My psychiatrist once told me that, for some people, it is hard if not near impossible to stop the vicious cycle of stress. When we encounter a scary, dangerous, or threatening situation, the brain sets in motion an entire cascade of reactions all over the place to help us better survive that event. It could be something literally dangerous, like running across a snake as you walk, or something a little more abstract, like having to give an important presentation in front of the board of directors or whatever. In normal people, once the stimulus is gone, i.e., the snake left or the presentation is over, things go back to normal relatively quickly. The ‘stress circuit’ is shut off and the body returns to a normal state. This involves things such as hormone levels, like adrenaline and cortisol, whose concentration in the bloodstream decrease over time as you calm down. Those hormones are very useful in the short term because they prepare your body for immediate action, and, under ideal circumstances, they perform their function and not much else.
However, there are people like me who either have great difficulty or simply cannot shut off that stress circuit. Once it is engaged, it gets stuck. I have felt it happen to me many many times in the past. I will face a situation I consider stressful or anxiety-inducing – it could be anything: a nightmare, a bad night’s sleep, a problem at work, and many other things – and the entire stress reaction is triggered. Not only is the trigger quick, but it is also much more intense relative to the original stimulus than in a person who does not suffer from chronic anxiety and depression to the level I have. I often know that my reactions are disproportionate negatively speaking, and yet it is one thing to know this and another thing to be able to control it. Even something simple, like maybe not doing the full number of laps around the pool that I had planned, can be blown out of proportion really easily and it becomes a huge thing that generates stress and feeds on itself and other negative stimuli, growing ever larger.
Once engaged, the cycle of stress cannot be easily stopped. Cortisol levels do not go down or go down very very slowly, for example. I am forever being bombarded by little spikes of adrenaline by this or that mundane circumstance which others might not even pay attention to, but which to me appears like a bombshell. Even tiny things, like missing the bus and having to wait five minutes for the next one, will sometimes make me feel devastated. The relative devastation is then amplified by other things which have happened, big and small alike, and the end result is that I spend the majority of the day forever fighting against the jittery, uncomfortable, and electric feeling of being in constant danger by an unknown source that I cannot predict, control, or overcome.
Living in this manner, over a long enough period of time, is debilitating. Since my brain is constantly thinking that I am in mortal danger even though it’s not true, my body is forever kept in a state of alertness and tension. This leads to many minor and not so minor issues, not only in my mind but also in my body. Things like lack of sleep, problems with digestion, increased heart rate and so on are things that I constantly have to deal with because my stress levels are way too high most of the time.
However, I am not helpless, and I have learned several strategies which can help, and which I would like to share now in case they might be helpful for someone else, in case you’re also suffering from strong anxiety which can border on panic.
One of the things that works the best is getting distracted. Something I have done a few times, and which has worked wonders for me, is leaving my usual environment and engaging in an interesting activity for an extended period of time, for at least a couple of hours. It is not easy – when I am fearful and anxious I do not want to do anything which deviates from the routine, because any deviation feels threatening and scary. However, if I find it in me to have the strength to, for example, go to the theater to watch a play, or maybe go to a new restaurant I have never tried, or simply go out for coffee with a friend and talk about anything but the things causing the anxiety, then, upon coming back home, it is much harder for me to just drop back into the usual anxious thought patterns that plague me otherwise. I’m not sure why, but I suspect it is because distracting the mind constantly, for a few hours at least, is enough to sort of interrupt the circuit of stress and perceived danger which is self fulfilling. However, if it is interrupted, then it takes some external stimulus to get started again and, if there are no stimuli, then the anxiety recedes. It is not a magic wand, but it does help, especially if it the distraction is something completely out of the ordinary which takes me out of my comfort zone for a little bit.
Another thing that I do very often to help me chase the anxiety away is what I’m going to call healing affirmations. This is nothing particularly metaphysical or anything. It consists on taking a few minutes for myself and, while concentrating, telling myself positive things that are true. I usually pair these affirmations with simple yoga movements that I have recently learned. I have a very analytical mind and I am a hopeless skeptic for the most part, but I do recognize the value and helpfulness of doing this. My therapist suggested it and I find it is a powerful tool in bringing things into proper perspective. It’s important that the affirmations be true for me. It’s not about saying generic things that I don’t believe or which don’t apply to me. It’s about telling myself very specific things, kind of like counting my blessings and using them to chase away anxious fears which have no real foundation. If I shine the light of reason on them, I will see that they are just shadows which fade away. In my case, I tell myself things like: I am not in danger. I am safe. I also say other, much more personal things, things which directly contradict whatever the fears are whispering in my mind. I visualize getting rid of them as I exhale, and I accompany the thought with a physical motion, as if pushing the negativity away. It works. It does help. I don’t know exactly why, but I think it has to do with the fact that what I am saying is true, and saying it aloud, and training my body to link these things to physical motions, generates positive associations which make it easier for me to let go. Because that’s the hard part… Letting go.
I cling to anxiety in a perverse manner. It is something bad and which hurts me, but it is also something known. It is something which I can face and overcome, face and overcome, and sometimes I can feel myself kind of clinging to it, refusing to let it go. I don’t like it but I’m terrified of what things will be like if I don’t have that constant stressful pressure urging me forward and driving my actions. Through therapy and introspection, I have come to see that all of this comes from a place of deep hurt and emotional trauma which makes me terrified of experiencing anxiety while, paradoxically, refusing to let it fade because living without it brings something unknown which I find even scarier than the known evil. The solution, for me, and I am still working on it each and every day, is to change my attitude towards anxiety when it comes. Anxiety is not a good sensation. It brings emotional and physical pain. It threatens to drive me into a panic attack when I feel like a cornered animal unable to escape it. But anxiety, at its most basic level, exists because sometimes we need it in order to survive. It is there to help us fear predators, to worry about the coming winter, and many other things besides. It is only hurtful and bad when it gets out of control, so I’m trying to react to it when it comes by thanking it. I try to say, thank you, anxiety. You are here because it is my body’s and my mind’s reaction to the fact that they perceive I am in danger, but I’m not in danger. Thank you for helping me when you did, for urging me forward to do things that I might not have done without you in order to survive. You can leave now, though. I let you go. I won’t fear you. I will show you the way out and let you go.
It’s difficult. I’m not always successful because fear and the threat of a panic attack can sometimes all but erase my mind’s logical capacity for thought, and even things which I know to be true are hard to understand and internalize when I feel like that. But sometimes I do have the presence of mind to remember that I need to let go, and sometimes, very few still, although hopefully more will follow, I am able to let go and able to accept that many of my fears are unfounded and that being anxious all the time is not helping me anymore. Little by little, I hope to make this a habit. I hope to be able to react instinctively to growing anxiety with patience instead of fear. The mere fact that I can think about this strategy, and that I have attempted it a few times already, shows that I am making progress, I think.
Finally, the thing that has been helping me out the most in recent weeks has been writing. Having an activity that means so much to me is quickly becoming one of my support pillars. The thing about depression and anxiety and panic is that it separates you from your hobbies and from all the things you used to enjoy. It happened to me. I still haven’t recovered fully – I can’t really watch TV anymore, for example, and it’s been a long time since I watched a movie because I really wanted to. But there’s one activity that means a lot more to me than any of those, and it is there that I have been concentrating my efforts. At the beginning, finding the strength within me to simply sit down and write a little bit was too much for me. I would try and fail, try and fail. It would send me careening into a spiral of negativity, because I would often think that I would never write again. It made me very sad, because writing is one of the things which gives my life meaning, and I would wonder whether, some day, I would be able to return to creative worlds of my own invention.
It took time and constant effort. I essentially forced myself to write, at least a tiny bit, for many weeks. It was different from writing in this journal, because creative writing of fiction takes, for me at least, a lot more effort and concentration and planning. But I really wanted to write again. I knew, and I still know, that having a creative outlet is one of the things which helps my peace of mind the most, and so I kept at it, even when it felt like I was going nowhere, even when it felt like I was wasting my time or hurting myself by trying to do something which I was, perhaps, no longer capable of doing.
Slowly, a story began to form. At the beginning it was hard, and it took me a long time to finish the prologue, for example. However, as the weeks went by and I kept writing, I found myself actually looking forward to those hours I would dedicate for me and me alone so that I could write. I was working very hard on this because writing means so many things to me. It is my way of reaching out, of thanking everyone who has been there for me throughout this harrowing journey, and it is also my way of reaching out to myself, of giving myself the opportunity to express my feelings in a constructive way. Last Monday, after several weeks of hard work, I was finally able to publish the prologue and the first chapter of that story. It was a huge milestone for me, reached through constant effort, and it was wonderful. I’m finding it less difficult to keep writing, and the more I do it, the easier it gets. It makes me feel better overall, not only because it something productive but because it’s something I have fun doing. Having fun is one of the best ways to fight the bad feelings and to help me replace anxiety with positive emotions. I will sometimes find myself looking forward to my writing time, and I know that, eventually, writing will become one of the most important tools to help me heal – it already is, since writing here in this journal is so important to me. Writing a fiction story, however, is the next step, and one I thought I might never be able to take again. Now I have, and I want to keep going forward.
Each of these strategies is helpful in its own way. They don’t always work, of course – sometimes I have horrible panic attacks and I can do nothing but try and withstand them until they go away. Other times, however, I find that polishing these tools is helping me cope with the bad episodes and it also makes them less likely to happen in the first place. When the stress circuit gets stuck in my brain, for whatever reason, these strategies can help me get it unstuck. What follows, sometimes, is wonderful beyond description. I have sometimes felt… Calm. I have felt the worry and the fear fall away from me like heavy packs I am leaving behind. In those moments, I can almost glimpse happiness again. It’s an emotion I thought I had lost, but it’s still there, waiting for me to be ready.
Everyone of us is different. Things that work for one person might not work for someone else. Nevertheless, I thought I would share the strategies that have been working for me in case they might help another. Thank you all so much for reading. I wish you peace and happiness.