An article by my wonderful wife, Ophelia Keys.
I’ll start by talking about my past experience with anxiety (the bad stuff), but stay with me because I’ll then tell you what it has meant for me as a person and an artist (the good stuff!). If you experience anxiety, it may be helpful for you and if you don’t, it will benefit you to understand the challenges faced by the many who do.
From my late teens to my early twenties, I suffered from anxiety. By anxiety, I don’t mean lots of worries. I mean an anxiety disorder that manifested in really powerful symptoms. At my worst I was having four or five overwhelming panic attacks every afternoon.
These panic attacks started with a kind of floaty ‘derealisation’, a tingling in the hands, then an increasing whoosh of adrenalin, strong nausea, a racing heart and a feeling that I was in danger of death or losing my mind. It felt like having someone administer a very bad mind-altering drug without warning. Sometimes when I was out (and otherwise enjoying myself) I would feel a sudden wave of nausea. A powerful shaking would take over and I would feel like I had a stomach flu and would have to find a bathroom floor to sit on, dizzily. Not surprisingly, I became more and more reluctant to go out!
The trouble with panic attacks is that they feel so bad you begin to fear the slightest symptom that suggests one is coming – thus creating an overwhelming self-feeding cycle in which your fear of panic is enough to create the attack. You forget what initially caused the anxiety. You really begin to understand the phrase – nothing to fear but fear itself. The other challenge was that I began to suffer from a kind of adrenal exhaustion and my immune system became very compromised. I was physically weak, experiencing insomnia and bad nightmares, and had a great many infections. I began to believe I would always be sick. I became quite phobic about it.
A kind of turning point occurred in my early twenties when I was put on a course of alprazolam (brand name Xanex) for about a month. My panic symptoms disappeared. The revelation here was that it was a chemical response in my brain that was causing the panic and eventual illness and exhaustion. I no longer saw the panic as being a big, scary cloud ‘out there’ that would come and take me over regardless of what I did. I finally had a sense of control. At least for a window of time.
The down side is that alprazolam and related drugs are mildly physically and psychologically addictive (and can become very much so over time). Even after such a short course and a tapering off period I had withdrawal symptoms including mild auditory hallucinations (just for one afternoon). No one had really prepared me for this. It frightened me! Though it also made me glad that I had only taken the drug for a short period and wasn’t reliant on it. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to wean yourself off it after several months, or a year (if you’re in this position – keep trying, with the help of a sensible physician and therapist. It’s so worth it!).
The other problem was that, although the cycle of panic had been broken, I had no strategies on hand to use when I felt the symptoms return in the future (generally at times of high perfectionist stress – such as examination time at uni). Now for the good stuff …
This is where Cognitive Behaviour Therapy had an amazing impact. I did a few twelve-week courses at the University Psychology Clinic (inexpensive and very rigorous). CBT is a technique that has a very high success rate with anxiety (assuming you can fully commit to the process). I learnt mindfulness techniques and found out how something as simple as slightly altered breathing patterns can trigger the spooky, floaty feelings preceding an attack. I think CBT has a huge benefit over drugs, as it causes you to assess the reasons for your anxiety, gradually identify and catch the thoughts that are triggering attacks, and put in place the support mechanisms you need to gradually let go of extreme anxiety symptoms altogether. It gives you a huge respect for your brain’s ability to rewire itself.
If you’ve worn down a groove of panic reactions, it takes a while, but you can wear a new groove down through patient practice. Another way of saying this is that if you’ve taught yourself to believe the often very strange beliefs people with panic disorders have, you can also consciously teach yourself to believe some more pleasant things (that are factually true!). After really committing to CBT I have not suffered a strong panic attack for seven years (and even that one was a bit of a flash in the pan), and adrenalin is something I now actually enjoy. At times I’ve felt myself going into anxiety mode and I’ve gone back to do a refresher CBT course, which has turned things around again.
If someone you know is anxious, it’s important to understand that anxiety is not necessarily related to the actual size of challenges they face. I’m a pretty calm person, especially in emergencies. I’ve been in life-threatening situations before and not felt extreme anxiety (a little adrenalin rush, sure). For example, I once had an entire car bumper bar come flying at me at speed, narrowly missing me. I have witnessed a person dying from a terrible injury (yes, I was upset by it – but that was a natural response and I recovered fast). I choose to ride horses as a hobby. It’s a reasonably high-risk activity, more so than motorcycling in terms of injuries per hour of activity.
Here’s the point – though they might begin as a response to real events, panic attacks are more likely to occur in the face of imagined danger. It takes a lot of professional and personal support and practice for an individual suffering from anxiety to realise that they’re actually not physically at risk.
Here’s the most important point of all. The knowledge I’ve gained by overcoming panic has made my life better than ever. I feel that these experiences have improved my work as a writer and visual artist, because I’m less afraid to express my real thoughts. I was already pretty confident about this, but now I love pushing my own boundaries, especially in my writing. I also have a real insight into fear and its effects, something that helped me bring realism to my Gothic novel! Another bonus is that I used to feel quite nervous about confrontations but now I see anger and bullying as an expression of fear, and I feel a little sorry for that individual.
When you’ve overcome a deep level of anxiety (no matter how irrational it might be), everyday worries can really lose their sting. I know there’ll be times in the future when I’m afraid or overwhelmed, but I also know that I have the ability to quickly recover and move on into a peaceful state just through the power of my own thoughts and actions. This is an amazing knowledge to have.
The surprising fact is, I feel more powerful in general as a result of having and overcoming panic. If you haven’t suffered from panic, depression or deep grief (and there are few of us who avoid these throughout our lives!) – you may not have realised the incredible ability of your mind to take control, recover and eventually become even stronger. If you’re suffering from these experiences now, you can look forward to learning this for yourself. Yes, it’s hard to believe but, if you ask for help and take responsibility for your thoughts, one day you can look back on your struggle as a gift.
I’ve been able to achieve so much more after overcoming my anxious and (excessively) perfectionist tendencies. Here are some examples of my current work. If you enjoy my blogs, please join my much-loved subscribers.
My writing blog and my novel Indigo: https://opheliasfiction.wordpress.com/
My artwork: http://opheliakeys.blogspot.com/
If you are suffering from anxiety, friends and family are your best resources, but you can’t always expect them to understand what you are experiencing. However, there is a lot of information online you can share with them. Please consider trying CBT – it could really transform your life. Be pro-active and ask your doctor for a referral to a CBT specialist. Not all GPs know what to do when you tell them you are experiencing anxiety. Some will even give you a big jar of aprazolam and no counselling referral (this happened to me in Canberra). In the end, it’s your responsibility to take sensible action.
Learn about anxiety, CBT and the benefits of NOT taking anti-anxiety medications long-term here:
Are you already taking medication? Some info on the long-term use of alprazolam: http://www.livestrong.com/article/3741-need-alprazolam/
Network – this is a healing modality I chose that really suited me. I go to Ari Diskin in Melbourne. If it’s not for you, please consider trying another technique – there are so many: chiropractic, acupressure, even a simple massage scheduled on a regular basis. It’s really wonderful to know there is someone there to support you in your physical and mental health.
Diet. If you’re anxious, depressed or just fatigued, you’ll find your diet can make a huge difference (even if you don’t feel like eating). Here’s a basic starting point – it’s the Harvard School of Public Health’s new version of the Healthy Food Pyramid (it’s quite different from the old one). The sidebar on the left has some simple, nutrition information, including an interesting section on calcium:
For more on dealing with anxiety (from this blog) check out: http://beyondthecall.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/staying-true-to-your-path-amidst-the-critics-and-the-fans/