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Living With Anxiety: The Pros and Cons



On The Inside...


Welcome to the inside of my head. It’s dark. Usually the lights are on, sometimes there’s shadows and rain, but most of the time it’s sunny. Light and life and laughter. And there are fountains. Lovely, bubbling crystal clear fountains. Ideas burst out of these fountains and water the ground, sprouting fantastic new expressions and colours everywhere they land. My mind is a garden of creativity and compassion. Sometimes I let it go wild, just because I like to turn the corner and be surprised sometimes. Sometimes that makes it hard to find what I’m looking for. I’ll put something in one spot and when I go looking for it again it’s overgrown with something else. 


But it’s a beautiful wild thing. I’ve collected seeds from the people I’ve met and the stories I’ve heard. Sometimes they don’t take to the ground here. And sometimes they grow into weeds that I have to carefully uproot. But most of them are beautiful. They make me appreciate the people around me, more and more every day. I’m certain that with some hard work and tender care, this beautiful garden will bring forth fruit that will make the world an even better place. 

But today it’s dark. You can’t hear the fountains. Can’t feel the grass and flowers that usually brush against your fingertips as you meander through the garden. Can’t even feel the ground under your feet. Is there ground under your feet? You’re not sure. Sometimes you take a step forward into the blackness and your stomach lurches--your foot falls through empty air and you slip--you may be sure you’re about to plummet to your death. But it was just a stair. You’re able to catch yourself and tentatively move forward again. Less trusting this time, inching forward to be sure there’s not another stair. It seems there isn’t one. You take a few tentative steps forward. It’s okay, you think. But just when you start to relax and walk again, there’s another stair. Longer this time. You twist your ankle and fall to your knees this time. You’re scared. You don’t want to get up. Don’t want to keep moving forward. You might fall further next time. You still can’t see or feel anything, and you’re not sure if the next slip will be a stair or the bottomless chasm you’re sure you’re blindly wandering into.

You’ve never felt so alone. Your friends and family--they’re close, you know it. If the lights would just turn on you know they’d be standing there, arms open, and smiling, or bustling about with their usual activities like normal. But you can’t see them. You can’t see anything. You can still speak. You want to tell them where you are, what’s happening to you. But you don’t. You don’t want them to think you’re needy. You don’t see yourself that way. You are a warrior. You don’t want to sound like somebody who’s just trying to get attention; a clingy, weak little crybaby who doesn’t appreciate what she has. And, after a while of thinking about it, you start to wonder if they even like you. Maybe they’re not waiting. Maybe, in the darkness, they’re rolling their eyes at you. “Look how stupid and weak she is, falling down again. Why doesn’t she get up? Can’t she see the garden?” You’re sure those are their unspoken thoughts. You’re a burden to them. Something that weighs them down; an annoyance at best and a stumbling block at worst, holding them back. That’s what you are. That’s what you’ve always been.

Maybe they’re right. You feel weak. Just that crybaby you didn’t want to be. You don’t want them to leave you. You don’t know what you’d do without them. But something is whispering to you, telling you it’s better to let them go so you don’t hurt them anymore.

No! You can’t stay here. You’ve fallen down here before. You’ve never seen what this place is like with the lights on, but something bad lives here. Ghoulish shades that were never men and women of flesh and bone live here. You’ve felt their thin fingers and blades against your throat before. If you don’t keep moving, they’ll try again.

You reach out, desperately searching to feel the ground. You know it’s there. Right there. You feel it for a second, and there is a bright white flash that, for just a second, lets you see the world around you. It’s not like it should be. You see the future. All your trees and flowers are dried and dead. You neglected them too long. Then blackness again. No, no, no! Your heart is pounding. Your chest is tight. It’s hard to breathe. You know the garden is still there. It’s not really the way you saw it just now. You know that, because that is the logical answer. But with greater certainty, in that illogical place where you can’t feel the ground or see, you know that’s what’s going to happen. It makes you sick. Your muscles are tight, especially around your stomach and lungs. You know you should eat but you can’t. You’re not hungry. Your stomach is clenched so tight there’s no room for food. But you eat a few bites anyway, out of duty to keep your body alive.

Pray. Call out to Him who created you. His voice is the only thing that grants you some reprieve. The darkness is thick. Sometimes you feel like He can’t reach you. Why would He come here, to this place? But He’s never abandoned you before. You know He’d never leave you. He promised He wouldn’t. He carved you into His palms. So, even if you can’t hear Him, you know He still remembers you. You can feel His gentle touch on your shoulder, quietly encouraging you to keep moving forward. “I know you, daughter. I’ve been where you are, for you. I’m here now, with you.”
There’s still sunlight. There’s still a garden. This too, shall pass.

“He’s not really there. You’re imagining things.” Those shades are back again. You ignore them, trying to touch His hand, to squeeze it in your own. You can’t. You know that. But His enduring presence is still there, giving you strength. Nothing in this whole dark world is real, you’re imagining a lot of things. At least He is good. He has power that for all your desperation you could not muster in yourself to find respite here.

And then you feel His touch on your shoulder again. It's warm, and solid, and real--just as real as your garden was before the dark. You want to touch His hands with yours, but you know you can't. "Not yet," He says. His voice is deep and rich, full of warmth like the sun and life like rich moss and lichen on volcanic rock. You don't understand why He can touch you and not you Him, but you trust Him. You trust Him and you are stilled. For a moment, there in the dark, you have peace.
You know it's not over. And you know you won't always feel His hand on your shoulder. But you know He'll always be there...

Living.


In a weird, impressionistic sort of way, what I've just described how an "anxiety episode" feels to me. Sometimes it spans days. Sometimes weeks, even months. The terror and uncertainty I face when I'm going through it is much the same as it would be if I was wandering in an unfamiliar place, unable to see pitfalls, unable to feel the ground and know if it is real.

Even though I know, logically, what is going on and that my fears are unfounded, it doesn't change how I feel. It's not just worrying too much. It's a physical and mental change that occurs in my body to make me feel this way.


Anxiety makes me feel isolated. It makes me feel like no one likes me and I have no value. It robs me of my hard-won ability to read people. In fact, the nearer and dearer a person is to me, the less I am able to read them, the more anxiety convinces me that they don't love me, I'm unloveable. It fills any sort of silence with rejection. It paints any show of affection with contempt, like the person feels obligated to give me this love somehow.
Anxiety is overwhelming. Problems that would be small in my normal state of mind are suddenly so much bigger, and doomed to end in the most terrible way. My pet is injured. It's just a small cut. But anxiety shows me a blistering wound that festers and boils and gangrenes before my eyes. The leg will have to be amputated, because my efforts are not enough to heal the wound, because I didn't try hard enough. Now, I "know" that is improbable, borderline impossible, and things will be okay, but I "feel" all the dread and pain and hopelessness as if the latter were true. And it's not a feeling I can banish just by wishing it.

Anxiety is like a virus. It has to run its course. Prayer is the only thing I have found that alleviates the symptoms, but my God in His infinite wisdom created this body of mine with this weakness, and He has given me charge to get through it. So I pray. I pray and I "feel" that it will never end, especially as it stretches from days into weeks. I survive on the gentle touch of the Saviour's grace and the promise that I've gotten through it before, and I'll be able to get through it again.

My thoughts race. I think and process everything so much faster. It’d be a super power if I could use it to get through timed quizzes. The only trouble is, my brain uses the extra time it'd saved to over-analyze. I second guess myself. Triple guess myself. Cross examine myself. And, ultimately, I sentence myself to failure.

I don’t feel confident. I don’t feel pretty. I feel painfully insecure in a way that is impossible to imagine unless you’ve been there too. Unconsciously, I keep my shoulders slumped and head down. My neck, shoulders, and back are sore from this awkward stance that I hold for days on end. I can’t meet anyone in the eye, I won’t even try because of this constant state of stress I am under. These aren’t things I think about. They’re just the way my body responds to the anxiety. I only recognize the difference because when it passes I feel like a physical weight has been lifted off my shoulders or I have gotten taller because only then can I raise my head. I love people more because I can look them in the eye and meet their beautiful souls. I'm not afraid of what they think of me, because I love myself. I am strong. I am confident. I am beautiful. What a relief when it passes!

Not All Bad.


It's hard for me to talk about anxiety. In order to express what it feels like, I have to go back there and relive it. Spoken words are slippery, they evaporate and change in the air. I can't stand on them. Written words stay on the page where I put them. They are steady. I can hold on to them. I have control over them. If they draw me in too deep, I can step back. And then go back, when I'm ready, and they will be just the way I left them.

Which brings me to the happy part of the story. Although science is still uncertain about which is cause and which is effect, there's strong evidence that there is a link between anxiety (and other mental/mood disorders) and creativity. In 1987, Dr. Nancy Andreason found that a sample of creative writers had significantly higher levels of bipolar disorders than the control group.

Many artists, writers, dancers, and photographers throughout history have struggled with anxiety and other related disorders. The painter Vincent Van Gogh once wrote to his brother, “I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me. Now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head … at times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse.”

If anxiety and creativity truly are linked, I'd never wish mine away. Creativity is my release. After a long bout of anxiety episodes, I feel more alive than ever before, more driven to create--whether that's drawing, writing, world-building, or web design.

It's terrible to go through. Not fun at all. But in a weird sort of way, I feel empowered by it. Anxiety is part of my body. I just have to learn how it works, and make it work for me.

I've learned already patterns that have saved me my sanity. The scariest times with anxiety were back when I was little and I didn't understand what was happening to me, or why. I had pet gerbils I would never touch for fear of hurting them, and obsess over for their safety. My worst fear was that one would get loose and escape into the vents to be lost forever in some inaccessible place.

Death and dead things are one of my triggers. When I actually did lose one of my gerbils, I looped the event in my head, over and over, which escalated into panic attacks. It's not that I am afraid of illness or dying. I'm afraid of separation. Of losing connections. In spite of my faith in the afterlife, any event dealing with death in my life always leads to a massive anxiety episode. Even seeing the dead body of a small animal I didn't know causes feelings of great unease, just... eerieness that something that was once vibrant and alive is suddenly gone and no longer functional. That can creep into an anxiety attack if I let it.

My other trigger is more innocuous: changes in barometric pressure. For whatever reason, the imperceptible changes that occur in the atmosphere with the approach of a storm always sets me off. When I was a child, I had no idea about this link. I would just feel the anxiety and, trying to figure out what was wrong with me, give myself a million things to worry about--everything from my mom passing away, to my dad getting in a car accident, or me turning *magically* into a boy overnight because I liked boy toys better than girl toys, and maybe I wanted to be a boy so that would make me change accidentally. And I would loop these scenarios on repeat in me head, until they escalated to panic attacks.

I was 22 when I first made the connection between my anxiety attacks and barometric pressure changes. I'd just moved to Oregon, away from my family for an LDS mission. At first I attributed my increase of anxiety attacks to being separated from my family, but after some time I started to realize that, without fail, a rainstorm always followed an anxiety attack. It rains in Oregon a lot. But weeks that would pass without storms would also pass without anxiety attacks. Uncanny. I started writing patterns down, keeping track, and, sure enough, barometric pressure changes always, always set me off, usually about two or three days before the storm actually hit. This has been a huge relief to me. It doesn't make the feeling go away, but it certainly eases the intensity. Since I know what is wrong and that storms aren't going to hurt me, that they're beautiful and the rain a blessing, there is less "emotional pain" (you know how when you stub your toe it hurts really bad, but if you calm down, the pain does too? Whereas if you respond more emotionally to the pain, the brain perceives it as even worse, so that the pain escalates? That's what I mean by emotional pain). This kind of anxiety is easier for me to manage than the anxiety of losing a loved one or dealing with death.

I read a book called Rewire Your Anxious Brain by Catherine M Pittman PhD & Elizabeth M Karle MILS, which really helped me to understand how anxiety works in my brain. Putting it very simply, for whatever reason, my triggers set off my survival instincts in my amygdala, telling me something is wrong. But it takes my cortex to figure out what is wrong. If my amygdala is going off without a real threat of danger, I may accidentally be feeding into its panic by going through a list of things that are or could go wrong. It's a vicious cycle. My mom called it "the loop" when I was little, teaching me I had to "break the loop" in order to de-escalate my panic attacks. I think that's why "storm anxiety" is easier for me to manage than "separation anxiety". I can tell myself exactly what is setting me off and that there is not a real problem. When I've lost someone I love, there is a real problem.

Conclusion

My understanding of anxiety and how it works in my body and others is still a forward-going journey (though every once in a while when I think I have it down, it will throw me for a loop). I know from my experiences of trying to help my sister who struggles with it that what works for me will not work for everyone. I suppose then it has to be a very personal thing: your body is not the same as anyone else's any more than your personality or your art is like anyone else's. Why would your anxiety or the ways to manage it be like someone else's?

I want to understand it the best I can. My grandmothers, mother, several sisters, and I all struggle with it. It stands to reason my children will as well. I want to create a toolbox that can help them when it starts to manifest in them. I want them to feel understood, to have confidence (logically, even if anxiety robs them of it emotionally) that they are loved and they will be okay. That's what has helped me to get through it so far.


References:

2 - Timothy Walsh Blog on Creativity & Mood Disorders: https://www.tjwalshtherapy.com/blog/whats-the-link-between-anxiety-and-creativity
3 - Rewire Your Anxious Brain by Catherine M Pittman PhD & Elizabeth M Karle MILS: https://www.amazon.com/Rewire-Your-Anxious-Brain-Neuroscience/dp/1626251134

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