So I’ve always had anxiety. I didn’t realize the long, long history of my anxiety until years after I started therapy in my early twenties. The paranoid thinking — a major symptom of my anxiety — could be traced back to childhood, even before the trauma of my mother’s death from cancer.
In my late twenties I decided to go on medication. I had been in therapy for years and made a lot of progress. I was doing all the yoga, eating all the good food, and living a healthy lifestyle. But I still couldn’t shake the bodily symptoms that accompanied my anxiety: the shortness of breath, the feeling like two giant bricks were permanently sitting on top of my lungs. Going on medication was not an easy decision. Despite my unwavering support towards those in my life who had made this decision, I couldn’t give myself that same support.
One day I realized that just managing wasn’t the state that I needed to live in. While everyone else went out and about in the world with the proper amount of serotonin, I was walking around with a deficit. So I began to take anti-anxiety medication and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My paranoid thoughts went away (which made being home alone a nice thing, instead of a terrifying thing). I was able to fall asleep easily at night; when my body was tired, my brain was tired too. And the best feeling of all was that those bricks were gone.
This spring marked the two year anniversary of being on medication. Everything was feeling fine. And as the summer came on, I found that my life was the best it had ever been. I was teaching my own course for the first time, dating a truly awesome human, in love with my apartment and living in Parkdale, and I have the best friends in the world. Teaching meant that I was finally not stressed out about money for the first summer since starting my PhD (we don’t get funded over the summer and there’s no guaranteed teaching). Everything in my life was THE BEST!
And yet, as the middle of July came, my anxiety came back with a vengeance. I thought: “There must be some reason for this. I just need to figure it out.” My therapist and I came up with some hypotheses: maybe because everything in my life was so good, I was afraid that it would all vanish. Or maybe because everything in my life was so good, there was now space for some other shit I hadn’t dealt with to make itself known. And while I think that that may be a part of it, the weird thing was the total absence of any sort of anxious thoughts. Instead, all I had were anxious feelings.
I was determined to get to the bottom of this. And so I waited, thinking that maybe I was unconsciously feeling anxious about certain higher stress events coming up in my life. But those events came and went and still nothing. And as I waited, things started to get worse. I began to have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. I would wake up and feel too overwhelmed to move. And so instead of getting up, I would fall back asleep, not rising from bed until 12 or 1pm. I started to have panic attacks again. Falling asleep at night became a real challenge. And the smallest of tasks felt completely unmanageable.
After the last panic attack I called my doctor and made an appointment to discuss increasing my medication. When we met, I told her what had been happening and expressed my frustration: “Everything in my life is the best but I can’t feel the happiness that I should be feeling. All I can feel is the anxiety.” She responded by saying that this is the thing with generalized anxiety disorders: you’re anxious when there’s nothing to be anxious about. So we increased my dosage and in another week or so I should begin to feel the difference. I’d be lying if I said that I’m not counting down the days.
I thought I’d offer some advice to those who are struggling with generalized anxiety. Obviously I’m not a health professional, so this comes solely from my own experience. I hope these suggestions are helpful — even if these are things that you already know, I’ve found that repetition never hurts 🙂
1. Figure out how you can be gentle with yourself and give yourself permission to take it easy. As an anxious person, it’s all too easy to go into an anxiety spiral where you feel anxious because you’re feeling anxious. On the mornings when I had to cancel plans because I couldn’t get out of bed and then slept wayyyyyy past the time I wanted to get up at, I realized that nothing good was going to come from beating myself up about it. The act was done. Instead of beating myself up, I tried to give myself a mental pat on the back for doing what my body needed. If you have a 9-5 job, sleeping in might not be a possible form of gentleness. It might mean giving yourself permission to be a little less smiley at work. Maybe it means responding to the question “How are you?” with “Okay” or “Fine” instead of “Great!” I like to call this “owning your affect.”
2. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for support. This one is THE HARDEST for me. Even harder than #1. One of my familiar anxiety stories is that I’m alone, no one loves me, and if I ask for support I’ll get rejected. This is because the last part of that narrative was true for me for many, many years. My dad just didn’t know how to support me and neither did many of my romantic partners. So when I’m feeling anxious, the safest thing to do is not reach out, because if I don’t reach out, I can’t be rejected, and if I avoid being rejected, then I can maybe feel less alone. When I realized just how bad things were getting, I messaged two of my closest friends, detailed how my anxiety had been impacting me, and requested one-on-one time. My friends knew that I’d been dealing with increased anxiety, but because I’m always such a productive human, they figured that I was probably doing okay. Once I reached out and gave them the full picture, they were able to offer the support I needed.
3. Figure out what is supportive for you and ask for it. This is obviously linked to #2. One thing I’ve been trying to work on in my life is making less assumptions about what my loved ones need when they tell me that they’re going through a hard time. Assumptions can be dangerous and unhelpful. Because I was struggling with getting a bunch of little tasks done, I asked my friend Barbara if she would come over and just hang out and work at my place while I tried to check some of those things off of the list. Just having another person around provided me with a feeling of safety and comfort and made those seemingly unmanageable tasks manageable. Because one of my anxiety narratives is feeling alone, I asked my BFF if she would come and have a sleepover with me.
4. Read this blog post about feeling flashbacks that my pal Barbara (who also happens to be a life coach and emotional wellness professional) wrote. Barbara describes a feeling flashback as follows:
Our minds and bodies are powerful memory keepers, and can recreate an experience from decades ago in our present moment. However, sometimes we are transported not to a full memory but just to the feeling it once created in us. This is called an implicit flashback or more simply a feeling flashback. It’s the experience of being emotionally transported to a feeling that is outside of our current context. Because we can be brought back to almost any feeling, the experience can be anywhere on the spectrum from exhilarating to devastating.
She goes on to offer 4 questions that you can ask yourself when a feeling doesn’t feel like it matches with the context of your life. Sometimes when I’m feeling super anxious it’s helpful to ground myself by asking some important questions about my current feeling state. Asking questions is a way to promote curiosity instead of frustration.
5. Find affirmations that are meaningful and offer yourself daily (even hourly) reminders of those affirmations. The affirmation that I’ve found the most supportive recently is “it’s okay if it’s not okay.” I went onto etsy and searched that phrase and found this little flag that is now up in my bedroom:
I decided to take this reminder a step further, and on a day where my anxiety was feeling more manageable, I went into my local tattoo shop, Pearl Harbor, and got Elissa Veinot to put this little friend on my calf:
Sometimes the only thing we can do is acknowledge that shit isn’t okay and try to not beat ourselves up about it. I hope that you can take this image of my little skunk friend and its gentle message with you when you’re feeling anxious.
xoxoxoTags: affirmations, anxiety, feelings, tattoos
This post was written by Margeaux