Anatomy of an Anxiety Attack

I start sweating.

My chest tightens, then relaxes briefly before tightening over and over.

My heart beats faster, and there are butterflies in my stomach.

Intrusive thoughts take center stage in my brain. I start telling myself elaborate, worst-case-scenario stories that defy logic.

My hands start to shake. When I stand up it feels like I have eaten in two days because I’m so lightheaded. I try to find somewhere quiet where I can be alone, but thats not always feasible. I try to hide from the kids, but there’s no hiding my swollen eyelids, blotchy cheeks and how hard it is to take a breath.

I try to quell the intrusive thoughts and stories, but rational thought is no match for my anxiety.

Tears brim my eyelids and threaten to fall.

I start to lose my breathe and with that I start to cry. Big sobs escape in between ragged breaths.

I have an even harder time breathing between sobs, and I swear my heart is pounding in my throat like a jackhammer.

It’s too late for an anxiety pill; I have to ride this out for now. I try to catch my breathe, but it seems impossible. I deep breathe like they say. I try grounding techniques, but I’m already past the point of no return.

Once I’ve sobbed uncontrollably for what feels like hours, I start my descent to rational (or as close as I can get) thoughts. I try a grounding technique now that I’m more calm. I search for five things I can see, four things I can feel, three things I can hear, two things I can smell and one thing I can taste. It sorta helps.

My heart keeps pounding in my chest. I still feel the chest tightness and butterflies, although they’re calming down.

I struggle to remember what triggered this attack, but sometimes I come up empty handed. It could be anything, but like I said, no amount of logic can stop an attack. My imagination, a vivid as it is, runs away from me, never with me.

I calm down further but have intense feelings of guilt or shame — shame that I may have inconvenienced someone during my attack. I start worrying that I’ll have another.

People don’t understand. They think I’m weak, that I can’t handle things. They don’t realize that this is part of my anxiety disorder, and I can’t control it any more than an epileptic can control a seizure. I can do everything right — take my medicine, avoid certain triggers, meditate, get enough sleep, etc. — but I could still have an attack any minute.

I am not alone in my struggles: Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), people with an anxiety disorder are three to five times more likely to go to the doctor and six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than those who do not suffer from anxiety disorders.

Anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality and life events. Women are affected by the disorder more than men. It’s not uncommon for someone with an anxiety disorder to also suffer from depression or vice versa. Also, nearly one-half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

Is what I described similar to what you experience during a panic attack? Feel free to describe yours in the comments.

Thanks for reading, and as always, stay in the light.

Gone Fishin’

This week I’m out of town with the kids. It’s fall break so we headed north to Mabank to my parents’ lake house.

I probably won’t have much time to blog (we’ve been having Lego contests and enjoying the cooler weather), but below are some blogs you may have missed on depression, diet culture and anxiety. I also will include this week’s column in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

When My Daughter Said the F-Word

I’m Grateful But Still Sick and That’s Okay

I Never Do Anything Last Minute

Caller-Times: Diet Culture is Toxic

I hope you guys are having a great week.

Stay in the light, friends.

When My Daughter Said the F-Word

I was playing Roblox with my 7-year-old this week when she started to describe someone as F-A-T. I can’t remember what or who it was, and I started to say, “Don’t use that word.” Then I just stopped. Why was she spelling it?

The truth is I don’t like the f-word, and she knows that. I’ve been called fat too many times, and the memory of being made fun of for my weight still lingers and burns. It has helped create lifelong struggle with disordered eating and body dysmorphia.

But what am I teaching her by not allowing her to say it? She’ll still (like I did) think that it’s not a word that shouldn’t be used, that there are negative associations to it, and that she wouldn’t want to be called fat. I’ve tried so hard not to use it and promote body positivity that I think I’ve swung from one extreme to the other. She should be able to use it but use it the right way.

What I think I should’ve done is not ever given the word any power. I should’ve said fat is something you have, not what you are. And left it at that.

My heart is in the right place, I think. As a mother, I don’t want her to experience any of the pain that I did growing up. I don’t want her to be anxious or depressed, and I definitely don’t want her having an eating disorder or obsession about weight. Like all parents, I want to protect her, and I want better for her. I’m just not sure I’m going about the right way to do it.

I can bend over backwards to try and prevent her from having mental anguish but genetics will play a starring role in how her body looks and weighs and whether she’ll have mental illness. I get that. Maybe she’ll be smarter (and kinder to herself) than I was — that she’ll see only beauty when she looks in the mirror and she’ll have so much confidence that she won’t care if she’s ever called a name. Maybe she’ll be the one to break the cycle, although I’m trying very hard to do that myself these days.

One of the most defining lessons from my childhood was that being fat is the worst thing you can be. That was confirmed through the adults in my life always dieting, unrealistic beauty standards and the terrible treatment of bigger people. So many people still buy into this crap, though. Hell, it’s still hard for me, and I’m almost 40.

We need to do better. And I know it’s difficult challenging ideals that were introduced when you were a child — ideals that are still circulating and doing harm. But we can do it.

We can work out for our health and not to lose weight. We can eat healthy to fuel our bodies. We can stop looking at our “flaws” with nothing but a critical eye. We can say no to toxic dieting culture.

Know better, do better, as I like to say.

It’s very much possible that I’m overthinking my daughter’s innocuous comment from last night. It’s possible I overthink everything when it comes to my kids, but it’s okay to question yourself and intentions. It makes you a good parent. It’s very much okay to challenge your thinking on things like this.

That makes you a great parent.

Now I guess I’ll worry about my daughter using the real f-word, but I’d argue that fat is more dangerous and carries more weight. No pun intended.

Stay in the light.

I’m Grateful But Still Sick and That’s Okay

This happens to me a lot — someone will comment that I need to be grateful for what I have and that I have a wonderful life. And to not be so depressed because of that.

I fully acknowledge that I have an amazing life, and I’ve always had everything I ever wanted, even as a child. BUT I can’t change having depression (and anxiety, a personality disorder and an eating disorder). I have no control over any of that. Just because I live the good life doesn’t mean I’m not grateful for everything I have.

I fight hard everyday to get out of bed, take care of my kids, manage the household, write for the newspaper and blog, and volunteer for NAMI GCC. Some days are more of a battle than others, and I am never not thinking about my depression and how it affects my life and my family’s. But I still count my blessings every. single. day.

I also realize that having a positive attitude is helpful (and being thankful), but it’s not a cure. No matter how positively I think, I’m still going to have a chemical imbalance or misfiring neurons or whatever else causes mental illness. Maybe you say that’s not thinking positively, but it’s realistic and that’s where I live. I don’t normally claim being realistic as an attribute, but when it comes to life and death, I have to. And yes, sometimes it comes down to that during a depressive episode. Telling someone they’re not being grateful is part of the toxic positivity movement, the “good vibes only” wave. A lot of people don’t understand that.

A study released by Ohio State University, suggested that gratitude might not be as helpful as researchers initially thought. The analysis of 27 studies on gratitude examined whether it truly reduced symptoms of depression. It revealed that the impact of gratitude interventions on depression is more limited than past research suggested.

Dude, it’s hard to be grateful when you have a mental condition, such as depression. It changes you — you lose interest in your hobbies, you isolate from family/friends, you can’t always practice good hygiene, you’re so sad that you think you might break into a million pieces, you can be suicidal, and it’s hard going to school or work. It’s just fucking hard. So I get why people aren’t always grateful. Maybe that doesn’t serve them at the time. That’s totally okay.

It’s so difficult to find things to be grateful when you’re in the throes of despair and not feeling gratitude can make you feel guilty and bring shame, making the a depressive episode worse. The only thing that I’m concerned with during a depressive episode is survival, and I know I’m not alone in that.

Here’s more from that study mentioned above: “Go ahead and be grateful for the good things in your life. Just don’t think that a gratitude intervention will help you feel less depressed or anxious. In a new study, researchers analyzed results from 27 separate studies that examined the effectiveness of gratitude interventions on reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. The results showed that such interventions had limited benefits at best.”

Now, I’m not saying anyone shouldn’t be grateful; I’m saying that it’s almost impossible to do and just because you don’t count your blessings everyday doesn’t make you a bad person or ungrateful. It means you’re busy fighting the “good” fight. I know you’re fighting, I understand it’s hard, and I realize that most people will never understand what it’s like to battle your own brain and body, but I see you. I am you.

Keep fighting. Keep counting your blessings or not. The only thing you need to do is take care of you to the best of your ability, whatever that may be.

Keep swimming, friends.

In a Nutshell: My Week In Review

So I’m a day late with this (and a million dollars short), but I had a busy weekend.

Last week was very hard, I’m not going to lie. I struggled a bit, but I’m hoping last week was a fluke and I can get back to my “normal” self, whatever that is. This week I’m going to focus on self-care and try to stay busy. I’m sure I won’t have a problem; I need to start preparing for a road trip to Dallas with the kids. My husband is staying behind, but I’ve made the trip several times without him. I get there faster than when he drives.

I’m so excited it’s October. October through January is my favorite time of year. I’ve already got the house decorated and my porch. It’s such a magical time, and I can’t wait to celebrate Halloween, Hanukkah and Christmas.

That’s really all that’s going on with me. I’ve finished all my columns for the rest of the year so that’s a relief. In November and December I’ll start stockpiling again. Hopefully the Caller-Times will let me continue to write about mental health. Honestly, I didn’t think I could talk about it so much without being repetitive, but I’ve had no problem finding topics that are timely and relevant. If you haven’t checked out my column, please visit Caller.com and search for my name, Heather Loeb.

That’s all for now. I hope you guys have a great week. Stay safe and healthy.

When You Accept Yourself Everything Changes (I Think)

There’s nothing like therapy to knock you down a peg or two. Yesterday I was complaining about an old friend who rarely talks to me anymore, spurring me to feel bad about myself. I hate rejection. I told my therapist that she didn’t accept who I was anymore. Her withdrawal from me started when I went to a psychiatric hospital so I assumed that was the reason and the fact that now all I do is talk about mental health. Of course I don’t know why she has withdrawn from the friendship because she’s not a touchy-feely type so I haven’t asked.

She and I are so different, and I admitted that I walk on eggshells sometimes to avoid conflict with her. This led my therapist to tell me that it doesn’t sound like I’ve accepted her, so why should she accept me? It’s especially hard for her to accept me, she said, because I haven’t shown her the real me. I keep parts hidden from this person but here I am complaining she doesn’t know me or doesn’t care to know the current version of me.

Damnit. My therapist is right. Again.

But I don’t know why we’ve grown apart. I’m only assuming and we all know what happens when you assume.

My therapist then said that I’ve been growing so much that even I don’t know who I am fully. I didn’t like hearing that, but it’s true. In the past two years, since going to the hospital, I’ve changed a lot, evolved even. But my journey is still not finished. I’ve got more growing to do.

This all led me to think whether I’ve accepted myself. I’d like to think I have, but then again not being my authentic self leads me to believe that there are parts I’m not happy with or have come to terms with. I want to think that I’m this badass writer who helps others with mental illness. That I have a generous heart and good friend. That I’m a good person who’s strong and has grit. But do I really believe that? I don’t think so. I’m scared that others will see me as weak, that I breakdown at the slightest thing. I know that’s not the truth, but the stigma of mental illness is so strong and I don’t doubt that others have thought that, but the thing is I SHOULDN’T CARE ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE’S OPINIONS. In fact, it’s none of my business what others think.

I know that I’ve been through Hell and back, that my mental health journey will never be finished. I know I’ve fought almost every single day to be happy or something closely related. I’ve battled my own brain, which tells me I should kill myself sometimes. I do electroconvulsive therapy on a regular basis. Doctors literally have to induce a seizure in order for me to be somewhat “normal.” That is the badass part. I not weak in the slightest. I get weary, sure, but I’ll keep fighting for my life no matter what.

And if my friend can’t see all of this, so the fuck what?

My therapist said that maybe my friend is uncomfortable around me now because I have changed so much. That maybe she sees me as the person I was long ago and not who I am now. My therapist also said that my friend has a limitations, that she lives in small space, but I don’t. Since my “breakdown” in 2019 I’ve tried to take up as much space as possible, because I deserve it.

I no longer want to worry that I’m good enough for someone, and I don’t want to beg for someone to love me. I have plenty of people who do, which I’m grateful for.

I want to continue to grow, to find the light like a plant. I want to take up space and relish in it. I want people to accept me for all my flaws and attributes. I want to drop the facade, starting now. I know I’m not perfect, but who is? That’s what makes us so interesting and unique.

I will no longer apologize for being me because even with my many flaws I’m still pretty great, and I’m worthy.

So are you, friends.

Redemption in (BED) Recovery

Recently I talked about entering into recovery for my binge eating disorder. I knew there would be bumps in the road, but I was doing well. Until last night.

Yesterday I had a bad day. Nothing really happened, I was just short-fused and irritable. I snapped at the kids and my husband. I didn’t like the way I felt so I took the maximum (prescribed) dose of my anxiety meds. It turned out to be a mistake, I think. While it did take the edge off, it also numbed me a bit. I started eating snacks around 4 p.m. and was still eating at 9 p.m. One snack after another. I was uncomfortably full, but I kept going.

I binged. Big time. I ate candy, cookies, popcorn, Chinese food for dinner, more cookies and more popcorn. I usually don’t keep that in the house, but I indulged. I don’t like to restrict myself from foods (because I’ll rebel) but I don’t like to set myself up for a binge either. I have to find that fine balance.

This morning when I woke up I didn’t feel so angry and blue. I remembered that today is a new day, and I can do better. I’m grateful for that because that’s what recovery is about — you can keep starting over as many times as it takes to reduce the problem. I’m still reading a book on BED recovery, and that has helped. I just need to apply what I learn to my daily life.

I also asked my friends and family what they do to cheer themselves up after a bad day, and I got a lot of good ideas for the next time I’m not feeling up to par. My favorites were pray, sew, walk, go outside, eat chocolate, take a hot bath, meditate, count blessings and journal. I think those are really good ideas, and I sometimes employ similar coping methods when I’m depressed, but yesterday was just so hard. It was hard to get to the point where I wanted to take care of myself instead of just numbing myself where I didn’t feel anything at all.

Today is different. I’m grateful for my friends and family and everything I have. I will take care of myself, and I will listen to my body and mind.

I will show up for myself, and I will tell myself I’m enough. Because I am.

Today I pray for an attitude adjustment and patience. I am grateful for a new day, and there’s no need for me to look back.

I’m more than my mistakes. So much more.

We Must Do Better When it Comes to Postpartum Care

I didn’t know what hard work was until I had my first child. I was 30 years old and had never stayed at a job longer than two years, so it shocked me to my core how hard caring for a newborn was. I always hated working and the responsibility that came with it, but this was a million times harder than any job I temporarily held.

I didn’t have much help with my daughter because my husband was dealing with his father’s death just months before Isla was born. I don’t blame him now, because the loss of his father, his best friend, was gut wrenching and tragic. But back then I resented it. My husband also was dealing with serious family turmoil after his dad’s death and that was almost as tragic. My family all lives in Dallas, but my mom would try to come down and help some.

I didn’t get much sleep; I was exhausted all the time. I was breastfeeding, and I think that made everything harder. I breastfed for eight months, which I considered a feat, but I also became severely depressed and believed I couldn’t take any antidepressants while breastfeeding. My psychiatrist told me that. He was dead wrong.

There was nobody to pick up the slack while my husband was at work or at night, which made the depression and anxiety worse. At the time I didn’t have a housekeeper, so household chores fell by the wayside. I wanted to be like my mom friends who seemed to do it all — take care of a newborn, work, clean the house, etc. They all looked like they were handling being a new mom so well; it made me feel like a failure. I felt guilty all the time, too. I didn’t lose the baby weight I had gained, and my self-image went down the toilet.

I was in bad shape, to say the least, but my psychiatrist didn’t seem to care about the issues I told him about. He told me I had treatment-resistant depression and didn’t change a thing in my treatment plan, despite my suicidal ideation at times. I felt hopeless and wanted a new doctor but there aren’t a lot in Corpus Christi. The ones I called had months-long wait lists.

When my daughter was still little, we decided to get pregnant again. Immediately the depression lifted, thanks to a ton of feel-good hormones. I was tired a lot but it was a nice respite from the darkness I faced after having my daughter. But all good things come to an end. After my son was born I had severe postpartum depression. This time I talked with my OBGYN about taking antidepressants, which she assured me was fine to do while breastfeeding.

Things were different after I had my son, Eli. First of all, I had help; my mother in law moved to Corpus Christi and helped out with the kids a lot. And we were able to get a housekeeper, which lightened my load a lot. Despite things being somewhat easier, my depression continued. I started abusing my anxiety medication and was suicidal again.

One night I made a plan to die by suicide. I didn’t make an attempt, but I was close. I was sobbing and hysterical. My best friend told me to go to the emergency room, so I drove myself and was hospitalized for two days. When I left, I didn’t feel any better, but I did find a new psychiatrist from Southlake who could do phone visits.

I was still suffering though, which led me to enter an inpatient program at the Menninger Clinic in Houston, TX. I stayed there for six weeks. My medications were changed, I was introduced to new therapies, and most importantly, I was given hope that I would feel better. And eventually I did.

I know I talk a lot about my hospitalization, but I have a point — postpartum care, well, mental health care in general, is bullshit. I reached out to my doctor and the doctors at the hospital where I first stayed. But it didn’t matter. I was flailing, about to kill myself, before getting actual help. WE SHOULDN’T HAVE TO BREAKDOWN IN ORDER TO GET CARE WE NEED. I know that not everybody can go to a high dollar hospital and stay for six weeks. A lot of people can’t afford to pay out of pocket for mental health care, which I do a lot. My therapist and psychiatrist don’t even take insurance.

We must change the way we care for new mothers. We must change mental health care and make it affordable to all. One in five adults in the U.S. experience mental illness. One in 20 experience serious mental illness. Only 45 percent of people with mental illness get treatment in a given year. About 1 in 8 women experience symptoms of postpartum depression. These other types of postpartum depression include postpartum anxiety, postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), postpartum panic disorder, postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and postpartum psychosis. It’s not a minor illness; it affects a lot of women on a daily basis.

I feel like if it happened to me, it’s happened to many others (especially women of color) who didn’t fare quite as well as I did. The National Institutes of Health reports this: Nine percent of white women initiated postpartum mental health care, compared with 4 percent of black women and 5 percent of Latinas. Black women are more likely to have PPD and are less likely to receive help.

There’s so much more to say, but I’m going to wrap it up. I just want to leave you with this: We need to do better. Mental health care is health care, and it’s absolutely a necessity.

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, go to the emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

See below for symptoms of postpartum depression.

According to the CDC, symptoms of PPD include:

  • Guilt
  • Fears of harming the baby
  • Feeling angry
  • Isolating from family
  • Feeling disconnected from their baby
  • Crying more than normal

In a Nutshell: My Week In Review

As some of you know, last week was a hard one. A very hard one. I was severely depressed and had intrusive suicidal thoughts. My best guess as to why is that I mixed up my birth control pills when I was organizing my pill box and it caused a huge hormonal shift. It’s scary that it can happen over a mistake like that, but I am feeling better now, and that’s all that matters.

My priority last week was pulling myself together to be the keynote speaker at a Suicide Prevention Symposium. I was really nervous, but I think it went well. I had a lot of positive feedback. I wish they had recorded it so I could share it but because there was sensitive information in the presentation, they decided not to. I get that. My main messages were 1. You are not alone 2. Mental illness is normal and we need to keep normalizing it 3. We need to be able to openly discuss suicide and remove the stigma so people can reach out without feeling shame or fear.

If you are ever struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you are in immediate danger, go to the emergency room. If you ever need to talk, you can email me at heatherannloeb@gmail.com

This week I have a lot to look forward to because my parents are coming to visit. We haven’t seen them in awhile, so the kids and I are very excited. I’m also happy to get back to my usual routine after last week of conserving energy (Go here to read about spoon theory).

That’s it for me. I hope you guys have a great week, and as always, stay in the light, my friends.

Go here to read about how you can prevent suicides.

The Irony of Having Suicidal Ideation This Week

TW: suicide, suicidal ideations, depression
Please know that while I am experiencing suicidal ideation, I have no plan, and I am completely safe.

This Thursday I’ll be the main speaker at the Suicide Prevention Coalition of the Coastal Bend’s Suicide Prevention Symposium. Say that five times fast. Last week I wrote my speech, and I’ve been practicing it, but there’s something really bothering me. I centered my speech around a time two years ago when I was suicidal after having a fight with my husband over the phone. It was a harrowing experience and shortly after that I went to a psychiatric hospital for six weeks.

I had a wonderful experience at the hospital. And I tend to think of my time as pre-psychiatric hospital and post-psychiatric hospital. Only I’ve been dealing with suicidal ideation this past week. I blogged about how my last ECT didn’t help me, it made me worse, but I wasn’t expecting to grapple with these morose and very frustrating thoughts again. Am I going backwards?

It’s a “depressing” reminder that I won’t ever be cured, no matter the strides I make with my mental health. A depressive episode could strike any time, and it feels like I don’t have any control over it. I’ve been doing everything right — I go to therapy, I’m consistent with my medications, I’ve been exercising, I practice self-care, but this time it didn’t matter. And the one thing that I know helps — an ECT — has made things worse.

So what now?

Well, for starters, I fall back on what I know to be true: my ECTs usually help me, this pain and discomfort is temporary, the suicidal thoughts are just thoughts — they are NOT fact and my support system is strong and available. My goal is to schedule an ECT for next Monday and go into Survival Mode until then. I’ll be OK.

My priority this week is to do a great job at the symposium. And to get through the week in as little pain as possible. Maybe having these thoughts will help tell me story and serve as a reminder that even a seemingly strong and successful person can still have suicidal thoughts. It’s important to know because more than half of people who die by suicide have no history of a mental disorder. And because of that, it’s important to openly talk about suicide and remove the stigma associated with it. Also, I used to think that suicidal thoughts were something that you could control, but mine are intrusive thoughts, popping in and out of my mind throughout the day. I can’t control them anymore than I can the weather, and I think people need to understand that, too.

I don’t know why this is happening to me again (and again), and it certainly feels unfair, but if a single person is helped in some way by hearing me speak or reading my blogs, then maybe it’s worth it. Because I know I’ll be OK. I’m strong, I’ve been here before, and my life is just too good not to fight for.

It just sucks in the meantime.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you are in immediate danger of harming yourself, please go to the nearest emergency room. Please do what you need to do to stay safe and healthy. You are not alone, and you are not a burden.