Anxiety is something I’ve been dealing with since I was a teenager. It’s that overwhelming sense that things have gone wrong, are going wrong, and will go wrong and that I will suffer the terrible consequences. As a teenager, I was convinced that I was always making some grave social misstep when I interacted with people, and as a result, I felt that I was constantly being judged. I didn’t think anybody liked me and I isolated myself. I watched people’s interest in me dwindle, hemorrhaging friends every year. Devastating words like “failure” and “loser” and “alone” reverberated around my mind, chipping away at something inside me every time they collided with my insides. No one really called me these things to my face, but in my experience of anxiety, I was my own bully.
Fortunately, once high school was over and I went off to university, things slowly got better. I didn’t leave high school without scars and tattered self-esteem, but experiencing the freedom to take care of myself for the first time helped me begin to heal. If I was feeling overwhelmed, I could have alone time to get myself together. I could try to face social situations that intimidated me slowly, in a way that didn’t provoke a breakdown.
So when I left undergrad a few years ago, my anxiety came with me, but it was controlled. Instead of a wild, ravaging wolf, I had an unruly retriever on my hands. I could put it on a leash.
I thought that was the end of that, until last week, when I found myself awake at 5 am, on the verge of tears, and quickly spiralling. What?
After that incident, I spent the whole weekend feeling gutted and weepy. I slept for nine hours and still felt tired. I felt emotionally drained days later, and it felt really hard getting up in the mornings. Like, why bother?
I’m feeling better now, but the whole experience was disturbing. Why did it feel so familiar to my high school days? Wasn’t I supposed to be past this? Sure, I had felt anxiety in the years since, but nothing quite like that.
To be fair, I had an overwhelming sense that something was wrong for a few weeks (or has it been months?) before I had my anxiety spell. There was the rapid weight gain, the struggle with losing said weight, the way my mind would spill over with negative thoughts at night, the way I lay in bed in the mornings finding any reason to stay there, and the constant sense of instability.
I just assumed I was stressed, because I was. School and work responsibilities, a death in the family, dating, maintaining a social life, feeling unqualified for the careers I’m interested in, watching my family get older and sicker, and frightening diagnoses.
My feelings of nervousness and strain were a normal response to everything going on. And it didn’t feel like the anxiety I had felt before. My anxieties were about life, not people.
As I mulled over the anxiety spell, searching for some explanation as to what happened, I realized that I didn’t think my anxiety could change. But I suppose anxiety is a response to stress, not the stress itself.
So when my stress changed, so did my anxiety, and my ignorance of that allowed it to sneak up on me.
The thing about my anxiety is that dealing with it can be like descending an endless staircase. One anxious thing leads to another anxious thing, and I find myself sinking deeper into the internal chaos and feeling less like there’s a way out. Praying and sleeping are two things that can interrupt the cycle. But what about before the cycle even starts? What about prevention?
Energy budget cuts
I like to think that I have several lines of defense against invading feelings of anxiety. A lot of them go back to what I learned in undergrad, and can be neatly summarized as self-care.
When I’m stressed, I do energy budget cuts, and a lot of the things that keep me functional get axed.
The higher my anxiety levels go, the more I feel I need to function at a basic level. Things like “let me go to the library and do some writing for work” became “do some writing for work.” “Let me try to eat a balanced meal” became “eat,” and in hindsight, I realized that these helpful short-term survival instincts morphed into harmful longer-term coping mechanisms.
I stopped going outside. Staying up late meant I would wake up late, anxiety in the morning meant I started my day way later than I intended, and all I wanted to do was barrel towards to my computer and get to work. Going outside to say, the library, seemed like an awful lot of time and effort, and with my afternoon caregiving responsibilities, it’s not like I’d have much time to work outside anyway. So I stayed in.
Incidentally, when you don’t go outside, you also don’t see people you don’t live with very much. Social interaction is still a human need, even for highly introverted people like me.
When I don’t go anywhere, I also don’t get much exercise. I’m a student/frugal person, so I take the bus. If I go out, that’s easily twenty minutes of exercise just from walking to and from the bus stop. But if I stay in, I get zero minutes of exercise.
The anxiety really messed up my schedule and routine, too. Staying up way later than my usual bedtime and sleeping way past my usual wake up time set me on edge for the rest of the day. I was trying to work through my feelings in the morning, so I was slow getting ready. As the time passed, I felt an increasing sense that I needed to get on with my. So to save time, I did things like eat quick, easy cholesterol bombs day in and day out. Things that made me feel concerned about my health and that probably weren’t the best food for a brain that’s already struggling.
I’m not a psychologist, but I’m pretty sure I was messing with some pretty important parts of my brain. I wouldn’t be surprised if that leads to bad things like anxiety spells.
In hindsight, I’m not sure I would have completely avoided an anxiety spell because the stress I feel is due to genuine issues, several of which I have no control over. But if I had gone outside, made it a point to socialize and exercise, kept my routines, and decided on my meals the night before, the spell might have been less intense and limited to a few hours instead of leaving me feeling knocked out for a week.
Even though I developed a lot of negative coping mechanisms that ultimately caught up to me, I had a handful that were positive and kept me afloat.
Writing was one of those things. I’ve been writing for so long that putting pen to paper and going to town has become a deeply-ingrained habit, especially when I’m feeling emotional or generally unwell. My journal removes my inhibitions about not dumping things on people or baring my innermost thoughts. My journal won’t tell me that I just need to breathe, or that I’m blowing things out of proportion. It “listens” to me, providing me with a space to let out my thoughts and then come to my own conclusions about how I’m feeling. This writing has largely turned into journal-style prayers over the past few months, so it doubles as self and spirit care, a way to talk to God while He bandages my wounds and calms my soul.
The other thing is accessing help. Before the anxiety spell, I realized I was in over my head because dealing with the things in my life was no longer a one-woman job. Unfortunately, mental health services are expensive and if we’re fortunate enough to be covered through work, school, or the government, that coverage doesn’t seem to go very far. Personally, I think we should take whatever help is available in the way of a mental health professionals, even if we’re not on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Everybody needs help with things.
I’ve found help in other areas too. Sometimes I’d find a little peace just by googling and realizing there was a rational explanation for what I was feeling or that someone else had a story about what they were going through that resonated with mine. But a lot of the time, feeling integrated into the wider world could calm the thunderous thoughts in my head, even for a moment. Doing a random act of kindness or having a friend who could take a few moments to hear me out helped to keep me going. We all need human connection.
Prevention is the best medicine
This isn’t intended to be any kind of prescription for people going through mental illness, but I think the point I’m trying to make is that self-care is important. I think we tend to think about mental health as something that exists only when things are going acutely wrong (I know I did), but it’s really an everyday thing that’s part of being a healthy, functional person.
Are you taking care of yourself? How?
Image via Lisa Fotios @ Pexels
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