In my last post, I wrote about the obstacles that make life extra challenging in 2021. Coronavirus, isolation, family Covid fatigue, and every day problems make for a seemingly unbearable existence. I posed a question: Are the things that make us feel awful real or is suffering all in our minds? I wrote that the mind is a major cause of our pain and that there has to be something more than temporary distractions to help us deal with sorrow.
You can read the last post by going to this link: https://esereport.com/2021/02/08/its-all-in-your-mind/
Seventeen years ago, I had my first exposure to the possibility that “it’s all in my mind.” I was running up the stairs at the Long Beach Convention Center and suddenly felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. The weird sensation went away in about 10 minutes. It happened again a few weeks later. I was on a flight that was making a smooth descent into San Antonio International Airport when, out of nowhere, I had a hard time breathing.
I was only 40 years old at the time and in fairly good shape. I made an appointment with my doctor anyway because of family history of heart disease. In the clinic, the doctor covered all of the bases – extensive blood work at the lab, an EKG, echocardiogram, and cardiac stress test. He chuckled because I was on the treadmill jogging and chatting at the same time without losing my breath. Someone with heart disease wouldn’t be able do that.
Tests confirmed that there was nothing wrong with my heart. The doctor speculated that something else could be causing the feeling of being out of breath and referred me to a psychologist. The thought of going to a therapist didn’t register in my east side Mexican American working-class brain. We didn’t do therapy. Like Dave Chappele once joked, “psychologists were for upper middle-class white people. The rest of us had liquor stores.”
My dad used to say that putting all your energy into work when life gets hard was the answer to the blues. That’s what I did after my mom died, but it wasn’t working so well for me. I went along with my doctor’s recommendation. I figured that I had nothing to lose. During our first meeting, the therapist described how heart attack symptoms are similar to those of a panic attack caused by anxiety.
Rather than actually losing oxygen, the mind tricks the body into thinking that it’s out of breath. It was hard to wrap my mind around what I heard, but I kept going with it. Several sessions later, the therapist’s diagnosis was generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) triggered by my mom’s passing a year earlier. The condition impacts only 3.1% of Americans. Depression can go hand in hand with anxiety.
According to mental health advocates, GAD is “chronic, exaggerated worry and tension that is unfounded or much more severe than the normal anxiety most people experience.” The Mayo Clinic says that GAD is caused by a “complex interaction of biological and environmental factors.” What that means is that anxiety is partly caused by chemicals in the body that aren’t working correctly and partly caused by something negative that happens to us.
I was a happy-go-lucky kid, There wasn’t a tree I wouldn’t climb or a fence I wouldn’t jump over. My mom used to say that I could be a little bit travieso (loosely translated as “naughty”). When I was about 10 years old, I wrecked my bike and scratched myself up pretty good riding downhill on a trail I wasn’t allowed to be on. My mom didn’t know about the details of that accident until 25 years later when my brothers, sisters, and I were sharing stories about youthful shenanigans .
Despite being somewhat of a daredevil, I had a tendency to worry, overthink, and overreact. It could be anything. I would lose sleep the night before a spelling test in elementary school worried about flunking. In high school, I couldn’t concentrate in class on gameday because I worried about making a mistake that would embarrass the team and school. Those bad things never happened. Nothing triggered those thoughts.
When mom passed away, I felt like a helium balloon floating aimlessly and untethered to the real world. She was my safe harbor when the winds of life’s storms howled. She was my biggest cheerleader. With mom gone, I worried incessantly about everything. This perfect storm of biological and environmental factors led to the therapist’s diagnosis.
He recommended a combination of medication, therapy, and group mindfulness classes designed to address the chemical and triggering elements of anxiety. Given everything I understood about what the doctor told me, it made sense to me. I decided to give the proposed treatment my all. Within a few months, I was back on track building a life with my family and working on a career. I graduated from mocking psychology to being a therapy advocate.
The more I understood about anxiety’s causes, effects, and solutions, the more I wanted to learn how to manage it. The short story about unreasonable worry is fear of the unknown. An anxious mind comes to conclusions (usually doom and gloom) in the absence of verified information. As the old saying goes, anxiety makes mountains out of molehills. I refer to unwarranted thoughts that swirl in my mind as the “Boo Voice.”
The therapist and mindfulness classes from 2004 prepared me for the most turbulent decade of my life. For 10 years, unknown life and death health situations hovered over me like a black cloud. Staying in the moment and consistent dialogue with doctors prevented my mind from escaping to unhelpful places. After heart transplant, my Boo Voice and I engaged in brutal battles. Using the same formula from 2004 has played a major role in my recovery.
At some level, whether diagnosed with anxiety or not, we all have a Boo Voice. Everyone has different triggers. During these uncertain times, worry consumes most of our days. Will family members get sick and die? Will our kids lose out in their education? Will the vaccine work? When will life get back to normal? On top of all that, we still have to deal with the little daily annoyances that can ruin our days.
How can we keep our Boo Voices from getting the best of us? Try this 3-part strategy. It helps me get through the toughest of times.
The best option is a therapist, support group, spiritual advisor, or journal (all 4 is most effective). If these don’t fit your budget or comfort level, your significant other or bestie will work. The downside is that those close to you have skin in the game, so they’re not optimal. The most important thing is to talk it out.
- Meditation – Mindfulness
This is another concept that didn’t fit into my boyhood worldview. Taking mindfulness classes in 2004 and studying Buddhist principles for 10 years changed my mind. Meditation is really hard to do, but worth it. It helps you focus and calm the mind. A great tool is the Calm App. It’s about $70 a year to subscribe. The first year is free for Kaiser members.
- Pursue a Healthy Passion
Alcohol, drugs, food, sex, parties, and other guilty pleasures are quick, but temporary bandaids for the Boo Voice. When you remove the bandage, the cut is usually deeper. I’m not preaching. I get it. I’ve never been threatened by a good time. Healthy is the key word. I love writing, reading, and mentoring others. Find your healthy passion and do it.
Like everything worthwhile in life, what I just laid out is not easy. It takes hard work and dedicated commitment. I wish I could say that I’ve conquered my Boo Voice once and for all. Of course, I haven’t. Most likely I will battle it for the rest of my life because of biology. Medication helps with that part.
Fortunately, you most likely don’t have generalized anxiety disorder. Events and circumstances are the cause of worry and depression. I work hard on my 3-part strategy to manage the environmental causes of anxiety everyday and it makes my life so much better. You can do it too. Give it a try. It takes time. Be patient. I’m on year 17 working with this strategy and life continues to get better every day.