Everyone Gets afraid. Not everyone gets terrified.
And not everyone gets terrified for unperceivable reasons to the point that it interferes with daily living.
That’s an anxiety disorder. And that’s what I’m talking about today.
Yes, I still get afraid. Yes, I still get the jitters before going to social events or before participating in something far outside my comfort zone. I still get irritable when overstimulated and angry when facing down fears. But I no longer have an anxiety disorder. In other words, it no longer controls me. It no longer causes me to live life with limits.
I have beaten it.
I don’t think everyone realizes that anxiety is something that can be beaten. So many people I know live in a spiral of anxious thoughts and panic attacks. They find themselves unable to do things because of these racing thoughts, of these squeezing sensations about the chest. But you don’t have to live this way.
Well, yours must not have been that bad, you say. Mine is way worse.
Maybe. There are some really severe cases out there, but for the general sufferer – I doubt it.
I could not eat. I could not sleep. In fact, eating and sleeping became triggers for my anxiety, and then the anxiety itself became one. I went days without sleep, and if I tried to take medication to alleviate my symptoms, it would only make it worse. I would nod off to sleep for seconds at a time only to awaken in terror.
All of this was exacerbated after the birth of my son. There was, at that time, a measurable drop in my progesterone levels that sent me over the edge. But I had been dealing with anxiety and panic attacks for years before that. Looking back, I had self-diagnosed these as blood sugar drops, but considering the surrounding circumstances I now find this unlikely. There were times when I left after vomiting from stress. I even ended up in the ER for some of these times while thinking that my gallbladder was about to rupture. All of the ultrasounds came back negative, but I was convinced this was a medical problem rather than a psychological one.
When the panic attacks came and haunted me for hours each night, when my ER trips became more frequent and yet nothing was wrong, I had to acknowledge the truth. I had an anxiety disorder.
But what about your progesterone levels?
Yes, those were bad. And we found and fixed them rather quickly. Didn’t help.
See, the sudden drop in progesterone might have worsened all this, but it didn’t sustain it. A learned thought process did. My fear, my phobia if you will, was anxiety itself. And anytime I felt slight discomfort (needing to go to the bathroom, feeling hungry, feeling sleepy), I would then feel anxious. And my first thought was ‘Oh no! Not again!’
Cue more anxiety, cue more spiraling.
So, what did we do?
Attempt 1: Modern medicine. Namely antidepressants. Toss in a few sleep aids and CBD.
These meds help some people. They didn’t help me, because I was so afraid they wouldn’t. My brain would not switch off. It literally would not let the meds work. So I would lay there, doped up and shaking, unintentionally fighting the meds. I would doze off for a half-of-a-second and wake back up in terror. My husband reports it being quite disturbing to observe.
Attempt 2: Exercise
This worked decently – for a while. Basically, I would load up my child into a stroller and walk until I had no more energy to be anxious. Eventually, it didn’t matter how much I walked though, the anxiety would be back an hour or two later.
Attempt 3: Diet
This helped – for a while. Basically, I cut out sugar. While there were some health benefits that I might consider taking up again now that I’m well, the effects were helpful in the short-term. But the anxiety crept back.
Attempt 4: Holistic Therapy and Meditation
By the time we reached Attempt 4, I was desperate. I was not depressed when I started all this, but anxiety has a way to bring that in. And no wonder! After using up all of my energy on being anxious, I literally had no place to fall but into depression. This wasn’t just a bad weekend, mind you. At this point, we were a year into this process.
I felt worthless. I felt like I couldn’t raise my son. I couldn’t work. I was a bad wife. Everything was bad. It was not that I did not want to live, but I couldn’t keep living like this.
So, I contacted a friend who had been through a postpartum psychosis event and asked her who she went to see. And I made an appointment with a holistic therapist. Meanwhile, I also downloaded the Headspace app.
The first thing my therapist did was to load me up with some coping skills. I’ll mention grounding here – although there are several others – because it connects directly to meditation and the point I’m making there.
Grounding – where you acknowledge the things around you that are in the physical realm. Floor beneath your feet, the feel of the A/C in the room, the smell of coffee brewing. Whatever is around you, ground yourself into that moment and see that the marauders are not actually at the door. You are in your home and you are safe.
This is best practiced before an actual anxiety event. When you were learning how to be anxious, you were carving learned pathways into your brain. With grounding, you are doing the same thing. Then, when the anxiety comes, your brain will find those carved pathways easier.
When the anxiety moves in, don’t stop it. Let it do its thing. Just ground.
2 seconds later the anxiety is back.
Ground again. Over. And. Over.
Eventually, 2 things would happen. The anxiety would go away or the anxiety would take over. If the latter happened, I did nothing to stop it. I allowed it to do its thing while reminding myself that it was temporary. Often, I would ramp up the distractions. I would turn on a movie and ground myself to it. The anxiety would come, it would do its thing, but I would reorient myself to the movie.
It was exhausting. I did it anyway.
Meditation – The Headspace App probably saved my life. (I receive no compensation from the headspace folks).
In the same way that grounding helps the most while practicing it in times of lessened anxiety, meditation works best when done at the same time every day. Yes, there are ‘emergency meditations’ that can help bring you out of an attack. Those are great, but they cannot replace daily practice.
After downloading the HeadSpace app, I found one of these emergency meditations and used it during a severe attack.
After months of nothing working, this one did because it combined principles of grounding into mindfulness.
In the HeadSpace app, they had a section for ‘anxiety.’ For days then weeks you practice focusing on your breathing while thoughts come through your head. Inevitably, you get distracted and chase after those passing thoughts, but the goal is to bring your attention back to the body and to the breathing. You’re literally practicing letting go of thinking. Anxious thinking. Happy thinking. Doesn’t matter. Everything gets interrupted and the flow is returned to the here and now. To the breath. Then, when the anxiety attack comes, you are prepared to cut off that thinking, acknowledge it for what it is, and return back to the physical. Namely, to return to whatever it was that you were doing before the attack.
Results: Two things? That’s it?
Well, there were others, but mostly, yeah. Now, don't for a moment think that it was easy. This took about 2 years of intense work, and still, on occasion, I slide back a bit. But overall, I am much improved. At least, anxiety is no longer a major part of my life.
The brain can be trained. With grounding and meditation, I was able to feel the anxiety in my body, recognize it for what it was, and not fight it. I would note it, ground, and move on, but I stopped resisting it. I stopped feeding it.
Finally, I was able to see the blue sky behind the clouds. Often just for a peek, but that peek was enough to remind me of its existence. And the existence caused me to strive for another glimpse.
This is not an easy fix. It’s a committed, every day practice. It’s looking at what scares you the most and letting it come anyway.
Am I less afraid for this practice?
No. But I am braver. Because I have faced down my worst fears and survived. And now I am free to face other fears and see what life will bring.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please reach out to a licensed provider. This blog is not meant to be used as a tool to diagnose and treat mental illness, but to document my experience with this struggle and what worked for me.
RW Hague is a registered nurse with over eight years of experience within the medical field. Using her medical expertise, she writes stories that are gritty and compelling.