I just wanted to take a moment to discuss living with anxiety because I’ve been suffering from it a lot lately. I’ve lived with anxiety and depression all of my life, frankly – a by-product of a shit childhood. It ebbs and flows like the tide depending on what life brings but it is a constant. I joke that if most people’s baseline readings are a zero than mine is naturally a -20 and, while that sounds depressing in and of itself, I imagine it’s much like living with allergies or migraines. When “normal” people bemoan a headache, you just have to laugh because you’re used to spending days in the dark, trying not to breathe. That doesn’t make their headache any more or less painful to them. It’s just relative.
The depression I’ve gotten used to, for the most part. I take fish oil and get lots of sun, try to eat healthy and simply be aware of the quick downward spiral that can consume me. The anxiety, on the other hand, is crippling. Combined with an overwrought embarrassment factor (avoidant personality disorder), I have a hard time leaving the house. When it is at its worst, it mutates into an ugly form of OCD. The OCD causes panic attacks. The panic attacks not only prevent me from sleeping but, when I can sleep, cause nightmares. And, as you can imagine, sleep-deprivation doesn’t exactly help my cause.
The anxiety has been tremendously bad lately for reasons not worth getting into. It has been so bad, in fact, that at 5:30 this morning the other half had to take apart the air conditioner because it was making a noise that was triggering anxiety. And, by triggering, I mean trouble breathing, rocking back and forth, and crying. I know, to people who don’t suffer from anxiety or OCD, that can sound ridiculous. Getting obsessed with a noise, however, or germs or safety is just a way for the brain to actually cope. It lends the ability to deal with, not just the overwhelming feelings, but what those overwhelming feelings cause, which is a fear response in the body (like a giant shot of adrenaline). Focusing on having to turn the lights on and off or avoiding stepping on cracks actually keeps both the mind and the body from shutting down like an over-heating machine. Which isn’t, of course, to say that it is necessarily healthy. Just an explanation.
There is a lot of my anxiety and OCD that I can deal with. Like I said, I’ve been dealing with it all of my life and, so, if I sleep better after having to repeatedly check if the stove is on or off, it’s not really hurting me or anyone else. However, needless to say, taking apart an AC unit in the middle of the night is unacceptable. This got me thinking a lot about coping mechanisms, specifically forcing myself to recognize and utilize the tools I have in my arsenal. And I wanted to share them with you, for anyone out there who might be suffering in silence and not know how to help themselves or someone they love.
There are different schools of thought out there about how best to cope but I prefer keeping busy and, to that end, I turn to art and crafts. Not only is creativity a means to release and express a lot of what you’re going through, it also is a great tool for getting out of your head. Simply making my mind focus on a challenge really redirects a lot of my anxiety.
I know that there are a lot of people out there who don’t consider themselves creatively talented but talent has little to do with it. It’s about enjoyment, spending time learning so that you aren’t sitting around thinking yourself into a feedback loop. Try learning to cook or paint or woodwork. And I highly recommend learning something you can do while sitting in front of the television at night. It will keep you busy and keep your anxious thoughts at bay right before bed.
Mindfulness is the Buddhist concept, boiled down, of being constantly aware of yourself and what you’re doing. It’s about learning to actually focus on what you’re doing at the time instead of getting caught up in your head and your unhealthy thoughts. When I’m doing the dishes, I’m doing the dishes. I’m not worrying about bills or dinner or whether or not my dryer is about to die. I’m just doing the dishes. This doesn’t apply to just physical acts but mental as well. Instead of getting caught up in my anxiety, I recognize that I’m being anxious. It’s a simple concept that’s hard to apply but it really does help to ease my anxiety. Anxiety is often a manifestation of worry about events beyond our control. When you’re practicing mindfulness, you’re practicing releasing that worry because the present is what you’re focusing on.
Sleep has always been an issue with me. I’m a night owl and an insomniac and, as you can imagine, anxiety doesn’t help the issue. Melatonin supplements have done wonders but, since my obsessive behavior often manifests itself in obsession with sound, I have to have a very controlled environment in which to sleep. That just isn’t usually possible. Thus, I’ve taken to utilizing white noise. White noise works to drown out traffic, the hum of electronics, etc. You turn it on and it sounds distracting at first but after ten minutes you actually forget it’s there and, let me tell you, the best sleep I’ve ever gotten. There are tons of white noise machines for purchase but, since I sleep in the same room as my computer, I just use this website.
A lot of people have a lot of different coping mechanism, a lot of which can cause extreme embarrassment. Don’t be embarrassed. Recognize that some behaviors – such as obsessive washing – can actually be really detrimental and work on those. But also recognize that if it’s a choice between being a shut-in or utilizing your coping mechanism to try new things, trying new things is more important. I hate being around people and negatively, subconsciously tend to obsess about my fingers while in public. If I have a hangnail while I’m on the bus, it can actually lead to a panic attack. That’s the outward manifestation of my inner turmoil. So, I carry fingernail clippers everywhere. It might make people uncomfortable but it’s more important to me that I’m comfortable in a situation that causes extreme duress. Do I want to carry them around everywhere? No. Will I always have to? No. But does carrying them around actually help me face my anxiety? Absolutely.
In a similar vein, I’m actually going to start carrying around my crochet. Crochet is a great tool when it comes to coping with my anxiety and, while walking around the produce section crocheting away might be the silliest thing in the world to everyone else, if it allows me to shop without the act of shopping ruining my day, I’m all for it.
This post isn’t going to help everyone. It might not help anyone but me. However, I think it’s really important to talk about mental health issues so that we are not alone. So that society starts to recognize the legitimacy of them. So that we don’t feel like freaks. There are so many people out there who don’t believe mental illness exists and I’ve often struggled with how to explain it to them. The truth is, you can’t. Don’t worry about it. It’s their problem, not your own. Spend less time worrying about them and more time helping yourself because, for those of us who suffer, we understand that sometimes just getting through the day is the greatest achievement of all. You’re a superhero. Be proud.