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My very first anxiety disorder symptom was panic attacks.
I was never one to like to start things out in a big way….I am more of a baby steps kind of woman…..but when it came to anxiety, I didn’t have much of a say in the matter. I was under so much stress after my husband’s heart attack and I was so tightly trying to hold myself together that eventually the tension string just snapped and my nerves erupted like a volcano.
I couldn’t keep it together anymore. My personal “alarm system” had reached “Maximum Level” and it started going off over anything and everything. I was panicking all day every day, terrified of something, but I had no idea what it was. I was clueless and I would say that I suffered through it for a good few months until I decided to educate myself and learn how to fix the problem.
And that is what I did.
I got some books and I learned that I was living with “panic attacks” caused by stress. I learned they were harmless and nothing to fear. I wasn’t going “crazy”. I learned some breathing techniques and other tips and tricks and ways of thinking about panic attacks that helped me get them under control. The stress from my husband’s heart attack died down and I sort of felt like life had gotten back to normal. I was back to being me again.
“Whew!”, I thought. “That was brutal. Thank goodness I am back to normal.”
Except I wasn’t. And I never was again.
Those panic attacks were just the first symptom in a LONG line of symptoms yet to come.
As it turns out, my panic attacks weren’t a problem in and of themselves.
They were actually a symptom of a much bigger problem: nervous exhaustion.
And unbeknownst to me, there were many more symptoms of this bigger problem that were headed my way.
“Nervous exhaustion” is the term that Dr. Claire Weekes, a reknowned anxiety expert and author of Hope and Help For Your Nerves used to describe the set of physical and emotional symptoms one experiences when they are living with what is usually referred to as an “anxiety disorder”.
Nervous exhaustion is a term which describes being in an “overly sensitized” state in which you become hyper-aware of things you wouldn’t normally notice. Everything feels more threatening than it is – and you have a much stronger reaction than you normally would to those things that are “threatening” you.
I was in the throes of nervous exhaustion that was triggered by my husband’s heart attack – but it was primed by a lifetime of negative thinking, lack of self care, chronic stress, and certain personality traits of mine.
My nervous exhaustion was something that continued on even after my life “normalized” after my husband’s heart attack and it was the cause of a number of later occurring anxiety symptoms such as insomnia, intrusive thoughts, palpitations, post partum anxiety and phobia after phobia.
I would get one symptom under control, and then another symptom would pop up to replace it. “Morphing” symptoms is how I refer to it, and I clearly remember the frustration at being so relieved to have “conquered” one anxiety symptom only to feel kicked down and defeated when a new one would pop up in its place.
Eventually I learned that this “morphing” was happening because even though I would learn to manage each symptom of my nervous exhaustion, I was never working on the CAUSE.
After my husband’s heart attack , when my stress levels went sky-high, not only did I never put any attention into healing from that trauma of almost losing my husband and as a result “resetting” my nervous system back to normal, but I never worked on improving my “normal” – the unhealthy mental and emotional habits I had been living with my entire life.
At that time I didn’t even know my “normal” needed improving. I didn’t know I had spent a lifetime with a very “reactive” nervous system and that I needed to live my life in a healthier way so that I could handle my life better. I was pretty much clueless about all of it. So I just carried on as best as I could as a walking mess…. over reacting to everything around me…always engaged in a battle with some anxiety symptom or another.
Education is the best friend of any person living with anxiety and thankfully that was something I DID know.
Over time I figured out that I was fighting the wrong war. Anxiety was not my enemy. Anxiety was just a result…not a cause. There most definitely WAS an enemy, but in a twisted way, the enemy was me.
I am not saying I was bad, or wrong, or that I did something deliberately to sabotage myself – and I am certainly not saying that my anxiety disorder is “my fault”. I am saying that I looked inside myself for the answers to why my life had ended up the way it did and eventually things became clear to me. I looked at the way I spoke to myself, my dependence on other people, my poor lifestyle choices, etc. Once I really dropped blaming everything else in my life and really looked at MY role in my anxiety disorder, I realized how much my choices and my beliefs about myself, and my absolutely horrid self-care led me to where I was. I knew I had to change my ways and completely live my life differently.
Not everything related to an anxiety disorder can be laid at our feet, of course. We can’t help the personality traits we were born with. It is not my fault that I was born a very sensitive, easily fearful, negative thinking person. However, what I choose to do with those traits…..how I choose to live with them and improve upon them and make them work FOR me instead of against me….that is 100% all on me.
Once I took control of my anxiety recovery and started seeing it as the stress response that it really is, and once I started focusing on the bigger issue which was the way that I was living my life, THAT is when things started to change for me.
Slowly but surely, my life started improving. Symptoms started leaving and staying gone. I started to “forget” that I had anxiety for longer and longer periods of time. I started to feel more comfortable in my own skin.
I won’t say that my life went back to “normal” and that is a good thing because my old normal was toxic. But I made a new normal and I became a mentally healthy person again with a good life. A better life.
I am emotionally healthy and I say that despite the fact that I still live with a few anxiety and OCD symptoms.
Most of us with anxiety will always have at least a few anxiety symptoms on and off for the rest of our lives because of those personality traits we have that are so strong. We like to be safe, we like to be very “certain” about things, and we are natural worriers and over thinkers. There are bound to be some anxiety related problems we face throughout our lives because of that.
But once you are a mentally healthy person, living in a more positive way, these later symptoms you will experience throughout your life are manageable, understandable, and MUCH less threatening. They will make sense to you and you will see them as a normal response to stress as opposed to some terrible unknown thing that is destroying your life.
My OCD is anxiety based as well, and it is more complicated than my other anxiety symptoms because there is a lot of habit and pattern involved in OCD that becomes very ingrained into your mind – but the threatening, looming aspect of it is gone. It feels like what it is: a part of who I am – the result of me being me – not the result of a monster that has taken over my life, as it felt before. I owe a big part of that to willpower, and an even bigger part to the fact that I started treating myself like I loved myself, instead of like I was somebody I loathed and couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to.
I know the symptoms of anxiety are hard.
I know they feel terrible and they make you feel ways that you can’t even describe because they are so awful. But please never forget that every symptom is a sign. Every symptom is a wake up call, and if you just listen and pay attention to what your symptoms are telling you…listen for the overall message and invest in nurturing yourself and strengthening yourself…..that ugly thorny growth that sprouted into your life will bloom into something amazing.
No worries. You’ve got this.
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