For my non-American readers, Thursday was Thanksgiving here in the States. It is a big deal. It marks the beginning of The Holidays–a season of high stress, joy, high consumerism on display, dread, meaningful religious observations, turmoil, GERD, Mariah Carey on loop, and so much more. I sound cynical. I’m not. It’s the truth though. As soon as Thanksgiving hits, people start grabbing the Tums off the racks, eating too much to cope, maxing out their credit cards in order to buy gifts to make all their family and friends happy, and figuring out ways to avoid family conflict. It is a rough time of year for almost everyone I know. And now that there is political polarization to the extreme in America, one wonders if tapas and finger foods should replace foods requiring forks and knives.
I have panic attacks every Thanksgiving. For real. For the past seven years, they have hit me hard. They start around 10:30 in the morning, and, every year, I don’t seem to know what they are.
“What is happening to me?”
The first time it happened, I took a Xanax at 11 AM. I passed out on the kitchen floor and woke up around 1 PM. So, that would be a ‘no’ to the Xanax then. The second year, I took half a Xanax thinking it was a dosage problem. The same thing happened except at least I was on a couch. Throw the Xanax away.
To me, anxiety is like being nauseated mentally. It is a plague. I am anxious to some degree almost all the time. My mind is perpetually on edge. It has been this way since the domestic violence started in my former marriage. I have not fully calmed down from that. The last episode of domestic violence was over three years ago, but I am still hypervigilant at times. I know that this will subside. I was anxious for years after I escaped the trafficking environment. I was easily kicked into “survival mode” by any number of triggers. The sound of a car backfiring was a trigger. It sounded like a gun shot. If someone yelled at me, held eye contact too long, deliberately tried to intimidate me, or touched me in a way that I perceived as threatening, I froze.
What about Thanksgiving sets me off? I’m not sure. I tried to solve it on Thursday when I realized that there was a pattern. Here are some things that I did observe. Maybe you will find it helpful.
Thanksgiving has always been a day that I work my ass off. I really like entertaining and cooking for everyone, but, historically, my ex-husband would never help me. For him, it was his day off. He would go in the bedroom and play games on his laptop while putting his feet up. He would ignore his children and me. I felt like his servant, and that feeling started to degrade and erode me. It permeated the entire relationship and culminated in the sexual violence that put me in an operating room–twice.
Almost all the traumatic experiences I had growing up in my father and mother’s homes were centered around my accepting “my place” as an object, and that objectification felt eerily similar to how I felt in my marriage. My father spent his energy trying to convince me that I was not a person but merely property–his property. I was to express my acceptance of this at all times by calling ‘sir’ and obeying him at all times. I could never do that. I obeyed him because I was afraid of him, but I argued with him about calling him ‘sir’. In Texas and the rest of the South, we call our elders, strangers, and people outside the family ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’ out of respect, but I simply could not understand why I should call my own father ‘sir’. It made no sense to me. So, I refused. This enraged my father. What did my defiance cause? Well, I endured hours of military-like torture–the sort that Navy SEALs endure in an attempt to break me. I, however, got to keep myself. I never called him ‘sir’, and this might be why I survived intact. My ridiculously stubborn nature saved my innate personality. I always told my mother that it would serve me one day!
My mother’s house was different. She ran a military-like household as well in terms of order and cleanliness. She was obsessed–literally–with cleanliness. She lined things up, dusted weekly, and vacuumed in straight lines. If I moved a tchotchke out of place, she would notice–and have a fit. If I didn’t vacuum the carpet in perfect lines, she would notice. God forbid I leave a footprint! I would have to vacuum the carpet all over again. I had to organize my closet by color and season. Oh, and no wire hangers. My mother and Joan Crawford were one and the same person.
My underwear and sock drawers had to be perfectly arranged. If they were not, she would dump out their contents on the floor and insist I arrange them all over again. She would go through all my drawers every Saturday in order to find my personal journal. Sometimes she should would read it out loud to me and mock the contents. I had to hide every personal item from her. I was not allowed privacy–ever. She would bounce quarters off my bed to make sure it was perfectly made, and she would run her fingers on the surfaces of all my furniture looking for dust while I stood against the wall watching her inspect everything. She reveled in her own power over me. I was not a person to her. I was an extension of her or nothing at all depending upon her needs.
She began this process when I was old enough to clean–around 7 years-old.
This isn’t an uplifting read. Why recount it? Well, in my experience, when we have strong emotional experiences that increase to panic when there is nothing in the present to panic about, then we are panicking over something in the past; and, there is a cue in the present that is activating our “survival” mode. I recount this to offer up an example of what could possibly activate that “survival” mode.
I grew up, as so many people do, being treated as less than a whole person. Thanksgiving also marked the beginning of the worst time of year in my family as my mother was prone to suicide attempts during the holiday season. Some of the worst violence I witnessed was during the holidays. I was also often forced to see my father during the holidays which bred inordinate terror in me. I have resolved most of my feelings around that past trauma, but recall that recent trauma can often kick up old trauma. This is why new traumas re-traumatize. That which is settled and adaptively processed gets re-activated with new traumas. I was brutalized in my marriage. There was no way that I wasn’t going to have to face down old abuse again. It would all have to be looked at again because this is what brains do. They make connections: “Oh, this looks just like that.”
What do you get then? Panic attacks that come out of nowhere coupled with fear and dread. Emotional flashbacks. They are confusing. Annoying. Inconvenient. What is the strategy?
First: They will pass. Know this. They will pass.
- The fastest way to get through them is to talk to a person who loves you. Seriously. Talk to a person who loves you. Love has a way of helping you discharge fear, and discharging fear is the fastest way to ease panic.
- Engage your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Remember it like this: “Rest and digest”. You have to slow down your breathing and bring your digestive system online. Most people instinctively know this which is why emotional eating is so common. Eating counteracts the fight-or-flight response (sympathetic nervous system-SNS) because it brings your digestive system online. I suggest drinking a non-caffeinated beverage like a mint tea. Mints are cooling herbs. It cools and eases the stomach. Believe it or not, it helps. (Look for a spearmint tea if you have hormone problems. Spearmint clears up estrogen-related skin issues–chin acne– on the face and helps the intestines clear excess estrogen)
- Smell some lavender and frankincense essential oils. Engaging your senses is part of how you engage your PNS, and frankincense actually does quite a bit in the body.
- Exercise. Go for a walk. Move. 80% of your neurons (not your neural connections) are in your cerebellum. The cerebellum is the part of the brain that governs movement. If 80% of your neurons are devoted to movement, then it must be really important to move. So, move when you are anxious or panicky.
The holidays can be a wonderfully meaningful time of year. There is a lot about them that I absolutely love this being one of them:
They can also be one of the most painful times of the year for people for myriad reasons, and sometimes we don’t even know why. But, we feel it. From Thanksgiving to mid-January. It doesn’t have to be this way regardless of your history. There are ways to enjoy this time of year even when your sympathetic nervous system is on high alert. We don’t have to wait until we’ve got all our “issues” resolved to enjoy this time of year.