I’ve spoken on this blog before about anxiety, what it feels like, how difficult it can be to deal with – and I’ll continue to talk about it on a regular basis because those with anxiety need to be supportive of each other, and those who without it need to understand that it is not as simple as just flicking a switch in your brain and turning anxiety off.
Today I want to talk about something that has significantly helped me with my anxiety, but to understand best I’d like to first explain precisely what it is that makes me anxious.
Approximately a year and a half after my daughter was born, I developed very sudden, surprising, and completely random gastrointestinal issues. This would have been a distressing development under any circumstances, but my personal situation added its own set of extra difficulties. You see, I work in the Alberta oil sands. That means that I hop a plane at home (in Nova Scotia), fly most of the way across the country, and both live and work in the middle of nowhere for two weeks at a time. The particular job that I was on at the beginning of this story required residency at a work camp, and this particular camp is a sprawling site consisting of three buildings that share almost sixty three-story wings. When you check in you receive a card that scans you into your wing and room, but you have no access to any other wing, either from inside or outside the building. So, the important bit of information to take away here is that if you’re walking around the outside perimeter of this camp there is exactly one wing-door that you can unlock to get inside, plus the main entrances to each building (three doors) and the main hallway access doors for each building (three more doors). Seven doors may seem like plenty, but six of these doors are grouped together in roughly the same place, and the outer perimeter of the camp is almost one-and-a-half miles. So, what I’m getting at here is that if you’re walking around the buildings there are large gaps of space during which you’re half a mile or more away from a door you can open – more if you’re in a wing for which the door is near that grouping of main doors. None of this ever occurred to me until the day my internal organs first began to torture me. I’d been jogging around the perimeter in the mornings, trying to get my pre-pregnancy body back, when the need to get to a bathroom hit me like a sack of bricks right to the guts.
The first time it happened I was lucky enough to have come around to my own wing. The second time I was fairly close to one of the main entrances and managed to dash to it. But this phenomenon kept happening, almost every time I went out, and some of the time I was a very long distance away from where I could escape to a bathroom. There were some close calls. Eventually I found myself regularly not going out for my jobs because the slightest tummy twitch would have me worrying that I was going to have another episode. Soon I’d quit running all together because I was simply too scared to take the chance, and before I knew it I’d developed a panic-attack-like reaction to being too far away from a bathroom.
I survived for a while by simply avoiding situations that took me too far away, but soon enough my job changed and that’s when the anxiety really began. At my new job the camp and the site were an hour’s drive away from each other, and our transportation to and from was on an old, refurbished school bus. If you’re not understanding quite yet I’ll just go ahead and spell it out for you: for my fourteen-day shift I would have to spend two hours a day on a bus with no bathroom.
To say that I suffered for months is playing it down. I would run to the bathroom at least three or four times every morning before being able to coax myself onto the bus. In the evenings I’d have to run off the bus at least once before it could pull away to take us back. And my anxiety grew and grew because it wasn’t as though I was just being jumpy and worried…I actually needed all those bathroom runs. I would get anxious about needing a bathroom when I couldn’t have one, and the anxiety would twist my guts into a knot, making me need a bathroom. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy in which I could no longer tell if the horror in my body was completely random (as it had been when I was running around camp) or if it was actually caused by the anxiety itself. The fact that I couldn’t tell made it even worse because I could sometimes manage to stave off the anxiety-gut-twists, but if they were real-gut-twists I was only prolonging the inevitable and making it worse.
And for those of you who are thinking that I could just ask the bus driver to stop should needs be, that wasn’t exactly an option. That hour-long drive was through open plains; no commercial buildings, no residences, no trees, even. Just wide, open field. I eventually did have to ask the bus driver to stop once during an absolute, five-alarm emergency, and I was extremely fortunate that we just happened to be passing by a farm, which was one of the only places in those 100 or so kilometers that had some trees. Regardless, it was one of the most mortifying moments of my life. Try to imagine, if you will, having to scream at a bus driver to stop so that you could sprint like a crazy-person into the woods while fifty-or-so of your coworkers look on in complete confusion. I got no grief for it, and there was a lot of sympathy afterwards (understandable, considering I probably looked like a kicked puppy when I returned to the bus), but I definitely felt like curling up in a corner and dying. And another self-fulfilling prophecy came to pass, because now every time I got on the bus while trying to convince myself, “It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay,” I would inadvertently imagine that moment of having to walk back out of the woods and onto the bus, and a second little voice in my head would scream, “But what if it’s not?! Sometimes it’s not! This could be one of those times when it’s not!!!”
The anxiety just got worse and worse after that. It began to leech into my home life and I’d start to panic during pretty much any kind of travel. My husband and I taking a shopping trip? I’d be pulling into the nearest Tim Hortons after only fifteen minutes on the road. My father driving the half-hour distance to the airport? I’d be gulping down Immodium beforehand and I’d practically run out of the car when we got there. Even just driving my daughter to kindergarten in the morning – a five-minute drive at most – would prompt me to run to the bathroom two or three times before we could even get out of the house. I’d try to talk myself down, try to convince myself that neither my husband, nor my father, nor my toddler could care less if the worst were to happen, but the part of my mind that had become trapped within the spiral of anxiety refused to accept that as a reasonable argument. By the time my job changed again the anxiety related to travel was so deeply rooted that I would begin to have a panic attack at even the thought of getting on a bus. That’s when I knew that I really had a problem because my new job had buses with washrooms, but that didn’t matter anymore. Just looking at a bus would fill me with dread and make my guts twist in knots.
And now we get to the upside, fortunately. See, I tried a number of things to work myself through the anxiety. I tried listening to classical music and I tried listening to dragon rock to distract myself – both helped a little bit for a little while, but then seemed to gradually lose their power. I tried distracting myself with books or handheld games, but that would just marry motion sickness into the situation. I tried drugs prescribed to me for both stomach spasms and anxiety, but even after the dosages had been increased several times I never felt any different after taking them.
Then, one day, thanks to a Fab Fit Fun subscription box, I received a three-month trial gift card for something called Headspace, and when I looked into it I learned that it’s an app that teaches you how to meditate. I thought it sounded kind of lame at first, but then I read a ton of excellent reviews and figured, hey…three months free…may as well give it a try.
Those three months totally changed my outlook. First of all, Headspace doesn’t just teach you “how to meditate”. It starts off by giving you a basic breakdown of where to start, and then goes on to provide you with a plethora of specialized packs that aim at everything from controlling anxiety to bolstering creativity. There are packs to help you sleep better, packs to help you hone your focus, and packs to soften stress. There are guided and unguided meditations and special single meditations to listen to while you’re walking, cooking, commuting, or to help you deal with the fear of flying. There are even three special 3-minute “S.O.S” meditations designed to calm you down when you’re having a complete meltdown.
Each meditation is read by Headspace founder, Andy, and there’s something about his reading that immediately helps to keep me calm. He has a friendly, gentle, non-judgmental tone, and his meditations are designed with the understanding that meditation is actually quite difficult to learn. He explains things in layman’s terms, without being patronizing. He sounds like a good friend who genuinely wants you to get this right.
I ripped through the “Basics” meditations as quickly as I could, eager to move on to the “Anxiety” pack, which was calling my name. I listened to one “Anxiety” file every morning and sometimes another in the evening. I learned how to breath properly, how to clear my mind, and how to allow the anxiety to wash over me, just another thought coming and going. And on the days when I just didn’t think that I was going to be able to drag myself out to the bus, the “S.O.S.” meditations got me out there.
Look, here’s the thing… I won’t say that Headspace has gotten rid of my anxiety, and I won’t say that it’s a cure-all for what ails you, and I definitely won’t claim that it will work for everyone because that would be a foolish assumption. But when you’re suffering from something like anxiety, and it’s affecting both your home and work lives, you definitely want to try every last option, and this is just another one. It has helped me in spades, and although there is a monthly fee to be able to access anything other than the “Basics” pack, if it can help you deal with something that even most doctors don’t really understand, I definitely say that it’s worth it. So why not give it a try? You can download the app (or visit the website) for free at any time and at least try out the 10-day “Basics” to learn a bit about breathing and clearing your mind. And who knows? Maybe that’s all you’ll need…or maybe you’ll crave the option to listen to all the meditations…or maybe you won’t like it at all. Either way, I wanted to share the option because it has worked so well for me.
Thanks for listening, everyone. Happy meditating. 🙂