I’m not prone to anxiety (at least, on the surface), and most people believe I’m calm and balanced. But I distinctly remember two instances, both involving cats, where I was suddenly overcome with incredible anxiety. I wonder whether this happens to other people who live with cats?
The first time, a vet was delivering some bad news to me about a cat. I don’t remember the particular news, or even which cat it was. I remember only that I suddenly felt as if I was going to faint. I grabbed onto the examination table, and I could hardly put a sentence together to respond to the vet, who I know was doing his best to calmly deliver the news in the most positive way possible. I also felt short of breath. Something very sudden came over me, and the experience affected me for the rest of the day. I had difficulty functioning normally, and it seemed as if it took forever to process a thought or get anything done. I realized emotional stuff really kicks me in the gut.
In the second case, an incident triggered a similar emotional and physiological response. I noticed that Rama’s eyes were dilated. I was already under a bit of stress: Rama had just undergone major surgery to remove a sarcoma, and his movement had to be severely limited for two weeks. I had spent almost all my time in a small room with Rama, worrying and overworrying about his healing. When I saw his eyes dilate, I freaked out. I instantly remembered when one of my cats passed in my arms. Irrationally, I suddenly assumed Rama was also passing. Again I felt faint and short of breath. It took me a while to calm down and convince myself that Rama was just fine. His eyes returned to normal. But it scared the hell out of me.
Was I having an anxiety attack? I don’t know. But I spoke with a social worker for advice about what to do if this happens again, because it will probably happen again.
The social worker recommended during crises that I always “bring it back to the breath.” She meant that during a period of extreme anxiety, turning attention to the breath, and regulating the breath with long, even inhales and exhales, will diminish the stress response to your body. I know this from yoga, and there is scientific basis behind breath regulation. Long, even diaphragmatic breathing (breath “from the belly”) initiates the response in our bodies that facilitates relaxation. Short, high “chest breathing,” initiates what’s called the sympathetic nervous system, and this is the origin of the “fight or flight” response. To manage stress, turning attention to breathing is crucial.
Of course, if you suspect you have anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder issues that need more than breath awareness, seek qualified professional help.
The social worker also shared a list of ways to relieve stress with links to items such as nature sounds and stand-up comedians. Many of these might not work when you’re confronted by a stressful situation but could be good for managing stress overall. Among the ones that seemed good to me: listening to nature sounds (No. 1 on the list) and the so-called “7/11” breath (No. 56), which calls for an exhale a bit longer than the inhale. For managing stress that comes out of nowhere, conscious attention to and regulation of the breath is probably the fastest and most effective method.
Nothing will arouse emotion in me like my cats. I care about them greatly, and I was surprised by the power of these experiences. I was amazed by their strength and, in the second case, by the total irrationality. Many of us will probably face similar situations, where we’ll be presented suddenly with stressful information, or where a cat will suddenly start acting in a way that worries us greatly. By learning to manage our own stress, we can be there in a better way for our cats, and we can take care of our health, too.
Do you have anxiety attacks or something similar when you’re faced with cat health scares? Do you knowingly try to modulate your response, and if so, what has worked?
More by Catherine Holm:
About Catherine Holm: Cat Holm is the author of The Great Purr, the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, and a contributor to Rescued: The Stories of 12 Cats, Through Their Eyes. She’s also a yoga instructor. Cat love living in nature and being outside every day, even in winter. She is mom to six adorable cats, all of them rescues.