I’m usually not a huge fan of labels.

I prefer to self-identify in ambiguous terms.

Life is complicated and if I learned anything in graduate school it’s that dichotomies are always false, if easier for the human brain to comprehend sometimes.

That said, sometimes naming something can be really useful.

I’ve always known I can be a bit high-strung. That I get overwhelmed more easily than other people. That I worry a lot.

And ever since my accident I’ve especially had difficulties in heavy traffic – the stop and go kind where you speed up a little and go 100 feet or so and then stop again. If it keeps up for any length of time I feel trapped like a rat in a cage and convinced I’m going to hit someone or someone’s going to hit me with everyone trying to zigzag lanes despite all that.

I know it’s because I was speeding up from a stop (light…. but still) when I stalled and was hit from behind. But that doesn’t keep me from stopping breathing and feeling my chest get tight when I’m stuck on the road halfway home.

The other day it took all I had to not pull over on the side of the road and wait for traffic to get better. All that kept me going was knowing I was 3/4 of the way home already and if I could just go for 10 minutes more I could be out of the car for the rest of the night.

Unfortunately I had had plans to go out to an event that night but was in no shape for socializing or driving once I did get home.

I’m not sure if it’s because I come from a family where mental illness isn’t a thing. Where it’s seen as something that can be grown out of, or as selfishness, or as a sign of spiritual weakness.

Where I didn’t know my mother had been on anti-depressants after our house burned down until over 10 years later, and only as a result of my own experiences with depression and suicide at that time.

Where my father refused to go to family therapy because he “is not going to pay someone to tell him that things that aren’t true are true.”

Maybe it’s in part because of that, or because of noticing that my emotional make-up was a lot like my Mother’s and assuming for much of my life that that meant it was “normal.”

But whatever the reason, I’ve never NAMED this thing that I experience in anything but the vaguest of terms. People always told me I was over-emotional (“too” emotional) and I believed them.

I assumed that it was just an excess of emotion that was my issue and I attempted to funnel it into acting or writing or yoga.

But the other day my lover said to me, “I know you’ve been struggling a lot with anxiety lately, is there anything that helps?”

And it was like this light bulb went off inside my head.



I’m suffering from ANXIETY.

And suddenly so many things make so much more sense.

My compulsive list-making is part of a defense mechanism that allows me to tackle items one thing at a time and reorganize them by level of importance. I think re-organizing the list also makes me feel like I’ve accomplished *something* when I start to feel anxious about “not getting anything done.”

Also, I always make plans ahead of time and have a hard time changing plans last minute. If you invite me to something tonight or even tomorrow I will most likely say no. Not because I don’t want to, but because it would cause me too much stress to think about re-arranging my whole week and what I’ve outlined for it in my head.

(Although to be fair, that one also has to do with my introversion and the way I parcel out my social energies over time).

I think planning ahead and feeling well-informed and like I can know what to expect also helps me feel safer.

Of course, that illusion of safety and security can always be shot to Hell at any given moment. Like this weekend when the place that I picked out for an oil change was twice the price I expected (the girl on the phone was unsure of the price when I called but said $15+ oil so I assumed it would be comparable to what I’m used to) plus a 3-hr wait because they don’t do Saturday appointments.

Luckily my lover was there with a smartphone and found a place with a 4-star rating right up the street and I was done in 20 minutes.

But in moments like that, I freeze. I literally can’t think what to do when things shift too suddenly and I struggle to feel like I’m in control or on top of it. My mind starts racing in 100 different directions and I panic. And then I feel embarrassed on top of that because here I am a grown woman and can’t do something as simple as get my oil changed in a new city.

For example.

Recoding these feelings I’ve had for as long as I can remember and calling them anxiety somehow makes them legible to me.

How do I stop worrying so much?

I have no earthly idea.

But how do I reduce my anxiety?

There’s a question I could get some help answering!

So, all of that said, what helps?

What do I know so far that by trial and error helps?

Breathing. Deep breathing through the mouth, preferably (when I can do that and not be afraid of again, seeming like a freak).

Talking myself down (which again, I can usually only do when alone).

Calling or otherwise conferring with someone else who is not panicking and can think of what the logical thing to do next is and calm me down.

Did I mention breathing? I think I especially forget to breathe in traffic.

Also being prepared ahead of time and having a back-up plan.

If possible, being in an environment where I don’t feel judged is important, but there’s not always control over that.

Focusing on one thing at a time – the thing right in front of me and not the million possibilities that go rattling through my brain at 1000mph.

That’s all I can think of for now.

If you have anxiety, how have you dealt with it? What helps you?

One thought on “The Power of Words

  1. I didn’t have full-blown anxiety until I was fighting for custody of my son. It was not realized until one night, when I was watching mindless tv while doing yarn work. I started to just feel like the world was closing in around me. No ability to breathe. Sudden doom all around me. Heart racing. Maybe I’m about to die. And suddenly wide awake. I tried to deep breathe through it, and it didn’t help. I gave in and took some Valium leftover from a dental appointment. I saw the sun come up. It happens occasionally, and usually with NO discernible trigger. When I can breathe, deep breathing and conscious focusing helps some. All I can impart is to keep breathing until you ride it out. Best o’ luck dear!

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