Hello anxiety. Punching through a fitful night’s sleep.
Hey, are you getting that raise next month? What if you don’t get the raise? What if tutoring or writing gigs don’t come your way? Can’t pay the bills without that raise. Can’t catch up on your debt without those extra jobs.
Ugh. Go back to sleep! It’s Saturday.
Twenty-three minutes later . . . 5:00 a.m.
Almost half an hour struggling to fall back to sleep and the staccato beep-beep-beep of the alarm jars me. Oh damn. I forgot to reset it last night. The alarm reawakens the full force of my anxiety. My heart picks up the pace. An effort to match the barrage of thoughts bouncing across the synapses in my brain.
Oh remember, Noah has that minor surgery in November? What if you can’t pay your half of it? What about sports? What about Josiah’s birthday? How are you going to pay for the WordPress renewal for your website? Is that selfish?
Geez. Shut the hell up and try to get some sleep!
Seventeen minutes later . . . 5:17 a.m
I look at the clock at the full height of my panic. Every thought is an electrical charge that increases my pulse. I’ve tried breathing through it, singing to myself, suffocating myself with my pillow – in hopes of passing out. Keith shifts next to me. I feel him roll over to face me.
“You ok?” His groggy voice is half-asleep, on the edge of waking up if he knows something is wrong.
Don’t tell Keith. You don’t need pity. He’ll want to help, and that makes you weak. So should I tell him or pretend I’m sleeping?
I stay really still, flat on my back, hands down by my sides. My pillow balances precariously, half on my face and half slipping towards the floor. My best effort to pretend I’m sleeping and didn’t hear him.
He’s going to know something is wrong. What if he thinks it’s him, and we get in a fight because I won’t tell him? Dishonesty builds resentment in relationships. Resentment festers and grows until finally it’s unbearable, and people break up.
Oh God! What if we break up? Then, my kids will be devastated. Another relationship that I ruined. If we break up, it will probably be my fault. Geez, I feel like I ruin everything.
Aaahhhh. Just stop!
At this point, I am still lying completely still. I think I hear Keith softly snoring next to me in the dim silence of morning, but the voices in my head are screaming at each other. I realize with an inward groan – I am definitely not sleeping in today.
My Anxiety Monster
Some days, I find myself in a panic. My thoughts are foggy, heart racing, body alternating between cold sweats and hot flashes. Signals from my brain telling me to run or fight or both.
It’s not only mornings that can evoke this. It’s any time I feel unsafe, anytime something triggers an old story in my head. It’s the knee-jerk reaction when my past begins to speak to my present. In the midst of it, I don’t realize that my anxiety often stems from an experience that reconnects me with a past trauma.
In those moments, I’m in full doomsday mode over little things, like a friend not calling back or not finding my car keys.
Remember that one time you couldn’t find your car keys, and you were trying to get away from your drunk boyfriend?
My mind becomes a blank canvas and I paint a frenzied nightmare across it. A terror that seems all too real because of my past, an all too familiar narrative.
What Makes It Worse
Number One: Judgement
I used to judge myself. I used to tell myself that I wasn’t allowed to be anxious.
You can’t feel this way. There isn’t any reason for it. You aren’t strong and independent. This makes you look weak. Why can’t you just get over it?
I began to notice that trying to strangle the anxiety out of me only transformed it into a cornered animal. The struggle was imminent, and anxiety could fight it out like a lion. I always lost.
Number Two: Predictions
Anxiety is really good at predicting impending disaster.
You couldn’t find your car keys? Well, you’ll find them late, speed to work, get in an accident, end up comatose in the hospital. Your disabled mother won’t be able to take care of herself, so she will end up in a nursing home. All of your belongings will be sold at auction after your landlord evicts you. IF you wake up, you’ll be homeless, jobless, and unable to pay your hospital bills.
I am serious. Anxiety can take you places you never wanted to go. It’s the snowball on a never-ending, white-capped mountain.
Curiosity to the Rescue
About a year ago, my panic attacks progressed to the point they almost immobilized me. As I shared this with a good friend of mine, she mentioned a phrase that she often uses.
“Isn’t that curious?”
It was a small question that really became a mantra for me. When I started feeling anxious, I would ask that question and sit with it for a while.
I found the more I became curious, the less my anxiety seemed to push back. I became aware that the source wasn’t something that happened in that moment. It was my historical narrative speaking to my present situation. This realization helped diffuse any negative reactions to the anxiety.
I learned that curiosity is the beginning of understanding our emotional reactions. It is the moment we pause the judgement and negative self-talk to breathe and say:
Hey, what’s going on?
How are you feeling?
Do you know why?
Let’s talk about it when you’re ready.
It’s a chance to start a dialogue with ourselves.
Steps to Diffusing Anxiety
Step One: Create Space
Give the anxiety some breathing room. Be gently curious. Breathe slowly and tell yourself it’s okay to feel this way. Accept the emotion and accept that you don’t have to do anything with it.
Step Two: Identify the emotion
Ask yourself how you’re feeling. Identify the emotion that is bringing you discomfort. When I woke up in a panic about money, I later realized I was feeling intense fear.
Step Three: Consider the source
Push a little deeper. Ask yourself what triggered this and why. I began to understand that money was a trigger for me. I worried that I wouldn’t have enough because I had been in many situations in my life where I felt abandoned by my family and significant others. Money was just a symbol for my feelings of betrayal and abandonment.
Step Four: Reality Check
Bring yourself back to reality by finding things in the present to ground you. I love the following advice from Green Life Psychology:
Sometimes, the answers aren’t readily available as to why we feel the way we feel. But as we practice steps 1 through 3, we will begin to see patterns emerge. Once we are open to the conversation, we find our growing edges, and anxiety doesn’t have to immobilize us anymore.