so don’t be anxious


as i work to recover from my mental breakdown, i’ve taken to reading philosophical and psychological texts. i’m trying to improve my ability to handle my thoughts and moderate my actions, which is an overly-complicated way of saying i’m trying to get better.

one recent reading was from epictetus’ the enchiridion: “avoid anxious thoughts. if you want to make progress, stop feeling anxious about things.”

initially, all i got from that was “thanks, tips”. if i could avoid anxious feelings, i wouldn’t be in this mess. the advice continues: “don’t think [such and such a thing].” identifying what i’m thinking is even more problematic.

it’s hard to isolate a stream of thought when your anxiety is amped up. i usually have no idea about the thoughts that caused the problem; all i know is that my heart feels huge and too fast, and my chest is tight, like it’s being compressed from all sides. my face feels frozen, and my expression and jaw become rigid. my skin seems too small for my body, and the clothes i’m wearing are suddenly all wrong; too tight, with seams that irritate, and unpleasant smells.  beyond the physical, my thoughts get loud and fast and so intrusive that sometimes the urge to run is overwhelming. identifying the line of thought that contributed to the mess is a challenge.

not learning how to isn’t an option anymore. the behavioural ducking and weaving i do to escape my feelings gets me into ugly trouble. i act out in inappropriate ways (that sentence reminds of a school report card; acts out, does not play well with others, and eats paste).

my coping behaviours are harshly negative, which leads to feelings of guilt, which leads to self-criticism and negative self-talk, which increases my anxiety, which causes me to act out inappropriately, and so we dance. being able to identify and label at least the feeling of anxiety is progress.

i spent a long time denying that particular diagnosis, even as i accepted others. my eating disorder was out of the closet; i confessed so denial would have been ridiculous, though the urge to was still there. my depression was first diagnosed in my early twenties and it never occurred to me to be embarrassed or ashamed. it just was. i was probably too busy with bulimia to bother resisting. the label of anxiety, however, i refused. i wouldn’t even consider the possibility of that particular neurosis. anyone who suggested anxiety was wrong.

to me, anxiety was panic attacks, not obsessive-compulsive behaviours. i had plenty of the latter. i just wouldn’t believe that the demented squirrels that raced around my brain and pushed me into damaging behaviours had anything to do with anything.

anxiety. a small word that sounds almost benign when the experience of it is anything but. strange that i resisted believing that it was a problem for me for so long. regardless, i’ve seen the light. i concede. it’s amazing how clear a diagnosis becomes when you’re peering up at it from the bottom of a hole. it’s a relief, in a way. accepting the diagnosis is definitely better than telling myself over and over that i’m fundamentally flawed and fucked up.

because i’m learning to identify and label that uncomfortable feeling as anxiety, i can now catch myself before i fall too far. knowing what the feeling is makes it easier to make the decision to not discard my recovery. it makes it easier, though it’s still not easy, to resist vomiting and cutting. identifying the feeling, however, is as far as i’ve generally gone in the process. apparently, there’s more.

identifying my underlying thoughts is harder. often times, i’m barely aware i’m thinking at all. i’m better at identification in retrospect. it’s easier to look back at an event and work out how it came to pass than to try and figure out what’s driving me when i’m in the moment.

part of that is normalization, maybe. what we choose to do is normal. it’s familiar and comfortable, even if it’s maladjusted and harmful. acceptance of the extreme as the everyday is why i think there’s lag time between acting my anxiety out and identifying the thoughts that contributed to my mental state.

still, even the “after the fact” analysis has value. i learn a little more each time. the study of the what and why provides clarity. there really is value in examination. next though, i want to learn how to identify the thoughts in the moment. to not only to recognize when i’m getting jacked up but to understand why.

i want what epictetus suggests – i want to learn to let go of the thoughts that cause the problem in the first place. i want to challenge them in the moment. once i get to that point, i’ll be able to say “thanks, tips” to the sages and mean it.


january 24, 2018

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