I almost titled this post ‘When Even Your Anxiety has Anxiety,’ but no one would ever search for that phrase on Google, so I chose something more obvious. Although it isn’t Google-friendly, my working title is definitely more accurate! If you suffer from anxiety yourself or know someone who does, I hope this post will be useful. If not, stay tuned for the next posts that will be more fashion-related! Occasionally, I cover wellness topics on subjects I know well (like my sugar-addiction post and perimenopause post) and unfortunately, this is one of those subjects.
Let me start by saying I’m not a person who suffers from depression. My default setting when I’m out of alignment is anxiety, in widely varying degrees from mild anxiety to full-blown panic attacks. Since my 20s, I’ve been prescribed Lorazepam (aka Ativan, a tranquilizer in the Benzodiazepine family) for my more severe episodes. Even some of my closest friends are surprised that I suffer from anxiety because I’m very tough and normally quite relaxed. Anxiety seems like a very out of character thing for me to have.
Sometimes my anxiety or panic attacks are triggered by a specific event such as a job loss, an unwanted move, a death, or a claustrophobic situation (an MRI or a really crowded train). But for the past two years, my perimenopause has been the prime culprit. Anxiety is a fairly common symptom of perimenopause, although I had to dig deep into medical studies and clinical information online to find out, rather than being told by my GP. My friend Michelle had similar symptoms for a while, so I was reassured by her that it eventually passes. Who is prone to developing perimenopausal anxiety and panic disorders? Women like me, who were prone to anxiety in the past, are much more likely to develop panic disorders during perimenopause, due to fluctuating oestrogen and progesterone.
So, what does extreme anxiety or a panic attack feel like? The only way I can describe it is feels like a knot of snakes has suddenly been dumped in my lap, or that someone is holding me over the roof edge of a building, or I’m on a runaway horse with no way to stop it. My current anxious episodes are very physical (which is why I’m certain they’re hormonal) rather than garden-variety anxious fretting. They descend on me all at once like a random bucket of water. I have learned to mentally step aside, observe the episode happening, and wait it out like a storm. Even in the middle of one, I’m fully aware it is only a temporary state. I know that I have no control over the severity or the duration, so I focus on my breathing and let it run its course. Obviously, this is much easier when I’m at home than if I’m driving, or in a crowd, or in the middle of a conversation with someone.
I do have some stressful issues brewing in my personal life right now which aren’t helping. I can’t disclose these on the blog because they relate to my son and other family whose private matters aren’t mine to share. These issues coupled with what I am calling “perimenopausal panic” are the things that have kept me quiet on the blog and social media lately. It is hard to feel creative or excited about a dress when you’re busy hyperventilating and palpitating! As much as I loathe the term ‘self-care’, I’ve had to make it a priority over everything else recently.
The frequency of my flare-ups caused by the cocktail of perimenopause + recent life event means I’ve had to find better ways to handle it than with constant medication. Years ago, I once took my Lorazepam with grapefruit juice (which amplifies the drug’s side effects) and had such a severe reaction that I’m scared to take it again. So, basically even my anxiety medication is causing me anxiety 🙂 . For a while, I had nightly cocktails to take the edge off. The problem with a good Negroni cocktail is that they work; they truly make me feel relaxed and less anxious. However, they don’t help long term, or even the next day. Alcohol is terrible for sleep, and good sleep is absolutely critical when battling anxiety.
So! How do I address my anxiety and panic in a medicine and alcohol free way?
Australian Bush Flower Essences. Specifically the Confid and the Emergency essences. I don’t know why these work or how they work but honestly, I don’t care. I don’t want to ruin their magic by overanalysing them. I take the Confid essence, 7 drops under the tongue in the morning and 7 more drops in the evening. The Emergency essence I take several times throughout the day, 7 drops under the tongue. The Emergency works well on its own, it works even better with the Confid. Bach Rescue Remedy never worked for me at all. These do. I highly recommend them.
Sleep. The link between lack of sleep and anxiety is circular; anxiety prevents sleep, and the lack of sleep in turn causes anxiety. People with chronic insomnia and sleep disruption are at a much higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder. You’ll know from my post on sleep how evangelical about it I am; enforcing a ‘sleep window’ on myself has completely changed my life. If you are tired, you simply cannot confront overwhelming emotions effectively.
Walking barefoot. Unless the weather is truly terrible, I take a few minutes to walk barefoot on the grass. I focus my awareness on every sensation around me. This gets me out of my head and into the physical world. It is the very definition of ‘grounding’ to connect your feet directly to the earth. Even if I’m not having a panic attack at that moment, this meditative walking calms my vibrating brain. The cooler outdoor air this time of year also seems to help me, so even a walk with shoes on is helpful.
Carve out time alone. As naturally social and gregarious as I am, at times I need to crawl into my shell and stay there… and that’s ok. I remove as much stimulation as possible when I’m overwhelmed and anxious, and sometime even conversation feels like a lot. Friends understand that I sometimes have to hibernate for a day or two to maintain my equanimity.
Disable Triggers. I avoid Twitter, the news, or anything else that triggers anxiety or panic. The world may be going to hell in a handbasket, but I’m not going to be of much use if I’m breathing into a paper bag! In the delicate balance between being well-informed and being mentally healthy, I’ll choose mental health, thanks. Current events can wait; I can read them when I’m ready. There are times I need to protect myself from being sucked into the vortex of chaos and hysteria that is the news cycle.
Distraction. I can’t distract my way out of a full-blown panic attack, but I CAN distract myself out of general anxiety. Watching a movie with my husband, going on a walk, having a meal with friends, immersing myself in my son’s Lego world, pulling down the stray vines in my garden, exploring a different area of the city, phoning my friend who also suffers from anxiety (so we can laugh at ourselves), going to the gym, playing with my dog, etc. Anything that gives me a break from my mental chatter is welcome. One of my best friends always says, “A change is as good as a rest.” Changing my environment knocks me out of my familiar routine and gives my brain something new to chew on.
Light candles. For hundreds of years, white candles have been used to purify a space from negative energy. I’m not entirely sure if it works, but I do it anyway. Looking at fire, even a candle flame, connects us to centuries of humans gathered around a fire and calms our minds. I even have one burning next to me as I write this post.
Make Lists. I make two kinds of lists, depending on what I need at the time. The first one I make is a gratitude list. I think of 10 things I am grateful for that will never change. These can be experiences I’ve had, friends or family I have, or something as simple as knowing that I, unlike most people on our planet, can have a hot shower any time I like. Gratitude for even the smallest things anchors me and puts everything in perspective. The other thing I do is plan for the WORST case scenario. Once I think through and list the difficult logistics, I realise that I handle whatever happens. I can deal with the worst case scenario. I might not like it, but I can do it.
Follow your Nose. Our scent receptors are connected to the oldest and most primitive part of our brains, the limbic system, aka ‘the seat of emotions.’ If you are scent sensitive (raises hand) use that as a tool. I have trained my brain over many months that when I smell my pillow spray, it is time to stop thinking and sleep. After a while, that well-worn neural pathway becomes a habit– spray = sleep. In the same way Proust was transported back to his childhood by the smell of madeleines, we can connect ourselves to scents that calm us for no reason at all, or scents that calm us because we’ve had a positive experience with them (a mother’s perfume, vanilla, etc). For me, sandalwood essential oil is extraordinarily calming, even though I have no Proust-style memories with it. I’m thankful for how much sandalwood calms me; its grounding properties have been used for centuries to still anxious minds… and it sure works on mine. I’m also burning candles scented with Oud wood. I love the woody scent and find that all woods, including the Zirben oil (Rock Pine) I’ve written about before, are grounding and soothing.
If you have any other coping mechanisms for managing panic, anxiety, or stress, I’d love to hear them. Like menopause and perimenopause, anxiety isn’t something people talk about a lot. Stress is deemed socially acceptable because it must mean you’re working hard, but anxiety is sometimes portrayed in a frivolous, pointlessly neurotic fashion. I know I’m not someone most people would have pegged for being anxious or prone to panic, but being open and allowing some sunlight on these issues is the only way to help ourselves and each other.
Linking up to: notdressedaslamb