Content Note: anxiety, trauma
I have this stubborn belief that I can somehow untangle the strands of my anxiety from the strands of my trauma responses, that there is a clear line of delineation I can find if I just keep trying to feel my way through the fibers wrapped tightly around my chest. My chest has been hurting for several days. It isn’t cardiac – my heart and cardio systems are strong and healthy. It isn’t respiratory – my lungs are clear.
You are familiar with the concept of living ‘day by day’ as part of recovery practices. That’s useful for anxiety as well. I can’t power my way out of this ongoing stricture of my breathing. And because it has been several days, I have to recalibrate to ‘minute by minute’ and go inward into the tightness, just acknowledging it and trying to find a comfortable position to wait it out.
Anxiety is a warning sign for me, a flare gun that my subconscious triggers when I need to pay attention. Ironically, what my subconscious wants is for me to distance myself from my actual thoughts.
“Hey, hey, Sue,” my mind tells me. “Don’t think about that or this or the other thing. Let’s distract you with this surge of fear to keep you contained in your safe space (home) and minimize the risk that you might do the thinking.”
It seems counterintuitive that social anxiety would keep me home, mostly alone, with my thoughts and time on my hands as a coping mechanism to avoid processing trauma. But sitting here at my computer, my legs crossed beneath me on our sofa as the dog snores softly nearby and MSNBC is muted on the television, I am using all of my energy to not feel terrified. I breathe deeply, enjoy a few minutes of release, and then feel the strands falling back into place around my chest. The good thing is that there are those moments of freedom in my breathing. So I do it again and again.
I’m not thinking ahead to the rest of the day or weekend. There are piles of laundry, dishes, litter boxes, and other chores that need my attention. But I can’t do both, I can’t do the breathing to feel the calm and get the things accomplished.
From bitter experience, I’ve learned that if I power through the anxiety – I pay a price, one that I describe as ‘stuffing’ my feelings, thoughts, fears, apprehension back inside of me, a process I can visualize as an actual inhalation into my esophagus speading down into my lungs and my digestive system. Deep into my very core I cram these bits of data, far away from my brain and my senses.
Sometimes this is necessary and useful, like a crisis. A small example from the other day – I was feeling the anxiety pretty hard when suddenly our power went out in the afternoon. It was 30 degrees outside. I jumped into action, opening the blinds to get the remaining daylight, locating the flashlights and extra batteries, pulling out the phone chargers, making sure the cats were on the first floor with me, etc. I put on an extra layer of clothes, checked the thermostat, found the space heater, and began thinking of a plan for the young kittens in our bathroom if the power outage went on too long. I was calm, organized, and prepared. When the power was restored, I felt a momentary sense of self-satisfaction at my accomplishments – I could rise to the occasion.
With the literal flick of the switch, I went back to anxiety mode as my mind scorned me for being proud of finding flashlights and taking pride in something so routine. I’m ridiculous, needy, and hysterical. Those negative thoughts pile on me because self-confidence or self-worth might lead to something incredibly dangerous like self-reflection. Don’t think about things, instead here are all of these feelings for you to manage. You have to put away the thoughts, stuff them inside, to make room for the emotions, feelings that rip you out of calm and controlled mode into desperate action to just stop the overwhelming sensations.
It is a nifty trick, essentially consuming my energy to the point that I have no reserves for processing. I’m functioning, but certainly not at optimal levels.
My anxiety is a dysfunctional protection mechanism, protecting me from very real threats to my welfare from inside my own mind. And yet, I have to go into my mind to deal with the traumas if I have any hope to heal. So I spend more of my precious energy reminding myself over and over that this awareness is evidence of healing, that my anxiety is ratcheted up in response to my recovery.
I can’t increase my resiliency by force or determination or moral fortitude. I can simply breathe more relief into those moments of release and calm, allowing them to create just a fraction more comfort. This is the work. Breathing means more oxygen and less room for the stuffed thoughts and memories. Wrenching them out won’t work, this isn’t a television drama where a big hypnosis session reveals all and the redemption arc begins.
Instead, I am sitting in my therapists office each week with little pieces of plastic in each hand as tingling sensations from the pulses throb through my arms seemingly into my nervous system and then my conscious mind. For a few minutes, followed by some talking, and then another round. It is so innocuous, almost tedious. How on earth will I get through all of the years of neglect and abuse at this rate?
That’s a legitimate anxiety, but one I have to manage. I have to trust the process and try not to add it to the stuffed feelings. And that’s how I slowly separate some anxiety threads from the trauma.
Please don’t take this as an invitation to urge me to take up yoga, drink tea, or do anything in particular. What I need is encouragement and comfort, not advice. Rather than tell me what I should be doing, show me that you are willing to sit in these moments with me whether that’s online or in real life. Please try not to layer more emotional energy on me with proclamations or expectations.
Give me room to breathe.
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