4 Steps to Conquering Anxiety

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Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

A few years ago, I went through months of chronic and distressing anxiety.  I’d be in bed – or getting ready for bed – and a sudden wave of nausea would hit me.  This was followed by hot and cold sweats, light-headedness, and trembling.  My chest hurt and my heart would race like it was trying to escape my body.  My brain went into hyper-drive, blasting a series of run away, run away, run away messages.  A couple of times, I truly thought I might be having a heart attack, and even went to the emergency room.  When no physical cause for my symptoms was discovered, I was sent home, bewildered.  How could there be nothing wrong?  I felt not only several hundred dollars poorer, but also embarrassed and ashamed.  Quite frankly, I thought I was going nuts.  I had no idea these were panic attacks.  What I felt was physical, not mental…right?

I knew I couldn’t keep going to the ER, but also knew something was wrong.  I tried taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds for a while, but these left me feeling zombie-like and numb, and they didn’t actually prevent anxiety attacks.  I didn’t want to be medicated – I just wanted something that would stop these attacks in their tracks.  The doctors didn’t seem to understand (or believe) I wasn’t drug-seeking, and weren’t interested in explaining what was happening to me.  It was demoralizing and discouraging.  I decided to figure this out for myself – to find the safe equivalent of hitting myself in the head with a coconut – something to STOP the panic once it had started.

I started by tracking my symptoms and soon discovered my bouts of nausea were either caused by gastrointestinal issues or a “gut punch”.  You know the gut punch.  It’s the feeling which triggers our fight or flight response, such as when we suddenly get bad news.  Studies have shown people with anxiety have a faulty flight switch.  In other words, it flips on at random, sending panic messages from the brain to the various systems in the body, thus generating the physical sensations of a panic attack.

When the nausea would start, I’d go through a brief mental checklist to determine the source: Is this possibly food poisoning? Did I eat something which could trigger IBS / diverticulitis?  Most of the time, I was able to rule out a gastrointestinal cause for the nausea AND I was able to determine my IBS flare-ups and panic attacks followed similar — but distinctly different — patterns.  Identifying these differences was the key to feeling better.  I made some minor changes to my eating habits which GREATLY diminished my gastrointestinal issues, which in turn reduced some of my stress and meant less confusion between my physical and my mental health symptoms.

I began practicing the following thought-stopping / distraction techniques at the first signs of a panic attack:

  1. Counting backwards from 100
  2. Switching on a funny show and closing my eyes, picturing the action in my head instead of watching it on the screen. This forced me to focus on what I was hearing and helped me turn off the panic switch by activating a different area of my brain
  3. Taking long, deep breaths – three seconds to inhale, three seconds to exhale

These three techniques worked wonders for me, but it wasn’t an overnight cure.  I had to put these methods into practice and repeat them until I’d conditioned a habitual, healthy response to anxiety.  There were nights when I would have to count backwards from 100 more than once, or would lie awake listening to Bob’s Burgers for hours, but now I can honestly say I haven’t had a full-blown anxiety attack in at least two years.  I still get the gut punch on occasion, but am able to quickly calm myself and avoid those horrible heart-attack sensations.

The 4 Steps

  1. Track your symptoms
  2. Separate brain and body symptoms.  If possible, make changes to your daily habits to reduce symptoms related to medical conditions
  3. Find the patterns
  4. Use early distraction

If you are currently taking antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, DO NOT stop taking them without your physician’s consent.  Mood disorders are complicated and many require medication to restore chemical balance in the brain.  The point of this post is NOT that you do not or should not need medication.  The point is you can attack your anxiety INSTEAD of allowing it to attack YOU!  When you learn to control your brain’s faulty fear factor, you not only minimize the physical and mental distress of a panic attack but also maximize the effectiveness of your medication.  You will start to FEEL better!

 

3 Good Things About Bad Things

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Houston, TX (LB)

You can find a lot of useful information on the internet to help you deal with anxiety.  People who have been there know it’s horrible and want to share what has worked for them.  I’ve noticed many of these tips involve counting or making lists, and this makes sense to me.  I have found the most effective ways to quiet even my worst anxiety attacks involve numbers and sequences.

Have you ever poured water into a funnel too quickly?  Some of it flows easily out the bottom, but pour too quickly and water begins to spill out over the top as well.  This is how I envision the birth of a panic attack.  Things happen throughout the course of a day, each a drop of water passing through the funnel of the brain.  Negativity is a clog in the funneling system of the depressive brain.  The thought droplets begin to back up until finally, WHAMMO!

When there are more feelings than our funnel can process at the time, the system overloads.  The flood of unsorted feelings flips the switch on our fight or flight response and we get that awful “Run away!  Run away!” impulse.  So, how can numbers help?  Throughout the day, as bothersome things happen, think of three ways to look at them in a less bothersome way.  In other words, try coming up with three good things about bad things.  Let me give you an example of how this has worked for me.

I have a Pandora’s Box of derogatory thoughts stored in my brain, ready at any moment to spring to the forefront and fill me with a sense of worthlessness.  On my worst days, even the most minor upset can seem like absolute condemnation.  I’m a Manchester United fan and a coffee drinker, and I like to ring in each year with a new coffee mug at work.  This year I found a spiffy, stainless steel, insulated mug with the Man U logo, and even though it was a little pricier than I cared for: I splurged.  The mug arrived and performed admirably as a coffee-carrying vessel…until I dropped it.  Mug was separated from handle, and handle became a collection of useless fragments.  Pandora’s Box began to open and I immediately began thinking, “That’s what you get for paying too much for a mug” and “This is why you don’t deserve to have nice things.”  It would have normally sent me spiraling into a terrible day, but I made myself stop and put three positive spins on the situation.  This is what I came up with:

At least there wasn’t coffee in it

Good thing it wasn’t glass

A mug without a handle is still a cup

Get it?  Your three good things don’t have to be all that good – they just have to be less bad.  Here’s why it works.  Numbers live in a different area of the brain than negativity.  By forcing yourself to count three good things, you not only bypass the filter but you build up those positives.  Building up positives is how we close Pandora’s Box for good and avoid future panic attacks.

I hope you’ll try it.  I hope you will try again and again until it becomes your new way of thinking.  And, I hope you will email and share your ‘Three Things’ stories with me.  I’d love to hear them.  Incidentally, I still use that mug every day.  Being a little bit broken hasn’t made it worthless, and the nubby remnants of a handle remind me to count to three.  So remember this… A mug without a handle is still a cup, and a person who is broken is not worthless.

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