The anxiety can take one of various paths: it can build up slowly from a trickle, formed by a distant, worrisome thought I had in the morning and quickly brushed aside; this trickle may remain a trickle, but it may also go into a crescendo as a million minor grievances accumulate throughout the day; finally, it can come in full force, suddenly, a flash flood of hormones inundating the body with dozens of simultaneous sensations.
In this metaphor, anxiety is like a river, a straight current that is sometimes shallow and tamed, others fast and treacherous. I have learned its contours and little grooves, the deeper parts where I can easily drown, the shallower waters where I can find my footing or hold on to a branch and quickly find my way out.
One can never really tell when the current will come in. It cannot be predicted, only planned for. Like its distant cousin grief, anxiety needs no trigger points. It can come on suddenly while you’re sitting on the couch, pleasantly having lunch, or it can be waiting by your bedside to hold your hand from the second you wake up.
Depending on the flavor, I reach for my built-in structures. Anxiety is so familiar now, it is part of the landscape, and often even fades to become a distant hum in the background.
Sometimes I perform yoga stretches in the morning. Yoga, as I have come to understand it, is not about strenuous poses and zen-like composure, but about surrender. One surrenders to the current state of being, one acknowledges, one even embraces. I am not a yogi, I simply reach out for that tool whenever things become too hectic. It’s a quick way to get into my body without overcomplicating things. Do a few yoga stretches, breathe in, breathe out.
My physical practice helps, too, and when I am having a particularly anxious day, I am grateful for these other structures I have also set up for myself. Having daily dance commitments ensures I have no excuses and brings a measure of relief and connection I would not be afforded otherwise.
Sometimes I journal and the hashing out of the things that are gnawing at me helps me get clarity and perspective. Others I simply accept it as part of my day and power through my tasks hoping it will go away on its own.
When low-grade anxiety becomes a panic attack, the first thing I do to get my bearings is call it by its name. I remind myself spiraling thoughts and a sensation of feeling cornered are par for the course. The first line of defense is the breath. Then move your body, using your breath. Working in a few minutes of guided meditation can lead to even better results.
This process can take hours, perhaps even days. The emotions go from a low-grade feeling of concern and peak towards full-on panic, blood banging in your eardrums, like an orchestra journeying through the ups and downs of a classical composition. Once the panic subsides the feeling of worry remains. Suddenly the bubble bursts, or the perceived danger disappears (you receive the lab results and everything is fine, the conversation you were dreading takes a positive turn, and so on and so forth). Afterwards comes a hangover-like sensation that leaves your head fuzzy and your body exhausted.
I often feel dehydrated then, like I have the flu and have not slept well for days. I drink tons of water, eat healthy foods and treat my body as best I can. I try to push the dread of another attack away: that anticipation itself can trigger another anxiety attack. I give myself a break.
In my lifetime of grappling with anxiety, I have come to several conclusions. I know anxiety hits me the hardest when I am restless and unhappy in my current circumstances and I want to escape into the future. Fantasizing about the future has been one of my coping mechanisms since I was a child and felt trapped in undesirable circumstances. As a young girl, I used to dream I would one day be a famous writer and be asked on interviews. I’d be slim and have waist-long hair, have a cute little cottage house in some verdant part of the world and spend hours a day writing stories for a living. I would have a handsome, loving husband. I would not bite my nails anymore. I would not struggle with my weight. I would be admired and loved by my family.
But as the years wore on the anxiety crept back and infected my dreams. My escape fantasies became tinged by the fear that I would never accomplish these things. I ran around trying to figure out ways to make them happen, unaware that there were forces far beyond my control. My own unchecked anxiety, coupled with my lack of access to resources, sabotaged my writing projects. I sought to give myself resources in the form of a career. That career led to more avenues for the anxiety to seep in and take hold.
And so, I have also learned that the world I live in is structured in a way that keeps me scared and constantly looking over my shoulder. The world feels unsafe, like it is about to gut-punch me at any moment. I remind myself of that.
The world has gut-punched me, for sure. Like anxiety, the blows have come, unexpectedly, from places my guardedness had not thought to check for danger. One lives, until one doesn’t. As of the time of this writing I have managed to live for almost 39 years. The unexpected has happened, the words I was afraid to hear have been told to me, the bank account has been overdrafted, the large bill has arrived in the mail. The bad things have come and then they have been solved or become part of the landscape of my life, and I have readjusted. I remind myself of this, too.
These days, when I lose my grip on reality and my anxiety starts spiraling out of control, I reach for the best tool of them all: coming back here, to the immediate present. Focusing on the grain of the carpet, the color and texture of the wall, the din of a distant bell. I come back to whatever show I am watching, to one of my cats’ beautiful sleep positions, to the taste of coffee in my mouth. I have that moment of feeling my body occupying the present, and it helps. Suddenly the future recedes from view, and all I have is this moment, in all its mundane and boring fullness.