Today’s post was written by former anxiety sufferer Elisa. I am grateful to Elisa for sharing her inspirational story with us here at AG. Don’t forget to visit Elisa at Averageyogini.com and share your comments with her below. – Paul Dooley
My Own Brand of Anxiety
My name is Elisa, and I’m an anxiety sufferer. I say “I am” rather than “I was” because the way I see it, anxiety is a little like alcoholism.
Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic, even if you’re not currently drinking.
I AM an anxiety sufferer, even though I haven’t suffered from anxiety in over eight years.
Anxiety disorders run in my family. It would be weird if I DIDN’T have one. Name a phobia, I’ll name you a family member. Generalized Anxiety Disorder? You got it! Panic? In spades! Hypochondria? You bet.
So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that anxiety would find me, especially after having uprooted myself (and my husband), sold all my belongings and moved to Europe to get an MBA. But find me it did, and it hit me hard.
I’ll never know what triggered it, I suppose. Things were going well. My academic life was going swimmingly. I had plenty of interviews with very prestigious firms lined up for my MBA summer internship.
Sure, our funds were dwindling more quickly than I expected, but all in all my husband and I were not in a bad place.
And then one day, on our way back from a ski trip with a few classmates, from the backseat of our friend’s car I began getting this feeling that I couldn’t breathe.
So I took a deep breath. My lungs filled up with oxygen, and I immediately thought… “Oh my God, I’m not breathing properly?”
So I took a deep breath again. Again, my lungs filled up just as they’re supposed to, and again, I panicked, intensely focused on my breathing.
It had gotten dark and the mountain where we’d gone skiing outside of Barcelona felt a little remote.
My friends could tell just by looking in the rear-view mirror as I kept clutching my chest and taking long, drawn out breaths that something was bothering me.
We got to Barcelona fairly late that night, but despite my not turning blue in the face and passing out from “not breathing,” I made my husband take me to an Emergency Room.
Once there, they checked my vitals, confirmed they were completely normal, handed me some anxiolytics, and sent me home.
I can’t remember whether I took the pills or not. I’d had panic attacks before but I’d never been one to take medication.
The funny thing is, people think it’s because I think I’m too good for it, but it’s actually because I’m afraid of it!
I don’t like the feeling of not being in control of my body, and I don’t like anything that causes me to fall asleep before I’m damn good and ready to close my eyes and do it myself.
The next day was no better, and the days and nights that followed got progressively worse. I stayed home from school for a few days, thinking it would help. It didn’t.
My mind darted from worrying about my breathing, to worrying about someone breaking into our apartment and kidnapping me, to worrying about avian flu because I found a dead pigeon outside our balcony.
What started as an uneasy feeling and irrational thoughts began to snowball into a constant feeling of dread, and eventually continual physical stress. Anxiety was my faithful companion, day in, day out, 24/7, no matter what I did or thought about.
Like many people, I’ve tried looking up anxiety symptoms to “inform myself”. Really I was doing it just to confirm one more time that what I was experiencing was in fact anxiety and not Multiple Sclerosis or an aneurysm… or a stroke…. or some other horrible disease that no one had been able to detect.
From the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed, I had shortness of breath, tightness in my chest, light-headedness, and many of the other lovely, classic symptoms of anxiety.
While researching, I never did find this one symptom, though, that haunted me the most throughout the time I was plagued with panic disorder.
It was like a very heavy weight had settled on my head, around my neck and on my shoulders. And then the crying set in. And the sinking feeling that I would somehow never find my old self again.
I developed a fear of eating. I was certain I would one day ingest something – new or familiar – that would cause a severe allergic reaction and send me into anaphylactic shock.
This DESPITE having had an allergy panel done and having found nothing but a mild allergy to grass pollen.
I began to lose weight – and I was fairly thin already. At the bottom of the barrel, at 5’4” I weighed 100 lbs – at 30 years old, that was 20 lbs less than my high school weight of 120. I looked terrible.
And I felt terrible. My husband didn’t know how to help me. I called my family back home every night crying. My parents didn’t know how to help me either.
And then finally, after reaching out to anyone and their mother who might have an inkling about how to make this anxiety go away, I connected with one of my cousins on my father’s side. Everything changed after that.
Therapy – The Light at the End of the Tunnel
Most people who try to help you through an episode of panic or anxiety will either dismiss your fears as irrational, or hold your hand, coddle you, and tell you everything will be okay.
That it’s just a panic attack and that things are going to be fine. That you are not, in fact, dying of avian flu / going to get kidnapped by terrorists / in danger of being hit by a nuclear bomb any time in the near future.
My cousin did something different. She shared her own story with me (I won’t tell it here – that’s her story to tell), having recovered from her own kind of anxiety many years earlier.
She also recommended a “tough love” brand of Brief Strategic Therapy that focuses on behavioral changes to help anxiety sufferers find their happiness again.
With the luxury of time behind me and many (8 now) years of reflection, I can clearly distill these behaviors into three principles that I continue to apply in my everyday life to keep anxiety firmly in its place: independence, non-avoidance, and acceptance.
Those are my own words, rather than how my therapist would have described them, but the spirit of these concepts remains.
The therapy, which lasted about eight sessions over the course of several months, was less about discovering the root of my anxiety and more about creating behaviors that disrupted the vicious cycle I found myself in.
My therapist – her name was Adela, and her office smelled like PEACE – would meet with me during these sessions and give me exercises to carry out between one meeting and the next that were designed to create new habits reflecting the principles I highlighted above.
I wasn’t allowed to ask why or delve too much into the mechanics of it all, but for some reason I trusted this method from the beginning and jumped eagerly into my exercises.
Eight sessions and many exercises later, I could finally breathe again. The mental symptoms began to abate first, and then the physical ones. I found an occasional spring in my step again.
The depression subsided. My outlook on my life changed, permanently, and when I finished my MBA in the spring of 2007 I felt doubly accomplished in what I’d achieved.
I’d climbed out of a deep hole, on my own, and had finished my studies just as I’d set out to do two years earlier.
Here’s how it all unfolded:
Independence – No One Can Save You But You
Anxious people (or at least this anxious person) tend to reach out to others for help in their worst moments. Well-meaning friends and family offer to hold our hands as we encounter something that makes us anxious – just to take the edge off.
We call our friends and relatives to ask for “advice” on our anxiety. I say “advice” in quotes, because really what we’re looking for is validation. Validation that what we’re experiencing is just anxiety.
Validation that our thoughts are irrational. Validation, even, that we’re making the right choices in our lives – whether it’s about our anxiety or not.
The first thing I was asked to do in therapy was to not under any circumstances discuss my anxiety with anyone but my therapist. If I was afraid, I had to keep it to myself. If I was having a crisis, I had to slog through it on my own.
The one caveat to this was that I was allowed to have a journal where I could write out my thoughts – stream of consciousness – whenever I felt the need for release.
My husband was brought in to this strategy during our first session with the therapist, and he tentatively agreed, and then consistently stuck with it.
He didn’t ask me whether I felt anxious when he saw me fretting or wringing my hands.
He just sat silently and watched me as the hand-wringing rose to a crescendo and then slowly died down.
I didn’t figure this out until later, but reaching out to others for reassurance did nothing but create co-dependence and fuel the irrational fire of my anxiety.
If someone said, “don’t be silly,” I’d think, “what do they know?” If someone offered to get on the elevator with me, I couldn’t get on without them the next time.
Relying on others was useless at best, and it weakened me at worst, making me feel incapable of managing even the most mundane details of my life without depending on somebody else.
It was important, in the end, for me to go through my treatment “alone,” so my victory would be 100% mine. So I could know, in perpetuity, like I know now, that I am capable of dealing with anything (even avian flu) on my own merits.
Non-Avoidance – AKA “Facing Your Fears”
The particular school of therapy I followed is founded on the idea that avoiding the things that cause you anxiety confirms your fight or flight response and increases your anxiety levels toward that particular thing.
Another vector of my treatment was making sure I didn’t avoid anxiety-inducing situations when I encountered them naturally, but rather, that I go about my business and engage in these activities if they came across my path.
For example, if my husband and I went out to dinner, I shouldn’t run screaming from the seafood place, or take the stairs to the 14th floor to avoid the elevator.
During my therapy, my best friend got married on the West Coast of Mexico. It presented a great opportunity to put non-avoidance into practice, given my fear of flying.
Being a bridesmaid at her wedding would require my getting on a 9 hour flight from Barcelona to Dallas, and then on a regional jet (read: TINY) from Dallas to Cabo San Lucas.
I gathered my courage, and bought a ticket. And with some tips and tricks from my therapist, I got on the airplane.
My mission, should I choose to accept it, was to make myself as uncomfortable during the flight as possible. I had to pick an itchy sweater, agonizing shoes, ill-fitting underwear, or anything I could muster up to ensure that I would be uncomfortable throughout the entire flight.
Why? Because anxious minds tend to fixate, and if you give your brain something else to fixate on, it will leave the negative thoughts that trigger your anxiety alone.
I chose to wear a corset. It worked like a charm.
Of the three principles I’ve described, I think this one has served me the most in my post-panic disorder life. I go after what I want, even if I have to go through something uncomfortable to get it. I always ask the question, despite fearing I won’t like the answer.
I try new things, go to new places, put myself out there, without a second thought to my comfort zone.
And I fly. I still occasionally cry while doing it, but it gets me where I need to be – closer to my loved ones. I leave the corset at home now, though.
Acceptance – Your Feelings Won’t Kill You – Even if They’re Unpleasant
Acceptable was the hardest of the three, and it took a long time to get it. It was also the most liberating once I got there, and the single thing I credit for tipping the balance of power in my favor.
Throughout my crisis, I had many fears. But the thing I feared most was never going back to “normal”. Never again having a life where anxiety wasn’t constantly present.
Feeling crappy, always. Everything I did – it was to get rid of my anxiety. All the other exercises, I followed them to the letter so I wouldn’t be anxious anymore.
The thing that really set me free, though, was coming to the realization that even if I NEVER went back to normal – that was ok too. I had a husband and family who loved me.
I lived in Barcelona, for Pete’s sake. Anxiety would be a burden, but it would be a burden I could bear. It could make me feel like crap, but it wasn’t going to kill me and it didn’t have to control me – not if I didn’t let it.
I had to get to this epiphany on my own, but throughout my therapy I was unknowingly going through exercises to drive this point home.
I only remember one of them, and it went something like this: a couple of times a week, I had to find a quiet place and set aside 15 minutes where I wouldn’t be interrupted.
During those 15 minutes I had to think about most frightening things I could conjure, and try as hard as I could to give myself a panic attack.
Week after week I thought long and hard about the worst things I could picture. You name a horrible situation, I thought about it.
I thought about it INTENSELY. The thing is, though, if I kept trying to chase a thought, it would ordinarily get away from me long before the 15 minutes were up.
And without knowing, I’d find myself laying there thinking about sunflowers and puppies, having failed miserably at giving myself that panic attack that was supposed to materialize.
Without my knowing, I was creating a habit of embracing anxiety, on a weekly basis. And by embracing my anxiety, I was undermining the mechanism that allows it to manifest, removing its hold on me permanently – or at least as long as I’m still willing to embrace it.
The Journey Continues – The Aftermath
The physical symptoms of my anxiety didn’t subside immediately after therapy ended. It took a while – months, I think – for me to feel completely normal again. Time passed.
Things happened. I got a high-stress summer internship. I got pregnant. I had a miscarriage. I graduated from my MBA and got a full time job. We moved to London.
I had a son, and nearly died in childbirth. Life kept happening, with all its ups and down, but the panic – the full blown panic I’d experienced – never came back. And even if it did, now I know how to get rid of it.
I’m not going to lie. I still get anxious about things. I can’t remember the last time I had a panic attack, though – it’s probably been years – but I still hate to fly and don’t care much for enclosed spaces.
Still, I get on airplanes and ride in elevators as much as I need to. I eat seafood. And peanuts. I’m not always happy with things, and occasionally I will stress about something and have it twirling around in my head at night, preventing me from going to sleep.
So I go to yoga (it’s been a Godsend), and I play with my son.
Or I go for a good run and drum up some endorphins. And I’m happier and more fulfilled than I’ve ever been before. I was right about one thing, though, in my dark thoughts in Barcelona.
I never did find my old self again. I found a new me, though, and she is SO MUCH better.
Do you have a story that you want to share with the AG community? If you’re interested in spreading hope and knowledge send Paul an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.