One of the things I’m slowly learning about my anxiety is what triggers it and when to expect it. For instance, there’s usually some anxiety around some kind of confrontation or confession, and there is always some around traveling. My therapist also thinks (and I agree) that I’m more susceptible when I haven’t been doing yoga regularly and when I’m over stimulated.
I’ve also learned that it’s way easier to deal with when I’m expecting it, no matter how much anxiety there is. For instance, I cooked dinner for my family last night all by myself – I’m a real adult! – and had some minor, almost negligible anxiety about it beforehand. What helped was knowing that a) I’d made that dish a bunch of times before so I knew what should and shouldn’t be happening with it, and b) expecting to feel some anxiety in the first place.
On a bigger scale, a similar thing happened when the dude and I went on vacation with his family last summer. We drove so that we could take the dog with us, and for a couple of days leading up to travel day my brain would not be quiet. Even while watching tv or cross stitching, my brain was like so you’re going to sit in the backseat with the dog for a while because she’ll probably get carsick. What if you get carsick, too? What if you have a panic attack and you can’t take care of the dog? And if you can’t do that, how are you ever going to walk down the aisle and get married or be a parent? How can you possibly be a parent when this is happening to you? How are you going to enjoy your vacation if this is happening to you? What’s his family going to think? You were like this last time; this isn’t who you are. What if they think this is who you are?!
Needless to say, my brain was not a very fun place to be. And sure enough, about an hour before we were ready to leave my stomach started acting up. And about an hour into the trip there was a solid half an hour where I thought the dog and I would be throwing up into the same garbage bag. And for the first two hours of the trip, I cried so much that I had nothing left to pee when we stopped. I slept for like 3 hours after that because I was so worn out, and I couldn’t really eat, and when we finally got there I was so exhausted that I could barely talk to the dude’s brother and his fiance, the bird.
But looking back on it, I learned a lot of things from that experience. I learned that I can meet the needs of others while in the middle of a panic attack; even though I was crying and felt awful and just wanted it to be over, I still comforted the dog and made sure she wasn’t sick all over the car, got her water and treats. I learned that I have an incredibly giving, supportive, and patient partner in the dude, and that I am very, very lucky. And I learned that I have a kind of a soul mate in the bird. Not soul mate as in we’re meant to be in love etc etc, but soul mate as in someone who fundamentally understands my experience and has empathy for it. My friendship with the bird has been one of the best things to come out of this whole anxiety thing, and I was so grateful to have her as another anchor during that trip.
The biggest thing I learned, though, was that it’s so much easier when you expect it and make room for it. Obviously that’s not possible every time, but it showed me that it’s important to learn my triggers so that I can manage them and anticipate the anxiety. Because the thing about expecting it is that – while the physical side of it is still pretty shitty – the mental side is so much easier when you know it’s coming. It’s so much easier to use compassionate self talk, and it greatly lessens the feelings of depersonalization and the panic of why is this happening to me?. It helps you make room for the anxiety and accept its presence, which, as I’ve said before, greatly helps to lessen the symptoms.
For me, the big work is trying to cultivate that mindset in the middle of an attack I wasn’t expecting. It’s difficult and frustrating and sad-making, but I also know I can do it. It might take me the rest of my life, but I can do it.