[This post is an adaptation from a response I left for a much younger man in his early 30’s who experienced a heart attack recently. Having dealt with anxiety for the past three years, I thought it worthwhile folding this into my own blog for searchability sake.]
Anxiety was one of the “gifts” that my heart attack left me with 3 years ago. It was during working through that when I realized, with my shrinks help, that my Type A, “highly functional” GO! GO! GO! mindset has been a way for me to numb myself to an underlying anxiety disorder all my life. While I don’t get major panic attacks, I do have a physiological reaction to anxiety that causes my brain to seize up in what one of my Dr’s called “disaster thinking.” When that happens, it takes days, sometimes weeks for me to break out of that cycle. It’s exhausting. I’ve been to ER twice as a result of this. Following are some of the lessons and tools I use to manage myself.
This sucked at first. I didn’t understand what it was to meditate. Like others before me, I also used Calm. The app taught me that all I need to do is sit down for 10 minutes a day, or as often as you can toward creating a pattern and just listen to yourself breath. This is where I think most people go wrong. We tend to think that meditation means “clearing your head.” Well, that’s not it. The point of meditation is to sit down. Count your breaths, inhale, count one, exhale, count two. Repeat. All the while you are bombarded with 1000 thoughts. That’s OK. It’s the millisecond where you see those thoughts and then your body tells you to exhale, you count, and that’s where meditation lives. The return to your shift in thoughts away from the noise and back to the breath. Over time, this can help to remap our minds to rely less upon disaster thinking and more on something that actually helps us to learn how to observe without reacting.
Think about that last line. This is helping me to observe my anxiety while returning to my calm self. Not clear minded or enlightened or anything fancy. But back to me and away from the firetruck alarm bells that constantly wail in my mind. Again, this is over time, but studies and medical pros say that this, like prayer for those who are religious, help to control anxiety and depression.
Daily walks, running, yoga, hiking, strength training. Does not have to be fancy, but a regular routine and achieving a level of fitness helps to keep my head clearer. Gives me a healthy structure that work like guard rails which tell me that I am doing what I can to live a healthy life.
My last counselor taught me about mantras. Little sayings you can repeat in your head to further train your mind away from the anxiety neural pathways, and more toward courage, acceptance and strength. The two I use often times are these:
- Since I am a chronic overachiever, “I am enough”
- And for when anxiety grabs tight, “I am bigger than my fears”
I use these in meetings all the time. My job is to argue with people about technology. It’s fun but sometimes my mind gets the better of me and I walk that dangerous line where my head wants to explode… which isn’t good for my blood pressure. Hence, breathing exercises. From what I have been told, these help lower your blood pressure, lower your heart rate and actually clear your mind.
This is what I do, however, there are more formal exercises you can practice.
- Inhale counting 3
- Hold counting 3
- Exhale counting 3
- Hold counting 3
- Repeat for about 5 to 6 reps
The nice thing about this is that you can do it during whatever else you are doing and no one really knows except for you.
My first counsellor taught me this one. As per usual, I just looked at him like he asked me to put on a dress. WTF?
He told me that if you try to think of anxiety as a person, then you can have a conversation with it. I resisted at first. It was just too granola bar for me. But, I ended up working with him and it turned into an exercise where I would picture the anxiety as my mom circa my teenage years. She would come and check in on me during moments when that was the last person I wanted to see. I knew she loved me so it was not a bad thing. I checked in with her then asked for my privacy back. The idea is that anxiety is not necessarily a totally bad thing. We make it a bad thing when we don’t let it go.
I’m a comic book fan and follower of the Avengers movies. There’s a scene where the hero Thor and his brother Loki are fixing to escape from a bad situation and they decide to use a childhood prank to break free of the guards. They call it “Get Help.” All kidding aside though, I hated the idea of seeing a professional. Talking about my feelings and droning on about what is wrong in my life. My mindset was that I could solve every problem on my own and I did not need some shrink to help me.
Don’t be all macho, work on opening up to others, being vulnerable as Brene Brown touts in her awesome 20 minute Ted Talk.
I’ve worked with two professional counselors since my heart attack and they have really done nothing less than taking a crowbar to my, once, very closed off mind toward learning how to cope with myself. To work through the grief process of having had a heart attack and being faced with the absolute fact that I am going to die and I probably know how it’s going to happen. Another thing I worked through were some devices, some listed above in my tool section, to personify and manage the anxiety and use it more in a positive way rather than a negative one.
Secondly, I talked to my GP about the event when I would need to have a medical plan to treat my anxiety. We have that ready to go as a backup in case things get worse. So far I have not had to pull that lever. But I’ll tell you, it reminds me of a line from a movie where the main the scene is something where the hero is about to go boldly forward and the terrified person talking to him tells him he’s worried. I think the line went something like “I never worry because that means you suffer twice.” Meaning, death only comes once but you can torture yourself over and over again. There is no shame in getting medical treatment for anxiety.
Lastly, try to think of your Dr’s, mentors, loved ones and friends as teammates. They have a vested interest in your quality of life. Don’t forget that they genuinely care about you. When a team works together, it wins.
Learning to live again
This has been something which has evolved over the past two years. My first year I freaked out. I went vegetarian. I started running races. 5k’s, 10k’s, 15k’s, half marathons, 20 milers… there goes my “overachiever” thing again.
This morphed into traveling all over the place, wherever I could, through 2017. This changed into camping and ultimately hiking for me. Getting back outdoors.
Why camping? Well, I live two blocks from my hospital. I work in the same zip code. I am always around help. Not so much in the Olympic Mountains. If something happens out in the wild, it can take up to 48 hours for help to respond to the satellite GPS transponder. In short, I will probably be a goner. It does not have to be that extreme however. This is my vehicle for facing fears. Learning how to draw the line about what I should and should not worry about. I’d rather be the guy who worries about having enough water along a trail rather than whether or not I am going to have a heart attack.
To close this overly long post, find your way. This journey is individual for all of us because we are all different. We do however share a common bond. Life.
If for no other reason, we should dedicate all that we are toward being free from our inner demons. Choosing light over darkness. Living well, being vulnerable, getting naked, having fun and laughing with others and at ourselves for the sheer joy of living.