I’ve mentioned before that I feature a lot of 1980s music in my first book, “May I Have Your Attention Please.” Only back then, we didn’t call it 80s music. We just called it music. One of the songs that I mention is “Anxiety (Get Nervous)” by Pat Benatar. I had the album Get Nervous, which came out in 1982 and was awesome. It was part of the stack of albums on my record player that I listened to as I went to sleep. In retrospect, it might not have been the greatest thing to listen to before going to sleep: a woman saying “get nervous” over and over again. Maybe that explains all the nightmares! I didn’t know it at the time, but later, much later, I would be diagnoses with having generalized anxiety disorder and ADHD, which is also on the anxiety disorder spectrum, and these disorders were most likely the cause of most my childhood and early adulthood distress. That’s why it’s really easy for me to write about people dealing with anxiety. I have witnessed it both first and second hand. I have treated people with anxiety through therapy. Also, it runs in my family, and since I’m in my family, here I am.
I tend to inflict a bit of anxiety in the lives of my characters. In my first book, not as much, but in the next five, there is quite a bit. I also do a lot to try to eventually alleviate that anxiety, because in doing so, I help myself deal with my own fears and phobias! So I’ll share a couple of little tidbits of anxiety provoking situations that my characters go through. Remember, what causes anxiety for one person could be nothing for someone else. Think about it. Some people keep spiders for pets. Others would prefer to burn the house down if they found a single spider in their bedroom. I’m right in the middle, but I have to admit, I had a nightmare the other night about a spider, and it was 20 inches in diameter. I actually screamed out in my sleep and my partner had to wake me up! But most spiders don’t phase me. I just don’t want them crawling on my face while I sleep. So here is a small tidbit of anxiety that James and Sally are feeling during an interaction involving meeting family:
“James was feeling relieved that Sally had rescued him from the situation. He didn’t want to open the college can of worms with Sally’s grandfather. He had enough to worry about with his own family. Maybe the grandfathers were the reason that Sally was feeling so uptight about him meeting her grandparents. If so, he thought he may have passed the test.”
And here is how Sally feels after having a very disturbing encounter with a school bully:
“Sally tried to speak, but she couldn’t catch her breath. Michelle sat against the wall and put her arm around her shoulders. She sat with her like that until Sally’s chest stopped heaving. Sally took a few deep breaths and recounted the whole story to Michelle.”
As you can see, anxiety can affect not only your thoughts, but also what’s occurring in your body. For me, sometimes, I feel my heart pounding, and I am very aware of it. I might not even be thinking about something that makes me feel anxious, but just the fact that I feel like an organ is about to burst through my chest can make those thoughts accelerate. So when it happens, I start to perseverate over what it might be that is causing the physical symptoms. Could it be that there is something wrong with me physically? Could I be having some sort of heart event? Should I be more worried? Oh no, now I AM more worried! Or maybe, it’s just anxiety about something that I can’t recall. So what could it be? Then I come up with all sorts of scenarios, and pretty soon, my thoughts of anxiety are matching the sensations in my body.
Do you want to know what the weirdest thing it about all of this? I’m a therapist, and about 9 years ago, I taught a group about how to deal with anxiety. I know everything I’m supposed to do to counter anxiety. I know the tricks of the trade. So of course, the moment I feel anxiety, I just use all the coping skills that I used to teach my clients, right? Uh, more like, what coping skills? Oh, those are fine for everyone else, but they don’t work for me! Ha! It’s amazing how that happens. Once, I went to see a therapist in an Employee Assistance Program to talk about my anxiety. She ended up giving me a hand-out of some information about coping with anxiety, and guess what? It was the same stuff that I gave out in my group! I pretty much assumed that this woman couldn’t help me, because I already knew everything she knew. I was stupid.
But it is really hard when you treat people for something, and then you have to deal with it yourself. I think there is embarrassment and shame about it, as you think you should be able to handle this on your own, and sometimes you can’t. That happened to me last year, around the time that the Omicron variant of COVID had been identified, and all of the restrictions that had been lifted were suddenly back in place. My work had been giving approximate “return to work” dates for months, and finally the date was getting closer. But then, there was the announcement. We weren’t going to return to work, and they weren’t even going to project when the return was going to occur. I had been holding my own until that time, but one thing that you must understand is that I DETEST working from home. I do not do well when left to my own devices. I am not a self-starter. I do best when working among other people who are doing similar work. So I was really looking forward to returning to the office. So when that didn’t happen, and it looked like the pandemic was going to last until who knew when, I pretty much lost it. My stomach started to hurt. I lost my appetite. I lost my motivation. Things started to look blurry. I started to misunderstand the intention of others. I was getting hot and cold flashes. My heart was pounding, and I felt dizzy. And every day it got worse, not better. And it went on all day and night. Speaking of night, I stopped sleeping. And when I did sleep, it was not good. I thought up all sorts of reasons why this was happening. Menopause. I only have half a thyroid, so I was positive it was my thyroid meds. My migraine shots. Some sort of heart disorder. Anything and everything. I called my doctor. I had tests run. I went over my symptoms a thousand times. I was in Urgent Care twice in two days. I made medication changes. I did everything I could.
Finally, I was told that I was most likely “just” dealing with anxiety. I was resistant. If it was anxiety, I would have to do some work to make it better, and that sounded a lot harder than tapering off of medications (in retrospect, it’s not harder. Tapering off medications is very hard and can cause a new set of problems). But long story short (too late, I know) I did get help from professionals, and now, a bit over a year later, I am much better, I have tons of hope for the future, I am back in the office 3 days a week (still not enough, but no one comes in on Mondays and Fridays), I have knitted 42 hats, and written 6 complete books. And yes, the hats and the writing were crucial in my recovery. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t figured these things out.
Here are some other things I do to help with my anxiety, and I have encouraged others to do:
- count to ten
- Breathe. I mean, really breath. Become aware of your breath. Inhale through your nose. Feel the air going into your belly. Exhale. Count your breaths. Count how long your inhale and exhale last. Be aware of your breath. Breathe whenever you need to.
- Change your surroundings. Go outside. Drive somewhere else. Go someplace that feels safe. Go to people who feel safe.
- Move your body. When you go outside, move your body around the block. If you like to run, run. If you like to walk, put one foot in front of the other. If you have stationary equipment, jump on. Do it for seven minutes. Don’t push it. Just move. Tomorrow it will be easier, and you can do it longer.
- Meditate. This one is the hardest for me, as I drift away from my focus and have to come back to my breath about once every 30 seconds. But it is the practice that is important. If you cannot meditate on your own, you can find videos on You Tube. Or take a class.
- Yoga. It slows you down and makes you breathe. And move. You can go to class or use a video, or whatever practice works for you.
- Keep a routine. Do the same things in a predictable manner. Go to bed at the same time every night. Get up at the same time every morning. Eat 3 meals a day. Maybe eat the same meals every day if they bring you comfort.
- Do things you enjoy and that don’t take a lot of deep thought. It might be reading a book, writing a book, knitting hats, doing crafts, watching “The Big Bang Theory” over and over again until your family goes crazy, or something completely different. Painting, playing solitaire (with real cards or on the computer), going hiking, taking a train ride, building something out of wood. The list goes on and on. And make yourself do what you enjoy for a set amount of time every day. No matter what else is going on around you.
- Alternative medicine: acupuncture, massage, chiropractic care, naturopathic medicine. Herbal remedies, but only as recommended or okayed by a professional to make sure there are no interactions with other meds.
- Decrease sugar. I have found that this helps me a lot. The less sugar I eat, the less my heart pounds, and that’s a good thing. Sugar increases inflammation, which can cause all sorts of issues. I am not saying to cut it out completely. Just lower it and see if it helps. Give it several days.
- Talk to your support people. Let them know what is going on, and what you need them to do to help you. Sometimes, you just need a hug, or maybe someone to take care of your pets (scoop the cat box) on the days that you cannot. Maybe someone can come sit with you and watch tv. Or maybe they can take you out. Also let them know your boundaries. Maybe now is not the best time for people to come to you for support. Not now, but soon.
- Talk to your doctor. Rule out anything medical that might be going on. Never ignore chest pain. If anything feels different from what you are used to, get it checked out. My father had panic attacks, but he also had a heart condition. Ignoring the signs and symptoms can be dangerous. And if your doctor can’t find anything wrong, they can refer you to someone else who might be able to help you, such as:
- A therapist. I am a therapist, so I think therapy is great. But I’ve also been to see therapists, and I can tell you from both sides, therapy helps. If you have had a different experience, it might not be the therapy; it might have just been the wrong therapist for you. Give it another chance. Sometimes, you can find the root of the problem. But if not, you can still come up with a personalized plan to help deal with the anxiety. There is not a one size fits all solution to any mental health issue. Googling might give you information, but Google can’t get to know you the way a therapist can.
- See a psychiatrist. If your doctor does not want to prescribe medication for you, as some primary care providers do not feel comfortable doing this, have them refer you to a specialist. When I say psychiatrist, I really mean anyone who is authorized to prescribe psychiatric medication. That includes psychiatric nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants. They are also fantastic and know what to do. Just don’t expect any miracle drug. If a medication makes you feel better on the first day, I can promise you that it is not something that you will be allowed to take long term. The effects wear off over time, and you will just have to take more and more. And then, someday, you’ll be taken off of the med, and it will not be a good experience for you. Or anyone around you. So be patient. As patient as you can be with anxiety! But seriously, sometimes, you need medication. Maybe just for a short time, or maybe longer. Remember, it’s just like any other medical condition. If you had Type 1 diabetes, no one would fault you for taking insulin for your health. It’s the same way for mental health medications. They are there, and they can help. They can’t fix everything, but they can take the edge off for sure.
I hope that some of this information is helpful to some of you. I know that it’s hard to talk about mental health in public. But I think the more we do it, the less of a stigma it will be to share our stories. I know it helps me to talk to others with similar experiences. Last year, I was referred to an ADHD group through my insurance, and it was great. I learned so much, and it really helped me. That, along with the help of my professional team, my family, my friends, medication, and time, really brought me back to myself, a place where last year, I could never see myself again. Someone told me last year, “Next year, you’ll look back at this, and you won’t be able to believe that you were even feeling like this, and you’ll feel so good to know that it’s over and you feel good.” I didn’t believe them at the time, but just last week, I found myself doing just that, and the only thing I could say to myself was “Wow. Just wow.”
Here again are the links to my Facebook page, Debby Meltzer Quick Author, and TikTok, @dbmquick. Please follow me on these pages. And please explore my page here at debbymeltzerquickauthor.com.
Have a great week, my friends. And don’t forget to breathe!