Monday, May 28, 2012

Fighting Anxiety

(Someone I love has anxiety this week, so I thought I'd invite you all into the joint conversation)

Anxiety attacks are like an old sport's injury. On an average day, its unnoticeable. Add a weekend of strenuous hiking, and your bum ankle makes you hobble for weeks. As Catholics, we are constantly running a spiritual marathon. We're going to have more anxiety attacks, than the secular "civilians" around us, because God is always pushing our frail, imperfect bodies to be more like Him. There's a reason the words "protect us Lord, from all anxiety" ends every Mass. We need that prayer. After mortal sin, anxiety attacks are the Devil's favorite weapon to get us off track from our vocation.

For me, it's helpful to use a multi-layered healing plan whenever anxiety attacks surface.

First, its recognition. I need to know when my anxiety levels are peaking above normal. Honestly, its really hard to be a Mother. A constant level of paranoia is necessary when parenting a toddler. Sometimes it's hard to know when I'm appropriately "concerned" about my children and when I'm being unreasonably anxious.

If I feel myself slipping, I need to get out of my head. My thoughts are really destructive. I can try to pray about it at this point, but even more helpful is to talk to someone else. Just verbalizing my thoughts helps me sometimes. For me the best person to talk to is my husband. He's solidly in my corner. He's been down this road before. He usually can be a valuable outside "check" to the swirling thoughts in my head.

Now sometimes, my anxiety is so bad we get into a fight. (By fight I mean, my husband gently tells me things are not so black and I vehemently start shouting "Yes they are. You have no idea what I'm really talking about! You don't get me!") That's a hard place to be, because the last thing I want to start thinking about during an anxiety attack is that I'm also a crappy wife in addition to being a crappy mother.

When I'm beyond taking advice from my husband, I'm thrown back on my horrible ability to "self-soothe".  At this point, I've got to get really strict with myself. I start talking to myself in the third person and act like a personal trainer.

Step One: Rest. Take a break from the daily routine and focus on getting my anxiety injury healed.
Step Two: Be Gentle! The Devil likes to be harsh--pointing out all my fatal flaws and shortcomings. In response to him, I need to make sure that all my interior self-talk is extra gentle.
Step Three: Get an exercise buddy. I'll send out emails to some friends to ask for prayers to heal my anxiety.
Step Four: Resistance training. I've got to get out my affirmations. To counter-act all the negative self-talk, I've got to get some healthy positive self-talk. A therapist once talk me that all anxiety can be defeated with one of two tactics. Either I'm "over selling the likelihood of something terrible happening" or I'm under-estimating the possibility of my own ability to cope." So saying things like "I can't do this, but God can" or "whatever happens, God will take care of me" is very helpful.
Step Five: Patience. Some attacks are worse than other. Some take longer to heal.
Step Six: Know when to ask for professional help.  I really benefit from checking in with a professional therapist after my babies are born. For me, therapy isn't a thousand hours spent on the couch going over my childhood trust issues. I check in with a therapist on staff with my HMO. I do "cognative behavior therapy" --which is very focused, goal oriented stuff. After a few sessions, I feel better without meds and then I get to stop going to therapy. (In fact my most recent therapy appointment after getting worn down from Baby Abigail's colic lasted only 15 minutes. A new therapist confirmed that I didn't have post-partum depression. This secular therapist actually told me to a) not listen to my own mother, b) start praying the rosary and c) lean on my church friends for more help with childcare. Then she gave me her phone number to call in case I "started slipping." That kind of expert outside opinion (especially when it meshes so clearly with my own Carmelite spirituality) is so validating. I think my husband and I both felt better for my getting screened for anxiety and depression. I sort of compared it to getting a pro-active mammogram.

Know that I'll be praying for anyone who suffers from anxiety issue. An injured mama can still mother well! God heals all of our broken wings!


  1. I needed to read this! Great advice. Sorry I didn't message you back the other day. Your words helped a lot then too. Thank you. Of course, I always have a hard time admitting it's anxiety because in my mind it's completely rational. I *want* to think it's anxiety because then it means my fears are irrational. But I usually think that's too good to be true. I'm starting to come out of it now, thank God, but I always worry about slipping back. Anxiety about anxiety!

  2. As a long (really long) time sufferer of anxiety, and a professional in the counseling world - I have to say, you did a great job of describing the "attacks". In spite of my experience, my anxiety still sneaks up on me - and I do believe it is a purposeful, demonic distraction from my relationships and vocation.

    It has the 2 main characteristics of this: the attacks are stealthy, and the words are all lies.
    God bless you! You are in my prayers.

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  4. Your analysis is right on the money.

    I have to stay focused on what works day to day and really what helps are such easy interventions...

    eating well
    getting outside
    sleeping well
    balancing my self care needs with never ending needs of home and childcare needs


    I have found that gratitude is a major balm to anxiety

    And, then there is the good ol' glass of beer, too. LOL!

  5. All You Who Hope:

    I think recognizing anxiety attacks is hard because a good lie is always based on some part of Truth. It's not the "facts" aren't bad, anxiety is a distortion of the interpretation of those facts.

    For example, my 3rd grader is having trouble learning how to read. On a bad anxiety day my thoughts on this problem jump immediately to "I'm a total failure as a home-school mother AND my mother was right, I should have never had a fifth child... (because pregnancy and colic really throw a wrench in my home-schooling plans this year).

    On a healthy day I'm like --"Hmm, reading seems to be a problem. I'm going to let myself off the hook because Jesus knows that I just had a newborn this year. Instead, of beating myself up, I'm going to pray about it and ask Jesus to help us catch up over the summer. Oh, and please Lord, let me know if this is dsylexia or some reading problem that needs outside help."

    Do you see how the self-talk is totally different? Same problem. Yet in one scenerio I'm whipping myself mentally and veering off course from my vocation by blaming my newborn for her colic. In the other, I have a healthy dose of trust and hope.

    I hate anxiety because it's invisible. It's like Carbon Monoxide, a silent killer. I much rather have a broken arm that would make caring for my newborn difficult. Then I wouldn't blame myself so much for having trouble with my mothering for a short period of time.

    But we get the crosses that we get. Mother Teresa said this was the "crown of thorns" --so it should be an honor to suffer in this way for Him.

    I also think that a lot of people are scared to have more than two kids because of the Mother's depression and anxiety issues. (Poor Virginia Woolf didn't have any children due to her fears of depression) So in a way, its good act as a witness.

  6. Lollg--thank you! Wow, I like the "attacks are stealthy and the words are lies." I'll be a better look-out with those descriptions.

  7. Long time sufferer of anxiety here too. On a good day I can understand that I am uniting myself with Jesus's agony... On a bad day, well, watch out LOL!

    It was so good to read this. I do struggle with thinking many of the helps and "answers" are impossible for me, but I guess that is either God's will or simply not true, so either way I guess I am ok . :)