Guest Post: Coping After an Anxiety Attack

Message from the Author: Hi there. My name is Kelly Gallagher. I'm a 25-year-old mental health blogger from Pittsburgh, PA. I have suffered from anxiety disorders and depression since I was nine years old. And a wrath of eating disorders in my young adult life. In March of 2016, I made a plan to end my life and nearly went through with it. But thanks to incredible therapists and mental health experts, group therapy, and an amazing support group, I've been able to come out the other side more excited to live than ever. 

Roughly six months after a I got out of group, a high school acquaintance committed suicide on Valentine’s Day. And even though I hadn't truly spoken to him since we were sophomores in high school, my heart completely broke that day. I wept for him, for his family, his friends, and for his future that could have been. I sat and reflected upon the situation and my heart slowly began to mend as I realized how truly thankful I was that I never went through with my own plan. And that my friends and family never had to weep over me in the same way. 

That day I wrote my first blog post, called "Why Asking For Help Is So Hard." That tragic day made me realize why the mental health fight is so important and why I couldn't just sit back in silence. I needed to speak out and create a safe dialogue around such a touchy subject. I needed to be vulnerable and share my experiences - every ugly detail. My goals are to help the loved ones of those with mental illness understand us a little better. And to show sufferers that they aren't alone. And I know how hard it can be to believe you aren't alone because mental illness is so isolating. I want to validate them. I want to love them. I want them to know there is always hope. And that there is always a light burning somewhere inside them.

Kelly Gallager with her "Begin" Mental Health Mug

I had a really bad anxiety attack a few weeks ago. Okay fine, it was more than bad. It was one of the worst I've ever experienced. And it was the first full-on attack post-therapy. I knew that going to therapy and dealing with my shit wasn't going to cure my anxiety or the attacks that come with it. But I thought it was going to make them better, or at least make them easier to get through. I had all the tools in my tool belt to deal with the attack. But when an anxiety attack comes, it doesn't care. 

It doesn't care whether or not you've been to therapy. It doesn't care that you've done your homework. It doesn't care that you're in a much better mental state. It doesn't care that you're actually happy. Or that you have a support group. Anxiety gives zero fucks. And an attack is going to come without warning. Sometimes it comes as a drizzle, other times it comes in like a storm. Or it engulfs you and thrashes you around like a tidal wave.

Anxiety. Doesn't. Care.

I wanted to write a follow-up because I'm coming to terms with the fact that anxiety attacks are still going to be a part of my life. In a way, I'm glad I had this really bad attack. Not because it was fun or because I'm masochistic, but rather because it's given me a lot of perspective. And in a weird way, it was nice to be reminded that my anxiety doesn't always stem from things going on in my life. I know a lot of the time, people don't take my mental health or stress seriously. I'm often told I'm "doing this to myself" by trying to tackle so many things. The three jobs thing, for example, is constantly brought to my attention - like I'm dumb enough to not realize how much easier my life would be if I didn't have them all (no shit). Ironically, it was a pleasant break to have an anxiety attack stemming from my biggest fears. And it re-validated, at least to me, that I have an anxiety disorder in the first place, no matter how much I try to hide it day-to-day. 

So, how am I coping?

A few different ways, actually. And I want to make the disclaimer that these are just my experiences. I share the things that help me because they may help others. And I share because I think it's really important to create a safe place to talk about anxiety and other mental illnesses without judgement. These techniques don't even always work for me, but I'm practicing them to come up with some kind of anxiety coping routine...

It's important to note here that Greg had to leave for North Carolina for work only 3 days after my anxiety attack. He was only gone for 3 days - so I understand how this may paint me as "weak" and "needy". But my brain was creating even more anxiety and stress based on the fact that I was going to be alone at night. Night is the worst time for me when it comes to my anxiety. So I was becoming increasingly nervous at the fact I wasn't going to have his physical support if it happened again. That's the reason I started adopting these practices in the first place. I needed some distractions. I needed ways to make the time go quicker. And I needed to be more "okay" being alone with these anxious thoughts.

 1. Practicing Gratitude and Positivity as Part of My Morning Routine

So, I'm in the process of trying to create an actual morning routine. But when you get up at 5:20, to aim to leave the house by 5:50, so you can get to the office by 6:15, there isn't really a lot of time for a routine. On a normal morning, as soon as my alarm goes off, I'm out of bed. I wash my face and brush my teeth. I change and put on some concealer and mascara. I check on Greg. I give him a quick kiss and make sure he's at least starting the process of becoming awake. I go downstairs and see Jaso, our rescue dog, who's normally sprawled out on our couch. I give him a quick cuddle and he gives my cheek a lick. I quickly make my coffee and breakfast smoothie, pack my lunch, and make sure Jaso has food and water in his bowls. And then I leave.

I know. It's not exactly the ideal morning routine. I dream of the day where I don't have to be to an office until 7:30 or 8:00 (and I don't have to fight hours of Squirrel Hill Tunnel traffic to get there). I'd love to be able to get up and do some kind of morning stretching routine or even a workout (because I'd have time to shower too!). I'd love to sit with my coffee, maybe even have a real breakfast. But right now, that's just not my reality. And I don't want to put shame or guilt onto the current reality that I do have.

So, with that said. As I tend to my face in the morning, I've started creating this monologue of a mantra that I tell myself. I start off with just being grateful to the fact that I woke up. I tell myself to breathe and to let go of any expectations for the day - because normally my mind is already racing with my mental to-do list. I make a note to do my best to be a good person and to help those I can throughout my day. I want to use each and every day I have to bring some kind of good into the world, so I try to focus my first daily thoughts and energy on that. If there really is a law of attraction - I want to attract and give off positivity. Lord knows I've spent way too many years giving off negative vibes.

 2. I'm Listening to More Podcasts than Songs

Okay friends, I am the QWEEN of sad music. I like to put the blame on my competitive dance background, where every competitive lyrical routine from 2004-2010 was about someone dying (ironic, I know) or heartbreak. In high school, I actually had two iPods - one that had more contemporary pop music (that I'd let others see) and another that was filled with sad dance songs and angsty punk music (a.k.a., my secret music stash). I've always been really good at letting my emotions dictate my taste in music. Which I think is kind of a good thing - because I got pretty good at identifying what emotions I was feeling. Or at least I got good at identifying songs that spoke to that emotion before I pushed said emotion away. But I don't think it's good or healthy to allow that music to drag out an emotional state...

Instead of listening to one or two sad songs, I would listen to hours' worth. Essentially adding to my numbing process. By the time I was done, I'd forget the reason I was upset in the first place and became immune to that specific kind of sadness for a while. That kind of sadness would be replaced by another - maybe a sadness rooted in anger, or a sadness rooted in fear. And I'd do the same thing all over again. I rarely chose to listen to happy and uplifting music, which kept me continually at the sad level of my emotional tower.

I've only recently joined the podcast game, but I've quickly become a fan. At first, I used podcasts as a distraction. My mind would have to focus on what was being said, rather than zoning out and getting lost in my thoughts as music played. Now I listen because I genuinely enjoy the ones I've been listening to. And weirdly enough, the one's I listen to validate a lot of experiences I'm either currently going through or have gone through in my past. I like listening to podcasts on my commutes because I've noticed how much less anxiety and anger I have while driving when they're on. Sad, but true, it's like driving with a friend or two.

Here's a quick list of what I'm consistently listening to, and I want to note that only one of them has actually covers the topics of mental illness...

  • Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard
  • Congratulations with Chris D'elia (this is the one, more often than not, validating some of my experiences. For example, ever since graduating high school and forgoing my dream of being a professional dancer, I cry at every single opening act of every single play or musical I see. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. I always feel like an idiot and thought I was the only one who did this. But Chris D'elia casually mentioned he does the same thing, so now I feel less shame and less alone...)
  • Adult Sh1t (this is the one that covers a lot of mental illness and other taboo topics)
  • Ted Radio Hour
  • Jenna and Julien Podcast (I mainly just listen to the ones about conspiracy theories because ALIENS)

It's not that I don't listen to music anymore; I've just made a conscious decision of when those times are. I now tend to blast music only when I'm cleaning, cooking or working out. Sometimes I'll put on a productivity/studying Spotify playlist to get in the work zone. But that's really it anymore. I don't hate it.

3. I've Incorporated Pilates into My Life 

I already know this is going to sound bad and it may take a hot second to get to the point, so just stay with me here. 

Most of you know that fitness is a huge part of my life. I obviously grew up dancing, but to me, that was a passion and not a means of staying fit. As I stopped dancing so much, and my issues with food started to arise, working out became my new obsession. I used to be very judgmental about the workouts I (and others) would do. In my mind, if a workout didn't leave you gasping for breath or drenched in sweat, it wasn't a real workout. I judged the girls who would just go to yoga classes or would walk on the treadmill. I felt superior because I was one of the few girls "brave enough" (but not really because I only went with a friend by my side) to use the weight room. I loved it when other girls would stare at me as I was trying to crush a circuit and they were merely "stretching". I know, I was a fitness dick.

With recovery and trying to be a better, kinder person, I've opened up all aspects of my world - including how I train. Last year I tried my best to actually get into yoga because I noticed how tight my muscles were becoming from just lifting and doing HIIT workouts. I missed feeling flexible all the time, so I thought hot yoga classes would motivate me. It helped a little, but I was only able to last a few months before I stopped practicing. For me, it's still a place of judgement because I feel like I should be naturally really good at it. I would spend the class comparing myself to who I thought was the best in the class - basically the total opposite of what you're supposed to do. "That guy over there can hold a forearm stand for a while...screw him, I hold it longer." "That girl in the corner has her leg near her head...mine needs to be higher." Again, I know, I'm still competitive and can still be a dick about it. Needless to say, I stopped going because there were times I actually felt worse about myself than before I entered the practice. 

Since the anxiety attack, I've been trying to incorporate more mindful breathing exercises into my day. I was perusing the internet for guided meditations and mindfulness practices when I found myself down the rabbit hole of a comment thread. A woman wrote about doing home Pilates videos at night to recenter and shed stress from her day. She also noted that doing a nightly Pilates routine helped her be more mindful of her breath and body. 

So that first night without Greg, I carved out a chunk of time before bed to do a 20 minute Windsor Pilates routine. I put on a face mask and diffused some lavender essential oil (A. because lavender is known to help with sleep, and B. lavender is normally not toxic to dogs). Then I followed that YouTube video. And honestly, it was really great. I mean, the Windsor videos are definitely from the late '80s/early '90s and I did get a laugh out of them. And calling your core your "power house" just seems silly. But the actual practice of Pilates has been really great for me. I do find myself being more mindful of my breath and body. And again, for me personally, doing this before bed has been a great way to de-stress my anxious thoughts and prepare for sleep.

FYI, Boho Beautiful also has some nice Pilates/yoga fusion routines as well! I try to intermix them with the Windsor videos because I get bored really easily.

4. I Use My Mental Health Mugs As Reminders

Last year, I received a Mental Health Mug as a Christmas gift. It's a tall, white mug that simply says "BEGIN." I can't tell you how many times I've needed that simple reminder when my stress, anxiety, and/or depression overwhelm me.

I love that mug so much and I am so inspired by Keely that I asked for her contact info so I could personally reach out. I shared my story and talked about this blog a little. She wonderfully shared some of her story back with me. This was around the time that I was putting together the Healing Expressionism series, and I of course asked her to be a part of it. 

Earlier this year, Keely and her marketing/coordinator friend Sara reached out to me to see if I would want to be a part of their first Mugshot Campaign. Essentially, this is a group of mental health advocates who use the mugs and are fighting the mental health fight. How could I have ever said no? They (so kindly!) send me a free mug to use in the campaign. I chose a simple white and black mug that says "BREATHE" in the same type as my "BEGIN" mug.

I love having both of them because most of the time, starting is the hardest part for me. I often compare my anxiety to a mental and sometimes physical paralysis. Depending how badly my anxiety is affecting me, there are times my brain goes entirely blank, there are times I can't speak, and there are even times I feel like I can't move. It's one thing to tell yourself to breathe; it's another to have a physical object of affirmation. Having these reminders to breathe and just begin has made such a difference in my life - especially on the days when my to-do list feels way too long and my stress is way too high.

5. I Had a Very Open Conversation with My Mom About Her Anxieties

According to the Mayo Clinic, "Mental illnesses, in general, are thought to be caused by a variety of genetic and environmental factors: Inherited traits. Mental illness is more common in people whose blood relatives also have a mental illness."

Growing up, I knew my mother had some issues with mental illness. After a long battle with cancer, my grandmother passed away when I was only 6. Meaning my mom lost her own mother when she was only 38. I remember spending afternoons with my brother in the waiting room of her therapist's office. I can remember times when she just seemed so sad and the times she would break down and cry. I can remember her anger with the situation of my grandmother coming out and deflecting on us out of frustration. I knew there were times she was struggling. And I knew I was struggling too. I just didn't have the vocabulary or understanding to create a dialogue with her about it.

But for the past year, I've been really open and honest about my experiences. Through therapy and writing, I've been figuring out how to effectively communicate these struggles. And I've been able to create the necessary vocabulary to talk about it with the people I love. My mom is on Facebook and is the MOST supportive. She reads everything I post. And I often get a text in the evening or next morning after a blog goes live, full of words of affirmation and love. She shares what she needs to with my dad, because discussing mental health and illness isn't exactly his forte. And I'm seriously so lucky to have such a supportive family.

When Greg was in North Carolina, my mom came out to Monroeville to have a girls' evening with me. We got pedicures and she took me to Mad Mex (my favorite restaurant - so many vegan options!). And while we were at dinner, she slowly started to open up a bit about her anxiety experiences. She told me that reading my anxiety post was a little difficult for her, as most of the things I was going through are things she too has battled in her life. And it's hard to read about your child going through the same shit you've been dealing with. She told me about the times she'd have the same kind of anxiety attacks, and that my dad would have to hold her and anchor her through them, just as Greg had done for me. She was vulnerable and opened up about her anxieties regarding death - especially around the anxieties regarding the health of my brother and I. She obviously lost her mother due to sickness and she knew that suffering of pain and loss. She became so afraid of it again that it manifested in the the fear of losing us, too. 

It's not easy to see someone you love deal with any kind of pain, let alone mental illness. But hearing my mom actually say those words means more to me than I could ever actually express. I always knew there were things going on behind the surface. But the fact she opened up, and trusted me with those fears, well, I feel connected to her more than ever. 

6. Gratitude Has Made an Appearance in My Nighttime Routine As Well

Like my morning routine, I'm working on cultivating a nighttime routine as well - because if you can't tell, I find comfort and solace in routines and schedules. Greg and I don't really have a nighttime routine other than watching a few episodes of The Office. Sometimes he'll have a snack and I'll have tea. Other times I'll use a personal oil diffuser. I'll wash my face again and we'll brush our teeth, but that's really it. 

Now, most nights I'm doing some kind of Pilates video around 9:00. I say most nights because I'm making sure to be easy on myself and not put pressure on myself to practice every single night. Greg and I will watch TV until 10. Most nights I either have tea or kombucha as we watch. I'm doing my best not to mindlessly snack. When we go to bed, I brush my teeth and wash my face again. I get into bed and set my alarms. I've been using my Zen Monq personal diffuser almost every night as the last thing I do before I try to sleep.

When Greg wasn't home, I put on a guided sleep meditation video from YouTube and would fall to sleep to that - which was really helpful and effective in getting my mind to chill out and focus on something, anything that wasn't the thoughts in my brain.

But whether he is home or not, right before I fall asleep, I remind myself of how lucky I am. Maybe the day didn't turn out the way I wanted it to. Maybe some shit hit the fan. Maybe the day was a pretty good one. Or maybe nothing of real importance happened. But no matter what did or didn't occur, I am lucky. I remind myself of the reasons why I'm grateful. I think of the good experiences I've had, and of the most recent words of affirmation given to me. And this may sound a little morbid, but it's easier falling asleep with the realization that you may not wake up, when you feel fulfilled with your life. And again, it sounds morbid, but being able to actually think the words, "If I die tonight, I'm really happy with the life I'm living, the person I am, and the love I've cultivated around me," well, death becomes a little less scary.

So yea. That's how I'm coping. The days since that anxiety attack have been better. But this process is about trail and error. I know the fears will return. The attacks will continue. But that's why, as cliché as it is, recovery is a journey. It's about taking these experiences, especially the shitty ones, and learning from them. As long as I'm trying, and I'm not giving up. As long as I'm breathing and beginning, it's going to be okay.

#keeprecovering #keepliving

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