Trying to Treat the Causes of My Anxiety, Instead of Just the Symptoms

A few weeks ago I went to a pulmonary doctor to try to figure out why I’d been short of breath for about ten days. After everything checked out normally, he sat down in front of me to discuss the possibilities of what could be happening. First he told me that it could be asthma, but he didn’t think that was likely because I had never had it before and there was a lack of family history. Then he said that it could be a pulmonary embolism, but then again was doubtful of this due to the absence of other key symptoms. Lastly he suggested the possibility of an anxiety problem, but was still hesitant to attach it as the diagnosis. “You don’t seem anxious to me, trust me,” he offered in a tone that I sensed was meant to assure me. Instead I felt unseen and a bit defensive. He knew nothing about me. He hadn’t asked me one question about my life. Immediately though, I feared that he would.

The only thing worse than having anxiety is having to justify it to someone — even more a skeptical someone. I don’t want to have anxiety. I am only recently admitting that it’s an issue under force. So when this doctor tilted his head down, eyed me through his glasses, and enlisted his kid glove voice to ask “What could possibly be causing you so much stress?” —  I was as far from opening up as you can get. At the end of the appointment, he suggested he prescribe an inhaler, to see if it improved my breathing at all. That’s when I asked him: “If my breathing is due to anxiety, and not asthma, is it possible the inhaler will still help?” “Yes,” he answered, “definitely”. I looked at him confused. “Well,” I said, “although I am uncomfortable, I can live with this shortness of breath for now, so I think I would rather try to find the cause before I treat the symptom.” The doctor looked up at me again through his glasses and nodded his head. “That’s actually a good idea, I agree with that plan.” It took everything I had inside of me not to roll my eyes. I gave a polite smile. He gave me a few instructions including when to head to the emergency room, and told me to come back and see him in a few weeks. Ha. Yeah. Sure thing dude.

Visiting doctors was super helpful. Not being able to breathe is scary. Although I didn’t want the problem to be linked to anxiety, it was quite a relief to learn there wasn’t anything physically wrong with me. Armed with this confirmation of what deep inside I knew to be true from the beginning, I set out to learn how to manage my anxiety.

A little history…I have been on plenty of depression and anxiety medications in my life, but have not taken anything in over eight years. It is what I prefer. I respect and appreciate that these medications have helped friends, family, and countless other sufferers. I am so glad that they are available to those that they work for. When I take them, I land in a fog that I can’t seem to lift — my emotions are dimmed and life is sort of colorless. I am sure many would just try another medication or vary the dosage. Again, not my preference. When I get a headache, I try to eat and drink water and rub my temples. I exhaust as many options as I can before I grab the ibuprofen. Yeah, I am one of those. My mom is a holistic nutritionist and I have totally drunk the kool-aid. The more I can maintain my health and well being with exercise, nutrition, and meditation, the more I feel like myself, and the happier I am.

Ironically, as I set out to get my anxiety under control, all the things I did to maintain my health started to make me feel crazy. I felt like I already did all the things they tell you to do to relieve stress. I run. I do yoga. I meditate. Frustrated, I started crying to my husband. I told him I didn’t think I could do any more than I was doing. Funnily enough, that crying was a relief. In fact, every time I had a big cry in the past couple of weeks, my breathing opened up and got a lot easier. My dad (a doc) explained that it was all about my conscious breathing. The more I paid attention to it, the more labored it would get. When I cried, my mind was able to wander away from my breath and let my natural, unconscious breathing take over.

In the midst of this realization that the distraction relieved my shortness of breath, I started to think about why I was crying. I was sure I was doing everything I could to maintain good mental health. I couldn’t do any better. Then I remembered where I had heard that before. I had told myself that about two years ago when my A1C test came back slightly higher than healthy. I was so angry about that test. How could I be pre-prediabetic-I ate so healthy! Slowly, and with some help, I started to get honest with myself. Yes I ate healthier than a lot of people, but I still ate a good amount of processed food. Just because the cookies were gluten-free, it didn’t mean they weren’t full of crap. I started meditating on the idea of being able to eat better and slowly my eating got cleaner and cleaner. Now, what was really hard work has morphed into habit. My stats are back in the normal range and I feel healthier and happier in my body than I ever have before.

So, a few weeks ago, I started to apply this thinking again to my mental health. Perhaps I could do better. Maybe I wasn’t doing everything I could to deal with my stress. I started to communicate to the universe that I was open and willing to do whatever it took to get my breath back. When I say “communicate”, I pretty much mean that I talk out loud to the sky. I guess it sounds a bit wacko, but I keep on doing it cause it has yet to fail me.

The next day, I got an email from my mom who knew my situation and had been checking in on me everyday. She offered a few words of encouragement. Then, casually, at the end, she asked if I had ever tried “tapping”. She also left a link at the bottom of the page. My breathing had been so difficult the whole day that I felt defeated, I wasn’t ready to read about some hippie cure. I moved on to another email and the rest of the evening.

Then, the morning after, I remembered what I had been telling the universe — that I would be open and willing to do whatever it took to get my breath back. I went back to the email, clicked on the link, and started reading about tapping.

Tapping is a combination of Ancient Chinese Acupressure and modern psychology that works to physically alter your brain, energy system and body all at once. Basically, you tap on these different meridian points all over your body while you talk through either traumatic events or your emotions. Sounds pretty coo-coo right? I thought so too. But, I had just enough willingness to give it a try. I found a quiet space to be by myself (it’s way too awkward to do in front of another person), and began what I was sure would be a failed experiment.

At first I wasn’t sure what to say as I tapped. The website offers quite a bit of guidance, but it also stresses to not worry about “doing it wrong”. I started with the focus on my breath. I said, “I trust my breath,” as I tapped along. Then, quite intuitively, I followed that with “I trust my body.” I started to find a rhythm; it was as if I was learning a dance — but my own dance, one I felt sure I could keep up with. Finally, I felt compelled to finish the sequence with “I know I am safe.” “I trust my breath, I trust my body, I know I am safe.” I tapped and I tapped over all nine meridian points as these words flowed out of my mouth and over my body. It took about ten minutes. At the end, I couldn’t deny that something was different. My heart wasn’t pounding in my chest like it was before. My breathing was considerably less labored. Despite these positive effects, I was still skeptical. But, I was also willing to keep at it.

It’s been about two weeks now. I have gone through this tapping process at least once a day, everyday. After about 4–5 days, I experienced normal breathing for the first time in weeks. I have had some tough spells in between, but overall, my progress has been forward-moving. Today, my mind is not held hostage by my breath, and it is not chasing after anxiety-inducing thoughts or spinning around fear-based scenarios that haven’t actually occurred. I have learned a lot about my anxiety from the words that come up when I tap. I am acknowledging fears that I never realized I had and somehow, the repetition of these fears drains their power.

I am sure there are those who might dismiss this method as hippie nonsense. That’s ok. There does seem to be some science behind tapping, for those who feel that is important. I’m just incredibly grateful to have a tool that is working and providing real results in my life-results that I have never been able to achieve on my own or with medication.

You can find more about tapping, here.

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