Welcome to “How to Go to the Doctor,” our twice-monthly advice column started by Eva Hagberg Fisher, and inherited by Jackie Shea: actress, wellness advocate, and writer of the blog, Too Sick and Naked, the “hilarious” stories out of her chronically ill and traumatic life dealing with Lyme disease, immune disorders, and PTSD.
Dear Jackie, How do I not panic when my symptoms flare and I feel like I’m dying?
Great question. Independently, both illness and panic can have severe consequences, but when working in combination they lead to complete chaos. I should know—I’ve had threesomes with them. We have been wildly intimate for an extended period of time. Me, Lyme disease, and panic attacks have rolled around in bed, naked and dysfunctional, stayed up all night, trauma-bonded, and sat down to coffee the next morning. The more I resisted, the more they showed up as a pair, and the faster we went to bed. I was getting sicker and sicker—panic grew more and more toxic and Lyme disease’s abuse was ravaging my system. In an effort of self-preservation, I double locked my doors and set my sights on a new coping mechanism. I entered a jarring, lonely, confusing world that I had never been willing to explore—the world of dealing with chronic illness from a calm and centered being. WHAT? How would I ever do that with my history?
I was introduced to panic attacks when I was ten and I found out Mama Cass died by choking on a ham sandwich. Maybe I had a predisposition to anxiety, or maybe it was my traumatic upbringing catching up with me. Either way, it wasn’t “normal.” Most ten year olds in the 90’s weren’t obsessed with the circumstances of Mama Cass’ death. But, when some adult told me the story in passing, my eyes bulged, and in a hyper alert state, I thought: “What if I choke in my school cafeteria and no one hears me over the chatter and I die.” Anxiety is always attached to a thought. And it’s almost always an irrational thought. It’s much easier to manage irrational thoughts as an adult. At ten, my solution was to stop eating and try to stay home from school as much as possible. I weaved in and out of anxious episodes for the next 15 years—I self-medicated, I flirted with agoraphobia, I was terrified of public transportation and elevators, I cried all day, every day, and, through each new fallout, I instituted new approaches to manage my anxiety. By the time I got sick, anxiety was not dictating any of my life choices. There was just one massive problem …
All of my coping mechanisms that I had collected over the years—exercise, keeping busy (aka distracted), socializing, working, over eating, etc.—were no longer available to me in such an acutely-fatigued state. I was insane. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I thought I was dying all of the time, my fatigue was so extreme that IT HURT, my brain wasn’t working right, everything I knew about myself was slipping right from my unfamiliarly weak grip. I was panicking, I cried every day, insomnia tormented me, and worst of all, I didn’t seem to be getting better. All of that panic was doing nothing for me, but when I thought about releasing my anxiety, I realized that I was scared to not be anxious. HUH? I know it seems weird, but, at some point, I came to believe that I NEEDED to panic in order to get anything done—that panic was actually my driving force to accomplishment. If I wasn’t worried then I wasn’t going to push myself. So, I asked myself if I could believe that, on the contrary, MORE would get done if I wasn’t worried and running around seeking solutions but calm and in bed, resting, “doing” nothing. Did I really need worry to fuel my self-care? NO, I didn’t. It seems so obvious, right? Then why do so many of us keep doing this thing that is wildly counterproductive? And how can we take a more constructive approach to daily living with crazy symptoms on the road to healing?
Anxiety is the Central Nervous System’s reaction to danger. When you’re sick, your body is sending code reds via things like extreme fatigue, weakness, headaches and panic ensues. It’s self-preservation. Of course you’re panicking. So, first and foremost: You’re not crazy. In fact, you’re entirely sane. One of the biggest anxiety inducing experiences for me has always been a deep sense of loneliness—that peers didn’t understand what it was to panic or that I, ALONE, was having a severely distorted reaction to life. So, let out a sigh of relief, a little giggle, and know that you are thoroughly understood, your experience is valid, and you are FAR from being alone.
This is what I learned to do at the onset of anxiety, not so much to stop it in its tracks, but to redirect it to a prettier route:
- Acceptance: Have you ever heard the saying, “what you resist, persists?” It’s only logical to resist a full- blown panic attack OR physical symptoms. I’ve always found it to be ironic and true that when I can accept that I am panicking or in pain and welcome what is, it actually moves through me much faster. I generally put my hand on my heart and have a little conversation with myself, “I am afraid. I don’t like being sick. It’s OK. It’s ok to be afraid. I am safe. The birds are chirping. The wind is rustling.”
- Releasing the story/living presently in only the facts: For me, panic attacks are physical sensations PLUS a story I attach to the sensation. For example: Every time I had joint pain, my mind would spiral, “Lyme disease is in my joint; I have arthritis for good. I’m still sick. It’s not gone. I’m never going to get well. I’m never going to hike again or dance again. I’m forever altered.” When I released that horrifying story, I was left with this: “I have knee pain. It hurts. What can I do about it? Ice it. Sit down. Take my supplements.” Shockingly simple, right? There’s nothing terrifying about it. AND it’s the only thing that’s real!
- Inner-child work: I had to learn how to parent myself. If a child was panicking, how would I take care of them? If a child had joint pain, how would I take care of that child? I started giving myself little hugs and saying things like, ‘I’m so sorry this so painful. You poor thing. Let me get you some water. Breathe. You’re OK. I’ve got you.” Inner-child work especially helped during my insomnia ridden nights. It’s an act of meeting the anxiety and healing it instead of wishing it away and denying yourself. Welcome it and love it. Welcome yourself and love yourself.
- Just keep swimming: Remember Finding Nemo? That is Dory’s famous saying, “just keep swimming.” I take great comfort in the simplicity of doing the next right thing. That is all that is ever required of me. I do not need to figure out the future nor do I have the power to. It is a total waste of time. What’s the next thing I can do for my health/for my life? Are you tired, hungry, bored? Take a nap? Eat some lunch? Call a friend? You’d be surprised how quickly those little steps add up, and before you know it, you’re up the mountain. One calm, intentional little step at a time.
Up, up and away toward a thriving life.
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