Saturday, April 21, 2012
When Life Isn't Quite As Hard
It's been a couple of weeks since I blogged about the anxiety I've been dealing with. And many more weeks than that since it started affecting our family.
Things are looking up these days and it seems only fair to explain why so it can maybe be helpful to someone else.
First up, the easy stuff. Even though I chose not to take meds after my very bad reaction to Zoloft, I did keep my follow up appointment with my doctor. A doctor who is a good match can be extremely helpful. My doctor was supportive of my choice to go with alternatives to medicine, but she did run quite a bit of blood work to be sure there wasn't an additional medical problem to be addressed. Turns out my vitamin D levels are really low, which is likely contributing to the problem, so she had me start taking extra D3. We also talked about the effects of PMS on anxiety levels and she recommended an herbal supplement that levels out hormones and helps with that side of things.
Mostly though, there's been a lot of not so easy stuff I've been doing.
To begin with, I read about some studies done at Duke showing that a certain amount and intensity of exercise was just as effective as zoloft. Since the zoloft wasn't working for me, and I had stopped running after the half marathon, I decided it made sense to start doing some aerobic exercise again. This was really difficult at first. When you have a full on adrenalin rush for hours at a time and you are physically ill, the very last thing you want to do is get up and jog around the block. At first, I just laid down outside for a little while some days. Many, many days it took all of my willpower to convince myself that I needed to move and that doing so would not kill me. I now carve out the time to do something every day. With the kids to take care of, a lot of times it's just playing games on our Wii Fit, but I make sure to get in several of the aerobic games every day.
I also cut out caffeine. Again. I think this is the 4th time in my life I've gone off caffeine. It started out because the zoloft made me so sick I couldn't drink coke. By the time that was over, I had already made it through the withdrawl period and figured it was probably prudent NOT to put a stimulant in my body right now. Then I started seeing my therapist and explained that to her. She looked me in the eye and said, "it's probably not a good idea for you to have caffeine. Ever." By this time she had (correctly) surmised that I'm "wound pretty tightly" and caffeine isn't going to help that at all. Don't get me wrong, I haven't cut out chocolate, I even still have sprite, but no caffeinated cokes or sweet tea (I never did drink coffee) for me since March 30.
And the therapist. I lucked out with a good recommendation from a friend and found someone I like on the first try. I've been seeing her once a week and she's really challenged me to see some things I've been working really hard at not seeing. Mostly how stressed out I am and how much I have on my plate. How exhausting and draining it really is to wake up 2-3 times a night every night for 17 months and spend the majority of the day with a child who is asking for food and turning down 90% of what you offer her. She's also validated what I've known all along....I have really lucked out in the husband department.
Lately, I am still panicking, but I can now handle it. There are three key things that have helped me "in the moment". First, I read in a neuroscience book about mindfulness training. One basic thing they described was that when anxiety hits, focus on the feeling and recognize it's there, then focus on your breathing, and remind yourself that this feeling is not over taking you and spiraling out of control. The feeling is already here and you are already handling it and you can continue to handle it. That exercise made me functional, but still reluctant to leave the house. Second, I was listening to the radio one day and heard someone relate a story where a cancer patient had told them "pain is inevitable, suffering is a choice". It's worth saying again:
Pain is inevitable, suffering is a choice.
Wow. Powerful words. At the time when I heard this, I still felt a bit like a 2 year old. I want to stomp my foot and scream at the unfairness of feeling so out of control. I didn't want to deal with this. I wanted the feeling to go away completely and life would not be right until I got my way. These simple words were something I really needed to hear and something that definitely applies to this situation. The anxiety isn't going to go away completely. I have to let go of that as my only acceptable goal. I've redirected myself to focus on not suffering from the anxiety. And that leads me to the third thing...surrender. I was coming around to this idea on my own, but the therapist really clarified it last week. For me, I relate this to childbirth (having had three of them with no pain meds). There comes a point in labor where you have to surrender and what will be, will be. It's the same sort of thing with this anxiety. You can tense up and fight it (it is the fight or flight response, after all), which takes a lot of effort and often escalates things for me, or you can ride it out. I have a little internal dialogue with myself, "yes, I have this feeling and I don't like it, but it's a false alarm and nothing is wrong and it will go away". I imagine it almost as floating on the waves in the ocean. You can slog your way to shore, walking through sand and bracing yourself against every wave while the water sprays up around you getting up your nose and in your eyes. Or, you can relax and let the waves carry you there. The destination is the same, but floating along takes a lot less effort and often gets you there faster.
This is no three week fix. I know there are going to be ups and downs for a while. I've had a lifetime of anxiety building up that I never really learned to deal with effectively. This convergence of really stressful events in my life has kind of brought everything front and center and forced me to look at the problem and learn how to handle it. Truth be told, I'm glad. I never thought I would have said that a month ago, but I really am glad. Two of my children, in particular, really need to be around a good example of how to handle anxiety and this period of my life is allowing me to gather the tools to be that example for them.