Tuesday, May 03, 2016


When I wrote about my creeping anxiety a few weeks ago (it's better now, thanks), I didn't really understand anxiety in general or even thought I knew someone who struggled with it.

I did, though.

A longtime DQ reader, someone who I very much respect, sent me a deeply personal e-mail about his own struggle with anxiety. I immediately realized that this might help someone, and he agreed, so he graciously allowed me to share what he wrote.

I thought I would provide you a little more insight into the anxiety problem from another person's experience.  I spent a good portion of my life only vaguely aware that I had problems.  For the most part, I was fine.  But when stressed or unhappy, I changed.  I thought maybe I suffered from mild depression, but in my mind it was never that bad.  When I was in graduate school I hated it.  It was so different compared to undergraduate school.  Now the pressure I felt to excel came from outside sources and not just from my own desire.  I also depended entirely on my assistantship to live on, which meant I did not have a penny to spend on anything fun.  I paid rent, utilities and food.  I found myself staying in bed until 4:00 to 5:00 PM on Saturday and Sunday because there was nothing to do but study, and I was sick of studying, so I just slept all day on the weekends.  I almost dropped out once and was talked out of it.

My first presentation to the entomology department's students and faculty was on the history of entomology.  I got up and started.  It was suppose to be 30-35 minutes long.  I gave the entire talk but afterwards had no idea what I had said or how well I had done.  The entire time, I was focused on the door at the back of the room and fighting the desire to run for it.  I thought ... would someone try to stop me,  would they stop me?  All I could do was stare at the door and fight the desire to run.  Other students later told me I did okay, although I did mix dates up (sometimes saying 1967 when it should have been 1867 and vice versa).  It was all a blur.  I had no idea that I was having a full-blown panic attack.  Same thing happened at my oral exams.  I absolutely flunked it.  I barely knew my own name, much less the answer to even the most basic question I was asked.  I had straight A's and they all knew I knew the material.  They were totally perplexed at what had happened.  They passed me even though I am pretty sure I flunked it.  Again, it was a blur.  I do remember asking if I could take my jacket off because I was so hot.

After that, things calmed down for a while.  The biggest problem I had was like you, a racing mind when I got stressed or worried.  When it happened, I found it impossible to sleep for nights until I finally slept from exhaustion.  I simply could not get my mind to slow down, even at night.  I never really thought of it as anxiety, it was just normal stress to me.

Finally, about 20 years ago, all 3 things converged at once.  Depression, anxiety, and panic.  I suffered for about three weeks.  Could not sleep, could not eat, I was barely functional.  I suddenly realized I was like a drowning victim.  I felt like I was being pulled under and that my system was being pumped full of adrenaline.  I felt the fight or flight instinct, but there was nothing to fight or flee from but my own mind.  At that point in my life, I had a rather poor opinion of psychology as a science, but I realized I needed help.  I called about three offices, and the first two calls were answered by a receptionist who said they could set me up to see someone within the next week or two.  I wanted to scream I was drowning and that was too long.  The third call was answered by the psychologist himself.  He immediately knew from my voice that I was in trouble and asked me to come to his office in the next couple of hours.  I walked out of his office some 3-4 hours later feeling like a different person.  Just having it all explained to me was a relief, and he was fortunately a very good psychologist.  Over about six months, I learned more about depression, panic attacks, and anxiety.  I learned that what had happened to me was almost exactly what occurs with people suffering from PTSD.  The "incidents" that I had experienced throughout my life finally made sense.

After discussing my own experiences including the death of my mother from suicide, he suggested the problem very likely originated with my brain chemistry, and that I likely inherited some deficiency in neuro-transmitters from my mother.  I also apparently did not have a good understanding of how to reduce stress.  What I had always thought of as stress reducing and relaxing was not necessary reducing stress.  He recommended I speak with my doctor and start taking Zoloft to reduce anxiety and to keep some Xanax on-hand for acute attacks.  My doctor agreed.  I stopped taking Zoloft at one point years ago thinking I could handle it better.  I did okay for several years but then found myself with mild depression and anxiety symptoms.  When I talked to my doctor about it, he took out his Rx pad and said, go back on the Zoloft.  You tolerate it well and you can take it the rest of your life without worrying about it.  So I did.  I do occasionally take a Xanax for the racing mind problem but only after I have had difficulty sleeping for several nights.  I describe it as taking my mind out of gear so it can wind down.

Some final comments.  I did spend time learning and practicing meditation.  Read some books.  It really is wonderful, and  I found it altered my whole outlook.  I tended to be calmer in my approach to everything.  I could even drive to work without getting upset about the maelstrom of insane drivers swirling around me.  It really is tremendously helpful in many aspects of life.  I slowly fell away from the practice but keep promising myself to start again. I also made a point of explaining to my children as they got older what I had experienced and that if they inherited any of the tendencies I had, they needed to understand it and never be afraid or embarrassed to talk to someone about it and get help. I'm glad I did because my daughter had problems after the birth of her first child, and when she realized what was happening from our talks, she got help and weathered everything well.

I think your plan is a good one.  Meditation can be very helpful though it may take awhile for its calming effects to begin.  On the other hand, I would also suggest that even in our pill addicted society today, don't suffer needlessly for too long before talking to your doctor again.

Hope this helps a little.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but a mind that won't shut down can also be extremely debilitating.

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