Anxiety, Not Just for Public Speakers Anymore.

At one time it was unthinkable to mention, or unmanly to admit, that people had problems with anxiety. I have news for y’all: anxiety is the brain’s version of diarrhea, sooner or later everyone has it and we can attribute to something we’ve done only a small amount of the time.

My family is special; I mean that in the way that people who can’t explain the intricacies and eccentricities of their people say. We grew up in a rural farming area in Pennsylvania where I had to clear first with my mom and grandparents the boys I liked to date in the case we were related. Most of my folks are marginally educated by schooling, superstitious as hell, with little faith in doctors of any sort. My mom thinks that everything can be cured with whatever holistic bible is being sold on an infomercial at the time. Salt treatment and peroxide are two of her favorites. I love them but sometimes I can’t help but wonder if we are a fluke of comedy more than anything else.

Talking with my mom on Saturday, she mentioned that my sister thought her heart stopped in the grocery store. At first I thought she was being funny. I don’t know what sort of funny could be started with, “your sister thought her heart stopped in the middle of Weis’ but I did wait for the punchline for a moment. No. My sister had actually experienced something that made her feel like her heart stopped and she couldn’t breathe. She has seizures so I thought I would ask my sister what she had felt to get a better idea of it was neurological or psychological.

Anyone can have a panic attack at any time. 

I began having panic attacks when I was in fifth grade. They were terrible and it wasn’t until I was in seventh grade for someone to send my mom and I to a child psychiatrist. I was dealing with PTSD and social anxiety. As a kid I was timid, awkward, and others liked to call me weird. Weird is not a label you want at 8-10 years old. My mom laughed when I came home saying they were calling me weird. By laughing at me she made it almost unbearable for me to leave my room. I wasn’t safe anywhere from that feeling of being ‘wrong’ in someway. Now a days she likes to tell my sister that I always blazed my own way. Maybe I learned to embrace that weird girl in order to become an independent thinking woman who doesn’t search for approval; unlike my childhood girl prayed to find. Still, laughing at my concerns made me more anxious and self doubting. Thanks mom!

I didn’t know how alike I was with everyone else.

I won’t lie. It fucking sucked to feel outside looking in for a long-long time. And it was years of feeling like I wasn’t one of the living. I wanted to be.
But I know now that I’m not unique in feeling different, and you aren’t alone either. But different isn’t bad.

My sister inherited the shitty shoe of the family health record: learning disabled, seizure disorder, nervous and sensitive (my mom’s description for both of us), and she really doesn’t like to leave her room–social anxiety. Exchange learning disabled for precocious and she’s me. Together we are a pair of shitty shoes, healthwise.

Talking to my baby sister about what happened to her at the grocery store sounded more than anything like a panic attack to me. The term panic attack didn’t make her feel anymore comfort when I first suggested it than her own fear that it was some new sort of seizure.
Hell, now that I think of it panic attack does sound like something horrible. But fear not friends, panic attack is the scary misnomer for something a lot more simple.
You’re just anxious and everyone gets brain diarrhea at some point. 

Saying just anxious though is marginalizing that sense that there is danger somewhere and you can’t find it. That rush of adrenaline you get is horrible! It makes you hot, or it makes you cold; your body doesn’t know which is which in those moments. The shaking is rattling every part of you, it’s an earthquake on the inside of your body. You’re sweating but shivering. Your heart stops, or it thuds so loud you can hear it inside your head like a bass drum.
Thum-ub, whoosh, thum-ub, whoosh, thum-ub, whoosh…
Your chest constricts, you can’t get enough breath in. Once you get a breath you can’t get it out. It’s like a trapped bird in your chest, beating against your throat. You can’t swallow. Then you realize you can’t call for help. You need help because you are dying and the world is shrinking. You feel you are far away from yourself, like you have zoned out but you feel every organ inside you as it fights in a battle that is surely in your favor for your very survival. Your limbs are weak, your hands shake, your head feels like it’s floating, your heart has now taken up the entire inside of your chest. And you feel it’s possible that you are going to pee or crap yourself. Hell, you may projectile vomit and your head may spin around. Death is imminent.

Yeah–it’s not just you. I’ve felt like that too!

A lot of people feel that. Maybe not to the extent that they may be dying–but everyone feels some or part of that physical overreaction with reasonable frequency. Public speaking is most often the trigger for that feeling for professionals. Other common situations are job interviews, first dates, new school year, moving, holidays and the worst of all–death of someone special. Grief is traumatic and anxiety is a large part of sorrow. All those occasions make normal people feel uncomfortable.
You are normal. Totally human.

But furthermore, there are a lot of us out there that get weak bladders when we encounter something that makes us nervous. I’ve puked a few times, not my finest moments. And there are many of us out there that have messed our drawers. Don’t be embarrassed, you are in the ranks of like minded and soiled underthings. It’s just a hiccup in a long series of times you will want the earth to open up and swallow you. At least you didn’t die right? =)

You are normal. Utterly human.
You experienced something that people call anxiety or panic attacks but really you can call it what it really is: fear.
And try to tell me it’s unusual to feel fear and I will tell you that you live in a land without truth.

What’s more important than the panic attack itself, is that for a large percentage of us, that threat we are sensing isn’t something we can put our finger on. We really can’t pinpoint it. You can’t stop and rationalize fear you can’t find and connect with. I have social anxiety that I can trace to an origin and it still hasn’t helped me calm the hell down when I feel it. I have just learned coping skills, and THAT is the best pseudo-cure in the face of the adversity we call life.

There are a million suggestions that I can give you that have worked for me in the past. Let’s not forget that for almost 35 years I have been trying to get anxiety under control. When I go out I wear headphones and listen to music, or talk to someone on the phone. I need that little insulation from my surroundings so my inner alarm isn’t screaming at every step. I sit where no one can be at my back; I will not sit in the middle of a restaurant. I need to be able to see all the potential hazards. I may not meet anyone’s eyes but I know every exit and bathroom in case I need to secure departure or haven.

And I’ve also challenged myself with the stress reaction of feeling like I need to pee thirty times in public. I tell myself to do it. If I need to pee and can’t get to a bathroom, don’t panic and just pee. I have not had so many of those freak out moments where I feel 8 years old and told I can’t go to the bathroom, since I told myself to embrace that stress. I tell myself that peeing my pants is okay. Not ideal but also not shameful.

Comfort items and breathing are the key for me though.

Learning to breathe is one of those tools you need to become acquainted with when fear sideswipes you. You need to learn it and practice it daily so when you need to use it you know how to do it.
Breathing, really?
Hell yes, breathing!

Learning to breathe sounds silly as hell; trust me, you don’t know how to do it though. It’s not about keeping your lungs going, it’s about inhaling and exhaling to help your body going when it’s telling you to freeze and run at the same time.

I use breathing for more than just anxiety. Being bipolar, I use it to try to control hypomanic times, depression insomnia, and to find some solid moments before I go somewhere public on my own. I also use it not to lose my crap getting angry or upset. It’s awesome for prevention against saying things you will regret in the future. I really like not saying things I will have to apologize for later on, it makes life better for me and everyone around me.

I use the mental pictures for breathing; inhaling lightness in and exhaling the bad out. It won’t come easy the first few times you try to use this Ali-approved method because breathing for the sake of peace is unnatural. Centering yourself is strange, it feels weird at first. But when you have a panic attack, or fear of any sort, you need to inhale peace or inhale focus, and exhale the bad that is starting to pull you down. It helps you find the key to the prison that is anxiety.

I talked about comfort items. Comfort items are the things that more or less anchor you to the real world. I use my necklace, my mom gave it to me years ago and I never take it off. When I start getting nervous I touch my necklace. It gives me that moment where I have something to hold on to and not fall inside my head. I recommend you choose something that brings to mind good, positive things. A special moment. A special meaning. Something that will give you an immediate association to good thoughts.

What makes someone more anxious once they have had a panic attack is the fear it will happen again.
Or they fear that maybe that you have something seriously wrong with them. If you have true reason for concern for your health, I urge you to immediately see a physician. If you find that the symptoms you have continue, and there are no basis for the physical sensations, than you may be experiencing anxiety.

Anxiety isn’t unusual, and it’s not terminal.

You can improve the way you feel with mindfulness and self awareness. Learn to understand your body. Work with it and not against it. If it is sending out alert beacons; your body is trying to tell you that there is something you may or maynot be aware of that is triggering fear.
There is no shame in fear, it keeps humans and animals alive.

If you feel that you need help with handling anxiety I strongly suggest that you check in with a GOOD psychologist or psychiatrist. By GOOD I mean avoid the doctors who are convenient for the sake of conveniency, or write prescriptions willy nilly without knowing your health record. Bad mental healthcare will create further issues and your body will have more reasons to tell you that you are in danger. Do not ever buy or use someone else’s anxiety or psych medication. I recommend not self medicating mental health conditions that are beyond the scope of your own understanding.

All that said, I told my sister to try some of the things that work for me, to let me know if she notices feeling anything further, and let her neurologist know she was experiencing panic attacks. But front and foremost, I told her that she isn’t alone, and that many feel like she did when her heart stopped beating in the grocery store. Fear is not just normal but it’s perfectly okay.
And it’s okay for me and you to feel it too.