In 2000 Seth Perler was in a coma. His lungs were filled with fluid. He couldn’t breath. For nine days all that kept him alive was a respirator. Before the coma, Seth already knew what anxiety was, and he knew that he experienced a lot of it. It manifested when he thought about things too much. He would get too caught up in the details and his anxiety would eventually paralyze him, effectively sabotaging his ability to get any work done. After he woke up, his anxiety would reach new levels. Because he was unable to breathe for so long in the coma, whenever Seth put any strain on his lungs his anxiety would immediately go into overdrive. His brain would draw dramatic conclusions about suffocating and he would begin to worry. Then he would get scared. All rational thoughts would go out the window and he would crumble with absolutely zero understanding of what was happening. He suffered from severe anxiety attacks.
Seth was my academic coach during my junior year of high school. His personal experience and insight helped me with my own anxiety. Upon meeting him, one would not be able to tell that he suffered from anxiety. He had developed techniques to keep his anxiety in check and under control. He has come a long way from where he was after he got out of his coma. By way of meditation he learned to stop his anxiety attacks before they got out of hand, and eventually not even experience attacks. He still experiences anxiety, but it isn’t about suffocating anymore. Seth’s rehabilitation opened him to the opportunity to take a next step and help others.
Anxiety can affect anybody; to be anxious is to be human. How a person approaches their anxiety determines whether it will bring them down or push them forward. Without learning techniques to manage anxiety it is very difficult to reduce it. For example, when Seth didn’t have his current methods of meditation, he had no way of getting out from under his anxiety attacks. “I would try to think my way out of it, but that didn’t work,” he reported when I asked him what unsuccessful methods had he attempted to control his attacks. “I really didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “I tried to figure out why I was having [attacks] and as I was trying to figure it out so that it would go away, it actually made it worse.” Since Seth had no awareness of what was happening to him, there was no way he could begin to stop it. It appears many people do not have a full understanding of anxiety. Defining anxiety is the first step to addressing it.
Anxiety can best explained by Dick Cheney. His “Doctrine of One Percent” roughly states if a one in 100 percent chance of a threat exists, it must be taken as an absolute certainty. Dick Cheney was not talking about anxiety of course. He was talking about the chances of enemies in the middle east securing nuclear bombs. But in a way, Cheney was showing anxiety, for the anxious mind is very cautious and often jumps to catastrophic conclusions that are usually improbable or impossible.
I feel I am a perfect example of someone who’s anxiety causes them to jump to conclusions. My earliest memory of an anxious moment had to do with writing. When I was in fourth grade, my teacher assigned a reading journal which I interpreted as a way to prove to her that I was reading every night. She supplied us with a handful of prompts to kick-start our writing. We were required to chose a different prompts as the week progressed to keep us from writing the same thing over and over.
Understandably, writing was a daunting task for me, a fourth grader. In retrospect however, my teacher structured the assignment to could to make it less challenging. My issue was that there were only a couple of prompts that I considered feasible. Prompts I could directly get from my book and write in my own words (i.e. What did the main character do in your book today?). But since I wasn’t allowed answer the same prompt more than once a week, I was forced to answer what I considered “more difficult” prompts instead. For example: “If the main character was a real person, would you be their friend? Why or why not? Use examples from what you read today to support your answer.” That was too much pressure for me to handle.
The fact I perceived the prompt as difficult made me anxious about writing a “wrong” answer, and finding enough words to write. The idea of myself not meeting the requirements was scary. I would start thinking about the possibility of failure and the outcomes of it. Would my teacher give me a bad grade? Would she get mad at me? Would my mom get mad at me? Would my parents think I was dumb? Would everybody think I was dumb? Do they already think I’m dumb? Do I do anything right? This is the stream of consciousness I would go through before I would start crying. I had come to the conclusion that I messed up all the time and that people thought I was dumb because of it, just because I couldn’t write a paragraph. I would sit and cry until my mom came over and calmed me down and coached me through the prompt. This crippling situation happened a couple times a week over the entire school year.
The unrealistic conclusions resulting from anxiety can teach us can be used to bring us to its source. My conclusions from fourth grade helped me realize the two things that heighten my anxiety: failure (based on the fear that I always mess up) and judgement (based on the insecurity that people think I’m dumb). Knowing exactly what causes me to get anxious has helped me be more aware of my anxiety.
Anxiety is not useless. Its purpose was initially used for survival. Back in more primal times it was what kept people alive. The amygdala, two almond shaped nuclei in the brain, are responsible for what we know as a “fight or flight” response in animals. When there is a threat, the amygdala activates and sends out the chemicals that cause feelings we know as fear and anxiety; anxiety preceding fear. For an anxious person, anxiety turns to fear very quickly. Something that may not seem as a threat to a person who can control their anxiety could quickly seem terrifying for somebody who cannot control their anxiety. For example, let’s say a squirrel snaps a twig in the forest, causing a hiker to feel alert. The rational thing to do is to remain calm and observe the situation. Maybe the hiker will spot the squirrel and just carry on, or they will ignore the twig snap entirely and just assume it is a squirrel. The anxious thing to do is immediately start considering there could be something that wants to eat you in the area.
Fear and anxiety are not one in the same. Fear is the feeling of present danger. Anxiety is the feeling or worry or unease. The two get mixed together when someone becomes aware of the possibility of imminent danger. Not to confuse anxiousness with paranoia: paranoia is more severe and based off of a person’s delusions. Psychiatrists refer to “paranoid” as a symptom of a condition, like schizophrenia. Think back to the squirrel breaking a twig in the woods example. An anxious person will start to worry and maybe go into a panic because they cannot fully guarantee their safety. A paranoid person will skip the worry step all together and go straight into fight or flight mode.
It is important to develop good techniques for dealing with anxiety early. If bad techniques are developed, it will be unhealthy and do more harm than good in the long run. My mother, Camille Hook, developed issues with chronic anxiety when she was young. According to her, her anxiety came from being misunderstood. “I perceived myself as the child in a large family who was misunderstood and created stress for others. When something started to go going wrong, I tended to think it was all my fault,” she said. Then, in situations where she felt she had to explain herself she reported, “I might have felt heard, but not understood. I would blame myself for not having good enough language to make myself heard.” When she would get anxious as a young girl she would go into a panic. She could not deal with that feeling. Her reaction would be to either get away from “it” or get “it” away from her. “If I’m in a car, I would literally think ‘the only way out of this conflict is to jump out of the door, that’s what I need to do,’” she explains. “I remember standing in my bedroom feeling really angry at my mom. There was nothing I could say to be to be understood no matter what I said. I didn’t know what to do, I was frozen. I knew had to do something so badly that it ended up manifesting in running my fingernails up my legs. I felt that I needed to physically feel that pain as opposed to only mentally feeling it. I think that’s what threw me into my eating disorder.” My mom was bulimic from the age of 13 to 20. “I wasn’t doing it to hurt myself permanently, I was doing it to purge the anxiety and to purge this fury of not knowing what to do, out of my body,” she told me. “I felt like I needed to control the amount of pain I was in. It’s terrifying, it’s horrible. It’s sad, but it’s very real.” By the time my mom had gotten to be an adult and she had stopped her eating disorder, she had already spent seven years of not dealing with her anxiety in a healthy way. She had lost time for other experiences as a result of not effectively learning to address her anxiety. This fact complicated the entire rehabilitation process. It took two decades, but she did it.
How can we help others with anxiety? Anxiety is difficult to understand for people who are not used to dealing with it. My dad, Rusty Hook, has trouble understanding how my mom’s and my anxiety operate. He is a pilot, a job that requires and trains him to know exactly what to do in any situation. He needs to know how to act quickly and correctly, he cannot take the time to be worried or anxious. According to him, many pilots do not last very long in the job because they get too anxious about doing the right thing in a situation in which the wrong thing could result in an airplane crash. They buckle under pressure.
It is common that anxious people simply cannot dig deep within and execute. They get paralyzed. Stuck. Frozen. The question is, how to do they get out of it? My dad has learned that immediately offering suggestions does not help my mom or me, it just makes us more anxious. It’s harder for us to take the suggestion and run with it. He says, “You have to let them talk. They need time to slow down so that they can be more mindful.” An anxious person may not have a full understanding of what’s happening to them in the middle of an anxiety attack. They need to let all of their thoughts clear so that they can more realistically assess the situation. They need to gain perspective.
Perspective is the best way to address anxiety. Perspective is looking at thoughts objectively to distinguish fraudulent associations of a tense situation with reality. Seth and my mother each gained perspective to lower anxiety to a manageable level.
Seth used meditation to first realize that he wasn’t suffocating and then to have the awareness that he was okay there in that moment. When asked how meditation help him gain perspective, he said, “The way that I look at it is that we have thoughts, and these thoughts are stories, and these stories are triggers, and these triggers trigger anxiety, and it’s designed to help us survive. But it’s not working correctly. Part of [the solution] is changing our thoughts, the way we look at the stories. When I slow down and breathe, and I watch the thoughts more objectively, not judging my own thoughts, I’ll go ‘Hmm, that’s an interesting thought Seth, where did that come from?’ As opposed to, ‘Why are you thinking that Seth? That’s ridiculous.’ Then slowing the breathing down and allowing my muscles to relax. Releasing that gripping. That breathing tells my nervous system that I’m safe. Once that has happened my thoughts quiet down.”
My mother, with her therapist’s help, used a mirror to sit and look at herself and imagine the girl who had suffered an eating disorder brought on by anxiety. She candidly explained, “I reached a point in my therapy where I could safely recall the first time I felt that horrible feeling of debilitating anxiety in my body. And in that therapy moment, after feeling it and being sad about it, my therapist had me put it in perspective as happening in the past by having me say aloud, ‘Now, my feet are on the ground and I’m safe here at this table.’ My therapist then asked me to picture myself sitting with my child-self back then, in my bedroom looking at the flowered wall paper. I then said to that little girl, ‘Hey, this sucks. You are so sad. And want you to know that I can feel you are confused, but you are okay, in that spot, there in 1978. People love you, it’s okay to be confused.’ I’d just hug that little girl. I’d forgive her and tell her, ‘You turn out to be a loving mother and you are successful. I want you to know that you are okay.’ I can handle my anxiety now because I use perspective to remain solid in distinguishing my past triggers from the reality of now.”