Do you struggle with anxiety? Because I do.
I remember being in Oxford with my best friend in the whole world when she started to have an anxiety attack. I knew she struggled with anxiety, but I honest to goodness thought that it was just a made up term that had too broad a context to be real. It applied to too many things that were too general. Anxiety seemed to me to be such a lame blanket term referring to people who worried too much or were too dramatic. So when she started to really get worked up and it seemed to be escalating beyond her control- much like a toddler who has just gone into the ‘way too tired to process anything mode’- I was super confused.
“Just calm yourself down,” I said, as if she could just turn on her adult switch and come back over to the calm side of town. Yes, I was this patronizing about the whole concept then.
She couldn’t just calm down. And I didn’t understand.
Until it was me.
I read in a medical book once that anxiety is defined as ‘feelings of impending doom.’ If you’ve ever experienced an anxiety attack, you just laughed a little to yourself because that is accurate. To describe how it feels in a visual- because I’m very visual- I would say that it feels like you’re swimming upstream in a river that is headed towards a towering waterfall. The closer you get to the edge, the more you thrash and try to swim to safety but the water only seems to be pulling you down harder. Sometimes you can swim to the shore and rescue yourself from the edge … that’s when you’re able to ‘just calm down.’
Other times… you go over the falls. And there is no more swimming. You just succumb to it.
That’s when anxiety becomes an anxiety attack. It’s completely out of your control once you go over that edge. You don’t want it any more than anyone who is involved in it wants it, but there literally is no stopping it once you’ve started down the waterfall. And once you’ve been over once, the next time that current picks up on you while you’re swimming… the panic of knowing what’s coming kicks up the momentum in that current. It’s a terrible cycle.
I remember having a really bad anxiety attack while I was traveling, eight and a half months pregnant I might add, to the Bahama’s for a vacation with my husband. We were on a flight from San Francisco to Phoenix when we hit a little batch of unexpected turbulence on the decent. All 200 pregnant pounds of me were in the tiny, airplane bathroom trying to pee when we started to bump around. It wasn’t that I thought the plane was going down, but it caught me off guard enough, and gave me just enough of an unexpected adrenaline rush, that I was rattled and started to get caught up in that current.
I returned to my seat, where my husband was calmly chatting with the lady next to us, unaware that I was swimming for my very life in my mind. I wanted to ask him to help me settle down, but I didn’t want to interrupt. Despite no further turbulence, by the time the plane was on the ground, my body was in full on compulsive shaking.
Here’s the thing about anxiety… it doesn’t always make sense and it isn’t always logical. That’s what’s so frustrating about it. If I could access the logical part of my brain, surely I would be able to pull out of the dive, but it’s as if I get locked out of the control room. And once the body starts down the path of physically responding to the minds signals of distress… again… think raging river.
I went into the bathroom in the airport in an attempt to recover before having to board the next leg of our flight, but instead of recovering, I went over the rocky ledge.
The lowest point of that day was standing in front of the flight attendant manning the jetway door, hearing her give the final boarding announcement while she watched me in a full on, chest (and giant belly) heaving, tears streaming down my face, audible sobbing, snotty mess of an anxiety attack.
I remember my husband, bless his ever-loving heart, reminding me that I only had two choices…
I could get on this plane and move forward…
Or I would still have to get on a plane to go back.
We just couldn’t stay in Phoenix.
I had a choice to make. Well, I had two choices to make. I needed to choose my way onto that plane in that moment. And then I had to figure out a way to choose my way out of letting anxiety keep me trapped. I started with deep breaths (and a little Ativan- I will admit it), and I ended with changing my life.
Here’s the deal anxiety suffers: The answer is not finding a way to navigate your way onto planes or out of attacks, the answer is finding the root cause of your anxiety and learning to avoid it or eliminate it. Don’t treat the symptoms, attack the actual problem.
That baby in my belly is now seven and a half years old and although most people wouldn’t really know that I struggle with anxiety, I’m still navigating the waters. I haven’t had an attack- knock on wood- since that day, but I still experience very real symptoms that send me off down the river.
Here are a few things I did to eradicate anxiety attacks and manage the symptoms. NOTE: This is a process, one I’m very much still in the middle of. But it helps tremendously.
- I went on a health journey. Did you know that serotonin, which helps you feel balanced, happy, and not anxious, is mainly produced in the GI tract? I needed a massive over hall on my GI health and overall wellness and so I did an elimination diet for three months straight, where I reintroduced loads of probiotics into my system. I ate better and I felt a lot better! Go figure! So much of what happens in our mental health, starts with our physical and nutritional health.
- I eliminated as many of the things that caused me stress. I knew my job was causing a lot of stress- just long hours and a not so awesome boss- and so I found a way to make an income elsewhere so I could let go of that job and work from home. I wasn’t looking for a bandaid- like less hours or another position- I was looking for a solution for long term success in stress management.
- I got a physical and addressed specific health concerns- and I continue to do this- so that I didn’t and don’t have to wonder if I am just having anxiety or if I am actually having a heart attack. Knowledge is power and when you know you’re okay and healthy, you can lean into and believe that when things start to get slippery.
- Mel Robbins wrote an excellent book called The 5 Second Rule and it really helped remind me that when you’re dealing with an issue that exists primarily in your mind- please don’t hear that I’m saying ‘It’s only in your head!’ I totally get that it’s not that simple- than you’ve really got to learn to mind your mind! She gives a lot of excellent advice and science behind managing those thoughts once you find yourself stuck in that mental rushing river. I highly recommend it!
- I also evaluated my past and processed and let go of some things that were no longer serving me. For me that looked like forgiveness, changing my living situation, surrender, prayer, journaling, self-reflection, and just plain moving on from certain stories- namely that I was a victim of circumstances and would always need medication- that no longer served me. I changed the story.
Please hear me: This took loads of time and work! This was not overnight. This is not to say that I’m cured and I no longer struggle with anxiety! I just spent a month with a heart monitor on my chest day and night to evaluate whether my anxiety was just anxiety or if there was really something wrong with me. I have heart palpitations. It’s apparently normal. It’s stress related. I carry stress in my body- it’s physical- and I don’t always even know or recognize what I’m stressed about. My stress comes from my failure to stay focused on my best life.
Y’all, life is hard. There is no doubt about it and there is no way around it. I’m learning how to find white space in my day. I’m learning how to avoid maxing out. I’m learning how far off a healthy diet I can go without feeling more anxiety. I’m learning specific things like margaritas specifically give me anxiety. What a disappointment! I’m still searching and I’m still fighting. But I’m done settling.
Do you struggle with anxiety? Because I do.
I can own that, it doesn’t have to own me.