Racing thoughts. Obsessive compulsive behaviors, such as cleaning, organizing, exercising. Increased negative coping behaviors, such as overeating, smoking, and drinking. Physical pains, such as upset stomach, migraines, muscle aches and fatigue. Early morning waking. Increased irritability. Forgetfulness. Tightening chest. Racing heart rate – literally hearing my heart pounding in my ears. Shallow, rapid breaths. Dissociation or feelings of having an “out-of-body” experience.
These are common occurrences for those of us with anxiety disorders. This week, I experienced all of them (except for the drinking.) Only after forcing myself to sit down long enough to do some journaling was I able to identify the source of my anxiety…
There is always a cause for anxiety. Did you know that? It just doesn’t come because “we are crazy.” There is always a root cause, and it serves me well to sit down and face the fear of finding out what it is, because once I realize what is causing it, I can deal with it, and the symptoms will subside.
Sometimes finding the cause isn’t as simple as it can be with straight-forward Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms, which are caused by specific events such as accidents and natural disasters. Sometimes the events are actually an accumulation of events occurring over a period of months or years, where the person is subject to long-term, repeated trauma as in the case of child abuse. In such cases, the term “Complex PTSD” is often used even though it is not officially a diagnosis included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) (at the time of this writing.)
This week my three-day anxiety attack which culminated into a full-blown panic attack was triggered by a few things. First of all, I shared my BPD story last weekend, which set my anxiety level higher than normal, but in and of itself didn’t cause me too much stress. However, add that to the fact that on two different occasions last week I unexpectedly ran into different individuals with whom I went to high school, and then the kicker was an unplanned evening of looking through my high school yearbooks (at my daughter’s request.) She wanted to see what her dad and I were like back in the day, and I didn’t think twice about taking a trip down memory lane. Next time I will.
High school was a very traumatic time for me. My parents’ alcoholism was at its peak; dysfunction and emotional neglect were at an all time high in our home. Memories of those years are clouded with my own drunken states filled with self-harm behaviors and untreated bipolar and borderline personality disorder symptoms.
Before going to bed that evening, I made a passing comment to my husband about feeling a little anxious after looking through those yearbooks, and then I thought nothing more of it.
Three days later, I had my first panic attack in many, many months.
After quickly figuring out the cause of my anxiety (due only to writing about my feelings, which is why “Write into the Light” is my mantra) I began to ask myself many questions:
- Is knowing the cause of my anxiety enough to make it go away?
- Do I need to worry that these memories triggered me the way they did?
- Is this a sign that I need to work out some more stuff in therapy with my counselor, who I haven’t needed to see in six months now?
- Does this mean I am not healed all the way like I thought I was?
Healthy Coping Skills
I was a mess at this point. But, here are the skills I used to cope with my state of mind at the time. My hope in sharing these is that it will give you some ideas to try when you find yourself experiencing extreme anxiety.
First, I left messages for two friends who I knew would understand, and I also left a message for my therapist.
Next, I tried sitting with and observing my feelings, thoughts, and body sensations without judgment; trying not to push anything away nor hang onto anything. Just noticing and observing as if I was an outsider looking in.
I tried soothing myself by rubbing scented lotion on my arms and hands, which didn’t help much.
Then I decided to call my doctor to get an emergency refill of my PRN anti-anxiety medication. Luckily, the pharmacy filled it in ten minutes, and also luckily, my husband was due home for his lunch break and was able to pick it up on his way.
While waiting, I wrapped myself in a warm blanket and sat in a fetal position on the couch in a quiet room. This helped calm me immensely.
I also said some simple prayers.
I took my medication at the same time my therapist called back. After telling her what happened, she said that I might need to try some “exposure therapy” meaning that I look at the yearbooks when I am in a good place emotionally and mentally, and even then only for a short time, and maybe not with my young daughters.
I made the comment to her that I thought I had gotten past this part of my life, that my negative feelings about it were gone. She said they are always going to be there; that the goal is not to get rid of the bad memories, which is impossible, but to instead integrate them. Integration is the goal. (Integration: The organization of the psychological traits and tendencies of a personality into a harmonious whole.)
She also said that I should try to dig up a few good memories from that time. She said they are probably there, but are just overshadowed by the bad ones. At first I didn’t think she was right, but then I made a conscious effort to get out of my black and white/all or nothing thinking, and started thinking dialectically – where good and bad memories can co-exist. And guess what? She was right!
When you’re anxious do you dig deep to find out what the root cause is? It may be something more than what it appears to be on the surface.
What physical symptoms do you have when you are feeling anxious? Do you take the time to sit and notice your body’s sensations and your mind’s thoughts during these times? Why or why not?
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Until next time…