An Examination of an Anxiety Attack
Updated: Jan 26, 2021
Especially in today's busy world, I believe that stress is a universal human experience. Of course, each human experiences this at varying degrees. While I have never felt like coping with stress was one of my strong points, I have always been able to manage my emotions and deal with problems as they arise…until I got PTSD.
Thankfully I am one of those annoyingly disciplined people who likes to learn, so I am relearning how to manage stress in my life. Through investigation and rationalization, I was first able to figure out that I got PTSD because I was nearly kidnapped. This happened simply because I went for an early morning walk one day. While—thanks to the government's inadequate healthcare management—I cannot get a formal PTSD diagnosis, a few therapists also think that I may even have complex PTSD. This is because the trauma of the near kidnapping was layered over numerous sexual assaults, and childhood traumas that I believe most people also deal with to varying degrees. Once I had figured out what was going on I started looking into remedies.
Even though it is fairly common knowledge that women who experience sexual assault often also experience PTSD, the majority of scant Canadian resources for this disorder are aimed at assisting war veterans. As you can see from this web page—and my other social media sites—I am a very creative person. Art therapy is highly recommended for most mental health issues, and having multiple forms of self-expression available has been a huge asset in my recovery process. I also managed to find two great podcasts. One is called "Unf*ck Your Brain, hosted by Kara Loewentheil who is a Harvard law graduate among other qualifications (Podcast Archives | UNF*CK YOUR BRAIN (unfuckyourbrain.com). The other one is hosted by the lovely Vikki Louise and is called: "Fuck Anxiety and Get Shit Done!" (F*CK Anxiety & Get Sh*t Done (pod.link)) Thanks to the information and techniques I have learned from those podcasts I am finally starting to understand what is happening in my brain and body, and understanding is the first step in fixing a problem.
I would like to share some of the understanding I have gained by telling you about my latest anxiety attack, and what I learned during that process. I was meeting a friend for a walk and a tea in a community located close to my own. I happen to know someone else in that community who I have struggled with in regards to getting along. I don't consider this person to be dangerous, but their behaviour can be fairly unpredictable, and even now I am a little worried that if I run into them anywhere that they may start yelling or swearing or making some kind of scene.
Now of course anyone would find it unpleasant to be yelled at in public, but I grew up in a yelling house. I can also yell in what I call Dad voice, which I define as that loud deep yell that you can hear from across the school field that makes you drop the snowball you were about to throw, so I know that yelling happens and in general, I am not overly bothered by it. It makes me uncomfortable when people yell at me, but it's not something I would say I am afraid of.
I am also one of those people who thinks that the best way to get over a fear is to face it, within reason of course. For example, I have a fear of heights. It has never stopped me from getting on a plane or climbing a tree or a mountain when and if the moment called for that. I'm not an adrenaline junkie though, so I'm not currently about to run out and go skydiving, or bungee jumping, or anything like that. Yet, if I thought that my daily life was going to involve heights, I might do something like go skydiving again and again until I got over my fear of heights. Similarly, if I really thought I was afraid of yelling, I'd probably pay someone to yell at me, or deliberately go to environments where yelling naturally happened, because I believe that yelling is a commonplace enough occurrence that I would not want to live with a fear of it.
I knew that I was worried about running into the potential yeller from the moment that I started driving to the community to meet my friend, but I listened to one of the podcasts about anxiety, and some calming music on the way. When I arrived, we went for a walk in the forest, and I love nature, so I was feeling pretty good on the walk. Then my friend suggested that we go downtown for a tea. I live in the Kootenays, which is a series of small communities separated by short highway stretches. Some of the communities' populations are as low as 1000 people, which means that the chances of running into someone that you don't want to see downtown are much higher than they are when you live in a city.
Kara Loewentheil often refers to the part of your brain that controls your fear responses as your lizard brain (Home | UNF*CK YOUR BRAIN (unfuckyourbrain.com). In contrast, your cognitive brain is the part that works with logic and reason, and the cognitive and lizard brain are always kind of fighting for control of your body. Well, when my friend asked me if I wanted to have tea my lizard brain started telling my cognitive brain and my body that if I went downtown and ran into the potential yeller I might die. As I stated, I don't bow to fear, so my cognitive mind decided that my lizard brain was being ridiculous, and I decided to go.
Vikki Louise has one episode in particular that I love where she compares the lizard brain to a drunken best friend (F*CK Anxiety & Get Sh*t Done: 6. Your Drunk Best Friend (pod.link). In this episode, she states that, like your drunken best friend, your lizard brain talks a lot of shit but is mostly harmless and you don't have to listen. Now, I have the patience for my best friends when they are drunk, but at thirty-nine my overall patience and tolerance for drunk people is pretty low. Part of the reason I love that particular episode is that I'm almost positive that my cognitive mind also has a low tolerance for alcoholics, and that it sees my lizard brain as a drunk that it doesn't want to be friends with anymore.
On the drive to the café, my cognitive mind tried to calm my drunken lizard brain, as any good friend would. I did some deep breathing, and used neutral thoughts—a concept introduced to me by Loewentheil that has saved my sanity (Ep #18: How to Think New Thoughts | The Lawyer Stress Solution)—to try to reason with the lizard, but once I got to the café my cognitive mind decided it had done enough caretaking. It decided to ignore my lizard brain altogether since it wouldn't shut up, and I focused on looking at art and making conversation.
While I was talking I could feel that my heart was still racing and that my neck and shoulders were tightening up as if they were on some kind of spring that someone was winding up, readying it for action. This was happening in my body despite my cognitive mind's attempts to ignore the drunken lizard and its insistence that I had to leave so I wouldn't die. In the past, this would have been the point of the anxiety attack where I would shut down entirely. It seems like the ultimate stress response I have developed when escape is not an option is to freeze and shut down as many bodily functions as possible, including cognitive ones. I have even experienced my hands seizing up in the past.
This time, my cognitive mind decided it was not shutting down altogether, but as well as ignoring the lizard it also decided to stop registering the feelings that my body was having in response to the lizard brains freak out messages. It wanted me to continue to focus on the details in the art hung around the room, and the conversation I was having with my friend. I of course didn't really realize all of this until I had driven home and done some journaling, walking, yoga, and about five other grounding techniques that I have learned through recent research or in the past. I also allowed myself to cry a bit on the way home, something I'm learning to allow myself to do again.
I still can't tell you exactly what my lizard brain was saying, or what my body was feeling throughout that experience. I am fairly certain that I went into shock, and I can tell you that once I had properly grounded myself and processed some of the emotions my entire body felt like it was in pins and needles. You know when you sit awkwardly on your foot for too long, and it falls asleep. When you get up and start using it again you get a sensation like pins and needles are lightly stabbing at it as you wake up. My whole body felt just like that for about five hours. It is now the day after my anxiety attack, and I feel like I ran a ten-kilometer marathon yesterday, even though the walk in the woods was the most strenuous activity I had engaged in for that entire day. I am exhausted body, mind, and soul, and my cognitive functioning, in general, is slower today than normal, but my cognitive mind has stayed engaged, which allowed me to really understand and document my anxiety process.
Part of my day job involves behaviour therapy. As well as the research I've done recently the training and experience I have from that has given me a certain level of understanding of brain functioning and stress. Based on that understanding and my observations of yesterday's attack I am fairly certain that my brain and body are still going through fairly average brain functions and stress responses, but PTSD has made those stress responses in my body and the messages of my lizard brain seem like they are extremely intensified, and a little harder for my cognitive mind to control. I have never in my life had an anxiety attack because I thought someone was going to yell at me, and even now my cognitive mind is reminding me how ridiculous it is for any part of me to respond as if I were going to die if they did.
I was not at all expecting to have an anxiety attack. While I learned a lot from that experience, part of me is now more worried that I will have to deal with anxiety attacks for the rest of my life. Still, another part of me now feels like I have the tools and understanding that will allow me to deal with that if I do.
I will never be the kind of person who avoids going somewhere or doing something out of fear, and I don't want to have to spend entire days re-grounding myself. Still, knowing that I know how to is a step in the right direction. As I said earlier, this isn't an easy process, and there have been many times during which I thought I may never find any direction, or ever learn how to take the next step, but because of perseverance I did. I'm sharing this now in the hopes that if someone else's perseverance has lead them here, it will help them to find a direction in regards to managing their own anxiety and help them take a step towards it.