A week or so ago, I wrote a post about the four horsemen ofthe mental health Apocalypse. People loved it. Apparently, lots of you can relate either to personally knowning one of the horsemen, or to living with someone who does. Well, I’d like to give you a bit more insight into my personal horseman, Anxiety, and the battle I’ve waged against her. If you read this and have a comment, please do share below, or email me. Much love.
So if you’ll recall, I gave this short introduction to Anxiety:
Anxiety tends to sit, quietly and moodily in silence, until she suddenly throws a tantrum. The tantrums typically mean that her host will have a 10- to 60-minute blinding, sweaty, tunnel-visioned panic attack. The rest of the time...Anywhere you go, Anxiety goes with the flow: she can find something to panic over just about anywhere. Don’t even bother trying to travel, take a bus, talk to a stranger, get through an interview, drive on a highway, walk your dog at night time, or watch a scary movie. She’s that leechy friend in high school who starts wearing all the same clothes that you do, styling her hair the same way, and following you everywhere, until one day you realize you’ve become a permanently-connected duo.
THE BRAIN VS ANXIETY
Anxiety turns your own nervous system into a weapon against you. It’s a clever way to work: when a person can be sitting on the couch, watching The Simpsons, and suddenly feel an overwhelming electrical rush of panic for no reason, you’ve got a pretty effective method of screwing a person up. The trick with Anxiety is that, on a basic level, she isn’t in your brain—not at first. She lives in your nervous system, and your brain then learns to interpret all her whisperings as if the brain itself had whispered. Your brain doesn’t understand how it could be possible for your nervous system to have a ‘mind’ of its own. So your brain internalizes what your system is doing.
Eventually, this will basically give your brain a complex. It becomes a question of “chicken or the egg”. You have a panic attack at the mall one day, for example, because Anxiety hijacked the nervous system and made you hyperventilate. Okay, so that’s just one bad day, right? Wrong. Because next time you’re at the mall, there’s a good chance the brain will say, “Wait: didn’t I hate being here? Didn’t I send the nervous system into a spin?”, and it’ll do it to you again. For some of us, the brain over-generalizes and eventually you just can’t go in any large building, or into any crowd over twenty people, or shopping of any sort.
Anxiety works by mad whisperings. She’s the queen of digging into your forgotten memory banks and discovering all the things that scare you. You’re walking in the park and you hear birds; Anxiety reminds of that time a swan attacked you at the petting zoo when you were six. She then deftly connects the dots between ‘seagulls’ and ‘swan’ and before you know it, your skin is tingling with the expectation of bird claws digging into your hair.
She knows every micro-expression on the face of every human you meet, and she’ll teach you terrible ways to overanalyse these until your mind begins to melt. When you made that last joke about pirates and Janet didn’t laugh very long? That clearly means she hates you. When you head to that board meeting and your boss rolls his eyes about expense reports, that’s clearly because of how you present them. Oh, and remember that one time you felt dizzy in your cubicle? Good, because Anxiety does too, and now she wants you to know that you’re probably going to have an aneurism in front of everyone, which means you’ll die in a really gross spazzy way and someone will post it on the internet. Might as well just call in sick. Then at least you can have your aneurism at home in private, where no one will find you for days. You could just be paralyzed, actually, lying on the floor in a pool of sweat, unable to reach your phone. So you better just grab your phone now and keep it in your pocket all the time, because what if you need it and can’t reach it? Remember that one time you thought you lost it but it was in your jeans? How stupid are you? Remember the look your sweetie gave you when you did that? Clearly she hates you, too. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah....
Yeah, that’s how Anxiety works.
Where other people are having five or six thoughts at any one time, you’ve got so many mental tabs open that your harddrive starts to crash. And almost none of these thoughts will be positive. Anxiety hates optimism; she will tell you right away that every time you use hope, it’ll karmically backfire and punch you in the face. Better to always be ready for the next horrible ordeal.
As I write this post, I am thinking about the thousands of people who will read this and think I suck and hate me forever. Thank you, Anxiety.
WEAPONS AGAINST ANXIETY
I have seen Anxiety fended off in various ways. I personally took a lengthy course of CBT (aka “cognitive behavioural therapy”) which was kind of overwhelming because I spent twelve weeks of weeknights in a room with a dozen other friends of Anxiety. We took a lot of breaks, and on breaks we all smoked and traded advice on the best sedative cocktails. The information was good, but it was maybe too much to take in over such a short timeline. It was also hard to learn when, everytime the counsellor shared a medical fact, someone put up their hand and asked if they themselves might be experiencing that. (Anxiety loves medical facts. The scarier, the better.)
I have used medication to subdue Anxiety, as have many of us. It's like turning on really loud music while wearing sunglasses sprayed with shaving cream. This is how I felt like I behaved when I medicated:
In fact, when I attended the CBT group and was, at twenty-four, the youngest in the room, I realized I’d better get off sedatives quickly if I didn’t want to hit forty and still be swapping prescription recipes. I mean, hey, whatever gets you through the night…but I wanted something else. I wanted my brain to be clear and strong.
(Because here’s the thing about Anxiety sufferers: we’re not stupid. We’re usually overly bright. Employers fear hiring those with Anxiety, but the truth of it is, we’re often the fastest, hardest, or most creative workers. We’ve got nothing but adrenaline to burn off, and our minds are geared for complex, intricate, future-focused thought. You can tell me the first three lines of a marketing campaign you want to run, and I can tell you where it’ll bomb twenty steps down the road. We should really all work in Risk Management departments, but then I think our poor heads would explode.)
Anyway, I digress.
Drugs weren’t my answer, and so I headed back into therapy. At the time I was having a really bad round of insect phobia. I told the psychiatrist that I felt like spiders were actually hunting me down because they were everywhere. Unhelpfully, by the end of about six months, she actually agreed the theory had merit, because I really do seem to have a spider beacon attached to me. Anyway, the therapy helped some more, but it wasn’t enough.
|The mind that never ever gets to rest.|
ANXIETY HAS A WEAKNESS
I started to feel a fair deal better when I was at home, but not when I was out. For years I subsisted like this. I didn’t know why home felt better, though I assumed it had to do with the agoraphobia that Anxiety loves to provoke. It was only eight years later, when my pug Mr Darcy died, that I put the pieces together: the dog was my helper. If I got anxious, he would sit with me; if I had a panic attack, he would lay with me. When I was alone and Anxiety’s incessant nattering took over, I would talk or sing to the dog.
I needed another dog. But this time, I was going to do it bigger and better. I decided to get a service dog.
And there it is: like so many of the mental health monsters, Anxiety is afraid of dogs.
So in walks Corben, eight weeks old and absolutely idiotic, adorable, and completely time-consuming. I had undergone weeks of searching for just the right puppy, and just the right trainer. And here was Corben, and before he’s learned even one command, suddenly there are actual moments of silence in my head.
When I bury my face in his fur and breathe in the simple animal scent of him, my mind goes peacefully blank.
Corben is being trained to accompany me out into the real world, because I have goals. I have dreams. I have places I want to go. I want to travel without having to take a support person with me. I want to attend concerts or festivals without fear of the crowds. I want to sit through a high-stakes board meeting without starting to puke. This smiley-faced dog is going to have commands for all these things, so that I can operate as I truly want to.
For the first few months, I didn’t want to tell anyone about what Corben is being trained for. It felt like Corben was a sign that I was slipping, that I wasn’t handling my relationship with Anxiety so well anymore. What I’ve come to realize is that I’m actually improving: where I used to settle for the Anxiety-induced barriers in my life, in recent years I have wanted those torn down. Five years ago I never would have thought about going to another country alone; but now I want to. Three years ago, the only way I would have wanted to attend a board meeting would be from the back of the room with my face in a binder; now I want to lead that meeting. Corben is my bridge to those things that Anxiety had made unattainable. Maybe I’ll be even more fearless than the ‘normal’ people. Who knows.
What I do know is that I'm feel empowered. I have a new tool against my lifelong foe. If medication is what you use and it works, that's fabulous. Counselling? Also fantastic. Meditation, yoga, naturopathy, and wine? I've done all of those and if they meet your needs, then that is freaking wonderful. Seriously. Whatever you use to keep that foul-mouthed witch named Anxiety at bay, you use it. But me, I'm going a new way. I'm adding something to my arsenal, and it happens to be cute and fuzzy.