"YOU have anxiety?", people often say to me. "But you're so calm and peaceful all the time!"
It's true. I'm not high strung or type A. I feel calm a lot of the time. I have many friends who confide in me because I’m a calming presence for them and a good listener. But, I've wrestled with anxiety and panic attacks for the past 12 years. My first panic attack was out west while I was on spring break with my Mom. I was driving on the highway and a thought entered my head, "I wonder what it was like for Dad when he couldn't drive because of panic" and BOOM -- it was like my body, genetically predisposed for this stuff, had been waiting for this invitation and jumped me right in to a full blown panic attack. I felt huge waves of adrenaline surging across my chest and back, I felt hot all over, my hands were shaking and I felt scared that I might lose control -- whatever that meant. "I've got to pull over", I said as I very carefully changed lanes, exited the highway and asked my Mom to take over at the wheel. (Which is typical of panic that I only felt out of control, tricked by my brain, while driving perfectly well. )
If you’ve never had a panic attack before, it feels as scary as if you were being chased by a hungry tiger or if someone jumped out from behind the corner and put a gun to your head (luckily, that's never happened, but you get the visceral response). Even when everything you read says that it’s just physical sensations, nothing is dangerous, what you fear never ever comes true - the intensity of panic hijacks logic and says, “Get me the fuck out of here!”
I've learned over the years, from people like Dave Carbonell, that if I could have simply experienced the symptoms without creating a story about them (what if this happens all the time? I can’t function when I’m panicking. This is dangerous. I'll be the woman who stopped driving at 26yrs old! - something's very wrong with me - I'd better not tell anyone or they'll think I'm crazy), it would have been no big deal and the sensations would have melted away.
But, I believed the story in my head and added more chapters. It didn’t take long before I started to fear that I’d panic while driving on the highway and began avoiding. I stopped driving on the highway and even avoided some “regular roads” with which I was unfamiliar. I felt more secure if I was driving with my husband (my “safe person”).
I bought a great workbook by Edmund Bourne, Ph.D. and started doing my homework. I wanted to be over this problem yesterday, asking the question “why is this happening to me?” Unfortunately, as I read, I realized that people could panic anywhere and started worrying about what others might think if I lost it in front of them. What if I panic while I'm getting my hair cut? That would be weird and so embarrassing! What if I get panicky at work? Everyone thinks I'm calm and competent - what if that's not true & I’m just a fraud? What if I freak out on an airplane and can't get off? It might just get so bad that I never really recover and they lock me up. I was being hijacked by these irrational worries that would never happen. But, my brain started wearing a deep groove and the thoughts began to skip and repeat.
Over the years, I started having babies and realized that I had to do something about my fears and began tackling them. I had three natural births with a midwife and two of those babes born at home. From childbirth, I remembered that I was really strong and powerful and could do anything. I began planning and doing the hard work of daily exposure practice on my own, made a lot of progress and then enlisted the help of a therapist.
Since then, I’ve “taken back” the highways for the most part. You won’t see me crossing over big bridges, but those bugged me before the anxiety crept in.
I still get “wiggy” talking in front of people some weeks (which is what I do for a living). I’m not so fond of airplanes, tunnels and bridges. And, sometimes the social piece creeps in and I worry about feeling anxious around other people and what they’d think if they knew I was anxious for no good reason other than “what if they knew? What would they think? What if I lose it here?” Because, really, that sounds pretty silly when I'm rational about it. Who cares what other people think? Why get all worked up? I guess part of me still worries that if anxiety really attacks, I may take a nose dive and never recover. I read once that men commonly fear that they’ll die from a panic attack and women commonly fear losing their minds.
That said, I don’t avoid anything in my daily life anymore. I try to see things that worry me as “good practice”. When I start feeling funny again, I schedule some highway practice drives & even include the kids. Crossing bridges, my 6 & 8 yr. olds yell with joy, “Go Cowgirl Mommy!” I know from experience that I have to keep doing the work of exposure on a regular basis or I’ll slide back and feel really bad pretty quickly.
Well, that’s enough for one post. My goal in writing this blog is to normalize anxiety & offer hope for anyone who is struggling with it & feeling alone. I’d also like to provide some good resource information and links. I hope this has been helpful!