Today is a special milestone for me, and I'm super excited to tell you guys about it. See, two years ago today, on January 17th, 2011, something awesome happened - something that was a real break-through in the treatment of my anxiety - but at the time I wasn't comfortable discussing my anxiety issues here, so I never really talked about it.
But since today is my anxiety-bustin' anniversary, as it were, and since I have one of you readers to thank for it - and most importantly, because I hope my experience might help someone else out there - I'm going to tell you about the first time I went to a chiropractor.
Now, if you're like I was two years ago, then you're probably wondering what the heck a chiropractor has to do with anxiety. You might also think that chiropractors are only a step above witch doctors, with no real science behind them or measurable benefits to their care. I get that.
See, I grew up with an RN for a mom, so my family's health care was always the typical Western stuff - no alternative "funny business." Then my mom was in a car accident that left her with whiplash, TMJ, and a lot of nerve damage. Western medicine could only do so much - they broke her jaw and wired it shut for 6 weeks, and then started trying to kill off the nerves that were causing her the most pain. Over the years she sought treatment after treatment for migraines, neck pain, numbness, and limited range of motion in her arms, and it was the "alternative" stuff - chiropractic, acupuncture, and non-prescription supplements - that gave her the most relief. Seeing her go through all this for the past 20 years, I've learned to keep a pretty open mind when it comes to health care. (And my mom, the former RN, is a bona fide convert to alternative medicine. Heh.)
So when one of you readers suggested I try a chiropractor for my anxiety, I figured, hey, why not?
At the time of my first appointment I was at the lowest point I've ever experienced with my panic attacks. This was back when I couldn't leave the house, ride in a car, or even leave my bedroom for a few days. I had nearly constant chest pain and several attacks a week. I was in a seriously bad way, and knew I needed help.
We found a doctor through a trusted friend, but his office was about 40 minutes away - so just getting there required Xanax and a lot of white-knuckled determination on my part.
Fortunately they were able to do X-rays and my consult and treatment all on that first day. From the X-rays I learned I have some minor lower back degradation and a perfectly straight neck, which *sounds* like a good thing, but as it turns out, it's not. It's called a "military neck," and seems to be fairly common in people who use the computer a lot.
(Military neck on the left, normal neck curve on the right, via)
Having your head pushed forward while staring at a computer screen all day can straighten out your neck's natural curve, and that in turn places all the strain and weight of your head on the spot between your shoulder blades. (It's the same kind of pain you get when practicing the piano, if you're familiar with that.)
Now, here's the unofficial theory I've heard on how this and other chiropractic issues relate to anxiety: your spinal cord contains all the major information and electrical pathways of your body, so when it gets pinched or injured or aggravated, it can cause all sorts of things - including things like your adrenaline response - to go out of whack. That's a really broad, completely non-technical, and possibly flat-out wrong way of putting it, but to be honest I've never researched it any further.
Ok, so, back to that day two years ago:
We completed my first adjustment, which was weird but painless, and then John brought me home. I didn't tell the doctor about my anxiety; I just told him my neck and lower back hurt sometimes, which they did. I didn't want to hear the voodoo sales pitch, to be honest, so I figured I'd let the results speak for themselves, if there were any.
After the appointment I didn't really feel all that different, so on the way home I told John I might cancel the follow-up appointments. After all, the doctor wanted to see me three times a week to start - THREE! - and it was such a long drive that I didn't see how it would be worth the stress of getting there. John said he'd support me whatever I decided, and that was that.
The next day, I felt pretty normal.
Wait. I think I should say that again.
The next day, I felt pretty normal.
The reason that's important is because that day we were meeting some fellow bloggers out at Disney. I'd been dreading the 40-minute car ride to the parks, dreading the nerves and stress of meeting someone I admired for the first time, dreading explaining why I couldn't go on any rides, and dreading just being away from home in general. I figured I'd have to take a Xanax - which I hated - and try to muddle through the fear.
Except, when I got up that day, the dread wasn't there. I skipped the Xanax, expecting to pay the price with an attack later, but figuring it was worth the risk.
The attack never came.
Some light-headedness, yes, and a little discomfort & palm sweats, but by and large I was Ok. In fact, I had an amazing day - the best I'd had in months - and left that night feeling like I could take on the world. Suddenly, I didn't want to go home: I wanted to stay out, go shopping, get dinner - I wanted to be around people and plants and the sky again!
My curiosity officially piqued, I went back for the follow-up treatments that week. They were the same as the first: a bit uncomfortable, at most, and I left feeling no noticeable change. Except, even though I didn't feel particularly good, I didn't feel bad, either. And that was more than enough.
The doc stepped down my appointments gradually, starting at three a week for two weeks, then two a week, then one, then once every two weeks, where I stayed for some time.
After my first appointment I went six months without a single panic attack. SIX MONTHS. That was the longest amount of time I'd ever had between attacks since my first one in 2007.
Of course, when I had that attack at the six month mark, I was devastated. I'd begun to think I was "cured," and so was taking more risks and going longer and longer between appointments. I think it had been three weeks since my last appointment at that time, and I was being laced into a corset at a Ren Fair when the dizziness and dread struck me down again. I lapsed into a mild depression, but I also stepped my appointments back up to twice a month, so within a few months I was back up to the same level I'd been before.
Today I'm at a pretty good place with my anxiety. I still have it, obviously, but I can go months and months without attacks, and when they do strike these days they're milder than they used to be. My last attack hit last month when I was riding Soarin' at Epcot with my family. I was feeling so good that day that I again got a little cocky and started testing my boundaries. I rode Nemo for the first time in ages, and then set my sights on Soarin'. It turns out I'm Ok right up to the point the seats lift off the ground. Heh.
But there's more good news: I've been reading this older book on managing the more psychological aspects of anxiety, and it's really been helping. So I practiced some of the techniques from the book, and by the time the ride was over I was able to get up with only slightly wobbly legs, wipe off my sweaty palms, take one last deep breath, and go on with my day. John knew what had happened, but my family didn't. That's a win. (The book is Hope and Help for Your Nerves, btw, and came recommended by another of you readers. I still haven't finished it, but already I've gleaned some great tips.)
These days I see the chiropractor about once a month. I almost always test that, though, stretching it to five or six weeks, but invariably around that point I start having flare-ups again. I know I need an adjustment when I get those inexplicable waves of panic - the kind not brought on by stress or my environment. I also know they're related to my spine because when those waves hit, and I suddenly can't swallow or take a deep breath, all I have to do is roll my neck and shoulders for a moment to feel almost immediate relief. It's frankly kind of mind-blowing, how direct the connection is. Sometimes I'll be propped up on the couch with my head at an odd angle, and I'll start to panic - again, for no reason at all - and I'll straighten up, stretch my shoulders and neck back, and after a moment the panic will recede. (Oh, and I also sleep on a special neck pillow, which is rock-hard and uncomfortable and I hate it, but I guess it helps. [grumble])
My hope is that this will encourage my fellow anxiety-sufferers out there to consider trying out a chiropractor, at least once. (Especially those of you on the computer all day, like me.) Of course, make sure you find a good one - there are bad doctors out there in all fields - and never do anything you're not comfortable with. If you live in central Florida, go to Dr. Tenpenny, my guy. He and his staff are wonderful, his name sounds like something out of Harry Potter, and John and I love him. In fact, even John gets adjusted from time to time; it helps when he's extra sore from working out, and he's there with me in the room for every appointment anyway. Plus sometimes he and the doc will sing duets while I'm getting my adjustment, and the three of us joke around so much that we end every appointment with laughter. It's definitely the best atmosphere I've ever experienced in a medical office.
Look at it this way: If you try a chiropractor and it doesn't help, then you'll just be out the cost of X-rays and an appointment. But on the other hand, you might be like me, and find that it's the breakthrough you've been hoping for. So I ask you: what have you got to lose?
Feel free to weigh in with your own experiences or ask questions in the comments. I freely admit I'm no expert, and I only have my own experiences to offer, but I'm happy to tell you what I can!