28 April 2018, Borobudur, Central Java, Indonesia
It is a natural reaction for somebody who is sick to find a cure for one’s sickness. This journey of finding a cure is easy for something that you feel physically – a wounded knee, an upset stomach, an earache, or what have you. Explaining your physical condition is easy. Sometimes, you don’t even need to say anything – just present the affected part of your body, like a wounded knee, for example. In others, one sentence is enough (e.g. I have a headache) to start a series of questions that will finally lead to a medical prescription.
But with anxiety disorder, you need to say a lot to explain, because how does one, for example, say in one sentence that every time you hear that somebody died, you feel all sorts of emotions and physiological reactions that you yourself cannot cohesively explain. What’s worse, there are only very few trained people to deal with mental illness, at least where I live. Finding one is not that easy.
However, you also get to realize that sometimes, the most significant impediment to getting well from an anxiety disorder is yourself. Sometimes you don’t want to admit that you have a mental illness because of the social stigma that comes with it. Sometimes, it is difficult to admit that you need help.
I went to a psychiatrist who was very patient and professional in dealing with me. She was referred to me by my cardiologist. We talked for an hour or so when she explained the nature of my illness and explained what happens every time I have an anxiety attack, physiologically and emotionally, and discussed my treatment options. She wrote me a medical prescription though I was frank with her that I wanted to do away with synthetic medication. She told me she still wanted to give me the prescription so I wouldn’t have to go back and see her if I felt that I needed something to make me feel better.
One of the things we talked about was a lifestyle change. I wanted to change the way I lived to see if it would affect the frequency of my anxiety attacks. We agreed that I would try, and we could always go back to the medications when things don’t get better. So, I promised myself at least three things for the next three months – get enough sleep, eat on time, practice proper breathing. When Mr Anxiety comes, I would use grounding and breathing exercises to calm myself down.
- Getting enough sleep did me well. The relationship between sleep and anxiety disorder is found to be two-way. Lack of sleep causes or worsens anxiety. Anxiety also causes sleep disorders. In my case, it’s sleep deprivation that impacts the frequency of my anxiety attacks.
Back then, I worked in a global organization with colleagues in Europe, North America, Africa, and Latin America. Meetings were done usually between afternoons to late evenings, Manila time. Also, because we used collaborative writing platforms, I got email alerts when colleagues commented on research papers or reports I wrote. Sometimes, I replied to comments even at 1 in the morning or to questions from colleagues or global contacts sent via WhatsApp.
I decided to turn my phone notifications off at 9 in the evening. Then later, I decided to turn my phone off for the whole night. It made me sleep better and rest from anxious thinking for at least 8 to 9 hours a day.
- Eating right and on time helped me manage my stomach acidity. Studies have found out that high anxiety levels may increase acid stomach production, while high acidity can also cause stress and anxiety for most people. During anxiety attacks, what I usually notice was an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach.
My work also was a primary culprit in my hyperacidity. Meetings and thinkshops extended way beyond one in the afternoon, and when I travelled, lunchtime in other countries was around 2 in the afternoon, and dinners were usually late. Because of lack of sleep, I consumed more coffee than my body could tolerate, and I often wake up with severe hunger or stomach pain.
I decided to eat on time and inform colleagues I needed a lunch or dinner break earlier than the others and would go ahead to grab food if they were still unable to break the discussions. I also stopped drinking coffee and carbonated drinks and stuck to watermelon or papaya juice even during cocktails.
- Mindful breathing makes me feel less anxious. The importance of mindful breathing in preventing and managing anxiety attacks cannot be overemphasized. Mindful breathing has been found to ease anxiety and produce positive thoughts.
In the past, I breathed carelessly. I ignored how my breathing works. During anxiety attacks, I sometimes would feel as if I was gasping for breath. But mindful breathing made a lot of difference for me.
I do a cycle of mindful breathing exercises in the morning before I start my day and then close it with a Wim Hof Method breathing exercise that a good friend suggested. I even used it during an anxiety attack, and I found the method useful. I also did a grounding ritual by noticing and describing my surroundings as I breathe.
The frequency, as well as the severity of my anxiety attacks significantly improved. From 3 to 4 anxiety attacks a week, I went down to 2 anxiety attacks a week, and when I got lucky, just attack onsets, not full ones. I realized there could be considerable benefits in adequately managing one’s mental health using natural processes.
As I watched the sunset reflect its light on the mighty Borobudur, I decided to devote my time to finding these natural processes to aid me in my journey towards healing.