The matrices of anxiety: how to predict it and what to do about it

I have to start this by saying that I went to one of the best shows ever last weekend: it was called Boy Band Review and it’s exactly what it sounds like. Dudes on stage singing all of your favorite *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, and Boys II Men hits, and then some. And there were dance moves. Like, good ones. It was the best.

There are a few things about this experience that were totally awesome:

  1. I went with some of the girls the dude plays volleyball with, who over the course of the last months/years have become friends of mine. It was super cool to get to hang out with them, not only because they know and love the dude and he loves them, but because they’re a blast. Funny, smart, compassionate, thoughtful: being surrounded by a group of such awesome women was so uplifting.
  2. I didn’t feel any anxiety beforehand even though in the past this situation would have had me on edge and headachey for about a day before I even got to the show.
  3. I was able to figure out what could trigger anxiety as it was happening, and I did something about it right then and there.
  4. AND I practiced self care when I got home instead of leaving how I’d feel the next day up to chance.

A lot of this for me was learning that even when I feel like I don’t have control, I actually probably do have at least a little. Case in point: the show was SO loud. I have never been to anything like it. It was so loud you could hear the speakers buzzing because they were at their maximum output. I’d left my earplugs at home and wasn’t drinking, so I shamelessly stole(politely asked for) a napkin from one of the girls, rolled it up, and shoved that shit in my ears. No way was I going to stand there for an hour and a half with that amount of noise entering my brain. Doing that was just begging for a migraine to start before the show was even over.

I also didn’t drink (as per usual), and though they invited me out to have nachos after the show, I went home instead. I was loving hanging out with them, but I also knew that I needed to be alone, take some kind of pain reliever, drink some water, and go to bed, or I’d be in a bad way the next day. So I did. And even though it was all I could do not to fall asleep on the couch, I went through my normal bedtime routine to make sure my brain shut down properly and didn’t wake me up in an hour’s time.

In talking about it with the dude when I got home, I discovered that I can kind of predict (and thus expect) some symptoms of anxiety before they even start if I’m thinking about my environment. This would have been really helpful during Thanksgiving, and I’m glad I got to practice because I realized that some trigger symptoms like headache, trouble sleeping, and fatigue are directly related to my environment. The more stimulation there is in my environment, the more likely it is that I will experience trigger symptoms and thus the more likely that I will start to feel anxious. It’s basically the panic loop, but at a lower level. I know this is kind of a DUH, but I’ve never really actually thought about it before so forgive me for writing a post about something so obvious. It’s like this:

stimulation -> trigger symptoms -> anxiety

Stimulation is anything that kind of sets you on edge or demands part of your constant attention. For me, that’s things like:

  • flashing lights
  • overly bright lights
  • loud noise
  • sustained/repetitive annoying noise
  • sustained/repetitive noise just inside of your hearing register
  • fatigue/tiredness
  • not having a break in more than a couple of hours
  • being around more than one or two people for more than an hour or so
  • not having done yoga for two or more days

When one or more of those things happen for long periods of time (say, more than an hour, give or take, depending on how many of them are happening), I know that I have to take steps to deal with it or it will lead to trigger symptoms. My length of tolerance also depends on what’s happening. If it’s only one kind of stimulation, I can easily handle that for a few hours, or more if necessary. But with each added type of stimulation, my tolerance time becomes shorter and shorter, and thus the trigger symptoms come on sooner.

Trigger symptoms are those things that are not directly related to anxiety(meaning they don’t always lead to feeling anxious) but ones that, left unchecked, definitely contribute to it. These are things like:

  • headache
  • fatigue
  • not sleeping well
  • insomnia
  • lethargy
  • apathy
  • irritability
  • hunger
  • thirst

I’ve gotten fairly good at regulating some of them: I always have advil with me, I eat a balanced diet (mostly) at regular intervals, and I’ve learned to do some yoga when I’m feeling apathetic, irritable, or lethargic. I’m still working on water intake because being a teacher means you can’t leave the kids alone in the room, so you can’t pee whenever you feel like it. To be honest, everything’s a work in progress, but I’m father with some than with others.

So, keeping in mind that the longer I’m in a high stimulation environment, the more likely I am to feel trigger symptoms, here’s what happened. When we first got to the show, I was like hey, this is awesome, I’m so glad I said yes(I still am). Three songs in, I was like I need some ear plugs and ripped up the aforementioned napkin. During the second set, I noticed a small headache at the base of my skull and that I was getting more easily irritated by being around so many people. (Seriously, Girl Arguing With Her Boyfriend, you can’t step outside or wait until you get home? Ditto to the Couple Who Wouldn’t Stop Making Out.) When we left I was still glad I’d gone, but it was time to go. I needed to not be around people anymore, even though I really liked the ladies I was with. When I got home, I ate, drank a ton of water, and took some advil. And then I basically ignored the dude until it was time to do our normal hanging out together before I go to sleep.

I was telling the dude the other day that I’m really starting to notice it when my energy starts getting depleted by being around people. Again, this is like a duh moment, but honestly, I never really thought about why I’m so tired when I get home for work. It’s because I spent all day with people and I need to be by myself and recharge. I’m depleted. I need people to not be asking me things every 30 seconds. I need to not make decisions. It’s hard to explain that to people who don’t get it and I feel very fortunate that the dude understands, especially because my job entails a lot of stimulation and it would be really easy to be irritable and lethargic all the time. I’m really lucky that he understands how necessary quiet time is for my survival and well-being.

This past weekend was awesome because I loved hanging out with the girls, but also because I did something I’ve been talking about for ages: I identified potential issues(loud speakers, being around people for an extended time), took steps to mitigate them (earplugs, going home early), and then practiced self care when I got home to head off any adverse effects that could arise the next day. And I am damn proud.

So here’s what I suggest if you’re really struggling to understand why some things make you anxious and why some don’t, or why you may feel anxious even when nothing particularly stressful happened.

  1. Identify types of stimulation that bother you. Maybe for you it’s not light and sound but it’s a lot of people demanding your attention. Or maybe it’s lack of stimulation. Make a list of things that annoy you, and those are probably the things that lead to your trigger symptoms.
  2. Identify trigger symptoms. Maybe you have a lot of the same ones I do (most people I know do). Maybe it’s more subtle than that: one of my students is naturally sarcastic and has sharp retorts, but I know when they start to become personal that something is wrong. It might be that subtle. It might take you a while to figure it out. You may need help doing so. That’s ok. Ask someone you trust to share what they’ve noticed with you.
  3. Identify steps you can take to mitigate either the stimulation or the trigger symptom. This is like the toolkit you use before you get to the anxiety checklist. You might find that as you start using this one more, you use your anxiety checklist less. I do, but we’re not all the same.

Going through this process has helped me to feel a lot more in control, especially in new/unknown situations. The positive effects of that feeling cannot be overstated: so many of us who struggle with anxiety struggle because there is some type of fear or misgiving or trauma in our past that is related to loss of control. That is certainly the case for me. Creating these lists also helps me to think about what kind of stimulation I’ll probably run into and to plan for it so that it’s not a surprise. And I also don’t feel like I’m reinventing the wheel every time; before I created my anxiety checklist, I felt like I had to figure everything out from scratch each time I was anxious and it was so scary and overwhelming. Keeping a note on my phone that I can just glance at takes a lot of mental distress out of the experience.

I hope that this is helpful for you. If you have questions or suggestions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

One thought on “The matrices of anxiety: how to predict it and what to do about it

  1. Pingback: Data mining, anxiety-style | it's only fear

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