Monday, March 26, 2012

Sitting With Stress

Anyone that has ever had a panic or anxiety attack knows that horrendous moment when it sets in and you feel like must do everything possible to get away from it as quickly as possible. If the attack is bad enough, you feel like you can't breathe, and nobody can go on not breathing for very long. Fight or flight instinct kicks in. It's this that causes people, or at least me, to start to, for lack of a better phrase, freak out. It feels like the anxiety is chasing you and you can't get away from it, and nothing you can do will help. Unfortunately, adrenaline is sure to kick in when we get worked up and only fuels the feeling anxiety. It's seems like a never ending cycle until somehow we manage to get our mind away from what's panicking us - either by a trick we've learned or by distraction from it of some sorts - or the emotion makes us so exhausted that we no longer have the energy for fight or flight.

While it's a relief to be rid of the anxiety or fear, it doesn't actually help us to be less anxious in the long run, and every time that anxiety or panic kicks in we're likely to go through the process all over again. Minus perhaps medication designed for this fact, I've never been able to figure out a real "fix" for these anxiety attacks. So when they happen, I keep on freaking out, keep on getting mad at myself after the fact for freaking out (not to mention embarrassed if anyone witnessed this display of apparent irrationalism), and in the end, nothing changes.

A few days ago I decided I was going to try something different. I often wake with rather unexplained anxiety either in the middle of the night or early in the morning (say 5 or 5:30 AM). Perhaps it's because my brain is starting to wake up and subconsciously mull through all of the stressors (good and bad) in my life. I'm truly not sure. Normally, I respond to this by tossing and turning for a little bit and then getting up and heading to the gym if it's an appropriate enough hour (my gym opens at 5 AM), to try to work out some of the energy. I figure I can always nap later. A few days ago I decided I was going to change things up. I didn't get up and go to the gym or toss and turn hoping to go back to sleep. I simply laid there and let the anxiety happen without fighting it. Then something odd happened - the anxiety slowed down. I wouldn't say it disappeared all together, but it didn't attack me. In a way, it was a bit like a meditation, in which thoughts may come to you, but you just gently let them float away and quiet your mind again. I found that by actually letting the anxiety take it's course, I was able to get through it and not too painfully. I further realized that perhaps much of my anxiety and panic may be, ironically, about having anxiety and panic. This doesn't mean the fear isn't real, it doesn't mean my anxiety is cured or that I'll never have another panic attack. It also doesn't mean that I can always control these when they come over me. But I learned that by just sitting - or in this case laying - with my anxiety, I was able to not "freak out" and not have to distract myself by doing something else until it finally calmed down. Simply put, I just let myself have anxiety. I let it be what it was - a feeling about something that may or may not be a real threat. It gave me some hope that if I can get through my attacks like this, perhaps I may be able to have more control over my anxiety. Not so much if it hits or when, but what to do when it does.  As an added bonus, the fact that I was able to deal with this made me feel good about myself, and I didn't experience that stress that I feel after I have a bad episode and feel like I should be able to control it better.

This being said, I'd assume this technique will be most likely work when the feeling comes on for no apparent reason (or something that's apparent to you but not others). If you are truly in a situation that's outwardly dangerous to you or someone you care about, just sitting there and letting yourself be anxious probably isn't the best course of action (ie don't stand quietly while a truck comes barreling down at you because you're trying not to be afraid). I'm also pretty sure it won't work every time this rather random anxiety comes. Many anxieties and fears have a deep history - whether we know what it is or not - and can take a long time and hard work to conquer.  If this can give you some food for thought for the smaller anxieties though, great. If it can help you ease some them, even better!

I'd like to add a PS here: Stress, anxiety and panic are not all the same thing, though often they all "work together" so to speak. Anxiety can cause panic, both can cause stress, and vice versa. The feeling I tend to get in the mornings that inspired this post is somewhere between anxiety and stress, so I felt the blog appropriately named, and I liked the catchy alliteration. Furthermore, if you have instructions from your doctor that are counterintuitive to this suggestion, by all means, follow those. I just blogged this, as I mentioned, for some food for thought given that it seemed to help me and I hope it might help others. 

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