Self-care and perception

Anxiety does crazy things to your perception; not only of time, but of events, people, meaning – everything.

The dude is in Florida visiting his parents, and it’s just me and the dog. Which is awesome because that means I get to cuddle with her a ton and I can stretch out in bed. It also sucks because he’s pretty cool and I miss him and it’s weird without him in the apartment(that sounds super low-key but I love that kid. Like, a lot). It also means that my anxiety has been worse the last couple of days than it’s been in a while.

I woke up a lot during the night feeling some tightness in my chest and a vague feeling of worry. Then at 5 my eyes sprang open and my brain started thinking at top speed: what if I haven’t set my alarm early enough? what if the dog doesn’t want to poop? what if she takes forever and then I’m late for work and I feel rushed all day? I really feel anxious, maybe I should call in sick. What if she throws up or goes to the bathroom in the apartment? Seriously, maybe I should call out.

Normally, one at a time, these thoughts are easy to handle. What if she poops in the apartment? Then you clean it. Duh.

But anxiety doesn’t work like that. Anxiety doesn’t give you space to take each thought one at a time. It’s doesn’t even give you space to TRY to answer; your thoughts are racing so fast that it feels like a Herculean task to even just take a breath, let alone talk yourself through each of them. Sometimes this goes on for a really long time, and you have no epiphanies, and everything you try doesn’t work, and you feel helpless and alone and out of control.

But sometimes, a logical thought sneaks in there with all of the illogical ones, and interrupts them. This morning as I was sitting up in bed in the dark feeling exhausted but also lots of adrenaline, my brain had this thought: you’re anxious because you’re worried that you won’t get the timing right and that something will go wrong with the dog and you’ll be late to work. You could call out, but then you’re delaying the thing you’re anxious about and you’re just going to have to deal with it tomorrow. And it will be worse.

This seems small and logical and rational and is something my brain would come up with easily on its own. But in the grip of anxiety, my brain is like a two-year-old at a birthday party: too much noise, too much stimulation, too much adrenaline, too much sugar, about to crash AT ANY MOMENT. So a thought like this, a calming, logical thought, is like a naptime oasis. It’s something you can hold on to, like a blanket, and it becomes your focus, your task. It becomes your island in a sea of choppy grey water with sharks.

So, I got up, got dressed, put on my makeup, and made coffee. To my surprise, the dog got up and seemed like she really wanted to go out, which, when I think about it, makes sense because it had been 10 hours since we went. We got ready to go, and in the elevator I started the stop watch on my phone to see how long it would take her. It was just barely light outside, but we went to her usual spot and she did her thing. The whole thing took us about 15 minutes, and I left the house well within my normal time range.

Many people would probably be like duh, of course it was fine. You got up early and gave yourself extra time and you did the thing. But to someone with anxiety, and particularly me, whose anxiety is often racing thoughts, a small thing like that feels like a huge accomplishment. On the train to work I felt relief and pride and also awe at how my brain can have this huge reaction to something that’s pretty unimportant.

Anxiety changes your perception of things. It makes little things – like walking the dog – into huge, insurmountable tasks because it associates a whole bunch of deeper levels of meaning to this small thing. And it makes big things – like acts of thoughtfulness or compassion – tiny. It makes you feel like you can’t handle the little things and everything is wrong with you, but then you handle a big thing and you barely even think about it. The hardest part of anxiety is always the managing of it: the things you can do to prevent it, the things you can do when you’re feeling anxious, the things you do after. That is, and has always been, really, really difficult.

Self-care is really important in managing anxiety, and that is particularly hard for me because often it feels selfish. It’s taken me a long time to learn – and I keep learning over and over, because I often forget – that self-care is not selfish. It is the opposite of selfish. It is practicing compassion both for yourself and for others; practicing self-care means that you’re investing in yourself. You’re helping yourself feel less stressed and anxious, and that impacts the people around you. Self-care is a necessary part of a healthy relationship, not only because it helps you maintain independence, but because it helps you manage and channel your emotions – including anxiety – and it helps you practice empathy, compassion, and generosity towards the people in your life.

And sometimes, self-care is not pampering or a reward. Sometimes, self-care is making yourself do the hard thing, the sad thing, the frustrating thing. Sometimes self-care is sharing something private and vulnerable with someone, even though you really just want to clam up. Sometimes self-care is asking a big question that speaks to your insecurities and you’re terrified of the answer.

And sometimes, self-care is getting out of bed, and walking the dog.

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