I’m not sure that combining an anxious nature with a creative imagination is a good idea. I think I’d do better at managing my anxiety if my brain couldn’t create elaborate, albeit improbable, scenarios.
It’s a nice thought. I like it. It’s probably not true: I had three panic attacks yesterday without much in the way of inner-ugly movies. I woke up panicking: don’t do that. It’s revolting. It’s worse than the night sweats that now plague my life. [i]
Three in under two hours is probably a record. The last one was because I forgot to draw the shower curtain back to open. I let it stay closed after showering, so it dries: it’s easier and healthier than spraying Lysol constantly, or so I suspect. But it was closed when I staggered in already triggered: I hate it when Michael Myers hides in my bath. [ii]
It’s because I had people over the day before. An “it’s my birthday/we’re allowed to have up to ten people over outside” celebration in the backyard. Thank God it rained. Otherwise, we’d have been able to play the games I’d planned.
Cancelling was on my mind as soon as the invitations were sent. Parties and people over are problematic for me. I’m proud I powered through. I’m sorry I forgot to prep myself for my brain’s blowback. And yes, that’s a lot of alliteration.
The anxious morning thoughts destroying my calm included: my grandson developing pneumonia from playing in the rain; my son’s girlfriend getting sick from the aforementioned weather, not making it work, getting fired, and being unable to pay for college; my parents crashing the car on the ride home and the police arriving soon for notifications; me having asymptomatic COVID and infecting everyone, turning my socially-distanced, outdoor event into a super-spreader occurrence; and everyone, including my children, deciding they hate me and turning their backs. [iii]
None of this is true. I know it’s not true even when my brain starts thinking along those lines. That semi-awareness is a nice change and a sign of growth: I didn’t grab drugs to mood-alter or fall off the recovery wagon and binge and purge. [iv]
It sucks. Mental illness sucks. I read recently that the combination of major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder is one of the worst. [v] I feel lousy about that but also oddly proud. I’m among the worst. Of course, this is why I also run into problems with doctors. They assume my crazy translates to ignorant and stupid. Being female also doesn’t help. Doctors tend to treat women like they exaggerate their symptoms. I find that hilarious: society doesn’t mock the woman-flu.
Anxiety isn’t fatal. It co-opts the brain and drags you into bizarre, unreal and unrealistic scenarios (that might also be on account of the co-morbid PTSD) that bring misery and distress. It’s not, however, stronger than you.
I used to think it was. I used to think I couldn’t handle the feelings and emotions and couldn’t deal with what was coming. The discomfort and fear had to be dealt with and right quick. Whether that was popping a pill or throwing up lunch, the feelings needed to go away.
I was reasonably sure that the people who told me to sit with my feelings and work my way through the attacks with breathing, grounding, and directed thinking, were wrong. I didn’t care that it worked for other people. I knew, I knew I was different. I was worse, and their advice wouldn’t work for me. [vi]
It’s annoying to love that I’m wrong.
There’s much one can do to deal with anxiety. The list of bad things is nearly infinite. The creativity of the human mind never fails to impress me. We default to poor choices not because we’re idiots, the curse I levy at myself too often, but because they seem easier and faster. And they are, in the beginning. I pulled myself out of panic and anxiety with negative coping skills in short order. Positive responses let the anxiety last longer, at least in the early days.
There’s also the problem of being paralyzed by choice. Which coping skill should I choose? What if I pick wrong? Which I will, because I always do (thank you, anxious brain for that “hail Mary” attack).
What if I told you there was no wrong choice? There’s only the choice that works for you. For me, the best options seem to be logic (CBT) and 54321.
I can be opinionated and contentious, not stellar qualities in the general course of events, save when I’m trying to get my brain to shut up. The great thing about anxious thoughts and feelings is that they can’t hold against direct examination. They’re structurally weak: they lack internal logic and cohesion. When you start asking questions, they fall apart.
For example, my grandson has pneumonia from playing in the rain yesterday, and now my daughter hates me. I texted her, and she hasn’t immediately responded, so now I have proof.
1. You don’t get pneumonia from getting wet.
2. He got dry as soon as he finished playing in the rain. Both times. So, no chill. And, I’m the one who reminded my daughter that kids generally don’t get sick from playing in a summer rain.
3. She calls me when he gets a hangnail, and I heard nothing last night.
4. My children don’t hate me, my daughter doesn’t hate me, and answering the text right away isn’t a possibility since she’s at work.
Logic helps me to corral my thoughts. Anxiety is more than thoughts, though. The body hops on board as well. That’s where 54321 comes in. It settles the too-hot sympathetic nervous system that revs the body up in preparation for fight-or-flight. And, settling is needed: the heart rate and respiration rate climb, the muscles tense, vision narrows, and there’s nausea as the digestive system shuts down. In severe situations, one can even lose control of the bowels and bladder. I’ve been spared that, but the balance is not fun days at the fair.
To calm the body, you must redirect the focus. Anxiety turns your attention inward: 54321 helps you refocus on the world.
Focus on five things you can see, one after the other. Really look, really attend. Next, focus on four things you can feel. Then, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste. In the early days, I’d panic over the thought that I had the order wrong. The order doesn’t matter. If you focus on five you can hear and three you can smell, the result is the same. You calm the body by directing the attention elsewhere. The most challenging for me is the taste option: I generally don’t carry bits of food on my person.
Arms are salty when you’re dealing with anxiety-based flop sweat.
Do you struggle with an anxiety disorder, and what has worked for you if you do?
[i] I’m at more than one-hundred night sweats/atypical hot flashes a day now. It sounds ridiculously large, but it’s only four an hour. I’m not comfortable with how the medical establishment/male doctors are treating me. On the bright side, they were surprised to discover that my pain had a physical cause – three herniated discs in the lumbar spine. I’m pretty sure they’d written me off as a hypochondriacal woman. Still, I’d like it if they’d order a blood panel.
[ii] Part of my brain knew no one was behind the curtain: my amygdala didn’t care.
[iii] I really wanted to use the word “plaguing,” but I couldn’t make it work.
[v] I suspect I’m supposed to capitalize the names of the disorders since they’re probably proper nouns, but I don’t like the way it looks. Sue me.
[vi] Unearned arrogance gets in the way of treatment. Prejudging, contempt, lying: all the things I used to do to the people trying to help me. It didn’t help and kept me in trouble for longer. Weird.