Anxiety: Abstract drowning, with your head just below the surface… but you can’t lift it to breathe.
Most people say that they had no idea that I struggle[d] with anxiety, looking at me now. I’m in a PhD program, an addictions counselor who runs therapy groups with people who are sometimes [understandably] not so happy, and I’m getting teaching experience among countless other things.
I still struggle.
I was out to lunch last Friday before heading over to the drug and alcohol rehabilitation center where I work when the familiar feelings surfaced. I don’t know why. Anxiety is not always rational, though, so there may not have been a “real” reason, but anxiety still feels real. It was not a full blown panic attack or anything close to it, just a resurfacing of some feelings and thoughts I hadn’t felt in a while… let me paint you the picture.
I walk into the diner to meet my friend 10 minutes to 11 am (our meeting time) and she ends up being 20 minutes late. The diner seems especially crowded for the small town that it’s in, and instead of leading me to a booth against the walls, which I would have preferred, the waitress sits me right in the middle of the floor at a two person table. I feel safer with my back against walls/no one behind me. In the middle of the floor wait staff and customers are constantly walking past me. Close. Closed in. Brushing me. My friend being late actually does not upset me at all, but I notice myself become more claustrophobic and almost chuckle to myself: well, this hasn’t happened in a while. I start feeling a little numb in my arms and sort of shaky. My head starts to hurt/feel fuzzy and my mouth is dry. There are SO many loud people in this crowded restaurant. I pull out Man’s Search for Meaning and try to read and can’t concentrate. The waitress mercifully is quick to bring me the water I asked for. I know my anxiety isn’t raising to the level of a panic attack, but the familiar paranoid thoughts start to surface:
- Is anyone looking at me?
- I must look stupid sitting here alone for so long.
- The wait staff is probably getting impatient with me because I haven’t ordered.
- Where should I put my purse? There’s no room for it. The back of my chair looks stupid. Under my chair?
- Will those kids shut up?
- Can those women just sit down instead of standing so close to me while they’re waiting for a table?
- I’ll probably end up knocking something off of my table because my hands are shaky.
- My friend probably doesn’t want to meet with me anyway, and that’s why she’s late. She just squeezed me into her schedule but doesn’t really care.
And on and on and on. If you know someone with anxiety, please understand that they are likely aware that the anxious/paranoid thoughts that come along with anxiety are not rational, however, knowing that intellectually does not always help calm the nerves. My advice if you have anxiety is pretty blunt, and you likely won’t enjoy it. But…
YOU CAN’T HIDE.
Don’t stop doing things because you have anxiety (like I used to do). It will only get worse. Force yourself to do regular things. Panic and meltdown in the bathroom and keep it moving. Eventually your body won’t feel as out of control and you’ll actually be able to believe that you’ll survive any attack that might happen. You HAVE to believe that, for any breathing exercise or anything to help you. What I mean is, for me, I had to know that I could survive anything before I could believe that a stupid breathing exercise could give me any relief. I had to “go there” and see the worst of it, before I could even entertain that such a small thing could help me, but it can, and I rarely have to use them anymore. I didn’t even use it last Friday. What I normally do is take deep breaths… really deep breaths… to the point of pain, hold it for five seconds, and repeat until my heart slows down. This might take a while, but it does work, if you BELIEVE it will work. That’s what I am trying to convey. Sometimes you have to drown before you’ll believe you’ll make it through… and yes, I know what actually drowning in water feels like from my childhood and in some ways, panic is similar. You can help yourself though… and not drown just beneath the surface.