Anxiety, it’s a nasty thing. Today I woke with an anxiety attack. My heart was pounding, I felt shaky and on edge. To make matters worse it was also really windy out and I could hear something tapping against the house.
With each tap I felt myself jumping out of my skin. What was that? Was it a person? Was someone going to hurt me? I could no longer sleep. I pulled myself out of bed and went to find the noise.
My heart kept pounding and my arms felt weak. I zeroed in on the noise. It was outside my kitchen window. I made my way with shaky legs to the window and looked out. There I saw a wind ornament that hung off the edge of the garage, spinning in the wind. It had spun it’s way over next to the house and was hitting the side of it.
I did what I know I was supposed to do. I took a slow, deep breath, in through my nose and out through mouth and did my best to try and calm myself. I told myself that I was safe and that no one was coming to get me; it was just an out of control wind ornament.
Anxiety can be a paralyzing disorder. Anxiety is a worry about future events. In extreme cases some people are terrified to leave their homes or even their bedrooms because the anxiety has them believing something catastrophic will happen. Those with anxiety have usually, if not always, gone through some form of trauma, something that took them completely way out of their comfort zone and caused them pain whether physical or emotional. Myself, I was in an abusive marriage for 15 years. The constant trauma from abuse left me with a diagnosis of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and anxiety is a part of that disorder. There was a time when I was very sick with my PTSD symptoms and leaving my house or answering the phone was a terrifying and overwhelming thought. I saw even the most loved people in my life as a threat, as someone who could hurt me. To me it made sense, the man I had loved and married had tortured me through various forms of abuse for over a decade. If I could not trust him how could I possibly trust the clerk at the grocery store?
To someone who is not battling the anxiety giant my behaviour today would seem completely irrational. I get that and yes I do feel a bit crazy when I am battling anxiety. On a logical level, I know the grocery store clerk is not going to hit me and I know that if I call a trusted family member they are not going to scream at me and call me names, but my nervous system does not get that. It is on high alert and passes that alertness on to me through anxiety so that I stay on edge and over aware. It is a terrible cycle to be caught in. Many lose relationships, jobs or suffer in their school attendance all due to the fear anxiety causes.
The fear. Fear is a reaction to current events and it is big when it hits with anxiety, but is it rational? No, not really. My first thought when I heard the tapping was that someone was outside about to hurt me not that it was windy and something must be hitting the house as a result. That was pretty irrational of me. I believe to combat those irrational thoughts one needs to understand where anxiety with PTSD comes from. We all have the limbic system in our brain. It is our animal brain and it functions the “fight or flight” mode we all go into when danger strikes. We hear strange noises in the garage at night, we freeze for a moment and listen, the hairs go up on the back of our neck and our body starts to pump extra blood to our limps preparing us to either flee the danger quickly or to fight it. This is a great system built in us that protects us. With PTSD anxiety, we are having that adrenaline pump through us when it is not needed. Our mind perceives a threat and thinks it needs to go into the fight or flight mode based on past experiences.
So how do you combat this anxiety?
It might sound silly, but breathing exercises help. So do grounding exercises. These are two things that focus our brain on the present, what is right in front of us. It breaks the anxious thought cycle. Talking to a friend or a trained third party helps. Doing something creative can be a good release or for some they get out for a walk and burn off some of that anxious energy. It takes time and being very aware of whom you are to combat anxiety, but I do believe it can be done.
Anxiety no longer rules my life. I can go to the grocery store now with no anxiety. Making and receiving phone calls has become easier, but I still do have tough moments like I did today. It is in those moments that I do some positive self-talk and tell myself that I am safe and to just breathe. I might make a cup of tea or like today it was a mug of hot chocolate, hug my new husband and just be safe and calm. Over time my anxiety drifts away and I feel like myself again. It has taken a lot of work; time with a counsellor, some medication and self-exploration to get where I am today. I am not cured, but I am getting there. You can too. Until we meet again…..
Deep Breathing Exercise
Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Count slowly as you exhale.
The “54321 game” is a common sensory awareness grounding exercise that many find a helpful tool to relax or get through difficult moments.
- Describe five things you see in the room.
- Name four things you can feel (“my feet on the floor” or “the air in my nose”)
- Name three things you hear right now (“traffic outside)
- Name two things you can smell right now (or two smells you like)
- Name one good things about yourself
You should feel calmer and more at ease by the end of the exercise. Repeat the five steps more than once if needed.
-Dr. Stephanie Cordes, ND