When did your anxiety begin?
In retrospect, I had several episodes of anxiety in my adult life, always associated with major life events: marriage, moving and pregnancy, but because I focused on the physical symptoms rather than the underlying causes, these episodes each got a bit bigger than the last.
Eventually, several of these triggers combined to create what I like to think of “the perfect storm” of anxiety.
When our third child was born, we were living in Mexico City on an assignment with my husband employer. We found out we were moving back to the states when the baby was just two weeks old. During the weeks that followed, we had many important decisions to make...we had also had a reprieve from normal stresses, including financial, while we were living as expats.
I didn’t feel depressed, or sad in any way but I started having erratic heartbeats, which I obsessed about, along with neck pain, dizziness similar to that feeling when you stand up too quickly. I was constantly worried that I would have one of these episodes and drop the baby when I flew with my kids alone and I was worried the entire time that I would pass out, leaving my children unattended.
I just didn’t feel well, and I was sure that I had a heart condition. For weeks I worried and shared what I was feeling with my husband. He wanted me to get the right care and when he thought it was my heart, he was seriously concerned.
What happened next?
We had finished moving back to Arkansas and driving together as a family when I had a thought go through my mind “what would they tell my children about me after I am gone?” Within a few minutes of having that thought, I felt like a vice was on my chest and felt the life just drain out of me.
I told my husband to turn the car toward the hospital, I was sure I was dying. At the hospital, the ER doctor did an EKG that showed no abnormalities and he suggested that it was stress related and asked if I wanted valium. I was more disturbed that I would need something like that to function. I knew that I had a heart condition that needed more sophisticated testing to identify.
I was able to meet with a cardiologist and because of some family history, he hooked me up with a monitor that transmitted information to him for the next two weeks. My in-laws were in town to see the baby for the first time and I was able to meet with the cardiologist and go over his findings. He basically said that “you are healthy and your heart is strong and even if it beats rapidly there is no risk.”
Instead of feeling relief, I immediately started crying, I did not like the way I was feeling and I would rather have had a grim diagnosis than think of living my life this way.
What did you fear would happen if you couldn’t get this fixed?
I realized on some level that I was somehow doing this to myself and the thought of existing the way I was feeling, put me into a state of despair.
I knew my husband was losing patience with me, so I thought, especially now that I realized I was perfectly healthy. I knew there wasn’t any reason to complain about how I was feeling and I knew that the worries and thoughts I was having I couldn’t share with anyone because I was going crazy.
As I went to bed one night, I felt this wave of fear come over me. It felt heavy and hot as it washed over me. Afterward, I was exhausted and I knew if I told my husband and friends that I would be replaced by someone more capable and that my husband’s patience with me was wearing thin.
I worried that I was replaceable and that my children and husband would be better off without me.
I knew that if I was found unfit, I would lose everything I loved.
What occurred after that?
After my appointment with the cardiologist, my in-laws were going to return home and I was going to drive them to the airport in Tulsa. I had my father in law drive and I sat in the back seat with the baby who was now 3 months old.
I remember this overwhelming feeling of impending doom…I felt like I was waiting for something horrible to happen and yet I didn’t know what that was.
I asked my in-laws if they could call my bishop (church leader). I knew his home number by memory although to this day, I do not know why. I asked them to tell him that I needed to see someone on an emergency basis. I remember listening to my in-laws talking to each other and to the bishop. The voices were blurred as I was consumed by my worry.
Isabel was in a rear-facing car seat so we were facing one another. I remember her looking into my eyes for an usually long time. In that moment I knew she was saying, “I love you Mom and this will pass.”
My bishop was able to set up a same-day appointment for me with a counselor so we dropped my Father in law at the airport and my Mother in law stayed to help me.
At the counseling office, I remember the paperwork asked what goals I wanted to achieve through visits. I wrote the word “relief." I was exhausted and because I had a panic attack as I was falling asleep, I was terrified of the night.
The church counselor explained what I had been feeling and I was hopeful for the first time in months. He asked me to clutch my fist as tightly as I could and then hold it there for thirty seconds. Afterward, he asked me to release the grip. Didn’t it feel strange? Compared to the other hand as well?
In a sense, I had been doing this to myself both emotionally and physically…I had often felt a surreal feeling like I was just observing things going on around me rather than a participant in my own life.
When I felt these things, it was often followed by a wave of fear that would wash over me. I came to the realization that the sad thing that had happened to me was me, and I was doing this to myself.
After speaking to the counselor for some time, he gave me some exercises to do when I began to feel the panic coming on. I remember thinking that I could not go 2 weeks until I met with him again.
I seriously thought I would rather go home with him and live with his wife and children then face the terror of going home and having more panic attacks.
I was unbelievably disappointed and embarrassed that my mother in law had to stay and help me care for my children. I knew that I was broken, I wanted to throw myself back, start again and I knew my husband would want to do the same.’
What other types of professional help did you seek?
My bishop, who I feel in many ways saved my life, had an appointment set for the following day with a gynecologist who happened to also be a member of our church. He was very helpful in explaining that sometimes postpartum depression can actually be postpartum panic.
One of his nurses sat with me and described how during a particularly difficult time in nursing school, she had panic attacks. The Dr. prescribed medicine and although I wouldn’t feel the effect for several weeks, it was, and is, an essential component to the many things that have helped me find peace.
Taking medicine alone would not have “fixed me”- each person needs to make that decision for themselves- but for me, I was in such a spiral that I needed something to get me over the first “break” so that the cognitive therapies could be effective.
What additional actions did you take to help yourself?
I decided that I needed to do everything I could to help my healing process so I developed several defaults I would use when I began feeling panic.
In the beginning, John 14:27 helped me to repeat over and over again:
"Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid."
As I got stronger, I would often just reaffirm myself with a mantra “I am a well, strong, capable person.”
When we problem solve, we often concentrate in order to find solutions. The things we focus on WILL grow, and with panic and anxiety, you need to think of anything and everything else to overcome.
This really shook me to my core and everything I thought I knew about myself. I had some rebuilding to do.
I knew that if I was going to get better, I needed a deeper understanding of what I believed. I also knew that I would need the comfort of the Holy Ghost and I needed to do everything I could to invite that into my life.
I started reading the scriptures every day and noting how fear is displaced by faith.
I also wrote daily in a journal…I wrote 5 things that I was grateful for, and each month I wrote a bit more about how I was doing. Somedays, I was just thankful that the day was over, but in most cases, it kept me looking for the good.
Speaking of journals, when I first learned about your (Lori's) “freezer journal” technique, it became one of my favorites. It really is empowering.
With all things like this, progress is very slow and each day you may not see improvement. That is why journal keeping is so important, you can document improvements and see patterns and blessings.
One day the counselor said, “stand against this wall and it represents your worst day, the beginning of this journey and the other wall is complete emotional well being…where are you on this spectrum?”
I walked several steps forward and he said, “What happens when you have a bad day? You take a step or two back…but you are not up against that wall.”
I like to think that just understanding what was happening to me, that I am not crazy, and there is an explanation, has been as helpful and healing as any medication or treatment I have received.
When would you feel the most anxiety?
I felt the most panic in church. I knew, however, that If I was going to get through this I would need to continue attending services. I would often sweat and cry through the entire block of meetings (and it wasn’t because I was feeling the Spirit).
Many people allow panic attacks to keep them from leaving the house (agoraphobia) I am so grateful that I challenged myself, however badly I felt because I needed to attend my meetings.
What I didn’t realize is that exposure therapy is so effective, and essentially that is what I was doing.
How did this experience affect your relationships?
A significant healing moment came one day when my husband and I were talking.
I expressed my regret for having put him through this –I mistakenly thought he had lost faith and respect in me like I had in myself.
He told me that I had all the time that I needed to get better. I that moment I felt an enormous weight lifted.
From then on I only allow myself to be surrounded by people who I can share my feelings openly with.
I don’t waste my time with people who I feel would judge or scorn.
Feeling like I had to hide or keep this a secret gave my panic power.
How are you doing now?
I still feel the effects of anxiety. Recently I had knee surgery and in the night afterward I had a panic attack. I reached out to my husband not hiding what I was feeling and did my breathing exercises to calm myself.
It passed, I lived, and it did not escalate.
Why do you think you experienced this?
I don’t know why this happened to me but I am happy to be the poster child for anxiety if it gets people talking, reaching out to one another, and finding peace.
In 2 Timothy 1 vs. 7 Paul says:
“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
I know that we can get through anything with Hope and a Plan.
I remember where I was standing when I had this feeling of love and understanding of the Atonement and the love and sacrifice of our Savior. I had always thought of the Atonement as a way to make restitution for our sins.
It never occurred to me that what the Savior experienced was the emotional pain I was feeling and the sadness, betrayal of all humanity.
I remember feeling overwhelming love for my Savior and I made a mental promise that I would testify of Him every chance that I could when I got to the other side of this experience.
I also promised that I would never let another person suffer if I could in some way help or share what I had gone through.
What can other’s do or say to help someone suffering from anxiety?
I feel that when you are vulnerable, the impressionable things that people say to you (both good and bad) are like a tattoo on your soul.
I remember someone saying, “what could I possibly be stressed about- I had beautiful, healthy children and a husband that loved me.” That actually made me feel worse as it pained me to think that I might lose them and that my husband would replace me.
In contrast, I still feel vividly the healing power that my husband’s words had, “you have all the time you need.”