3 Things I’m Learning About Anxiety and 5 Things that Help – part 1

Maybe I’ve had anxiety for years and called it “stress.” Maybe this is new. Either way, anxiety put me in a choke-hold when shelter-in-place orders went into effect in March. Among the long list of things I hadn’t expected was an entirely personal masterclass in mental health.

Five months later and I’ve mostly settled into my version of our “new normal.” While all of us have to deal with pandemic realities and increased political/racial tensions, most of us have an “and also…” to boot, other factors complicating our current reality. My “and also’s…” have been one-two-three gut-punches, the hits that keep on coming. Oof!

Let me be clear: my experience of anxiety has been exhausting but not debilitating. Even on days when I’ve decided to simply stay in bed, well, here we are in a pandemic and no one expects me anywhere. And while therapy would likely be helpful for everyone always, I’ve been able to manage my anxiety (mostly) with a lot of reading, research, and self-care. Anxiety has loosened its initial grip and now when I feel its cold fingers, I’m more aware and better prepared.

If your anxiety feels crippling and perhaps life-threatening, by all means get the help you need immediately. NAMI, The National Alliance on Mental Health, has a 24 hour helpline: 800-950-6264. If you don’t have the courage to call yourself, ask someone you love to call for you. Don’t suffer alone.

Meanwhile, here’s what I’m learning, offering it up in case it’s helpful for you. We’re all different, so I’m sure you’ve got your own acquired wisdom to share. Please leave a comment so we can support each other.

Mental health is physical, too.
For months I couldn’t fall asleep until the middle of the night, or I fell asleep and then woke in the wee hours to ruminate on random worries. It took about three months for my sleep to return to semi-normal patterns and even now I can expect occasional wonky nights.

Insomnia wasn’t totally new, but the vibrating sensation in my chest and stomach was. Similar to having chugged too much caffeine, I call it my “bees” since it feels like the humming of an angry hive. Other physical signs include destroying my cuticles or my shoulders hitched to my ears, tension head- and jaw-aches and unusually tight muscles.

Noticing the physical cues reminds me to breathe, stretch, investigate my feelings, and administer self-care.

It’s about control.
Things I can’t control: a global pandemic; the mess that is America right now; my son’s public educational experience; my mom’s health; friends who don’t take social distancing seriously; other’s thoughts or actions; anything outside myself.

We never could control anything anyway, we just acted like we could. Suddenly, we don’t know what to expect from day to day. All our routines have been stripped away and we find ourselves isolated from people who once played main characters in our communal sitcoms. Pre-pandemic we’d be thrilled to have an occasional blank day on our calendars, and now it’s all white space. We want that version of our lives back in part because we want to be able to pretend that we’re still in control.

Grief is messy and necessary.
We didn’t sign up for this and we don’t want it, but here we are. And while there may be some positives to this mess, we have to be honest about all that we’ve lost: to work at that job; to engage in public pastimes; to celebrate milestones of every sort with the fanfare we’d usually give them; to travel; to hug friends; and obviously, so many people have lost loved ones.

Admitting that grief is an integral part of what we’re all experiencing right now, that we’ve lost the lives we were living and the experience of life we expected, reminds us to be gentle with ourselves – and others. None of us have ever done life like this and it’s hard, sometimes it feels impossibly hard. Grief isn’t linear, either, and while it might feel easier with time, or easier some days, other days it will flip you to the floor and pin you down.

If you know me, you know that I’m a Jesus follower. Yes, the Bible says not to be anxious, to pray instead, so let’s talk about that. In telling us not to be anxious, the Bible actually acknowledges that we will feel anxiety. Anxiety is a normal part of human life. But we don’t have to stay anxious.

God created each one of us differently because He loves us individually in all the uniqueness He gave us. He created some of us to be more sensitive, more intuitive, more inclined to drama and all the Big Feels. We haven’t been punished, rather, we’ve been gifted with a different way of being and seeing our place in the world. We have things to offer precisely because our nerves lie a little closer to the surface. Exposed, we feel more and our unique perspective can help others appreciate life’s nuances.

Anxiety is not the problem, it’s staying anxious that’s a problem. We all have an anxiety warning light on the dashboard of our lives reminding us to attend to our issues; some of us will notice that light more often. That’s how we’re built and that, as God said in the beginning, is good…even though it may not feel good.

Stay tuned tomorrow as I share a few things I’ve found helpful in dealing with anxiety. Meanwhile, if you’ve found this post helpful, please share it with someone who will benefit from knowing that they’re not alone in their experience.

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