Maria was driving her car when she experienced her first panic attack. It was years ago, in December, and she was in the middle of her very first round of university exams. She didn’t know what hit her. “I was taken to the hospital because I didn’t have a clue as to what had happened. I was a young person, but I had the symptoms of what appeared to be a heart attack,” she remembers. It was a terrifying experience.
“You feel like you’re being chased by a bear even though you’re just sitting still. Your heart is racing, you have an acidic taste in your mouth — your body is telling you to run. But you look around and everything is okay. It doesn’t match.” Things would get worse for Maria before they got better. Her panic attacks continued, and she began to experience general feelings of anxiety. She was forced to abandon her studies and became agoraphobic. “I was afraid of going places where I’d had an attack, in case it triggered another one, so my world got smaller and smaller.” It was a few years before she was diagnosed with panic disorder. The panic attacks still come, but with the help of a good general practitioner and a variety of naturopathic treatments, she has gained a firm grip on it. The Alberta mom now leads a busy life, running her own business, working part-time and home-schooling her two daughters. And she’s back at school, studying psychology. “I’ve come full circle. But this time I’m equipped to deal with the pressure.”
More than 1 in 10 Canadians suffer from some type of anxiety disorder, a number that may be set to surge in our current time of economic and political troubles. “We can expect more anxiety, depression and emotional distress in general — sociologists have shown that there’s a strong link between economic context and the psychological well-being of families,” says Dr. Lyse Turgeon, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Montreal. Stress and anxiety are close cousins, but they’re not the same thing. “Stress is a reaction to a specific event. But anxiety may be a reaction to something that does not exist,” explains Dr. Turgeon. “You may be anxious about your future, or your health, or about seeing a spider in 10 minutes and having a panic attack. It’s more diffuse and less specific.” Everyone deals with anxiety in their lives, but for some, it will spiral out of control and reach the level of a disorder — making it difficult to carry out even the simplest functions in their daily routine, such as eating, sleeping, working and interacting with others.
It’s very likely that a genetic vulnerability may be at the root of anxiety disorders, but a complex mix of other factors also plays a role — everything from your circumstances to the way you were raised. “When a child is exposed to a traumatic event, one of the main predictors for whether or not the child will successfully adapt to the situation is how the parent reacts, explains the situation and reassures the child,” says Dr.Turgeon. “If a child is afraid, and a parent reinforces the fear, it will strengthen, reinforce and amplify it.” And studies have clearly shown that a parent’s own anxiety can be passed along to her children. “If the child is vulnerable, and the parent is anxious, it’s a very explosive combination, because the anxious parent serves as a role model, and will often be overprotective, because of the danger he anticipates,” says Dr. Turgeon. “So the child will not learn to master his environment or pick up the necessary coping skills.”
Imagination also plays a role in anxiety, says Dr. Robin Alter, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist and author of the upcoming book Taming the Anxiety Monster. She’s worked with thousands of families and theorizes that those who are privileged with a rich imagination are also more likely to suffer from anxiety. Anxious people often suffer from horrible reveries. “These worst-case scenarios are very gripping. It’s like, the worst thing is happening, and it’s happening to you. What could be more interesting than that?” The same impulse that pushes us to buy a ticket to a horror film or to rent a tragedy-ridden drama is the one that causes us to play and replay these terrible daydreams. “If you want to know what the mind finds entertaining, look at the kind of movies we all love to watch. How long would you sit in a movie that was just about people being happy? You’d probably walk out in 15 minutes,” she says. “Suspense, tragedy, horror — this is what keeps our attention. The same thing happens in your mind. You create your own horror, your own suspense, about you and your life and the people closest to you.”
All of this anxiety and stress can be hard on your body, and, not surprisingly, has been linked with a variety of physical maladies, including heart disease. “Say you have an area in California that gets hit with an earthquake; in the aftermath you will find higher rates of heart attacks and vascular disease and, in some surveys, some of the risks like hypertension go up after natural catastrophes,” says Dr. Norm Campbell, professor of medicine at the University of Calgary. “For an individual, it may have to do with losing a job, illness in a spouse or child, or job stresses, and these have also been linked with adverse health outcomes.” So when you feel your anxiety is more than you can handle, consult a health care professional.
For Maria, knowing her triggers (everything from consuming caffeine to being surrounded by too many people) and her best treatments (including maintaining a healthy diet and spending time in meditation) have been key in keeping her anxiety reined in. And getting the entire family on board has been essential. “They help ground me,” she says, noting that as she educates them about her anxiety and ways to help her, she is also giving her children tools and coping mechanisms to deal with the anxiety that they encounter in their own lives. The family cultivates a peaceful, warm, safe home, and communicates well, remaining open and honest about the way they’re feeling. “It empowers them, too. My little girl will put her hand on my forehead and say, “Are you feeling better now, mommy?”
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
A method of psychotherapy that focuses on the connection between how you think, feel and behave, and teaches you to shed unhelpful thought patterns in favour of more positive ones. One study has found it to be as effective as medicine.
Like CBT, this treatment — which is rooted in Buddhist traditions — guides you through a process of recognizing thought patterns, but unlike CBT, it does not attempt to directly restructure the way you think.
You actually have the power to control a number of your automatic body functions. This treatment, in a mind-over-matter fashion, can teach you to influence your heart rate, muscle tension, blood pressure and other involuntary processes in your body.
Yoga, plus a focused deep breathing method, can help calm your mind, balance your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and oxygenate your blood.
The foods we consume can have a profound effect on our psychological and physical health. A healthy diet can keep blood pressure down, and a simple drink of water can help relieve internal pressure. Consult a dietitian.