“Why I Stopped Fighting My Anxiety Disorder”
My heart beats triple time. Steel ribbons tighten around my chest. This is how anxiety feels. Yet constantly guarding against it just causes more panic attacks, headaches, and depression. So, instead of railing against it, I tried this.
It’s a pretty good Saturday. The sun is out; you watch the dog leap through the backyard sprinkler chasing a squirrel. The bills are paid, the dishes and laundry are done. You’re going to the movies with your wife and teenage daughter tonight and hitting Sonic for burgers and shakes after.
You didn’t do any writing or clean the garage, the jobs you put in your planner for Thursday and Friday, but, considering everything, you’re doing well. You’re a month behind on vehicle maintenance, but you’ll remember to get both cars into the shop in the next week or so. Or you’ll keep forgetting and on the next family trip, the minivan’s engine will explode and the tires will blow. But you will, without fail, go to the vet next week and pick up the heartworm prevention meds for Casey. Monday, the day after tomorrow, that’s when you’ll do it, for sure. I mean you don’t want him to get sick and die. You were going to go to the vet yesterday, but you remembered today, when the vet’s closed.
What’s wrong with you? You shake your head, take a breath, and lean back. Nothing’s wrong with you. Your wife says you’re fine. Your therapist says you’re fine, as long as you keep your biweekly appointments. Stop obsessing about how your anxiety feels today. You’ll trigger another panic attack.
No More Meds Already
You’re an adult with ADHD, taking ADHD meds, but you don’t want to rely on a tranquilizer for your comorbid anxiety disorder. The stuff can make you feel dopey, and as a recovering alcoholic, you like things that make you feel dopey way too much. So you grit your teeth and wrestle with anxiety and panic attacks barehanded. But the harder you work to get a grip, the quicker anxiety manages to slip free and make a mess of things. Since those things are your home, work, friendships, and your relationship with reality, you know you have to keep fighting it.
So you decide to pull on your big boy boots and do something about it. If a tree fell down on the fence out back, you would grab a chainsaw, cut it up, and fix the fence. No different with anxiety. Watchfulness, logic, and willpower fuel your mental chainsaw, and you can spot panic trees, before they come crashing down, and cut them out of there. If one gets by, ignore it. It’s all in your head; take control.
Last Wednesday, you called a friend in New York to commiserate over the death of a guy you were both close to. You shared sorrow and a couple of memories. About 10 minutes in, you felt a twinge in your chest that felt like a warning whistle. Was it just a muscle tic from the first push-ups you did this morning, or was it triggered by something your friend said? You don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. Damn it, you were not going to start hyperventilating and raving long-distance like the lunatic he and you and everybody knows you are. Self-scanning for more signs of an oncoming panic attack, you stopped listening to the friend on the phone. But wait, did you hear him say that? Did he call you crazy? “No,” you said. “No, I’m not. I’m not that nut-job guy I was back then, and I won’t have you talking that way to me anymore.” In full panic attack, heart racing, panting like a rabid gerbil, you hung up and stared at your shaking hands.
After the adrenaline cloud cleared out of your brain, you realized that your friend hadn’t insulted you. Now that you can think about it with a clear head, you remember he’d said that the sudden death of your mutual friend is crazy. Not you. You can’t ignore this one. You replay the phone conversation in your head and you think, “That wasn’t me, that was a clip from The Real Housewives of New York.” You called and apologized.
You can’t get tough and will Generalized Anxiety Disorder away, because it isn’t generalized at all. It’s personal. It’s been a part of you for a long time; it’s tough and it knows you completely. This makes you furious. At least as far back as the dodgeball game in third-grade gym, when you couldn’t catch your breath, broke out in a sweat, and threw up before the ball was thrown at anyone, you’ve had that big, red, clown bowtie of anxiety pinned to your chest, right below your sternum. On its own whim, the clown tie will wake, its floppy wings turning hard and sharp, scaring your heart into triple time and tightening steel ribbons around your torso, until they have pushed all the oxygen and sense out of you. You have nothing but CO2 and paralyzing, angry fear with which to face the people staring at you.
As time goes on, you begin to realize that your strategy of constantly guarding against anxiety, looking for signs in your mind and body of approaching trouble, causes more panic attacks, headaches, and sadness. That’s why I let it go and stopped fighting it. It’s a part of me, like my ADHD, though it doesn’t come with any of the side benefits. Still, I decided to accept and live with it, instead of trying to kill it with drugs or willpower. It took two main changes in my thinking and behavior to make this happen.
How I Make Myself Chill
First, I realized that focusing intently on myself, trying to defeat my anxiety, only made it bigger. And the fight and focus bored me to tears. Looking inward at my worries and my concern about the way I react to them, in comparison to others’ reactions, kept me from seeing other people’s struggles, insights, and joy. Focusing outward, on other people and their journeys, makes my journey much calmer, richer, and more fun. Making myself a little less important allows me to hold tight to what I value when the clown bowtie pops up. Self-absorption and self-loathing and all the inward behaviors I wrestle with are hard habits to break. My twice-a-month therapist visits sometimes turn weekly. I trust the two therapists I see now — that’s right, two. The point is, I feel that a good therapist, who knows the territory and supports where you’re trying to go, is vital in helping you let go of your anxiety.
Second, amid one debilitating panic attack that forced me to pull over to the side of a freeway in L.A., on the way back from a play rehearsal, I remembered a simple but powerful exercise Dr. Richard Gibson, my therapist back in Hawaii, had taught me — conscious, calm breathing: Slow 10-count inhale through your nose, slow four-count hold, slow 10-count exhale through your mouth, with pursed lips. Do it often, he taught me, not just when you’re feeling tense. I tried it for a while, thought I looked silly doing it, and forgot about it. Even after it worked on the side of the freeway in L.A., I let it slide because I thought it was too much trouble to do on a regular basis, plus there was still the looking-silly factor.
Anxiety and vanity are pals. Years later, as we talked about letting go of my anxiety, my present therapist brought up the same breathing exercise. I use it for acceptance and letting go. So now I do breathing exercises a lot — while driving or shopping at Walmart. I’m the guy who doesn’t care if he looks silly as he pushes his shopping cart, whistling to himself. Silently and calmly.