From Both Sides of the Couch

A therapist reflects on her time with patients, and her time as a patient.

The Fear of Anxiety

Why are we afraid of our anxious feelings?

 

I don’t have an anxiety or panic disorder but I do occasionally suffer from panic attacks. I feel for people who experience them frequently for they are frightening and debilitating.

The worst panic attack I had almost killed me and could have easily killed others. It happened two weeks following my fiftieth birthday, when I was in the midst of a serious relapse of anorexia. I awoke early one Sunday morning, before the sun was up and within minutes I felt extremely anxious without knowing why. I did deep breathing exercises, I played with my cat Zoe, I paced, I drank herbal tea; nothing worked. I put in an emergency call to my psychiatrist, Dr. Adena,* leaving a message on her voicemail.

It was the middle of the winter, February, so going out to get some fresh air might have been an option, but for whatever reason I chose to stay inside my apartment. All morning, all afternoon I paced, wringing my hands, crying, hyperventilating, waiting for the phone to ring.

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Around four pm, I couldn’t take being in this state any longer and I decided to go to the emergency room to get some medication to ease the anxiety. I presented myself as having an anxiety attack and after an almost unbearable period of waiting, I saw the doctor and he ordered some Ativan (an anti-anxiety medication) tablets. The level of my anxiety had all day to build, and was so high at that point, that when the doctor came back to check on me in thirty minutes, the medication hadn’t really helped. He ordered an injection of Ativan which I felt start to work right away.

The hospital discharged me almost immediately and as I was on my way home there was an accident. No one was seriously hurt and I realize that things could have been much worse. A fear of a different kind set in as I grasped what the consequences of the events which, that day might have been much worse. That kind of anxiety never fades.

Most of my patients have experienced anxiety at one time, and some more frequently and more intensely than others. Some are diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Panic Disorder (with or without Agoraphobia) and live with it on a daily basis, and others like myself only deal with occasionally.

Regardless coping with anxiety is difficult and many of my patients request anti-anxiety medications or benzodiazepines from the psychiatrists at the clinic where I work. I am wary of them for the obvious reasons; they are addictive which I know firsthand. I became addicted to Klonopin in 2007 which is the reason I didn’t have any medication on hand when I had that panic attack in 2011. Also people tend to need more of them to get the same effect over time and some are casual about popping one or two more pills in addition to what they are prescribed. “Oh, no big deal,” they think. “This won’t hurt me.”

That’s how my addiction started. I came home from my day program so anxious and depressed that I took several Klonopin to “numb out” and escape with sleep. When two didn’t work I took three then four, then six and seven. Soon I was getting prescriptions from both the psychiatrist at the day program and my private psychiatrist. I thought, “It can’t happen to me. I won’t become an addict.” But it was very seductive and it happened gradually, over time

That’s another factor with the benzos. They numb people from their feelings so they don’t learn how to cope with their anxiety, even a little and it becomes a vicious cycle. People become trapped in what becomes a small world of anxiety and medication. Just like the walls of my apartment closed in on me that day, worlds close in on those who rely on medication to alleviate feelings of anxiety day after day. The mantra becomes “There is no escape.” Withdrawal involves both the physical and the emotional and is difficult.

That Sunday night in February remains forever etched in my brain. The feeling is more than anxiety, more than fear; my emotions from that evening belie words. My heart trembles.

* Names have been changed.

Gerri Luce is a licensed clinical social worker who publishes under a pseudonym.

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