David K. Every
I can offer no magic bullets, and I urge that anyone with an anxiety disorder to consider professional help. I also recommend reading and learning as much as possible -- knowledge is power. Different people handle things differently, I can only explain what worked for me. If you suffer, know that you are not alone. I've read some names of famous people that have gone through similar things -- I seem to remember that Mary Tyler Moore and Willard Scott both dealt with anxiety disorders, as have hundreds of thousands of others. Acceptance, and forgiveness (of self) is the first step -- but it is a long path (that gets easier along the way).
The end is the beginning
It was 1988, I was 24, and I didn't know what was happening to me. It started with an inability to motivate myself to do anything. I thought I was losing my mind, but then physical illness (fever, swolen glands, many other symptoms) set it which proved it was not just "in my head". The illness left, but the mental anguish remained. For weeks I became a shut-in, with my world slowly contracting. I could travel less distance from home with each passing day (at least not without absolutely debilitating panic attacks) -- I couldn't do all the things in life I had grown accustomed to doing. My life had changed almost overnight, and would never be the same.
I was in my bedroom having another panic attack (this one for no particular reason since I was already "safe" at home), and I decided that if I couldn't live life the way I wanted to, then I didn't want to live. This was not the first time since the attacks that I thought this way -- I have never been afraid of death, it is just a natural part of life, the final rest for us all. So I put my loaded gun under my chin, and thought about what it would mean to pull the trigger. I was suicidal (obviously), or about as close as you can get. As I sat there crying, thinking of all the people I would be hurting by pulling the trigger without an explanation, and of all the things unsaid (not to mention undone), I decided that it was unfair to pull the trigger. No matter how much pain I was in, I owed others in my life an explanation (and besides it was unfair to make my roommate clean up the mess).
I sat down and started to write a note (my last), and to write everything I wanted to say to everyone. Almost immediately, I knew that I couldn't "go" until I had completed it -- I also knew that it would take a while. While writing the note, I realized that I didn't really want to go (but I still had to complete it, just in case). I learned that writing was a way to relieve stress, and a way for me to think things through -- even in our darkest hours we can still learn things. My writing mind is a little different, and help brings clarity to issues. It is because of this that I became far more active on bulletin boards (BBS's), and much later on eWorld and then on the internet. I am still writing today, a decade later, as much for me as anyone else (but also for everyone else as much as for me -- the giving helps me).
As I sat there writing about everything that I felt for everyone, I had an epiphany -- a moment of perfect clarity. I allowed myself to be mortal (it was when I was close to death that I gave myself power over my own life). I had decided to prepare for "the end", but that gave me a new beginning -- all because I thought "If I am going to die, then what is really important to me?"
This realization was significant, and gave me perspective. These little panic attacks were nothing -- just the worst physical and emotional discomfort I had dealt with, but I could conquer that. The depression they caused could be dealt with. The money issues (which weren't that bad), the "being the best", all the other pressures I was putting on myself were of no importance. The stress people were causing me was only there because I was willing to take it. Peoples' opinions, whom I could never please, didn't matter any more. I stopped living for others, and started living for myself. My mistakes of the past were irrelevant. Awards, trophies and recognition were no longer a goal in my life (I was one of the best martial artists in the system I was studying -- but who really cares?). Winning stopped mattering (but enjoyment did not) -- my drive to compete disappeared. Title, money, status -- irrelevant. I stopped worrying about the future, and starting living in the moment, and caring about each day -- because, for a while there, each day could be my last. No more living for other peoples goals, or even the wrong ones of my own. I was suddenly able to forgive myself all my "flaws" and mistakes, and in so doing, I could forgive everyone else all of the crappy things they had done to me (I lost my entire Italian upbringing in one fell swoop). I let go of hate and anger (what a waste), I matured 20 years in a day. The epiphany was an instant (and took a year) -- it took me years to understand it, and years more to change fully and adapt to it. But humans can change (it is just very hard) -- and I did change.
I decided from that point I on, I would live like each day was my last. It has taken me years to slowly remake myself into a new person (but I do think differently now). Why tell you all this? Because if you are suffering from a phobia (or know someone that is) then there is a very good chance that you (they) are an over-achiever. Most anxiety sufferers are people that drive themselves too hard, as I did, and won't allow themselves to be humans. They can't forgive themselves their flaws. Many have something to prove, or impossible goals to live up to. Stop it! Grow. Let yourself live life without being everything to everyone. You can't change the past, and you can't make up for the bad things you've done, and you can't be perfect -- you can only forgive yourself and others. Accept that you may need help, accept what you are (or were) -- and start fresh. We are not only a collection of all the things that we have done, but of everything we do (every day). We are what we do (the sum or our actions), so do things that you will be proud of -- but each day is another opportunity to redefine yourself and do something that you are proud of.
Road to recovery
It was after this epiphany, that I sought help. While there wasn't much the shrink could do for me, it was an important start. She did teach me that what I was suffering from had a name (agoraphobia), and that gave me a starting point. I read a lot, listened a lot, and thought a lot. Then worked on myself a lot, and here are the steps I took to recovery.
Hopefully these things can be applied to more than just anxiety attacks -- these things not only cured my "illness", but also gave me tools to deal with life and become a much better person. It is for this that I am thankful for what has happened to me, even if I would wish it on no one else.
Other than allowing myself to be human, the biggest first-step was understanding what it was. No one prepares you to recognize the symptoms. Panic Attacks are much more horrible when you don't know what is happening to you. I went to the hospital, once, because I was sure I was going to die -- they stuck me in a room, did nothing, and later kicked me out without ever telling me what was wrong. "You're fine". My blood-pressure had been through the roof, my heart rate was like I was sprinting a marathon, and they say, "it was nothing, go home". They didn't even mention anxiety attacks, "whatever it was, it is over, so don't worry about it". When I went to a psychologist, I learned what it was, and that it even had a name -- once I learned what it was, I had power. I knew I wouldn't die from an attack, I knew it was just my body playing dirty tricks on me. I had survived dozens of them, I could survive more. I could deal with that. Knowledge of the disorder, and acceptance of the disorder, made the attacks become about half as bad as before (or so it seemed). I could learn -- and I did. Each story I read of people like me, made it easier. I was not alone.
Over the years, I learned that my diet definitely effected the attacks, as did rest, stress and other things. It isn't like I would eat one crappy meal, and suddenly I would start having panic attacks -- but if I tended to eat bad foods, for a few days in a row, the likelihood of attacks would go up. I cured that problem, I started eating better and taking occasional vitamin supplements. You are what you eat -- so I started eating better, and while I think this had a more minor effect than the rest of the things I did, I do believe it has had some effect. Even if it had no physical effect, it made me feel better, and like I had some control (and that was something).
Stress management is relearning how to think. Stress is not something others can give you, it is something you must take (or give yourself). Your boss can be a prick, and try to drive you -- but for it to have stress, you have to care. I don't mean start being apathetic about Everything, but keep perspective. I will do what I can, I will make the effort, I will try to help others, be part of a team, push myself -- but a job is not my life, just an important part of it. I am not going to kill myself over some arbitrary date (or list of features) that some middle manager made by throwing darts at a calendar, nor am I going to let that manager drive me into the ground over that date (or some job). I will provide for my family in the best manner I can -- but ultimately the thing my family cares about is me being there, the giving of attention, and me being a happy person. We can live in a smaller house, or drive older cars, or I can even use an older computer -- so Everything beyond the basics (food, clothing, shelter and security) is just extras (and certainly not what is important). I need to produce to feel good about myself (at work and at home) -- but there needs to be limits. And getting stressed out, is harmful -- so I stopped. I let it go. I watch more events as a dispassionate observer, and have to chuckle at what is going on around me.
Thinking right: Don't get caught in a negative spiral. Phobias, Anxiety Sufferers, Stressed out people, all have a tendency to "think wrong". Their brain is programmed to worry about "what if this, and what if that, and what if that leads to this other thing". They can turn the smallest of events, into the biggest tragedies, "What if I have an attack, and what if that forces me to go home, and what if my boss fires me, and what if my family abandons me because I am a no good...", and so on. Whew. They don't usually think about the positives, "What if I win the lotto" (the stupid-peoples tax as I call it), or "What if I lose my job and it leads to me starting up a business I've always wanted and I become wildly successful". Just start thinking right! When you catch yourself thinking the negatives (and spiraling down), pull out -- start thinking positive. Reprogram yourself to NOT be such a worry-wart. I know it sounds easy to those who are not in the mind-set but it isn't easy, it is a very hard thing to do, and you have to keep doing it. But you can change your thinking and the way you approach problems. Whenever I get a negative thought about myself (or the future), I try to change it to a positive one.
Be Mortal. If the house isn't spotless, not Everything on your checklist gets done, or you can't solve Everyone elses problems, don't worry -- it does not matter! Do what you can, but let the rest go. Life will go on. Prioritize into "things you can change" (and make the effort, but don't beat yourself up if you fail, just try again), and "things you can't change" (and accept them as they are). Prioritize things you can do, things you may do, and things you can not do (or don't have time to do). If something slips a day, then it slips a day -- the world will not end. I had to start allowing myself to rest when I needed it, and to stop driving myself so hard. I had to accept the injustices of life and my own inadequacies (and mortality), and go on.
Revel in the successes, and not in the failures. No matter who you are, or what you are doing, you are going to have successes and failures. Many Anxiety sufferers tend to "punish" themselves on their failures and not see the successes. It took me a long time to learn that if I was having an anxiety attack, and I stayed somewhere through two or three "waves", and then finally had to go, that I had succeeded (and not failed). I was initially brutal to myself for eventually leaving. The breakthrough was when I learned to be impressed with myself that I had stayed as long as I did (in the face of two anxiety attacks).
Living in the moment. My Martial Arts experience helped, because if I could learn to understand how men woke up each day, to fight with 4 foot long razor blades and face death (and their adversaries), then I could learn how to face my own fears. The Japanese Samurai had codes and philosophies for how to live (Bushido). Each and every day might be their last -- so rather than allowing themselves to be paralyzed by fear (of what if) -- they learned to appreciate everything as it was happening. They called it "living in the moment", or Mushin (no mind) -- doing without thinking. To a point, losing themselves in every moment. What happens tomorrow will happen -- why worry? Plan a little for your future, but don't waste energy somewhere (or somewhen) else -- the moment is now. Look at all the pleasantness of this moment.
Meditation - The opposite (or the extreme) of living in the moment, is living in no time or being somewhere (somewhen) else. When a Panic Attack is happening, there are a few ways to deal with it -- including to explore the feelings and everything that is going on (physically and emotionally). Don't hide from it, but explore it. Observe it, learn to accept it -- it is not as bad as it feels. You take away it's control over you by acceptance. This is a form of meditation, an inner journey. There are other forms (that I use) -- the outer journey and what I call the time stop. Basically, the outer journey is called transcendental meditation by some -- it is just leaving your body behind (mentally) and taking your spirit away. This allows you to disassociate yourself from the pain you are having. Another variant is the time stop, or where you focus on nothing (or moving a ball of energy/Ch'i/Ki) inside of yourself to relax yourself. Eventually, you achieve a state where time for you stops, and many minutes (or hours) can go by in what seems like seconds. I could write an article on different meditation techniques (it is also known as self-hypnosis, or prayer, reflection, introspection, or many other names), but there are many books out there, find the techniques that work for you. For me, these "escapes" helped me cope. It allowed me to conquer insomnia, to give up most anger and stress, and to deal with pain. There are a lot of rewards in using these techniques to "reprogram yourself" to become what you want to be, and meditation can improve your whole life.
Desensitization - Imagine the dentist is drilling your teeth without novicaine, what do you do? Well, if you are an anxiety sufferer, one thing you can do is go back repeatedly. Get little doses of the pain, and you can become accustomed to it -- and that takes away its power over you. It sounds harsh, but it works. Some phobias and anxieties have to be sought, some will come to you automatically -- either way, the sufferer just has to get used to the feelings. I've had teeth drilled without novicaine -- it isn't nearly as bad as facing anxiety attacks head-on. But facing them gives you the power over them (instead of the other way around). My panic attacks came to me (some without reason, most for being too far from home) -- I used each attack to teach myself to get more accustomed to what was happening, and get used to it. It is like learning from an opponent every time you play a game (or every time you spar). Keep going back, keep learning, and you can win. (Remember to not get discouraged about the failures, and instead focus on your victories and what you've gained).
You are what you do. Those 5 words are the most significant words I can teach anyone in this lifetime. If one message gets through, let it be that. Your actions define you. If you let the anxiety control what you do, then it changes you. If you fight the attacks (or accept them, or divert them, etc.), and keep working towards improvement -- then you are improving because of them. It is not the winning every battle that matters -- it is that you keep going back, and it is the effort made and not giving up. That "tenacity and strength" will define you as someone who is good and positive, and as someone that will not accept what is unacceptable. Just like elsewhere in life, it doesn't always matter if you win, but that you do what you know is right. Stealing and getting away with it, cheating on your spouse, lying (because it is easier than the truth), caving in to your fears, taking the easier path (instead of the right one), taking more than you give, are these the things that are going to make you proud of yourself on your deathbed? You aren't what you did in the past, you aren't what you may do in the future, you are what you DO (in the present). Your actions define you, your career choice will define you, those you hang out with will define you, the things you fail to do or fail to say will define you -- you are what you do. So do things that define you in ways you want to be defined.
It does get better, but it takes time. I still get anxiety attacks -- in fact I got an series of anxiety attacks on a recent trip up to Apple (where I started this article). Oh, well. I've gotten used to them, and learned from them, and accepted them, and life goes on. I usually only get one every few months. In some ways I couldn't beat them by pretending they didn't exist, or even by "fighting them" -- in many ways I had to yield to them, and accept them. In Taoism this concept is, "yield and overcome" -- you can't fight a river or the tides, but you can use them to your advantage. When I did this, the attacks lost their power over me.
My anxiety is easier than some, I can step back, and take breaks. If I am out somewhere and I get an attack, I can rest in my car (and meditate), get a hotel room (and do the same), or I can just take little mental breaks wherever I am. I lost my thirst to travel because of anxiety (it is too much like work, because at times it is an effort) -- but I still do it a few times a year. Yet if I didn't tell people about agoraphobia (my anxiety disorder), I don't think anyone else would know. I live a normal lifestyle now, which is something I wasn't sure I would ever be able to do again (or so I thought ten years ago). I used the sickness against itself. I diverted all of its hostile energy, into positive energy -- and made them help me learn and become a better person. I didn't defeat it, but at least now it is not my enemy -- it is a companion that has made me strong, and given me wisdom. So keep accepting what comes -- turn bad energy against itself, and learn to adapt it for your own positive purposes. Don't fight the tide -- harness it, ride the waves and enjoy the surf.