In the middle of the night when I am awakened by a sharp punch to the stomach (adrenaline?), I have a pretty good idea that my anxiety might be getting the best of me. My thoughts are rubber ping-pong balls trapped in a small space—ricocheting in sharp trajectories off every surface, never landing. So much to do, so much to accomplish—with no idea if I’m capable of doing even half the things I’m thinking, or whether the payoff will be worth the time spent.
With or without an apparent cause, my mind will start racing, and over the course of a few hours, the jitters spread all the way down my body. If this goes on for some time (days, usually), I’ll get a nice little knot between my shoulder blades that feels like a zombie holding my spine in a vice-grip.
It took me years to realise this wasn’t a function of a pre-existing back injury, or the side-effect of migraines. Most physical problems I’ve experienced, including an essential tremor, have all stemmed from anxiety.
Mental health = physical health.
Now that I’m older and marginally wiser, I can sometimes recognise when my mind is ramping up in time to rein it in. Sometimes I can’t. And that’s when I move from prevention to damage control…
When my thoughts won’t land and I can’t pick a starting point, I sit down and begin making lists.
Sometimes the lists do actually start with ‘make a list’—because the list-making is key to bringing some order to the inner chaos. It’s a focused activity with the added bonus of bringing with it the illusion of being in control.
[Yes, being a control freak seems to be integral to the Type A personality…]
The anxiety is annoying. It’s counterproductive. I want it to go away so I can get back to the task at hand. But over time, I’ve also figured out that focusing on the symptoms and trying to stop them only makes it worse. As annoying as it is, I have to listen to what the anxiety is telling me, and focus on dealing with the cause.
Taking the other route and trying to vanquish the anxiety can lead to more problems. Why? Because the higher the anxiety, the larger doses of self-medication we seem to need:
• Recreational drugs
• Prescription drugs
• Restaurant grade chocolate cake
I will not make any comment about how many of these coping mechanisms I’ve used in the past, but the important point is, they are all temporary fixes. They don’t solve the problem. I didn’t start to get a grip on my anxiety until I figured out that I had to give it its due before it would go away.
And then lock the door firmly behind it.
After much trial and error I’ve learned that anxiety is one of those things that’s difficult to treat after the fact. Prevention is really 9/10ths of the battle. When anxiety takes hold, it’s like a power surge. It races in and flips on every light in the house, making it really hard to kill the feed. My key to wellness is inserting safe-guards to protect against surges before they happen. I have a much easier time staying ahead of the current than breaking the cycle.
The good news about anxiety is that it can’t last forever. The body has built-in feedback systems. Soon, the breaker’s going to overload and the line will shut itself down. The lights will indeed go out. The bad news is that once anxiety’s run its course, the plunge into darkness can be drastic, and the recovery from that can be slow.
Bouncing between the two extremes of anxiety and depression is a tough way to live. Been there, tried that. It sucked. Better to learn how to maintain a steady balance, because all that time oscillating can be exhausting.
So how to achieve balance? For me, the most reliable first step is…exercise.
Physically expelling stress keeps me focused.
Focus keeps me on track to my goals.
Checking boxes makes me feel accomplished.
Accomplishing things keeps the what-ifs at bay and lets me sleep at night.
Take out exercise, and I get ricocheting ping-pong balls. And, of course, nothing keeps you awake at night more than a ball hitting you in the side of the head…
Next time: Depression (what happens when the breaker blows up).