Category Archives: anxiety

Why I am trying to make friends with my anxiety (and taking drugs in the meantime)

A tricky thing about anxiety is that once you experience it, you begin to have anxiety about anxiety. I found this happening almost immediately. After my first anxiety and panic attack, I began worrying, “Will it happen again?” Once I began having trouble sleeping because of anxiety, I began dreading bedtime, worrying about anxiety kicking in.

Anxiety and panic thrive on and create fear. The more fear they create, the more they thrive. It’s a self-serving cycle that is hard to break.

This reminds me of a famous quote attributed to the Buddha: “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” What we hold onto, we become. Holding onto anger makes us angry and bitter. Holding on to fear about anxiety makes us fearful and anxious. In the case of anger, I have learned through experience that letting go of it enables me to move on and be happy. In the case of grief, I’ve learned to let it pass through me at its own pace. If I try to control that pace by pushing it away and telling it to come back later, it outsmarts me and shows up at the most inopportune time.

A year after my husband died, I am still liberally turning my camera off during remote meetings and crying during face-to-face interactions. When I feel my emotions coming on, I let them come on. That’s the #1 rule of “turning towards.” Turning towards means not allowing the instinctual tightening to happen and to instead relax.

Applying this idea to anxiety means making friends with anxiety. The idea behind befriending or embracing anxiety is that anxiety is a normal response to stressful situations, in my case, the loss of my husband, which stirred up my fears of being alone, of not being enough when he was dying, and of dying myself. Acknowledging my fears and my anxiety about them lessens their grip.

Trying to make friends with my anxiety is somewhat terrifying—it’s like seeing a tiger charging toward me and deciding to hold out my hand to see if it’s friendly. Trying to outrun it is pointless.

This means when I feel anxiety bubbling up inside of me, instead of steeling myself against it, which signals my brain’s fear response to ramp up, I try to think to myself, “Oh, there’s anxiety. I wonder what it wants.” The tiger sniffs my hand, strolls slowly around me, and then sometimes slinks off. Sometimes. Other times, it just keeps strolling around me, slowly, keeping me on edge for a bit. It eventually loses interest.

Making friends is not something that comes naturally to me—I am socially awkward and introverted. I don’t seek out opportunities to make new friends, and I feel similarly about making friends with anxiety: I’d rather not. But anxiety is a tiger that keeps stalking me.

I’ve been listening to guided meditations on the app Insight Timer with names like “Befriending Anxiety” and “Embracing Anxiety.” While traditional Buddhist/Zen meditation, which focuses on clearing the mind, simply makes space for my anxiety to take hold, guided meditation gives my mind a focal point so that space doesn’t get created.

Like everything else hard in life, it is a process and not a linear one. I am getting help along the way with therapy and drugs. The drugs help me relax, which allows me to get enough sleep to function, and to resist that instinctual tightening. I’m taking Escitalopram, an antidepressant that helps with Generalized Anxiety Disorder; Ativan, which I take at night to help me sleep; and hydroxyzine, which helps with acute anxiety during the day. Ideally, I will be able to ease off the medications within a few months, after I’ve made peace with my new pet tiger.

I had anxiety all wrong–and maybe you do, too

I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I have started experiencing anxiety and panic attacks. For about three weeks, I have had a near constant nervous feeling in my stomach and a tightness in my chest. This constant low-level anxiety spikes a few times a day and becomes a panic attack in which I start hyper-ventilating. Sometimes I burst into tears. As someone who has meditated for decades, I’ve been shocked to find that meditating right now makes things worse, especially at night when I am trying to sleep. Emptying my mind seems to create space for my brain to go directly to my darkest, scariest thoughts, and touching on those thoughts seems to plunge me directly into a feeling of dread and doom.

While meditating isn’t helping, other aspects of my Buddhist practice are helping a bit. Chanting works better than meditating because instead of focusing on clearing my mind, I can focus on the chant. My go-to chant is nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo, which is shorthand for the concept of karma. Chanting nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo allows me to focus on the order that does exist in the world. I also know that at the exact moment that I am chanting nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo, someone else somewhere else in the world is, too, so it helps me feel connected rather than disconnected. My late husband used to chant nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo when he felt overwhelmed by the challenges of his stroke, so the chant also makes me feel closer to him.

Another aspect that is helping a bit, which I will talk more about next week, is turning toward my anxiety rather than away. This means rather than trying to avoid anxiety, and push it away when I feel it bubbling up, I try to respond with curiosity and compassion. I actually talk to my anxiety; for example, when I feel it building in my chest, I’ll say, “Oh, hello, anxiety. There you are. I wonder what you are trying to protect me from right now.” It might seem cheesy, but it gives me some distance from it and helps me not identify with it.

I’ve also started reading a book recommended by a friend, Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief by Claire Bidwell Smith. As the title makes clear, Smith suggests that anxiety is a typical part of grief. My own grief therapist echoed this, saying many of her clients experience anxiety. In my case, my worsening vision coinciding with the anniversaries of my husband’s stroke and death may have been the perfect storm for anxiety and panic to manifest.

I had it all wrong

This new experience with anxiety is making me understand how ignorant I have been abut anxiety in the past. I have had countless students tell me they have anxiety. My daughter struggled hard with anxiety in high school and continues to be challenged by it. While I am not someone who ever questioned whether anxiety is “real,” I have minimized its impacts. I have misunderstood it as unmanaged stress. I have minimized their experiences as being about lack of good sleep hygiene or stress management skills.

That has led to me making misguided suggestions (unsolicited, too) about strategies to try. Yes, I have been that person who has said, “Have you tried yoga? Or meditation?” Yoga and meditation have helped me with stress throughout my entire adult life, and because I was equating anxiety with unmanaged stress, the suggestion made sense to me. But now that I understand that anxiety is something else altogether, I feel foolish about those suggestions—and I am embarrassed that I broke one of my own rules about not offering unsolicited advice.

If you are one of the people who has born the brunt of my ignorance, I am sorry. I will do better from here on out.  

Now that I understand the distinction and the actual experience of anxiety, I am filled with compassion and admiration for folks who live with it. It’s a reminder to me that if I haven’t experienced something myself, I need to listen, accept how others describe their experience, and ask clarifying questions.

Speak from your experience

Since I’ve been talking about experiencing anxiety and panic, several people have reached out to me to offer strategies and resources that have helped them. What I appreciate about this help is that it is coming from people who have experienced anxiety and/or panic attacks themselves. Right now, I want as many strategies as I can get, so please, keep them coming—as long as you are speaking from personal experience.