1. Introduction to a case study on overcoming anxiety
This case study examines how Alison (her name has been changed to protect her privacy) was plagued with anxiety, negative thinking and depression for as long as she can remember. With spiritual practice she was able to come out of it. Alison shares with us her transformation from anxiety attacks to mental well-being.
2. A troubled childhood
I have been doing spiritual practice under the guidance of SSRF for six years now. Born into a Catholic family, I was a practicing Christian well into my adult years. I am now 39 years old and for most of my life, I have suffered from moderate to high anxiety and subsequently mild depression. I vividly remember when I was a child of around the age of five or six, I would be plagued by constant worry and anxiety about any change that might affect my family or me. I remember standing by the window when my mother was not home on time. My mind would be rife with negative thoughts which would make me fear the worst, wondering what might have happened to her while she was away from me. This would only further heighten my anxiety. On other occasions, I would picture evil people coming into the building she was in and hurting or even killing her. I would imagine that my mother was in a car accident where she would be in a severely wounded state or dead.
When my parents would leave my siblings and me with a babysitter, I would run out onto the lawn after them crying and begging them not to leave. This was even though they would be going only a few blocks from our home. Sometimes I would overhear my parents’ talk about their financial constraints and struggles. Their discussion would generate much nausea and uneasiness within me. It would leave me wondering about how our lives would change for the worse without money.
Any disaster being shown on television, such as a natural calamity or a documentary on a nuclear war, would send me spiralling into a state of depression. I would obsess for weeks about the visuals, imagining myself to be in the midst of that disaster and life as I knew it changing for the worse forever. If there was a tornado watch or a warning on the radio, I would hide in the basement shaking and picturing myself being separated from my family and possibly dying at home alone without them. At school, if someone were to say something negative to me, I would keep going over it in my mind and worry about it for weeks even if the issue was resolved quickly.
3. Anxiety-ridden teenage years
At the age of 13 when I was in the seventh grade, my parents transferred me to a private college-cum-preparatory school. A lot of things began to happen around this time. I went through the changes of puberty and I also became quite involved in sports. The curriculum was of a higher level and therefore my responsibilities with regards to my studies increased. A long commute to school along with sports practice made my day quite long and this continued through my high schools years. I became involved in intimate relationships, started exploring worldly goals and setting my sights on college. During this time, the frequency and duration of my anxiety attacks increased and it would heighten before school tests, in social settings and before I was about to play a game. However, at that time I believed that this was normal given all that I was doing and hence never felt the need to address my anxiety attacks.
4. Young adult years – losing control
When I was 18, I moved away from my family to attend university. However, my anxiety attacks continued. As a result of these anxiety attacks, I would have nausea, a loss of appetite, severe restlessness and exist in a constant worried state of mind. After trying to analyse the cause of the anxiety attacks, I put it down to low self-esteem and feeling ‘not-good-enough’ especially while in the company of other people. It may have also stemmed from indecision about my career path. Even if I thought of a career, of what I would like to do, negative thoughts of not being able to accomplish it would engulf me. At around that time I became seriously involved with Sam. However, after one and a half years of knowing him, my anxiety attacks increased and I could not put a finger on why this was happening. Was the relationship that I was in wrong for me? Was it the demanding class load that I was trying to tackle? Was I homesick?
I sought help from academic counsellors and psychologists because I felt like I was losing control of my life. I would feel a little better after verbally releasing these worries to the counsellor, but the calm would only last a couple of days. To make matters worse, Sam broke up with me stating that he thought we just needed some time apart. The break-up sent my world spinning even faster out of control. My self-esteem plummeted. I could not eat because of severe nausea; I lost ten pounds and struggled every day to get myself out of bed and to school. I would have severe negative thoughts about myself and life in general and would often ask myself why I was even living.
I would go to church often, sometimes just to sit and pray and hope for answers, for some relief or freedom from these feelings. I begged God to make the anxiety attacks and depression go away and to make me feel normal again. Nothing seemed to help, and having convinced myself that I, and my world, had to be perfect, I would bottle the feelings up and just trudge on with the anxiety tugging away at me.
After my undergraduate studies, when I was unable to get into a graduate program, I thought I had found the solution to this dreaded anxiety. I felt it was a sign for me to leave the rat-race and pursuing higher studies for a better career and job. I decided I would move to the mountains where I would have very little of anything: responsibilities, material belongings, or social pressure to be something in this world. I would be free and just be surrounded by nature. At the ripe old age of 24, I packed my things and moved to the mountains. I got a stress-free job and all my free time was spent skiing and hiking, surrounded by and revelling in nature. I did not need much money, I brought very few things and had a lot of time to myself and life felt great for about eight months.
Then new opportunities arose. A promotion in my job brought added responsibilities. I also developed a serious relationship with Jason. As a result, worldly demands began to raise their heads in my life. I began getting anxious again about my new job and my new relationship and wondering whether they were right for me. I also now questioned why I was hiding in the mountains and not doing more with my life. Once again I began to feel anxious and depressed. To counter this, I would go on long cross-country ski trips, mostly by myself, to try and find the answers in the trees, the sky and the snow. How could I be in such a remote, beautiful place and still feel anxious and depressed? When and where could I feel truly happy and content? I finally came to the solution that I needed to get out of my current situation and go back into the world again to do something meaningful so as to make a difference. So I applied for a doctorate program and moved back into ‘civilization’ to finish school and begin a career.
5. Difficulties in marriage and settling down
I started a rigorous doctorate program at the age of 25. Eventually I also got engaged to Jason, the man I had been dating while in the mountains. We soon got married, bought a home and land, and together started a small produce-farming business. During that year, the feelings of anxiety and its associated physical affects were at an all-time high. The worrying thoughts continued unabated, I lost considerable weight, had daily bouts of diarrhoea and had to force myself to eat. When I was not studying, I would worry about not studying. I would worry about getting perfect grades and competing with my classmates. I would fret about whether or not I married the right man and about how it was even possible to start a career and still have a family of my own. These kinds of thoughts would spin around in my mind the whole day. Having no answers or solutions to these thoughts, I began to slip into states of depression. Along with this I would begin thinking that I was physically ill, had cancer, or some other incurable disease. In fact I tried to rationalise with myself that it would be easier to have an incurable disease than to try to finish school and make my marriage, family and business work. These thoughts would create yet another downward spiral of negative visions and ultimately result in a deeper depressed state.
I stopped relying on my religion, stopped going to church and rarely found myself praying or even talking to God. I just continued to push through as if I had it all under control. However, the years that followed were a struggle, not only in the difficult education program that I was in, but in my marriage. My husband and I would constantly fight over just about everything in our lives. Fighting was not a trait that I thought I possessed. I had always been a very shy and quiet peace-maker as a child and also grew up in a loving home where fighting and arguing were not the norm. I would see most of the fights as my husband’s fault and blame my bouts of anger on him and his personal problems. I began to identify myself as a victim in the marriage. We grew apart, we were not sure what we wanted as individuals, but we were pretty sure that it was not the same as the other person. After four years and a doctorate degree, I began a demanding career and my marriage slowly disintegrated. My husband and I separated, and for the first time, I sought help from a psychiatrist. I would sit on her couch every other week talking about all the things my husband was doing wrong and how unhappy I was. I began talking about the anxiety and depression. The counsellor went into my family history. With my grandfather, father and uncle all suffering from anxiety and depression, it seemed that part of the answer to my anxious and depressed feelings lay in my genetic make-up. When we further analysed my past, it was then concluded that I possibly also had a physical problem with my brain. The psychiatrist was of the opinion that my brain did not work normally because it lacked the chemicals to do so. Anti-depressants were recommended, which I promptly declined as I did not want to rely on medication.
During the separation, my husband also agreed to go for marriage counselling with me. After attending a session, we would feel a little better after voicing and discussing our differences with a third party. It was then recommended to my husband that he go on anti-depressants. My husband agreed, and for the next year he would be on them. He would randomly go off the medications on his own accord, and then go back on them. This created an even steeper, more complicated rollercoaster in our marriage which eventually pushed us to the end.
The dissolution of my five-year marriage brought me into a chronically depressed state at the age of 30; one that I would fight by immersing myself in my new career. I continued with my counselling sessions every other week, which in turn lead me to finally agreeing to try anti-anxiety, anti-depression medication. The more I revealed that I was not handling life’s challenges well, the more I was recommended that my medication dose be increased. By the end of the third year of being on medication, I was on three times the daily dose that I had initially started with.
Even though all the medication I was taking suppressed some of the debilitating anxiety attacks and depression, I still felt that something was missing. I reflected that all this time my faith had taken a back seat and I earnestly wanted to regain my connection with God. I began by pulling out the yellow pages of the phone book, open to the section on churches. I would randomly place my forefinger on a church, any church, and force myself to attend their service the following Sunday. The yellow pages soon became covered in red lines and crosses denoting all the churches I felt were not for me. I had a lot of questions about how to find God again and the messages at these churches were not resonating within me. My bookshelves became heavy with self-help books. The books that would make me feel motivated and alive for about one week, if I was even able to complete the book.
I finally began regularly going to an evangelical church and got involved with a bible study group. When I was 33, I also became involved in another intimate relationship. My new partner also attended the same church. I would still question some of the belief systems of this new church as they were quite different to mine. As a result, I would be uncomfortable in sharing my beliefs with the group. My new relationship too fluctuated through highs and lows as I constantly tried to figure out what I wanted. Once the relationship became more serious, I noticed I was bringing in many of the same problems I had brought into my previous marriage. It was then that I decided I really wanted to change so that history would not repeat itself.
6. Turning point – overcoming anxiety attacks and depression
The one tool I had continued to use as a safety net since I was in my early twenties was my Yoga practice. I had practiced Yoga mainly for its physical benefits; however, I found that it would temporarily relieve some of my anxiety too. While I had never practiced it daily, I made a firm resolved to do so from now on. It was through this new Yoga class that I had decided to take and its teacher, that I was introduced to SSRF. One day in class, when I was the only student, I opened up to my new Yoga teacher, who was a seeker practicing Spirituality under the guidance of SSRF. I expressed to him that for years now, I had felt distant from God. My teacher simply said “Do you not think that God would like to have a relationship with you again?” That day I began my spiritual practice with SSRF. My teacher recommended that I meet with his wife, as he felt that she would be able to explain spiritual concepts better. We began meeting and the discussions we had started to clear up much of the confusion I had about religion and Spirituality as well as why anxiety and depression had engulfed me for so long. We began having weekly satsangs and I began studying all the information the SSRF website had to offer.
7. Regular spiritual practice and the positive changes
For the first time in my life, I began to practice Spirituality on a daily basis as guided by SSRF. I began chanting the Lord’s name and immersed myself in prayer and made efforts to increase spiritual emotion (bhāv). As my spiritual practice, I also began working on reducing my ego and the removal of my personality defects. I would write down the mistakes I had committed during the day, what the correct action should have been and then would frame an autosuggestion that would eventually prevent me making the same mistake again. Along with this I would incorporate spiritual healing measures as recommended by SSRF, such as salt water treatment.
I began to get a greater insight into the cause of my anxiety and depression; that they were due to a spiritual problem and not a physical problem with my brain.
Within a year of starting spiritual practice under the guidance of SSRF, my life coincidently began to change for the better. I re-married, began a part-time job, had a child, and my daily spiritual practice became the pillar of my life. The anxiety attacks started to diminish, even though there were plenty of struggles thrown in along the way. The bouts of depression became few and far between. Instead of obsessing and worrying about something for weeks, these feelings would be gone in several days, and then ultimately, several hours.
For example, earlier when I would make a major mistake at work, I would be devastated. I would replay the mistake over and over in my head and obsess about the outcome. I would begin to have negative thoughts about myself and slip into a state of depression. However, after I began regular spiritual practice using the tools provided by SSRF, the way I would handle situations in my life improved. When major mistakes happen at work now, I am able to be more accepting of my mistakes and forge on with a deeper urge to do better the next time. I still obsess about the mistake to some extent, but not for days or weeks like I previously would. I now know what to do to counter that mistake at a psychological and spiritual level so as to prevent it from happening again, which in turn creates hope and fortitude and not anxiety. I can now look at a situation and find God’s lesson there instead of creating a negative, obsessive perspective. This is the freedom I have been looking for from my earlier negative existence.
The spiritual tools started to evolve into my new ‘anti-anxiety medication’. My spiritual practice and God’s grace, has allowed me to taper down my medication over several months and finally to discontinue it. Even my relationship with my spouse has changed for the better. I am able to accept the differences I have with my husband. I began to see our misunderstandings as lessons, and to know that a relationship is not perfect for a reason. My husband too has noticed the change as I have become less reactive, less judgmental and more accepting of people and of change. My career, though I love it, is not everything to me anymore. I use it to be of help to others as I have been helped and to make it a part of my spiritual practice and using every situation to grow spiritually.
I was initially nervous to go off anti-anxiety medication because it had become my “crutch” to prevent the anxiety and depression that I had struggled with for so many years. By doing spiritual practice, it has made me experience a higher level of happiness, peace of mind and mental well-being which I have never experienced before with medication. As a result I know I will continue to invest in my spiritual practice. Do I still get negative thoughts, bouts of anxiety, depressive thoughts and illusions rolling around in my mind? Sure I do. However, the main difference is that now I immediately put techniques that I have learned through SSRF into action and they dissolve almost immediately.
8. SSRF’s Comments
Alison’s case of anxiety attacks is not uncommon; a large percentage of people in society face anxiety attacks to some extent, albeit not to the extent that Alison did.
At SSRF we have undertaken spiritual research into various case studies regarding mental illnesses. We have found that in most cases, problems with regards to the mind have their root causes in the spiritual dimension and not in the psychological. It has also been found through spiritual research that the spiritual root cause for most people is caused due to departed ancestors.
To overcome such problems SSRF recommends beginning with:
Regular spiritual practice as given in our section – Start your spiritual journey
Conscientious daily efforts in spiritual practice and sāttvik living, help us to strengthen our mind and protect us from harmful elements in the spiritual dimension, in much the same way that Alison has found relief.