There’s a theme here.

Over the last three months, I’ve observed a narrowing of my physical anxiety triggers to very specific instances:

*that time of the month

*when I come down with a cold

*when I drink alcohol

These scenarios share a theme. This theme didn’t occur to me until recently, when I caught a mercifully mild version of the plague that’s been circulating among my associates and loved ones. I said aloud to myself, “I just hate not feeling like myself” — and the proverbial light bulb clicked on.

My period. Feeling sick. Being a little tipsy. In all of these situations, I don’t feel in total control of my own body. Biochemical forces out of my control alter the sensations in my body, and those altered sensations trigger my anxiety. Feeling tired or weak during menstruation or a cold leads me to feel panicked, and I start to wonder if I might faint. The same sensations and thoughts occur when I’ve had any amount of alcohol.

Anxiety feeds on uncertainty, and in my case, a need to be in control. Not necessarily in control of others or of all situations, but of myself — my feelings and my lived experience. I have a long history of controlling my own feelings, so it isn’t shocking that my body freaks out when I lose control over how I feel physically. That loss of control over physical sensations, or their predictability, is exactly what triggered my panic disorder over the summer. When my brain threw a curve ball at my body, I freaked out, which of course prompted my body to continue throwing curve balls. (My sports analogies will end there, I promise. I don’t know how to write with them. I probably didn’t even use “curve ball” correctly.)

Do any readers with anxiety find your triggers have “themes”? Comment below!

 

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It’s 5 0’clock somewhere…just not here.

On New Year’s Eve, I had my first “normal” alcoholic beverage in 5 months. It was a champagne Jell-O shot. And several sips of my boyfriend’s cocktail. And I felt…fine.

Yes, my tolerance of alcohol has decreased substantially after months of abstaining from drinking. But that’s not why I thought I might not be fine after my sparklingly purple Jell-O shot. The first time I tried drinking wine after developing anxiety, I felt its effects immediately — well before any alcohol could have possibly entered my bloodstream. The mere taste of the wine was enough to make me feel drugged, and then to send me into an anxiety spiral. I tried drinking a couple of times after that, but never more than a sip at a time. I was able to manage a sip. But I feared how I might feel if I drank more.

Some time around Christmas, I realized that that’s what my problem has been: I fear alcohol now. It’s become an anxiety trigger for me. I’ve transformed from the beer snob, the girl whose go-to order was a strong gin & tonic, and the dirty martini enthusiast to someone who brings her own seltzer to parties. (It’s festive! It has bubbles! Throw a lime in and you’ve got part of a cocktail!) I’ve visited my favorite watering holes less and less, even though the staff always cheerfully pour me a cranberry spritzer or other mocktail. When I sit in a bar now, I miss the beer and wine and cocktails, and my former existence as an indefatigable social butterfly armed with a drink in her hand. I have also experienced fear when I drink my mocktail (“Did that bartender who doesn’t know me hear what I said? Did he take my order correctly? I think I taste vodka.”) or when I sip a companion’s beer (“Am I dizzy already? I feel faint. It can’t be from the beer. I’m just imagining it.“).

As my anxiety has lessened and become more manageable, I’ve attempted drinking again, with some help from my therapist. (Yes, I am using therapy to start drinking. While I could easily go the rest of my life without drinking and be totally healthy, I felt the need to face this trigger. I don’t want to give my anxiety any hiding places.) She taught me a phrase I hadn’t heard before: anticipatory anxiety. Because I feared that alcohol would make me anxious, that very fear and anticipation caused anxiety before the alcohol could even reach my stomach. So, I’ve started to approach drinking with a sense of curiosity. “Let’s see how this goes. Even if it feels unpleasant, that feeling won’t last very long. I bet this beer will taste good. I wonder how this wine will complement this meal.”

I never attempt drinking when I’m feeling anxious or tired — I don’t want to set myself up for failure — but rather when I’m in a good mood and alert. Beginning with my New Year’s Eve Jell-O shot, I’ve worked myself up to a glass of beer on a couple of weekends, a glass of wine one time, and even most of a bellini on two occasions. In most of these instances, I felt like I had had two or three drinks, mainly because I felt tired or full. But I didn’t feel anxious. I felt…festive. Comfortable. Relaxed. In control.

I haven’t tried drinking again in the last several weeks, because I’ve been more anxious and maybe-depressed-I’m-not-sure (more on that in another post) lately. The next time I have a good week, though, I’ll raise a glass to myself, with curiosity and wonder.

To Love Yourself Is To Know Yourself

I’ve never seen any life transformation that didn’t begin with the person in question finally getting sick of their own bullshit. — Elizabeth Gilbert

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art by Carrie Hilgert

Therapy is great. It is particularly great when your therapist knows you better than you know yourself. My therapist isn’t quite there yet, but I have a friend who is. She has always been able to read me like a book, even/especially when I’m not admitting things to myself.

What she knows about me, and has been able to articulate in ways others have not, is this: Most who know me would describe me as assertive, strong-willed, all about (polite) “real talk”. They would be correct. But those traits don’t always describe me. In one or two areas of my personal life, I’m only sometimes assertive, and rarely a straight shooter (especially with myself). I will work to sustain relationships (of all kinds) that are obviously not working. I will not admit to myself when I’m falling in love or out of love with someone. I’ll allow myself to get stuck in a feedback loop of frustration with manipulative or unpredictable people.

As it turns out, that pattern of not honoring myself is just as harmful as other, more obvious patterns of self-injury.

I never abused substances, but I ignored my inner truth when it told me something hard. 

I’ve never been a binge eater, but I suppressed my gut instincts.

I’ve never starved myself, but I obsessed over my appearance in other ways and engaged in negative self-talk on that topic.

I never developed a pattern of pushing loved ones away, but I ignored negative feelings because I could. I thought my ability to “manage” made me stronger, savvier, more emotionally resilient, better than other people.

I never committed self-harm, but I insisted that things that were not okay were “fine”. 

The biggest gift — yes, gift — anxiety has given me is that it refuses to let me be dishonest with myself. If I’m uncomfortable with someone’s behavior, my stomach will churn or my head will spin. If I need more time to rest than I’m giving myself, my legs will start to feel rubbery inside. If I’m frightened, my chest will feel heavy and my breathing will feel labored. I know that many people without formal diagnoses of anxiety experience those feelings in difficult situations, but I never did. I suppressed my “gut” for so long, and now my body has taken over and insists that I listen to it.

FOMO, feelings of inadequacy, comparing myself to others (or to my own idealized version of myself) — I no longer have the time nor the emotional space for any of it. This means that if I don’t want to do something, and don’t absolutely have to, I don’t. It means that I take. Lunch. Breaks. It means that if I want to go to bed at 8:30 PM, I’ll go to bed. It means that I leave the house without wearing full makeup every single time — something I always thought was fine for other, prettier women, but not for me. It means that I will wear a two-piece bathing suit to the beach this summer. (Note: I am a size 6, and at my largest have been a size 8, but have always felt I was too ___ or not ____ enough to bare my midriff during hot weather. Screw. That. Nonsense.) It means that I devote time everyday to do something kind for myself, like this 30-day program literally called Love Yourself.

As frustrated as I’ve been with my recent limitations, I have never loved myself more. I always saw my worth in what I accomplished, what I could do, how I could make others feel. None of those methods of self-understanding were bad or wrong. They just weren’t the whole story.

I can extend compassion to myself now, or at least try. I love myself not only when I impress others, but when I’m gentle with myself. I love myself when I’m dressed up, manicured and wearing my favorite lipstick (let’s be honest, I will always love that version of myself), and when I’m wearing sweatpants, no makeup and have dirty hair. I love myself at parties and at home reading in bed. I love myself when I make someone smile and when I tell someone they’ve hurt my feelings.

To truly love ourselves, we have to truly know ourselves. I didn’t truly know myself until I developed panic and anxiety. Sometimes, the greatest gifts are wrapped in the crummiest packages.

Anxiety, or just life?

I slept for four fitful hours last night.

I slept with the light on, as afraid of the dark as I was when I was a small child. I watched Netflix comedies on my phone, because even guided sleep meditations were too quiet for my spinning mind. Reading was out of the question. All the lavender oil, chamomile tea and bedtime yoga in the world would not silence my worry. I typically call a loved one when anxiety keeps me awake at night, but I breathed through it on my own this time. A chat with anyone close to me would inevitably turn to the reason for my anxiety, and I could not stomach any more conversation on that topic.

The knot in my belly remained when I woke up. It was loosened by meditation and yoga, but only temporarily. My shoulders still ache. My fingers tingle. My heart races. My heart aches, really.

Sometimes I wonder, as I experience anxiety symptoms, if it’s the anxiety talking or if it’s just life. If I would have felt this way a year ago, before I developed anxiety, under similar circumstances. If I would have stayed awake at night running through any number of geopolitical doomsday scenarios. In my journey with panic and anxiety, I’ve recognized many bodily sensations from periods of “actual” stress in my life: the twisted stomach I felt the night before my back surgery as a kid. The empty uncertainty that followed a major break-up or heartbreak. The racing pulse as I woke up from the rare terrible nightmare. The nausea as I watched the television on 9/11. The preoccupation of my spirit as I felt the life of a loved one succumb to illness or old age.

I will be gentle with myself today. I know am not alone in my anxiety. It is a scary day for many Americans. Not because our candidate lost in November, or because we liked the old President and dislike the new one — but because norms are being shattered left and right. Personally, I fear for national security as much as I did on September 12, 2001. I do fear for the safety of my Muslim friends, friends of color, and my LGBTQ loved ones. I fear for the free press. I fear for my friends who are about to lose their insurance, and whose only source of high-quality medical care is Planned Parenthood. (And, yes, as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, I’m sad about the future of the NEA, the NEH, CPBN, the Department of Education, etc.) Primarily, I fear that we have elected a militaristic, egomaniacal demagogue who hasn’t drained the Columbian swamp at all, but rather stocked it with the fattest fish around.

I’ve always been a fairly optimistic person. Realism and occasional pessimism has come with age and experience, but optimism is my innate wiring. If a situation looks hopeless, I will be one of the last ones still trying to make it work. But, goodness, optimism feels hard right now. Would I feel so awful if anxiety hadn’t already happened to me during easier  times? Was anxiety inevitable, in this world I woke up to today?

I don’t have the answer to those questions. I can only move forward into this day, into this life, into this fear, with love and compassion and determination for myself and everyone around me. Be gentle with yourselves and others today, my friends.

 

 

PMA

Pre-menstrual anxiety. It’s a thing. At least it is for me.

In the first months of my adventure with anxiety, I noticed that my anxiety and panic worsened just before and on the first day of menstruation. I was anxious all the time, though, so I didn’t think much of it. My period generally makes everything feel less pleasant, anyway.

For the second month in a row, though, sudden anxiety has hit me when I’ve least expected it — and usually the day before or on Aunt Flo’s arrival. At this point, the arrival of anxiety is a more reliable sign than cramps or increased emotionality (my usual PMS symptoms) that I’ve reached the end of my monthly cycle. The symptoms aren’t severe or unmanageable, but they strike out of nowhere.

After not struggling with previous anxiety triggers.

When I’m feeling well and happy.

When I’m just going about my day, or am fast asleep.

Sometimes the symptoms subside within a couple of minutes. Other times, I experience a testy stomach, aches in my limbs and general nervousness for no identifiable reason for a couple of days. These feelings disappear as quickly as they came.

Two nights ago, I woke up with a start just before midnight, feeling frightened. If I had had a nightmare, I don’t remember it. I only remember waking up quickly, feeling extremely unsettled. I turned on the lights, as if I expected someone or something to be lurking in my room. My heart was pounding, and my hands were tingling. I noted how fast my heart was beating, which of course increased my anxiety. The muscles in my thighs and legs began to tremor, and my mouth and lips felt heavy and harder to move. “Hey, adrenaline. Haven’t seen you in a while,” I thought. I took slow, deep breaths through my nose and blew long, measured exhales through my mouth. I drank a glass of water, slowly and mindfully. I made a phone call, to get my mind off of what was happening and to feel safe. Within minutes, my lips felt normal. Then my legs stopped shaking. Finally, my heart stopped pounding, and slowed down.  I went back to sleep and woke up fine the next morning — except with cramps. Of course.

Any other menstruating women out there who experience anxiety on a cyclic basis?  Write me! 

 

 

 

 

Year’s End

I haven’t posted here in a while. I have three partial posts sitting in my Drafts box, but I wanted to share something I posted on Facebook this New Year’s Eve:

At some point in August, I said to a friend, “Is it just me, or is 2016 turning out to be a really bad year?” It was certainly full of loss, challenges, and celebrity deaths — not to mention political upheaval at best, political horror at worst.

In my own life, 2016 was a year of *change*, some of it very hard. Three people who were very important to me passed away, two from untimely terminal illness. I went to even more funerals than those. I saw friends’ marriages struggle or end. I developed panic disorder literally overnight, recovered from it, and am left with occasional generalized anxiety and considerable lifestyle changes. Significant relationships ended or changed, and a new one began.

It’s tempting to applaud the end of this very trying year of transition, but let’s be honest: more celebrities will die in 2017. More loved ones will die, more marriages will end, more personal crises will land on our doorsteps like flaming bags of excrement. And if we thought 2016 was a tough year politically, we’d better be prepared for the next four.

I shed more tears and lost more sleep in 2016 than I have in a very long time. But I also experienced great joy. Crisis and heartbreak will show us who our “people” are — the people whose faces make us smile, whose embraces bring us relief, whose voices bring us comfort. The people who will show up for you again and again.

Adversity and uncertainty remind us that Love is all we have in the end – and all we started with, anyway.

Happy New Year, my friends. May you all feel the Love that surpasses words & understanding.

 

Pregnant with Panic

(No, I am not pregnant.)

At moments during my panic disorder/anxiety struggle/journey of self-discovery, I’ve wondered if I really just got pregnant at some point. Becoming pregnant in the past year would be something like 99% impossible, and I tested negative for pregnancy several times in the first weeks of my panic attacks, but my body has just felt fundamentally different since this summer.

Many women have told me that their bodies feel different during pregnancy (aside from, y’know, growing humans in their uteruses), and sometimes continually thereafter. I can now empathize with that element of the pregnancy experience. Despite the tremendous amount of recovery and improvement I can now celebrate, there are some ways in which I’m still not “back to normal”.  Maybe I never will be; this may just be a new “normal” that showed up one night in July. That’s okay. I can live happily with this new normal. But I have had to adjust to many strange changes in my body, and some changes continue to arrive with the changing of seasons.

When the temperature changes rapidly overnight, I feel the cooling or warming through to my bones in a way I never could before. My previous tell-tale signs of an impending cold or virus have all changed: instead of a scratchy throat or an upset stomach, I now experience muscle aches, slight vertigo and a disoriented malaise that I can’t adequately describe in words. And, still, when I drink an amount of alcohol (any kind) that previously would have barely made me pleasantly tipsy, I feel sedated, deadened, unreal. (I can enjoy half a bottle of light beer now; a quarter of darker brews. Progress?) Life events like a break-up, mourning deceased loved ones, and falling for someone new (goodness, this has been a year) have all prompted different and new physical sensations than similar events prior to my panic disorder.

One more thing, a leftover from my 6-ish weeks of hypersensitivity: I now have strangely perceptive hearing. (I should note that I have always been 50% deaf in my right ear, and that that continues to be the case.) It seems that my brain is less able to filter out background noise. I can hear my teapot begin to heat, before it whistles, on the opposite side of my apartment now. I can hear slight rattles in my car, that I never used to notice, over the radio or a conversation with a passenger. As a friend helpfully said this weekend, I’m basically a vampire now.

My readers who deal with panic disorder, particularly those who were adults when you had your first panic attacks: have you had similar experiences? Please share in the comments. Thanks!