Mental Wellness Challenge.
Last week my challenge had three parts. How did you do? I have to be honest – I didn’t do very well with my own challenge last week. I’m having a flood of conflicting concerns lately and was too distracted to really take time to participate in my own challenge.
Last week I challenged you to take a little time to lovingly, intentionally reflect on your attitude and how it might be helping you or not. I hope you were able to set aside a little time to check it out and to gather a little insight on how your attitude is “colouring” your experience.
I also challenged you to my mirror challenge. I struggle with this one – its really difficult for me and I find that I just “forget to do it”. Intellectually, I realize that I avoid it… I hope that you were better at it than I was. Some folks took some time to comment to me that they really like this challenge and that it was a good reminder for them.
The last part of my challenge to you last week was take a little time to intentionally give some appreciation to a person in your life. How did that go? I know that it is important for me to recognize the contributions that others make in my life and to the things that I value in my life.
This week I’d like to share a little about some of my experiences with anxiety. I have been an anxious person for – well – as long as I can remember.
Anxiety is present in everyone’s life. That edgy feeling that drives folks to do their best on an exam, to get that painting done before the holiday season or make that hard decision. Anxiety is similar to stress in some ways. My understanding is that anxiety is usually situational or temporary.
I tend to feel, have or experience anxiety on a more – constant, continual basis. There is always a dread, a tension, a “fear” – hanging around me. My family doctors – since I was very young – pointed towards something called General Anxiety Disorder. This GAD was the name for my anxiety until I was much older when mental health professionals recognized that it wasn’t GAD, but my ADHD that hadn’t been treated. At this point in my life – I’m not certain I know any difference between the two… because I still experience the same – unexplainable – “irrational” – sense of dread, fear, or impending doom on pretty much a daily basis.
Sometimes the anxiety is what I would refer to as a low level buzz – there, in my core, hanging out – noticeable, but ignorable. Other times, the anxiety is in my face, in my head, taking my breath away, making me feel like I have literally no-where to go – no way to escape it. Terrifying actually.
I feel anxiety in a variety of different ways. I can feel it as an angry churning of knots in my gut, as wire rope like tension in my shoulders and neck, as a prickly hot burning sensation on the skin of my body, as fear – fear of something that I can’t rationalize or as a flood of sensations so confusing that I am paralyzed in my tracks… paralyzed to the point of not breathing. There are certainly other ways that I experience anxiety too.. however these seem to be my “standards”.
I realize that for someone who has never experienced an anxiety or panic attack, this would all seem very strange. I can assure folks who haven’t had the misfortune of an anxiety attack that they are real, they are experienced by many people.
Some might suggest – “just change your mind or snap out of it”. Its not that easy or anyone with an anxiety disorder would simply do just that – change their mind. I don’t know for certain the exact causes – mechanically or chemically – in my brain that take me to anxiety. From what I have read, studied, learned – it has to do with imbalances in certain brain chemicals – the same brain chemicals that are affected by depression – nor-epinephrine, dopamine and serotonin… but its also tied to the hormone/chemical cortisol – all of which are tied to the hypothalamus – a tiny region in the brain responsible for the release and regulation of these hormones. I’m not a brain chemical expert and I don’t need to be to understand that anxiety isn’t a choice, it isn’t a habit or an addiction and its not something that I can just snap out of. It’s a brain chemistry thing for which I, and so many others have virtually zero control over.
I say virtually zero control because, I do – in reality – have some control over some of my anxiety. I have developed some of my own ways of managing my anxiety is positive ways. I can exercise, I can meditate, I can choose to “keep my distance from the fire” and if need be, I can take medicines that help. To be very clear – NO MEDICATIONS EXIST – that can 100% resolve anxiety disorders. NONE. They help, but meds on their own are not a panacea for my pervasive anxiety.
Sometimes – I need to back off totally. I need to get to a quiet space, count myself down using my 5 4 3 2 1 exercise. That exercise goes something like this – there are many variants – this is what I use/do.
- I start with 5 things I can touch. I touch them, identify them, and describe them to myself.
- I look for 4 things I can see. I look at them, identify and acknowledge them to myself.
- I listen for 3 things I can hear. I sift through the sounds in my head, I identify the three different sounds and I describe these sounds to myself as if I were explaining them to someone who couldn’t hear them.
- I identify two things I can smell. I think about what the smells are and I acknowledge them to myself.
- I try to identify one thing I can taste. I think about what I taste, and I acknowledge that to myself.
Sometimes this works to slow myself down – to get hold of myself. Sometimes I have to go through it again. There are times when this, when nothing at all works. These are terrifying times for me. At these times, the relief from the… panic… just isn’t there.
A truth for me is that all that can be happening when I am right there in front of other people. Unless my anxiety levels are at the panic stage – most people would never know that I am in the middle of an extremely intense internal battle.
There’s another side, another reality in the way many people with an anxiety disorder deal with the never relenting fear, panic, uncertainty – and that is through the development of maladaptive behaviours. Some folks self medicate with alcohol or other drugs, perhaps they cut themselves or abuse other substances or activities. Unfortunately – this happens too often. These habits can begin innocently and turn into their own monsters. The use of alcohol, for example, can start as “just taking the edge off” and then the edge is sharper and sharper and then there’s more alcohol required to dull the edge, then the alcohol starts to become the cause of other edges, sharper edges that would require even more alcohol to deaden… and before long at all – there’s more, far more to be anxious about… There are better, healthier ways of managing the disorder.
A few things I wish people knew about anxiety disorders.
- Anxiety disorders aren’t a choice. They are the result of a chemical imbalance.
- Yes, everyone experiences anxiety. An anxiety disorder isn’t just being overly sensitive to normal everyday events. It’s persistent, its real!
- You can’t see my anxiety disorder. You might be able to see some of the results of the way I have learned to deal with the disorder, but the disorder itself isn’t like a broken leg.
- Anxiety disorders aren’t something that people can just “snap out of”. If they were, I’m certain people would – I know I would.
- I’m not just a “nervous Nelly”.
- Anyone looking at my life from the outside has ZERO understanding of what my story is. That is a truth for anyone – not just me and my story. So, if you don’t know my story, please don’t judge me by the mask or the “costume” that I present to the world.
- A good day for me a day when I am able to manage the turmoil inside without letting any of that stuff drip out onto the rest of the world. A bad day for me isn’t something I willingly share with anyone.
My challenge to you for the week. Three parts (this three part thing is becoming a pattern)
- For each of the next 7 days, get at least 20 minutes of exercise. Go for a walk, lift weights, chop wood, play hockey or do whatever gets your heart pumping. At the end of the exercise – take just a minute to recognize how the exercise contributes to your wellness.
- Do a little research about anxiety disorders. Be responsible about your sources of research – there’s lots of “stuff” out there on the Web of things… Maybe learn a bit about cortisol floods, the amygdala, or panic attacks. I’m not suggesting you write a paper or prepare a report, but learn something new about anxiety.
- Share what you have learned about anxiety disorders with three different people. Share with someone you work with, a family member or someone you love, and a friend.
So, that’s it, I challenge you.