Anxiety, Part Three: Backslides or Circles?

Note: This is part of my ongoing series on my struggles with generalized anxiety disorder. Part one is here. Part two is here.

This summer has been rough.

Not that I haven’t had days in which I’ve had an absolute blast. But it’s just been insanely busy and I’ve been in the car and inside of buildings a lot. Therefore, I’m not getting a lot of sun, and the buzz I normally feel from the summertime sunshine and heat on my body didn’t really happen until about two weeks ago. Add to that my ongoing anxiety/depression recovery and you’ve got yourself a cocktail of “meh, summer.”

I HATE that. And according to my awesomesauce therapist (more on her later), it’s a very good sign that I recognize I hate that feeling, because if I didn’t have cognitive recognition of my blah state, I’d be in worse shape. Part of depression is not being able to recognize that something is wrong – there’s a feeling of numbness, of the brain refusing to feel much of anything. My problem is the opposite. I feel EVERYTHING. If I’m happy, I’m insane. If I’m sad, I’m inconsolable. I wasn’t so much depressed as just exhausted by life. Everything hurt too much and I wanted to just turn my brain off and go to bed with a boatload of Netflix and some Cadbury Mini-Eggs.

But then something shifted, and I wanted to take care of myself physically to see if that would help me mentally. I was already getting a therapeutic workout. Now it was time to work on my own stuff.

So over the past few months I’ve been working very hard to combat my anxiety by treating myself better. I’ve given up refined sugars and sweets, which has not only made me less hungry overall but also has caused me to have less panicky episodes overall; blood sugar spikes and lulls can mimic panic attacks. I learned this after having a LOT of sugary food and wine during a bachelorette party and suddenly feeling like my heart was going to explode. Not fun. Instead of sugary chocolate stuff after dinner, I eat a ton of fruit, and I substituted some of the starchy things I was eating with protein. A typical day for me is a egg/avocado/sriracha burrito on brown rice wrap with a piece of fruit for breakfast, a big salad with protein and olive oil/balsamic vinegar with fruit for lunch, a reduced sugar KIND bar for a snack, and protein/veg/carb for dinner and fruit for dessert. I noticed an immediate difference in my anxiety levels. I don’t feel deprived, because I know how I feel when I have that shit in my body and it doesn’t feel good. But I’m also not a slave to it – on Sundays or Saturdays, if I want some chocolate or a brownie or frozen yogurt, I’m not gonna say not to it.

I also gave up drinking alcohol, because I am a cheap drunk. For someone with parents who are huge booze fiends (erm, alcohol enthusiasts?) and a brother and sister who can mainline beer and tequila with the best of them, I sometimes feel a little bit like the nerdy kid in the corner watching all of the adults party and being like “ME TOO?!” but that usually ends up in me getting hammer drunk and falling asleep on a couch. For real. I went to a wine and cheese tasting in April and ended up falling asleep on the couch after ONE ROUND.

So, all of these things have been helping. And I have been really, really good at not freaking out; I have one little episode every few weeks, which is a HUGE upgrade from a few months ago when I was freaking out about four times a week. But I still found myself beating myself up whenever I had a small moment of freakout. This weekend I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy and despite enjoying the hell out of the movie (WE ARE GROOT) I had a moment where I had to pee but was simultaneously thirsty. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem – I would just go to the bathroom and refill my water bottle. But this time we were seated in the middle of a row, with people on either side of us. The thing that made me freak out was the slow realization that I might not be able to leave until the movie was over. Sure, I had to pee like Seabiscuit, but what really made me start to panic was the feeling of being trapped.

I tried to fight it, and just power through to the end of the movie, but fighting the feeling made it worse. By the time of the final battle in the movie, my heart was thudding in my ears and my hands were shaking. I knew that the way to mitigate this attack was to step away from the situation. So I leaned over to the boyfriend, hissed “I am going to the bathroom right now” and proceeded to apologize my way past the four people next to us as I made my way to the bathroom. The second I made that decision and walked out of the theatre, the anxiety disappeared. I peed, drank some water, and came back to watch the rest of the movie, and the rest of my night was fine. Sort of.

Instead of celebrating the fact that I had stopped my anxious episode from spiraling into a full blown panic attack, I proceeded to self-flagellate for 24 hours about it. I should have been tougher. I should have gotten over it. I should have been better.

I reiterated this story to my therapist, re-accounting my trembling hands and thudding heart. Therapist looked at me, and said not unkindly, “Do you know how many people with anxiety have to do what you did, a thousand times over? Some clients I work with have to leave enclosed spaces five or six times in the space of an hour because they’re having full blown panic. You stopped your panic at the root. That takes incredible strength.

“Really?” I said, eyes wide, and then it hit me. “I had this little voice in my head that was like Get somewhere else and get your shit together and you’ll be fine. I didn’t leave to freak out, I left to calm down.”

“That is a huge difference,” Therapist said, her eyes unfailingly warm. “The fact that you were able to stop yourself from panicking by having the wherewithal to remove youself from a stressful space – and the fact you did not panic for the rest of the day – doesn’t that show you you’re doing better?

“So, you don’t think this is a backslide?” How was this possible? I had succumbed to my anxiety by leaving the theatre. I had failed. How was this a victory.

“Not at all. You had the mental cognition to remove yourself, and  you felt better because you did that. So you were really taking care of yourself. I don’t want you to think of this moment as a backslide.” Therapist looked at the time and motioned that we were almost up, and I pulled out my phone to schedule our next appointment. “Before you go, I just want to give you a mental picture to work with. Think of your recovery process as interlocking circles.”

“Circles, eh?” I looked up from my phone. Therapist nodded. “See, you’re constantly getting better. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have bad days. That being said, the bad days are probably better now than the bad days before you started getting help. Right? So if you think of the process as interlocking circles that go upwards, like an upward spiral, instead of a sliding scale, you’ll see that you’re always improving, even on the bad days. They’re still better than what you’ve previously experienced, and they’ll continue to get better.”

I processed her words. I can sit at work without my blood pressure skyrocketing. Quiet moments reading a book aren’t fraught with terror. I can do a 75 minute vinyasa yoga class in a hot room next to my best friend again, without wanting to run out the door. I can have a night at home by myself without worrying I’ll have a panic attack alone.  When you put all of those things together, I’m better than I’ve been in months.

My heart suddenly felt like it was soaring as I nodded, a huge grin on my face. “That helps so much. You have no idea!” Therapist smiled.

So now whenever I have a moment in which those crazy thought vampires come back to haunt me, I’ll just think to myself – This is not a backslide. This is the bottom of a circle on an upward trajectory. This is a rollercoaster with ups and downs, but it will eventually pull into the right station.

Everything is going to be okay.

ally

PS. Guardians was awesome. Go see it. And then download the soundtrack and rock the hell out.

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