man with his head above water and his body below the water with rain drops around him

The Prelude: Learning to Cope with Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Anxiety begins to manifest itself, in earnest, about a month out. It starts with the automated call confirming the upcoming appointment. It may be three weeks prior. I just know that once that call is received, I am on high alert.

Trying to ignore my feelings

In the beginning, I would try to control these thoughts. I would tell myself I was being silly or childish. I hadn’t had any symptoms or signs of trouble so any worry was just foolishness. For several years, I was rather hard on myself. Often extremely judgmental and accusatory. I would berate myself and try to ignore what I was feeling.

Medications didn't work for me

Then came the medication years. This only lasted for a couple cycles but they were interesting. Xanax was prescribed for the anxiety. Wonderful, except that I was prescribed enough to put a medium-sized rhinoceros into a coma. I was taking four doses daily and struggling to function. I self-adjusted the dosing so as to stay awake and alert, sort of. When I spoke to my primary he was kind enough to add an anti-depressant to the mix. I cannot recall the name of it. I do know it is advertised on television in the United States as the next great hope. The mixture left me tranquilized and contemplating a permanent solution to my temporary symptoms.

My wife nearly stroked when I refused to take any more meds and quit everything overnight. I told my primary physician of my actions a month or so after, and he came close to seizure himself. Apparently, dropping these types of meds without proper time and reduction of dosing is against best practices. I was just sick of feeling worse by the day and having exceptionally dark thoughts about my future, or lack thereof.

Suffering from a form of panic attacks

Without the meds, the anxiety returned as if coming home from holiday. For many years, I would have episodes. That is the best euphemism I can use to describe my symptoms. I would later learn, in therapy, that what I was having were a form of panic attacks. Essentially, my mind would reach overload and shut me off. Literally, mid-sentence or stride I would just stop. My gaze would become fixed. I would lose the ability to speak, and I would just stop for several seconds or minutes. Through mindful awareness, I came to learn that I could stop these early with focussed, deep breathing techniques.

Learning how to manage these episodes

I would feel the episode ramping up in my chest and stomach and force myself to breathe deeply. To focus solely on the one breath. Then to focus on exhaling that one breath. By repeating this cycle, I could fend off the attack nearly all the time. I will not claim one hundred percent success as I still struggle from time to time, however, I have reached a point of manageability and acceptable outcome. I have learned that management is as empowering as overcoming, in the right light.

So here we are. I have tried self-judgment and criticism. I have tried medication. I have endured panic attacks. The next evolution was to start a meditation as soon as the anxiety started. This was somewhat effective, but it was still a form of denial more than acceptance.

Then, I had an epiphany. I was listening to Dr. Margaret Rutherford’s podcast entitled “SelfWork” and she said, (I can’t quote her so please accept this as her idea more than her words):

Accepting all the parts of myself

All the different parts of you deserve to have a place at the table, and they should all be given a voice. I pulled over on the side of a two-lane country road in a tractor-trailer and just sat there. I had spent half of a century trying to deny or control or disavow so many emotions and here was a professional in the mental health realm telling me to acknowledge and accept and give voice to these parts of me.

I knew that my cancer survival journey, and my emotional life had forever been changed. I had been given a whole new toolkit. This is part one of, what I plan to be a three-part tale.

Read Part 2 and Part 3, now available.

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