Last week I listened to a podcast from one of my best friends in the sql community – Kendra Little. In this podcast Kendra talks of her encounter with anxiety attacks and how she dealt with them. When I listened to her honest, moving story – my mind was filled with thoughts on the many episodes with anxiety i’ve dealt with, each of its own kind. I was also moved by how many people in the community wanted to hear about stories like this to feel reassured on their own journey. So, here is one of my own. I am tagging a friend at the end of it ,hope he will tag someone else, and we can have a worthy collection of stories to refer to if we need help/reassurance.
Many years ago, I worked as a Senior DBA cum team-lead at a big firm. I was doing DBA work, and also helping my boss manage a team of six other people. My boss was a very kind,intelligent,generous man, one of the best I’d worked for.I greatly enjoyed my role and the work.A few years down the line, my boss got passed up for a promotion he richly deserved. After that his attitude and behavior changed.He started to be a no-show at important meetings,didn’t respond to emails, took time off without notice, and so on. One day, his boss decided to forward one of his meeting invites to me.I went, and filled in for him.The next day, I got more of his work. And then more. Soon, I was doing two people’s work, and working 12-14 hours a day. I wanted to speak to someone about this, but I kept putting it off with the hope that my boss would come around and get back to doing his stuff. I still really liked the job, and kept up with my needs for food, exercise etc too with the demanding schedule. At least I thought I did. One day, I started to feel some pain around my shoulders. I rubbed some balm on it and hoped it would go away. The next day, there was some tingling sensation in my feet, followed by some numbness and brief giddiness. I started to become very jittery and noise-sensitive. Somebody honking on the street would bother me for hours, with my hair standing on end and my heart beating extra loud. I had never had these symptoms before, and as Kendra mentioned – my life was going well according to me. So, what was wrong?
After a few days into this – as I was driving to work one morning, there was more loud honking on the busy street I had to use. My whole body was thoroughly shaken. Instead of going in to work, I drove myself to the ER – firmly convinced that I had some strange disease. They did all kinds of tests on me – brain mri, abdominal CT, heart exams, everything – pronounced me fine and sent me home in two days, with some medication to help me sleep better.
Two days later, I went in to the dentist for an unrelated problem with my wisdom tooth, still worried and firmly convinced that I had some unknown illness. While taking xrays of my teeth, the dentist said he noticed that my jaw bones were not aligned – a condition called TMJ. I asked him about my symptoms, and he nodded yes, I had TMJ , one of the major causes is stress and can be treated. This diagnosis was followed by a visit to a jaw specialist, some braces to wear and LOTS of relaxation therapy/counselling. After 2 months my ordeal was finally over. My TMJ still comes back now and then to remind me that I overwork or am not taking enough care of myself. But I know how to handle it now. Needless to say I moved on from that job shortly after.
Below are the lessons I learned from that episode and what I follow as practices for mental (and physical health), dealing with stress and anxiety.
1 Respect your body – Your body is an entity of its own. One of my friends likes to joke that you are its boss before 50 and it is your boss after. That is mostly true (you are never its ‘boss’, it just cooperates better when it is younger). Your body does not care how much you love your work or how long you want to do it. It is undoubtedly true that liking what we do leads to more mental happiness, it is not true that it is a safeguard against self care. Avoid the line ‘I love what I do’ as an excuse to skip meals/skip exercise/not getting enough sleep/not taking vacations or less family time. It is not worth it and can hurt you, a lot.
2 Connect with spirit – Kendra talks of this as going back to church/community where she could find succor/replenishment for spirit. I don’t particularly care for community worship, for many reasons. To me, connection with spirit happens with doing things that bring me joy – reading books I love, particularly books on women’s empowerment(‘Women who run with wolves‘ is my favorite), visiting book stores, antique malls, doing gardening, drawing or painting. Spirit is available in a place that is safe and free of rules, and those are the spaces for me.
3 Practice personal reassurance – I believe each person needs this in their own way. To me seeing art I enjoy , favorite pictures from vacations/with friends/family, or some phrases that resonate with me are very reassuring when I get anxious. I keep good art all around me, and phrases from books like ‘Tao of Pooh’ or ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’. I also invest money in enlarged prints of photographs taken on family vacations or sqlfamily reunions around me. They serve to enrich how I feel through the day. I change them around periodically but make sure that I see them – not just give passing glances but really ‘see’, standing in front of them, and re-live pleasant, happy moments.
4 Practice deep breathing and guided meditations. I recall a quote I read long ago – ‘Slow breathing is like an anchor in the midst of an emotional storm: the anchor won’t make the storm goes away, but it will hold you steady until it passes’. I practice it whenever and wherever i can, with my hand on my belly, where I feel my breath the best. It calms me down like nothing else. As a sound sensitive person, I love meditations that come with bilateral stimulation – a scientifically proven way to relax your brain. One of my favorites is here. Another awesome one called soft-belly meditation is here.
5 Understand your triggers and work with them – majority people who have anxiety have to deal with it periodically, it never really goes away fully. It teaches lessons in self acceptance that are invaluable. To me – I am triggered by loud noise, heavy traffic, noisy crowds and certain argumentative/demanding situations. And, as I learned from this particular anxiety episode, I need to find time for self reassurance. I don’t accept or work jobs that do not leave me time to balance these aspects of my life. As writer Stephen Covey says, that becomes like driving without finding time for gas. The car is going to stop, whether you like it or not.
Last but not the least, get help when your body reacts in ways you do not understand. I cannot stress this enough. Sometimes help is the first doctor you go to. Sometimes it takes longer and needs different types of doctors/healers/therapists/techniques. But persist. We live in an era where so much information is available online – search for information, ask friends on facebook or other social media on what they think. I am personally very grateful for the many people I have befriended because of the issues I have had – kind, sensitive, beautiful people who have taught me the value of life and importance of living in the moment. I hope to be the same to anyone who needs help with anxiety, stress or similar.
I tag one friend here – Tim Costello – to narrate his story. Tim, pass it on to someone else after you, and thank you.
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
– Elisabeth Kubler Ross