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After 55 years of anxious suffering, I’m free

This is my experience with “Dare: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks” by Barry McDonagh.

I don’t remember exactly when anxiety started encroaching on my life. As a child I often felt uneasy and scared for no reason. Something was bothering me, but what? Why couldn’t I just relax and enjoy life?

One night while working on a challenging school assignment, I started having panics. I was sure I was losing my mind. I was 15, it was 1971, and no one talked about mental health in our small town. What if I got sent to the state mental hospital? I was sure my family would be embarrassed and my life would be ruined.

I tried to pretend to be “normal.” For the most part it worked; the panic attacks rarely struck. But the possibility they might come back was never far from my mind. And generalized anxiety was a constant companion.

My last year of high school I discovered Dr. Claire Weekes’ book, “Hope and Help for Your Nerves.” It reassured me that my problem was common and not a severe mental illness. It taught me how to stop panic by simply letting it wash over me until it spent itself. A local support group for “nervous” people also helped – even though their textbook was written in the 1940s and seemed pretty dated!

A spell of depersonalization, that strange feeling of unreality, pestered me during my first year of college, reminding me that anxiety could still visit. Strange thoughts sometimes wandered through my head. I tried to ignore them. Eventually they would pass.

Over the years I missed a lot of opportunities because of anxious “what ifs”. But overall life was pretty good. I traveled in Europe, lived in exciting cities, and met a lot of people.

In my 40s, things started to unravel. I had to quit a job because I couldn’t handle the pressure.

Quitting didn’t quell the high anxiety I was feeling, though. It felt like a nearly constant state of almost-but-not-quite-full-panic: pounding heart, headaches, insomnia, stomach pain, constant fear of what the scary feelings and thoughts would do to me. Natural remedies I tried didn’t help much. Dr. Weekes’ book didn’t talk about generalized anxiety disorder – and GAD now felt overwhelming.

A doctor put me on medication. For many years I took it on and off; it eased the anxiety but made me tire quickly. I’d go off it and within a few months the anxiety would creep back up.

Fast-forward to summer 2016 and another GAD flare-up that dragged on for months. This time it roared beyond the medication’s calming effects. I was stuck at home, mostly in bed, weary of the struggle.

I’d bought a copy of DARE a few months before, and I took it off the shelf to reread. Then I read it again. And again.

For a few weeks I read almost nothing else. I joined DARE Advanced and DARE’s Facebook pages, following people’s success stories closely. I started practicing the DARE steps every day.

The Defuse step was the easiest. “Oh hi, anxiety. It’s you again. Want to come help me make dinner? Let’s go to the store first. Then we’ll walk the dog. We’ve got this!”

Accept and Allow took longer to master. At first I couldn’t wrap my head around how to accept scary sensations that lasted all day. Lose the fear? I’d have done it if I knew how!

So I decided to just Allow. That I could do, hard and uncomfortable as it was. Maybe Acceptance would come later. In a Facebook post, Barry suggested, “Do something big today. Like sitting with your GAD, or flying to Mexico. ☺” So each afternoon I would sit on my couch for a while, letting the uncomfortable sensations “run” as much as they wanted to, not trying to stop them or distract myself from them, but simply observing them without judgment, noticing how each one felt, and noting that despite the discomfort none of them were actually hurting me. Afterward I’d go Engage in an activity. The sensations weren’t gone, but I decided to trust that I would make progress over time.

Within a couple of weeks, I noticed the sensations were becoming less intense. I was able to Engage in reading interesting books. I was able to cook more often. I was spending a lot less time on the bed.

On occasions when I felt panic start to rise, I decided to Run Toward it by telling it, “Okay, let’s go! I’m ready. Bring it on right now!” It backed down every time.

I tried to do some physical activity outside every day. Even if it was just walking the dog around the block or raking a few leaves, it all helped.

By winter (about four months into DARE) I was feeling braver and signed up for a weekend conference in New Orleans. The anticipatory anxiety got so high that I regretted my decision to go, but I was determined to push out and survive this little ordeal, an hour at a time if necessary. Well, once I got settled on the plane, my nerves quieted down and I enjoyed the February weekend in a warm city I’d never been to.

When I got home from the conference, I felt anxious for the next few days. But I knew it’s normal to feel some heightened symptoms after a big step forward, so they didn’t catch me off-guard. They were just another opportunity to practice.

I kept pushing forward. I started volunteering at a nearby state park, co-leading nature hikes and teaching kids in outdoor classes. I don’t have kids of my own, so this was a challenge!

By May 2017, I felt “back to normal,” feeling calm again from morning through evening. I put off writing my success story because I wanted to be sure my recovery would stick.

Winter came again. This one was an “old-fashioned Montana winter,” long, cold, and gray. I started feeling what I call “upticks” in anxiety. I was tempted to reach for the pill bottle, but what would I learn from that? I decided to treat the upticks as simply more opportunities to practice my DARE skills.

My anxiety level went lower and lower. The upticks dwindled away.

I can do anything I want to do now. Anxiety isn’t stopping me anymore.

That doesn’t mean I never feel any. Sometimes I feel mildly uneasy, such as when the weather gets colder. I laugh at these sensations (Defusing) and Allow them to be with me as long as they like. They usually go quickly.

In the last few months I’ve been able to taper off two anxiety medications with my doctor’s blessing. I exercise outside daily, meditate, and listen to relaxation audios. I turn off electronics at least an hour before bedtime.

DARE gave me my life back. I can’t thank Barry enough for all he’s done for us, and Suzane for her invaluable support.

If I can recover after 55+ years of anxious suffering, you can too.

– Laura Behenna

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