It’s 3:18am. You wake up in a cold sweat, heart racing, and breathing hard as if you’ve just run a marathon. Your stomach turns and waves of nausea come and go, leaving you dry heaving over the toilet because you’ve thought yourself into a frenzy. An impending doom rushes over you, and you get up for a drink of water, but realize that you can’t. even. swallow. You’re terrified, but why? You don’t know, but you want nothing more than just to fall back asleep. Then you look at the clock, and suddenly, you know exactly what’s going on.
Imagine this happening to you for years and then progressively starting to occur EVERY night for months on end with no relief. No answers. Not even a hint. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it?
In no way is this description an exaggeration. This was my life not too long ago. I’ve cried myself to sleep because of anxiety. It doesn’t leave you alone. It doesn’t let you rest. These episodes still happen from time to time, but they’re not as intense and scary as they once were, and for that small improvement, I’m grateful.
Let’s backtrack a little.
December 23, 2004 was an amazing day. I spent it with my mom. We did some last minute Christmas shopping as well as grocery shopping for Christmas dinner. From the mall to Sam’s Club where I ate every sample that was offered to me, I was the happiest kid on Earth. Just me and my mommy. When we got home, my dad was laid out across the floor in front of the tv as always, and my brother was in his room playing his video game. I went straight to my room to play with my dolls and kitchen set. Before I knew it, it was time to go to bed. I cleaned up my toys, took a shower, and got in the bed, falling asleep almost immediately.
A few hours later, I was awakened by sharp pains in my stomach. Writhing in pain for what felt like an eternity, I suddenly bent over and vomited all over my previously cleaned floor. Now, if you recall from my last post, I am an emetophobe (someone who is deathly and irrationally afraid of anything to do with vomit), so I was terrified of myself at this point. I ran downstairs to my mom to tell her that I threw up. When she woke up, she checked the clock, and it read, 3:18am. She took a deep breath, looked at me in disgust, and reluctantly got up to clean the contents of my stomach off the floor. I spent the rest of the day throwing up into a small trashcan beside my bed. I had the dreaded stomach virus.
Ever since then, Christmas Eve of 2004, I’ve had an unhealthy obsession with 3:18am. Every morning, I’d wake up a few minutes beforehand, then after the 18 turned to 19, I went right back to sleep with no problem. After this happened a few dozen times, I started to think outside the box. If I was gonna get relief, I needed to outsmart my anxiety.
Then it came to me.
If I stayed up to see the clock hit 3:18, maybe the panic attacks wouldn’t be so bad. So, it was done. I vowed to stay up until 3:18am to make sure that I wasn’t sick. Once 3:18 came and there weren’t any stomach pains or bouts of nausea, I’d go right to sleep. It worked at first, however, over time, it got the best of me because I was losing precious hours of sleep. But even if I went to sleep, my body was trained to wake up at that time anyway.
I know what you’re thinking: “If you throw up, so what? We all throw up sometimes.” I tried to think that too. I tried to tell myself that throwing up isn’t a big deal. I tried to rewire my brain to think of throwing up as a good thing. It’s a way for my body to rid itself of the bad stuff so that I’m not sick anymore. But alas, Miss Anxiety wasn’t having it. Sis wanted me to suffer, and she did a darn good job making sure that I did. With an anxious mind, you don’t have the luxury of “just getting over it.” You don’t get to tell yourself that everything is fine, and on the first try, believe it. You have to work extremely hard just to function in a situation that others would recognize as not-that-bad.
As the years went on, I started expecting these episodes. I would prepare myself by downloading games on my phone so that WHEN I woke up, I’d have something to immediately start playing to take my mind off of things. I’d also have the tv turned to Nickelodeon so that I could watch Spongebob. Because of its humor, Spongebob was the perfect temporary antidote to the anxious thoughts that poisoned my mind in the wee hours of the morning. It would make me laugh and suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad anymore. As funny as it sounds, Spongebob literally saved me, hence the reason why I still watch it to this day (besides the fact that my dad loves it too). And in the event that I was sick, I had cleaned the area around the edges of my bed beforehand so that I wouldn’t throw up on anything.
If I didn’t go through these steps before bed, there was no way that I’d be able to sleep. Stress would consume me, and because I didn’t prepare, I’d think that I would get sick.
In 2004, I was in third grade. I remember performing this ritual up through middle school. At such a young age, my mind was going through so much. No one knew that I was going through this every night. It was something that I kept to myself…until now, I guess. I didn’t know that my anxiety and OCD were so severe. But now that I look back, I was going through some pretty intense sh*t.
The human mind is a powerful thing. It has the ability to make even the most bizarre and impossible scenarios come to life and make sense. With anxiety, this ability is 100x stronger. Anxiety is a disorder that attacks the mind from every angle, and even when you think you’ve got it figured out, it creeps up on you like a thief in the night and steals your joy, sanity, and will to live. But again, the mind is powerful, and YOU have the capacity to overcome whatever unpleasant thought may come your way.
I don’t do these things anymore. Although, I do still have panic attacks sometimes. They’ve decreased to about once every few months, and when they do come, I’ve learned a trick to help calm my body and mind: deep breathing and self-talk.
As stated before, anxiety attacks your mind from all angles. The key to staying calm…or at least lessening the tremendous effects of a panic attack…is to not let that initial feeling of worry overwhelm you. To my anxious people: you know when an attack is coming. Your palms start to get clammy, your breathing quickens, your hands tremble, your heart races, and you get that telltale feeling of impending doom. It’s easy for you to let the anxiety take control. But, as contradictory as it may sound, you must remain calm. As soon as these symptoms begin happening, breath in for 10 seconds, slowly. Breathe out for 10 seconds, slowly. While breathing, talk against the anxiety. For example, I say something along the lines of, “It’s all in your mind. You are OK.” Focus on keeping your breathing steady. Focus on what’s happening around you. Focus on what you’re feeling. When you start trying to focus on what ifs, anxiety reaches in and trips you up causing you to fall into a downward spiral of negative thoughts.
Repeat this process as many times as you need to. Give yourself a few minutes, and you should feel the tension in your body start to release as your brain begins to realize that there’s really nothing to be anxious about.
Using this simple technique has helped me avoid running out of movie theaters or from a heavily intoxicated friend who has just upchucked. I’ve even been able to ward off the 3:18am panic attacks that used to jolt me out of my sleep. Of course, each time is different. Sometimes, the anxiety is too massive, and that’s alright. However, the attacks only get worse when you let yourself lose control. Practicing deep breathing and self-talk helps an individual stay in control of their body and their mind from the start, making it easier to bounce back from an attack.
Yes, anxiety is a monster. But you don’t have to let it consume you. You’ve already been given the tools to overcome the perils of such a disorder, and with the right tactics and plenty of practice, you’ll be able to use those tools the right way and stay calm in almost any situation.
hugs and kisses,
Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash