Monday, 27 July 2015

Healing Diary: The Mindtrap

Anxiety is a cruel beast. Just as I think of depression like a black dog, I think of anxiety like a living organism. Not exactly like butterflies, but it's as good an analogy as any. And just like any other living thing, it feeds, it grows and it fights for its survival. Anxiety feeds on doubt and stress, it grows in severity and avoids any predator that would defeat it.
In fact, butterflies are a good analogy, because they start of as cute, little caterpillars. But caterpillars feed and feed and feed until they're strong enough to grow up. Unfortunately, when these caterpillars grow, they don't turn into butterflies. In my case, they metamorphose into panic attacks.
The Word of the Day is: 'PANIC'.

Panic /'panik/ n. 1. A sudden terror, with or without clear cause. ♦adj. 2. (of fear, terror, etc.) Suddenly destroying self-control and causing hasty, unreasoned action. ♦v.t. 3. To (cause to) feel panic.

I had a panic attack three days ago. It was a terrifying, confronting and painful experience; so, I am dealing with it in the same way that I deal with a lot of life's troubles. I want to write about it, because it was a terrible ordeal, but here I am the one that's in control. I am here to vivisect this monstrosity, in the hopes that as I pull it apart, it will die on the operating table.
So, what exactly is a panic attack? Well, essentially, it is what happens when your body triggers a fight-or-flight response, without any actual, physical danger. It may seem like a malfunction, but it is more accurate to call it a dysfunction. The flight-or-flight response isn't broken, so much as overly sensitive; your fear response is working perfectly well, but when you suffer from anxiety, your body is responding to stressors more severely.
A panic attack is what happens when those stressors (or your response TO those stressors) develops to the point where something harmless makes you react as though it is an imminent threat. In my case, it was something as simple as boredom, silence and loneliness . . . to me, it felt like I was dying. So, why would something so simple set off a panic attack? Well, because it wasn't that simple.

It started way earlier than that. Remember how I said that anxiety defends itself? Well, regular people with regular anxiety know how to handle it; you do things you enjoy, you talk to people, exercise, eat food that you like, laugh and smile and ignore such petty problems. But when you have chronic anxiety, the way that it defends itself is insidious. It starts by feeding on those little doubts you have, the ones that we all have. But the really sneaky part is that it continues by attacking your defenses. If you eat to feel good, it makes you feel sick about eating and worried about your weight. If you like watching movies or listening to music, it occupies your mind; it makes you lose focus and forget about the joy that it brings you.
Or, like in my case, it made me draw away from people, I hid away because I began to worry about what could go wrong on social occasions. Then, as those worries continued to fester, I entered a heightened state of anxiety. It meant that my body was often producing adrenaline, I would feel a tightness in my chest and I would feel exhausted because of the drain on my body from worrying all the time. This meant that I would feel tired, and go to sleep. Fatigue is a common symptom of anxiety, and if you are sleeping during the day and don't get out of bed, it becomes practically impossible to do any kind of stress relief. Worst of all, this stress took something away from me that matters the most . . . my ability to write. When you're stressed, your mind wants to think about that stress, it becomes a constant distraction and makes it hard to focus. When I lose focus, I can't write, and so that wore me down the most. It will probably be different for different sufferers of chronic anxiety, but for me, this was when the trap was set. Not a bear-trap or mousetrap, but a trap to set off a panic attack; a mindtrap.

Everything was already in place, the target was isolated, demoralized, tired, distracted, weakened and surrounded by attackers, of anxiety and stress, and without even my ability to write all of my weapons had been taken away from me. Even though I worked to fix my sleep and exercise, it was already too late. It just took a trigger, and that trigger was silence, boredom and loneliness. I was watching a video in the hopes that it would cheer me up, but I was losing interest in it and when I lost interest, my mind began to wander. It started a cascade effect, and I began to doubt everything. I doubted the reason for what I was doing, I doubted my ability to cope, I doubted whether or not I would get better, my ability to write and my ability to cope. Then I started doubting my own life, if I was going to have anxiety for the rest of my life; would it continue to take the things I care about away from me? Then I doubted the purpose of my life, and what good it was to live if I wasn't doing any of the things that mattered to me; and I doubted whether life even mattered at all.

I felt trapped, and when my anxiety closed around me, I freaked out. My response was flight at first, I ran, I jumped from my chair. Then it became one of fight. But because the attack was in my head, I couldn't see what I was fighting. I ran outside, I threw my shoe at the floor, I yelled out and screamed. To any mentally healthy person, it would seem that I was acting like a crazy person, and by some definitions I was. But if you saw the steps that lead me to that position, and the way I had been trapped by my own mind, it would seem perfectly logical to you, as it did to me too.
I think that's the most disturbing part about mental illness. It's not mind control, it's not possession; and although I personify and identify my anxiety like an animal, it isn't literally a thinking creature. It is the result of my mind reacting to stimuli in a way that it considers logical. Like I said, it's not a malfunction, it's a dysfunction, and if you were in my shoes, you would act the same way.

As a result of this panic attack, I was exhausted, tired, unable to focus. But thankfully, I had one key thought, which was "I need help". So, I asked for it. I grabbed my computer, and I looked for help with panic attacks. I knew that more than anything I wanted to talk to someone, and I learned that Lifeline is not just for crisis support and suicide prevention, but that they offer support for those suffering a panic attack.
I called them up, and a very nice lady on the phone talked to me, and helped me to calm down. She talked some sense into me, gave me some advice and guided me to a better mind-space. I thanked her and hung up the phone, but since then I was in a much more vulnerable state. If I was left alone for even a second, or I was left in silence, I would feel stressed and depressed, and it was very tiring. And I think, if there is a reason why anxiety produces panic attacks, that is it - it leaves you prone for another one, while also providing plenty more stress, doubt and fear to feed those little anxiety caterpillars.

I am feeling better. You'll notice I'm writing again, I've also calmed down and I am no longer on the verge of another attack, I feel pretty good. And the craziest part is, all I did was some of the simplest stress-relief there is.
After seeking professional help, I spoke to my girlfriend; I got a good night's sleep; I got some exercise and I meditated whenever I felt my breathing get sharp and shallow. It's simple, but effective stuff. And I guess that's the part about this that you need to remember, although it seems like a silly analogy, anxiety really is a lot like butterflies. It's not really that powerful, all things told, and it can't really hurt you. That's why it needs to be so insidious and set up little traps to catch you. But, if you do those simple little things, you won't let the butterflies in your stomach get the better of you.

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