Last night I realized something about the ways I react to stress. I was thinking about how my xanax usage has been quite low for the last few weeks, and this seemed a little surprising since I am one week away from moving. Moving is supposed to be one of the big three for causing major stress in a person’s life. I think the other two are loss of a loved one, and divorce.
Though my xanax usage has been low, I have been eating too much - especially sweets - and spending money frivolously. Though I am prone to doing both most of the time, I tend to lose my ability to control such behavior when I’m under significant stress.
So then I wondered, “What sort of stress does make my xanax usage go up?”
Typically I don’t have a sense of why I am feeling severe anxiety or panic attacks. Both severe ambient anxiety and frequent panic attacks seem to happen in “bunches.” I will have a period of a few days or even weeks when I am very anxious and my ability to cope with going out of the house or do other anxiety-producing things (watch scary movies, endure loud noises, or tolerate groups of people, etc.) will be severely reduced. I will tend to have nightmares, be cranky and keep to myself. During these times my xanax usage goes up, and it helps me to get through until the period of anxiety/panic subsides.
So why do I sometimes use Xanax to cope with stress, and other times don’t seem to need to? I started looking at types of stress and how they affect me.
The types of stress seem to fall into two categories. They are externally caused stress and internally generated stress. Externally caused stressors are things like injury, illness, hot weather, a loss of income or substantially larger demands on my monetary resources than usual, or big changes such as moving or the loss of positive interaction like a pet dying or a close friend moving away.
Internally generated stresses are things like a drop in self-esteem, a feeling of abandonment, or a sense of failing confidence in myself.
I tend to respond to externally caused stress by eating and spending money. I think this allows me to “drown out” the stress by overlaying it with gratification. I distract myself with a positive stimulus like sweets or an interesting book. I will seek beautiful or otherwise gratifying things to buy to distract me from whatever is bothering me.
With internal stress this strategy doesn’t work as well because my ability to enjoy the gratifying food or other things will be compromised. I can’t focus on them properly because my thoughts are often disorganized – even chaotic. I am also more likely to have feelings of guilt or self-loathing for my attempted indulgences.
Looking at my internally generated states of anxiety or panic, it seems that they are more likely to be biochemical in origin. They often occur suddenly, with no obvious trigger. They are more likely to involve physical components such as elevated blood-pressure, pulse and/or respiration rate. I may feel weak or dizzy. All of the symptoms associated with fight-or-flight responses will frequently be felt, even though there is no discernible trigger for them.*
Given the characteristics of internally generated stress, it is logical that xanax would ameliorate them. They are chemical in origin, and therefore chemically reversible. In fact they may only be chemically reversible.
Granted, there are some aspects of externally caused stress – especially chronically, or at least long-term stress that xanax can help with. These include muscle tension or inability to rest/sleep. But there are other equally effective ways of managing these symptoms, such as massage, meditation, breath control, etc. And since xanax is an addictive drug, and it has additional adverse effects when used in large amounts over time, (kidney damage, for one) it seems like a good idea to avoid using it when something else will work.
My childhood was dominated by an alcoholic and extremely emotionally volatile mother. Her behavior toward me kept me in a state of apprehension nearly all the time. This chronic state of fight or flight has permanently disordered the chemical balance in my brain, with the result that even moderate stresses can now be perceived by my subconscious as life-threatening. This state of mind was exacerbated by my having been shipped off to relatively low-stress environments for periods of time ranging from days to as much as a year. Then I would suddenly be returned to the frightening, high-stress environment of my mother’s “tender mercies.” This insured that I would never simply become used to anything and keep me in a further state of suspense. We moved house, often without warning, a dozen times in the 16 years before I ran away from home, and to make things even more exciting my mother would occasionally, without warning, burn any and all of my possessions that she found “unacceptable.” Often a beloved pet – or several – were abandoned in these moves. I was never told what became of them.**
Her physical assaults on me were few, but occurred without warning and without justifiable cause, (as if assaulting a child is ever justifiable). But they were devastating, and further served to heighten my sense of imminent, and inescapable mayhem. She also placed me in dangerous situations like high-speed drunk driving, and once even abandoned the wheel of the car for a protracted search in her purse for a cigarette. I was 14 at the time, did not know how to drive, but was forced to seize the wheel to keep the car on the freeway as she pressed the accelerator to the floor.
All this took place against the backdrop of the Viet Nam War, and the race-riots of the sixties. I had few friends – none of any duration, and as a result I had little experience with, and developed little faith in “normal” societal constructs.
* Here I must note that it is true that prolonged, repeated external stress can bring about permanent imbalances in brain chemistry, resulting in oversensitivity to certain stimuli. These can be thought of as being chemically produced responses. But the triggers that produce these anxious/panic responses are buried deep in my subconscious, and I know little about them, other than the fact that they do exist.