Since the previous post I wrote titled: “The Light Inside My Darkness” , which describes my recent struggles with anxiety, a great number of people reached out to me. Some I know well, some I haven’t spoken to in years, and some were complete strangers. Many of them told me I was so brave for talking about a subject many don’t like to talk about, while others thanked me for talking about something they suffer from too. I guess I didn’t expect the impact of my words to help so many people. It was unexpected but extremely humbling. I in no way think of myself as an advocate for anxiety and panic attacks, but if I am helping people feel better about their own struggles, I will continue to discuss my own personal battle.
Anxiety is something that I believe has always been present with me, but has gone through phases of being better or worse. The earliest memory I can recall was when I was around a year old. I was crawling down the hallway upstairs in the Pennsylvania home I grew up in. I can remember the carpet under my hands and knees. I came to the top of the stairs and paused for a moment, debating if I should go down or not. Apparently I decided I could do it, because the next thing I knew, I was tumbling all the way down. Just a few weeks or months later, I grabbed onto my mom’s curling iron cord and pulled it down from her bathroom counter and onto the top of my left hand. I still have a burn mark from it. I believe, that these two events that are seemingly inconsequential started my anxiety. The world became full of dangers that I never knew existed, and to such a young child it was scary.
When I was a toddler, I developed extreme separation anxiety. When my mom would take me to department stores, grocery stores, or any large place with lots of people, the moment I would lose sight of her I would freak out. I can remember a few of those times. I really had no logical reason to think my mom would just leave me there, but I was beyond reasonable thinking.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
Fast forward to 1997 when I was in sixth grade. This was the year my mom was diagnosed with her cancer. Sixth grade in itself was just a hard year for me. I mean, middle school was not fun in general, but for me, it was rough. I was a complete dork. Glasses, no sense of style, and zero confidence. So the added stress and emotions of my mom being diagnosed with terminal cancer just exacerbated everything.
Over the next year or so, my mom was pretty much in a hospital. My dad was still working a full-time job, and would eventually have a nervous breakdown. So, my sister and I instead of being normal twelve-year-olds would come home from school and do laundry, cook dinner or clean the house. Our family had many guardian angels who helped us during this time, but it was not everyday. We were responsible for things that most kids our ages weren’t doing. I’m not saying we never did fun things with our friends, or would go out, because we did. But for a majority of the time, we were basically forced to grow up and act like adults. It was a lot of responsibility and stress, and it would eventually break me down.
My OCD and anxiety started during this time. I became acutely aware of disease, and anything having to do with germs and sickness would make me panic. I always had hand sanitizer, and started to compulsively wash my hands until they bled. I was also always convinced something was wrong with me. If I got a bruise on my leg suddenly I had Leukemia, or a cough was pneumonia. For a period of time I was wholly convinced that I was going blind and even made someone take me to an eye doctor. My husband has forbidden me from using WebMD because this terrible habit will raise its ugly head if I look up the symptoms for me or my children.
I also became very cognizant of death. My mom was constantly on her deathbed which was so traumatizing for me. There was even a night where they told us to say goodbye to her, because the doctors were convinced she would not make it until the morning. I cried so much that night when I went home that I made myself sick. My dad spent the night at the hospital, and when he came home in the morning he told us mom was still with us. Thankfully, like I have said before in other posts, my mom lived until 2015. She was a fighter. The idea of death stirred in me an anxiety that I am still dealing with: separation from loved ones. It all stems from the separation anxiety I dealt with as a child, but it manifests itself in me having the tell people I love them every time I say goodbye. It doesn’t matter if it’s on the phone or in person. I was constantly afraid when I said goodbye to my mom that it would be for the last time, so I started telling everyone I loved them every time we parted ways. This is something I still do to this day, but I don’t think it’s bad to make sure everyone I love knows that I love them.
Quite a few people have asked me advice on how I deal with my anxiety. I tell them all that everyone is different, but I am still happy to share the things that have helped me. I have compiled a short list of some methods that have been very beneficial for me.
- Breathing- This is a key one for me. Often when I’m spiraling into full-blown panic mode I am breathing fast. I have to slow my breathing down and take long drawn out breaths, and then count to five when I am exhaling. Just physically stopping and concentrating on your breath can snap you out of your panic mode, and it slows your heart rate as well.
- A Change of Location- What I mean by this one is that you need to physically change where you are in that moment. Oftentimes, if I am inside and feel the panic racing in, I go outside. Fresh air for some reason helps calm me down, and I feel so stuffy inside and get claustrophobic so the fresh air definitely helps ease that feeling. If you cannot physically change your location, say when you’re on an airplane for example, see the next one.
- Grounding- Grounding methods have been a game changer for me especially when I am in a situation where I cannot go outside. Last fall I was boarding a plane from Chicago to Salt Lake City. I’m usually okay on flights but as soon as I stepped into this plane my heart started racing. It was a TINY plane which had two seats on each side of the aisle. I sat down in my seat and tried to talk the panic away but it didn’t work. Instantly I needed to flee, so I ran up to the front of the plane and stood with the flight attendant bawling my eyes out by the still open door as people boarded the plane so I could feel the fresh air. She consoled me and even started to cry herself because she felt so bad for me. I considered getting off the plane, but had a conversation with myself that pretty much said “You will need to board a plane either way. Might as well do it now and get it over with.” So, I sat back down in my seat with the air on me at full blast and my music on in my headphones. I was still on the edge of panic the entire flight, but I kept doing grounding exercises and it helped me get through my flight. So, what is a grounding exercise you ask? Simple. You basically need to use your five senses. You find five things around you that you can see,four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and finally one thing you can taste. It helps you to focus on the environment you are in, and bring you back down from the edge.
- Music- This one for me has always been an escape. When I got my first walkman, (yes, I’m old), I would sit in my room for hours sometimes listening to music and just going into my own little world. It helped me to escape the harsh reality while my mom was sick when I was in middle school, and has been a huge help to me in many other events or times in my life. I’m a huge believer in driving with the music turned up and singing at the top of your lungs too. Music just heals your soul.
- Find an outlet- This one can be anything really. Whether it’s a sport, hobby, game, prayer, reading books, crafting, scrapbooking, photography your options are limitless. And the great thing is, you can have more than one! For me, working out is one of my most important outlets. I am a much happier person when I take the time to workout. I also enjoy doing classes at the gym which motivates me more when someone is yelling at me what to do. I also love to play city league sports, and have played in several softball leagues, and do a women’s volleyball league twice a year. But whatever works for you, do it!
- Having a Person- You know, your “phone a friend” lifeline. I myself have multiple people who I know I can call if I find myself running for mayor of panic town, and I know they will answer their phones and will understand what’s going on. I trust these people and love them so I feel completely comfortable to be able to call them when I am at my absolute craziest. I think it’s important to have people you can turn to because anxiety is terrifying when you are trying to handle it by yourself. Believe me, I know. Another important thing is to educate your “person” or “persons” so they understand what anxiety really is. My husband for example, who is obviously my main “person”, has never experienced anxiety or panic attacks, so I have made sure to have him educate himself by reading many articles so that he can someone grasp an understanding of what exactly I am going through, as well as know how to correctly respond to me when I am in that state.
- Getting it Out- Honestly, sometimes the best thing for me is to just let it out. I mean crying, and just let those emotions out instead of trying to hold them in. Sometimes just having a good five minute cry helps the panic subside much quicker than trying to hold it in for me. A release of those pent up emotions can really relieve your anxiety.
I could go on, but these are just a few examples of the things that have worked for me. I have also started medication and am scheduled for my first therapy session next week, (I was supposed to go two weeks ago but because I have no insurance they kept giving me the run around and now I am FINALLY going. But that’s another story!) but these things are what I believe at this time. Not everyone needs medication or therapy.
This Too Shall Pass
The mind is such a fascinating thing. It can really sabotage us though, and I feel like that’s what mine was doing to me when my anxiety was at its worst just a few months ago. But the good thing is, that with the right help and techniques, it WILL pass. During a particurlarly bad panic attack I had my face buried in my husbands chest sobbing, and he was rubbing my back and telling me to breathe, and he said “Don’t worry this is going to pass.” So, now when I do have anxiety attacks, (honestly they have been few and far between since my medication), I say to myself in my head over and over while I breathe slowly: “This will pass. This will pass.” and it really does help me.
The panic is always there, and probably always will be. Anxiety is my silent stalker. I decided, however, that I was no longer going to let it rule my life. It’s a real battle some days, but it’s a choice I am not going back on.