These last few days have been a bit better. The extremes never last, and thank god for that.
I’ve been struggling with anxiety. A little while ago, my daughter was going through a mild illness, when, out of the blue, she developed a terrible cough. I was listening to her cough in the evening, feeling normal parental worry, until she had one particularly terrible cough which was so filled with fluid that she struggled to breathe for several seconds. I ran to her bedside and pulled out all of the stops to help ease her coughing. I dialed the health line, asking for advice from a nurse. I took her to the doctor the following day, where we were told she just had a regular illness. I was anxious for the next week, and followed a strict cough-reducing regimen for the evenings to follow, and fortunately, nothing like that one bad cough recurred.
She recovered, and we all moved on. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, I developed a phobia from this experience. Recently, she picked up another illness (it’s been wave after wave for kids this year), and one evening, she coughed. Immediately, before I could think, I felt the familiar wave of panic-induced adrenaline in my blood, and all the alertness, fast heartrate, and jitteriness that panic entails. My reaction went directly from cough to fight-or-flight. No decisions were made on my part; my thinking about her cough did not make me anxious. There was no time to think. It was like that all evening; every cough meant a jolt of panic. It was a difficult evening.
And isn’t timing the damndest? The very next morning, my partner left to travel out-of-country, and it was just me and my sick kid, home all day. The recipe for an absolute anxiety nightmare. No one to buffer The Fear, no one to help if the terrible cough returned. What if she got very ill? What if I had to take her to the hospital? And a hundred such thoughts.
You know those irritating respiratory illnesses that don’t feel too bad, except at night when you try to sleep, and then you cough near-constantly because of some unresolvable tickle in your throat? That’s what it was like with her that next night, when it was just me and her. Murphy’s Law might as well have been booming over ethereal speakers. You’re terrified of your kid having a cough? Especially when you’re alone? Awesome – have both! And let’s make the cough constant, just to dial up the excitement.
(Let me take a self-awareness moment: yes, I know that my child’s cough isn’t all about me.)
That night, and the next, I navigated her rocky sleeps and near-constant cough. I breathed deep, necessary sighs of relief when she would finally sleep, and it was an easy sleep once she arrived at it. On Day One of her coughing, each cough pierced through my soul like an electric shock, feeling wave after wave of panic. On Day Two, it was okay. On Day Three, it was more okay. Still stressful, but much more in a normal parental stress kind of way. Why? Why was that first night so bad? Why didn’t subsequent nights of coughing, especially being alone and without support, cause my anxiety to go through the roof? Did I just get used to it?
I think this is an example of the psychological concept of phobias at play. If you’re afraid of dogs, say, and you see a dog on the sidewalk up ahead, do you cross the street? And if you cross the street, how does that impact your fear of dogs?
It turns out that crossing the street and avoiding the dog ends up bolstering your phobia. You get more scared of dogs because of this transaction. This is because your behaviour is reinforcing your fear, which tells your mind and body that dogs indeed are worth being afraid of, because you’re behaving in a way where dogs are scary. Even though avoiding the dog relieves momentary fear, it ends up contributing to a longer, deeper fear of dogs. The more these interactions happen, the worse the fear gets.
So I developed a phobia from the first illness. People with anxiety disorders are more prone to this than the general population, and throughout my adulthood I’ve probably wavered in and out of the criterion for having an anxiety disorder, which seems to be genetically-rooted. And then, for the next few months, I worried about her getting sick again in all kinds of ways; being cautious in groups, careful with handwashing, and so on. I worried about asthma, I worried about food allergies, and all kinds of bogeymen. And then it happened – she did what kids do – she got sick. And I couldn’t avoid it, sidestep it, or handwash it away. The dog was in my path and I had to keep walking on. And it was terrifying.
…And then, it wasn’t. I passed the dog on the path again and again, and it got less scary. The fear deflated. It became a normal illness. It became normal throat-irritated coughing. And, surprisingly, the two of us had a great time, playing card games and watching TV while I joined my university classes from my laptop. We drank smoothies and ordered pizza and slept in. We made a checklist for the day. We hung up a map and read stories and practiced phonics. What was initially a terrifying proposition ended up being a really enjoyable few days of bonding. It would have been even better if she wasn’t sick.
It’s worth mentioning that there is a really useful practice for phobias called systematic desensitization. This is basically a concept most of you are familiar with: exposure therapy, but a more nuanced version of it. Exposure therapy really does work. A term for being exposed to your fear all at once is “flooding,” which is much more intense. Imagine having a fear of dogs, and then being put in a room full of dogs, with no gradual incline – you go right to the hard stuff.
With systematic desensitization, you practice relaxation techniques while you’re exposed to your fear, but only in little escalating bits at a time. For example, if you’re afraid of dogs, it’s useful to picture an encounter with a dog in your imagination, all while practicing relaxation (typically with a therapist’s assistance). You’d imagine situations graduating from least to most scary. If at any point along the way you start responding anxiously, you practice relaxation techniques.
Ideally, to conquer a phobia, you’d also practice it in real life. You want to condition yourself by combining relaxation practice at the same time that you’re experiencing the anxiety. Of course, this is challenging work. But as far as I’m aware, it’s among the most helpful – if not the most helpful – strategy in conquering a phobia. I accidentally had a lesson in this with my daughter’s illness, and it’s a good reminder of how easily fear can sprout up.
For anyone who has anxiety issues, you know that the issues come and go. Some periods feel pretty easy, and other periods leave you worried in most situations. At this moment in time, I think there are a lot of us dealing with heightened anxiety for one reason or another, be it the political or economic climate, the pandemic, and the life stressors that come along with these, or overuse of news and social media, less time with friends, or any combination of all of the above.
This isn’t uncommon, either. Generalized anxiety disorder, which has fairly severe criterion to meet, affects 3% of the American population. The number is much higher when we’re talking about mild to moderate anxiety. For example, in the DSM-5 manual, it says that to qualify for GAD, you need to experience excessive anxiety and worry, and clinically significant distress. This isn’t just worrying about your partner’s driving abilities, or being stressed out before an exam. This is spending more than half of your day in a state of chronic worrying, compared to a baseline of spending about 18% of your day worried as per the general population, and for a period of many months.
2022 was a very difficult year for me, and it left me with a lot of trust wounds – not just with other people, but with life itself. It’s interesting how these seeds don’t sprout immediately. My personal crisis of 2022 was in the spring and summer, and I spent most of the year feeling largely unscathed, despite localized stressors. But those seeds were growing roots, and they’ve begun sprouting in the last few months. I’m certainly on an anxiety up-swing (not only prompted by my child’s cough), which means I now need to focus significant effort in finding inner equilibrium. Anxiety is very painful to experience – excruciating, in the peak of panic – and leaves one with the feeling of needing to do something, anything, because the alternative is intolerable.
I’ll probably write more on this at a later date, but at the moment I am either implementing, or planning to implement, the following:
- No, or low, caffeine
- Adequate hydration
- Daily exercise (cardio is especially protective, but yoga helps me a lot too)
- Low or no alcohol consumption
- Early to bed, early to rise
- No Reddit before bedtime
- Omega-3 supplement (high in EPAs)
- Daily meditation
- Reading physical books
- Spending more time with friends and family
- Having more downtime
- Balance (not overworking)*
This is in addition to other practices I’ve already been following, such as vitamin D supplementation in the winter, adequate fruit/veggie consumption, and so on. On the advice of my therapist, I’m to work on all of the above for a while to see if it improves the anxiety. Cover the basics. If I’m still struggling, then medication would be the next step. There is no stigma for medicating a mental illness; diabetics take insulin because their body is dysfunctional in producing it. If there is a problem with one’s neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, there is no shame in taking medication. There is no gold medal for gritting one’s teeth and toughing it out. But, cover the basics first, and go from there. I’ve been neglecting basically all of my healthy habits, seen above, for a year. There is significant room for improvement.
*The last point on the list, balance (not overworking), is one that I’ll certainly expand on at a later point. The last year has been full-throttle – I’ll have completed two years of University in less than 1.5 years – which is ultimately an unsustainable tempo at this phase of life. While being deeply enjoyable, and while it’s something I really want to go full-throttle on, I can’t. Not right now. I’ll take the summer off, and I’ll consider taking a reduced load in the fall, in order to reclaim some balance. Going forward into the fall, I probably cannot reasonably work (business and school) more than 30-40 hours per week, and will plan accordingly.
It is difficult to write and share about anxiety, because a lot of shame seems to come along for the ride. Admitting anxiety is like conceding failure. It’s admitting that I don’t have my shit together, guys. And why would any of you want to listen to, or read, the writings of someone who doesn’t have their shit together?
At the moment, I’m reading Michelle Obama’s second book, and I’m reminded of the power of personal anecdotes, and of revealing the messy stuff in life. I empathize, and learn from, her experiences, and benefit from her vulnerability. It is my hope that someone else may benefit from mine, and this helps me overcome my own fear of being vulnerable.
Ultimately what I am yearning for is the real. Genuine connecting, a link through space and time from me to you, free from illusions and free from bullshit. Life can be hard and there is so much suffering, but connecting is healing. As I’m writing this, I feel a little more awake in my own body, glancing around the coffee shop, golden sunlight bright in my eyes, ten minutes before sunset. I’m remembering what it’s for, and this remembering is because I’m writing to you. Thank you for letting me share these thoughts, allowing me to be vulnerable, and helping me find something real. You rock.