Health And Wellness

A Cat (Yes, A Cat!) Worked Better Than Xanax And Cured My Anxiety

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woman holding cat

2014 can be labeled as "the year of..." many things. The year I turned 25. The year I spent recovering from a deep depression episode. The year I successfully ate a clean diet for 40 days and ran my first 5K. The year I wrote about my online dating failures and had several articles go viral. The year my best friend's son suddenly died. 

But most importantly, 2014 will be the year I got a kitten. Technically, she was given to me for Christmas but I didn't bring her home until December 28.

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That day, as I drove through the streets of North Philly with a plastic cat carrier with the tags still on it, anyone who passed by me would've thought  I was insane.

"We're almost to the place, Cat. Just stop making noises," I screamed trying to match the volume of the ear-piercing wails my new pet was making. Within a span of 72 hours, I'd agreed to accept the 4-month-old marmalade-colored kitten that a friend of a friend had found wandering around his apartment building.

"This is the thing you need. It will provide such comfort," my well-meaning friend said when she introduced me to my very much alive and active gift. As the cat and I eyed each other up and down for the first time, we were both skeptical.

When we finally got to my apartment, I let her out to get a lay of the new land. She scurried to the drawer underneath my bed, where Cat stayed for several days. 

(Yes, originally the cat's name was Cat because she looked identical to the one in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Eventually, I named her Annie because she was an orphan and Cat became to annoying to explain to non-Audrey Hepburn fans.)

Great. The cat that's supposed to make me feel less alone wants nothing to do with me.

Initially, I was certain becoming a cat owner was a mistake and began looking for places to drop her off. I was such a hot mess myself, and this cat didn't even like me.

And then it happened. After work one night about two weeks after bringing the fuzzball home, I began having anxiety attacks which were becoming the norm at least twice a day. While closing my eyes waiting for it to pass, I felt a thump on my chest.

For a split second, I swore my heart had finally beaten so rapidly that it had exploded and I was nearing death. Turns out, Annie had pounced on my chest and was now staring at me.

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So startled, I forgot about the wave of nerves overtaking my body. Like reaching for forbidden fruit, my fingers grazed over the soft fur on her head.

As she began to emit a purr, my breathing began to steady and the panic attack passed. Interestingly, absentmindedly stroking her fur ended the attack faster than Xanax or Valium ever had in the past several years.

Going forward, Instead of popping a pill when my daily panic attacks kicked off the day, I petted the cat. It wasn't until mid-February while driving to work one morning that I went through my entire routine without hyperventilating.

Even though after long days I craved quietness, it was soothing to have Annie curl up next to me providing the silent, non-judgmental company I required as I worked on creating a better frame of mind during the early months of 2014.

And if I'm up later than usual working, she has no qualms about jumping up on the keyboard and head-butting me to unplug for the evening. She's a reminder to be still and step away from the distractions that occupy me during most of the day.

However, when deadlines call for a late night, she curls up on my chest and rests her head on my shoulder so I can type while in bed. Writer's block tends not to be as agonizing when there's a soft animal sleeping contently on top of you.

When I was feeling a resemblance to my old self a few months later, life decided to throw another curveball. In a span of six days, my best friend's son died and she returned to her hometown hundreds of miles away. 

This could've been a moment where all my progress to feel mentally and physically healthier could've backslid.

But somehow it didn't.

During the insomniac nights that followed, Annie, almost instinctively, knew when to snuggle with me or to bring over a toy to distract me from my own negative thoughts.

With less than a week of 2014 left, I finished the year off strong. My year-long writer's block was finally over. Through months of self-reflection and self-discovery, I made the decision to change jobs and return to health care marketing, which has been fulfilling in many ways.

Through cooking, making smarter food choices, and proving to myself I could run a 5K, I began to feel healthier and more in control of my own body.

With the support of a few loyal and understanding friends, weekly sessions with my incredible therapist, my antidepressant, and gradual lifestyle changes (see above), I'm back to the world of the living. Not just going through the motions of life, actually enjoying myself.

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But all of it started because of the tabby cat that kept me company as I sorted through 24 years of repressed, emotional baggage.

Patrice Bendig is a writer for Yourtango. Read her other musings on her blog, Quarter Life Writings.

This article was originally published at The Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from the author.