Coping with Anxiety

 

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I had no idea how much anxiety I apparently regularly cope with. This post just blew my mind.   http://captainawkward.com/2013/07/08/anxiety-open-thread/

The first comment:

“- I had to contact a credit card where I had a lot of missed payments and schedule a payment plan. This paralyzed me with fear.
– I had to go to the library and explain that I had a squillion overdue books and that I wanted to pay my fines. This paralyzed me with fear.
– I had to talk to my workplace about changing my direct deposit from one bank to another. This paralyzed me with fear.
– I had to get a blouse dry cleaned to remove a spaghetti stain. This paralyzed me with fear.
– I had to go to the store and buy a quart of milk, some eggs, some ground beef, a loaf of bread, and some apples. This paralyzed me with fear.”

I haven’t read through all the comments yet–and there are a lot–but it’s making some things more clear to me. One is that some of my coping mechanisms are great and I’m better off than many folks are. I’m grateful for that. However, I read the list of things causing the paralyzing level of stress, and I realize how often that’s happened to me.

Avoidance (stress coping)
My main non-productive stress coping mechanism has been, for a long long time, ignoring the stress-causing item. Burying my head in the sand. Procrastinating. Major avoidance.

Sometimes it’s for genuinely large/epic/terrible things. Sometimes, it’s for ridiculously minor things. Like, calling someone on the phone. Going out to a social event with friends. Dealing with an email.

What helped?
I’ve gotten better at this over the years, and eliminating many of my chronic depression symptoms through health/dietary changes has helped immensely. Doing the personal growth work to build up my core self esteem has helped. Going through the Four Levels of Reality tool helps, or even recognizing that when I get a snippy communication from someone, it usually is not really “about me,” more about their own issues.

Being able to go through several bullet points of discernment to determine if it really is something I did wrong, for instance, or if someone else is really cranky and I’m getting the brunt of it. Dealing with someone else’s crankiness is stressful, but I can ratchet down my anxiety response if I recognize that it’s not about me.

The tool that’s also helped is recognizing that my reaction is overblown and knowing what that feels like. An example is, I get an email notification of something someone’s doing on Facebook. I’m upset at this thing because, maybe it’s scheduled at the same time I’m doing an event and it thusly competes with that event. Or some other reason that I might get upset, like a comment or a post on my FB wall that triggers one of my self esteem issues about work I’ve done, or body image issues.

I now can recognize, as I’m having the very intense stress physical response, that my stress level is not warranted by the trigger, but, that it obviously triggered something larger. That it’s triggering an old issue/story from my past. And, while this doesn’t immediately help, what I’ve found is that it can keep me from going into the deep shame spiral that leads to the anger, and then the exhaustion/lethargy/depression that can follow an episode like this.

What about when your fears come true?
What doesn’t help is when my Essential Reality stories/old myths/tapes are actually true, or true in part. For instance, I have this weird fear about talking on the phone. I think it boils down to two things. One is, if someone calls me, they want me to do something, and I might not have time to do it and I’m afraid to say no. Or, they want me to give them money and I don’t have any, or they want me to make a decision I’m not ready to make. So this causes anxiety and can lead me to not really want to answer my phone.

I don’t like calling people because I assume people are busy, and that me calling them will elicit the same stress response that I have when people call me–I’m afraid I will be bothering people and they’ll be angry I called. Given some of the projects I have going on, I needed to suck it up and make a bunch of phone calls, so I did that, and I got through it by thinking, “These are people who want to do business, they won’t be mad I’m calling.” Except, one of the first people I called was apparently the embodiment of Grumpy Cat. After a few weeks of trying to exchange info on email and not getting much info back, it seemed that phone was the preferred communication mode for this person. So I called them. They were completely disgruntled, unhelpful, and there was a subtle tone of blame, the idea that, “You have bothered me and I resent you for it.”

I felt like crap after those calls. And nothing was accomplished because this person was too busy to work with me on that particular project. This stressed me out for days, because I’d just proven my own worst fear–that if I call people, I will piss them off.

What helped here was talking to a number of other people who have worked with that person, and I found out that this person was, indeed, often cranky like this and it probably had nothing to do with me.

Paralyzing Fear
Seeing that above list of things that could paralyze someone with fear, I can only think back to all the times I have been paralyzed with fear. Sometimes, it was dealing with intense financial stress. Other times, it was sending a stupid email or answering the phone. I think what has been really powerful for me, reading that list, is realizing that there are things that paralyze me with a stress response that is inappropriate to the magnitude of the stressor. And, if I can begin to recognize those moments, discern them, then that too is another level of coping.

Sometimes, it would help to have a buddy help out on something. For instance, I have a friend who needed help calling a collection agency to settle a debt. Their anxiety level went up to a 10 at the thought of making the call, so I did it for them. It didn’t bother me, because it wasn’t my debt. But, I’ve had a former partner help me with the same thing when I was dealing with my student loans.

Some days, particularly when I’ve been doing too much extroverted activity and I need more introvert/recovery time, the thought of dealing with people–answering a phone, going to the bank, ordering food–is too much. On some occasions, I’ve had a friend or partner to lean on to help with things like that. I remember when I was married, there were days where calling the pizza joint for takeout put my stress up to an 8 or a 9, but for him, the stress level was a 0 or a 1.

Social Anxiety
This past year I also had to face how much social anxiety I have. I presented workshops at Pantheacon for the first time out in San Jose, and I knew almost nobody out there at the event. I barely slept, and the crippling nervousness that makes it almost impossibly difficult for me to approach people, introduce myself, say hello…I was just a ball of stress. I realized how much social anxiety I actually have, and how many amazing coping mechanisms that I have to deal with it.

But, I didn’t have most of these coping mechanisms available to me. I was teaching in a new place, I didn’t know many people, I didn’t feel safe or comfortable, and I was continually doing things all day that were outside my comfort zone. I didn’t have a space to myself where I could safely retreat.

In the midst of this, I remembered my old axiom from when my social anxiety used to be worse. The first one is the hardest. The first 15 minutes at any gathering where I don’t know people is excruciating, but I know that and I can sit with it, and I know that I will eventually find someone to end up in a cool conversation with. The first time I’m at a festival or conference and I don’t know people, it’ll be harder, but it gets better, it gets easier. For me, safety in a social context is knowing people, knowing I have connections.

Coping by Freezing Over
One of my earliest coping mechanisms, probably before avoidance and procrastination, was to emotionally freeze over. I mean, I’m totally the person you want around if you cut a finger off. I’ll find the finger, bind up your hand, call 911, and keep 3 screaming people calm. I just flatline in situations of extreme stress.

And I think that that is why I’ve never seen myself as having anxiety issues, because when the shit really hits the fan, I can cope with intense challenges. Injuries, fires, events, disasters…none of it bothers me in that moment.

Talking to the gas station attendant to ask a question? Terrifying.

For me, understanding my quirky stress response helps me to have one additional layer of tools. I can now really look and say, “Yup. Freaking out about something dumb. Can I just decide to go do that and get it over with instead of hamsterwheeling about it?” Sometimes I can. Other times, it’s, “Yeah, that’s a big hairy spider of an issue, someone’s really pissed at me and I’m going to have to deal with them eventually.” Those are probably the worst ones, the ones I will avoid at all cost.

Because, it’s not like I haven’t screwed up in my life. I’ve hurt people, I’ve made mistakes, and not all of them are easily rectified. Dealing with my own shadows helps. But there are just plain times in my life where I’ve had to make a choice, and sometimes that choice has hurt other people. And once that choice is made, there isn’t any going back.

Shadow
Shadow is trying to divorce ourselves from the parts of ourselves that we loathe, that we think are socially unacceptable. I loathe the idea that I have anxiety issues. I have loathed the depressed, exhausted, apathetic part of myself in the past. In general, we loathe parts of ourselves that we think other people will hate us for. Ego’s job is to give us a positive self identity. When we do something “bad,” we often don’t want to admit guilt because, guilt means bad, and that means we are bad, which (mentally) leads to the perception of ego-death/self annihilation. That if we are bad, our idea of our good self is inaccurate and thusly, dead/invalid.

We want to be good, because, people won’t like us if we are bad.

But, we’ve all screwed up. My screwing up, it seems, has largely been actually caused by my anxiety issues, and my anxiety is fueled by my fear of screwing up and people hating/rejecting me. What a spaghetti mess is that!

I’m optimistic. There’s a way out, and for me it’s been a decade of work unraveling the spaghetti. I’ll keep working on it. When I can, I make amends for the things I’ve screwed up, usually when I’ve procrastinated or dropped the ball. I believe that there is a way through. Hoping that all of you facing your own anxiety issues find the positive coping strategies that work for you!

 

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