Making a good crisis of a nervous breakdown
What happens when you have a nervous breakdown? I was recently made
redundant. I can tell you. I got afraid, I lost my confidence, I beat
myself up, I felt anxious all the time. It seemed like I’d hit a
‘self-destruct‘ button. I got stuck.
Yet, I knew this sensation. I’d experienced it before. I felt
it the last time I was made redundant! Had I learned nothing? Well, I’d
learned to recognise this trauma as something that would pass, but could
I dodge the bullet this time? No... it was the same pattern. I was hurt.
I regressed and felt helpless as a baby. I became self-absorbed. I became
mean. I couldn't help myself.
A significant loss
Life changing bad news can kick our legs out from under us. As if in slow
motion, we find ourselves sliding down a wall of ice into a dark deep
ravine with no obvious way out.
You are in shock. Losing one of your loves is a significant loss. You
blame yourself for taking your eye off the ball. Losing a job you love
is a form of bereavement. Every moment will now be repeatedly played out,
rewound and analysed in all its useless detail. ‘What ifs’
crowd the mind.
Wired to survive
When your emotions are ratcheted up like this it really is tough to stand
back and get perspective. The reason for this has a lot to do with how
we are wired to survive as animals.
Think about it ... we’re programmed to feed and sleep, make babies,
protect our own and metaphorically dodge bullets. Each programme we run
holds out the prospect of a reward to keep us motivated and alive. So
we constantly strive towards those good feelings, like the satisfaction
of a full stomach after hunger, or some other small victory.
Stuck on red alert
Stress in itself is usually easily tolerated by the body. The problem
with unrewarded unrelieved nervous tension and stress is that our primeval
survival programme gets stuck on red alert. Our mind starts replaying
the perceived threat like a scratched record. As neither fight
or flight will bring relief from our fears, we get all the adrenaline
but little of the restorative rest.
Sleep gets badly disrupted. The busy dream phase of sleep gets extended
as the brain struggles to compartmentalise these worries. And as our brain
isn’t getting enough down time we feel exhausted when we get up.
The relentless rush of adrenaline and lack of rest has serious physical
side effects - dizziness, loss of appetite and sex drive, irritability,
insomnia, tension in pit of the stomach. An unpleasant tingling in the
flesh appears as if the nerve endings are traumatised. Repetitive ticks,
like tooth sucking, become habitual. You might have a private moment of
spontaneous flailing arms, juddering, jumping and shouting. It’s
like you’re trying to free yourself from a predators jaws.
At work you may be serious. Possibly nobody notices your discomfort. However,
inside you’ll be agonising and obsessing over details, suffering
crippling indecisiveness and an inability to finish tasks. You’ll
wake up to a sense of general foreboding. At every turn you are taking
self-inflicted punches, but the body is resilient. You keep getting back
up off the deck. You keep re-emerging after getting beaten down under
After a month or so, as fear and anxiety gives way to utter exhaustion,
you’ll be having difficulty getting excited or interested in anything.
You’ve given up hobbies like writing and given up listening to the
news. You’re hypersensitive. You don’t need that shit. You
imagine veiled threats and ridicule in a colleague’s comment or
laughter. It’s paranoia. You worry about your childrens’ future.
You feel vulnerable, perhaps petrified. The predator has you in its teeth.
Who’s going to rescue you now?
You’ll be feeling low, numb, disorientated. You’ll have no
alternative but to go to bed early. Then you’ll wake up repeatedy
in the night, unable to get back to sleep. Life feels royally f**ked up.
Almost without hope. You get short tempered with your nearest and dearest.
You fly into a rage at the slightest provocation. It’s not like
You may have given up going out. You may feel socialising is a burden
even though you feel better after you’ve made the effort. You might
even think people around you would be better off without you around. You
get careless. So you prang your car. Did that speed camera flash me? Its’
paranoia. You worry about the possible consequences for days. Your dreams
get vividly unpleasant.
This is the reality of the stuck ‘fight or flight’ response.
The body is like a coiled spring ready to repond, but you are frozen with
fear. You lie down and have the darkest dreams. Your kids are missing.
A passenger plane is tumbling to belly flop on the runway. A car is running
away without you. Then a chink of light...
I am in a dark alley. A woman cloaked in black emerges and flaps and
judders supernaturally in my way. Fear tingles through my flesh. I'm spun
uncontrollably and layers of stress, like dark cloaks, peel off me. It's
like multiple selves are levitating. At the core is a fearless soul. Then
the layers descend and cloak me with fear again. Can fears literally be
During my own fight I found myself increasing my exercise routine (press
ups, squats, dancing, gym). I worked longer hours but I realised that
this was hopeless. It would not rescue the situation. I would not escape
being made redundant. I applied for a job downstairs and got it fast.
But this didn’t stop the fight or flight.
I had three weeks at home between jobs. This was not relaxing. I downloaded
self-help recordings, studied happiness, practised meditation, wrote down
3 good things a day. But I couldn’t follow my breath - I could hardly
hear it. I talked to a counsellor. I used a form of affirmation designed
to ‘give fear nowhere to hide’. I swam, I cycled. I was determined
to get ‘unstuck’. I joined a yoga evening class. In desperation
(as normally an old leg injury wouldn't allow me to) ... I ran. Still
every waking hour an anxiety permeates my body.
Now I mean business. I get acupuncture. Talking to the acupuncturist
helps. She reminds me that people get anxious about giving presentations
and all kinds of things. I remember the pressure points and later will
buy needles and self-administer a few times. I learn about acupressure
(needle free but similar outcome) and do this twice a day.
I want my 'normal' back
By this time I am ticking all the boxes for clinical
depression. I try alternative medicine. I pop Vitamin C and Omega
3 Fish Oil tablet first and last thing. A daily dose of liquid Echinacea
to keep colds away; some magnesium salt in the mouth in case that can
help. The Valerian sleeping pills I buy keep me even more intensely awake.
I bin them. The rhodiola rosea root de-stress tablets help me focus on
work but leave me even more tired. I break them into quarters. Then I
leave them behind and start on the St John's Wort.
St John's Wort
I’ve necked the odd St John's Wort tablet in the past for a bit
of fun. It made me feel elated. I smiled and danced energetically for
a few hours, but I felt a bit hungover the next day. So I am being cautious.
Hangovers when you are fit is one thing. Hangovers when you are stressed
is quite another. I want my ‘normal‘ back.
I resolve to take 1/4 tablet of St John's Wort morning and night. By
now I’ve got an inkling that the worst is over... I’m 4 months
in. Perhaps everything I have thrown at the problem is starting to finally
pay off. I continue like this for maybe 4 or 5 weeks... until I forget
a few doses of St Johns' Wort and my body tells me it doesn’t need
this shit anymore. So I stop. This is followed by a worn out weekend with
the return of that painful sensation...which subsides. Done and dusted.
Finally, thankfully, gratefully, I realise that my fears have receded
and my body is actually in pretty good shape. I’ve lost a fair bit
of weight. I am able to look more outwardly again. I take an interest
in other people. I make more time for socialising, chatting, taking a
walk with a friend, going out for a dance... and all this is helping.
A good crisis
Today I am back to ‘normal’. It has taken 6 months to say
this with any confidence - 6 months of largely self-inflicted pain before
I got back some perspective. But perspective, whilst it’s great
thing for your sanity, should not get in the way of a good crisis which
jolts us out of our comfort zone and yanks us on a new course. This can
hurt physically and drive you half-crazy, but once you emerge on the other
side you might actually be stronger, wiser and more capable.
Move, agitate, grow
Life is a climb. And sometimes life brings us the most phenomenal rewards
and a great sense of achievement. We reach a pinnacle. The clouds clear.
We have the perfect view. We’re having a great time. We feel in
control. We feel loved and respected. We’re empowered, connected
and in flow. We’ve climbed another mountain. We put life on cruise
But standing still for too long isn’t good. That’s stagnation.
We must move, agitate, grow and experience the odd crisis.
In my own case, crisis has tended to open up exciting new vistas and opportunities
to shine. So, if you are in this place now, have hope for the future,
be patient, you’ll come through this. And you’ll be glad when
you look back and realise some things have changed for the better. You've
overcome your fear and can feel justifiably proud of yourself for doing
so, because whether the threat was real or imagined it doesn't matter.
You put up one hell of a fight.
Ends | 24 May 2012 | The Leg
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