Now, when I look back, I see how much of my life was flying between anxiety attacks and states of calm.
When I was in high school, I thought I had messed up my chances at graduating early, and I immediately thought the world was ending. I think I see this moment as a point where I realized I had anxiety issues that others didn't have, and when I realized my mom did, too.
As it turned out, I didn't ruin my chances...my teacher gave me an extension. But still, emotionally, I had put myself through hell. I had thought there was no way to repair what had happened. I was exhausted, traumatized, and depleted.
This was a pattern I fell into for years.
For years, whenever something bad happened, I assumed the worst. I would sweat. I would breathe heavily. I would think of all the terrible things that could have happened. I would feel like I was in trouble.
At work when I was older, there was a mistake in the paperwork that said I hadn't worked hours that I had, in fact, worked, and they were going to dock my pay. I had attack after attack as I worked to resolve it. I was an emotional, desperate mess.
I fell into the same pattern with men I dated. As a people-pleaser, I didn't want to ask for direct answers—What are we? Where is this going? And this usually culminated in anxiety, resentment, and eventually, a falling out.
I made decisions based on my anxiety attacks to temporary cure the itchy, desperate feeling. Problem with work? Change jobs. Problem with school? Change schools. Roommate? Just move. Any time I had a problem, I literally fled, and this helped with my anxiety...in the moment.
There was a large flaw in my plan.
The triggers for my anxiety became more numerous. A phone call would ruin my day. (Phone calls still do give me a lot of anxiety, but not as much.)
My world was becoming smaller and smaller. I couldn't deal with anything. I relied on doing shots of alcohol to calm my nerves. I wanted to perform, and write, and create art, but I was equally terrified of being judged, shot down, or plain old unsuccessful.
Then, I learned something important.
An average anxiety attack lasts only a few minutes...10, maybe 30, tops.
They seem like forever, yes. They seem like an entire world. But in reality, if I want to do something, I could wait 30 minutes and see if I still want to make the same choice. The same with a tattoo...if you still have the idea after a year, you probably do want that tattoo.
So I just started...to wait the anxiety attacks out.
In the middle of one, there's this itching, desperate feeling. I felt like I absolutely had to do something. The feeling was all-consuming. It was burning, painful, and impossible.
But like a fire, when I fed it, it only grew.
I decided not to make any decisions when I was gripped by anxiety. I started to ask myself questions when I felt that itch:
1. Am I doing this to calm my anxiety?
If so, then I should wait to see if my anxiety calms on its own after a few minutes. I can try to distract myself with social media, breathe deeply, drink some water, or do some exercise. For me, dancing usually helps tremendously.
2. Am I making this decision from a place of power?
If I'm having an anxiety attack, then no, I'm not making that decision out of power. I'm making the decision out of desperation or fear. And so, if the answer is no, then I should not make that choice.
Anxiety makes us make terrible choices, and once the initial stress is gone, then I was usually left in a mess I would not have otherwise chosed. I began to think of being overly anxious almost as being high or intoxicated...and decided it was best to wait until I was no longer in that state.
3. Can I explore why I'm feeling this way? Am I thinking about this problem in a productive way, or am I imagining all the worst scenarios?
Usually, the need to make a rash decision stems from something deeper. Am I afraid of confrontation with my roommate? If so, why? Oh, it stems from fears I had with a narcissist caregiver who regularly threatened to throw people out over any small altercation. Maybe, this situation is different, and my roommate is not going to demand I move out over something as small as taking out the garbage. Am I worried about tuition at my college? Maybe I can go on a payment plan instead of assuming I have to drop out.
When I start to think about why I'm feeling that panic and need to escape, the answers are usually unrelated to what is actually happening around me. Something deep inside is triggered.
4. What do I actually want to do, in the perfect situation?
This is a great question because it causes me to think about what powerful choices I would make, even if it's a bit of a fantasy. In my perfect world, I would stay in this apartment...or save so I could get a bigger one! In my perfect world, I wouldn't move, because moving is a huge hassle. In my perfect world, I would move jobs within the company to something I liked better.
When I start thinking about choices I would make from a place of power, instead of a place of desperation, then I can see how the two don't line up at all. My anxiety wants me to hide and flee, and ultimately, create more work for myself. My anxiety is afraid to ask people what they think.
But my place of power cares less about the opinions of others, and is focused on my goals. When I see the difference, it causes me to pull away from making a decision based in fear.
5. If I were my friend, what would I tell myself to do?
This question has helped me a lot, because it forces me to think about the situation more objectively. A friend would never tell me to move out because of a simple roommate dispute.
A friend would recommend talking it out, creating a chore wheel, or some kind of calendar...a friend would think of a solution that was not radical, unless the situation called for it.
While many of us go to friends for advice, since my anxiety is so chronic, and that's unfair to put on any one friend, I have had to really strengthen this muscle. I cannot go to friends during all hours...it's exhausting for them. I have to develop that voice for myself to calm myself out of the most intense panic.
It has not been easy, and I've fallen off many times. Each time, though, it gets easier.
It's a muscle that needs to be strengthened. Like anything else, with years of practice, refraining from making anxious, panicked decisions has become easier. Instead, the focus becomes on making decisions from power...and letting the anxiety pass.