A few years ago I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. I didn’t believe the diagnosis.
It’s a little embarrassing to share how I discovered what an anxiety attack is, but it explains a lot.
Toward the end of my engagement to the man who decided it would be better to date indefinitely than get married (after we had a house, a ring, a dress, and a wedding date), I did what I do: I bought a book to research the problem – Men Who Can’t Love: How to Recognize a Commitment Phobic Man before He Breaks Your Heart by Steven Carter. Embarrassed to even pick the book up, I was desperate enough to understand what was happening in my carefully crafted world that I bought it.
I only read a few pages when I found something that stopped me cold. It described the way commitment-phobic men feel when expected to commit. It was a graphic description of an anxiety attack. If I still owned that book, I’d directly quote it here, but it’s one of the few books I didn’t want lining my bookshelf. Two days before I read this description, I’d experienced those exact symptoms and had considered the possibility that I had a terrible disease or food allergy. I didn’t feel anxiety during that episode; I felt sick. I felt horribly sick.
I’d worked all day to prepare for a business trip. It was after 5:00 and I had pre-marriage counseling scheduled for 7:00. I still had a lot of work to do and was unsure if I could get it all done. Suddenly I felt an urgent need to go to the bathroom. Before I made it there I started to sweat and feel light-headed. My heart was pounding, I had diarrhea, profuse sweating, shaking, a rushing sound in my ears (high blood pressure), and a feeling of not being present in my body (derealization). I was hyperventilating and my stomach cramps were so severe that years later when I experienced labor pain, it didn’t really surprise me.
I’d endured episodes similar to this countless times before, but this time it got worse. In a thankfully narrow bathroom stall at work, I passed out. When I came to, I was leaning against the side of the stall. I didn’t know where I was for several moments. My vision distorted and the walls of the stall appeared 30 feet high. I had a terrible metallic taste in my mouth and I was freezing. I felt so weak and cold that I couldn’t stop shaking.
What happened to me was not only frightening, it was embarrassing. These are not symptoms people typically broadcast. I only share the details because I would’ve never picked up a book on anxiety disorders, never known that’s what I was dealing with, and I’m willing to embarrass myself if it helps someone else figure out what’s happening to them.
I called these episodes “upset stomach.” I’d looked for a common cause to connect them since I was thirteen years old and never found one. My mother was the only person I discussed them with and she didn’t know what they were either. They weren’t life-threatening and they didn’t happen every day, every week, or even every month, so we didn’t think to ask the doctor. Not that we had a doctor. We went to a chiropractor who attended our church. He probably would’ve diagnosed me accurately if I had told him.
The book also told me that irrational fears accompanied these attacks. That’s where I got confused. The only concerns I had during an attack surrounded thoughts like – How bad is this one going to be? How will I explain my long absence to those who are waiting for me? Is something terribly wrong? How will I survive this horrible pain? Is anyone around to help me if I need medical attention? I didn’t connect my circumstances to the attack – trying to finish a project by a deadline, an appointment I didn’t want to go to, a big trip coming up, uncertainty about the future…
At my next counseling appointment, I shared what happened. My counselor expressed shock that it had gone on so long and I’d never mentioned it. But why would I mention a medical problem to the person I was going to for counseling? I still wasn’t convinced it wasn’t a disease or allergy. She told me to call my doctor and tell him she suggested I try an anti-anxiety medication. She warned me that it was highly addictive and I should use it sparingly. She said if my problem was anxiety, when I started to feel the symptoms come on I should take ½ a pill. Within 15 minutes I’d feel better. She said if the pill didn’t work, I’d know it wasn’t anxiety. They make a pill for this problem?!?! Skeptical, I called my doctor, was given a prescription, and found that it worked.
I was still struggling to understand how what I experienced was anxiety. The label “anxiety disorder” was unacceptable. I didn’t know anyone else who had the same problem and I never planned to tell anyone (especially since it wasn’t something I believed was really wrong with me.)
Since then I’ve discovered the reason I didn’t think I felt anxiety or fear during the attacks. I’d learned that fear and sadness were unacceptable emotions. I hated to cry. HATED IT. I wasn’t afraid; I was capable! Instead of feeling my emotions, I stuffed them down. I ignored them. I blasted my way through them, working, talking, moving, eating – anything to keep from allowing them to overtake me. Acknowledging negative emotions like fear or sadness felt like failure. Success was holding my head up high, smiling, and plugging along. I was in total denial of how I felt until my body started screaming at me to deal with the problem.
In the years since then, I’ve learned some valuable things. I went through two or three prescription refills in as many years, but then I lost my health insurance and couldn’t afford the medication. I researched natural remedies and found some things that work for me.
The first thing is that a big reason anxiety attacks get the best of us is because we’re afraid of the attack itself. The symptoms are so horrible that on top of whatever is causing the anxiety, after the first attack we fear what’s coming, which adds fear to fear and makes it worse. The truth is the anxiety attack is NOT going to kill me. I’ve lived through them plenty of times before and I will live through this one. I confront my anxiety by talking to it (in spite of how ridiculous I feel doing it) and say, “Bring it on! I can handle you! I won’t die from this pain and in an hour I’ll be back to whatever I need to do next. You might slow me down, but you won’t stop me.” It works to reduce the symptoms and help calm me down.
The second thing is to avoid stimulants of any kind – caffeine, diet pills, too much sugar, herbal energy supplements, etc. If I have anxiety, my adrenaline is already pumping and I don’t need anything to kick it up a notch. Caffeinated sodas are the worst with the combination of caffeine and high sugar. When I was looking for a connection before, I noticed that sometimes an attack came quickly on the heels of drinking a Coke, but I could sometimes drink a Coke and not have an attack. At other times I had attacks without drinking Coke. Stimulants exacerbate anxiety: no anxiety, no problem with Coke; high anxiety, big problem with Coke. Diet pills have the same effect: they are typically stimulants. Mix diet pills with caffeine and a person with an anxiety disorder is headed for disaster.
The third thing is is to deal with stressful situations immediately. One day I came home from work in a good mood, checked my mail, chatted with my roommate, changed my clothes, started cleaning up around the house, and suddenly got hit with an attack. I hadn’t had one in a while, hadn’t had any caffeine, and was unsure what it was about. After the attack, I mentally reviewed what had happened in the hour before the attack. I realized that as I went through the mail, I saw a letter from my student loan company. My student loans were in forbearance. I expected to receive a notice at any time that my forbearance had run out and I needed to start paying, but I had no money to pay them back. I didn’t open the letter when I saw it because I didn’t want to think about my financial difficulties right then.
Rather than relaxing, my anxiety built because of what I perceived the letter might say. How much longer did I have? How much was it going to be? Should I get a third job? Should I look for a new full-time job? Where would I have to move to make more money? And so forth… If I had opened the letter immediately, I would’ve seen that they were sending me a friendly reminder that interest was accumulating on my loan and they were happy to allow that to happen for quite a bit longer before they demanded payment. I might have still felt some anxiety, but it would’ve been contained to the future and my naturally hopeful personality would’ve kicked in and the whole attack probably could have been avoided. The point is, unknown fears tend to loom larger than reality. When I deal in reality, I might still be afraid but the anxiety is typically manageable.
Lastly, it’s okay to cry. It’s okay to admit I have anxiety. It’s okay to feel vulnerable and unsure of myself. I try to acknowledge those fears, find a healthy way to deal with them, and then decide if there’s a legitimate reason to have anxiety. Is it a healthy warning of danger ahead? Or do I need to face my fears and walk right through them? I’ve learned that sometimes anxiety is a healthy warning sign to stop going in a certain direction and find a better alternative. Sometimes anxiety is a lie that tries to keep me from succeeding.
If all that fails and I begin to have an anxiety attack anyway, the symptoms often stop within a couple minutes if I call a good friend and tell her what’s happening. I’ve only tried this method with one close friend. Most people don’t want to hear from you when you’re hyperventilating. If you can find a friend who isn’t put off by your request for help, you’ve found a true friend.
I wish I could tell you that anxiety attacks are a thing of the past for me. I haven’t had one like that day in the office in years. When symptoms hit me, they rarely become severe because I’ve learned to cope with them. I can even allow myself caffeine these days, but I know I may have to give it up again if necessary. I haven’t taken prescription anti-anxiety medication in over seven years. Sometimes I miss the ease of popping a pill to avoid feeling anxious, but not having it has forced me to find the underlying issue and deal with it. It’s been a good thing, but as many good things go it has also been challenging.
Learning the connection between my body and mind has been life-changing. I went to a holistic doctor and discovered that my chronic back pain was largely due to stress. Because I tend to ignore what upsets me, I experience chronic pain. These days I’m typically free from chronic pain, but when it returns I know what to do. I search my heart for what’s upsetting me, deal with it, and move on. I’m so thankful for the resources I’ve had access to as I’ve learned to manage anxiety in a way that allows me to stay off medication. I’m also thankful I haven’t suffered things like physical attack or abuse, death of a parent, extreme poverty leading to starvation and homelessness, or anything worse. If I had I might still need medication, and I’d gladly take it. I’m so thankful I had it to get through the roughest times.
In closing, I want to acknowledge the position many in church take on anxiety.
If a Christian can truly learn to trust God with his or her life, then all fear will leave and perfect peace will remain.
I believe that is possible. I have found that as my ability to trust God increases, so does my peace.
But many of us have been let down or betrayed by those in authority, making it extremely difficult, even irresponsible, to trust. God, the ultimate authority-figure, gets tangled up in our minds with humans and we don’t know how to trust Him either.
It requires a major shift to our thinking to see God as totally separate, totally other, from human beings. We are made in His likeness, but He is not like us. He can be trusted, He can be relied upon, but we allow the disappointment and hurt we feel from other human beings to cloud our ability to interact with Him. We blame Him for things other human beings do, rather than looking to Him to help us through the difficult times. These are natural reactions and difficult to move beyond. In these situations, when those in authority condemn us for feeling afraid, it increases our anxiety.
If you know someone struggling with anxiety, pray for them. Pray that they will be able to see God for who He is. Pray that they will receive healing from the wounds they’ve suffered at the hands of those who were supposed to protect them. Pray they will find peace.
In closing, I pray that all of us who suffer from the ravages of anxiety will be set free and become the healthy, whole individuals God has made us to be.