National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
A Reflection on the Lessons, Value and Finally the Way Out of Anxiety
It is difficult to explain anxiety to one who has never experienced severe unrelenting anxiety. This is not nervousness, the kind we may experience before an interview, it is not fear in the traditional sense, where the sun sets and you need to make your way back to camp in the dark. It is a very unique terror. It is the war within, the battle against ones own thoughts. This battle is dark and deep and terrible at times. Yet, more of that later, first let me tell you my story of how anxiety came upon me and how I found my way free of it.
I will say I am not a doctor and nothing within this article should be taken as medical advice, nor should anyone discontinue any treatment based solely on the information in this article. Please consult your doctor before coming off any medications.
Anxiety disorders are the most common of our struggles in America. It is even more common than depression. The spectrum of disorders ranges from Panic Disorder to GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) and everything in between. Now for me, it began as simply stress. I was in a difficult relationship, and had got myself into a good one as the saying goes. I was with a wonderful woman who had not matured in a few key ways and I had left some of my center in order to engage in this relationship. The details of that are less relevant than this one key: For about 4 months I was intensely stressed. This “stressed” was not panic, it was simple stress. Tightness in my chest, a constant feeling of restlessness, the need to just take it out somewhere, and once in awhile toward the end some difficulty drawing a full breath. The stress continued and I ignored the warning signs. Then one night it happened, a sudden surge of panic. It was as if all the little things that had been on low heat on the stove suddenly boiled over violently. The panic didn’t pass. It stayed with me. This was not simply an unpleasant feeling. It was panic which would not relent. I would run outside and jog for 30 minutes at 3am just to move. All pleasure left me. The pleasure of eating eggs in the morning. The pleasure of seeing my friends, of watching a movie, all of it was gone. I found delight in nothing and worst of all my mind and my thoughts were racing. One after another, relentlessly running. What if this happens? What if she does this? What if I don’t feel what I used to feel? What if I dont get better? When does this pass? How do I get through this? No, not again! and on and on and on.
If you sleep normally every night you may not stop to appreciate how your mind drifts pleasantly from one soft thought to another and slowly you surrender and fall asleep. For those struggling with intense anxiety, there are no pleasant thoughts, there is no peace, no rest, no surrender. There is a battle on. Imagine as you begin to fall asleep you hear glass shatter, gunshots and the screams of your baby girl sleeping upstairs. Now try to get to sleep. It just doesnt happen. You’re awake, you’re up, you’re running, full alert, reading to fight to the death, but with anxiety, there is no enemy. All the same emotion, but no enemy but a situation, or a thought, or a series of thoughts. And so the battle never seems to end.
I have struggled in the past with a few small episodes of this same feeling. One lasted as long as 5 or 6 days. This one was longer, much longer. It was hell. I would try to go to work but I could not focus on work. I am in advertising and marketing as a creative director and I own my own company, so I needed creativity and this feeling is the anathema of creativity. I would try to focus, but focus was near to impossible. I would find myself googling all day anxiety and anxiety disorders. Surely there had to be some explanation, if only I could find it. Work suffered to the point that I was producing maybe 5% of what I was before I broke down. Yet another reason to be anxious. At this point I was worried. I had fought through this for awhile now and no end was in sight. This time I was not going to go it alone without an end in sight so I called my local doctor. He was very kind which was nice to find. He gave me a prescription for Xanex, Ambien and Lexapro. So I thanked him and left.
On the drive to the pharmacy, my mind was racing. I have not had an easy life. My childhood was hard, damn hard. I was neglected, abused and lost for many many years trying to find who I was and what love and God meant to me. But through all this I had never gone on an anti-depressent. Maybe I should have, but I powered through and I never wanted to be on a pill. I loved my mind, the clarity of my thoughts, the depth of my feeling, the power behind it. I had started 3 companies and was successful. I had debates late into the night about the nature of God, original sin, love, unconditional and otherwise, and I loved the power of reason. I hated the notion of anything dulling this power or inuring me to the depth of thought and feeling. I would often sit in fields and read poems and let the wind wash over my face and think of the gift of life with such fondness. I feared losing all this. But hey, fear is what got me here right so I thought maybe this time was different. Maybe I needed some kind of special help because I felt nearly helpless.
In the weeks that followed I ended up taking Xanax, without the Lexapro, trying to get through hard nights. Ambien helped me get to sleep for about 3 hours and then I woke up like water was thrown on me. Wide awake, mind racing again. There were some intensely stressful events that happened in those weeks that made it worse, far far worse. I started to get thoughts “stuck” in my head. I would obsess on a thought over and over again, and this thought had a fire to it that burned me relentlessly. I swear severe anxiety seems harder than the worse torture in some underground Iraqi prison ever could be. I spent hour after hour researching. I bought 30+ books and read them. I read every article known to man and in the end I was confused. So many opinions. So many kinds of disorders. I seemed to have OCD according to one site. I had GAD according to another site. But the thing that I couldn’t figure out was that I was FINE just a few months ago. I loved life. I didnt worry about everything. Sure I was stressed and anxious about your usual things in life and had occasional phobias rear up but I loved life. I loved my friends, my family, my music, everything. It was all a gift that brought me joy. It was gone now, all of it was gone. I couldn’t feel anything but agony now and I couldn’t not understand how suddenly a guy is rolling along through life and then BLAM! Now you have OCD. It just didn’t add up to me. And honestly after reading thousands and thousand of pages in books and magazines and online and spending hour after hour in therapy, I have to say the mental health community really doesn’t do much to help people with these disorders but confuse them more and offer poor explanations for the onset of these disorders and how long they last.
Added to my regiment was therapy. I was talking to one therapist who listened kindly to what I was saying, but my problem with therapy has always been the same. I know everything I need to do. I have read enough books and I am pro-active enough to know a pattern of dysfunction pretty quickly. I know this sounds arrogant, but they offered little to no new insight and this was $140 a session. I tried another therapist who said he specialized in anxiety. His approach was to dig deep into my childhood to understand why I am prone to anxiety and how these thoughts represent my deepest fears. While I won’t discount this approach, the problem was this: My fears in this state were EVERYTHING. I was afraid of not ever getting better, of not feeling natural affection for the woman I loved, of being hated by God, of being broken, of not being able to make a living and going on disability, of burning out my family and friends with endless struggles deep in my mind so having me list all these out and giving each of them attention seemed again like a bit of a waste of time.
I would like to spend a moment on the what it feels like to battle with anxiety for a long time for those who need to know they are not alone and for the family and friends of those who battle trying to understand what it is to feel this. First, you are confused and bewildered. What happened? Why me? What is going on? This bewilderment is a sort of panic of its own. You were fine, you were functional and suddenly you broke and you have no idea what the hell is going on or how to get out of it. Next you become consumed with a world of anxiety. Its your thought every day, its your life. You drink anxiety, breathe anxiety, ask people about your anxious thoughts, worry about everything, fear everything, try to distract yourself over and over so you can go to sleep, take drugs to calm your thoughts. You run, you hide, you gather strength to fight, you read books over and over, you write journals. You don’t see your friends much anymore, you strain your relationships, you become totally internalized. You live inside your skin and inside your head and slowly, slowly the world fades. You don’t seem to fit anymore. You see people playing and laughing at a restaurant and long to be like them again, just to be care-free for a moment, like you used to feel. You get a sense of unreality like none of it is real expect for the intensity of your anxiety. Because it is so confusing as to where this came from and why it exists, and the mental health community really has no idea either you next start to lose confidence. You don’t know what you feel anymore. You don’t know what you think. You don’t know if God cares, if you’re friends like you if your family loves you. You don’t know if you love your wife. You logically think of course I do and you discipline your mind to act lovingly even though you don’t feel it. You try to let logic rule over feeling, hoping someday feeling will return to make this world make sense. You lose your center and with it that old confidence that you knew how it all worked, and in short you learn some fast hard humility. Next is perhaps the most terrifying feeling I have yet known in my time alive on this earth. The feeling of disintegration. This means you literally feel like you are pulling apart from the inside out. Your identity is no longer available to you. You don’t remember who are and what you believe anymore. You think you do, but its all logic, you can’t feel anything anymore, just fear, constant fear. You are falling apart. It was near this point that I started on Lexapro.
Up until this point I had tried Xanex alone at .25 and I had suffered. Plain and simple. While it had helped a little, it didn’t change my thoughts just helped me care a little less. I had read online about Lexapro and how it was very helpful for anxiety. I figured never mind my pride I couldn’t live like this. My company was failing, my relationships were strained and I was desperate. So I started. And stopped. And started. And stopped. I would take half my 10MG pill like the doctor told me for a day and then say, “No! I can do this alone!” and I would stop. Finally it got so bad I just stuck with it and I made it 5 days. I will say this marked the lowest and most difficult point. I know this drug affects everyone differently but for me it was hell getting on. At day 4 I wanted desperately to end my life. I felt like I was ripped apart inside with no center, no identity, nothing of myself left. I felt I was going crazy. I felt like this was it for me. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a cell at some mental hospital. All the man I was, all the power and beauty I knew I had, were gone here. It was hell on earth, and for some of you, you know what I am talking about. On day 6 I made a decision. Part of the problem with anxiety is indecisiveness. You have no compass of confidence to make choices. So working with my fiance who was there through all of this like few souls could be, we decided that come hell or high water, no Lexapro for a month. This was especially hard because on the night of day 6 I started to actually feel a little better. I asked for my medication back, which I had given her and she said, no we made a decision. I said ok and powered through. The next part of my story is the key and in it I will present the secret I learned and how I learned it and how I got out of this anxiety and how I will never be subjected to it again and why I have that confidence.
In my journey and my reading I came upon many books. One was by Jon Kabit-Zinn called Full Catastrophe Living which was helpful. I began learning how to meditate. I did at times experience deep calm from this. I must say though, this was not the answer, but it was helpful and the attitudes of mindfulness are closely associated with the answer I found. The thing is I worked outside in, thinking my thoughts were beyond my control, because that is how it feels. And while all these techniques were helpful, they never seemed to click with the core issue. I could imagine a deep practice of mindfulness if done fully could really aid someone in recovering, and of all I did and tried I think it was the closest to actually helping so I would recommend it as part of a plan of living we all might have to keep stress down before a breakdown.
I tried prayer a lot too, as I am a deeply religious person who really loves God and tries to live a moral life believing that morality and growth is the answer to recovering from broken childhoods. In states of anxiety I must admit it can be hard to pray as you seem to feel nothing and the thought that God too hates you for a mistake you made adds guilt and shame. I recommend you keep fighting through this though and don’t give up.
When I quit the Lexapro I did so with a plan. I would meditate for 45 minutes a day. I would read my bible and pray. I would study a new therapy called ACT therapy in a workbook I had bought and I would exercise at least 30 minutes a day which had proved to be a little helpful. All of this did some to help. But now I want to share with you the breakthrough.
A little book I had read some months earlier was Hope and Help for Your Nerves by Claire Weeks. I remember loving but I set it down and moved on to reading the next book, thinking surely modern medicine had figured something out beyond a book written in 1969. It turns out I was wrong. In fact, the issue had been far more complicated since her little book and is a quagmire of opinions which leave one feeling more and more confused. So I came back to it and I purchased her CD: Pass Through Panic: Freeing Yourself From Anxiety and Fear. I started reading the book again and for once it all clicked. What no Web site or book seemed to address was onset. I was a normal guy as the idea goes with a successful company and a great life. What the hell happened that now I was suddenly had OCD who was tormented forever more by thoughts he could not get out of his head or worry over a thousand things due to GAD? No book addressed this clearly except for hers. And so I read on. And on. And on. And let me tell you something clearly that is simply my opinion: Put every book you own, your lists of your fears, your other audio tapes, your rubber bands on your wrists and everything else you have tried and done on the shelf and read Hope and Help for Your Nerves and buy her audio CD and sit and listen to it over and over again until you understand what she is saying. Because despite 40 more years of research we have seemingly lost the understanding this beautiful woman had of this illness over 40 years ago when she wrote this precious book.
I cannot speak for every kind of nervous illness, only for those of us who remember being “ok” and just increasingly stressed or subjected to a traumatic event and then suddenly we were plunged into cold water and deep black. For those and I believe all others, this is the way out.
Do not confuse yourself by reading 50 books at once or trying new things over and over. Understand what happened to you is simple. It is not a mystery. When nerves are subjected to stress for long enough (or through a very traumatic event) and to enough of this fight or flight chemical adrenaline, they begin to weary. This weariness is usually felt as a difficult in breathing sometimes, a constant state of strain although not panic and just being nervous all the time. We may be short-tempered and lash out like after a long day of hard frustrating work. After enough adrenaline ours nerves become “sensitized” and this is the very state I am describing in this entire article. There is no mystery to it. You have been stressed too long, worried too long, feared too long or had too much adrenaline all at once and your nerves failed and spun you into a pattern of sensitization. Here your mind races, you worry about everything, emotions are 20x more intense than before and its all negative. You begin a cycle of fear, adrenaline, fear that becomes overwhelming. Then our lives become about anxiety management, we stop living, we sit and fret and worry and panic. Its so damn painful to live here that everything becomes about avoiding pain. Like someone being tortured, they will do anything to avoid more pain. So it is with the severely anxious person. This is how disorders like OCD develop. People find small ways to avoid more pain and anxiety like handwashing. This then becomes necessary to avoid the anxiety caused by germs or any other stressor. Open spaces, supermarkets, people, situations, whatever the case might be. We can call these disorders all sorts of different names, but in the end, its all the same thing: Fear and the desperation to not feel the pain associated with it. So we run, we avoid, we study and read and obsess.
The way out of this is CLEARLY addressed in Claire Weeks’ book and on her CD. Please buy the CD, I have no association with her work, but I tell you nothing helped me more than listening to her CD. Her strong powerful voice, her clear no-nonsense approach and her clarity of thought are like sweet relief after so long of being confused and fighting.
The great key she discusses on her CD is a 4 step process that more and more is being understood to be key in overcoming anxiety, getting OUT of the state of sensitization and staying out of it for the rest of your life.
The steps are:
- Face the Anxiety, the fear, the thought, the situation, the anything that causes you intense anxiety.
2. Accept it.
4. Let time pass.
This sounds simple right? Well its hard. And I read this early on and said yeah makes sense and never really applied it and therefore never got out of my anxious state. I am sitting here writing you this article being now free of anxiety and free of the power it had over my life. I feel again like I used to, I am returned to myself. Let me talk for a moment about why it initially didn’t work for me and what I needed to understand in order to allow its power to actually work for me and cure me from this illness forever.
This step is important. Look your fear in the face. Don’t fight it, label it, or do anything with it. Just look straight at it. Feel it. Let it course through your veins. You’re not running this time. You’re gonna sit with it for a minute. It’s important. Imagine yourself facing a lion. It’s terrifying, you think you are going to be eaten alive. Here I am asking you to face the lion, stare at it and say if you want to eat me, here I am. Do not run, or flee. Just stand your ground and feel panic, fear, a disturbing thought, an disturbing image, a disturbing point of view on a particular problem, whatever it might be. Face it. I know the courage it takes. I know you have it. More than most anyone else may know, I know what it takes and know that the heart in you will be stronger forever for having the courage to face this fear.
- Accept it.
This step is by far the most important of all the steps and one that it took me the longest to understand. So please pay close attention to this part. Acceptance must be real for this process to work. It cannot be the idea of acceptance. You will find if you have struggled with this problem of anxiety for awhile you will notice that a thought has power to it. You feel a fire, or electricity associated with the thought. If you break it down further you will see that in fact two things are going on here. First, you have a disturbing thought, second, the thought hurts, is painful or terrifying in some way. Next fear comes. Fear of these thoughts, memories of how long you have been struggling like this, a dread of this never going away, of things never returning to normal, and so the spiral continues downward. Stress has many physical symptoms. They include headaches, body aches, a sensation of an iron band around your head, heart palpitations, and various other chemical and physical reactions. These usually follow the first thought, or come randomly. It is very key at this moment when a thought feels electrified and when these physical feelings come to do something very different than you ever have done. ACCEPT THEM. Do not fight with them. Do not war with them or try to change them. Do not argue with yourself or try to change the feeling. Do not try to get the thought out of your head or distract yourself. Accept deeply in your soul whatever sensations are associated with the painful thought. Accept that your heart is racing and that is ok. It is just your body reacting to stress. No mystery here. Accept that you are feeling a sense of panic. Just nerves that are highly sensitized right now. No mystery here. Accept it and work deeply to accept it. This acceptance again CANNOT be surface, but must extend deep within yourself. If you think you are too ill, have struggled too long, or are too weak to find this kind of strength, think again. I promise you, you have this power, as it is the power of surrender, not the power of fighting. DO NOT FIGHT. Accept. Accept. Accept whatever comes next. Let acceptance be a coat you wear in the winter of your mind. Whatever comes is ok. I accept it. Say to yourself: Bring your panic, mind, bring your racing heart and your throbing head. I accept it all. I have no fight for you. Just calm acceptance. Bring your worst and I will not fight you, I will lay down and watch it pass over me like gazing up at the stars as they pass slowly overhead. I watch you move across me and just as I cannot stop the stars in the sky, so I do not fight you, but I let you do what you are going to do. If you feel better for a few hours and think “Oh is this it? Am I done? What if? What if? What if?” Stop yourself and say “I accept this moment, and whatever may come next. Panic may come, fear may come and I will accept that as well. I accept all that comes” Stop battling to escape pain. This is a life lesson that anxiety like nothing else teaches. Learn it well. Face the pain, the fear, and then accept it, deep in your gut, accept it. Only now can you truly let it go.
Claire Weeks talks alot about floating, and its another important step. Imagine yourself on water backfloating. Or imagine you are on a cloud just drifting. You don’t know where the cloud is going and you don’t know where backfloating is taking you. You just float. No fight, no war, just surrender and relax into your own surrender.
- Let time pass
This step is hard because we hate pain. We want relief now. It hurts so much, we just want it to end now, but stop and have compassion for yourself for a moment. You have been suffering for weeks or months or years, your body needs a little bit to heal and recover. You will recover. It just needs to work through itself and bring itself back to its center now that you have learned how to let it heal. It will take a little time though. Be prepared to accept anything that comes. YOU WILL RECOVER NOW THAT YOU KNOW THE WAY OUT. Be kind to yourself and gentle and let time slowly heal you now that you have stopped fighting.
I have to again say, Claire does a far better job than me explaining how this works, so please read her book and listen to her CD and it will work for you. This process is what pulled me from months of anxious suffering. I was close to suicide a few times not because I hate my life but because I could not imagine continuing to live in this way. It was horrible and painful beyond measure and yet I am grateful for the experience.
Anxiety has many lessons about life waiting for us if we would listen to them. Life will force us to either grow up or become more neurotic, there is not much of an in-between. Carl Jung said “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” Anxiety also preys on those who struggle with ideas like acceptance and letting go. What we call well adjusted human beings. We all must learn to accept things in this life and we must also learn how to let go. These are not simple lessons and there is no greater teacher than anxiety. In so many areas of life now when something stressful comes up I simply say I accept this moment as stressful and I accept my bodies reaction to it. From here I find calm to move and make good decisions.
For all of you who are struggling with anxiety, be it severe or mild, you have my love. As odd as that may sound from an online article, you really do as I know exactly what it is to suffer this kind of pain and you are not alone. No matter how bruised and broken and empty and alone you feel, you are not alone and more than that you can end this and you can be free again, stronger than when you came, more powerful than you ever would have been without this experience and further along on your journey toward health. Remember that even the smallest effort at the four step process above is a beginning and beginnings are a victory. Once you know the path, YOU WILL RECOVER and you will never be here again, I promise.
In regard searching for the cause of the anxiety and recovery in general: While there is some value in searching your childhood and life for all the reasons for your anxiety, my advice is just to try to bring peace to your life in all the ways that are within your power to control. I do advise you though to not make major life decisions in a state of sensitization and anxiety as you cannot think clearly from these places. But in general understand that you were fine before this happened right? You are in a state of sensitization and everything here will feel 20x more intense than it otherwise would. Rather than digging deep, just work to stay peaceful where you can and focus on the 4 step process to get yourself de-sensitized. So many people spend so much time giving such power to thoughts that really are just intensified fear.
I cannot speak to all the various kinds of anxiety that exists, yet I do believe this process frees us from all of them that I have seen. I have not treated thousands of patients so I cannot claim the expertise of a doctor, but having seen many of them find somehow that experience lacking due to a lack of first hand experience. What I do know is that for the majority of us WE ARE KEPT IN OUR ANXIOUS STATES DUE TO WORRY ABOUT OUR CONDITION RATHER THAN ANY ACTUAL PRESENT DANGER OR DIFFICULTY and this key is what I mean when I say this process works to end the fight and get us back to our lives.
We have spent a lot trying to escape anxiety. It has costs us relationships perhaps, friends, time, money, jobs, careers, happiness, joy, dignity and more. You can end this now, but only you have the tools to end this. A pill might help for a moment or even for months and years, but you must live in your own skin and within you is the power to heal you. You must learn this life lesson to move on from it. You must learn how to stop fighting and accept. Right now, you just got yourself stuck in a rut of fear, adrenaline, fear and this is the way to break that. If you do this and work hard at it, you will be free.
I want to thank Claire Weeks for not only being a good doctor, but for being an extraordinary human being who literally saved my life even though she has since passed away. I thank the woman I love for her unending support even though it was exhausting and difficult. Also, my family for their patience and love to the best of their ability and to all of you who who struggle alone in the dark and have found the power in your own beauty and strength to rise and remember your God-given right to choose your course in this world.
I hope this is of some benefit to those who are afraid and confused and who are unsure what is going on. I ask that you add this wisdom to your treatment plan and see if it does not bring you back as it did for me.