Befriending anxiety

Before I had a chronic illness the situations in my life that triggered the most anxiety were going on dates, difficulties in relationships, and taking academic exams. Back in those days, one of my closest friends in college used to call me “the Big Easy” (and no, I was not promiscuous!). I was really easygoing and it took a lot to unnerve me.  Starting at the age of 24, chronic illness and pain altered my nervous system in a way that made me much more susceptible to chronic anxiety.

The first time chronic anxiety hit me hard was in 1999, about a year after I had first been diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). I re-washed dishes after they had been through the dishwasher because I was scared that there might be some bacteria left on the dishes that would trigger another flare. I knew that my fears were irrational and yet it was so difficult to stop my behaviors. So I sought help from a counselor.

The counselor helped me see that I was trying desperately to control my circumstances. The flares of IBD that I had experienced scared me and I wanted to prevent them in any way possible. But my mind had made the error of thinking that doing things like rewashing dishes would somehow protect me from future flares of IBD. The corticosteroids that I took during that time did not help as they exacerbated every emotion I felt and made me jumpy.

In 2000, I visited Plum Village, a Buddhist monastery and meditation practice center in the south of France. You can read about my experience here. It was there that I experienced a deep sense of inner peace and learned some wonderful techniques for coping with my anxiety. The practice of mindfulness meditation helped me to see my fears more clearly. I saw how much I feared losing control, and one day I wrote the following in my journal:

April 26, 2000

Dear energy of control–
You are trying so hard to make things work out a certain way–why? What will be better if things go this way as opposed to that way? All of my life I have thrived on challenges–things not going as planned and making the best of them. What is it you want to really control? What sense of fulfillment do you bring me? I know you are trying to protect me because sometimes I lost you and I ended up getting hurt–physically and emotionally–and you are there to give me a sense of mastery, so that I can influence events in my life and not be blown around by the wind. You are there to help me feel powerful against circumstances that might otherwise cause me to feel bad. No, I don’t want to lose you, or let you go, I just want you to remember that I need to go back to myself and into the moment as much as I can–I need to leave you to really know myself. You are still important right now. I know you are with me for a reason.

After I left Plum Village, the peacefulness stayed with me for about six months. I did not have irrational fears during that time and my anxiety level was much lower. It helped that I had gone off of corticosteroids. And then in January of 2001 I almost died from a severe flare of IBD combined with a bacterial infection and a viral infection (read Zen Medicine – part 2). The doctors put me on high doses of corticosteroids and I lost my ground.

That flare of IBD was traumatic and it re-triggered my chronic anxiety. This time, I washed my hands upwards of 30 times a day. I was also more anxious in general about everything in my life. My nerves were shot.

In the years following, I developed several chronic pain conditions, which added even more to my anxiety load. It was really difficult to retrain my mind to try certain activities–even walking–that I was afraid would exacerbate my pain. I’m glad that I had some wonderful physical therapists who helped remind me to keep trying certain activities instead of avoiding them out of fear. They helped me to break a vicious cycle.

Psychotherapy and a strong mindfulness practice helped me to befriend my anxiety. I no longer wash my hands compulsively (though I probably still wash my hands more than the average person). Sometimes I resist befriending my anxiety so much that it hurts. It hurts to feel my heart pounding and my muscles tensing in response to a perceived threat. I think that my awareness of how much it hurts motivates me to do something about it.

I use different techniques to deal with my anxiety. Sometimes I try to let go of my thoughts and focus on the energy of anxiety in my body–what does it feel like and where is it? Sometimes I breathe deeply with the help of heart-rate variability biofeedback. Sometimes I use a technique that I learned at Plum Village:

Breathing in, I see my anxiety
Breathing out, I calm my anxiety

Sometimes I count my breaths backwards from 1000. This technique was especially helpful when I felt claustrophobic during  an MRI procedure. And sometimes I listen to or play soothing music.

I try to remind myself of a few things when I am in the throes of anxiety:

  1. It will pass, everything is impermanent.
  2. I’m not alone — many people experience anxiety.
  3. I’m biologically wired to experience anxiety and it is trying to protect me.
  4. My perception of a threat could very well be mistaken.

If your anxiety seems overwhelming, please know that you are not alone. You have nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. Please reach out for help if you feel like your anxiety is running your life.

Some resources:

Anxiety Disorders Association of America

Anxiety Online (Australia)

Anxiety UK

Freedom from Fear anxiety screening

Is Your Need for Control Out of Control? (article)

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Gesine
    Feb 16, 2013 @ 13:14:58

    Thank you Erica!!!


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