I'm being vulnerable here. Deep breath, let's go.
I don’t know how many times it took me to understand my anxiety, that I have it, that there are ways to deal with it, but now that I know, I thought I’d share a few things that I have learned. I've heard from a lot of people lately about this topic (nope, it hasn't gone away), so I figured, let's talk about it!
I’ve been reviewing my journals and past writing lately, and I came upon this assignment from a class I took called CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) for my deaconess training (yes, I’m a Lutheran Deaconess). CPE is a course on being a hospital chaplain, basically. I took one course, or unit; one can take several and get certified. The assignments involve writing “verbatims” of visits with patients in the hospital, or writing biweekly reports of one’s own feelings and learning in the class.
This is something I wrote on June 9, 2008:
The most significant incident of my time in CPE so far occurred during our group process time on Thursday the 5th. We were sitting in our circle, everyone seeming to be wracking their brains for something to say to fill the space toward the beginning of the time together, when all of a sudden I realized that what I was feeling was anxiety [about the silence]. So I said, “I am feeling anxious.
“Immediately I felt a burst of happiness at having been able to identify my feeling, name it, and not feel badly about it. This was a high point for me because I often focus on what I “should” be feeling and try to do whatever I can do to change how I am feeling, so it was very freeing to just say what I was feeling and to accept that uncritically (and to be accepted by others uncritically).
Despite having this experience, and even writing about it, I can find numerous places in my journals and life where I have recognized my anxiety, even talked to others about it, without being able to name it. I was never told that anxiety might be something that I might be dealing with, or that there are tools that I could use to help myself get through it. Or at least none of those lessons ever sunk in, until recently.
Last year, it seems like I was finally able to say: “I am feeling anxious.”
So, in case you are experiencing some anxiety and don’t realize it, here are five things that have happened to me that are signs of my anxiety, and a few things that have helped me. Everyone is different, but I hope that if you are feeling anxiety, depression, or just not feeling good, you can get help.
Number 1: Worst-case scenario thoughts
I remember being in Costa Rica with my family, staying at my mother-in-law’s house. Both of the boys were small enough to be wearing diapers, still, and the older one had gotten a bad diaper rash. His poor baby skin was broken in his diaper area. I put the powerful diaper cream on his bottom before bed that night, but my anxiety told me that he was surely going to get sepsis and die from bacteria getting into his bloodstream. In the morning, his bottom was healed, and I wondered why I had assumed that he would die.
Number 2: Ruminating
In college, I did so much uncontrollable ruminating that I went to the counseling center asking if I should be diagnosed as obsessive compulsive. The therapist told me that I wasn’t, but when I look back I am a bit surprised that she didn’t bring up the “A-word.” Then, after having each of my babies, the ruminating would happen in the middle of the night, as sleep deprivation came in vicious cycles and my brain waves seemed entirely out of my own control. I would be unable to stop my brain from going over and over a topic, and I didn’t know how to stop it.
Number 3: Feelings of inadequacy
It is difficult for me to bring this one up – I have actually saved it for last in my writing of this post! That’s because this one sneaks up, and after a while I realize that the imposter syndrome has gotten so big that it’s influencing most things I do. This is the feeling that I’m not good enough to expect good things for myself, or qualified enough to deserve certain jobs or certain treatment.
Number 4: Extreme emotions
OK, I’m not sure if this is strictly anxiety; I’m not an expert, admittedly. But I have experienced feelings of extreme irritability, bordering on rage, and I have heard from others who “become rage monsters” (in their words) when they aren’t getting what they need to stay on an even keel. It’s hard to feel anxiety and exhaustion, say as a new mother, and then to fly off the handle at the kids and feel shame about that, too. But I think it’s something like anxiety that just builds like lactic acid in quadricep muscles that work too hard and don’t get to stretch and rest, and then scream when I try to go down the stairs. Taking care of two small kids can sometimes lead to this, lactic acid on the brain, I guess?
Number 5: Feeling like others don’t want to help me
In the worst moments of anxiety it can feel like I have so many things I need to get done, and when no one steps in to help me to them, the feeling becomes all the more overwhelming. Especially with small children, I would find that I wanted to address every detail of their every need in advance, and make sure the house was clean, and get time to relax and rest myself. When my husband or parents or children wouldn’t participate in getting those things done, it would make me feel alone, unappreciated, and very anxious.
I tell you all of these symptoms because I have been listening, lately, and hear that others around me are feeling them, too. Your examples might look different, but I invite you to stop for a minute, and admit if you are feeling anxious. You know what can happen if you do? You can do something about it! And I promise it can get better!
I have found some things that have helped me. Here are a few, in case they could help you:
Number 1: Realize that anxiety is real
Experiencing episodes of anxiety enough times has finally convinced me that my anxiety is real, and that I can do something about it. Before, I would always find some other reason for my feeling bad: my family members weren’t helping me enough, I wasn’t able to deal with things (and was therefore not a strong or good person), or I just hadn’t found a sufficient philosophy for understanding my own life.
Number 2: Talk with a health professional
Getting help with your anxiety is the best thing you can do for yourself. A professional will know of steps you can take and things you can do to start feeling better. That doesn’t mean that every health professional will know how to solve your specific issue. I saw several people over a number of years before anyone gave me advice that actually worked. That person was my midwife, whom I told a few months post-partum that I felt that I was in an insomnia-anxiety cycle. She said, “Oh, we can’t have that! I want you to enjoy your baby!” And she suggested I start with some melatonin to be able to get a little better sleep. Guess what? It helped enormously! Another therapist that I saw via Zoom during the pandemic supported my need for a good night’s sleep, and she also suggested being sure that I get good exercise.
Check to see if your insurance covers therapy, and go get some! Everyone can benefit from talking with someone!!
Number 3: Understand the physical causes of anxiety
For most of my life I thought that I could think my way out of anxiety. I thought that I could read my way out of it. Pray my way out of it. Understand my way out of it with the right classes (“Psychology and Spirituality,” “Liberation Theology,” “CPE”). It never occurred to me that the main trigger of my anxiety is a lack of sleep. I always knew I needed a lot of sleep, but I can now look back at my journals and correlate the most anxious times with the times in my life I got the least amount of sleep. Other contributing factors for me have been – not eating enough protein, drinking too much coffee, or not getting enough exercise.
No book or class or experience has helped my anxiety as much as just taking good care of my body. I am not sure why it took me 36 years to realize that, but there it is.
Number 4: “Have tea with your anxiety monster”
This was a suggestion I read somewhere, while in the throes of the insomnia cycle after my first child was born. Or maybe the second one? It’s all kind of a blur. But one night I stopped thrashing around on the sofa, unable to fall asleep, with the moonlight sneaking in past the blinds and mixing with the light from the big-screen TV across the way (a fellow insomniac?), and got up and made myself some tea. I sat at the table and looked at the empty chair across from me and said, “OK, anxiety monster, what would you like to talk about?” I took out a notebook and jotted down all of the things the anxiety monster was telling me. I finished my tea, went back to the couch, and immediately fell asleep. That’s not something I recommend doing every single night, but it helped to break the cycle for me.
There is a lot of information out there on this practice ("Tea and Cake with your Demons"), which comes from Buddhism.
Number 5: Breathe
I really cannot emphasize this one enough. Breathing while anxious is very difficult – I find it almost impossible. But I find that if I practice deep breathing in moments when I’m not anxious, I can prevent anxious moments. Sometimes I notice that I’m not breathing well while I’m working at my computer (it’s a thing, called “email apnea”), or just living my life. Remembering to breathe, and then reminding myself to take deep breathes (it has to be 3-5) in an anxious moment, is like a miracle treatment.
I also heard a really great podcast that I recommend to you, which shared so much good information about breathing, including the fact that many of the classic prayers of the world’s religious traditions regulate the breath in a way that has been scientifically proven to reduce anxiety.
Number 6: Medication can help
Talk with your doctor about medication. I know it's hard, and feels a little strange, maybe. But your health is so important. Taking medication to be healthy is a good thing.
Number 7: Walk outside
If you follow my social media, you know that our family has taken up pandemic hiking in a big way. There's nothing quite like putting one foot in front of the other, even when it's hard, getting that breathing going, those muscles moving, taking in that fresh air, and seeing something breath-taking, to shake the cobwebs loose and get a reset.
Hiking, birding, gardening, anything to get outside, move my body and connect with something bigger than me. Medicine for the body and soul.
Finally, realize that you are not alone, you are not crazy, and that there is help for you out there. Things can get better.
Thank you for reading the New Backwater blog! I hope that you find ideas and perspectives here for making connections between the US and Latin America, for finding balance by leveraging tools of the past with lessons of the present, and for achieving transformation to make the world a better place. I'm trying to work on these things every day, and I'm grateful you're sharing that journey with me.
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