Getting out from under

I’ve written before about my love/hate relationship with anxiety: I love that it keeps me organized and conscientious of others and that it’s heightened my sense of empathy. I hate that it makes me feel nauseous, that I can’t always enjoy important moments, and that it makes some really simple things really difficult.

My biggest fear when I really started to deal with all of this was what’s going to happen in the future? Am I going to be able to walk down the aisle without having a panic attack? What about when I have a kid? Am I going to be able to handle parenting when I’m crying and feeling nauseous and like I’m not myself all at once? Those thoughts scared me a lot because I really just wanted the anxiety to go away. I didn’t want to have to deal with it anymore. My main goal was to figure out how to get rid of it once and for all so that I could get back to life without anyone knowing. Anxiety felt like a black hole had taken up residence in my chest and it was only a matter of time before it turned me into someone unrecognizable. (Or until Matthew McConaughey tried to use it to send a message to his daughter.)

While this attitude gave me the motivation to start therapy and do read as much about anxiety as possible, this is not a healthy way the approach it. Wanting to eradicate anxiety is a form of resistance; it leads to more tension, and more anxiety. It’s the classic fear of fear. I was so worried about having an attack in specific situations that I didn’t realize I was keeping myself on alert in every situation and thus making things worse for myself.

My therapist asked me last week what my ultimate goal would be in terms of anxiety. What does the best possible outcome look like? Well, that’s easy- it’s completely gone. But I don’t want to approach that with that attitude, because it will make me feel like I’ve failed every time the anxiety shows up. I told her that what I really want is to have a set strategy in place so that when I feel it start to get bad I know exactly what to do. I want to approach this like I’m going to live with it all my life – because I probably am, one way or another – and knowing that it’s not going away actually helps me cultivate the accepting attitude that’s so important in anxiety and panic work. Assuming that I’ve got another 60ish years of this ahead of me helps me to make room for it. And, maybe most importantly, it normalizes it. I want to get to the point where, when anxiety pops up, I’m just like “oh, you” and go back to whatever I was doing.

I’m definitely closer to this than I was a year ago, and one of the things that’s been really helpful has been learning how to depersonalize the anxiety. This is really helpful in trying to be an outside observer and to view anxiety as something that is happening to me versus a character flaw. While my reaction used to be oh my god, what the FUCK is going on?!!?! it’s now more oh. Well this is annoying but I’m pretty sure I’ve got this. And, honestly, I’m pretty damn proud of that. It’s been a long time since I was crying uncontrollably and feeling like I was going to puke at any second. These days it’s mostly some nausea (sniffing peppermint oil is an amazing help for that, by the way), some rapid heartbeat, some tightness in the chest. If I can’t get to a quiet place then it can escalate, but usually I can make that happen, or at least stand in the back of my classroom and breathe for a minute or two while my students work. I feel like I need one more really big anxiety-producing experience akin to meeting the dude’s parents or traveling somewhere I’ve never been so that I can really see where I am, and I’m sure that one’ll be along in due course. The day-to-day feels good, though, and I’m really proud of that. I’m almost where I want to be. It feels really good not to have that black hole hanging out in my chest anymore. (But if Matthew McConaughey wanted to hang out there, I’d be ok with that.)

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