May 12, 2019

#GetLoud for Mental Health

I was standing in line at the bank when it happened…the familiar flushing and lightheadedness. Even though conversations were muted and customers scrolled quietly through their social media feeds as they waited to be served, I felt under assault.

It’s like I was in the middle of a crowded dance floor being jostled around by sweaty bodies, pounding music and pulsating strobe lights driving my brain into a state of frenzy. 

“You can’t stay here. Leave now!” my amygdala taunted.

“There’s no problem,” my prefrontal cortex soothed. “It’s a bank. You’ll be finished in a few minutes. Just breathe.”

The feeling wasn’t going away, and I was starting to feel weak. I had two options: cut and run or pop an Ativan. I chose the latter and  prevented a full-blown panic attack.

This isn’t a story from my distant past. The anxiety attack I experienced at the bank happened only a couple of weeks ago.

I had been experiencing a resurgence of anxiety symptoms. While at one time I had no idea what triggered my anxiety, now it doesn’t take much sleuthing to figure out. With this most recent experience, it was a combination of factors.

In the fall of 2018, I was on leave from work for six weeks: burnout. I was raised with the Protestant work ethic and developed the capacity to handle a lot of work quickly and efficiently. But a few weeks prior to my leave, I started to experience short-term memory loss and difficulty concentrating. To my detriment, I didn’t pay attention to the warning signs.

Then one morning, sitting in a meeting, my brain disengaged. I watched my colleagues talking, saw their mouths moving, even heard sounds, but I couldn’t register a word they were saying.

As soon as the meeting was over, I returned to my office, asked my assistant to cancel the rest of my meetings for the day, and headed straight to the doctor’s office. He promptly wrote a note: “On leave for medical reasons.”

Because of that experience, I vowed to change my attitude about work and how much time I would devote to it. Upon my return, I did pretty well for a while, but gradually, I started working a bit more here, a bit more there, until I was close to resuming my former ridiculous schedule.

On top of that, Raymond and I had decided to sell our house. We had been thinking about selling within the coming five years, but recent complications related to his Crohn’s disease was creating more urgency in his mind. He no longer wanted to deal with the responsibilities of home ownership and wanted to move while he was still relatively healthy and in control.

I supported Raymond’s decision, knowing I didn’t want to be faced with the daunting task of  one day having to sell and move on my own.

Despite our move being a positive thing, there was still associated stress. Moving creates upheaval: selling, finding a place to rent, sorting, purging, relocating, setting up again, settling in. Interestingly, moving is considered the number three life stressor, coming ahead of major illness or injury.

There was another issue as well. Feeling stretched too thin, I stopped exercising. At the time I most needed the benefits of exercise, I quit. I offer no other excuse than making a deliberate choice.

Once you stop exercising, it becomes a vicious circle. You start to forget how good it makes you feel, you settle for feeling less than your best, and pretty quickly, you lose the energy and desire to move. The cycle continues and next thing, you’re not handling stress as well as you used to. I was paying the price for my poor decision.

Despite having identified three things that were contributing to my anxiety, I knew there was something else, and I would be remiss if I didn’t share. It’s a big one: fear.

Our recent move stirred up some difficult emotions in me. Raymond is eighteen years older than me, and I realized that this move represented the next stage of his life – a stage that, at my age, I wouldn’t normally be entering. I was being forced to acknowledge Raymond’s mortality and the fact that I could be spending a number of years without him.

Although I’m an introvert and need a lot of time on my own, I fear not having someone around to support me if I’m not feeling well, and I dread being alone during an anxiety or panic attack.

Intellectually, I realize that being alone doesn’t automatically make life more dangerous. I also know I’m capable and can look after myself. But there are times my brain begs to differ so it starts triggering life and death situations in my mind.

When dealing with matters of the psyche, there are rarely easy answers. Sometimes, you have to address a problem from different angles. To deal with anxiety, I’ve tried talk therapy which helps somewhat in the moment but isn’t particularly effective for me on the long-term.

I’m starting to practice mindfulness more regularly which helps to some extent. I’m trying to stay in the present moment, reminding myself that ruminating about the past or worrying about the future is not only a waste of valuable time, it’s detrimental to my mental health.

I’ve just started to explore a type of energy therapy which is gaining recognition in the treatment of anxiety and other health issues. I’ll see how it works for me, and eventually, I hope to share anecdotal evidence that it helps.

Yes, I had a setback. It happens from time to time. However, I’ve learned that to deal with a flare-up of anxiety, I have to look for the root causes and address them. Most of the time, my own actions (or inaction) are a significant factor. That’s actually a good thing because it means I have control and can take steps to minimize anxious feelings and get back on track.

This is what gives me hope on the difficult days.

I wrote this week’s post in recognition of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mental Health Week (May 6 to 12). Their slogan is #GetLoud about what mental health really is. What I’ve shared is personal but as the slogan suggests, we need to get more comfortable talking about mental health issues and sharing our struggles. There isn’t a person alive who doesn’t have difficulties. You are not alone, and while you don’t have to “go public,” I encourage you to speak up, speak out, and seek the help you need.