I've been working at the same place for 2 years and 9 months (but what actually feels like way too long) and, at this point, most of my coworkers are aware of my anxiety and panic attacks. Fortunately, in the past I've either been able to hide my panic attacks or call out of work on the days I felt anxious in order to avoid the dreaded attack. Also, the holidays are coming up, which means seasonal hires. Fresh faces and new friends who aren't aware of my issue and that I can totally catch off guard with my craziness.
So, about a week ago, I arrived at work for my closing shift and was immediately overcome with a sense of doom that was triggered by who knows what. I recognized the pounding heartbeat and shortness of breath and immediately went to the bathroom to try to calm myself down. My shift was starting in five minutes, and I began to become jittery and dizzy and it felt like a million fire ant were crawling over my arms and chest. One thing I've learned from these past few years with an anxiety disorder, is that panic attacks just need to run their course. There's no stopping it once it starts and you'll feel a heck of a lot better once it's over. So I told my manager on duty that I was in the midst of an anxiety attack and needed a few minutes. All I wanted to do was run out of the building but I was so light-headed and dizzy that I just sat down in the break room. Cue multiple awkward encounters with coworkers who just don't understand panic attacks...
1. "Um, I don't know what to say right now." - At this point, I do not even try to hide my mental state from people anymore. So obviously when my coworkers walked into the break room and saw me hyperventilating and shaking, they asked my what was wrong. "Oh I'm just having a panic attack, no biggie!", I'd blurt out. Then the looks. The confusion. The awkwardness. I actually had a coworker look at me in horror and say that he had no idea what to say, then turned around and walked out. I mean, sorry that I scared you away, but even if you could have, you probably wouldn't have said anything helpful anyway.
2. "Oh, shoot, okay, well, um, sorry!" - This one was actually pretty hilarious and if I wasn't trying to convince myself that I wasn't having a heart attack at the time, I probably would have laughed in his face. This particular coworker actually freaked out and stuttered and walked in a circle before turning back around and going right out the door. It was like I told him that I was about to grow another head or like he walked in on me changing or something. He couldn't leave quick enough, and to be honest, I don't think I saw him again for the rest of the night.
3. "Here! Drink water! Do you want some chocolate? Where's your water bottle? You just need to eat something. I'll get you whatever you want!!" - I swear, do not tell me what to do in a situation like this. Do not tell me to eat and do not tell me to drink. Food is the last thing on someone's mind when their parasympathetic nervous system is focusing on fight or flight. And plus, chocolate would only make it worse considering it has caffeine in it! And no, I'm not dizzy because I'm dehydrated. I appreciate your concern and I know that you think you're helping but you really, really aren't and I'm going to need you to leave. You can't water me like a withering plant and expect that my panic would just cease.
4. "Well what happened to start it? Everything is okay and there's nothing bad to worry about." - If anything should be taught to people about mental illness/anxiety/panic attacks it should be that telling someone that they do not have anything to worry about is the absolute worst thing you could say. Panic is a psychological response that tricks your body into thinking you're in danger, even when you aren't. In the midst of a panic attack, I could believe that the ceiling is about to cave in on me and 100% believe it and you telling me that it won't isn't going to change my mind. After the fact, I'll realize how insane it was for me to think that, but in that moment, I will be fully convinced. And most of the time, I have no idea what causes me to spiral out of control after being completely normal two minutes earlier. So, kind coworker, asking me that is only going to frustrate me more and cause me to feel even more crazy because I cannot explain why I'm acting the way I'm acting.
5. ***silence*** - Yes, thank you, please do not speak. Sit down next to me. Do not touch me. Just be there so I don't feel alone. Do not crowd me. One person at a time. If I do die, at least someone will be there with me. Do not offer me anything or tell me what to think. Sit there until I calm myself down enough to look at you and crack a joke or start a conversation. Let me babble to you about my fire ants or how I need to feel my pulse to remind myself that I am indeed not dying. Laugh when I laugh. Finally, someone got it right that day. Thank you for being a friend and loving me when I'm crazy and when I'm not. Sometimes it's best not to try to fix things, but to just accept them.
I guess the main lesson I learned that day is, next time, don't have a panic attack in the break room, where all of my coworkers are constantly walking in and out of. Sorry for freaking every body out.
Have you ever just heard a song that describes something so well that you've been trying to put into words for so long and it's just so perfect?
Thank you, Twenty One Pilots.
"Am I the only one I know? Waging my wars behind my face and above my throat.
Shadows will scream that I'm alone."
"I am not as fine as I seem pardon
me for yelling I'm telling you green gardens
are not what's growing in my psyche
it's a different me
a difficult beast feeding on burnt down trees
please let me paint a mental picture portrait
something you won't forget, it's all about my forehead
and how it is a door that holds back contents
that make Pandora's box's contents look non-violent."
Wow, where to begin. Tyler and Josh of Twenty One Pilots really just get it. Their music is upbeat and energetic, but the lyrics really make you think. Break them down line by line and it all starts to relate to you. Funny thing is, Tyler and I have something in common- From what I've read, Tyler suffers from depression, and possibly other mental illness. He is a phenomenal poet and musician and his words are so resonating and catchy because they are real. Regardless of his clinical diagnosis, the lyrics of his songs, mainly this one, sum up depression in ways that I've been trying to for years. Takes one to know one, I suppose. It is extremely refreshing to know that someone else "gets it". With depression and anxiety comes loneliness, because no one else can comprehend exactly how you feel. I have no idea how Tyler experiences his mental illness; it could be very similar or very different from me. But we do share the fact that it is scary and debilitating and terrifying.
Everyday I wake up and put on a mask and tell the world that I am okay when I am actually struggling to remain standing. "I am not as fine as I seem" My thoughts are not normal, fine, or dandy. "I'm telling you green gardens are not what's growing in my psyche" Mental illness is not a choice, it is the result of brain abnormalities and unbalances chemicals. The neurons in the brain fire too much or not enough. Google a picture of a neuron, they look like trees. Those complicated little suckers can affect so much, and it is easy for fear to feed on the fact that these little trees aren't working properly. "A difficult beast feeding on burnt down trees" In mental illness, your mind turns against you. You cannot control it. It's evil and everything around you turns evil as well. "How it is a door that holds back contents that make Pandora's box's contents look non-violent" (Side note: In Greek mythology, Pandora had a jar filled with all of the evils of the world.. fascinating analogy.)
"Behind my eyelids are islands of violence
my mind's shipwrecked, this is the only land my mind could find.
I did not know it was such a violent island
full of tidal waves, suicidal crazed lions.
They're trying to eat me, blood running down their chin
and I know that I can fight or I can let the lion win."
Violence, fear, sadness, panic, paranoia. That's what I see with my depression goggles on. I try so hard to think of anything else. People think it's easy to just stay positive or not to worry. It's not easy. I'm stranded. "Behind my eyelids are islands of violence my mind's shipwrecked, this is the only land my mind could find" But it more than darkness and tears, I'm being attacked. I'm alone and weak and evil takes advantage of that, dying to take me down. Mental illness feeds off of weakness, hoping that you'll get caught in the current and be swept away. "I did not know it was such a violent island; full of tidal waves, suicidal crazed lions"
"and I know that I can fight or I can let the lion win" Strength, Hope, Resilience.
It is possible to overcome mental illness. But it takes effort and work and, if you don't put up a fight, it will win. Believe me.
"I begin to assemble what weapons I can find
cause sometime to stay alive you got to kill your mind."
I've said it before and I'll say it again. You are not your thoughts, and your thoughts are not who you are. I promise you that there are weapons big enough and strong enough to fight even the most persistent lion. It may not seem like it now, because there's a hungry lion standing in front of you, but once you put up a fight to that beast, you can win. Losing to mental illness is not the only option. There have been many times when I let myself believe that I will be defined by my anxiety and panic attacks for the rest of my life. But then I found my bow and arrow and began to attack it and even though it comes back over and over again, I've injured it and I've learned its weakness and I am able to take it down faster than before. And my hope is that one day it'll just give up and stop trying, or that I'll be successful in the attempts to kill my own mind. But until that day comes...
"And I will say that we should take a day to break away
from all the pain our brain has made
the game is not played alone.
And I will say that we should take a moment and hold it
and keep it frozen and know that life has a hopeful undertone.
Am I the only one I know? Waging my wars behind my face and above my throat.
Shadows will scream that I'm alone.
But I know we've made it this far, kid."
Fight the good fight. You are not alone. Life has optimism. Embrace the happy. Remember it. Freeze it.
You've made it this far. Keep going.
Has anyone ever thought about how it is possible to be in love, but still suffer from a mental illness? Has anyone ever thought about how it doesn't make any sense whatsoever? Well, tonight as I'm scrolling through Pinterest and checking out the fun psychology infographics (because that's what psych majors do in their spare time, right?) I was intrigued by one diagram that I had pinned one whole year ago. I presume that I never gave it much thought, or that perhaps I wasn't in a stable place to be truly thinking about it before.
Let's start with a bit of background. This time last year, I myself was struggling with the biggest pit of anxiety and depression that I've ever faced. I was attending a school I hated, struggling everyday with anxious thoughts. All I wanted to do was lie in bed, in the dark, and cry about nothing and everything. I skipped classes, I called out of work, and I isolated myself from the world because I was fearful and sad. I was also in a relationship I wasn't happy in, and, at the time, all of my crazy mentally-ill thoughts seemed to be elevated because of him. (Disclaimer: I can say now that it really wasn't his fault.)
Today, I am still fearful and sad, but not nearly as severe as I was one year ago. I still face days where I have no desire to smile, laugh, or socialize. I still have panic attacks that cripple my normal functioning. I go to the same school, work the same exhausting retail job, and face the same family drama that I did before. Granted, I have sought help through therapy and drugs (for a short time), but I freed myself from a relationship that I believe was augmenting my issues and knew that I needed to work on them alone.
Okay, so back to the graphic. Below is a picture of cute little vials that contain different amounts of colored "liquid" that is meant to represent different neurotransmitters. So I want you to take a look at 4 of the emotions and their corresponding neurotransmitter levels:
Anxiety - low Dopamine
Happiness- high Serotonin
Depression- low Dopamine and Serotonin
Love- high Serotonin, Dopamine, and Oxytocin
At first glace, this all makes perfect sense. Dopamine helps regulate the brain's pleasure center and emotional responses and plays a role in the person's perception of reality. Serotonin regulates mood and helps determine basic feelings (such as happy, sad, hungry, comfortable). So when both of these levels are low, a state of depression is reached because the individual is not feeling pleasure, has a distorted view of reality, and is told, by the brain, to be sad (even if they don't know why).
Bear with me here as I try to explain this epiphany I've just had. So we know that, in depression, neurotransmitters levels are low. And we can see that, in love, Dopamine and Serotonin levels are supposedly high. But that can't be if a person is both depressed and in love. However, a new chemical is introduced to the equation when we starting discussing this feeling of love. Oxytocin is an important neurotransmitter in intimacy and is considered the "bonding hormone", "trust hormone", and "love hormone", Oxytocin levels rise when two people hug, kiss, or engage in sex, during childbirth, and when a mother breast feeds. Therefore, we can all thank Oxytocin for the feelings of love and attachment we feel with those we are close to.
Here is my question: How can someone be clinically depressed and be in love at the same time?
My theory goes like this ... When one is in love, or is experiencing an romantic relationship, but suffers from depression, then there is more significance and weight placed on Oxytocin than on the other two chemicals. In turn, the relationship relies more on the attachment between the two people, than it does on the feelings of pleasure, reward, or happiness. When one person is depressed in a relationship, they still feel content because they feel the full effects of the "love hormone" which then, of course, translates to the idea of being in love. With the result of depression's lowered levels of Dopamine and Serotonin, then it would make sense that Oxytocin would have to pick up the slack. And wouldn't this mean that the person is more likely to remain in this relationship because they simply feel attached to them? And that the usual effects of Dopamine and Serotonin play less of a role?
So to tie this all back around to my personal experience. While I was in this relationship, my brain had low levels of D and S, but the reason why it didn't work out is because my Oxytocin couldn't pick up the slack. Reason being that I am not a physical touchy feely person whatsoever. I like to keep hugging, kissing, handholding, etc. to a minimum. In turn, Oxytocin was not being activated as often and my level of attachment with my significant other was weak. Therefore, all three chemicals that influence the feeling of liking someone were low, and the relationship ultimately was one-sided and failed. (Side note: Another reason that I support myself not dating again until I get my mental state under control is because clearly my Dopamine and Serotonin will need to be normal so that they can pick up the slack from Oxytocin..)
In regards to other relationships that I know and witness, my theory remains supported. A depressed individual can be comforted by the fact that someone who cares for them is there and is going to encourage them no matter what they go through --- they are bonded. Physical touch aids in attachment so when the depressed person is at a low point and their significant other puts an arm around them or holds them tight, those Oxytocin levels are spiking again --- love.
All in all, these are my late night thoughts that sparked from an analysis of a Pinterest post. I am highly aware that flaws may exist due to the fact that this "theory" has not been empirically tested and no research or data supports what was said above. I'm just a psych undergrad trying to make sense of the world around me and sharing my ideas with others. Take it as you will.
"Life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat; the redeeming things are not happiness and pleasure but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle." -F. Scott Fitzgerald
So those of you who know me, and know me well, know that the past few years have been a bit of a roller coaster of anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. What do you know? Another, 20-something claiming to be worried and sad all the time. It’s true, anxiety is the number one mental health disorder in teens and young adults, but just because it’s common, doesn’t make it any less debilitating and treacherous. I’ve made progress, I broke down and asked for help, and I’m doing better. It’s easy to let an anxiety disorder control your life, but that gets exhausting, and I’m done dealing with it, especially the following two things.
1. Missing out: I am so done of letting my anxiety get the best of me and missing out on great things. It’s so easy to say, “I can’t do that” and blame anxiety for it. For years, I have turned down chances because I didn’t want to do them alone, or because I was scared of having a panic attack and not having anyone around who understood. But so what? In a previous post I mentioned how I went to the Aston Martin Centennial Celebration in London by myself and how it was one of the best experiences I had abroad. At that time, I was on medication and I believe that contributed to the fact that I said, screw it, I’m finally doing something for me. It’s now one year later and I just completed my scuba diving certification. I am no longer on medicine. When I decided I wanted to get certified after a trip to the aquarium a few months ago, I fought so hard to find someone to do it with me. I tried to convince all of my friends, and some acquaintances, that this would be an awesome experience, but no one felt the same way as I did. Everyone was too scared, and that’s okay, but for some reason I wasn’t. Not only was I not scared of drowning or claustrophobia, or any other reason, but I also wasn’t scared of pursuing this goal alone. I attended an eight hour classroom/pool class, and two full days of open water diving, both more than an hour away from home, all by myself. Who am I? I know that for most of you, doing something that you want to do even though no one else wants to is just a normal, everyday act. But please also know that, for me, for someone who has suffered for years with the crippling inability to do things alone, that this is a giant feat. There were times when I couldn’t walk into the store alone just to buy toothpaste or something to eat. My first year of college, I turned down multiple opportunities to make new friends because my best friend since middle school wasn’t going to be with me. There were times when I would leave places early because I refused to talk to new people, but I also refused to be the loner sitting in the corner. And yes, I realize how flawed that is. But I’m working on it, I’m taking risks, and I’m trying to work through my anxiety, alone. I could have missed out on the incredible feeling that is scuba diving, and I could have given up my dream of ever diving with sea turtles, and two years ago, I would have. But I didn't let the anxiety stop me this time. Was I anxious? Yes, of course. But just as anxiety was telling me that I could never do it, and just as I was about to cancel my certification and forfeit the money, I took my life back from the grips of my disorder, and I'm so glad that I did.
2. Fear of Embarrassment: Panic attacks are embarrassing. If any of you have ever experienced the hell that is a panic attack, first of all, I’m sorry, and secondly, you’ll understand. You feel like your life is ending and that nothing good can ever happen again. The walls close in and the air disappears and your brain forgets how to tell your body to breathe. In most cases, hyperventilation and tears accompany shortly after. In a crowded area, people stare because you’re the freak whose mind thinks up the craziest scenarios that send the rest of you into an unjustifiable rage of panic. And that’s embarrassing. But guess what? After you have a panic attack in enough public places, you start to only focus on how to make yourself better, and not what other people are thinking. Take it from someone who has had a breakdown on the streets of London, in a hospital parking lot, at Disney World, in the middle of physiological psych class (oh, the irony), during a shift at work, in the crowd of a Kid Rock concert (that I was forced to go to, which didn’t help), and many other uncomfortable places. Although, with therapy and medicine, I’ve pretty much got these panic attacks under control and down to a minimum, but the fear of relapse is always looming over me. But I guess sometimes you just gotta get to the point where you’re aware of your limits and you recognize the issue before it occurs, and you stop caring about the stigmas that the world throws at you. I’m done feeling like the crazy girl because I was forced to meet with a psychiatrist. I’m done feeling like I need to hide my issues and not let anyone else know because of fear that they will judge me or not want to be around me or think that I ‘just need to get over it’. I’m not embarrassed anymore.
I have an anxiety disorder.
A very wise person once told me, “you are not your thoughts, and your thoughts are not who you are.”
Don’t be ashamed of the baggage that you carry. Embrace it, and let it help you better yourself.
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