Monday, June 16, 2008

YOU have anxiety?

"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!


Laura said...

Dear Kris,
I have suffered from anxiety as well. With my first attack, I was about 26 myself. I had my boss take me to the hospital because I thought I was having a heart attack. With the tight chest and difficulty breathing, I didn't know what else to think.

When they diagnosed "anxiety/panic attack" I was very embarrassed. Especially when my boss, a woman, kept asking me what I was nervous about. I honestly couldn't tell her, because I didn't know. That's how it usually is with me.

I did find a good therapist who did biofeedback with me and that really helped, because I could see the effect of consciously relaxing my body displayed on a screen.

We also worked through the "Hope and Help for Your Nerves," book, which you have listed below. It carries on the biofeedback-type relaxation method. It is counter-intuitive, because you focus on the physical reaction to the fear, rather than avoiding it. As you focus on it, the physical sensation works its way through your body and dissapates.

For me, it moves from my chest, through my throat and out my mouth. It sounds very weird, but after a few practice rounds, it worked very well.

In fact, I started feeling anxious at the start of this post, and I did the concentration exercise, and it is gone.

I know you've had this problem for a while, and I'm proud of you for starting this blog!

Love ya, Sista!


Jason said...

This is a great post. It really boils down to the very basics of managing one's anxiety and that is to understand what it is you are dealing with exactly - re: anxiety symptoms. Once you have that discovered you can begin to look at the various triggers that create the various symptoms -- most often its our thought process that plays a huge part in the whole disorder. It acts as fuel to keep the fire of anxiety going

But that is not to say that other factors including diet, sleep pattern, stress or environmental heredity also doesn't play a role, it does, but to lesser degree.

I look forward to reading your next post. Keep up the great work. Good stuff

Anxiety Girl said...

Thanks Jason - I just jumped over to your blog, too, & I look forward to perusing it. It's nice to know there are so many people who have dealt or are dealing with similar issues. Keep up the good writing!

Queen Mommy said...

Hi Kristen,
I have to say I am flabbergasted right now. Aside from age, my panic problems began exactly the same way as yours - driving (with my mom even) and suddenly feeling like I couldn't continue safely. I also pulled over and asked her to drive, though I insisted she take me to the ER because I thought I was having a stroke or something. Right now I am almost 6 weeks postpartum, which is a tough time for me, taking meds and also trying to rule out any physical problems that might be contributing to this. I look forward to reading and seeing if your journey can help me with mine.

Anxiety Girl said...

Hi Amy,

Isn't it funny how we often feel like we're the only ones dealing with anxiety & it's so prevalent? That's so wild that your first attack was driving w/your Mom too. And, my anxiety kicked in a bunch with my third pregnancy like I read about in your blog (I have 3 girls as well). I know postpartum can be so very challenging, so I hope you're finding ways to take care of yourself & letting others care for you. Two books that I loved during postpartum: "Operating Instructions" by Anne Lammott; "MotherShock" - by Andrea Buchanan. Both are brutally honest about being in the trenches of the postpartum period and how it's normal to have all those competing feelings at the same time.

Take care & I'd love to hear how you're doing.

angharad said...

How wonderful to find this! I've been struggling with anxiety since I was 12 but it's only in the last year that it's actually been diagnosed as anxiety rather than depression, which was oddly relieving. Because panicking about feeling sad was clearly not achieving anything when the panic itself was the biggest part of the problem.
My biggest problem is balancing the need to confront my anxiety rather than letting it take root, and my need to stop being so hard on myself and just let myself be unhappy now and then, rather than trying to control anything. As I sit here right now I've avoided going out to have dinner with friends because I just didn't feel that I could handle it, and once again I have no way of telling if this is healthy 'me'-time or just another avoidance tactic. Still, c'est la vie.

I'll keep an eye out for this blog in the future... how nice to be with others living with and getting over their anxieties!

Anonymous said...

I have experienced panic attacks at different times of my life since I was younger than 5. I was free and clear for many years, even though I avoided many situations that made me anxious, but anxiety reared it's ugly head again about 2 years ago. I have become very educated about the nature of panic, and I know what I need to do to confront it, but still deal with avoidance issues. I have made progress in many areas, but some days feel so far from the goals that I would like to achieve some day. I wish I would have found this blog sooner, but it is so relieving to know that many have symptoms that totally mirror mine! Thanks for having the courage to share! Amy

Anxiety Girl said...

Welcome, Amy! I'm sorry that your anxiety is giving you a hard time, but glad you found your way here. We've had a handful of Amy's and Ashley's commenting lately, so it made me smile to see another Amy! You're not alone at all!

I hope this blog and the others comments will bring you some comfort, but also motivation to keep going with your exposure work. Keep up the good work & hope to hear from you soon! Kristin :)

Anonymous said...

It is funny you mention the seems as though many Amy's have anxiety....maybe there is something to that!

Anonymous said...

It is so weird to come across this blog where so many people had a similar experience to my own. I never thought of myself as a high strung person so at 26, when I got my first panic attack while driving to a friend's house, I definitely thought something was wrong with my health. I was living in Sacramento at the time and my insurance was based in San Diego so I had to wait months to get an appointment. I still wasn't sure that what I got was a panick attack. A few months later I was stuck in traffic in San Diego and my heart began to beat rapidly, my hands began to go numb, all I could hear was my heartbeat, I was shaking and I felt I was going to pass out and lose control of the steering wheel so I pulled over and called an ambulance only to be diagnosed with anxiety and given medication to treat it. I quit my job as a result, took medication, started yoga, moved abroad and definitely learned how to manage it better. I stopped taking medication now but I am very conscious and try to take care of my thoughts and exercise to release adrenaline.

Anxiety Girl said...

Welcome! I'm glad you found your way to this site & hope you know you are not alone. This blog will remain in place, but I'm now posting at if you'd like to stop by. Would love to hear about your move over seas & how you're managing your anxiety now - good for you! Exercise & meditation are a big help for me. Take care, Kristin