“Do one thing every day that scares you.”
This is an inspirational quote I’ve seen on posters, bags, coffee mugs, and calendars. Sometimes we need to be reminded that difficult and wonderful things happen outside of our comfort zones. It’s healthy to challenge ourselves.
But when I’m experiencing a period of chronic and severe anxiety, I must do many things that scare me each day. Things that many people take for granted; e.g., riding a bus.
I think public transportation makes me anxious because I am not in control and am unable to exit whenever I want to. Having a panic attack on a city bus once (seemingly out of nowhere) kicked off this fear. I’ve spent a lot of time avoiding riding buses and worrying about the various things that might go wrong on a bus.To give you a peek into my mind, I wrote up a list of potential scenarios I honestly do imagine and consider when boarding a bus.
- What if someone gets carsick? Do they evacuate the bus if someone vomits?
- What if I feel nauseous? Should I get off? Or wait to see how bad it gets?
- How long should I wait to get off if I start to feel panicky? Will I get on the next bus? Will I call someone to pick me up?
- What if I miss my stop?
- What if we get stuck in traffic and they won’t let me off?
- What if I’m panicking, and I ask the driver to let me off, and they won’t?
I have a lot of worry in my head all the time, and that is only a small example.
Thankfully, my anxiety about buses has decreased considerably since I decided to try exposure therapy. It may sound fancy, but this only refers to intentionally placing someone in a situation or with an object they fear. This can be done in small steps, big steps, or through flooding, which is when someone is immersed in a situation they fear. For someone with a spider phobia, this would be equivalent to picking up a tarantula with their bare hands. Exposure therapy is highly effective for people with agoraphobia.To expose myself to riding buses, I bought an all-day bus pass a few weeks ago and rode different lines all over town for 3 hours. It was not easy in the beginning. I needed to focus on breathing deeply, distracting myself with music, and repeating affirmations. The affirmation I used that day was “I am a badass, boss bitch.” Hey, whatever works… I had to ride out those scary panicking feelings: the racing heart, the shallow breathing, the sensory changes, the feeling out of control. Over time these feelings lessened more and more. By the end of 3 hours I felt so empowered and fearless! It was awesome. Now I hardly hesitate when I step aboard a city bus.
I have, or at least, have had in the past, some combination of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), panic disorder, and agoraphobia. I cannot articulate how frustrating it has been to struggle with these pests. It sucks. It is horrible to shut people out because you feel afraid of doing the most basic things, like going for a walk. UGH.
But there is light. I’ve been trying to consistently challenge myself and expose myself to situations that make me anxious. Today I confronted my anxiety about bridges.I didn’t do anything crazy. I just walked back and forth across a long boardwalk, chanting, “I’m totally normal. Just a normal person out for an evening stroll on a boardwalk! So normal, it’s boring.” In the past few months, my fear of open places coupled with my fear of being trapped (agoraphobia and claustrophobia, working together!) has made it extremely difficult for me to cross bridges, especially this particular boardwalk.
But tonight I had the help of pharmacotherapy. Drugs! I had taken a small amount of Ativan as a safety cushion and to help ease my mind. I also clutched the orange pill bottle in my fist as I paced back and forth on the boardwalk. Just for comfort.
And guess what– it worked!
I crossed twice, there and back both times, with no panic attacks. The Ativan helped dull my racing heart and panicky feelings, giving me the confidence to push myself further. I even sung out cheerily to a fisherman: “Don’t mind me! Just doing some exposure therapy because I’m afraid of bridges!” Yeah… I really did say that. And he responded that facing a fear is the best way to overcome it!
Exposure therapy is a slow process, but it has been working marvelously for me as I address specific components of my anxiety.
Does anyone else struggle with chronic, severe anxiety? What’s helped you?