Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Part 3: Where am I going? (or "Breathe. Breathe. I'm not going to die.")

I have started this blog post multiple times.  Right now at 11:52 PM on a Tuesday night I am making attempt number four.  The thing is that I know what I want to say.  I know that I want to write about my plan for managing the stress and anxiety I've been dealing with for the past five months.  The problem is that everything I write comes out sounding...well, overly simplistic and weirdly cheerful.

What?  That's a bad thing?

Yes, because this isn't a happy moment. This isn't a moment of bliss or joy - instead it's me recognizing that this is going to be a lot of work.  I can break it down into a list of things I need to be doing:

1. Paying attention to how I feel.
2. Pausing to recenter when I feel stressed or anxious.
3. Making time everyday to relax.
4. Getting enough sleep.
5. Eating well.
6. Being physically active.

But while the list may seem simple (Hey! You too can achieve peace and life long serenity in these six easy steps!!!), the actions are not (oh, wait...).

Anxiety feels AWFUL especially at its overwhelming extreme and to get to the first item on the list means to acknowledge that it is exists.  And that, dear reader, can be a very uncomfortable place for those of us who prefer to just keep on moving in the hopes that the bad feelings go away or at least don't catch up.  Facing it, confronting it and dealing with it instead of shutting down or denying it is of course the only way one can learn to manage it but that does not mean it is easy.

And here is the other catch.  I don't believe for a moment that this is something that will go away.  I believe that one way or another I'll be dealing with anxiety issues for the rest of my life.  Whether through conditioning or genetics I think that I, like many others, am simply prone towards anxiety.  Add to that one or two traumatizing life experiences that, while long past and massaged into manageability by lots of therapy, still occasionally rear their beady eyed ugly little heads and it becomes pretty obvious that anxiety and I will likely be in a constant state of negotiation for some time to come.

I also know that the old adage of anything worth doing is worth doing well is true and doing something well often means a lot of hard work.  I took the easy route once, and at that time I needed to. While being temporarily on medication helped to ease the extreme anxiety I was having at that time, allowed me to sleep and to also take a look at why I was feeling what I did, it had side effects that I did not want in my life.**

In the years that followed I learned to manage my anxiety, spot an impending panic attack and prevent it from happening.  I learned what circumstances were likely to trigger it and how could I approach those circumstances differently. I learned that no matter how awful it might feel in the moment anxiety, and the vast majority of things that made me feel anxious, won't kill me.  "Breathe.  Breathe.  I'm not going to die," became my mantra.

Being alive is like running an emotional marathon where the training and practice begin at the same time that the starting gun is fired.  I might have run approximately half the statistical distance of my life but I've still  just as far to go ahead of me to go.    Living is definitely something worth doing well, and while being human is a lot of work, it's work that I am equipped for and willing to do.

**A word on medication and anxiety.  

Anxiety in its extreme can be crippling and medication for anxiety can be a life saving thing for many as it was for me.  For a variety of reasons it was not something that worked for me in the long term; for others it is something they need to get through the day.  There is nothing wrong with either choice. 

If you are dealing with extreme anxiety, particularly if it is to the point where it is disrupting basic life care activities like eating or sleeping, please seek help.  You are not alone.  

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has many resources available.  


  1. "Being alive is like running an emotional marathon where the training and practice begin at the same time that the starting gun is fired." Beautiful analogy. So true. I'm sorry you're suffering with anxiety, and that it's a chronic condition. As a culture, we tend to sympathize with those who have physical-body chronic conditions, but not so much with mental or emotional ones - perhaps because they're not as immediately visible. I think you're brave for writing about this, and today I had a friend (who I didn't even know read your blog) comment on how it has helped her.

    I would add that I've discovered in my own life that being happy or joyful is not a result of what I'm going through/not going through/faced with in my life. Rather, it's more of a practice, a choice that I make over and over again. Of course it's harder when you're suffering, a condition has flared up, crises happen. But in the big picture, along the marathon, happiness or joy is a mindfulness practice. It's something that is returned to again and again, not something that is achieved. That's my experience anyway.

    Many blessings to you.

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    2. Thank you for your comment and for sharing your experience. I have received a bit of an overwhelming response to this series of posts, mostly through email, and I am glad that it appears to be helpful to so many.

      I don't see anxiety as an emotion in the same way as happy, sad, angry, etc. though it can certainly have a great impact on how we experience any of emotion. I believe it is a remnant of our flight or fight stress response which is something very different. Of course worry is good when you have to plan for an impending bear attack but it isn't such a useful thing when the stress is simply I have too much to do, it is instead paralyzing.

      In addition when our bodies have that response, and it is ready for that bear attack that then doesn't happen one can become stuck in a cycle of stress and anxiety which just builds and builds and builds as it has no release - I think this is, for me anyway, what causes an eventual panic attack.

      Mindfulness is good in that it helps me to see when the anxiety is about to flare up and I can then take steps to prevent it from escalating. I also think mindfulness is good for learning to sit with a painful emotion, to allow oneself to be in a place of sadness or grief with out self judgement and of course to also fully experience love and joy when those things occur in our lives.

      As for the choosing joy and happiness…well that is another discussion but personally I have a bit of a peeve with much of the self help publications out there that tell people "you are unhappy because you choose to be". I think for many that premise can cause a lot of pain and self blame when they are already struggling.

      In the end I think there are a plethora of healing paths to choose from and we all need to find the one that fits us best.


  2. As a long time sufferer of anxiety, I've come to the conclusion that a lot of it comes from our seeking to conform to the Dominant Paradigm, that is what our culture expects from us. For the first 60 or so years in this life, I let work, relationships, religion, and peers cast the mold into which I tried to fit myself. "If only I fit perfectly, I'll be calm and happy" says the voice inside.

    Thr trouble with that is that I'm not being who I authentically am when I try to fit the mold, And THAT, I think, is the real source of the anxiety.

    So I've begun giving it up. But 'tain't easy. Old habits and patterns are sometimes hard to break. But I try. And I succeed more and more as time passes.

    1. Thank you for reading and for sharing your experience.

      My anxiety rears it's head when I become overwhelmed (helloooo fall semester 2013), overtired or when a triggering event related to a past trauma occurs. The first two have a lot to do with maintaining an awareness of what my limits are and of course recognizing when I am about to cross the line of "too much" and also when I actually have and then stepping back to do the self care that is needed. The third is more about learning to feel safe and continuing to heal.

      It has been interesting to write about this and to see all of the experience that people have shared. I think anxiety is a very common problem and one our culture is not necessarily always well equipped to manage.