Our body and brain gives us so many warnings before the actual crisis happens, we are just not tuned into it. We all know what a red flag is, right? It’s that moment when life comes to a screeching halt and your body and/or brain says “Hell No.” This may be with a person that isn’t aligned with you, a love interest, a co-worker, a child, a pet… so many moments can produce that illuminated red flag.
Did you know that you can prevent the red flag by paying attention to the pink flags? Leading up to that red flag moment, we are given so many warnings. We most likely do not pay attention to these warnings. For example, before being diagnosed with severe anxiety disorder, which was my red flag, there were a series of pink flags physically, that I just plain ignored. I remember a sunny Saturday afternoon, I was running errands, driving to the store, windows down, wind whipping through my hair, some song was playing that I was belting out the tune at the top of my lungs while sitting at a red light. I was happy, at peace and relaxed. When the light turned green and I started driving up the hill, my ears started ringing, and a wave of fog came over my head. I had a pounding headache, started feeling dizzy, and switched between the ears ringing, headache and fog. I had some chills, and a wave of tingling sensation across the left side of my head that went from my eye to my forehead to my scalp then to the nape of my neck and repeated several times. I pulled my car over to the side of the road. I turned the music off. I took three deep breaths. I was chanting to myself “this is just temporary, you are fine.” The physical sensations of that passed within five minutes and my body felt normal again. I would continue to have strange episodes like this for years before I identified what it was—the warning signs of an anxiety attack.
I ignored the tingling arms, and all the physical symptoms because I thought I was being “weak” and that I should just “toughen up.” When in reality, my body was giving me warning signals that it needed to be reset, tweaked. At that time, I was ignorant to Anxiety Disorder. If you would have asked me then, I would have said “It’s all in your head. The mind is stronger than the body. I am super chill. Just calm down. Take deep breaths. Anxiety is for losers.” And I really believed, back then, before being way more informed, that anxiety was in the brain. In fact, years later, after a ton of medical education, doctors and really understanding this disorder, I cringe when people say, “just calm down. Or take a breath. Or think about something else” I cringe because anxiety is not a mind disorder.
Some of the symptoms can be amplified by fear of it being a heart attack, but Anxiety Disorder is a physical, uncontrollable condition. When your body wants to have an Anxiety Attack it can happen when you are relaxing in your yard painting, while you’re having a massage, when you’re in yoga class, when you’re having a chill brunch with your pals, even on a Friday mall date with my husband at Bed Bath & Beyond. Believe me, these are specific times when I’ve had an anxiety attack. Anxiety does not care how relaxed or amped up you are. It does what it wants to do and you have to surrender to it, wave the white flag in that moment, or you’re toast. If you try and “control” it, you lose. My reddest of red flags with my friend Anxiety was one Friday afternoon. It was sunny, the breeze was blowing into my home office, and I was having a fun conversation with a business associate on the phone. We were wrapping up the call and all of a sudden my ears started ringing, tingling in my arms as if they had fallen asleep, headache kicked in and my jaw had locked. I couldn’t speak. It locked in a place where it was half-way open, I awkwardly made the noise “I’ll call you back.” It sounded like I was half under water, and/or had a whole chicken in my mouth. I hung up the phone. I went to my side yard and just laid on the grass looking up at the clouds while these physical symptoms just raced through my body. They took turns rotating as if to say “my turn, my turn”. I let it roll over me for about an hour. My husband came home to find me lying on my back, with my mouth open, awake and alert but unable to speak staring at the sky. He assumed I was doing some sort of hippie dippy earthing meditation and he laid next to me on the ground. He approached me like a golden retriever approaches their pack mates, “Hi hun bun, happy Friday, how are you, you look so relaxed, this is fun, what are we doing?” His rapid fire, happy, panting, drooling questions were not met with an answer. I turned my head to the side, rolled over to hug him while he was on his back, I buried my head in his chest and started sobbing. My mouth was so dry and now I was exhausted and my body felt like it was in a bar fight. I said “I don’t know what’s happening with my body, but this isn’t normal and I am scared.” He took me inside and put me to bed to sleep it off. I couldn’t fall asleep and the tingling sensation in my head, forehead and neck had come back. My husband called my mom. He said to her “I think she’s having a hot flash, could she be in menopause.” My mom said, “oh sweetheart, I don’t know about that but I think she’s having an anxiety attack. You need to take her to the emergency room. Anxiety disorder runs in our family. Her dad has bouts with it. She needs to see a doctor.” As I heard this, I sprung up, put my shoes on and was ready to go. I thought to myself, “Well, now you tell me??? Why am I 40 years old and this is the first time I am hearing of this?” I remember my dad having so many strange fits while we were growing up but never knew it was this. I had assumed he was just grumpy and overworked. I never knew he was physically disabled temporarily from Anxiety Disorder. I also stupidly, like many people, always thought that anxiety attacks were for people that couldn’t control their minds and that this was all in the mind. Man….oh man…was I wrong. The ER did all the tests…the EKG, blood, urine, etc. They said, “you probably had an anxiety attack.” I didn’t believe them because the symptoms were so physical, and I was super calm, nothing was revving me up, I wasn’t stressed out at all, so that didn’t make sense. I went to see my primary care doctor the following week. She prescribed me Xanax and told me to take a half a pill when I start feeling my arms tingle so I can catch it at the beginning. I didn’t like Xanax because it instantly made me fall asleep. So, if I got the physical symptoms during the day, I had to accept that I would then need to sleep for 2 hours and stop everything I was doing. It was debilitating for about six months. It interrupted everything in my life. We would be running errands and I’d have to go home in the middle. We’d be at a friend’s birthday and I’d have to leave to come home. We were at dinner one time when the symptoms kicked in, we had each just ordered our meals, and the lock jaw kicked in, we had to pay our bill, get food to go and go home. It was tough but I was trying to manage it the best I could. When I realized I didn’t want to be on Xanax and I wanted to manage this differently, I did research and found a local doctor who specialized in Anxiety Disorder and Menopause. It never occurred to me that I could be in menopause as I was only forty years old and my periods were regular. I met Dr. Wall and she changed my life. She insisted that I have my primary care doctor order me the lady tests that would show what my levels were. Sure as shit, I was in perimenopause. And, apparently, my body was having an internal fight—who wins—perimenopause or anxiety. The body chemicals for both were jockeying for attention. They were throwing out words like cortisol, adrenaline, and hormones, they were all out of whack. And, apparently, I had Anxiety Disorder my whole life but it was latent. It wasn’t until my body went into Perimenopause that the Anxiety chemicals kicked into gear which was why it was so severe. There are pills I could have taken for this but I did not want that. I embarked on an intense Anxiety Management program with Dr. Wall. She taught me all about my body, the pink flags (warning signals), how to stop the chemicals from racing and escalating, and what things I can do physically to slow it down or prevent it. I felt like I got a crash course in body chemistry. I felt so strong. I learned that my early warning signs for me were either tingling in my forearms (like the light chills), OR a nagging pain in my chest (it feels like a pulled muscle in the middle). If either one of those symptoms were to come on, then, I would have a couple of tactics that could reprogram the body chemicals from racing into a full blown attack. The first one is counting backwards by 7’s from 100. The second one is the alphabet game where you go A to Z naming cities or colleges or animals (really any theme you want as long as you use the alphabet). The last one is just to take a vigorous brisk walk and drink water. I’ve learned over the years to welcome the Anxiety in like a buddy. I believe I heard some rock star (I can’t remember his name, maybe Meatloaf?) and Jeff Bridges talk about their Anxiety Disorders and when it comes on, they each have a different strategy. Meatloaf said he would just walk circles around an empty concert venue until it subsided. His sounded physically intrusive like mine. Jeff Bridges says he welcomes it in like a friend. I’ve taken that approach too. I’ll say, “Oh hey there anxiety disorder, welcome to the party, you won’t be here for long but I’ll let you play on the jungle gym for a bit.” I’ve learned to remember that it’s temporary, and physical and that it is NOT a heart attack. The reason why anxiety attacks go from physical to mental is because the physical symptoms are scary and the fear of it being a heart attack are what escalate the physical and mental symptoms. I’ve also learned that my anxiety creeps in when I am most relaxed. For example, if I have had three weeks of busy work, personal life, shuffle, and I am super chill for the following two weeks, on the 15th day of that relaxing 2 weeks, I will get an anxiety attack. I plan for it now. If I go out of town for work, within 4 days of returning home, my body is ready for a big ole physical anxiety attack. I plan for it. When I schedule time to be healthy and to be ill, it actually helps me better manage my disorder. And, I no longer take Xanax. I will say, taking a CBD edible when I am in a pickle and don’t have time to let the body chemicals wear down, actually really does the trick. Everyone has their own method but that is my “emergency” method and it works well for me. This is a long way around telling you about paying attention to the pink flags. But, if I would have paid attention to my anxiety disorder symptoms sooner, I would have had a lot less interruptions along the way. So, listen to yourself, listen to your body, don’t think you know everything—You Don’t! Your body knows you and is speaking to you all the time…..are you going to listen OR are you going to wait ‘til you get lock jaw and have to go to the ER? I’ve learned to listen to myself more. Sometimes it’s a client that I just don’t have a good feeling about. Sometimes it’s a friendship or a side of the street to walk on. Sometimes it’s a house I decided not to buy or a trip I decided not to take. The universe has plans for us and truly does have our back. We just have to be conscious and awake enough to pay attention to the signals.