September 21, 2011

Anxiety & Depression: Which is the chicken, which is the egg?

Before I was old enough to know what stomach acid was, I knew what it felt like.

I was in the fourth grade, best I can remember. The teacher told me the principal wanted to see me...on Monday morning.

That weekend was pure hell. I worried myself sick. What the heck did I do to get in trouble? Would I get paddled? What would my parents do to me when they were called in? Should I confess to a crime I didn't commit?

Those crazy thoughts swirled in my mind and made my stomach churn...all weekend. I barley slept, worrying like hell about what was to come. I didn't know then that the stomach-churning anxiety that tortured me all weekend all came from my thoughts...irrational thoughts.

Then Monday morning came. The principal called me in...to ask if I would do the honor of raising the American flag at school every day for the rest of the year. I nearly wet my pants with joy.

Some 30 years later, I repeat that ritual weekly, if not on a daily basis. I worry like hell about something that has or hasn't happened and probably will never happen...and then I get depressed. It's a slippery slope of misery that makes me wonder. What comes first? The chicken or the egg? The anxiety or the depression?

My former therapist (she moved to the West Coast) taught me some techniques to deal with the runaway thoughts of negativity and despair. She taught me to take a deep breath, close my eyes and envision a stop sign in intimate detail...the exact color of red, the lettering of the word STOP. It works sometimes, sometimes it doesn't.

My current therapist, who is brilliant at helping me with these cognitive therapy techniques, has encouraged more of the same and taught me to reign in those maddening episodes of anxiety, to gently put the brakes on the runaway train that is my brain—without skidding off the highway. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

That's because changing our behavior, our thoughts that control our feelings, isn't easy.

Do you suffer from anxiety? If so, ask for help. For me, the combination of talk therapy, drugs (Abilify, Cymbalta and generic Valium as needed) has helped immensely from that dark, deep pit I felt helplessly trapped in not so long ago.

I am no doctor and no expert. I only know that asking for helping, taking deep breaths and thinking about stop signs is a good start. Maybe if I can keep sharpening those skills, the depressions that come won't be quite so dark, quite so deep and quite so long.