Last night I woke up from a pretty wretched nightmare: I dreamt that I was scheduled for execution by drowning, and I was desperately calling and emailing and trying to figure out how I got myself into that situation and if there was some way to avoid dying.
Yeah, I know, Freud would have a field day with that, etc. etc.
Anxiety is more infectious than any virus, a virtual pandemic of its own. It’s a challenge for anyone to cope with in these fraught times, and even more so for those of us who struggle with our mental health.
When I ask my friends who don’t share these struggles to explain to me the physical manifestation of their anxiety, they’re most likely to described something like a knot in their stomach or a tightening of their chest – it sounds unpleasant, for sure, but somehow contained to one part of the body.
For those of us with anxiety and panic disorders, those sensations tend to be more all-encompassing. When my anxiety rises it feels like all of my nerve endings and every neuron in my brain are being zapped by static electricity. It’s not painful, just unbearable. And when that happens, for me, I know it’s only a matter of time until, like an engine turning, it can become a driving sense of panic.
I feel that I need to add the disclaimer that I’m not a doctor or a therapist, and I can only speak to my own experience. That being said there are some things I know are universal. When our thoughts are spinning and we are anxious, our heart rate increases. When we feel our hearts pounding faster, we become even more anxious. It’s a vicious feedback loop that makes us more and more anxious.
For myself, I can’t break that loop by changing my thoughts, but I can break it by changing my heart rate. Simple breathing exercises (4 counts in, 4 counts hold, 6 counts out) can slow down our breathing and eventually our heart. When our mind is in full anxiety mode but our body is not responding because one is trying to relax it, the feedback loop is broken.
For those times that I can catch anxiety before it gets too elevated, I play a game with myself. Wherever I am – at home, in an unfamiliar city, in a plane stuck on the tarmac – I make myself look carefully around my environment and pick out something that immediately grabs my attention. It doesn’t have to be profound or amazing, just something I notice – the color of a fluorescent pen on my desk, the shifting shadow of a tree in the wind, the pattern on the fabric of a chair. In those few seconds that I can focus on something else, I’m brought, in a simple but profound way, into the present. And when I’m present, the whirlwind in my mind immediately loses energy and I come back to myself.
A final thought – everyone is anxious right now; it’s difficult not to be. Maybe we’d be best served by leaning into anxiety, with the knowledge that as uncomfortable it may be, it’s something that we all share, and therefore connects us to each other. And that thought itself is enough to bring me a little calm.