Saturday, March 21, 2020

Going Off Topic (To Talk About Anxiety and Panic Attacks), by Chris Tebbetts

Like a lot of people, I've been thinking about (and grappling with) anxiety lately, as well as the possibility, for me--already realized by some friends--of panic attacks. For some of us, those feelings can take on a life of their own, and when they do, it's not rational, and it's not always controllable. If you're one of those people, I recommend finding an empathetic ear, where you can talk about it to someone who knows what these feelings are like. (I'm happy to be that person, if I can help.) For what it's worth, I scribbled down these few lines the other day, and it feels like something I want to remember: 

"Look down on your anxiety, not up at it. It is a piece of you. It is maybe even a child. You made it." 

For me, it's been helpful to do anything I can to see anxiety in the larger context of my experience that always exists around it, and to remind myself that the all-encompassing feeling of anxiety (which is not to say the anxiety itself) is an illusion, like a movie close up that keeps me from seeing the larger picture. I can't make the anxiety invisible, but I can pull the camera back and shrink its relative size, if I remember to do that.

So for instance, if I’m spiraling down, and someone were to say “You’re going to be okay,” or if I try to tell myself, “I've got this…I can handle it,”… the answer from my anxiety-ridden mind is, “YOU CAN’T KNOW THAT. MAYBE I’LL BE OKAY AND MAYBE I WON’T.” And it’s true. Those kinds of reassurances are, ultimately, opinions, not facts. And even if those well-meant expressions of reassurance are likely to come true, they just don’t stand up against the certainty of my anxious state.

So… if the question of whether or not everything will be okay isn’t a useful one at a given moment, because it relies on unknowable things—on opinion—then what kinds of actual, factual things CAN stand up to the anxiety? For me, these days, that answer has centered on gratitude. 

For a lot of people, a focus on gratitude can be (and has been) hugely powerful. For others, the word itself, “gratitude,” is like a new-age dog whistle. People hear “gratitude” in this context and inevitably, some eyes will roll. But hear me out. If I’m experiencing a high level of anxiety, or even worse, edging toward an actual panic attack, one of the things I’ve found useful is to ask myself, or to be asked, “What am I grateful for?” As far as I can tell, answering that question helps me in two ways: 

1) It distracts my brain, requiring me to focus on something other than the anxiety itself. (SIDEBAR: Moreover, any kind of interruption can be useful for me: like picking up a book and forcing myself to read it and, even harder, force myself to process and understand the words as I read them; or as another example, I’ve found tapping to be useful; it’s a prescribed sequence of finger taps against various points on and around the face. It screams “placebo effect,” but to that I say: if it works, who cares?)

And 2) While reassurances like “You’ll be fine” don’t have the power to stand up to my anxiety, the fact of my gratitude (for my husband, family, friends, home, sense of humor, or whatever it is) does stand up. So if someone says “You’ll be fine,” my internal response is essentially, “YOU CAN’T KNOW THAT FOR SURE!”

However, if I say or think “I’m grateful for my husband…my family…my home,” or whatever it might be, my brain (even from inside my anxiety) doesn’t have the ammunition to convince me otherwise. It doesn’t try to say, “No, you’re wrong. You’re not grateful for those things.” Because it can’t. And in that acknowledgment, I’m inevitably widening the lens a bit, or a lot, to make my experience something more than just the anxiety itself. 

And again, the power here for me isn’t about making the anxiety go away. It’s about diluting the anxiety’s dominance of my mental picture. It's "yes, and" as opposed to "don't worry, be happy." 

It also reminds me of Anne Lamott’s prescription in the face of the various creative fears that writers often feel as they set out to write a story. To that anxiety, she says, “Okay, you can come along if you must, but you have to sit in the back seat.” 

Is all of this easier said than done? For sure.  I don’t mean to over-simplify anything here. But for me, there’s something very practical to all of this — like actual tools I can use — and those have been a big help.

All best,
Chris 

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