The dread started creeping in earlier and earlier until it branched out into my dreams, gripping my throat from the moment I woke up. Fear of Monday mornings began on Friday nights, distracted only by the chatter of TV and blurred edges of a boozy weekend.
With each step of the commute, my heart started to race faster and my breath became more constricted. Still my feet would carry me forward like a brow beaten dog.
By the time I hit the office, I would be sweating like crazy and on the verge of a full blown attack. However, some sort of ingrained sense of self-preservation always held it off until I arrived at the sanctuary of the ladies’ loos, where I could hyperventilate safely and commence contemplating whether death was a legitimate reason for not showing up to my 9am meeting.
Anxiety and the resulting attacks started to rule my life and knowing the root cause – I hated my job, just in case you hadn’t guessed – didn’t help. I believed it was my fault. I should but couldn’t do the job. I should be able to but couldn’t hack the stress. I couldn’t ‘fail’ at something I’d been working towards most of my working life – so, I was stuck in this situation.
Weirdly, on the surface I looked like I was okay.
It was only that, to ‘manage’ the stress, I had to make daily lunch-time sojourns to the train station to fantasize about making my grand escape. Thankfully, I decided to go and see a therapist to ‘fix’ the attacks.
I realise this sounds ultra-melodramatic, but what happened next changed my life.
It’s not particularly easy to deal with an existential crisis when you spend a lot of your day gasping for air and being told to put your head between your knees, so one of the first things my therapist taught me was how to handle the onset of an anxiety attack.
'My body and I had never really been very well aquatinted. I saw the physical symptoms of my stress as ‘bad’ and felt like my body was working against me in some way'
Learn to breathe
Your chest gets tight because you’re shallow-breathing. This confirms to your mind that you’re STRESSED. And your mind thinks arghhhh that’s why I can’t breathe!
Learning the yogic-breathing technique of taking a slow four-count inhalation into the chest and the belly then feeling the belly fall and the rib cage deflate with the exhalation helped me to feel in control of my breathing and my body’s response to the stress.
In turn, I was then able to think more clearly and rationally about my immediate situation i.e. ‘I don’t want to go to work - but I will not die’.
'Naming and acknowledging my anxiety, fear, self-doubt and anger, took their power away'
Invite the Devil to Tea
I was pretty dubious when I was introduced to mindfulness exercises at first. I wanted to be fixed, so the idea of accepting my physical and mental responses did not sound like my cup of tea. Paradoxically, learning to stop fighting against myself took away the power from the anxious thoughts and feelings.
An exercise called 'Inviting Mara to Tea' is one I’ve found particularly helpful. It stems from a Buddhist story, which I came across through the insightful talks given by Buddhist teacher, author and clinical psychologist Tara Brach. It stems from a story about the demon Mara taunting the Buddha with negative emotions. Instead of ignoring Mara or driving him away, the Buddha calmly acknowledges his presence, saying, “I see you, Mara.”
The idea is that whenever you are visited by troubling emotional and physical experiences you can call them out, without judgement, and allow them to be there alongside the many other thoughts and feelings that ebb and flow as part of the human experience. Naming and acknowledging my anxiety, fear, self-doubt and anger, took their power away. It was like realising your opponent in a tug of war is yourself. If you let go of the rope, all you can do is call it a draw.
'My body had been trying to tell me for a long time that I wasn’t happy and needed change'
Dealing with what’s underneath
And so to the really scary bit.
Therapy helped me to confront the issue crying out for my attention. My body and I had never really been very well aquatinted. I saw the physical symptoms of my stress as ‘bad’ and felt like my body was working against me in some way. With support, I started to reframe my understanding of the physical manifestations of my anxiety and was able to see my body as friend rather than foe.
You know when your best friend tries to tell you that the guy you’re dating is no good for you and you lose your shit… because you secretly know she’s right? Well, I think that’s sort of what was being played out with my anxiety attacks. My body had been trying to tell me for a long time that I wasn’t happy and needed change. Once I started to mend the broken communication between my mind and body, I was able trust its well-intentioned signals.
Reframing the meaning of my anxiety attacks helped me to make some bold changes, and those decisions have set my life on a track that feels ultimately more ‘me’.
Miriam Christie has recently joined our team at The Counsellors Cafe and we're delighted to have her with us. Miriam is a wellness and lifestyle writer, yoga & pilates teacher and qualifying counsellor. You can get in touch with Miriam via Twitter