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What's Happening?

Bill’s Story: What's Happening?


"One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes. In the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And, the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.”

                                                                                                   – Eleanor Roosevelt

 It was late January, 1973. In Paris, the United States agreed to stop fighting in Vietnam. Liddy and McCord were found guilty in connection with Watergate. LBJ suddenly died of a heart attack. Ironically, his death came as the war that forced him out of office was coming to an end. Quite a start for a new year.

I remember reflecting on these events one cold and blustery winter day as I made my way across the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville. I had been at UT for two years, dividing my time between being an Air Force captain serving as an Air Force R.O.T.C. instructor and a student pursuing a doctorate in counseling psychology.

As I approached the Volunteer Statue in the center of campus, something extraordinary happened, something I will never forget. It started as a cluster of strange sensations, and a sense that something was terribly wrong.

It came on without warning. One moment, I was simply walking from one building to another, lost in thought, trying to sort out and file away what seemed to be an increasingly complicated life. There was no shortage of worrisome thoughts, but most of that would have to wait. There was much I had to do. Deadlines had to be met. I had to “push on.” There would be more time for tying up loose ends later. For now, I had to move faster, get more done.

Suddenly, everything changed.

It was a strange sense of unreality. I felt disoriented. My heart was racing. My mouth felt like cotton. I couldn’t think. I was lightheaded and felt unsteady. There didn't seem to be enough air. I felt cold and clammy but I was sweating. Most of all, I felt paralyzed. I struggled for understanding. What’s happening to me? What should I do?

I sat down on the base of the Volunteer statue, trying to sort it all out. My brain seemed frozen and I felt strange all over. I wondered if I should ask for help. Would anyone notice my distress? The sidewalk was full of students and faculty, but no one seemed to notice. How could that be? How could I feel such a loss of control without anyone seeing the signs? How strange!

Within a few minutes, the worst was over, leaving me confused and worried, unable to comprehend what had happened. I knew only that something strange, seemingly inexplicable and frightening had taken place, something totally outside of my understanding or experience. Would it happen again? What if it did? What if…?

I wondered what I should do. Should I forget my original purpose and go back to my office? Should I go to the clinic? Should I go on to class and hope it -whatever “it” was- would not happen again? Suddenly, I had far more questions than answers and a new sense of urgency. I had to find out what had happened and keep it from happening again.

At last, I continued on to my 5:00 p.m. class, struggling to regain my composure. Once there, I sat through a lecture I scarcely heard, unable to let go of my uneasiness at what had happened and my dread of a reoccurrence. What if it happened again? By the end of class, I had my second panic attack. I still had no idea what was happening or that it had a name. Something was seriously wrong! Now, nothing else seemed to matter except finding an explanation and a solution.

During the next few days and weeks, the attacks continued. Increasingly distressed, I was ready for help. I was motivated. I wanted to find answers. I wanted it, whatever “it” was, to stop.

A psychologist friend I knew told me she didn't know what was happening to me. She told me she couldn't help and referred me to a physician. The physician told me it was probably “stress” and prescribed Mellaril, a drug I promptly flushed after it made me feel even more disconnected from my body. Fellow doctoral students and several instructors shook their heads and told me they had no idea what was wrong. A friend suggested a vacation. No one mentioned “anxiety attack” or “panic attack.” That would've helped immensely if only I had some idea what was happening. The attacks continued. I felt lost.

Finally, after several weeks of torment, a professor said, “Oh, you’re having anxiety attacks. I used to have those myself.” Incredible relief! Just knowing it had a name and happened to other people - and it was something some people USED to have. At last there was hope.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my future career as a psychotherapist was being powerfully shaped by my extreme distress in the first months of 1973. I began reading everything I could find on anxiety disorders in general and panic disorders in particular.

I had sometimes wondered what Socrates meant when he said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He came right to the point. He didn’t say “The unexamined life could be better,” or “The unexamined life isn’t very meaningful.” No, he came right to the point and stated flatly that life wasn’t even worth living if you weren’t taking the time to slow down, observe yourself, and reflect upon your own life. I had somehow been too busy for all that. Now I was experiencing some consequences for skipping some important steps in “Life 101.”

I began to see my panic disorder as the result of my learned beliefs and behaviors. My motto had always been, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Now I began to question my perfectionism and lack of self-nurturing, as well as my tendency to not complain or express anger. I began to see how I had relentlessly driven myself, ignoring needs and feelings that I would not let get in the way. A major realization was that an anxiety problem was something I was doing to myself. I became determined to learn and change. When the tough keep on going, and going, and STILL going, unlike the Energizer bunny, they begin to wear out and break down.

And here is a really strange part of the story, but not something that is uncommon for anxious people. Believe it or not, until my panic attacks, I had never seen myself as having much anxiety, certainly not an anxiety problem.

These days I frequently find myself saying that anxious people often don’t know that they are anxious. That was certainly true in my case. I simply thought that I was leading a rather intense life, and that was just the way it was. In fact, I sometimes boasted that I did my best work amongst chaos and confusion. Now looking back, my hindsight is of course twenty- twenty vision. I had incredible stress in my life but I was in denial, even being proud of the fact that I was able to keep on going anyway. Stress management? If I knew the term at all, it was a totally abstract concept having no relevance to my life situation and life experience.

Recently, someone in one of our anxiety groups said: “I think my panic attacks are trying to tell me something. I just have to pay attention and figure out what that is.” Not bad! Panic attacks are only the tip of the iceberg. They tend to happen to those of us who have a high level of general anxiety, often because we have long ignored some of the basics of physical, emotional, and even spiritual self-care. They may happen to those of us who are too busy keeping our lives going to figure out real solutions to real problems. They happen most to those of us who avoid what we perceive as the sources of our stress, often anything that results in anxiety. They happen often to those of us who believe we are somewhat immune, or tough enough that we don’t need to be  concerned with managing stress, but in actuality none of us are exempt. We are either making the kind of choices that lead to very satisfying, effective, and low stress lives, or we are making choices that erode away the quality of our lives, leading to greater and greater stress, anxiety, and depression (what we call dis-ease

My panic attacks were trying to tell me something, and for once I was listening. I was learning that needs and feelings can’t be placed on hold while you’re busy doing other things. I learned that feelings, particularly anger, that you repress, will be “expressed” in other ways, such as higher levels of anxiety. I learned problems ignored or denied are still there, and still exerting an influence on your physiology and overall well-being. Most importantly, I was beginning to accept my number one mission on planet Earth was to take truly excellent care of me, something I hadn’t thought was particularly important.

As a student counselor at the University Counseling Center, I began seeking work with anxiety problems as often as possible. I quickly discovered there was no shortage. Anxious students were easy to find. With insight and ongoing and persistent practice of new ways of thinking and behaving, my own bout with anxiety gradually subsided. By the end of the year, anxiety attacks were a thing of the past. I stopped fearing them. They have never returned.

When it was happening, it was awful! It is a level of discomfort almost impossible to comprehend if you have not been there, but for those readers who have not had an anxiety attack, I will try to explain. Imagine your car stalled at a busy intersection with an out-of-control cement truck, brakes squealing, skidding and careening toward you. Imagine your feelings. Your heart races, You break into a sweat. You fear you are about to die.

Now imagine having those same feelings except for one difference; there is no cement truck, no obvious threat, just the sense that something truly awful is happening. You feel faint; your chest hurts. There isn’t enough air. Your legs tremble and feel as if they will not support you. You think you are having a heart attack. It is the same distress, but no real danger. It is really quite easy to see why so many panic disorder sufferers think they are going crazy or that something truly terrible is about to happen.

Of course, not everyone will have panic attacks. As we said previously, panic attacks are only the tip of the iceberg, affecting about six million Americans. At least forty million adults in the United States, age 18 and older, have diagnosable anxiety disorders. At least another forty-sixty million are suffering from severe stress. Anxiety disorders affect one in eight children and anxiety disorders often co-occur with other disorders such as depression, eating disorders, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Quite commonly, at least a third of people with anxiety also suffer from depression, and vice versa.

So, in early 1973 I officially joined the legions of others who struggle with anxiety. My unofficial membership actually came decades earlier, years before I would take ownership of having a “disorder.”

Imagine my response if someone had told me in the first months on 1973 that my disorder would someday be an asset. I would have been less than polite. I did not want a therapeutic asset-I wanted the problem gone and I wanted it gone NOW.

So guess what? The prediction would have been on target. My own struggle has helped me immeasurably in helping others with anxiety disorders. Now I can say I honestly appreciate the lessons learned, the insights gained - but I will never forget how awful it seemed when it was happening. I suppose it’s best I don’t forget. I don’t want to ever make the mistake of discounting or minimizing the distress of my clients. Too many of them have received no other help than being told, “It’s all in your head,” or worse yet, “It’s a problem you’ll always have. You will just have to live with it. Your only hope is medication.” All bad and false advice!

The good news? While anxiety disorders are the most common psychological problems in the US, they are also the most treatable. Unfortunately, only one third of those suffering receive treatment.

My experiences in 1973 led to decades specializing in the treatment of stress and anxiety, helping others overcome lifestyle driven problems that take away from quality of life and often result in years, if not a lifetime, of misery. Our program, CALM, Choices for Anxious Lifestyle Management draws heavily upon lessons learned and insights gained during that most difficult time when I learned how to simply slow down, pay attention and open myself to learning some of life’s most important lessons. As it has evolved,  C.A.L.M. is a systematic and comprehensive program for not only overcoming dis-ease, but also addressing root lifestyle issues and promoting transformation to well-being and happiness.

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