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Anxiety: Constant Companion, Part-time Job

By Karen Austin

5561412422_b347a7483c_m(Photo credit Porsche Brosseau.)

I’m restless. I worry a lot.  I talk a lot.  My mind races.  People have called me high energy or hyper my whole life.   Over the last two years, I’ve come to recognize that I have generalized anxiety disorder.

I have a lot of company, given that 18% of adults in the US (40 million people) have some form of anxiety: panic disorder, social anxiety, specific phobias, OCD, PTSD, or my type, GAD, aka generalized anxiety–which also looks like fear, worry, and dread.

Whether anxiety first appears in the body, my thoughts or my brain chemistry, it soon travels to all three centers. I do my best to address my anxiety on several fronts.  It’s something that requires my attention every day so that I can function. I consider it a part-time job.

If people know what to look for, they can read the anxiety in my body.

I fidget. I tap my toes, doodle, wiggle in my chair, stand in the back of the room during meetings, rifle through my purse. I move fast—my feet, my hands, my mouth. I often get headaches, neck aches and backaches. I grind my teeth.  Others with GAD experience problems with their GI track. I startle easily since I hold so much tension in my body. I feel as though a current of electricity is coursing through my body. It’s always humming—sometimes louder, sometimes softer, but always present.

Unfortunately, these behaviors can communicate anxiety to people around me and it can make it hard for me to sleep, eat or work. Consequently, I try to wring the anxiety out of my body through cardiovascular exercise, deep breathing exercises, progressive relaxation techniques and yoga. Sometimes I lift weights. I’ve been practicing yoga at least once a week, sometimes more, since 2004.  It’s the most effective way for me to reduce the embodiment of my anxiety. If I work to still my body, my mind and my brain chemistry follow.

My anxiety also can run wild in my thoughts.

I talk fast, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. I often experience racing thoughts. Thanks to my many years as an avid reader and my 10 years in three different graduate degree programs, I have a lot of fuel to put my mind in overdrive. I think quickly about dozens of topics at once. I review events from the past. I anticipate events in the future. I analyze present phenomena through dozens of frameworks in rapid succession. It’s hard for me to take things at face value.

Psychologists suggest cognitive behavior therapy CBT, but after seeing 7 therapists over 25 years, I find psychotherapy to be just another rabbit hole. The most effective way to harness my mind is by reading Zen Buddhist meditations. They teach the art of not thinking. I anchor my mind to my breath and to my immediate surroundings. I escape regrets from the past or worry about the future. I reduce my world to the present moment, and my anxiety diminishes. For those wanting a licensed therapist to help achieve a similar result, Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is the psychological school of thought where East meets West. I’ve seen a lot of evidence-based research heralding MBCT’s results for both anxiety and depression.

In my own religious tradition, I find the Psalms, some hymns and the teachings of Jesus contain similar peaceful results. But I have to be careful about reading a lot of doctrine, theology, and other religious texts. If a text focuses a lot on complex and abstract theology or if conveys shame or includes long lists of “shoulds,” I actually suffer greater anxiety in the name of religion. I used to poor over the letters of Paul and think complex thoughts about spirituality. At midlife, I prefer a more basic approach. My favorite scripture over the last decade has been “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalms 46:10).

I recognize that my anxiety has a chemical basis in my brain.

My constant companion “dread” isn’t necessarily tied to something I’ve done (sin) or something I am (crazy, evil or stupid). It’s a bio-chemical phenomenon that is telling me there is a big problem.  It’s not real. It’s faulty wiring. I have to tell myself constantly that the great dread I’m feeling can’t be fixed by talking, organizing, apologizing, cleaning, or in other words working to “fix” the horrible problem that is looming somewhere in my psyche, my soul or my actions.

So far, I have been able to address my anxiety by exercising, eating balanced meals, getting a good night’s sleep, avoiding overcommitting, and monitoring my thoughts.  However, I see that prescription medication is a valid avenue for addressing uncontrolled anxiety as a complement to these other strategies. And if I have a prolonged time period where I have trouble eating, sleeping, working or maintaining healthy relationships, I will ask my doctor to help me find a prescription medication for managing anxiety.

Actually, there was one time that my body was totally free of all tension and anxiety. It was a moment of grace where I felt the presence of God speak to me. But that’s another story. For now, let’s just note that it takes an act of God to achieve total relief from my anxiety. In the meantime, I work every day to address my anxiety so that it stays within manageable levels.

About Karen Austin

After living in UT, HI, CA, VA, DC, WI, WV & KS, Karen now lives in Newburgh, IN with her husband and two children. She's been a BYU writing tutor, an English teacher, technical writer, director of academic support services, and aging studies adjunct. She's reinventing herself--again. New role still pending, but mature athlete, thrift store fashionista, and court jester are strong candidates. She maintains the blog The Generation Above Me.

16 thoughts on “Anxiety: Constant Companion, Part-time Job”

  1. My 9-year-old daughter suffers from anxiety as well as ADHD. It took us awhile (and professional help) to figure out what was going on. I have some anxiety myself, and hers looks much different. Her outward symptoms are much like yours–hyper, agitated. She is quick to pick a fight, and we've dealt with massive meltdowns for years.

    She's always acted so outgoing and confident that we focused solely on ADHD–the symptoms are very similar, and they are often co-morbid disorders. She never talked about worries or fears. Except she never slept well and had nightmares. I always associated anxiety with the "flight" part of the "fight or flight" response. I forgot that all that increased adrenaline and stress hormones can make someone feel like they are on high alert all the time, and that often means "fight". Therapy has helped some. I've used guided meditations with her at bedtime and it has made a tremendous difference in helping her to fall asleep. I'd love to find a kids' yoga class, but there are no such resources in our small town.

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  2. I so appreciate hearing how others cope with anxiety. My whole life, I'm now 56, has always had a high level of anxiety. Anticipating going to school as a kid was the always anxiety filled with Monday's being the worst. This only worsened as I approached 50, not because of the age but because of life piling up year after year. Over that time I tried various medications that helped but after a while the side affects outweighed the benefit with the uncontrolled trembling in my hands, teeth chatter, effect on the memory, etc. Counseling occurred off and on. What I didn't see was the storm this was building up too. It all came to a head during my 51st year when I had 4 severe panic attacks that disabled me each time for at least a week. Not good with a business to run and support a family.

    I finally decided there had to be an answer for me on how to manage this. I did a few things. First I went to a close friend who I trusted and new was close to the Lord. He was serving as a Patriarch in his stake at the time. I requested a priesthood blessing. The setting was so appropriate and metaphoric…it took place in a house he was remodeling and my seat was a paint bucket. The counsel was what I needed to hear and I followed it exactly with a great outcome.

    Next I met with a long time therapist friend I had known for more than 20 years. She suggested I try two things – get some meds and try a program called EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. I had a violent reaction to the meds that if continued could have had disastrous consequences, so that didn't work. The doctor had heard of reactions like I had but had never witnessed it. The EMDR however was a much different story. What a miraculous suggestion! After 4 sessions there was a noticeable drop in my anxiety. But there was still work to do. I had to learn how to manage it which took another 5 months of meeting with her. Eventually in one of my final sessions, she forced me to map out the downward spiral of what happens when I start into an anxiety attack or panic attack. It was hard, traumatic and took several hours to do it. But once done I could clearly see what my thought process was during an episode of anxiety. She then taught me a few techniques on how to short circuit and exit the spiral. Now when one begins, which isn't as frequent any more, the exit is almost automatic within a very short time.

    I also visited a Buddhist Mediation Center near my home to learn how to meditate and practiced that for a long time. Some of my LDS friends thought it was heresy but I found it so valuable and realized meditation complements our faith.

    I also spent time trying to learn where the anxiety came from, figured it out and realized it had nothing to do with anything I did, it was not "worthiness" related or any of the other things with which we browbeat ourselves. Mostly it was genetic, some of it was related to severe corporal punishment by my dad when I was young (when he found the LDS faith that all changed but the emotional damage was done) and the last some of it from a severe birth trauma I didn't know about until I was in my 30's.

    After reading about birth traumas I realized how fortunate I had been. A significant portion of those with birth traumas like mine end up, by the age of 50, as drug addicts, alcoholics and/or committing suicide in a very specific way. While I never had a drug or alcohol problem, I did have suicidal thoughts that matched up with the study on the common element in this type of suicide. That was scary and eye opening!

    Combine those three things and you have a perfect storm as life piles up year after year. My therapist friend said she found it amazing that first, I was even still active in the church and second, didn't have any of the issues so much associated with this anxiety. She was amazed that I functioned so well and had achieved as much as I had. My take on that was that I was fortunate enough to learn and blessed to be able to use that anxiety to move my life forward to achieve what I had during my first 50 years. The only thing was, like always with something like this there is eventually a brick wall that one hits, which I did pretty hard.

    I count myself blessed and watched over, having come out on the other side being able to manage it. Still 5 years later, it is so strange to feel the anxiety there but it doesn't have the same effect on me. There are times that are more difficult than others but nothing disabling like before. I'm able to hang in and work through difficult situations at work and in my personal life. Sometimes I have to take a step back to gather myself but I'm able to get right back at the issue at hand and continue. Like I said, there is still management that has to be done.

    Finally I echo your closing paragraph that feeling the presence of God and our Saviour is the only time a peace truly settles over me and the anxiety vanishes! Looking back, I know that faith and active participation in the Gospel of Jesus Christ was at the foundation of how I have survived my anxiety, find a way to manage it and continue in life. Retreating to the spiritual side of my life was truly a life saver for me. That's where I found peace and freedom from my anxiety. Thank you for letting me share these thoughts. My God continue to bless you.

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  3. Although one of my least desired things in life would be to go to a meeting of people with anxiety disorders, I very much appreciate Karen's insights. I know they group a lot under the anxiety disorder. I am grateful that I don't have GAD. Yes, I am worried about my phone being on the fritz for work and concerned about my internet as both were acting up yesterday. Although going places is very hard for me and I haven't left home in I don't remember how long and even longer since I have been into a building other than my sister's home, I don't leave in constant dread about the possibility. I do have some concern but unless there are signs of problems do not worry. Thankfully, I have been able to have family take equipment and bring it back and hook it up. And I go through mountains of stress with that.

    Even OCD is so nuanced. I get mad when people liken OCD to having to dry out. Being the girl that resisted peer pressure prior to being LDS, I don't like being put in that light. Plus, how do they know that it would be successful as you can't only see the evidence of uncompleted therapy without knowing that the therapy would have worked if they went the whole nine yards. Yes, there has been some desensitizing in small ways. But I am not the type with panic attacks since I was a teen and that was pre-OCD. In fact, I don't generally worry about myself. I worry about contaminating other people. I can get dirty outside knowing that I am not going to be in contact with people. I am hyper sensitive to the whole environment around me and see everything as a risk even if other people don't think about it. Therefore, avoidance is a top way of coping for me. I was very quiet during my teen years and young adult years. Then, I went the other direction at times and think that may be a little manic. When my mind was the most ping pongy, I wrote my best poetry.

    Studying subjects, reading, and writing are all so helpful in my coping. Given that people with GAD or other forms of OCD or anxiety disorders seldom have peace, I am grateful that I can be calm when I am not in contact with other people and don't have to worry about risk. I hate worrying about other people but recognize that I am fortunate that I don't worry about myself generally and the peace that gives me. I am not that open with my OCD although I have blogged about it at my friend Arlene's blog(many of you know her blogger name but not saying as I don't want people who don't know to read it). I am generally private about it online. I don't like to embarrass my people.

    Back when I did go places some, I used to run everything by other people to make sure that I didn't pose any danger or risk. I got told I was annoying. I am fortunate that I have loner tendencies and don't need friends especially if they are going to think that I am annoying. So I don't confide much outside of my parents. They live with my chatter. I am sorry how their lifting my burdens by telling me things are okay add to their burdens because they have to hear it. But we have good times. Back when my mom was more mobile, she would even like to go for walks with me despite my problems. I used to be in such internal pain in the early days of my OCD. I am grateful I function on as high as level as I do and do fear having such pain again once in a while when I think about it. Hoping for peace for those with anxiety.

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  4. eljee. You are doing a great job advocating for your child. It's so tricky to find ways to respond, and as they grow, their needs change so the interventions change. My anxiety looks a lot like anger management issues, too. It took me decades to figure that out, so your child is ahead of the curve for sure! Thank you for sharing your experience.

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  5. David: Thank you for detailing your journey. It's very helpful to hear about your symptoms and your various treatments. Another person has told me about EMDR as a way to reduce anxiety. I'll have to look into that. You are very kind to help me and other blog readers see anxiety in more complex and nuanced ways. You humanize the diagnosis through your narrative. Thanks!

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  6. Barb: You have such a gentle spirit and great insights. I admire and appreciate how you demonstrate so much kindness and generosity in what you write here and on FB. I perceive you as tender-hearted, thoughtful, insightful and caring. You send a lot of positive energy into the world. Thank you for taking the time to read my post and to comment about your experience. You are a treasure!

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  7. Thank you, Karen. I feel at times that people may think that I am not genuine when I write positive things as I have my problems. I feel they may feel that way when I share religion information too if they knew my problems. My spirituality although not what it was pre-mission days and pre-ocd means so much to me. And I gain strength from the positive information that I post and hope others do too. I do actually see a lot of positive things in the world and in those around me. Everything isn't colored by OCD. It makes me not take for granted what I can do.

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  8. Thanks for sharing. I deal with anxiety and OCD. I discovered yoga and meditation concepts this year — so important to learn how to get OUT of my head. That's been a whole new adventure that I need to do more of. I survived for my young adult years with exercise but chronic health issues have made regular cardio and other exercise very difficult. Migraines make yoga hard, too (downward dog, anyone?)

    I tried EMDR but it wasn't a click for me. Meds have not been the route I've chosen because of side effects. I still have a brand in my cabinet I haven't tried that I may try if this latest round of anxiety doesn't find a settle-down point.

    My main tool for facing this struggle has been 12 steps. Because so much of my anxiety stems from false beliefs formed in early childhood, 12 steps have given me the tools to slowly become more aware of those beliefs and observe them and be more able to surrender them. It's an ongoing, layered process and I have to be careful not to get too cerebral about it, but the bottom line is that the steps make the Atonement feel more accessible to me. And the community! Recovery communities feel like what I always imagined Zion to feel like. The faith in God and in His healing power is breathtaking. And the consistency with which people find healing — across so many different kinds of specific struggles — is amazing. And the realness and vulnerability opens up real power. Ah, I love it.

    For a long, long time I interpreted my anxiety as evidence that I wasn't doing enough. 12 steps have helped me realize that in my case, it was quite the opposite. I was trying to do way, way, WAY too much to try to 'feel peace.' I was trying to save and change myself. I was in duty and testimony overdrive without really understanding the Atonement. The different language of 12 steps has given me a framework with which to engage my belief system with new eyes and a new approach. It is not easy work to undo decades of coping mechanisms, but I am making progress.

    I also just want to say that I appreciated how you talk about how you have to be careful with too much engagement with LDS religious readings and scripture. I have a firm testimony of the Church, but it shook my core to finally find God in a different setting and in different materials. For me, I think my anxiety co-developed with my strong testimony and my desire to be obedient and dutiful, so sussing out the overlap and almost re-learning some important things (such as the character of God and the reality of the fall – MY fall, and the concept that weakness is not sin (Wendy Ulrich has some great material on that) has been pretty soul-stretching, and yet also really amazing. It's made my faith journey a lot more personal, and I've had to learn to trust God to guide me to what I need and what I need to do, which is often outside of my comfort zone. And yet, when He guides me, He finds ways to cut through my anxiety and reach me through a different channel. The trick is for me to believe that He'll do that again rather than rely on my anxiety as my guide, which is what I've done for most of my life.

    I wrote a while back about how God speaks in a language we can understand. I think that applies in a really important way to brains with chemical and other misfiring and wiring issues. I think can also be true for those who experience life traumas that may somehow intersect with Church living and language. Sometimes we need God's help to step out of our hamster wheels of thinking to see Him and truth in a way that meets our minds and bodies where they are in their fallen, mortal progress.

    I wouldn't want to be in a support group where anxiety was the focus. But I think it would be remarkable to sit in a room with people sharing what has helped them find God in the face of mental illness. Thanks for the virtual room here. I love seeing how everyone is able to find their own path. I love the fact that I am trusting that personal nature of growth more than ever. One baby step at a time.

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  9. Thanks for sharing how the 12 step program helps you put your anxiety into perspective. We have 4 recovering alcoholics in my extended family, so I have looked at some 12 step information to understand their journey and to deal with anger issues I have had. But I haven't thought about using it for managing my anxiety. I'll have to revisit the materials with that in mind. Thank you!

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  10. May I recommend a wonderful LDS-based 12 step book? It is available to download for free at healingthroughchrist.org It is designed for those who have a loved one with an addiction, but I believe it will benefit anyone searching for healing and a closer relationship with Jesus Christ. It has changed strengthened me and blessed me in ways I never imagined!

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  11. I love how these comments have identified different things that have worked for different people! I have depression and social anxiety and I have found things that work for me also, a combination of strategies that I learned in therapy coupled with personal revelation about my relationship with God and my Savior. The message here is one that I wish everyone with anxieties or depression could hear: There is something that will work for you! Keep trying! Keep looking! Yoga, meditation, 12 steps, medication, therapy…all are great if they can help you be your best self.

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  12. I struggled with anxiety and OCD all my life until a wise doctor diagnosed me based on my insomnia patterns. I take a $5/month, once-a-day pill and I will never go back. I know many people are opposed to medicine, particularly to treat mental disorders, but as you say it has a chemical basis in the brain. I would encourage anyone struggling to at least consider medication.

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  13. Correction: I do have friends and some have been friends pre-ocd and still to this day. It is hard in a way for people who knew me before as I don't like them to see me like this. Also, I mentioned people saying I was annoying. I think only one person ever used those exact words. One time after telling me that I should throw myself into my schooling to take my mind off troubles as he does, he seemed really sorry to hear that I was having to drop some of my classes due to my condition. I think he realized that it really did interfere with my life. Some friends my have been impatient in a way but considering how much service they gave me and how they made me part of their social life, I should not complain.

    I think it is unrealistic to think that a friend should never be impatient and always accept or understand everything. Once I had a friend who had germ phobia and social phobia problems talk about how she was not going to her new ward as she did not feel welcome. I was not usually attending or maybe not at all due to ocd and expressed something to her in a negative tone such as she should go. She said that I of all people should understand. Well, I should always generalize my anxiety to other situations to be more understanding. Alas, I am not always sensitive.

    I even watch people with OCD and while I see people with traits like them, I want to get sense into some of them. I know better! I am human. I got a Christmas card of a friend pre-ocd to the present. She never expressed being annoyed. She is a nurse and I would say some pretty annoying things to her asking about safety. She is dear and her children are like nieces to me. I am grateful she has stood by me. And we have seen each other through the years and she even wanted to see me in person as much as possible.

    What has changed for me is I am not as unbalanced as I was. I still have plenty of ocd obsessive thoughts. However, I am more in my right mind in so many ways than when I thought I was on the brink of a nervous breakdown. So many people reassured me through the years that fears are in my head and that helped me have hope although I still avoid as I don't like to have worry as I can't reason out what is really a risk. Being improved to some degree what has changed is that I have a lower threshold for embarrassing myself.

    Also, I like to be independent in not confiding much to others. I know it may be hard to understand but I am rather emotionally independent in a lot of ways. However, I am dependent for help in many ways with little life skills. So I compensate with being independent and not sharing much. But I do connect on other levels with people and am grateful for any level of friendship. People do deserve more than hearing my constant worries. Thankfully, I can have peace when I avoid things. And I have had so many wonderful experiences even in recent years despite ocd.

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  14. Another brief clarification. I know I probably think to much and overthink but when I said as someone who never gave into peer pressure prior to being LDS, I did not mean that I gave into peer pressure after being LDS. I have always kept the word of wisdom since becoming a Latter Day Saint. Onto other things on a snowy Christmas Eve.

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  15. Lily,
    Understanding medication is a personal thing, still, could you provide more info on being diagnosed based on insomnia patterns and what medication is working for you.
    Thank you-

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