By Wonpung (Miyo)
Having anxiety issues is not an uncommon reality for many people. While my anxiety problems have largely remained undiagnosed, I can say with certainty that in my late teens to mid 20s or so, I struggled with anxiety and panic attacks.
Sometimes an anxiety attack would seem to strike out of nowhere. Sometimes, I could see it coming. Other times, it would strike out of nowhere. No matter how an attack would be triggered, the progression would always be: I feel a rush of adrenaline, followed by some symptoms like numb hand, numb left half of my face, racing heart, shortness of breath, chest pain that radiated from the left side of my chest down my arm -- all very real, all very scary. I remember getting a very acute case of this while driving home through the Adirondacks one weekend after a visit to my mother, and driving myself to the ER in Saranac, NY.
During any bout of anxiety, I would be rapid-fire diagnosing myself and imagining the worst: I have cancer; Having a heart attack; Brain tumor...eventually, I’d imagine myself dead. If the fear was over something like finances - in the span of five seconds I was in jail, my life completely ruined (in my mind). The spiral was intense, and while there was a logical part of my brain screaming at myself to stop--that I was making things worse--trying to stop my barreling thoughts was like trying to stop a train by standing in front of it--fruitless, and it seemed to get worse whether I ignored it, willed it away, tried to distract myself with enjoyable activities - it didn't matter.
For the most part, with the help of good friends, therapy, life experience and my mindfulness practice, I have been able to go years between episodes of these attacks--to the point, that when I had one just recently, I was bewildered and wondered what the heck was going on.
There was the rush of adrenaline (my brain: “Whoa! That’s weird!”). Then the hyper-attention to “symptoms” (my brain: “OMG, shooting pains in my joints, tight chest, nausea...I HAVE CANCER!”) and before I knew it, I had diagnosed myself with colon, rectal, and ovarian cancers. Why? Well, why not, I guess.
The interesting difference? It wasn’t long before I recognized my old enemy: “Ohhhhh, hello Anxiety Brain. Long time no see.” Once I understood what this was, the chills I felt disappeared. My headache eased, my racing heart calmed--I said hello to my old nemesis, and I was able to leave it behind. Very different from my days of trying to stop the oncoming train bare-handed, no tools at my disposal.
I can only attribute this newfound ability to my mindfulness practice--the repeated habit over and over of observing my thoughts, leaving them there to float away, saying hello when they return and letting them go again. That over and over practice paid off.
I still don’t know what exactly caused this bout of anxiety--that’s something I hope further practice and/or therapy will help me understand (if it’s able to). It is nice to know, though, that my brain has learned how to board that train and apply the brakes.
A blog by the Lotus Heart Zen Sangha
Sun 9:00 am (Temple)