Road to Recovery
I was cursed and blessed with a rather tough bought of a panic, phobia or anxiety disorder (Agorophobia); which basically means the fear of open spaces our outside. But that's really way to simple. I was afraid of the anxiety attacks I would get when I would stray too far from the safety of my home. But it doesn't really matter the type of phobia, I think many of the same techniques work across the board. Even Anorexia and Bulimia are sort of a related form of anxiety disorder; or sort of a fear of food/calories, or about not being good enough.
For me, the disorder came on in my 20's after an illness, which is not that uncommon. There was a physical trigger (illness), which messed with my brain chemistry, and the downward spiral began. I addressed it pretty quickly, and aggressively, and I recovered completely. It was difficult, and probably one of the toughest things I've had to do. But I'm a better person for it. This article is just some of the techniques I used to "get over it". Hopefully it can help others.
The biggest first-step is understanding what it was. No one prepares you to recognize the symptoms. Panic Attacks are much more horrible when you don't know what is happening to you. I went to the hospital, once, because I was sure I was going to die -- they stuck me in a room, did nothing, and later kicked me out without ever telling me what was wrong. "You're fine". My blood-pressure had been through the roof, my heart rate was like I was sprinting a marathon, and they say, "it was nothing, go home". They didn't even mention anxiety attacks, "whatever it was, it is over, so don't worry about it". When I went to a psychologist, I learned what it was, and that it even had a name -- once I learned what it was, I had power. I knew I wouldn't die from an attack, I knew it was just my body playing dirty tricks on me. I had survived dozens of them, so I could survive more. I could deal with that. Knowledge of the disorder, and acceptance of the disorder, made the attacks become about half as bad as before (or so it seemed). The more I read, the more knowledgeable I became. Each story I read of people like me, made it easier. I was not alone.
Letting go the first way to get control back is to give up control. You don't have to be perfect, and you don't have to fix everything. Many phobics drive themselves way to hard. Stop it. Lower your standards on yourself and others (without giving up completely). Forgive both yourself for your mistakes, and others for all theirs. Holding all that in will eat you alive. For some of the people I just told them how I felt; I forgave them. Some appreciated it, others didn't, but I felt better in most cases for making the effort. For others, I just cut off ties. They were angry, frustrated, unbalanced, and so on. I couldn't fix them; I let them go. Not usually malice or hostility, just they were drowning and I wasn't going to let them drag me down with them. I also learned to write down my feelings about anything. Writing it down allowed me to clarify it. Once it was on paper, I could burn it, publish it, or throw it away. I could let it go; it had already been said.
Over the years, I learned that my diet definitely effected the attacks, as did rest, stress and other things. It isn't like I would eat one crappy meal, and suddenly I would start having panic attacks, but if I tended to eat bad foods, for a few days in a row, the likelihood of attacks would go up. I cured that problem, I started eating better and taking occasional vitamin supplements. You are what you eat, so I started eating better, and while I think this had a more minor effect than the rest of the things I did, I do believe it has had some effect. Even if it had no physical effect, it made me feel better, and like I had some control (and that was something).
I recognized the symptoms years before I learned what was the cause. Years later, I found out what this was about. It turned out that I also have colitis. This is basically the body's immune system attacking your own intestinal linings. But for years they "just" wrote it off as IBS (irritable bowel). The symptoms are weird discomfort and pain that I couldn't localize, but when it got bad enough I'd lose motivation and get depressed. I didn't even know it. Trigger foods seemed to aggravate it; alcohol, fatty foods, yeasty foods, too much milk or caffeine, or other things like that, my internal alarms were going off, and my body didn't know how to signal me. It seems that the general discomfort and non-localized pain was miswired, and my body would just have an attack to signal me. But eating better helped both the panic attacks and the colitis.
Exercise can be very cathartic. We feel good about ourselves when we exercise, and it seems to release chemicals that help the body, mind and soul. It is easy to say to yourself, "I can't do this", and "I can't do that". Too busy, and so on. Make time. You can. Start slow, and be patient with yourself; but there is something you can do to help your body; and that will help your mind and soul.
Stress management is relearning how to think. Getting stressed out is harmful. Stress is not something others can give you, it is something you must take (or give yourself). Your boss can be a prick, and try to drive you -- but for it to have stress, you have to care. I don't mean start being apathetic about everything, but keep perspective. I will do what I can, I will make the effort, I will try to help others, be part of a team, push myself, and so on. But I realize that a job is not my life, just an important part of it. I am not going to kill myself over some arbitrary date (or list of features) that some middle manager made by throwing darts at a calendar, nor am I going to let that manager drive me into the ground over that date (or some job). Sometimes I lose this balance; but I get it back. I will provide for my family in the best manner I can, but ultimately the thing my family cares about is me being there, being happy, and the giving of attention. Everything beyond the basics (food, clothing, shelter and security) is just extras and not what is as important as being there. I still need to produce to feel good about myself, but I better understand the limits. So I learned to let it go. I watch more events as a dispassionate observer, and have to chuckle at what is going on around me.
Thinking right: Don't get caught in a negative spiral. Phobias, Anxiety Sufferers, Stressed out people, all have a tendency to "think wrong". Their brain is programmed to worry about "what if this, and what if that, and what if that leads to this other thing". They can turn the smallest of events, into the biggest tragedies, "What if I have an attack, and what if that forces me to go home, and what if my boss fires me, and what if my family abandons me because I am a no good...", and so on. Whew. They don't usually think about the positives, "What if I win the lotto" (the stupid-peoples tax as I call it), or "What if I lose my job and it leads to me starting up a business I've always wanted and I become wildly successful". Just start thinking right! When you catch yourself thinking the negatives (and spiraling down), pull out -- start thinking positive. Reprogram yourself to NOT be such a worrywart. I know it sounds easy to those who are not in the mind-set. It isn't easy, it is a very hard thing to do, and you have to keep doing it. But you can change your thinking and the way you approach problems. Whenever I get a negative thought about myself (or the future), I try to change it to a positive one. It's made me a much happier person, and able to take bigger road bumps on the path of life.
Be Mortal. If the house isn't spotless, not everything on your checklist gets done, or you can't solve everyone else's problems, don't worry - it does not matter! Do what you can, but let the rest go. Life will go on. Prioritize into "things you can change" and "things you can not". Make the effort on things you can, but don't beat yourself up if you fail, just try again. Learn to accept those things you can't change. I make lists of things I want to accomplish, in priority order, and if I get a few done, and a few slip - I don't beat myself up over the slips, and focus on the things I did do. The world will not end. I had to start allowing myself to rest when I needed it, and to stop driving myself so hard. I had to accept the injustices of life and my own inadequacies (and mortality), and go on.
Revel in the successes, and not in the failures. No matter who you are, or what you are doing, you are going to have successes and failures. Many Anxiety sufferers tend to "punish" themselves on their failures and not see the successes. It took me a long time to learn that if I was having an anxiety attack, and I stayed somewhere through two or three "waves", and then finally had to go, that I had succeeded (and not failed). I was initially brutal to myself for eventually leaving. The breakthrough was when I learned to be impressed with myself that I had stayed as long as I did (in the face of two anxiety attacks).
Living in the moment. My Martial Arts experience helped, because if I could learn to understand how men woke up each day, to fight with 4 foot long razor blades and face death (and their adversaries), then I could learn how to face my own fears. The Japanese Samurai had codes and philosophies for how to live (Bushido). Each and every day might be their last, so rather than allowing themselves to be paralyzed by fear (of what if), they learned to appreciate everything as it was happening. They called it "living in the moment", or Mushin (no mind); doing without thinking. To a point, losing themselves in every moment. What happens tomorrow will happen, why worry? Plan a little for your future, but don't waste energy somewhere (or somewhen) else. The moment is now. Look at all the pleasantness of this moment.
Meditation. The opposite (or the extreme) of living in the moment, is living in no time or being somewhere (somewhen) else. When a Panic Attack is happening, there are a few ways to deal with it, including to explore the feelings and everything that is going on (physically and emotionally). Don't hide from it, but explore it. Observe it, learn to accept it, it is not as bad as it feels. You take away its control by acceptance. This is a form of meditation, an inner journey. There are other forms (that I use). You can take a little mental trip (transcendental meditation); leave your body behind (mentally) and taking your spirit away to somewhere you rather be. This allows you to disassociate yourself from the pain you are having. Another variant is the time stop, or where you focus on nothing (or moving a ball of energy/Ch'i/Ki) inside of yourself to relax yourself. Eventually, you achieve a state where time for you stops, and many minutes (or hours) can go by in what seems like seconds. I could write an article on different meditation techniques (it is also known as self-hypnosis, or prayer, reflection, introspection, or many other names), but there are many books out there, find the techniques that work for you. For me, these "escapes" helped me cope. It allowed me to conquer insomnia, to give up most anger and stress, and to deal with pain. There are a lot of rewards in using these techniques to "reprogram yourself" to become what you want to be, and meditation can improve your whole life.
Desensitization - Imagine the dentist is drilling your teeth without Novocain, what do you do? Well, if you are an anxiety sufferer, one thing you can do is go back repeatedly. I've had teeth drilled without Novocain - it isn't nearly as bad as facing anxiety attacks head-on. But facing them gives you the power over them (instead of the other way around). Get little doses of the pain, and you can become accustomed to it, and that takes away its power over you. It sounds harsh, but it works. Some phobias and anxieties have to be sought, some will come to you automatically; either way, the sufferer just has to get used to the feelings. My panic attacks came to me (some without reason, most for being too far from home) - I used each attack to teach myself to get more accustomed to what was happening, and get used to it. It is like learning from an opponent every time you play a game, or every time you spar. Keep going back, keep learning, and you can win. Remember to not get discouraged about the failures, and instead focus on your victories and what you've gained.
I also accepted my failures on the road back. I would have attacks and lose ground. Oh well. I noticed the trends, and could see progress over time. Focus on that, and not on the bad days. I learned some secure places. For me, I would get attacks by being away from home. But I learned that I could get a Motel/Hotel room and just vegetate in there for an hour or three, and the attacks would pass without me having to go home. I learned that my care was also a safe place; or that sometimes at a friends house I could just go hide in a spare bedroom, or walk outside by myself. Combined with meditation and other techniques, I got used to the attacks, and they lost their grip on me.
You are what you do. Those 5 words are the most significant words I can teach anyone in this lifetime. If one message gets through, let it be that. Your actions define you. If you let the anxiety control what you do, then it changes you. If you fight the attacks (or accept them, or divert them, etc.), and keep working towards improvement - then you are improving because of them. It is not the winning every battle that matters - it is that you keep going back, and it is the effort made and not giving up. That "tenacity and strength" will define you as someone who is good and positive, and as someone that will not accept what is unacceptable. Just like elsewhere in life, it doesn't always matter if you win, but that you do what you know is right. Stealing and getting away with it, cheating on your spouse, lying (because it is easier than the truth), caving in to your fears, taking the easier path (instead of the right one), taking more than you give, are these the things that are going to make you proud of yourself on your deathbed? You aren't what you did in the past, you aren't what you may do in the future, you are what you do (in the present). Your actions define you, your career choice will define you, those you hang out with will define you, the things you fail to do or fail to say will define you -- you are what you do. So do things that define you in ways you want to be defined.
Also one of the most important things is to consider seeing a psychologist or therapist; especially one versed in the phobia or disorder you have. You might be able to heal yourself, but generally it is nice to have someone to rant cathartic on. They have knowledge and experience in what you're going through; a guide on your journey back. You're not losing your mind because you see one; you're sane enough to want to learn techniques to help yourself deal with stress or a broken chemistry that is triggering the attacks.
These things can be applied to more than just anxiety attacks -- these things not only cured my "illness", but also gave me tools to deal with life and become a much better person. It is for this that I am thankful for what has happened to me, even if I would not wish it on anyone else.