WHEN THE HEART RACES..................
I am a person who generally over analyses and over thinks, and gets anxious about the future. All those instances of anxiety in the past, I managed internally. However, I started getting extreme bouts of anxiety similar to panic attacks when Srini (my husband) and I were in Bangalore in 2020. We moved to Bangalore because I got a job opportunity there. However, I was unable to join because I had a relapse of depression.
Getting back to work was something I was immensely looking forward to; especially because I had to quit my job in Mumbai for reasons beyond my control. From my childhood, I was exposed to the school of thought that one needs to be constantly productive. Also, that this productivity determines your true value. I believed in this too, until very recently. Therefore, my inability to work in the corporate world was something that was constantly bothering me. Due to this, I was really looking forward to my job in Bangalore. When I had lost that opportunity, my mind went on a spiral. I recovered from the depressive phase fairly quickly, and became stable. But my mind was preoccupied with the thought that I am not working the way I want, and hence I am not being productive.
This underlying need to be productive (in the form of being employed) made me very anxious. I am a list/schedule kind of a person. So every day after I wake up, I used to make a time table of how I will spend my day. I used to allot time in the morning to help Srini with his work. After my morning prayers and breakfast, when the time approached for working, my heart beat would start racing and I would feel very anxious. My thoughts will get clouded and I would start feeling very uneasy. As I mentioned before, I never got anxiety attacks in the past, even during my phases of depression. Therefore, Srini was also not sure how to help me. I used to just go and lie down, and try to sleep. The days when it was very severe I used to take an anti-anxiety pill prescribed by my psychiatrist. When I woke up after 2 hours or so, I would feel physically better but I would feel extremely guilty as I had wasted my time by not working. Yes, I was very harsh on myself.
These anxiety attacks were not just restricted to weekdays. They used to be quite intense during the weekends as well. In my mind productivity was linked to how much I work. I used to be a workaholic, and had long hours of work during the weekdays and weekends in Mumbai. So when I had free time for myself during the weekends in Bangalore, I used to start panicking again. Srini and I used to sit and watch a movie, and I used to suddenly get anxious and uneasy, and go and sleep again.
Another instance when I experienced this anxiety is when I was cooking. I will start cooking and mid-way start getting anxious and doubt myself if I will be able to complete. I used to put pressure on myself to make the most delicious dish and in the process get very anxious. The anxiety attacks also used to come before going to sleep when I used to overthink about any future event and start worrying.
I also had social anxiety. My friends would be surprised to know this because I am an extrovert. But this lack of self- esteem due to lack of productivity made me very conscious and anxious. I used to resist going out and meeting friends and family. I started getting anxious during zoom calls with family and friends, and never attended those.
Around this time, I started online therapy. My therapist told me that thoughts are not facts, and that you cannot control them. The key is how you react to your thoughts. In case of anxiety, the first step is to get grounded and slowly take the discomfort away. For this, he asked me to regularly do a guided mindful meditation, and also listen to the same when I feel anxious. One day, when Srini and I decided to visit his uncle in Bangalore, I suddenly started getting the panic attack. I took some time out and listened to the audio of the meditation, and felt calm. While I was at their house as well, I started getting the attack again. I again excused myself and listened to the audio, and felt better.
So getting grounded through mindfulness helped me a lot to deal with social anxiety. But the one I struggled with the most was, anxiety linked to productivity. I was not able to get myself to do the grounding exercise because of my extreme discomfort during these panic attacks. So my therapist started working on this using cognitive behavioral therapy methods to rewire the genesis of the need to be productive all the time. I learnt that these thoughts originate from your core beliefs which get shaped during childhood. Therefore you need to act against your core belief to challenge that and your thoughts. This CBT was done in parallel with teaching me mindfulness. The grounding exercise is important because while you are in a panic attack you cannot rewire your thoughts, but what you need to immediately do is use methods to calm yourself. I started doing the guided meditation daily and slowly started getting better at doing them when I felt anxious.
Another thing is that once you feel grounded, you have to go back and finish the task that you had left incomplete. This will give you more confidence that you have completed the task. Separately for me, the grounding happened within half hour or so, or sometimes I had to take a nap or break from the activity, and then get back to it. For the longest period, I had to take a long break before going back to the activity. I was concerned that I was not able to bounce back easily.
The continuous therapy and help from Srini made me introspect on my core belief on productivity. Slowly I started looking around and found so many examples including of Srini’s that made me realise that one need not be constantly productive to be happy. I learnt that it is ok if one of your dish is too salty or if you spend the whole day on the couch watching your favourite show. Most importantly, I realized that your job does not define who you are, and it is just part of your life. Currently, I help Srini with his venture, work as a part-time legal consultant and manage my mental health initiative.
My anxiety slowly reduced because I stopped questioning myself, and pressurizing myself. Further, practising mindfulness and the unwiring of my core belief contributed significantly to that. This happened because of therapy, Srini and his family. So I would not say that my heart does not race anymore; when it does, I am better at managing it.