Let's Talk About Anxiety: Mara Savina Lantz
Everyone gets anxious, so why does talking about it feel so icky sometimes?
Anxiety is apparently the most common mental disorder in the world according to the World Health Organization, but then, that right there might explain why talking about it is so stigmatized. After all, who really wants to admit they’ve got a mental disorder to their bosses, coworkers, clients, or even friends and family? Those words haven’t historically opened many doors or brimmed with positive connotations.
But, we’re on a mission to change that, because all of this internalizing and individualizing is clearly not helping. Our Let’s Talk About Anxiety series is all about sharing anxious encounters and pushing the conversation into the open so we can problem solve together and take back that power anxiety holds over us when we feel alone.
For the next three weeks we’ll be sharing stories and discussing anxiety. Unabashed and unfiltered. So read what others have to share and join in on the discussion on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram so we can create a living document that shows just how powerful working together can be in the fight against anxiety.
INTRODUCING: MARA SAVINA LANTZ
You may remember Mara. She was the driving force behind our F-Word Series: conversations about failure, but she’s back now to talk about her own personal experiences with anxiety.
A writer and a highly intuitive and emotional person, Mara has witnessed the ugly, messy truth of anxiety. Both in her own life and that of her husbands. So she’s here to share those truths because sometimes we need to hear someone else’s story before we can understand our own.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST REALIZE YOU WERE, OR HAD BEEN EXPERIENCING ANXIETY?
While I definitely had my fair share of minor anxiety throughout my teenage years, I had my first true panic attack at 18. I was at an outdoor music festival about two hour’s drive away from home with a few friends, one last hurrah the summer after high school graduation. Almost as soon as the first band took the stage, I could feel it. The bass began rattling around inside my ribcage like a hungry beast trying to determine how to claw its way out. All of a sudden, my heart didn’t feel okay anymore. I realized how trapped I was. This was the first act of the day, a festival we planned to be at all day long. We were very far away from home. I was there with people who I knew, but who I was desperately trying to make a great impression on, in that way that’s so important to you as a teenager. It was really, really awful and so overwhelming.
A few months after that, I moved across the country to start college (that’s university for you Canadians) and within a few weeks I started dating the man who is now my husband. He’d been diagnosed at 16 as having generalized anxiety and panic disorder. Getting to know him, seeing him in the throes of a panic attack or on a night he couldn’t fall asleep because his brain was a never ending carousel of recurring anxiety-induced thoughts, that was a huge turning point for me to finally begin to label the ambiguous feelings I’d been having for years as what they were--my own form of anxiety. Because that full-on panic attack at the festival was only the most obvious in what were ultimately a long string of smaller breakdowns. I remember connecting the dots like I’d reached the end of an M. Night Shyamalan movie. The time when I didn’t pass my driver’s test, the one I’d been studying for for months and felt so confident about, and then came home and curled up in the backseat in fetal position to bawl for hours about what a failure I was. That one homework assignment for my geography class where I had to use a grid to enlarge a drawing of a map but I realized when I was already halfway through that I’d left off a column of ocean, my stomach falling straight out of my butt with fear about how many hours I’d already suck into this project. The feelings I had whenever I left the house for school a few minutes past the time I’d determined was the cut off to not have to stress about traffic. All of a sudden, these random events were tied together. I had anxiety.
HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN YOU REALIZED IT?
It was such an epiphany. There’s a ton of research to suggest that as soon as we can name something, to know that it’s something other people go through and be able to look through the symptoms and see ourselves in the list reflected back at us, that it goes a long way to making us feel less uneasy about it all. I remember realizing that these feelings I’d long ago chosen to bucket into the “sensitive teenage girl” category had a name. I wasn’t just overly emotional. I had anxiety. Of course it would be many more years until I really understood the implications of this discovery, before I’d learn how to harness my understanding. And truth be told, I’m still learning every day.
But also there was a sense of disappointment, of anger. I realized that not everyone feels this way, that I was maybe “defective” somehow. Why did I have to deal with being such an emotional wreck over every little thing? Why was that a cross I had to bear? I think most teenagers go through angst about how unfair the hand life dealt them is. Anxiety was a huge focus for my teenage angst energy..
HOW DOES ANXIETY MANIFEST OR FEEL FOR YOU?
There are a number of types of anxiety I feel. The most pronounced are obviously the full panic attacks, but I’ve probably only had about four of those in my life. During those, I feel like I literally cannot take breaths into my body. Like I’m sucking down air but my chest remains a vacuum. My heart’s going a mile a minute and I’m incredibly lightheaded. It’s like being trapped in my own body, caged into my mind. I feel completely and utterly alone, even if I’m surrounded by other people. I think the most misunderstood thing about true panic attacks is how they look from the outside. As a kid who’d never experienced them, I always assumed someone in the midst of a panic attack would be super exaggerated, like Woody Allen without the comedy angle breathing into a paper bag and talking a mile a minute. What I learned though by having them myself and being around others having them, is that heightened anxiety pulls you so far into your head you often become super withdrawn, almost mute. You suffer silently and alone, because even speaking to ask for help feels somehow dangerous.
But the panic attacks, for me at least, are thankfully few and far between. The type of anxiety that’s more familiar to me is when I find myself kind of trapped in fight/flight/freeze response during a one-on-one conversation. It often happens when I feel very put on the spot, or I’m particularly excited/nervous. It feels almost like I’ve had too much caffeine and I’m kind of crawling out of my skin. I often get very sweaty, too. It’s a real good time.
I also suffer from seasonal affective disorder, so around Sept/Oct I always notice a distinct yet subtle downturn in my daily mood. I often describe it as saying that around that time of year my anxiety gremlins, the ones in my head whispering things that cut me down to my core, come out out of their hibernation in full force. I often doubt myself much more, assuming others are disappointed in me, that I’m letting them down. I fixate on future events more, thinking if I can just consider all scenarios than I’ll be prepared.
HOW DOES IT AFFECT YOUR WORK OR BUSINESS?
If I’m not careful, I start regressing into my perfectionist tendencies as a coping mechanism. If I’m starting to doubt my abilities, I feel like everything I deliver needs to be amazing. I start reading into the space in between sentences. Usually, when I’m not feeling particularly anxious, I think of myself as a highly intuitive person and am able to pick up on subtle hints people are giving me with their body language and their choice of words; however when I’m in the midst of an anxious episode, my intuition is off. If I contribute to a group project at work and our boss complements us on the project and specifically calls out something that was someone else’s responsibility, I assume that means he didn’t like/appreciate the part that I contributed. Basically, it’s just a really intense spotlight effect where I assume the worst.
The great news though is that awareness really is half the battle. While I am still working on quieting the doubts that seep in, I have learned to recognize when my thoughts and feelings are telling me something I truly believe and how that feels different than when the anxiety is causing me to ultimately lie to myself. I can often sense that I’m not in the headspace to make important decisions, or to have a conversation with someone about how they made me feel. Often if I sleep on it, I wake up feeling a completely different way. I read an article recently to this effect, an interview with Julia Hartz, CEO of Eventbrite, where she said “I’m dead wrong whenever I let fear take the wheel.” And I feel like that so perfectly and eloquently describes it. Often, I feel anxiety when I’m challenging myself, pushing myself out of my comfort zone. What we have control over is deciding not to act on that anxiety and, in many cases, to act in the opposite way.
DOES IT INCREASE AT CERTAIN TIMES OR WITH CERTAIN EVENTS?
Around the fall/beginning of winter it’s almost constant. Other times of the year it’s more occasional, based mostly on specific triggers. I do have certain triggers which directly contribute to anxious episodes. Being on time to events, especially where I’m meeting new friends, and travelling to the airport are huge triggers for me still. I’m also more susceptible when I haven’t eaten in a while, or when I’m feeling overwhelmed in my work and haven’t reached out for help.
I also struggle when getting to know new people. I know my social anxiety is going to come out when I start a new job, until I feel like I have a handle on who my new coworkers are and they have a chance to get to know me. I know that, despite actually loving a good networking session from time to time, going alone can be crazy intimidating for me if I don’t know anyone who’s there or if I feel like I’m entering a tight-knit community as an outsider.
WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND HELPS YOU?
So many things. In the winter, I’m incredibly diligent about taking Vitamin D supplements and sitting in front of a sun lamp. I’ve also found that cutting caffeine out of my diet can really help eliminate the more subtle, simmering anxiety feels.
Other than that, moving my body helps. Going on walks, taking the stairs more, even just jumping up and down. Anything that will get me out of my head and into my body. I love losing myself in a good yoga class or a spin session, both of which allow me to set aside everything else and just focus on my breath.
A wonderful rediscovery recently is losing myself in a good book. I’ve always been a huge reader, but in recent years I’ve been focused almost exclusively on non-fiction (often related to work and leadership) and business articles. One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2019 was to rediscover fiction and that’s been a huge joy for me.
But I’ve saved the best for last. Because one of the most important things for me is having a safety net of a few close confidants, people who I feel completely comfortable with, who can remind me of my greatness when my anxiety is clouding my self-confidence. I think of them as anchors when my ship’s stuck in a storm and I don’t know which direction is North. They help keep me grounded and focused until the feelings pass (and they always do).
DOES ANXIETY HAVE ANY CONSTRUCTIVE OR POSITIVE SIDES FOR YOU?
One of the many life lessons I’ve borrowed from the Brene Brown school of thought is that shame (anxiety’s close cousin) gains its power by remaining unspoken. I have a lot of shame about my anxiety. Yes I’ve come a long way but when I’m deep in an anxiety meltdown it’s hard to see the light, hard to remember that I’m not a defective person who should be able to just handle this kind of thing by now. So that’s why I’ve found that reaching out to my network and allowing them to be there for me is so huge. It’s a scary leap to make but it’s important.
The other thing is to remind myself that feelings are temporal. Good or bad, those strong feelings will fade. It can be hard when you’re in the middle of a mood to remember that you won’t feel that way forever. I am a diehard journaler so sometimes I’ll reread entries from a time I felt really shitty and keep reading until I talked about feeling my mood lift. I’ve found for me, that really helps me believe that feelings are temporary.
And then finally, know your triggers. This one is so important. For instance, I’m particularly anxious about getting to the airport on time. So even though I know it’ll mean sitting at the gate for countless hours, I suck it up and leave the house crazy early. That way if we run into traffic, I’m not stressed.
HOW DO YOU FEEL AFFECTED BY MEDIA AND SOCIAL MEDIA?
I actually find I usually have a pretty healthy relationship with social media. I subscribe to the rule of only following those who leave me feeling neutral-happy when I see their posts in my feed. However occasionally I’ve found that the triggered feeling that can sometimes come up when I see some type of post can help me begin to unpack something I haven’t been admitting to myself.
Here’s a perfect example. I remember a few years ago around this time of year I was extremely unhappy. I was in the midst of a career shift and had been getting dragged along through lengthy interview processes, only to get ghosted or have them move in a new direction. One of the ways I realized just how bad it had gotten was that I found myself getting incredibly, irrationally angry about seeing everyone’s optimistic “new year, new me” type instagram posts. About seeing them in their sparkly dresses when I’d spent my New Year’s Eve curled up on the couch waiting for it to be midnight so I could go to bed. I’d stayed in the area for the holidays, when all of my family and friends were elsewhere. I was sleeping in and binging Netflix and calling it an indulgence when really it was a numbing. When I felt the anger welling up inside of me as I scrolled through images of optimism, I dug in a bit. I admitted to myself how unhappy I was. For me, social media is only a problem when I’m deep in a hole while telling myself that I’m fine. Social media helps me police my own thoughts a bit, in that way.
IF YOU COULD BRING ONE THING TO LIGHT ABOUT ANXIETY, WOULD WOULD THAT BE?
his is specifically more for the ladies out there--don’t let yourselves get gaslight into thinking you’re being “too sensitive” or “too emotional.” When I realized that my tears were often a physical manifestation of my anxiety, I learned the true power in that. Yes it’s uncomfortable to burst into tears in certain situations. And of course, having a huge headache and vulnerability hangover after being stuck in fight/flight/freeze response for an hour is anything but fun. However it all serves such a useful purpose in your life. Often times, It tells you that something isn’t right. It could be the time of year or a chemical imbalance, things out of your control. But it also could be something you aren’t admitting to yourself. Maybe you’re unhappy at work. Maybe you feel like you’re walking on eggshells in conversations with someone who calls themselves a close friend but then puts wild expectations on what you need to put in to show that you care.
Whatever it is, the body knows. It’s trying to tell you. When you aren’t responding to its gentle taps on the shoulder about something worth addressing, that’s when it starts to shake you and force you to pay attention. That’s how I think of panic attacks. And the sooner you befriend anxiety and see it as a series of learning opportunities instead of cursing your luck getting stuck with anxiety riding shotgun in your life, the better off you’ll be. So listen up and pay attention. Your body is speaking.