Sunday, March 9, 2014

My Trip to the Mega-Store

I suffer from anxiety.
When I say that, I don’t mean “I’m about to ask the cheerleader to the prom” type nervousness.  I mean the kind of anxiety that can be debilitating at times.
At its worst, in the midst of an anxiety attack, you can’t think straight.
Everything seems unreal.
You’re shaky.
You’re short of breath.
You’re light headed.
You want to get the hell out of wherever you are.
Dealing with an attack’s aftermath is no picnic either.  Imagine being mentally and physically exhausted to your very core, yet you can’t sleep right, if at all.  Your gastrointestinal system becomes your mortal enemy.  Your muscles tense to where they seem like coiled steel.  You get headaches.

A few of you out there already knew that I struggle with anxiety.  Some of you maybe had some inkling this was the case (and are probably thinking, “oh yeah, that makes sense now”). Many of you had no idea. But now you know.  But I know some won’t make the effort to understand.
I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for me.  Yes, it sucks.  Yes, it makes life a rather harder than it should be.  But it’s a lot easier to contend with than a lot of other problems other people have, so I suppose I’m lucky in that respect.
So why am I being public about this?  Hopefully someone with the same issue will read this and suddenly not feel so alone.  Perhaps some will recognize themselves in some of the symptoms I’ve outlined and get some help or take steps to manage it on their own.  Maybe it will dawn on a person or two that the way they feel doesn’t have to be their status quo.  This may change the opinion that some folks have of me, but frankly,  I don’t care.  In fact, I hereby dismiss the opinion of  anyone who will judge me negatively because of this. In many ways it’s akin to having, say, asthma.  Would you look down on someone having an asthma attack?  I certainly hope not.
So it doesn’t exactly make for easy living, but it still has to be dealt with.   I really can’t help it and I do strive to make the the best of it.  I work my ass off to manage my anxiety,  I work very hard to stay positive (this alone has probably been my saving grace) and I don’t take it out on others.
Anxiety is controllable to an extent, but it’s very unlikely that any kind of chronic anxiety can ever be completely overcome.  I had actually at one point thought I had it put to rest for good.  In my hubris, I thought it conquered… a non-issue going forward.  Never to be spoken of again. Part of the past.  Behind me. Done deal. Of course, I was very, very wrong (and, of course, this means I owe someone a pretty big apology, but perhaps that’s a story for another day).  
Like many things, anxiety is meant to be managed, not defeated.  There will be no heroic final battle in which I defeat my enemy once and for all (that would be super cool though, right?).  Eternal vigilance is the key to success, coupled with some smart and proactive coping strategies (among them: exercise, meditation and maintaining a positive mental attitude).

So it turns out that a young friend of mine struggles with anxiety too.
We had talked about it a few times.  I mostly wanted him to realize that anxiety shouldn’t rule his life, nor should he feel bad about it.  It’s not his fault, but it is his responsibility to deal with, yet he does need someone to show him the way.
So I felt an anxiety attack coming on.  No big, awful thing had occurred to trigger it, mostly it was the accumulation of many little things (if you’re familiar with the phrase “death by a thousand papercuts,” you probably have some understanding of where I’m coming from).  Rather than ignore the attack or hide from it or try to mitigate it, I let it happen.  I decided to take it on. It was an opportunity to show my young friend (and yes, myself) that this could be coped with and anxiety doesn’t have to run one’s life.
I managed to keep fairly level for the next couple hours.  It was a struggle, but I managed.  As I said goodbye for the day to my young friend, I shared with him what I was going to do next… probably the most insane and challenging thing one could do when struggling with an anxiety attack.
That’s right… I was going to go to the Mega-Store.  In case you don’t know what store I’m referring to, let’s just say the name of it rhymes with Hall-Mart.  Or Ball-Mart.  I’m pretty sure you can crack my code.
Anyway, the aforementioned Mega-Store would have to be among the worst possible places for me to go right then.  A crush of loud, rude, anxious people; all bustling about, crashing into one another in search of the best deal.  Aisles upon aisles of merchandise, with the loud din of commerce all about.  Too much sound.  Too much activity.  In short, sensory overload to the nth degree.
So I spent a good thirty minutes or more at the Mega-Store.  I did manage to accomplish my stated mission of securing a pedometer fairly quickly, but chose to walk around the store for a little while, in large part to challenge my anxiety and test my limits at the same time.
I was, as expected, completely exhausted in both mind and body by the time I got home. I more or less felt like a raw, open wound. I woke up the next morning feeling like I had a low-grade flu. Despite all that, I still considered my mission a great success.  I proved to my young friend (and myself) that anxiety doesn’t have to rule one’s life with an iron fist.  I know that trying to make an anxiety attack worse sounds pretty counterintuitive, but come to find out it is actually a therapeutically sound technique.  
“Paradoxical intention. The goal of this exercise is to trigger a panic attack and stand up to it, thereby feeling in control of what frightens you. Go into the feared situation with the tools you’ve learned, and perhaps with a friend for support, and actually dare the attack to happen. This can help you train yourself to not be afraid of the situation, and give you an opportunity to learn from it.”
Mission accomplished…. in a major way.  Better yet: a big, fat middle finger to anxiety.  I’ll be far more in control the next time it decides to rear its ugly head and hopefully my young friend will as well.

I look back and see how contending with anxiety has impacted virtually every corner of my life.  It has affected my career, love life, friendships, family life and even my writing.  It was my status quo for a good, long time.  I just accepted it and lived with it for most of my life.  I knew things weren’t quite right ever since my early teens, but I thought I was just a little off.  There are moments now when I resent that no one helped me back then while I very obviously struggled, but I just as quickly put that behind me. While it would have been great to get some help when I was younger, it is my responsibility to manage it now as well as help others.
The anxiety had become more and more of a problem over the past couple months.  A friend had passed away early in the year which caused me to step back and very seriously reflect on my life.  I looked at my past, present and future with renewed clarity.  While I have much to be proud of, I also saw where I had wasted much time, potential and opportunity.  I started to let myself feel very badly about that, rather than use those regrets as a spur to achievement.  Despite that, I managed to move forward (a little) with an unfinished writing project.  I was right at the cusp of breaking through to that proverbial next level.  I was right there, just at the summit of the next mountain, when anxiety and his best buddy fear of failure conspired to kick me back down.
I wasn’t having it.  Not this time.
I metaphorically stood back up, dusted myself off and began another ascent. And another. And another. It was near impossible to gain any traction.  The stress and anxiety became more of a constant and a heavier burden than ever before, to where those around me started to notice the change in my demeanor.  I was exhausted all the time.  I wasn’t my usual friendly, enthusiastic self.  In short, I was about as much fun to be around as a stick.  
Between being called out on my state of being and trying to help my young friend, I soon came to realize that I had to attack my problem at its roots.  A little research yielded a pretty good plan, one that might help you if you have the same struggle:
  • Exercise: Releasing some endorphins is always a good thing, no matter the circumstances.  I’m not saying you have to take on something on the level of P90X.  Just move and move with purpose.  Go for a walk or jog.  Do some yoga or kickboxing.  You might even enjoy yourself.  
  • Sleep and relaxation: Dealing with anxiety tends to wreak havoc on one’s sleep patterns, which makes it all the important to, at minimum make sure you relax.  Watch a movie.  read a good book.  Vegetate on the couch.  I’m pretty sure you can come up with a lengthy list of your own.
  • Meditation: I don’t mean you have to sit lotus style in a dimly lit room and say “om”.  Think “quiet stillness” and you’re on the right track.
  • Diet: Healthy, healthy, healthy… heavy on the fruits, nuts and veggies.
  • Mindfulness:  Specifically, be aware of your thoughts and how they lead to anxiety.  Doing so will often enable you to put the lie to some of those thoughts, which is very powerful and helpful.
  • Challenge it: Like I did above… poke the bear.  Take on an anxiety attack.  You may just find you’ll survive it and you may just find it’s not as bad as you had anticipated.
  • Challenge yourself: Gradually expand your comfort zone.  Living with anxiety can often lead to retreating from challenges.  The solution is to take them on little by little, one at a time.
  • Don’t be a hermit: I tend to withdraw at times, which is actually counter-productive.  Try your best to spend time engaged in fun activities with positive people.
  • Live in the present: This is tough, especially for a goal-oriented person such as myself.  That said, I do understand that the future can be fraught with worry and the past might be a litany of regrets.  The only moment you can control is right now.  The present is when you can choose your reaction to the past and take action to improve your future.
  • Stay positive: A dose of positive thinking goes a long, long way.  
A word of caution: while it’s important to be aware of what your issue is (be it anxiety, a weight problem, a chronic medical condition or any of a myriad of other things), be very careful not to define yourself that way.  You are not the “fat guy” or “asthma girl”... you are you, and there are a kaleidoscope of facets to who you are.  The way you define yourself tends to become your full identity.  You are so much more than your anxiety or your weight or whatever your challenge might be.

I hope that if you suffer from anxiety you don’t consider yourself the odd man (or woman) out.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, as many as 40 million adults are affected by some sort of anxiety disorder.  You are not alone.  You are not weird.  You are not weak.  You have a challenge, and it’s one that you are fully capable of managing.  Besides… there are plenty of people who understand what you’re going through.