The benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy

I would like to use this blog post to touch on a rather personal subject in the hope of reaching and directly or indirectly helping likeminded people who struggle with anxiety too.

I feel I have had underlying anxiety for as long as I can remember.
At school, I was always the kid who refused to climb trees out of fear of falling off. I always took excessive precautions for the dumbest of things. Everything seemed too high or dangerous to jump off from. I first had to squat to “test the waters” until I felt comfortable enough to “let go and go nuts”.
There was no diagnose or any need to get diagnosed. There was no name for it. People just thought I was fragile and sensitive.

Nevertheless, I had a wonderful childhood. My anxiety was always present, but I never took the effort to label it, let alone grant it any importance whatsoever. It was just a feeling that crept up once every so often that made my body feel weird or tense.
Back then, I unconsciously developed some recurring symptoms that seemed harmless at the time but in hindsight were pretty revealing or indicative of anxiety. Shaky, restless legs, pounding or racing heart, upset stomach, you name it.

I never realized how serious my anxiety was until now almost five years ago. Before that, I never went through the trouble of having it diagnosed. Up until then, it had always been uncomfortable, yet manageable. In 2016, I suffered a traumatic experience and since then, the anxiety made sure to let me know it wasn’t going anywhere. It intensified and it got scary.

Prior to this experience, what soothed me was the naïve assumption that “I’m just too much in my head” and that things could never go as wrong as I fear. 2016 gave me and my anxious mind the lesson that the worst can actually happen. That was a lesson I’d gladly have skipped.

My anxiety got out of control by the end of 2017. I suffered severe panic attacks which I thought would be the end of me. My heart did all kinds of crazy things (palpitations, skipped beats, racing, pounding, …), my digestive system collapsed, I had a brief period of agoraphobia and I avoided all the things that I could avoid without too many repercussions. Work, trips, .. you name it. I paid more visits to the doctor and the emergency room than the entire 35 years of my life combined and I had the most invasive kind of tests done on me to rule out serious illnesses.

Before that time, I maintained a belief system that if I took some kind of vitamin or pill I would be fine. “I had coffee this morning. It’s normal I feel overly anxious.” And although it bears some truth that caffeine can trigger anxiety attacks in already prone individuals (quitting caffeine is one of the best things I did for my health), my anxiety was still my anxiety. It needed to be acknowledged and taken care of. There was nowhere for me to run anymore. There was no pill for me to take. My anxiety was here to stay. I couldn’t allow myself to be lazy anymore or that huge monster would take over my life.

Enter cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT gave my mind the necessary tools to cope on its own. It has now been two and a half years since my last panic attack. I’ve come to miss my anxious moments because when it does hit, it hits hard and it makes me regret I wasn’t on high alert. Anxiety keeps me on my toes and serves as a reminder that I should take better care of myself. Rest more, care less, make more time for the things that really do matter in life. Zoom out. Spend time with and actively listen to my wife, make time for people I care about, not always be somewhere else in my head and worrying about things to come.
It takes a lot of time and patience – and experience – to make and notice improvements.but at least, I feel these tools are here for the long haul.
Some specific CBT tools which were very helpful for me:
• Focused distraction – while you’re having a panic attack, it will never be easy to distract yourself. But go through the motions and keep at it. The feeling will follow, your mind will eventually catch on. Sit with the discomfort temporarily and you’ll be rewarded.
• While you’re not distracted – stick with your anxiety. Be present with it. Observe and give it room. I used to have a mantra: “c’mon, destroy everything, show me what you’ve got”. Get yours.
• Persistence – don’t expect to see results straight away. You have to be patient. And when you feel like you’ve run out – be patient some more. It’s about the end game.
• The notion that no permanent physical damage is done, as intense as the panic attacks may seem at that moment.
• Probably the most important one: desensitization. The more panic attacks you have, the more you notice they can’t harm you. The more you just feel comfortable to let the storm pass.
• The circle of panic: allow, focused distraction, let the storm pass
• Intellectualizing the physical sensations of anxiety: A pounding or racing heart does not necessarily mean you’re having a heart attack. It is just your fight or flight response that works overtime. A constant feeling of having a lump in your throat does not mean you have cancer. More often than not, it is caused by severe stress or anxiety.

CBT focuses on challenging and changing unhelpful cognitive distortions (e.g. thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes) and behaviors, improving emotional regulation and the development of personal coping strategies that target solving current problems. The ultimate goal is to replace unhelpful and problematic thinking patterns with fresh, new, more constructive ones.

As I mentioned earlier, it has been a long time since my last panic attack but it serves me well to know that I will always be prone to anxiety. That is my personal kryptonite when times are hard. But thanks to CBT, I feel I have the necessary tools to not only cope, but to overcome it convincingly.