Hello brothers and sisters of the panic disorder set. I’ve written a goodly number of articles on this site pertaining to recovery from agoraphobic and panic attacks, which I’m sure you’ll find helpful. I have stopped posting to this blog, however, and now make regular posts on panic disorder on my unagoraphobic facebook page. I hope you’ll become followers in your quest to become free forever as I did more than 20 years ago. Best wishes and see you on facebook.
I felt terribly alone and helpless at age 10, suffering from anxiety and panic attacks, thinking no one could possibly be as terrified as I in my bed late at night, night after night. I wish I’d known then that chronic anxiety is a problem for many adolescents, and that education about the causes and treatment is the key to overcoming the problem early. As it was, I spent much of my childhood and adult life trapped in Panic Prison.
You could possibly save a child from experiencing a long life of anxiety by staying tuned to the kids in your circle. I was embarrassed to talk to my folks about my panicky feelings. My father was kind of macho and not good at compassionate communication. My young mother reached out to the family Matriarch, Aunt Edna, who said, “If you think you’re crazy, you’re not.” Somehow that didn’t convince me.
Knowing what anxiety looks like and feels like, makes one an expert at spotting it. When you spot it, there are several ways to take action. If you’re the parent, read on. If you’re a friend or relative, ask the parents about the apparent behaviors and express your willingness to help.
Recognition is critical to treating childhood anxiety. I suffered needlessly for decades because no one around me, including the medical community, was able to explain the basic brain chemistry that creates anxiety and panic attacks. Had that happened, and had I learned how to overcome the problem I’m convinced I could have re-wired my panic control system early in life .… which is why I’m writing this.
If the youngster is someone you are close to, start a conversation. My advice is to be upfront right away. You could say something like, “I have had experiences with anxiety, and can kind of sense when somebody is feeling that way. I know how tough it can be. I hope you won’t mind me asking if you’re having problems with anxiety and maybe tell me how you’re feeling.” After you get the ball rolling, help in some way to connect the child with not only family support but school counselors or child therapists and appropriate medical professionals as well.
Children suffering from chronic anxiety need to hear that someone knows what they are experiencing and can help them get out of the scary trap they’re in. My anxiety was the result of panic attacks, but there can be many causes for an ongoing sense of danger. I advise you to search-engine “anxiety and the amygdala” to do the research necessary to create a level of explanation that a child can understand. Please emphasize that the system can be re-wired to eliminate the problem. Hope is a great motivator.
I created a schedule of activities and projects in “Un-Agoraphobic” designed to change the communication between the reaction part of the brain and the thinking part of the brain. In essence, a panic attack or other frightening experience alerts the amygdala to become hyper- vigilant about danger. Neural activity increases dramatically in the twin, almond shaped glands in the center of the brain, and that is what we call “ANXIETY.”
Recovery is a process of the thinking brain telling the reacting, reptilian brain that there is no longer any danger. Day after day you have to send messages that you are quite safe. After time the amygdala will reduce the force of soldiers at the gate and return to its real job of alerting you to actual speeding cars or saber- toothed tigers or whatever the case may be. Talk therapy is the best option for a child with ongoing panicky feelings, but love, support and understanding provide the safety net.
Please reach out if you know in your heart that doing so will help a kid have smiley dreams at night.
I urge you to read the linked article below for an overall view of the whole anxiety thing by another author with personal experience. Barbara Graham reveals her long struggle with anxiety and what can be done about it in this piece for Mindful magazine.
Mindfulness is, I think, a rather lovely word , pleasant to pronounce and has been in the air more and more the past few years. It begins with the Mmmm sound that is sort of like ommmmm, creating a syllable that is our favorite subject, followed by the word “full”, and who doesn’t like that notion? And it’s finished off with “ness,” a satisfying release of air that indicates “quality of being.” Who could say anything bad about a word like mindfulness?
Well, some people don’t care for fancy words. What it really means is “paying attention.” So, pay attention to this: in order to be mentally healthy, you need to spend a good portion of your day paying attention to every little thing you do and see and engage. My Un-Agoraphobic recovery plan is built on focus and action, and creates many ways for the panic disorder victim to engage in mindful activities.
I advise lots of research and writing, and purposeful activities that require full focus. One of the recovery steps is to learn a new skill that requires all your attention. My healing mindful activity that helped me recover from 30 years of agoraphobia was to teach myself to draw, and then to draw regularly. Learning a musical instrument such as a recorder or penny whistle is another mindful activity that actually builds gray matter in the brain and defuses the flight or fight apparatus. Learning a new language does the same; music is a new language.
The anxiety of traveling outside one’s safety zone can be eliminated by fully engaging with everything in your environment as you travel. Read all the signs, look closely at clothing those around you are wearing, count blue cars and so forth. Take pictures and write about what you see. Getting outside your head and into what is around you will help you recover totally from chronic panic attacks and anxiety.
A recovery plan should also include sitting meditation as the practice is scientifically proven to make positive changes in the brain. Your way, way over-staffed alarm system needs to lay off a few neurons, and the way to do that is to let your amygdala know that you feel safe. If you practice regular activities that give you a calming feeling, the amygdala will get the message and re-assign some soldiers to more peaceful duties. The peace and serenity gained through meditation and meditative activities gives you a safe place to go when anxiety creeps in.
Here’s a link to a brilliant article that de-mystifies and explains “mindfulness” by an expert on the subject:
(Kitty is working on overcoming agoraphobia and writes from time to time about her process. Here’s some sound advice about setbacks.)
How regress can be progress
I had some setbacks recently, lots of very high anxiety days and a lot of panic attacks. It’s easy to get disheartened by stuff like this. It’s easy to wonder why you should bother. But you must not think that way. Setbacks and relapses happen to everyone recovering from something. They are always temporary and much easier to bounce back from than the original problem. If you’re climbing a tree to get away from a bear and you fall back one branch, do you jump down from the tree and let the bear eat you? No. You keep climbing. It was just one branch and you’re still farther from the bear than you were when you started. So if you fall in your recovery, keep climbing.
In my experience, when you have a relapse it’s best not to dwell on thoughts like, “But I was doing so well.” You’re still doing well. It’s not your fault the anxiety is stronger this week. You didn’t do anything wrong in your exposure. Keep doing your exposure during a relapse too. It’s harder but it will prevent the agoraphobia from becoming more malignant again. The best thing to do is ride it out. It will end – probably in a week or two. In my experience, relapses never last longer than that. Just keep reminding yourself that it’s temporary. Maybe do twice the meditation and/or mindfulness exercises that you usually do.
When your anxiety gets unusually high, it might not be best to jump to the benzo bottle as quickly as you normally would during a bad streak, because you would end up using it too often. One of the best ways to get rid of anxiety is to forget you’re having it. There are several ways that I go about doing this. As I mentioned in my intro post, sometimes I call a family member or a friend who I have really good conversations with and they will get me so involved in talking about another subject that I forget I’m anxious and it goes away.
Then there’s mindless television. I never pick a show I’m gonna connect with or have emotions about for this. I pick things like Bigfoot documentaries or World’s Wildest Police Chases. Reading is a good one, because that engages all of your brain. There’s no part left over to be anxious with. I’m partial to Sherlock Holmes stories.
The important thing to remember is that setbacks will happen, but they never have to mean a return to square one.
Chronic anxiety and panic attacks can take the stuffin’ out of you and turn you into a meek and cowering victim. I know from many years’ experience with panic disorder that the condition of being constantly on alert drains one physically and psychologically. My long struggle with anxiety turned me surprisingly passive.
Now, if something is holding back my dreams and goals I get properly pissed off and take action. When I was subdued by mental illness, however, I felt oddly powerless; I just sort of let the thing take me over. I wanted to be assertive, but expressing any kind of strong feeling was terrifying somehow. I felt so close to the breaking point so much of the time that I feared any strong display of emotion might tip me over.
Panic disorder and agoraphobia had me by the throat and I was afraid for far too long of fighting back. I couldn’t be assertive in the face of possibly increased anxiety. As I started seeing therapists, though, and sharing fear experiences in peer group settings and doing research, I began to understand my power and how to use it to become free.
The psychiatrist who said to me, “You know what your problem is?… you don’t love yourself” started the ball rolling – by making me understand I needed to start taking very good care of the most important and lovable person in the world – me. I wish I could say my quest to become assertive and actively pursue a solution to my anxiety problem was a continuous journey, but addiction to alcohol and tranquilizers was still in my way.
Once I stopped trying to cure anxiety with alcohol and pills I became astonishingly less anxious. At that point my understanding of the importance of me and the will to make my well being a priority came into play. I was relentless thereafter in working selfishly for once on solving my problems. I soon realized the value of being assertive, as my confidence increased to the point where the thought of traveling frightened me less and less.
All that led to the momentous day when I burst through my agoraphobia prison wall and have been merrily traveling about since – more than 20 years ago. It became possible because I somehow found the will to make myself into a full human being again – one who could get angry and stand up for himself and get things done. So my advice to you is right here when you are ready for it. The sooner you start acting “selfishly” the sooner you’ll recover from panic disorder.
I’m providing a link to an excellent read on the importance of “selfishness.:
Chronic panic attacks and the resulting constant anxiety are so debilitating and mysterious that many sufferers are too overwhelmed to figure out what to do about the problem. I lived with agoraphobia for years before I knew anything about my cursed condition. I asked my self “Why” of course many times, but it took a long time for me to ask, “How?” “How am I going to stop this madness?”
Once I started that pursuit (in the ’60’s) I discovered there weren’t any apparent answers to overcoming panic attacks. I saw a lot of doctors and shrinks of various kinds for decades, and not once did any of the lot present me with some practical answers to the question “How am I going to stop having panic attacks?” The word “how” committed me to an unending search for the answers. Finally, I put together everything that had worked for me in one way or another, and certainly from self knowledge gained in therapy, and overcame my panic disorder and agoraphobia – more than 20 years ago.
Asking yourself or anyone how to do something means you are ready to do practical work on your problem with the intent of solving the problem. I learned that I had to heal the whole of me in order to get to the point of recovering, The recovery program I developed reflects that, with daily activities involving mind, body and spirit work.
All of the daily activities and studies in the program are revealing how to do what you need as part of overcoming your fears. Once you start working aggressively and regularly on solving your problem you will get up every day thinking of how. “How can I learn and how can I do?” are questions that will eventually lead you to freedom. Yes, I said freedom.
I’m linking you to an article on change, and how some people have trouble making necessary changes. I know you desperately want to change your circumstances. Reading this should give you insight to changing by using the magic word: “How”?
|(Kitty has suffered from agoraphobia for years and writes of her progress from time to time as a guest blogger)
Daily Therapeutic Activities Are Helpful
When you have panic disorder and agoraphobia at the level that I’ve had it the past four years, you can seek Social Security disability income until you recover. It’s a very long road to get disability when you’re not dying. I applied three years ago and my hearing for the final decision is not until August. You can’t work while you’re waiting for disability because your disability keeps you from working. Even applying for a job disqualifies you for disability income. Being unable to work can diminish your self worth. Society tries to define people by what they do for a living. Well that’s bull. You have an abundance of worthiness.
It helps to feel like you’re impacting the world if you pick up a hobby where you work with your hands. I write and draw. I mostly write fanfiction, but that’s still writing. I post it online and I’ve even gained a small fan base. It puts a pep in my step for the whole day when I get a comment on one of my fanfictions saying that they loved it.
For drawing, I have a sketchbook and a pencil and that’s all I really need. Sometimes I use pose references from stock photos. I used to have a scanner and I would post the work online, but I don’t have a scanner anymore. Other people don’t have to look at something I drew to validate it. I look at it and I think “I made that, and I’m proud of it.”
You may say “But, Kitty, I don’t have any drawing or writing talent.” First of all, just try it and double check on that by showing it to people you know love you and will tell you the truth kindly. We’re all our own worst critics and maybe you just need practice. But even if you’re not good at those, you’re good at something, you just have to find it. Maybe knitting, maybe photography, maybe pottery, or sports.
Another way to feel like you’ve accomplished something is video games. Battle a dragon, save the kingdom, save the galaxy. It may be an artificial rush of accomplishment, but it’s a rush all the same.
Would you take a med for your anxiety if the doctor told you this about it?:
- It won’t fix your problem
- Your body will be addicted to it within a few months as it loses its effectiveness, and…
- When you are addicted, you will experience anxiety as a side effect of withdrawal (daily, when it’s getting close to dose time).
I’m talking about the benzodiazepine family – Xanax, Valium Klonopin, Atavin, et al – and I’m revisiting the tranquilizer problem because use of the addictive medication is growing globally. I browse various online peer support groups for anxiety, and it seems most people writing in are taking some form of medication long term, perhaps unaware they are making their problems worse.
Statistics from the American Psychiatric Institute say doctors write 50 million prescriptions a year for benzos, and that between 11-15 percent of Americans have a bottle of benzos in the house. The API report pointed out that the med is best used for short term relief of extreme anxiety. If intense fear is keeping you from working on recovery, I advise talking to your doctor about your recovery work and request a short run with a benzo –like 3 weeks max. Klonopin has the longest life cycle, meaning fewer doses per day.
I can talk about this because I was addicted to Xanax for several years. What I was taking to treat my panic attacks and agoraphobia actually delayed my recovery by years. I guarantee you cannot overcome your panic disorder and agoraphobia while you are addicted to benzos because they create anxiety. I can talk about this because I worked as a mental health social worker for 17 years and sat in with psychiatrists as they prescribed for clients of mine with a variety of mental illnesses. I’ve heard many a lecture about the dangers of benzodiazepines and have read widely on the subject.
Please listen to me. If you are not now engaged in regular work toward recovering from panic disorder, begin doing so at once and then schedule an appointment with your prescriber to begin a slow tapering off process. I went off benzos twice during my prolonged use. The first time was spread over a few months, and I felt somewhat anxious most of that time. After I was off, the anxiety totally disappeared. The second time was hard; it was in a medical addiction treatment center, and I was coming off both alcohol and Xanax. I had Valium for a couple of days, but then cold turkey.
I shook so badly for several days that feeding myself became problematic. Finally one of my fellow patients brought back from the kitchen one of those 2-foot long metal stirring spoons so I could transport food to my mouth. This could be you someday, is why I’m mentioning it.
Panic disorder can be totally overcome by anyone willing to put in the work required to re-wire the way you think, respond and create. I recently read the piece I’m providing a link for below; it’s the best story on benzos I’ve seen.
(Kate is a guest blogger who files occasional reports on her progress in overcoming panic disorder and agoraphobia)
The Drawing Challenge
When I read Hal’s “Drawing on Your Serenity” blog post I made a mental note to pull out my sketch book and challenge myself to do some drawing.
I am not an artist by any means, but I love art and enjoy being creative either through painting a collage or knitting a pair of socks.
On the first day of the challenge I worked steadily in the office and peeked around to see if my sketch book was in sight. It was. (Sitting on another desk in my office) I said “Darn!” in my mind as I wanted to have an excuse NOT to draw. After I bundled all my files away for the day and shutdown all my email correspondence I walked over to the other desk and picked up my sketchbook and pencil box. I carried it down to the living room and it felt like a ton of bricks I wanted to dump and not pick up.
I was really agitated about this challenge. My brain was having a creative tantrum and the sketch book sat for a couple of more hours before I would get in gear and do it.
I picked up my best drawing pencil, looking at the tip, it was dull and I had no energy to even sharpen it. I was about to drop it and abandon the whole idea feeling really irritated at that moment that I had been reduced to “art therapy”.
Instead, I did the opposite and flipped open my sketchbook to a blank page (not before I perused some of my past drawings). My focus was on a cat and a cat’s face. As I started drawing I could feel my brain resisting each line. I was careful not to erase anything too quickly as I knew it was important to get the outline of something in front of me before I gave up for good.
An hour later, I had one fully sketched full bodied cat and one detailed cat face. Yes, they look like feral anime characters but I can tell you the pride of accomplishment I felt and the sense of creative peace my brain was hosting, felt amazing. I could actually feel the physiological change in my brain at about the 15 minute mark. It is like opening a window on a fresh spring day or on a crisp fall morning. A real awakening took place in my mind.
When my family came home and saw my open sketchbook they were in awe. “Did you draw that mom?” came an excited squeal from my daughter. Even my husband chimed in and said, “Wow that’s really good!”
The next day, I drew the face of a woman peering back at me from one of the many biographies I like to read. This drawing came so much easier than the one from the day before. I sketched freely and erased calmly and carried on conversations with my family as I drew. And, yes, this poor woman looks like a witchy skeletal version of her real self. But I did it freehand and it amazes me I am able to do it. We all had a good laugh at what I had creatively done to this poor woman and I felt great.
I wonder what or who will be my muse today.
I got torpedoed by yet another cycle of panic attacks and relentless anxiety in my late 20’s that resulted in one of my more memorable panic attack dramas. I was sitting in my University of Montana campus 3rd floor office when the totally unexpected blast went off. Panicking, I raced down 3 flights of stairs to the parking lot where I jumped onto my motorcycle and drove at high speed through campus, across lawns and sidewalks with students screaming behind me to the student health services building, where I dumped the bike on the lawn, ran breathlessly into the office and said to the first person I saw in a white coat, “I need help!!”
The campus physician took me into an examination room, talked me down, and made an appointment to see the psychiatrist. When the time came a few days later, I recall nervously tapping on Dr. Katzen’s* door and hearing a gruff “Come in.” The stocky gentleman stared at me silently as I walked to the chair in front of his desk and continued staring at me for several seconds after I sat down.
“I know what your problem is,” the 60-ish, balding, white jacketed doctor said, his arms crossed over his chest. (Finally…. I thought to myself, somebody’s going to tell me why I have episodes of terrifying panic attacks that began when I was 10). “You don’t love yourself, he proclaimed”
I still recall how shocked and stunned I was by his simple statement. My first reaction was almost revulsion. i honestly felt it was somehow morally wrong to love yourself. I don’t remember anything else about my first meeting with this wonderful man except his parting prescription: “When you get home, look in the mirror and tell that person, ‘I love you.'”
About 15 minutes later I was standing in the doorway of my apartment bathroom, dreading the walk over to the mirror above the sink. I crept to the side of the sink and then sort of leaned to my side to peer in at a tense-looking face. The whole experience of confronting myself and looking deep inside me and saying those 3 little words was surreal and oddly uncomfortable. I went through this brand new ceremony for several days before I felt at ease and as though I was being honest.
Since then, unconditional self love has been at the center of my recovery from agoraphobia and a tool I use in the sometimes grueling and trying time of writing. During my research I drop in on various online support groups and am saddened by how much self revulsion I read from victims of mental illness of one kind or another. Brother and Sister Agoraphobes, please listen to the words of Uncle Hal about this. You got to love yourself and accept yourself just as you are before you can make significant gains in overcoming panic disorder. There is no reason whatsoever not to love yourself and everything to gain by doing so. At least that’s my opinion.
So….. I guess you could see this coming…. I want you to get up from whatever you’re sitting on and go to the nearest mirror. Talk things out with yourself and get to know you. Have these dialogues daily and don’t forget those 7 little words: I love you and I mean YOU! (pointing)