really great thing, after the fact.) That was Rowling’s point. Being strong, being brave, despite the fear.
So the final thing on my self-care list of anxiety self-management is to DO. Do and keep doing.
Sweetie and I want to take a pottery class. I’m looking into bringing horses into my life this year (through lessons, courses or trail rides, I’m not sure.) I will bring some whale watches into my life this spring and fall, I’ll go out to the hot springs, and I’ll bring my Sweetie on short little road trips. I’ll take walks even though I don’t have a dog, and I’ll get silicone ear plugs so and go back to the pool.
For anyone who struggles with severe OCD or just free-floating anxiety like mine, I’ve found the book Brain Lock to be very helpful. It explains the behavioural therapy tactics for re-wiring the brain’s anxiety response, and how to unravel your own behaviour patterns that threaten to swallow the world. It explains why Do and Keep Doing is so important, and how to actually keep doing.
A lot of the Do part of self-management is to bring a lot of positive activities into your DO list. For me, that would be walks, horses, whales. Happiness. It’s about weaponizing your happiness.
I know there is so much more to managing anxiety than I could possibly fit into a little blog post; but I wanted to share a bit because this is such a common experience, I know there are plenty of you that have felt like this too. If you’re a sensitive sally like me, then a lot of the extraneous input from the environment – other people’s emotions, crowds, noise and other stimulus beyond your control, all of that can be anxiety triggers too. No one’s alone with feelings of anxiety, even when it makes no sense, even when you can’t rationalize it, even when you have to use a ton of energy to manage it in a healthier way.
What do our spirit friends have to say? Well, it’s funny. Anxiety is not a state of mind that exists on the other side, not in the same way. Or at least, it doesn’t seem to with the folks who like to talk about it. From their perspective, what’s holding us back? What is a life if not to live out every possibility of “DO” that we can? They’re always encouraging me, do! Do more! There’s no “worst case scenario” if you’re already dead, right? Anxiety is so much a physiological condition, and we can have a big impact on our brains with our actions.
Anxiety is also temporary. There are a lot of ways to interrupt that loop that I haven’t talked about, and it’s not my specialty. The point of this post is not to advise you, dear friends, on how to manage anxiety, but just to say you must stab at it with a multi-pronged fork, many, many times. If you keep that fat, hairy spider running, it doesn’t have a chance to get bigger. At least, that’s my running theory!
I think there are two types of mental illness – that which you’re born with, which you cope with your whole life – and that which arises from extenuating life circumstances. Post-traumatic stress disorder, situational depression. I also think that once your brain has gone to a dark place, depression, addiction, it’s something you have to keep your eye on the rest of your life, to make sure you don’t slide back there again. Keep your eyes open for landmarks. Don’t get lost.
I think, because I’m a sensitive sally, I’m more prone to situational anxiety and depression. I believe that these panic attacks will eventually fade away, like they did before, and I’m operating under the theory that it’s another stage of processing my life experiences from the past three years. There are days that go by when I don’t cry. Eventually, I’ll again get through a week without tears. I used to go for months without crying. That’s how I realized, “Wait a second, all that crying, that’s a part of this panic attack stuff!”
Tears is what my body does with ANY emotion. It’s kind of annoying, actually. No one likes to take you seriously with watery eyes. I usually just say, “I’m crying because I’m ___ (emotion) and this is just what my body does with ___” Then the other person has permission to ignore my tears and we can get on with the conversation, because honestly, ignoring my tears is the best way to help me convince my body that tears just aren’t appropriate for a discussion about organic bananas. Or whatever we were talking about.
Sweetie has anxiety she was born with, it’s hereditary. She’s a fucking super star. In the nearly 9 years we’ve been together, I see her feel herself have an anxious thought, and work through the laborious internal process of “is this a real thing, or is this an irrational thing? If it’s irrational, what do I need to do right this second to avoid reinforcing this irrational thought?”
She didn’t do it by herself, either. She had to become an expert in her own responses, she had to learn about her animal brain and how to tame it, how to domesticate her mind and adapt to this crazy world.
I think this is a crazy world. It feels crazy because it is. There is a reason anxiety “disorders” are so common. Honestly, I don’t think it’s all that disordered. Maybe my body is panicking for no reason in my bed one night, but that’s because I couldn’t completely lose my shit at the time, when whatever emotion or crisis I experienced in the past was actually current. So thank you body, for giving me the capacity to handle more than I could handle.
My meeting with my boss, by the way, was a commendation on all the great work I’ve done there the past five years, particularly while I had the “difficulties in my personal life”. She said that most people would have quit the job, under the same circumstances. Would have taken an easier job, somewhere else where housing was cheaper and more accessible. Some place with public transit.
But you know what I was doing, while I was powering through all that shit and soldiering on? I was *holding on* to this life. I was handing on to my happy place. I love it here. I knew I wanted to stay. It was ahrd, but I did it and I’m proud. I’ll make it through this anxiety process too.
We humans are fragile, more delicate than we like to admit most of the time. At least, I certainly am.