Imagine for a moment you’re about to go into a panel-style interview, where you know you’ll be criticised, but given a chance to redeem yourself. On live TV (your first time). With a studio audience of hundreds. Just beforehand, you’ll sweat, your legs will feel like jelly, and your heart will race. In addition, your bowels will contract and your bladder shrink to the size of a golf-ball. You may even be desperate enough to want the whole thing to be cancelled at the last minute, even though the encounter may benefit you – you may still want to avoid it.
Now add pins and needles in your arms, and maybe some chest pain for fun. And sure, why not some dark thoughts and high emotions too? And instead of a panel interview, you’re simply walking out the door to go to the shops alone, or are out driving, or opening a random work email… or simply just sitting on your couch at home. Welcome to anxiety and panic. And symptoms which may be felt by degrees over months or years by people who walk with anxiety.
The good news is that anxiety symptoms will NEVER kill you (like a real heart attack might, for example). In fact, they are triggered by a system (fight or flight) designed to keep you alive. Unfortunately, it has gone into overdrive, and your rational mind then has the extremely difficult task in convincing that part of your brain (the amygdala) that there’s nothing to fear here! This can be done, but training can take time.
The symptoms felt by those with anxiety are so varied, it’s incredibly surprising, even shocking, to those unfamiliar. I am not going to list them here, but instead link to a page with a near-complete list of symptoms.
What a list! And a bunch of them are experienced all at the same time. It can be quite overwhelming.
In addition, anxiety can come and go. And when it comes back, the amygdala thinks “Ok, they’re used to these symptoms a bit, so let’s hit them with something else!”. And so you may experience a whole new range of thoughts and physical feelings when it comes back (aka “symptom shifting”).
Unfortunately, it frequently comes back, and back again… usually in the form of what are called Setbacks, sometimes with new symptoms and sometimes with old ones. This term sounds negative, but is frequently used by sufferers of anxiety and depression and their respective therapists. Setbacks are unpleasant to experience (I’ve just come off one that lasted 48-60 hours), but in reality, they are a sign that you’re getting closer to recovery.
So the idea is to let yourself not be upset by your setbacks, and even learn to embrace them when they come. This is not too easy, as they are designed to frighten you to keep you “safe” from a danger that the amygdala thinks may be omni-present, but it fact it exists only within itself. It’s designed to make you think “My God, it’s back as bad as ever – I’ll never be rid of it!”. That’s just not true – and if you are able to practice your CBT or whatever mindful toolset you have you will experience this. In fact, the better you are at your practice, the shorter setbacks are supposed to be (I am still learning to manage setbacks properly!).
When you’re loaded with cortisol, it’s very hard to put into practice your mindful tools, but you’ve got to keep trying. You’ll beat this, and soon you and your anxiety will be living in equilibrium. As stated above, this training takes time. No estimates provided, as everyone’s journey is different and you should never compare yourselves to others.
Remember too that the graph of anxiety recovery is not an upward straight line, but more resembles the flight path of a paper airplane thrown into a hurricane!
What helped me getting over my latest setback was to read about them in the DARE book (by Barry McDonagh – Chapter “Give Up Fearing It Will Last Forever”), and similarly in this selection of sites:
- Why do we have setbacks with anxiety? | Anxietynomore
- Set Backs, what are they? | It’s Just a Feeling
- Setbacks – Anxiety Care UK
- 58998_Appendix_XVI_Handout___Dealing_with_Setbacks_during_the_Recovery_Process.pdf (sagepub.com)
There’s a Japanese quote I saw on another site that grabbed my attention, and sums it up:
Fall seven times, stand up eight.Dealing With Setbacks | ADAVIC Anxiety Disorders Association of Victoria, Inc
So again, good luck to all of you trying to walk with your anxiety in peace.
I thought I’d finish off this entry with some pretty! Here is a selection of photographs from Kilcullen and the Curragh I took when out on my walks.