A window on anxiety

A while ago, I read about a Canadian man called Alexis St.Martin who ended up with a hole in the side of his body as a result of a shooting accident. For many years, a doctor called William Beaumont kept the hole open and was able to gather vital information about the human digestive system through this permanent window into St.Martin’s stomach.
As a journalist, I know there’s nothing like being ‘at the scene’ to give you quality information. I’ve learnt that what you gather from the ‘lived experience’ can teach you so much.
I’ve thought about this in relation to my mental health, especially when I’m in the middle of an episode of anxiety (as I have just been – on the tail-end now). As I struggle and self-criticise myself into a frenzy, I have pockets of clarity where I’m able to say to myself, ‘You should be making a note of all of this to help you when you’re out the other side. This is valuable information.’
But, of course, I’m generally feeling too inert yet jangled (the strangest of anxiety bedfellows) to be able to action this. The anxiety eventually subsides and I’m back to normal, firing on all cylinders and feeling, hoping, that my last protracted panic attack was but a distant memory and surely my last.  Not only that but when calm and wellness prevails, I feel I no longer need a window into my own mental health and, consequently, find myself pushing these observations aside.
So this time round, in the midst of one of these panics, I’m jotting some down so I can ‘see’ what is going on, both for now and for when things settle back to normal. I’m hoping for a glimpse of what’s going on through a metaphorical St.Martin window into my own mind. Here’s what I’ve observed:

  • I’m on screaming red alert.  When I’m anxious the following – and more – bombards my brain like a thousand archers firing arrows at a target: ‘My house is falling down’, ‘My headache a brain tumour’, ‘My son is unhappier than any other child who has ever lived’ and ‘I will never work again’ are where I ultimately end up. Hypervigilance reigns.
  • I’m living ‘the bell-shaped curve’. I find that there’s a steady build-up to my anxiety bouts followed by a deep immersion in solid anxiety (the middle of the curve) followed by a slow return back down into the calm zone. I’ve come to the conclusion that what I’m experiencing is a drawn-out panic attack that can last for days…and sometimes – rarely, but if I’m unlucky – weeks.
  • I feel overloaded by something and nothing. This is related to the bell-shaped curve: the slow build-up starts from being overloaded and pressurised in life, often in more than three or four areas of it (e.g. parenting, money, work and house issues) and fearing the worst about all of them. The feeling of overloading is like going to a circuit board under the stairs and finding that all of the switches have inexplicably tripped and you can’t find a way to flip them back again.
  • I feel terror. People talk about night terrors. I’ve never had them but I feel that anxiety and panic are like having day terrors where everything feels like it’s going to lead to dreadful things and, ultimately, your demise or those around you. From what I can see, this terror is quite commonplace when it comes to extreme anxiety and panic.
  • I look like I’ve seen a ghost! The thing I always notice when I’m anxious is how my face looks different. I don’t know whether other people see it (maybe that’s part of my hypervigilance, too?) but I often feel I look like I’ve seen a ghost or had a big shock. I guess this would make sense: the biochemistry of anxiety and panic has its basis in getting you ready for fight, flight or flee, and all of those can leave you feeling highly strung and terrified. Afterwards, I feel I could sleep for days to fix every jangled cell.

In some ways, I’m still working this one out, even though anxiety and I have disagreed and tussled for a long time. But there are definitely some things that I’ve learned can help.

  • Knowing it will pass. How many times have I said ‘This too shall pass’ and Sir Winston Churchill’s ‘If you find yourself going through hell, keep on going’? I can’t quantify it but I do know that it helps me to say it, mantra-like. It always DOES pass and each time it does it increases the weight of evidence that this is the case. Working with it and pushing through it gets easier.
  • Finding a daily focus. Sometimes just ‘keeping it in the day’ has to be enough. At particularly bad times, I’ve been known to write a list at the end of the day that includes ‘Brushed my teeth’ just so I can tick it off and feel I achieved something. Hence…
  • Being creative – and colourful. Since I started The Colour File a year ago, I’ve found that thinking about what to post, taking photos for the blog entries and writing the words have been a way of achieving something each day, even when I feel things aren’t great. The creative outlet that comes with thinking about colours, patterns, words and, of course, shelfies, help to calm as well as energise me in a positive way. Little things can be enough to stop you giving in. In the words of Stephen Hawking, who has just died, ‘It matters that you don’t just give up.’
  • Sleeping. My tweenager son gets cross when I bang on about the importance of sleep but it’s true: poor sleep quality increases anxiety levels and leads to poor mental health. Simply managing to eat is often an achievement when I’m anxious so I don’t stress about the quality of what I’m eating, mid-panic (after all, healthy eating is just another onerous thing to add to my overflowing stress bucket at that point). As long as I eat something, I figure I can redress the balance when I’m feeling better.
  • Friendship and reaching out. I have a cluster of good friends who metaphorically (and sometimes physically) hold my hand when anxiety strikes. For me, the aloneness of anxiety and panic is hugely mollified by spending time with good people (even just hot-desking while I work so I have company). I have also gained a whole lot of strength from people I’ve met fleetingly or never even met, my lovely social media pals.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? What does your anxiety and panic feel like? And what helps? Please do let me know. Familiarity with how we are feeling – as well as knowing we’re not the only ones who feel this way – is such a key part of kicking these things into touch.
Martha x

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