Anxiety Flares and Control Moves

field of yellow flowers, green stems, blue, cloudy horizon. Pair of brown skinned arms and hands sticking up in the middle.
Hands in Sunflower Field via @alyssasieb / nappy.co

I’ll try to make this a quick one. Last week, I had what I’m calling an anxiety flare up. The feelings were neither entirely new, nor overly threatening but for a couple of days I just felt out of sorts. I was both dissatisfied with myself and annoyed at my relative vulnerability. At least one night’s sleep and a rocky day at work were the tangible prices. But of course it was also a significant blow to my ego, so the last few days involved nursing my ego back to some sort of equilibrium.

The nursing process is what I want to share here. I mean, how do we rein ourselves back in after an emotional setback?

Well, in the night that I couldn’t sleep, I journaled. I described what was going on in my head. I named my fears and frustrations. In fact, I began using a stem phrase: “My anxiety has to do with…” and created a list of 10 things. There was so much more there than the triggering incident. Writing offered some immediate relief that rippled out over the next days.

I read an article on Autumn Anxiety by Jennifer A. King that provided some further context for why I might be feeling the way I was. Two characteristics in particular seemed to hit the nail on the head:

Sense of Control. Situations where we have no control over what is happening or what outcomes may be.
Threat to Ego. Situations that leave you feeling as though your competence is in question.

Jennifer A. King, Do You Have Autumn Anxiety?

These could not have been more on target! Gaining validation for my emotional state let me know that I was not alone, that there are many reasons why I could be experiencing a degree of disorientation given my recent return to work, the interpersonal professional demands that entails coupled with whatever personal frailties I had going on anyway.

This weekend I made space for recovery. I..

  • Had a long zoom chat with my best friend,
  • met friends for drinks and a movie – absolutely delightful time!
  • got outside for exercise on both mornings,
  • did a load of laundry,
  • washed, conditioned and braided my hair,
  • prepared nice meals and ate slowly,
  • took time for reading and writing.

These all belong to what I call “control moves:” actions that help me feel in control – of my time, energy and body. They are not the cure, they are the process. As a result, I feel less anxious, more grounded, closer to how I would like to experience myself on the regular. Each task functions like a mini-reminder: “You’re still here, you’re OK, take your time.”

I have no idea if this will be helpful to anyone else and I’m sharing anyway because there’s a chance it might be. In How We Show Up, Mia Birdsong reminds us of the following:

We are living in a contradiction – we are made for interdependence, connection, and love, but part of a culture that espouses the opposite…There is a tension between existing in one world while trying to live into another one. That place in between them is full of friction.

Mia Birdsong, How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship and Community, p. 226

Living in contradiction challenges us which makes our sharing of struggles and recoveries all the more important. It is in that spirit of building community and living in connection that I offer this window into my experience.

Be well, friends.

Thinking About Anxiety

So what’s an anxiety?

I read a post by Doug Robertson: Anxiety and Me and it has stayed with me. He writes openly about his recent bouts with anxiety and describes how it shapes his behaviors in a variety of contexts. He’s a witty guy so there’s a bit of self-deprecating humor to oil the wheels of reasoning that his writing invites. What surprised me was how familiar some of those situations were to me, how true they rang.

I have known for several years that closed spaces make me anxious – places where I submit to an order not of my making – airplanes, elevators, a bus or in my car stuck in traffic. I don’t mind flying, but waiting on the tarmac for long stretches truly challenges me. Elevators that work? No problem. But the prospect of being stuck in one is never far from my catalogue of worst case scenarios. These are situations I know about, so I’ve learned to mentally prepare and cope accordingly.

But Doug’s post led me to think a little more about what constitutes anxiety. My 12 y-o recently remarked on my standing in the doorway of the living room rather than sitting down. I admitted that I tend to feel a little guilty once we get home – like I should be cooking or emptying the dishwasher or doing something productive. So instead of actually doing one of those things, I stand and scroll through Twitter and e-mail. (At some point I do eventually cook something…)

Then consider this: Neatness is not my strong suit. Interior decor has never been an area of particular interest. My workspace is the end of a long table typically cluttered with stacks of books, papers, letters and other fragments which hold (or held) some significance for me. The order in my disorder makes sense to me, but it also makes the table (which is a beautiful, strong, warm wood construction) a collection surface more than a lovely piece of furniture (which it also is). Or that the table could be seen as a metaphor for the organization for other sections of the apartment. Sometimes I feel bad about this. Or even guilty.

Feeling bad, feeling guilty – these are common themes in my emotional line-up. Every day culprits that easily find their entry into my perception. I feel bad that I’m not a better housekeeper. I feel guilty that I currently prefer writing more than exercising. I feel bad (and guilty) that I’m as tuned in to my Twitter crew as I am to my family. Are you noticing a pattern here?

So now that I’m on vacation and I have more time to spare, I’m having a hard time just kicking back and relaxing. Instead, thoughts keep popping up of all the things I ought to be doing, finishing, thinking about, taking care of. There’s the fear of disappointing others. There’s a fear of the shame of disappointing others. And that’s the thought that really gives me pause: fear of the shame. I suspect there’s a lot to be uncovered in that particular hill of concern.

Thanks to Doug’s openness, I see an opportunity for me to take a new look at myself and my mental hygiene. Where anxiety fits into the picture may be one piece, and perhaps daring to name the daily demons constitutes a fresh start. We’ll see.