29 Mar Anxiety – Why it’s my friend, not my enemy
This is the story of why I call anxiety my friend.
Anxiety manifests itself in a variety of ways – quickening of the pulse, fear of a heart attack, feelings that you’re dying, terrible feelings of dread.
Beyond Blue define it this way :
“Anxiety is more than just feeling stressed or worried. While stress and anxious feelings are a common response to a situation where we feel under pressure, they usually pass once the stressful situation has passed, or ‘stressor’ is removed. Anxiety is when these anxious feelings don’t go away – when they’re ongoing and happen without any particular reason or cause. It’s a serious condition that makes it hard to cope with daily life. Everyone feels anxious from time to time, but for someone experiencing anxiety, these feelings aren’t easily controlled.”
I’m about to talk about my personal experience and first encounters with anxiety, but as each of our experiences are unique if you want to skip to the true heart of this blog scroll to The Breakthrough. I hope it helps you to see anxiety in a different light and to use it for your own healing.
My first personal encounter with anxiety was in 2003. It was a beautiful day in Sydney so I thought it was perfect time to go for a run. I ran down my street, round a couple of bends, and then I was in a national park. I followed the river, hurdled rocks, ducked low branches, joined paths, left paths and prepared for the final stages of the run. At the end of this particular run was about 100 stairs, quite steep, and when I reached the top of the stairs I was puffing hard, catching my breath. As I breathed heavily a thought suddenly and seemingly without warning came into my head :
– am I hyperventilating?
Immediately it was followed by
– I don’t even know what hyperventilating is
– I don’t have a paper bag
– that’s all I know about hyperventilation.
– what happens if I don’t breathe into a paper bag?
– What if I actually can’t breathe?
– Will I die?
– Omg am I having a panic attack?
Michael meet anxiety. Anxiety meet Michael.
This is the beginning of my story. I have no psychological training. I have no degree, doctorate or qualifications. But I met anxiety that day in 2003. All I have is my personal experience, and it’s a journey that I think is worth sharing.
My next experience with anxiety that I remember was only a few days later. I had a gig on Sydney’s northern beaches so after I parked my car I loaded my PA system and my keyboard to the bottom of the stairs as I had done dozens of time before.
But tonight would be different.
I stood at the bottom of the stairs and looked up when the thoughts came flooding into my head “Look at those stairs. Remind you of anything? Last time you went up a lot of stairs was terrifying. What if you have a panic attack? What will you do if you can’t breathe?” I took the speakers up slowly and with great caution, constantly monitoring my heart rate and breathing with every step as if I knew what normal should be (I didn’t). At the top of the stairs my heart rate was of course elevated from carrying heavy equipment, my breathing slightly heavier, and then my mind started replaying the same words – are you about to have a panic attack? As I focused on my increased heart rate and heavier breathing I started to worry, which in turn elevated my heart rate and deepened my breathing. I felt trapped in my own body – unable to escape the rising sense of panic – well it wasn’t panic so much as pre-panic – it was “what if I have a panic attack?” rather than “I’m having a panic attack”. So I fled. I’m definitely more “flight” than “fight”. I left the equipment on the stage to set up later, the only task that existed was to stop this anxiety. I drove 10 minutes to an all night chemist and was given Rescue Remedy – 2 drops of spirit calming miracle oil to be placed under the tongue every two hours to keep calm, except it didn’t work. But the show had to go on, so I drove back to the venue and setup the PA system and started to play. Within 15 minutes the anxiety was gone temporarily – there’s no doubt that music has an incredible healing power- but that’s not the point of this blog.
A Temporary Reprieve
Over the next few weeks I became terrified of having to walk up stairs. Even just a few of them. I experienced those feelings of pre-panic around half a dozen times before I went to my local GP. The GP prescribed tablets. I can’t remember what they were called, but they worked. Modern medicine to the rescue. They immediately fixed me. As long as I had the tablets I wouldn’t be controlled by those horrible feelings again. Having a drug on me at all times was a small price to pay for my freedom. Cured. Until they didn’t work one day. I started to feel the pre-panic attack again one day so I took a tablet to fix it. But it didn’t. The anxiety didn’t go away and at this point I was terrified – now I was a prisoner again and the only solution I knew of – medicine – couldn’t free me.
The fact that you may have an anxiety attack at any point of the day can be literally debilitating. It can stop you from doing many of the things you love, or even things you previously had taken for granted. Life seemed not to be in full colour anymore. It was all of a sudden pretty much black and white. Worst of all I felt trapped in my own body. I was terrified daily.
I went back to the Doctor to tell him the pills no longer worked, and he sent me to a clinical psychologist. The day of my first appointment with her was many months after my first “attack”. The fact that I had to walk up a steep hill to get to her consulting room was not lost on me – hills and stairs were great mental challenges to me by now. I took it slow and steady so as to keep my heart rate and breathing speed steady as possible. I made it to the top of that hill and took stock of my heart rate and breathing as I had learnt to do over recent months. I walked into her office not knowing whether I could be helped or not.
What happened next was a miracle. An epiphany. An awakening. There are many words for it. But that psychologist changed everything in the next hour and a half.
I told her why I was there – the first time, the panic, the fear of future attacks, the lack of freedom, the fact I felt trapped in my own body and mind in a way I couldn’t have imagined, the fear of stairs and hills, the disruption to my life, the helplessness. I had no idea why this dark and terrifying cloud had settled over me, and why it kept pouring anxiety attacks on me every few days. I felt like Harry Potter being set upon by the dementors. She listened intently, clarified a few points along the way, and nodded understandingly. And then she spoke the words that would free me. I will paraphrase although I wish I had recorded them word for word but here goes.
“Michael you’ve been describing anxiety as if it’s an invading force that’s has come into your life like some kind of evil monster to destroy you. What if I told you that it’s not the case at all and that anxiety is your friend?”
“You know when you touch a hot plate and you feel pain which signals you to remove your finger to protect yourself from serious burns? The pain is an early warning system. Without the pain you wouldn’t know to stop touching the hot plate and you’d get seriously burnt. Anxiety is the same. It’s your body’s early warning system to reduce stress in your life before it seriously hurts you. You actually should look at your anxiety as a friend, an ally, a guardian angel to stop you before stress does you serious damage.”
I was gobsmacked. This was a silver lining on the darkest of thunderclouds.
“Michael are you stressed?”
“No I’m a pretty chilled person and not really prone to stress”.
“I don’t think that’s true. You must have stress in your life – what can you think of?”
“Well I need to clean my house cause it’s always messy and I suppose that stresses me out quite a bit. And I need to get all my paperwork for tax together – that’s definitely causing some stress. And I have a bunch of outstanding bills to pay so I suppose those things do cause stress.”
“Go home and clean your house and do your paperwork and get all that and your bills sorted. Any other stresses you can think of take care of them too in whatever way you can. See how you feel when you come and see me next week.”
She also showed me some simple breathing techniques to use if I felt anxious, but that was treating the symptoms. She had already given me the treatment for the cause.
I left with hope and genuine lightness of being. I went home and cleaned the shit out of my house. And in the process I found a whole bunch of papers I needed to do my tax. I sat in the middle of my spotless and beautifully organized loungeroom and started going through all my tax papers. I paid my bills and organized payment plans for those I couldn’t pay. I sat there for hours, pausing for dinner and some of my favourite music in the background. And by the end of the night I had completed both these tasks that I’d been putting off for months, and as I surveyed the house and the neat folders of highly organized paperwork I felt fantastic. I felt lighter, more relaxed, happier, and had a sense of achievement I hadn’t felt in many months.
And I found myself thinking a thought that would have seemed impossible only hours earlier :
“Thank you anxiety. Without you I wouldn’t be feeling this great right now”.
And anxiety no longer was a monster with wings and talons in a black cloak descending upon me to ruin my life. It was a guardian, smiling and saying “I’m sorry but I didn’t know how else to get your attention. I hope you feel better now and please listen to me in the future.“
Anxiety really was my friend after all. I went back to the psychologist the following week and told her I was cured. And I was, even though 12 years later I met anxiety again.
Running a recording studio is challenging. I thought I had a normal week booked – between 7 and 10 hours each day from Monday through Saturday with Sunday being my day off each week. I had a few different clients throughout this particular week – certainly not overly crazy busy, certainly not overly quiet either. At about 8pm on the Sunday night prior to that week I got a text from one of my clients – the lead singer of a 7 piece band in the middle of recording their debut album. The text read “Hey bro what time are we starting tomorrow?” I looked at my diary. We weren’t starting any time tomorrow. So I rang him. My ex-employee had double booked the entire week – this client was told he and the band had Monday to Friday with me to knock over the rest of the album recording. Unfortunately this was not in my calendar. Even more unfortunately the whole band had organized weeks earlier to have that week off work to spend in the studio. I couldn’t cancel on them. So I had to work from 9am till 3am for the next 7 days straight to accommodate all my clients for the week. And on day two my old friend anxiety tapped my on the shoulder and my heart started racing again.
My initial response, as is completely understandable when faced with an anxiety episode was fear. But then I remembered the lesson I had learned some 12 years earlier. This was my body’s early warning system to alert me to stress. I already felt acutely aware of the stress that week, but my body was telling me that it could be a problem if I didn’t deal with it. I knew I had crazy hours to work that week and that was undoubtedly the major cause of stress. And I couldn’t change that because my clients were relying on me.
So I decided to do the only things I could think of that I could control to reduce stress – stop drinking 4 coffees a day, be near water and play with dogs. Only 5 minutes from my studio in Annandale is a dog park right on the edge of Sydney Harbour. And on this craziest of weeks, each day I woke up 20 minutes early and drove to the dog park to relax and breathe and address the stress. I sat by the water for 20 minutes each morning listening to the sounds of the beach, playing with dogs that came up to say hello. It was a beautiful way to start each day – just time for me and me only. And the anxiety left me within a couple of days.
That was 3 years ago now. I haven’t seen anxiety since.
This is just my experience with anxiety. To me anxiety is something I now am grateful for. It was warning me that if I didn’t deal with stress it could get a lot worse. It was a part of me, helping me. If I meet anxiety again in the future I will once again say thank you, and take whatever steps I can to reduce stress in my life.
I hope this has helped you, and please share if you think it may help someone you know struggling to make sense of their own anxiety. Thanks for reading, and please contact Beyond Blue if you find it difficult coping.