Living with Anxiety

Anxiety is hard. Have a website filled with cute animals.

I may or may not have had anxiety all my life.  What I do know is that I’ve had identifiable anxiety symptoms since my dad was diagnosed with cancer while I was in high school.  (It will now come as no surprise to you that my anxiety, at it’s base, is health-focused.)

At first I didn’t know it was anxiety.  I was diagnosed with ‘stress,’ asthma, and ‘have you tried prayer?’ over the years.  It wasn’t until college that I learned the magic phrase ‘anxiety disorder.’  Turns out, having an overactive amygdala runs in my family.  I got myself into therapy (thanks free college shrinks!) and my wonderful, supportive general practitioner gave me a prescription for Lorazepam.  Between the two, my panic attacks, anxiety attacks, and general anxiety were brought down to manageable levels, so my diagnosis faded into the background.  The occasional panic attack still occurred, but once that I knew what they were I could ride them out.

However, my laissez-faire approach backfired fairly spectacularly almost two years ago.  After an extremely stressful engagement, I spent the first six-eight months of marriage gripped by a major depressive episode.  I spent days unable to get off the couch, hating myself and convinced that Kevin had made a terrible mistake in tying himself to a useless lump like me.   Panic attacks, anxiety attacks, depersonalization, insomnia… all of it was up for grabs.

Since then I’ve had to take a much more proactive approach to my mental health.  Some of what I’ve learned is ‘common knowledge,’ some are, I think, pretty unique.    Here are a few of the things that I have found helpful, I hope someone else will get some use out of them two.

1. Exercise.  I hate exercise.  I scroll past all the pictures of my friends running 10ks and marathons and look at recipes for exciting new cakes.  Running is awful.  Weightlifting is boring.  Having to put shoes on and not sit at my desk all day is the worst.  But I do it.  I drag my butt out of bed three times a week and go lift weights at our community’s gym.  I don’t get stronger very fast (hello ten-pound weights I’ve been using for the last year, with 15lbs for occasional variety) but I feel a little good about having exercised.  And now that Kevin’s into biking, I do that once or twice a week. (Which I also hate, but I feel good for knowing that I have biked- and walked- the two miles to the store with him.)

2. Mental relaxation stuff. I learned a meditative breathing style from Tamora Pierce’s books, but there are other things you can do, like progressive relaxation.  The difficult thing, though, is doing it regularly and not just during a panic attack.  Otherwise it won’t be helpful because your body won’t associate the slow breathing patterns (or whatever you do) with relaxation.

3. Ice water.  This was a trick I learned from my mom.  If you’re having a panic attack, get some ice.  Squeeze it.  Or, if it’s ice water, hold the glass tightly in your hands.  Your brain will focus on it instead of whatever it’s panicking about because it thinks you’re experiencing low-grade pain.

4.  St. John’s Wort & Lorazepam.  When I realized I was depressed after the wedding, my regular doctor was on maternity leave so I got shuffled to one of her coworkers.  He took one look at me and prescribed… something.  I don’t remember what.  But after the first dose I was as sick as a dog- and it was the first day of my honeymoon.  So, combined with therapy, I took a daily dose of St. John’s Wort (actually 1/3 of the recommended dose) to help keep me stable, and my .5 mg Lorazepams for emergencies.  St John’s Wort is tricky in the US because so many of the supplements are fake and most doctors look down on its use, but for me it was exactly what I needed.

**Pharmacists can check what drugs St. John’s Wort interacts with.  THIS IS IMPORTANT, because some will tell you ‘I dunno’ and not look and, as with any drug, SJW does have interactions.

5. Check your diet.  Because the doctors I had access to after the wedding couldn’t have cared less, I had to do all my own research and become my own advocate.  I realized that spicy food tricked my body into thinking that I was having a panic attack and had to cut it out entirely for over a year.  Now I can have spicy food for lunch, but not dinner.  I also cut out caffeine because the ‘wired’ feeling triggered panic attacks now.  It was pretty miserable for a long time, because tea and Mexican food are two of my favorite things.  But eventually I found substitutes- now Kevin and I drink caffeine-free Coke and decaf tea (although we are allowed caffeine if we’re out and it’s lunchtime) and he started ordering cheese sauce instead of salsa to go with our chips.

6. Avoid WebMD. Seriously.  If your anxiety is health-focused like mine, this website is dangerous.  I’m not saying to stop googling your symptoms- that would be futile- just avoid the sites that you know are more harmful than helpful.  I always skip WebMD and go for things like anxiety forums or the Mayo Clinic website.  Neither of those are out to get you with their fear mongering.  So not only are you avoiding an attack, you’re also more likely to get usable information.

7. Find a partner. Anxiety can be extremely isolating, so it’s important that you find a support person.  If no one in your life is willing to do that for you- a friend, a family member, whatever- find a support group online.  I was lucky enough that, once he realized the seriousness of my situation (which I think occurred the day I burst into tears in the car and begged to be put into a mental hospital so someone would take care of me and I wouldn’t have to figure this crap out on my own) Kevin stepped up to the plate.

Finally, I follow the rules set forth by Dana Rayburn for adults with ADD on this page.  I know they’re not technically ‘for’ those of us with anxiety, but her rules are actually great for any sort of mental health issue.

Now, what about you guys?  I know that 40% of Americans have experiences with anxiety- what advice do you have?  What’s worked well for managing your anxiety attacks?

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