My Complicated Relationship With Anxiety, and What You Might Learn From It.
Updated: Oct 21
It’s 3am, or thereabouts. I don’t know for sure, because I don’t want to look at my phone and further amp up my already racing mind. I can feel my heart pounding in my chest, and my thoughts are going a million miles an hour. My jaw hurts, and my throat feels like an arid desert has taken up residence there. I ask myself: “What if this is it? What if I’m having a heart attack? Should I wake my wife, Tracie? I don’t want to worry her if it’s nothing. I’m sure it’s nothing, just anxiety. But what if it’s not…” I try to focus on the thought that this is just anxiety, just my mind and body reacting to an imagined fear, but my mind won’t stop racing. So, I get up out of bed, and start pacing through our house, hoping that I don’t wake her up. I get a glass of water and ch
oke down a couple of swallows. Eventually, I slowly feel myself starting to wear down enough that I can go back to bed, falling back into a fitful, light sleep. I awaken to the alarm, signaling yet another day, wondering how long I can keep going like this…
If this sounds too familiar to you, even in part, then you might be struggling with an anxiety disorder, like I have done for a large majority of my life. Keep listening to learn more about my journey and how I’ve finally found a path towards healing and peace.
Life as an Anxious Kid, Adolescent, and Young Adult
I often say that I’ve had a “complicated” relationship with anxiety. I was always a high-strung, high energy kid. Being the age that I am, it wasn’t as recognized, but if I were growing up today, I would likely have been diagnosed with ADHD and possibly Autism Spectrum Disorder. I was a “sensitive kid” who felt things deeply, and who wanted nothing more than for everything to be alright, even though sometimes, it didn’t feel as if that was possible in my world.
Over the years, as I graduated high school and started to become a bit more in touch with myself, I started having an ebb in what would eventually become a constant ebb and flow of overwhelming anxiety in my life. I could string months together where things felt “okay,” where I could hang out with friends, where I could take road trips, etc, and feel mostly okay, if a bit nervous. But, inevitably, what goes down in this case has to come back up, and I’d start feeling anxiety creeping back in. This really started becoming more prevalent once I moved into my “adult life,” with all of the bills, car payments, a mortgage, additional responsibilities, and such that came along with it.
Anxiety goes from Annoying to Overwhelming
My anxiety was first put on full public display, (although I didn’t have the knowledge to recognize it as anxiety at the time,) during a work-related getaway when I was 28. I was working in corporate America in a Human Resources job with co-workers who I really clicked with. We had had an extremely hectic recruiting year, so my boss had mandated that our whole department take the day off to recharge, spend time together, and just relax. The day started innocuously enough, with breakfast, deep tissue massages at a local health spa for all of us which was then followed by a short road trip to a local town to have a nice dinner together. About ½ way through dinner, I felt a bit of distress in my stomach, but I assumed that it was due to not having eaten in several hours. Well, I was wrong.
Shortly, I had to excuse myself to the restroom, where I felt miserably sick. Being gone for an unknown, but obviously long amount of time, one of my co-workers came to check on me. Making matters worse, this was a female co-worker, and one that I had a bit of a crush on previously in college, so I was extremely embarrassed by this. Eventually, I was able to pull myself together enough to make my way back upstairs, even though I just wanted to sink through the floor and disappear at that moment. I will never forget the embarrassment and shame I felt sitting in the back of the rented van on the drive home, having to have my boss stop at a convenience store to get me something for an upset stomach, and having concerned co-workers asking every so often if I was okay or needed anything. Embarrassment doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt at that time, and it was the longest 45 minute car ride home of my life, (up to that point.)
After this initial event, that I only years later recognized as being something truly traumatic, even if it was a “small-t trauma,” my life started shrinking. I avoided going out to eat with friends, my then wife, and even with family. I’d skip Christmas dinners and sit at home alone while my whole family, in-laws, siblings, parents, and all, were blocks away celebrating, all the while stuck between feeling depressed from being alone and physically sick if I even thought about trying to join them.
Panic Sets In
I had my first panic attack in December of 2016, at age 40. I’d completed my masters degree in counseling the summer before, and was trying to get a private practice up and running. Knowing nothing about how to run a business, I was struggling to gain momentum and had taken a part-time job at a local community college to supplement my miniscule contribution to my wife and I’s income. I wasn’t feeling truly fulfilled, I was constantly worried about money, and I now know that led to the panic attack. I’ll never forget sitting up in our bed that night, for hours, thinking that I was having a heart attack while my sweetheart of a wife sat with me, holding my hand and trying to console me. My heart was racing,
I couldn’t catch my breath, and my thoughts were running a million miles an hour. To make matters worse, I was one of the millions of uninsured people at that time, so the thought of going to the hospital didn’t seem like an option, with the unimaginable amount of medical bills that that would put on our already stretched-thin budget. I thought that I was dying, and that was truly the most terrified that I had ever been in my life.
Life Starts to Shrink
Following that initial panic attack, I went down a path that many who struggle with anxiety and panic will be able to re
late to: multiple doctor’s visits, multitudes of health tests, and a variety of different prescriptions with the intention of finding “the thing” that would fix me. I use that wording because, for a long time, I truly felt like I was a broken human being. Some prescriptions worked for a while, blunting down my anxious thoughts and alarmed feelings, but inevitably those same thoughts and feelings would come back. Every time that I thought that I had found “the thing” that was going to “cure” me, I would have another panic attack, or at the least, a pervasive feeling of worry and dread that never really went away.
Life went on like this for years, and my world continued to shrink: plans for after-work gatherings with co-workers would be made, and then I would cancel at the last minute, or just not show up, feigning “forgetting” about the plans, when in reality, I had been anxiously dreading them right up until the last minute when I would bail because of the terrifying stories that my mind made up. Spending “quality time” with my partner Tracie became sitting on the couch and watching tv, with less and less true connection occurring. Multiple dinner dates were canceled, friend’s going away parties or weddings were missed, and still my world shrank. Even things that I had previously been able to do to alleviate my anxiety, like exercising, became a source of anxiety, worrying about the “what if” of my mind’s imagined health-related issues that had no grounds in reality, and that multiple doctors had assured me were not relevant to me based upon all of their knowledge and tests.
A Brief Reprieve
When Covid took over and shut down the whole world, literally less than a week after Tracie and I married, I amazingly felt a sense of calm and peace. No one was going out, being social, etc, so the world seemed to be following my lead and I no longer had to worry about the repercussions of my isolation, the self-perceived judgment that I thought others must surely have of me, etc. Additionally, my grant-funded job in higher-education evaporated practically overnight, which would have likely caused me to spiral into another panic attack were it not for the government’s generous unemployment policies of the time that took off financial stress and worries, as well. For the first time in a long time, I started to feel better, but just like the “new normal” of a shut down world, it was short lived.
A Leap of Faith
As the world started opening back up, I had to face the reality that I needed to start making income again. As I agonized over what to do, I heard the voice of a good friend’s father echoing in my head from a conversation over two decades in the past “You’ll never make the impact that you want working for somebody else and playing by their rules.” Leaning into that outlook I took what, in hindsight, was one of the most courageous leaps in my life: I decided that I was going to go all-in on myself and my private counseling practice! I was NOT going to fall back into the old pattern of getting “a job” that I wasn’t passionate about, or worse that I hated. I had done that for nearly my whole adult working life at this point, and enough was enough!
As one would probably surmise, this journey had its bumps and rough patches: trying to learn how to “market” myself, learning how to handle business expenses, taxes, etc, but most of all trying to cope with my anxiety. Once again, not surprisingly, it started to ramp back up. Honestly, it was kind of the perfect set-up for making that happen: take one creative, caring soul that has equal parts yearning for freedom, impulsivity due to the before-mentioned ADD tendencies, and fear of financial ruin, (more on where this comes from in a later episode,) add a changing world with technology that allows work to be remote and on my own terms, mix, and then get out of the way.
I had high highs, feeling truly fulfilled and excited about finally feeling like I was doing meaningful work the way that I wanted to, mixed with low-lows that consistently revolved around worries about making ends meet that would prompt momentary anxiety attacks (not full-blown panic attacks,) when a client would cancel, I would get sick and have to cancel, etc. To say that the ride has been bumpy would be an understatement of epic proportions.
The Bottom Falls Out
In early 2023, things came to a head. Wait, let me backup just a bit. For the past couple of years, I have been pretty heavily exploring spirituality and what it means to me. Insert lots of podcasts, books, and videos on eastern religions, Buddhism, etc. As part of that, and also with the intention of it being helpful for my anxiety, I had become a pretty regular meditator. I have truly enjoyed this journey and have seen a great many benefits from it in my life. But, I wasn’t prepared for what happened on late February afternoon this year. I was doing my daily meditation, sitting on the couch in our living room, when, for the first time, all of the thoughts, ruminations, thinking, and inner monologue that had filled my head for as long as I can remember just stopped. For a split second, I felt really peaceful, but then panic set in. I’d never “not” had an inner monologue going, so my mind, being the meaning-making machine that it is, started trying to fill in the “what is going on?” portion. The immediate thought that didn’t creep, but lept, into my consciousness was “I think that I just died. Oh God, am I dead?!” Immediately after this thought, I left that quiet place, and went into a panic like I had not experienced in a long time. My mind was racing, I couldn’t catch my breath, and I was in the throws of a full-blown panic attack.
Now, this may seem like an extreme reaction, and I’d agreed, but as I’ve come to realize, it makes perfect sense. I’ve been an anxious person my whole life. The way that I learned to “cope” with this was by having my mind make up all kinds of stories about everything. As dysfunctional and painful as that has been at times, it also became a strange source of comfort. It’s “what I knew” and what I expected. It’s what I believe subconsciously I thought had kept me safe all of these years. When that was abruptly removed, it’s not surprising that it felt threatening like nothing ever had before in my life. Take an inner 10-year-old kid who learned to keep himself feeling “safe” by over thinking, and then remove thinking. Looking at it like that, it’s no wonder that I freaked out!
That panic attack sent me into a spiral that is honestly the deepest that I think I have ever been in. Most of the month of March was a write off, where I was unable to work due to the constant feeling of dread, fear, and panic that never seemed to leave. Sleep was fitful at best, and I can only imagine how hard it was for my wife to see me that way. She was the only one I confided my struggles with at that point, not even my parents who I’ve grown really close to in their elder years knew how bad it was. The next few months, things started to improve, or at least go back to my “normal” baseline of anxiety vs. “being okay,” but never truly feeling good. For the most part, I could hold it together to meet my clients where they were, and I honestly believe that having those interactions saved me from going to a much darker place than I was already in.
A New Hope (Not Episode IV, so no copyright issues here!)
After this teeter-tottering around for several months, I finally came to the realization that something HAD to change. Everything that I’d tried up to this point had, at best, been a “band aid on a bullet wound” to use a quote that my clients probably have heard from me far too often. So, nearing my wit's end, I just randomly searched Audible.com for “anxiety” to see what would come up. In doing so, I stumbled across Dr. Russell Kennedy’s excellent, highly recommended book “Anxiety Rx: A New Prescription for Anxiety Relief from the Doctor Who Created It.”
This book offered a completely new perspective, and it came from someone who wrote about his own experience with life-long anxiety as if he were copying my own story straight out of my head. Learning this new, somatic-based approach, I started feeling hope for maybe the first time in nearly 20 years that I could not only learn to “live” with my anxiety, but that I might actually be able to heal the worst of it, to where I’d no longer be a slave to my alarmed body and overly-anxious mind’s every warning bell. While I am still on my healing journey, I have felt better these past few months than I have in years, and I feel my resilience and inner-strength increasing more and more as I lean into the holistic, body AND mind based approach to this!
So, that’s my anxiety story, or at least a high-level view of it. This is already a pretty long blog post, and while I could tell countless more stories about my complicated relationship with anxiety, I’ll leave it at that, and leave you with this message: You can heal from your anxiety. You don't have to have your life controlled by it, and You can move towards the life that you want for yourself, a life of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment, spent with those that you love the most, doing the things that mean the most to you.