Seven years ago, with the help of WebMD, I diagnosed myself with a stomach illness. I became worried, withdrawn and felt really hopeless about life. But the thing is…while that last sentence is true, I didn’t have a stomach illness. That was just something my mind fabricated.
I was 24-years-old and something I cared about went away. It was sudden and unwavering. This could be anything depending on the person. A job, relationship, project, sport team, television show…it doesn’t matter. For me, it was my band. My point here is that a void had been created. A place where I invested myself, my time and my pride was no longer there. Simply put, I was lost. And within a month, I wasn’t myself as I began feeling things that I’ve never felt before.
- Heart palpitations.
- Limb numbness.
- Digestion issues.
- Weight loss. (I dropped 20 pounds in 4 weeks. This was very concerning.)
- Loss of appetite. (Clearly.)
- Loss of concentration.
- Inability to communicate. (Severe at times.)
- Loss of passion.
- Loss of energy.
- Unexplainable pains. (Mostly in my chest, ribs and stomach.)
I was a complete mess and I had no clue what was wrong with me. Because it was 2006, I called upon WebMD (which is an anxiety wonderland in itself). Unable to pin all of my symptoms to any one thing, I naturally steered toward the worst case. Which is how I diagnosed myself with this phantom stomach illness. After all, the weight loss and digestion issues were the most worrisome of my symptoms at the time. But again, there wasn’t anything wrong with my stomach. It was something different.
My personal relationships and performance at work (clerking at a gas station) suffered. I can recall an episode at work when my arms and hands went completely numb. My heart was galloping in my chest, I was sweating and I felt an uncontrollable urge to shit my pants. I lost control (not of my bowels, luckily) and had to go sit behind the building alone in the dark. This was my first anxiety attack and it scared the living hell out of me. After calling my boss and having my parents come to take me away, I had no other choice but to see a doctor. And realizing that made me feel worse.
Doctor, what’s wrong?
Nothing in particular. However, the blood work did clear my mind of the worst. My doctor prescribed a few days off, exercise (more on this later) and a short lived dosage of Sertraline (Zoloft). I listened to his orders and some of those terrible feelings began to subside. However, I did not like the way I felt under the influence of Zoloft and decided to give it up after one week.
Still, life was manageable again. But not without change. By this point, my girlfriend of 5 years and I had broken up. I didn’t blame my condition but it certainly didn’t help. I wasn’t able to carry a simple conversation, let alone be a passionate boyfriend. However, as they sometimes do, this breakup ultimately proved to be a good thing. Shortly after the breakup, I found a new job that required me to move out of state. This was good. It was my first web developer job and was finally something I could take pride in. I was exercising. I was learning. Most importantly, I was happy and I felt like myself (most of the time). Occasionally my digestion would act up, or I would feel a slight loss of concentration, but it almost always passed within a few hours. This manageable trend continued for around 4 years.
Fast-forward to 2011. I am living in Chicago, a business owner with a friend, working a lot and in a great relationship. But a long winter was settling in and the stress of work began to chip away. Sleep deprived, not eating properly and a little overextended, I began feeling the full serving of symptoms from 2006. About a week passed and I was still unable to shake them. This was the beginning of what I consider my current state.
I have an anxiety disorder.
I can say this now because it’s been properly diagnosed and not just assumed any longer. And that’s an important step. I’m seeing a pretty fly psychologist and having clinical massages every few weeks to help manage stress. I’ve been prescribed (and am taking) Lorazepam when I need it. I have mostly good days. Still, I struggle with my anxiety regularly. Sometimes briefly and sometimes severely. This is what I feel when it’s at it’s worst.
- Irrational fear (Sometimes terror).
- Nausea. (Or “panic pukes” as others have called it.)
- Shortness of breath.
- Blurred vision.
- Inability to swallow.
- Loss of concentration.
- Loss of appetite after just a few bites.
- Inability to communicate. (Severe at times.)
- Pressure. (Like an elephant is sitting on my chest.)
It’s terrible. Honest to God, this can seem like death is but a few moments away.
I compare the feeling of an anxiety attack to having the worst imaginable hangover while being stuck in the most terrifying nightmare.
Over the course of the last 2 years I have had roughly 10-15 attacks where I felt I lost control. I won’t explain them all. What is important here is that one of these attacks landed me in the hospital.
My ER Story
A lot of stressful things were happening at the time. The Detroit Tigers were in the playoffs (early stages of sweeping the Yankees), work stress was higher than usual and I was dealing with an unexpected confrontation where someone was insulting both me and my girlfriend publicly (well, on Twitter). All of those elements combined pushed me into what was my worst panic attack to date. I essentially hyperventilated, seized up and was certain that this was it for me. My limbs were numb. Even my internals felt numb. It was unreal. I thought that I was going to die in my apartment. In front of my girlfriend. And on the toilet. It sucked.
My girlfriend called an ambulance and they took me to the ER. I felt so fucked up on the way there. My hands were still seized from the uncontrolled breathing. Even the tip of my nose was numb. Luckily, the EMT helped me as I tried to regain my breathing. She basically said that I needed to pull it together or I was just going to pass out. I didn’t pass out.
I made it into the ER and was introduced to Lorazepam for the first time. It worked. Within 15 minutes, I had calmed down and regained control. After an hour of standard tests, my girlfriend and I walked home hand in hand. With Lorazepam.
Although I’ve shared my story here, the point of this post is help to others who also struggle with anxiety. By trial and error, I have developed some coping mechanisms for my anxiety. Although the medication works well and promptly, I’m not keen to relying on it unless I’ve lost control.
With that said, here are a few methods that work for me. They may work for you too.
Natural anxiety relief tips
- Breathing control. I often use an app called “At Ease” to help realign my breathing if I’m beginning to feel anxiety. Some people use it nightly before sleep.
- Sit and be still. It’s natural to want to pace during moments of anxiety. This works against you. Try to find a quiet place to sit down for as long as you need. When I’m out to eat I sometimes need to go to the restroom for a few moments to be alone.
- Find a mirror. This maybe sound like an odd thing, but for me it’s helpful to actually see myself. I think this helps me realize that I don’t look nearly as crazy as I feel inside. This doesn’t always do the trick but it never seems to make the situation worse.
- Think about something different. Easier said than done, I know. But if you can distract yourself with different thoughts, you’ll feel some relief. These thoughts don’t necessarily need to be happy or cheerful. Just different.
- Do something creative. This is very helpful for me. I’m not an artist by any means (that’s my girlfriends trade), but I do enjoy playing guitar. Doing this for even 5 minutes a day really helps my mindset. It can be anything though. Scrapbooking, welding, carving, drawing…whatever your thing is will work. Just create something. It goes a long ways.
- Exercise. For me, this is bittersweet as I often tie my anxious moments to working out. That’s natural though. When your heart rate increases, your mind associates this with feelings that you have during an anxiety attack. I have to remind myself to take it slow and that’s okay. Whatever amount of exercise I can accomplish is helpful.
- Find a place. I’m almost always retreating to my apartment when I feel that I’m losing control. When I’m home, specifically on the edge of my bed, I feel secure and it helps. On the other side of this coin, however, I’ve also had some of the scariest moments in my apartment as well. Probably because I live in a very small apartment in the city. If I had an entire home, there might be a little nook to retreat to in times of need. Or a cool, dark basement.
- Don’t fight it. This was hard for me to learn. When you are feeling anxiety kicking in, it’s natural to want to fight it off. I’ve read the some people actually yell out loud at their anxiety. For me, this doesn’t help. It only makes it worse. I’ve found that simply accepting and almost embracing the feeling while trying to cope works best.
- Stay positive. Anxiety, while having a lot of physical effects (I’ve shared quite a few today), is ultimately a state of mind. It’s internal. Trying to keep a good mindset is my strongest piece of advice. It’s not easy, I know. But if you can stay positive and confident in yourself, I am confident you’ll notice a greater sense of control over your anxiety.
Last piece of advice
Get a little help, man. Anxiety disorders are very common. Especially in this day and age of office jobs, isolation and way too much virtual human connection. Go and set up an appointment with your doctor. Ask about coping tools. Ask about a therapist. Ask about medication. There is no shame in having a pill when you need it. I was stubbornly against medicine until I had no choice and ended up in the ER. Now, I feel that I have a tool to help regain control when things are at their worst.
Witnessing an anxiety attack
Update: 4-20-2013 My friend, Pete, had mentioned that it would be helpful to know what to do if he came across someone who was having an attack. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that for me it’s helpful to have someone remind me that I’m not in danger and to control my breathing. Also, I’ve found that rubbing my back in a consoling manner helps. It’s also good to be reminded not to pace and to sit and be still. Although, it’s important to understand that the person may just need some space. That’s something you may need to feel out after engaging the situation. Most importantly, don’t you go panicking.
Thank you for reading. I hope you found something helpful or comforting in my stories. Please feel free to comment below. I’ll most certainly respond regarding the topic.