Stress, Anxiety, Panic Attacks, and the Downward Slope.

Why do some people go through life like everything’s cool, when others of us get freaked out over the thought of walking into Starbucks?

I’ve talked a little about my depression and PTSD, but I didn’t touch too much on the anxiety that comes into play with that. Sometimes the stress of every day life can trigger my depression, and cause me to dwell too long on things that trigger my PTSD.

I am usually pretty good with stress management. I’ve learned the necessity of it, and how letting it run rampant can destroy your quality of life, so I take it very seriously. Even so, there are still times it seems to hit me from all sides and wash over me. I just have to take a deep breath, and duck in.

Truth is, I’ve been on a good stretch lately. Things have been going well; I’ve been busy, productive, and happy. I’ve had a goal I am working toward and excited about (publishing a book next spring), and I’ve been pretty positive. But with one thing on top of another, this week I got slammed hard and I felt myself starting to shut down, isolate myself, and curl inward.

In those times, I have a hard time being around people. I feel like every “How are you?” I answer, is a lie. I feel guilty about not opening up, but afraid of having to stay and actually talk to someone if I allow that truthful conversation to happen. I am exhausted at the idea of trying to explain why simple things like walking into Starbucks or going to the grocery store, are overwhelming enough for me to actually go hungry rather than face the crowds.

I am writing this from the middle of that struggle, now.

The Peak

Sometimes its hard to pin point what starts the snowball. This time around I was in the thick of it, on the verge of a panic attack before I even realized I was getting that stressed.

I had worked the entire month of November without a day off from work (save for turkey day) to make up time I took, for a vacation with my family. (It was worth it at the time). I finally had my first day off last Friday. I had to wake up early for a Chiropractor appointment and then I was going to start making the bouquets for my friend’s wedding before driving up to VA to visit another friend.

I got the call that the friend I was going to visit was actually going to be coming back to the beach, which was a good thing. It also saved me a drive, another good thing. It freed up my afternoon, but it threw off my game plan. It shouldn’t have been a big deal…

Fast forward an hour to me trying to cut a piece of paper to fold a flower, and my hand starts shaking and my chest starts to hurt and I feel like I am having a heart attack.

I dropped the scissors, and sat rocking on my bed, making a mental list of every aspect of my life trying to pin point the source of the anxiety.

Individually, every little thing could have been dismissed as “not a big enough deal to have caused this”. The list included mundane, every day things like, the laundry piling up that needed to be done, the bathroom that needed to be cleaned, the dishes that needed washing, the dirt from the dog walking on the kitchen floor, the Christmas presents that needed wrapping, the bouquets needed making, the book needed to be finished, the painting that needed to be finished to sell, the rehearsals for the Christmas play I had committed to at my Church…

However all those little stressors threw a party and invited their friends irrational, and sleep deprivation, to help push me over the edge to start that tumble down the hill.

The Steep Slippery Slope

Once I had tripped over that edge, it didn’t take any time for me to pick up the momentum for a smashing descent.

All of a sudden, I am overwhelmed with how busy my life is, and how little time I have for myself, or an actual social life. This starts the torrent of depressing thoughts, that don’t have any basis in truth, only  perception… but that still leave me curled up in a ball on my shower floor until I finally cry myself to sleep.

My life was full of all these obligations, and time commitments, leading me to feel like my life and my time were no longer in my control. I was losing control. I like control.

If you read my post How to Breathe Under Water, you know my next step. This is the part where I fold in on myself, and take the hit. This is the point where I slow my momentum by slowing down my thought process. Easier said than done, I know.

When I feel like I am being hit from every side, my brain goes into overdrive and I start thinking too fast. My brain starts racing, trying to find the source and the solution at the same time. This is the opposite of helpful. I have to take a deep breath, and look around.

As cheesy as it might sound, in these moments I love the lyrics to Count your many blessings. It helps if I can sit quietly and focus my brain on what I can see, feel, smell and hear. I look around my room and count the things in it that make me happy. The fuzzy blanket I was sitting on on my bed, the coffee in the pot right next to my bed (don’t judge me), the paintings on my walls that make me smile, the plants I have scattered on every surface (I love having life in my room), the color of the rug on the floor…

I take the time to realize that I am safe, I am in a comfortable place, I am blessed. And once my brain slows back down, and stops overheating, I tackle that list from before. The Christmas play will be over in a couple of weeks. Done. The house will be cleaned when it gets cleaned, I’m not expecting company. Done. I have enough clothes to get through until my next day off when I can do laundry. Done. If I have to push back the release date of the book, I can. That’s the beauty of self-publishing. Done.

Gradually I realize that this isn’t the end of the world. These concerns are temporal. They will pass, they will end, and I will likely forget all about them. I straighten out my perspective.

These things that get me so stressed out, they aren’t actually important. Freeing myself from their excess weight gives me the space in my mind to consider the things that actually are important; the kids in the Christmas play, my friend who was coming home, the people who will read the book and be impacted by the quality of the content that I put in it…

Rock Bottom

The liberating thing about hitting rock bottom, is that it gives you a firm foundation to build on.

Every time I have truly hit rock bottom in my life, I have received the gift of clarity. My perspective from rock bottom was surprisingly optimistic, it can only get better right?  I had nothing to lose at that point, so I was the most willing to take risks. I was looking forward to leaving behind, everything that was behind me. I had lost the desire to continue carrying it all with me. It was getting heavy. 

I want to live the rest of my life like I am at rock bottom. I want that hopeful, throw-caution-to-the-wind, faith. I want that drive to build. That desperation to move on, and forward. I want that fresh start feeling, every morning. I want that liberation in every breath.

Hitting rock bottom hurts. The descent chips away from us everything we were never meant to carry. That loss can hurt, but it also leaves us lighter and able to move forward more efficiently.

So, if you struggle with anxiety and panic, I encourage you to practice grounding yourself. Not in the sense that you don’t let yourself go out with friends… No. But practice holding on to the things around you, remind yourself of where you are; that you are safe, you are going to be okay. Finally, breathe. Let go of all the things you don’t need to carry anymore. Put down the weight, and pick up your hope.

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