I must confess that I’m feeling some discomfort writing this post because it’s unusual for me to put my personal “stuff” out for public consumption.
That being said, I’m writing this about an issue with which I’ve been dealing for this past year and if I can help others who are experiencing the same, that’s a good thing. (And I’ve volunteered to be interviewed for Beth Kanter‘s upcoming book, The Happy Healthy Nonprofit, this being the topic I hope she’s let me talk about.)
The issue is: anxiety.
I’ve struggled with anxiety off and on for many years, but I felt it was garden variety. Anxiety just before I do a speaking engagement, anxiety about performing well at work, anxiety about my personal life (especially finances). I always thought “who doesn’t worry about stuff like this? It’s normal.”
It turns out that anxiety (and it’s BFF stress) can fester and build for a long period of time and manifest itself in all kinds of ways. For me, it took the form of panic attacks. I had my first one in early spring of 2015, while driving my car. I couldn’t say what I was thinking about when it happened. All I remember was, all of a sudden my heart began to thump really hard, I felt light-headed and dizzy, my hands started to shake and I was having trouble breathing. I was convinced I was having a heart attack, so I pulled over at a gas station and had them dial 911.
The EMTs took my pressure and vital stats, told me they thought it was a panic attack and stayed with me until I was calm enough to continue driving. (They offered an ambulance trip to the nearest hospital, for the record, but I refused.) I felt so embarrassed that I couldn’t tell the difference between a heart attack and a panic attack.
It kept happening. About once every other month, I’d be just sailing along and, boom, a similar attack would hit me. I would guess I ended up going to the ER about 5-6 times over the next few months. Same results each time – panic attack. (My heart, it turns out, is in pretty good shape.)
In early September, I had enough work and life stress to exacerbate things to a ridiculous degree. I think it was the second week of that month that I experienced 4 attacks in a single week. I decided something needed to change – that this issue was starting to interfere with my ability to live a normal life.
I’m not a fan of pills, which led me to find a cognitive therapist on the web. I’m in my third month with the fabulous lady I see and it has made such a difference.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
- Much anxiety comes from focusing too strongly on the past or on the future. Keeping your mind in the present is key to reducing anxiety. (I know there’s a lot of ranting about the latest pop psychology thing on “mindfulness” but I’m telling you, there is something to it.)
- Stimulants, like caffeine, can push you over the edge if you are already feeling a bit anxious.
- Anxiety doesn’t have to be a part of your life. You don’t have to accept it as “just the way it is.”
Here are the techniques for controlling anxiety that I’ve learned so far:
- Keep your mind in the present. If you find yourself wandering mentally, ask yourself “What am I doing right NOW?” Focus on being mindful of your surroundings, what you see, hear, smell, feel.
- Breathe deeply. When we are stressed, we tend to breathe more shallowly, which in turn can heighten anxiety. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, counting to 8, then release your breathe slowly through your mouth, also counting to 8. You can feel yourself relaxing after just a few rounds of this.
- Progressive muscle relaxation. You’ve probably heard of this before. You start with your feet and legs and deliberately tense up your muscles. Then move to your bum and do the same. Then up to the torso, shoulders and arms, then neck and face. It works wonders.
- Reduce or eliminate stimulants. This could be caffeine, nicotine, sugar or similar items that can make you hyper. It was difficult, but I gave up coffee for tea and found it created a big difference. (And got me hooked on vanilla chai.)
I am happy to report that I haven’t had a single panic attack in the last three months. I sincerely hope this post will be helpful to those experiencing similar issues with stress and anxiety.