Battling anxiety – like a shieldmaiden

How anxiety tries to tear down your armour

Most of you know already that I have phases when I struggle with anxiety and panic attacks. And from your responses to my post “Valhalla lies in the Netherlands” I know that many of you can relate, too well, unfortunately. This is why today I’d like to share my latest battle with you and what I did to defeat the enemy – an enemy we should ideally see as a friend.

Welcome the fight like a Viking

Yes, I know, my therapist says the anxiety I call Hugo isn’t my enemy, but an over-caring friend who tries to warn me of danger and whom I must welcome and listen to, then send away. It’s just that sometimes I can’t at all see his good intention, and I’ll take the bait and fight him like two warriors circling each other. IF the opponent would only fight fairly – because often, he doesn’t.

So let’s put it this way: I gotta welcome the fight, much like a Viking in peaceful times: be prepared always, be wary, carry your weapons, and if called to battle, follow with excitement. I’m still struggling with the excitement part, but will get to that later.

Anxiety’s mean opening move

You have to immediately know whom you’re facing, and what the attacker’s skills are. But anxiety does this mean opening move: it strikes in disguise. Hugo won’t open the visor and reveal his face before launching his attack. Like a proper Viking, he will strike when you least expect it, or in unfamiliar ways that leave you confused and stressed. It’s not like we enter the battlefield clearly knowing the other’s tricks or even banner. Hugo often uses the banner of some illness I can’t place (meaning he disguises as some cardiovascular problem), OR he uses an illness that has me occupied to strike at my flank (most times, I’m fretting over some illness when he uses my distraction).

Very mean, but very Viking, if you ask me. But I never said anxiety fights fair (which has me struggling with the “friend” and “excitement” bit, but we’ll come to that). Anxiety is a trickser. He nudges you to raise your sword, saying “I’m a heart problem. If you believe me, you’ll not be able to get up and walk around, HAHA. I’m that good at imitating it.” And I’m often struck by attacks of fainting and/or heart palpitations, dizziness, numbness … you name it.

Staying one step ahead

Often as Hugo succeeds in tricking me into thinking that what’s happening is under some illness’s banner, just as often do I now manage to stay a step ahead of him. But it has to happen superfast: Anxiety is a sensation, and sensations travel much faster than my brain can intervene with logic. That’s the main weapon in Hugo’s arsenal. He can pierce my armour before I understood his move. And once he opened that wound, it gets very hard to defend myself and fight him off. Within the blink of an eye, panic soars, paralysing me.

But Hugo and me, we know each other’s weaknesses, and I feel more and more prepared for our duels. Sometimes I manage to tell apart which sensation is what – real physical problem or anxiety-induced one. Then he has a problem. Then we can keep circling each other and clashing back and forth. This weekend he lured me into a daylong measuring of strength and skill … something as exhausting as an all-day battle must have been. On the one hand you have to read Hugo’s tactics and very fast find counter-measures. Speed, like in any duel, is key. You need endurance. Be vigilant and stay relaxed, to keep going. On the other hand you have to find a way to end the fight.

Else, at some point it will feel easier to give up, raise your hands and offer your chest for the final thrust. It is very hard to not buckle and get to that point that you let it all overwhelm you completely. I did that in the past, turned into a useless, sobbing heap, wailing for someone else to rescue me, for days on end. But there is nobody there, even if they tried. The battle with anxiety is a lonely one. You have to find the strength and means within YOU. Nobody can fight this battle for you.

The weapons of an unfair fighter

On Sunday, only yesterday, Hugo managed to push me down repeatedly. He started by lunging at me in my sleep; I woke terrified, thinking I wasn’t getting enough air and kept almost-fainting. In this state, I couldn’t shake him off. I just focused on what I thought was staying alive. I now suspect it wasn’t even physical. Hugo used my weakness, that at the moment I have a health issue that keeps me wondering what’s going wrong in my body. Until I have definite answers, he might keep trying.

So once I struggled out of bed and got going, I fought back with my main weapon: distraction. DO something. Impossible as it may feel, get up and focus away, somehow. Don’t stare at the enemy like a wide-eyed rabbit, you must move with the flow of the duel. If you stand there stiff and just holding up your shield, he will shatter said shield with ease. So you must deflect the blows, make him stumble, and let him use up some of his energy in the process. I managed that quite well with the help of family tasks, but the bastard came back at me with what must have been low blood pressure or a side-effect of panic, because in the middle of it I thought I’d faint again.

Did he merely trick me or did I really have a weakness issue? I won’t know. What I do know is that you have to continue scrambling to your feet, again and again. So we walked. We went outside, to offer more distraction and add another weapon: nature and exercise. Only that this time, Hugo was at me much harder than before. He kept ripping off my armour and punch. I continuously had to catch my breath, fight off nausea, exhaustion, panicked dizziness, and an array of weird sensations in my bones. Hugo makes those fit the current health issue I’m pondering. So if I’m wondering if it’s a drug’s side-effect, he will disguise as that. Or, like yesterday, as a neuronal problem with itches and numbness in various parts. The more you focus on it, the more you will find.

Holding your ground on the battlefield

But I didn’t give up and let him finish me. Whatever mean move he threw at me, I scrambled back up and onto my feet, until I was the last one standing on our battlefield when night fell. So how did I manage that, shaky and wounded as I was from a tough morning duel?

Distraction is key, immersing yourself and directing your energy to something else. Some will laugh now, because in the middle of a panic, you just can’t. All your neurons fire to get you to run, to flee. A famous German singer battling with panic said it feels like this split-second before you fall down stairs — just for hours. You won’t be able to focus. (In my worst times I spent literally days doing simple, harmless colour puzzles to reach some tiny level of focus and distraction).

But this wasn’t the absolute worst stage yet, I was still able to fight back. So I kept walking, especially fast uphill, proving to myself that I had no heart problem and my overall condition was normal. I focused away from the thought of vomiting or running. I just set foot in front of foot and kept breathing, as if marching away from Hugo’s bait.

Then I added more serious tasks: I drove the car home. Driving is a good way (for spells of anxiety, not a full panic!) to distract and focus on something important. Driving also relaxes me. So driving us all home lowered my anxiety levels a little. In the middle of this, you have to listen carefully to what you can take. My husband offered to go to a restaurant, but I couldn’t face the idea of having to sit amongst strangers with nowhere to flee should I be overwhelmed. It felt like walking into a prison. So we drove home and ordered something, eating in the garden. I then threw some more distraction weapons at Hugo and played with the kids and chickens. I fed them and looked after them, forced my attention away from my body signals to them. Looking after others’ needs and not your own, exaggerated ones, helps.

Then the family wanted to cycle to friends and I said I’d stay back to lick my battle wounds, to recover a little. By then this burning knot in my stomach had loosened and the whirling thoughts, aka panic, subsided. Adrenaline was beginning to ease off. I inforced that with some reading and tidying. Mild exercise is always better than curling up, no matter how much you may crave it. It’s one main rule on the battlefield: Keep moving.

Battling til the sun goes down

So despite my body telling me it was enough, I should rest and recover from the onslaught of Hugo and my adrenaline, I mounted my bike and followed the family to our friends. I was greeted by sunshine, waffles, and laughing kids. We then did some spontaneous barbequeuing, which gave me more tasks to focus on, and we cycled back in sunset. Seeing the sun go down I realised: I survived yet another battle day. I wasn’t yet being collected by the Valkyries. Hugo had given me a hard day, some proper beating and wounds, but I was still fit and enjoying the evening. Until —

He struck again.

When hubby and me finally crashed on the sofa, distracting more with some TV, I was still wary, and I told him so. Even if people around you think you’re all fine again, the aftershocks linger. You have to process, and stay alert. Because Hugo is such a mean Viking, he strikes when I least expect it. Only that this time, I did expect him. I prepared for a last duel before going back to sleep and hence handing myself over to defenselessness. Of course I was afraid of what had happened in the morning. The bed and its thought cycles, the tiredness and dark fear are a good place to ambush someone. So I set myself up with this hard to achieve ideal combination of wariness and relaxation. When Hugo struck again, I was prepared. I expected the enemy in arms.

Calling out the enemy’s bluff

He started by imitating or enhancing physical sensation others would ignore. I had some itching, some prickling, some numbness in different parts of face and fingers. Focus on that, and there will be more. So I used the brain to deflect and rationalise. I escaped my passiveness by squeezing hubby’s hands very hard, the external sensation drowning out the growing internal unease for a bit. I tried to not tense up more, but to actively relax, let it flow through me, welcoming the attack. This is HARD. It’s like you jump and try to ride this wave that comes crashing at you and could just as well drown you. For a while, it worked. I breathed, and focused.

But then Hugo took over and made my legs shake, tremble as if I had a fever. This cannot be ignored or breathed away. Only that this time, after all the sports I had done, and with all my experience, I knew he was bluffing. This wasn’t anything phsyical, it was HIM.

So I said to him, “Fine, you want one last duel. I’ve got this.” I know the sneaky bastard enough to have expected this attack, then, when I was relaxing, and in this form, of trembling and rising panic in the chest. I managed to see it all from the outside a little, because I knew what was going on. I knew this WAS just panic. So I sat up and told hubby “He’s doing it again and this time we know it’s just Hugo. No need for an ambulance, no matter how late this gets, okay.” (because in the past, I had called in a doc when the heart racing and stuttering didn’t stop and the hyperventilation lasted several hours). He just nodded, grabbed my hands tight, and also started to massage my back hard. A comrade in arms is a good thing. I knew I could win this, because I knew who I was facing and what he tried to do. These tricks were known to me.

So I sat up and to stop the shaking legs did some muscle clenching and relaxation. Then breathing, and repeat. According to Barry McDonagh this lets the brain, which is desperately urging you to RUN, to FLEE!, believe that you’re indeed running and fleeing. Instead of curling up passively, the muscle workout calms the fire of adrenaline down. Soon, the surge of panic subsided. I high-fived hubs and said, “I fought him off. Let’s see if he tries again.” Saying it out loud, confronting and calling out the bluff is another vital tactic to weaken the enemy.

Hugo had used well-known moves that I understood and could counter. He tried again, with clutching my throat or accelerating my breathing, but hey – I had walked ten kms and cycled another ten, and never had I had to stop. He bluffed.

I breathed. I clenched. I cursed him and then laughed. And with the help of hubby’s chest, I did the absolute last thing he would have expected: I slept well.

That night, I was the last one standing on the battlefield.

This one I call “rise”, as it was taken on a particularly hard Norway hike just a week after Hugo knocked me out. I look at it when I feel like I can’t get up again: You have the strength within you. This, and so much more.

Whatever this strange physical issue is that left my flank open for Hugo to strike, I’ll sort it out without him. He might want to warn me, get me ready for a bigger battle. But I want a fair fight, not his mean trickery.

Go slink off, Hugo, you bastard.

My best advice: Here’s what therapy and panic apps say:

  • Don’t tense up into complete paralysis. If you feel it coming, welcome it and try to ride this wave. You’re equipped, and you’ll live. Breathe. I too struggle with the welcoming and being excited about the duel-bit. But Barry (from DARE, the app I use to help me) says it’s a vital part to not be paralysed with fear, but say “Come on, let’s battle this out.” Because: So far, you have survived and WON 100% of your duels. Let that sink in. You will of course keep that track record.
  • Move with the enemy, stay agile. Divert the blows, use some of the energy to distract and focus on something that needs your full attention. Kids and pets are a good bet. Whenever I thought I could NEVER manage to tend to the kids properly, they actually helped me to overcome the anxiety.
  • Call out the bluff. If you somehow know you’re not fatally sick and you recognise the mean moves, name them, say “Ha, I know what you’re trying to do there!” and strike back. If you shake and tremble or your heart races as it always does, call it out, breathe deeper, longer, clench muscles, even go for a walk or cycle or trampolin hop. Pump some real energy through your system. Anything BUT curling up in a corner. This would just manifest your defeat. Stay moving and distracting until it subsides. And it WILL subside.
  • Focus on the moment. This breath. This flower. This sound. This smell. This step. Then the next. Make it a long chain of moments that keep you focused and keep your eyes off the bait that anxiety tries to dangle in your face. Say loudly, “I don’t have time for this shit now! Here’s a flower!”
  • Make anxiety your friend, but be strict with him. I tell him, “Ah, Hugo, there you are again. Thanks for tapping me on the shoulder, but I’ve got this. Leave me alone, I need my energy. Go sleep in your box.” (Yes, in my room, there’s an imaginary box I store him away in)
  • Remind yourself of the many many many battles you’ve won. You’re an experienced fighter. You know the enemy’s moves, and if not, you’re flexible enough to respond accordingly. You might get knocked down, but you will get back up. Small steps. Don’t yield completely. If you don’t sleep one night, you will again the next. You will enjoy the sunshine again.

Are you battling with anxiety or panic? Do you reconise some of its moves or do you have some tactics you’d like to share, so we can all form a good, strong shieldwall the next time the bastards show up? Drop them in the comments; I love hearing from you!

Happy battling and writing!

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