Overcoming Anxiety: Creating Space Between Calm and Panic.

Lisa Martens

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For most of my life, I've been told that I have no "middle gears."

What does this mean? It means I'm either calm or panicking, either nonplussed or super-offended...a robot or a sobbing, hysterical mess.

When I have panic attacks, I usually feel it first in a rush of sweat, then dizziness, then this overwhelming need. I need to do something. I need it now.

Things were either fine, or terrible. There was no in-between. When I owed a bill and couldn't pay, my response was to ignore the call. It would stop, and I would feel calm again...until the next time.

This meant I couldn't plan a thing. Making plans caused stress, and then I didn't want to make them anymore. Plans meant I had to look up information, make decisions, and save money.

Because I had no middle gears, I couldn't do this. I would push away even fun events looking for my state of calm.

What symptoms are these?

Just from this description, you might assume I have some kind of mental health struggle, and I do.

1. Avoidance.

Avoidance is ignoring the phone call. Avoidance is ignoring a whole city because an ex lives there, even if you really need to go to that city for work. Avoidance is exactly what it sounds like...avoiding the trigger or stressor, even to an illogical degree.

Balloons trigger my anxiety, and so for a long time I would avoid...children's birthday parties. This sounds absurd...that I would be extremely stressed at a child's party. But those parties are truly filled with loud, unexpected sounds: games, balloons, and the kids themselves.

Forget about an arcade! Arcades with monsters jumping out and constant ringing sounds are completely overwhelming to me.

I also avoid movie theaters for similar reasons.

Avoidance seems to make sense. If you dislike something, just ignore it. The issue with avoidance is that it is like a vine. It will grow and grow and find new cracks. I could avoid movies and birthday parties, but then, eventually, I would want to avoid malls alltogether, or maybe bars.

Avoidance never stops making one's world smaller and smaller.

Avoidance also leads to consequences. Ignoring a problem usually just makes it worse over time.

2. Catastrophizing.

I write about catastrophizing a lot, in part because it was a revolutionary idea for me. My mind almost always thinks of the absolute worst-case scenario. If I had one problem, this would explode into a host of other problems. Homelessness, incurable disease, brutal beatings, painful death, imprisonment. One missed payment could send me spiraling. The core belief behind catastrophizing is a belief that I cannot handle any bad thing that would happen to me.

3. Foreshortened sense of future.

I remember the day I realized that I didn't know how to plan a month in advance.

The concept was foreign to me. I was used to just working, or going to college. I never planned vacations or days off. I never planned weekend trips. I would take trips sometimes...but they were always sudden. I would wake up one day and go to the airport...no kidding.

Being unable to plan might seem fun, but it was a huge detriment. I had no idea the path I wanted to take in my life, and just thinking about it caused me to have an anxiety attack.

4. Intrusive thoughts.

Everyone has intrusive thoughts sometimes, but mine always seem to skew toward me getting hurt in a brutal way. Intrusive thoughts happen suddenly and without warning or reason. They are usually something you would not want to do. To me, they're like little movies. They're different from catastrophizing in the sense that they are sudden and you're not actively thinking of them.

So what could I do? How could I make space between calm and panic? How could I literally create new reactions to events, so that my decisions were not hijacked by anxiety?

1. Understanding why I had these feelings.

Yes, this involved digging deep into my reactions and seeing why exactly I felt like the worst would happen. I had to remember things I would rather forget, and be very honest with myself in a way that was extremely uncomfortable.

I was in foster care and had an unstable home environment when I was younger. I came to understand that it was feeling of moving around so much that made me feel afraid most of the time. I believed that I was never safe, and that I had no real home. This feeling of instability caused me to overreact to even mild situations, because I believed at any given moment, I was going to lose my home and my life.

Then I developed a sort of "I'll start over before that happens" mentality, where I would move, change jobs, or change relationships so that I would not lose those things...I would chose to give them up. This made me feel safer to push those things away before I lost them (and I felt certain I would lose them).

2. Seeing healing as an expansion, not a loss of identity.

I have always been slightly afraid that to heal would mean to lose what made me me. Would I become less creative? Less artistic? Would I stop traveling? Would I sacrifice core elements of myself to "fit in?"

I no longer worry about this, because I see healing as an expansion. I am adding to my personality, not taking away. I can be a person who plans and loves to travel. I can have relationships that fit my needs and desires without pushing people away. I can be creative and healthy and be kind to myself, instead of engaging in self-destructive cycles in the name of art.

When my perspective on healing shifted to being one of addition, not subtraction, I came to realize that I would never "fit in" in the negative sense. I would just become more myself, and I would attract the people who were right for me.

3. Sitting through uncomfortable feelings and questioning them...gently.

I used to become angry when I had "bad" feelings...anxiety, hopelessness, despair. I thought the only way around these feelings was to get rid of them and push them down. I was upset for even having these feelings.

I found that I could simply sit with them...and sit with my anxiety attacks.

I learned that dealing with stress is not eliminating stress. We all have stressors in our lives. Dealing with stress means finding ways to be happy even with the stress in my life.

People who do great things don't do so by avoiding stress. They learn the best way to handle it...and decide what is worth it to them.

I still have anxiety issues and all the symptoms I mentioned before. The difference is: Now I don't beat myself up. I understand why I have those feelings. I no longer think feelings are bad, and I am not preoccupied with pushing them down. I want to let them out.

I see my symptoms and way of thinking as a response to trauma I faced when I was younger, and it's nothing for me to be ashamed of. I do not have to tell myself my emotions are wrong or that I am weak. I can create space and breathe...and create a functional, capable adult in-between the calm and panic.

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