This morning on my way in to work I saw a beetle swarmed over by ants. The beetle was patent leather black and still with death, and the ants were busy, busy, busy picking over it.
I couldn’t help but think it was the perfect metaphor for anxiety.
I’ve lived with anxiety for a long time. Part of that has to do with my being neuroatypical; a lot of it is social and as a kid manifested as an intense hyperlexia, escaping into fictional worlds, and selective mutism. Books were safe. People were not.
As I’ve grown older, there have been some constant anxieties. Some of them are larger than others, but very few are hulking behemoths. The day to day of living with anxiety feels like being swarmed over by hundreds and thousands of crawling feet. Sometimes it starts with one or two sets, and you can swat them away. Other times by the time you’ve realised the presence of the first couple, a hundred more are making their way up your leg, and at that point they won’t be ignored and you can’t just shake them off and soon you won’t feel anything else but that.
Thanks to a tip from my bosom friend Kristin, I’ve started using an app called Pacifica. It’s got a few little features for managing and tracking anxiety, and after only a few days, I’m glad I gave it a shot. It suggests you track your mood each day. You can grade it from Great to Awful and select a couple emotions to go with it. This morning on my train ride, I put in Very Good with “happy” and “excited” as the modifiers. A couple days ago was Poor with “anxious” and “scared.” You can add your own modifiers if what you’re feeling doesn’t show up. Over time, it can help you see your moods to look for objective patterns.
It also allows you to record thoughts every other day, then asks you to reframe the situations in positive terms, stripping away emotion and focusing on the facts without attributing motivations to people when you can’t be sure or blaming yourself for things you can’t control. Between those days, it gives you experiments where you can type in a small goal for the day that you want to accomplish. Every day, there’s a small relaxation exercise where you can work on your breathing or visualising something or any number of other little short exercises. I’ve been doing that right before bed.
One of the big things with mental illness of any kind is self-awareness. Recognising patterns of behaviour in yourself and flagging things that trigger you. For me, coming to terms with being on the spectrum has been an overwhelming relief. Knowing that certain reactions or behaviours are because of that aspect of me has made me more able to see them for what they are and adapt accordingly. For a family member who has manic depression, that might mean understanding that feeling better after a bout of depression doesn’t mean he needs to stop taking his meds; that mania is not the cure of the rollercoaster. It’s recognising the start of a panic spiral. It’s understanding why you close down in a group after someone comments on your looks.
Sometimes seeing and naming an emotion or a pattern of behaviour can be enough to upset the cycle. Sometimes not, and that’s okay. I’m finding more and more lately that I’m managing better with certain things. I still have ups and downs and can occasionally get blindsided (like on Wednesday, when the spiral got me and I got swarmed over), but they’re fewer and farther between.
Self-awareness also means taking a step beyond recognition and naming to sometimes voice your needs and articulate them. A couple weeks ago I got invited to a party with people I didn’t know. I only knew the person who invited me. Me walking into a group of strangers alone is enough to induce cold sweats for me. I asked my friend to meet me downtown instead, so I could arrive with a known person. It didn’t end up working out that way due to rain, but since I was so early, I was the first one there and could meet people as they trickled in. It ended up working out as well as it possibly could, with little anxiety and an ability to take care of my social needs.
Articulating needs can also help find the root of them. It’s usually not enough to have a feeling and name it, but once you trace it back to its source, it can demystify the reaction. It’s a good thing to learn (always a work in progress), and it’s a building block for a successful relationship with yourself and others.
What tools do you use when your brain wants to kick you in the ass?
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