The last few nights/early mornings, anxiety has been bounding around in my brain like a kid on a sugar high. Hi! Hi! Can we think about this thing from five years ago? No wait, actually I want to think about this thing from 13 years ago that involved totally different people NO WAIT I want to think about right now and a month from now and a year from now ALL AT THE SAME TIME. Also you should probably start making plans for an event that may or may not happen just so you’re ready. THINK ABOUT ALL OF THE THINGS!!
It’s been a little hectic in the old noggin. Normally, I read every night before bed for ~30-40 minutes, and by the end of it I’m yawning and barely remembering what the last sentence was about. Then I turn on my shusher (what I call my white noise app), turn off the lights, snuggle up next to the dog, and konk out. This week, though, I’ll read until I get tired, settle down, and then suddenly my brain is like:
Eventually, I breathe like I learned through Headspace (count to ten, inhale on odd numbers, exhale on even) for long enough that my brain gets really bored counting and gets quiet. That part is tricky, though, because if I notice that’s what’s happening, I’m wide awake again and have to spend another 5-10 minutes breathing. Then sometime in the early morning, I wake up, and before I can get back to sleep my thoughts are hopped up like Chris Traeger on raisins.
(Can you guys tell yet that I really love/identify with Chris Traeger?)
This isn’t new to me, but it’s definitely been a while since this has happened without a clear reason. Maybe it’s our trip to California next week, where the dude will do some work stuff that is a pretty big deal and is potentially life-changing. Maybe it’s that school starts in a month and I’m not even close to being ready to go back. Maybe it’s that I’m worried about flying, since I haven’t taken a plane trip since my last panic attack. Maybe it’s these books that I’m reading (The Dresden Files) that are awesome but also pretty non-stop and my brain is just like gotta stay awake to fight demons and vampires!. I dunno. And I’m trying really hard to be ok with not knowing and to just keep doing my yoga/gym/breathing thing, but to be honest, it’s more annoying than anything else. I’m at that place where the anxiety is infrequent enough that sometimes I can pretend it’s not A Thing (’cause I’m doing such a good job managing it 💪 👊). But it still pops up, and when it does, it feels really inconvenient.
I haven’t actually forgotten about it, and I never will, because it will never go away. I’m committed to this for the rest of my life. The lessened intensity and infrequency of it make it easy to assume that I’m not thinking about it much, but I am. Thinking about anxiety is both a symptom of it and a way to manage it. When it’s a symptom, I end up thinking less about the anxiety itself and more about things I should have done or said and how things would be different if I had said or done that. Or that student from four years ago is probably still secretly mad at me and do my friends actually like me and there’s still time for my whole life to fall apart. Sometimes there’s even an I wish that guy I dated that one time hadn’t been such a dick (though that’s pretty rare these days and I credit the dude for that because he’s so fucking awesome that he eclipses everyone. Except my sister.). When it’s a symptom, I worry about things I can’t change and feel WAY too guilty about said things I can’t change and/or the other person doesn’t actually give a shit about. Things start to feel way bigger than they ever could have been in real life. I am the queen of making mountains out of molehills with regards to my own behavior. Sometimes I apologize to the dude for whatever it was that’s been eating me up and he’s like “what are you talking about?” (Newsflash, guys: anxiety can really fuck with your head.) I replay moments from my past, or I think about what I would do if I ran into someone who used to be important to me that I don’t talk to anymore. About half the time, I can catch myself and be like hey, you don’t need to be thinking about that. It’s cool. You can let it go. Breathe. The other half of the time I’m like legitimately worried about whether my favorite professor in college (which was TEN years ago) thought I was a know-it-all or how I made that snarky comment that one time(many times) or berating myself for all of the irritated, uncharitable thoughts that have ever popped into my head. Fucked up, right? Anxious thoughts make me feel like I’m an asshole for feeling anything but happy and put together. They make me feel responsible for everyone’s – and I mean everyone, from my best friend to my boss – behavior. They make me feel like I’m never going to be the person I want to be, or the partner I want to be, or the parent I want to be, because I’m irreparably broken/messed up/just a bad person. It sucks.
I know that it’s not true. I know that I’m human and it’s ok to be in a bad mood, it’s ok to be hurt or upset or disappointed in myself or someone else. I know that people are complex and complicated and we make mistakes and those moments are actually pretty cool. I know it’s ok to think oh my fucking god when I’ve been yelled at by teenagers all day and some dudebro stops in the middle of the sidewalk to watch a cat video and I just want to get home. I know that those anxious thoughts are lying to me, but they can be sneaky ninja bastards sometimes.
So I’m trying to use the symptom of anxiety to manage the anxiety: I’m using the thoughts to manage the thoughts. When I give myself permission to think about anxiety or that thing that happened that one time, I’m not forcing it down or trying to hide it; I’m accepting it and making room for it, which, as we know, is key. In the early days, this led to a lot of ruminating and a lot of what ifs, and it still does sometimes(i.e. the last few nights). And that was/is hard. But I think it’s also necessary, because in learning how to sit with those thoughts and experience them, I’ve slowly learned how to recognize which ones have the potential to actually create anxiety and how to deal with them so that they don’t hijack me. It’s still a struggle, honestly, because I secretly kind of love to ruminate. Give me the right music and a window to stare out of – preferably one in a car – and I will happily be in my own head for hours. I love me some nostalgia.
The work has been around learning the difference between just kind of being lost in thought and actively worrying. For a long time, those were the same thing, but therapy and meditation have taught me how to acknowledge worried or anxious thoughts and then let them go. I’m learning the difference between worrying and remembering. If I find myself starting to ruminate about something that makes me feel anxious, I try now to sit with that feeling for a bit and then I can answer the question (because it’s usually a question and that’s how I know the difference). Sometimes I need to really think through it and make an if then so kind of plan. Sometimes I start thinking about something from the past or what people from my past would say if they could see me now, and I know that I’m not really worrying, so I just let the story play in my head. Usually that’s all I need, but if I find myself bouncing between memories or thinking about the same one over and over, I know that’s going to create anxiety and I can start to manage it with breathing. The speed and content of my thoughts indicates the level of anxiety to me, and then I know how to manage it: either I let it go, or I intentionally sit with it while I start belly breathing.
This blog is also a great way to give myself permission to think about anxiety, and I would encourage you to find an activity that you do/use specifically for this purpose. When you know you’ve planned time to think about it, it takes some of the urgency away from the thoughts when they initially arise. I like I listen to music (Glen Hansard and Josh Ritter are particularly good) and write a blog entry. A friend of mine colors. Lots of people meditate. I think it’s really important to give yourself a time and space to intentionally invite the anxiety into your day. Practicing that acceptance helps you to be resilient in moments where it spikes or feels like it comes out of nowhere, and it helps to lessen the intensity. It’s like being a boxer: boxers don’t feel any less pain than the rest of us. They’re just accustomed to being hit. They’re used to it, they expect it, they know what it’s going to feel like when it happens. That’s the goal with anxiety, or at least, my goal. I don’t want it to go away completely. I want it to be familiar. Known. I want to be on a first-name basis with it. I want to look at it like an old friend who drives me crazy sometimes but sometimes the annoying things about them are actually kind of useful. And I think that I’m getting pretty good at it. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still wake up in a terror sometimes and have to breathe for a minute or two and remember where I am and snuggle the dog. It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel my insides twisting with apprehension. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have a little moment of oh no when I feel that tightness in my chest. But it does mean that when those things DO happen, I’ve felt them before and I know what to do. And, honestly? That’s all I ever really wanted.