Updated: Oct 29, 2020
Anxiety is an invisible monster most people don’t understand. Some people don’t even believe in it. I view it like Bigfoot or Slenderman. You know, the things that could exist, but only those who have seen it know for sure.
I can be having a full blown anxiety attack, and people will think I’m trying to get attention. It taught me young both to hide it, and how to control it. I mean, that and a lot of therapy.
I have gotten to the point where I minimize what’s happening to me so much, it has taken a turn for the unhealthy and I no longer see every time I have an anxiety spike. I started dating a therapist and she opened up one night about how my anxiety was higher than she had previously thought. My coping mechanisms take over so seamlessly sometimes, that I no longer always notice. Sometimes, she asks me if I need to sit down because I am short of breath and struggling through whatever it is that we are doing.
So, what is anxiety? The Mayo Clinic says “Experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. [Like in public speaking, taking a test, or going on a first date.] However, people with anxiety disorders frequently have intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations.”
So, when it comes to my anxiety disorder symptoms, like many people who struggle with anxiety, mine was born in the aftermath of trauma. Some people are able to get help and talk to someone about what they went through to heal and change. I was raised in an environment where seeking help was a sign of weakness. Now I know not asking for help is a trauma response of its own. I had seen counselors when I was young for something my parents were going through, I didn’t see why I needed to go, saw it as a punishment, and I had made it my mission to make them all cry. I can’t say if I succeeded or not, but I do remember having a lot of fun trying. Going to a counselor, I was made fun of by my peers. Again, help = weakness, even at the ripe old age of 6.
In my teenage years, when I went through some serious shit, I didn’t feel like I could talk about it. I felt like asking for help would just restart all the drama from years before. It took two years of safety from my abuser for me to feel comfortable confiding in someone about what happened to me. She told my parents. I get why she did it now, but at the time it was a huge breach in trust and made it hard to let anyone in for a long time afterwards.
My Dad, who is easily the greatest, and most caring person I know, came to me and asked me if I needed to go see a shrink. He was well intended and the only thing in his heart for me was love and a desire to help. Maybe he was trying to break the stigma by asking me if I wanted to go, but all I could think about was word getting out in my highschool that I was “Seeing Someone.” I had started to overcome bullies by joining the boys football team, I didn’t need to overcome the brotherly teasing of the line. Hard pass. I didn’t go.
Instead: I figured it out on my own by piecing together bits of wisdom imparted so delicately by my counselors throughout the years. It mostly boiled down to counting games and breathing techniques. If my heart got out of control, I would steady my breathing. This actually freaked out a neurologist who was watching my vitals closely for 10 minutes. Jokes on you doc, I can’t go that long without an anxiety thought. Haha. I did feel bad when he called in a colleague and fessed up to the anxiety thoughts.
Figuring it out on my own seemed all good and dandy, except I couldn’t see all the changes in me. Some of the symptoms I experienced but didn't even necessarily realize were anxiety induced. Like how when I’m anxious, my leg can’t stop/won’t stop jackhammering into the ground. The people around me know just how anxious I am based on how fast/long my leg spasms. I used to play this off as my ADHD, but getting a therapist girlfriend kinda smashes all of the facades.
I get so much more irritable when I’m anxious. My resilience and tolerance takes a nosedive. Things that normally wouldn’t bother me spike my anxiety. Repetitive sounds which kids LOVE to make (I have four of those), overwhelm me and make me feel like the world is crashing in. When the kids notice and sheepishly ask “Mom, are you ok?” I try to soften and explain that I'm stressed, which is true, but where does stress come from? Your good ole pal, Worry. Worry prolonged and in high amounts is anxiety.
I find myself not remembering things. I take in less because I’m less present, and connecting with moments on a diluted scale. It makes remembering little things hard, because the moment they aren’t in front of my face, the worry and anxiety takes over. Racing thoughts. Sometimes on repeat like a broken record. Often the thoughts are total lies, and I know it, but they fight until I’m not so sure anymore. I fight the same battles in my mind over and over. Even when I win against the anxiety by challenging the thoughts, if my whole mind isn’t convinced, if there’s a piece of me that the challenging thought doesn’t sit well with, I abandon it and go straight back to the anxiety thought.
It’s exhausting. Think about the day where you worked the hardest manual labor of your life. That fatigue, soreness, and pain that sits deep within your muscles, bones, and joints? Imagine that in your mind. Every day is mental labor.
We call it Groundhog Day around here. Reliving the same day over and over, except it’s a string of thoughts. That is, if I get to sleep and start the day over. What is it called if the day never ends? I am open to suggestions. A good night of sleep for me, is a solid 4 hours. I average 3 whole hours. Sometimes, half an hour of shut eye is all that graces this tired mind. Go back to your hardest day of labor, now put yourself in that situation with that little amount of sleep.
I bet you’re thinking you would feel pretty weak. I would agree, though you don’t know weak until you’re getting 45 minutes of sleep a night, and have forgotten to eat for the last two days because if it’s not in front of your face, the anxiety thoughts win.
But it doesn’t exist, right? This invisible monster that holds my limbs tightly to my body and washes me with cold snow when I have to do something new in a social settings, isn’t there. It’s a figment if my imagination that I’ve brewed up for attention. I totally choose to have a panic attack when my abuser looks me straight in the eye.
Ok, so you’ve sat through my experience with anxiety. I would really love to hear about yours. Tag, you’re it. What now? How do you deal with Anxiety Attacks? Read here for the difference in Anxiety and Panic attacks.
I don’t think it’s productive to talk about the affects of anxiety, without talking about some coping skills. Some of the things that really worked for me were commonly known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), though honestly I didn’t know most of these terms or that they were even coping skills when I found that they worked for me. Try what might work for you with an open mind, and leave the rest for the birds. One rule: don’t judge me for my coping skillz haha.
Breathing is easily my #1 used tool. I almost always count, because it makes sure I’m not thinking about anything but my number, and the physical act of breathing. Counting is like my reminder. I play a competitive game with myself stemmed from that saying “The only person you need to be better than, is who you were yesterday” or some shit like that. I challenge myself to take deeper breaths, hold them longer, and take longer to exhale. Sometimes I can’t get past “In: 1, 2. Out: 1, 2.” Eventually I can work myself up more into the “In: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Hold: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Out: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
Nerd moment: In an experiment on mice, scientists identified a circuit of neurons — a tiny cluster of a mere 350 nerve cells, among millions in the mouse brain — that regulate the connection between breathing and the higher-order brain activity that affects how calmly or worked up the mice behaved. So, there’s science proving breathing works. Just not if you take 3 deep breaths and exclaim exasperatedly that it’s not working.
Rearrange. Sometimes my mind needs to be shocked out of it. Unhealthy coping looks like unplanned painting or other household projects for me.
Clean. I know, it sounds so 50’s housewife, but sometimes it’s really nice to do something I don’t have to focus on to help ease my mind out of the race.
Plant. With ADHD, and the memory loss, this is a hard one because I plant them, tend them, then forget them. Nothing makes me happier than dipping my fingers into dirt though, so even though most of what I plant doesn’t grow, it helps. I proceed with caution with this one. I need to be resilient enough to take the “failure” and challenge the thoughts enough to realize the outcome isn’t what matters for me.
Read. It’s nice to dive into someone else’s world for awhile. One where they’re problems are worse than mine. I also have times of Netflix, and of course games. Just be careful, too much of a good thing, is avoidance.
Over research. I love to figure out the ins and outs of things. So, if there’s a big purchase I want to make, or if there’s a new project I want to try, I research the shit out of it. I read an anxiety book “First, We Make the Beast Beautiful.” Where the author described researching electric cars to the point where she pointed out a mistake in a major company's algorithms. She didn’t know anything about electric cars before she started her research. Before reading that, I had no idea that was a product of anxiety, but it felt so fucking validating to feel like I wasn’t alone, which in turn prompted me to write this blog article.
Writing. I never dove into writing past journal prompts before this blog. I have a list of ideas, but never felt qualified to write them. Perfection, grammar, and fear of rejection has caused me to steer away from this coping skill for a long time. I can tell you, it won’t ever be perfect, there will always be people who try to tear you apart. You don’t have to show anyone your writing, but if this has helped you at all, please consider sharing your viewpoint with the world. If you need an anonymous avenue. Please email me.
Baking. When I need a win, I bake. It comes naturally to me, and I like to experiment, and I get something tasty out of the deal! This week I made chocolate cupcakes from scratch with mini-Reese’s in the middle and buttercream peanut butter frosting. It was a hit.
I want to say meditate, but honestly that’s something I only do when I’m healthy. Sometimes when I don’t have it in me to try to sit still, I will still light incense or sage to at least take the sharpness off.
Typical journaling, but I like to do things differently. I like to journal outside the box. See the journal prompts, here.
Ask outright. If a thought is persistent and I’m having trouble fighting it, I will simply say “I’m feeling anxious, and this probably isn’t a thing, but if it’s not, I need reassurance, and if it is, I need to talk about it.”
Control what I can about my environment, try not to stress the rest. It sounds so much easier said than done, but the Worry Tree has come in clutch.
Headphones. When the world is too much, I make it smaller. I take out some senses by retreating until I’m calm.
Putting my phone down. One of my friends earned so much respect from me when she said “Sorry I didn’t text you back, I have anxiety.” It was all I needed and I didn’t mind at all.
Of course, I had to use the resources available to me, so I asked McDeath (MS, LMHC, NCC, LCPC), for some coping skills that work for people.
Cold water/ice on your face for 30 seconds. Creates a diver’s response.
ABC Game: Pick a letter in the alphabet and think of all the words you can starting with that number. Try to beat your highscore! Don’t cheat.
321 Senses: 3 things you see, 2 things you hear, 1 thing you smell.
Categories: Pick something you know more than 10 things about. Ea: Disney Villains, art mediums, dog breeds, colors, wood types, crystal names and properties, cat coat colors, the world is your oyster.
Create a retreat in your head.
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