Saturday, June 4, 2016

Eureka! Anxiety

When I was in grade two, the K-2 classes performed a musical called Assignment Earth. It was all about saving the environment and climate change. It was the first I ever learned about climate change and the ozone layer and it was a little much for my dear sweet young brain to take. It was all I could think about. One night my mom found me crying in the bathtub.  She asked what was wrong and I expressed how worried I was for the planet, and that the ozone layer was going to disappear. We've always looked back on it as a story about how I've always been a very passionate person who cares deeply about the causes that are important to me. I never really thought it could also mean something else.

Early on in high school, one morning I woke up and felt like I was going to throw up. Out of nowhere. I was definitely not pregnant and after that day, that feeling continued nearly every day throughout the rest of high school and slightly into university. It was awful. I also sweated profusely which was embarrassing and restricted the clothes I wore so people wouldn't see and make fun of my wet armpits. I wasn't overheated and it mostly just occurred on school days, but I figured I just had overly active sweat glands. And I wasn't sure what was going on with the needing to throw up every morning because it wasn't an eating disorder and I didn't get nervous when I performed in plays and stuff that was supposed to make me nervous so it couldn't be nerves. Eventually it all went away a couple years into university, which I thought was coincidentally around the time I finally found a close group of friends who I truly felt comfortable with for the first time since becoming a teenager.

Throughout my adult life I've had some weird symptoms as well that until recently I didn't realize weren't things that happened to everyone. A couple times a year I've always gotten to a point where I became really overwhelmed with things going on in my life and had to remove myself from something, and felt like I was having kind of a stress breakdown. Whenever I have a bad sleep, I feel panicked and jittery all the next day, which I took to calling a "sleep hangover". Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night worried that someone close to me is dead, even if they're in the same house as me and I could just go and check that they're all right instead of lying in bed for hours worrying. Or I wake up and can't stop thinking about things I can't control, like international politics or social injustices or even sports. I just figured I had an "overactive brain." I just figured I was a little weird, or that everyone has their quirks and these were mine. When I expressed my feelings of being overwhelmed or overly worried about different situations in my life, people would tell me to relax, not to worry, not to over analyse and not to be irrational.  And I often knew I was being irrational but I didn't know how to stop. I also experience what seem to be abnormal levels of muscle tension which I've always attributed to sitting too much at work, but even after a minor back injury due to the tension allowed me to get a sit-stand workstation, the tension remains.

About a month ago, I had one of my little breakdowns at work. I was feeling very overwhelmed by a project that had been taking up a ton of my time for months and seemed never ending. The day prior I had to leave work for an "emergency massage" due to muscle tension in my hip that made it painful to sit for more than five minutes at a time. I was extremely tired and just felt like I couldn't spend another minute in the office. I went home that day and worked from my front porch. It was amazing and relaxing and I figured I must be cured from my recent stress buildup. I took the Friday off that week and Brahm and I went to Moose Jaw for a relaxing two day getaway. If a long weekend and mini vacation couldn't cure me, clearly nothing could.  But on the Sunday before it was time to go back to work, all I felt was dread.  What was wrong with me?

For the first time in my life with any clarity, the word "anxiety" popped into my head. I started Googling "how to deal with anxiety at work" which led to just general reading about anxiety, and I had a eureka moment.

I have anxiety. Like legitimate anxiety, aka a nervous disorder characterized by excessive worry, uneasiness, and apprehension.

Pretty obvious when you read all of the above, but for whatever reason it took until this point to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.

So, I have anxiety. Now what?

During my reading I'd seen mention of something called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which was a method thought to be one of the most effective at treating anxiety and depression without medication. But the idea of having to leave work regularly to see a therapist was stressful. I'm happy to do therapy but having to miss hours of work was not something I wanted to do, and where would I even begin to look to find a therapist trained in CBT? Not to mention how expensive it would likely be.

I recalled a close friend telling me about year prior that she had been getting some treatment for anxiety, and I asked her what had worked for her. I could not believe it when she pointed me to a free online program in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy through the University of Regina. It seemed too good to be true. A program that put you through intensive CBT training over an 8 week timeline, connected you to a real therapist by email or phone, and was completely free and able to be completed during your own time? I'm still completely shocked that this exists.

I wasted no time in applying for the program and only four days after I realized I actually had anxiety I'd started the first lesson. I am now four weeks in and it has been a major game changer for me. I'm learning to actually recognize what parts of my life are affected by anxiety, and how to potentially start fixing and controlling them.  Like waking up in the middle of the night thinking my cat is dead because she's not in the room? Anxiety. Feeling jittery and panicked after sleeping poorly? Anxiety. Crying in the bathtub in grade two because of the ozone layer? Anxiety. Excessive sweating and nervousness in high school? VERY OBVIOUSLY ANXIETY. Wow. I feel so fortunate to be able to be finally dealing with this, and a little silly that I didn't realize what was going on until I was 31 years old.

There is no complete cure for anxiety, but there are ways to learn to control it. They aren't easy but they aren't as difficult as I thought they'd be either. I am lucky that my anxiety is relatively moderate; I don't suffer from severe panic attacks or anything like that and I don't think the level of anxiety I experience would ever need to be controlled through medication, so CBT should be very effective for me if I commit to learning and practicing the techniques for controlling my symptoms.

The biggest thing for me has been starting to finally sort out and recognize what parts of my thoughts and worries and even physical ailments and symptoms are caused by anxiety, and realizing this doesn't have to be the status quo for the rest of my life. I can actually change some of this stuff because now I understand the source. It's extremely enlightening and empowering, and I feel like I learn or realize something new every day.

**The program I mention in this post, The Wellbeing Course through Online Therapy User, is currently only available for Saskatchewan residents. However it is based on course materials developed at Maquarie University in Australia, and it's very possible that the materials are available from other universities or mental health research centres, so I'd encourage people who are interested but not Saskatchewan residents to inquire whether their local mental health institution might be able to provide a similar program.

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