A couple of weeks ago I shared a post in hopes that openly talking about my struggles with anxiety would help someone else new to this helpless feeling during these times of strife. The response to that post and the follow-on posts have been tremendous. Thank you, readers! If you need to get caught up, the initial post is HERE and you can find all the posts on my journey under self-care in the category selector found to the right of this blog.
Today will conclude my series on handling my anxiety and the tools I use to do that. I hope these posts continue to be useful and give others hope that they too can learn to deal with undue stress and anxiety. So! Onward.
When I was sexually abused as a child, I had no control over that. When I was being used as a punching bag, I had no control over that. When my husband was deploying and deploying and deploying to war zones, I had no control over that. That lack on control in those situations eventually overlapped into other situations in my life, and those where I had no control or perceived I had no control elevated my anxiety and a panic attack ensued.
Airplanes…zero control once you’re on the plane. Large crowds in a tiny space…zero perceived control of the situation. Parties and gatherings in someone else’s home or space…zero control but partly perceived. Other drivers on the highway…zero control of them. Being a passenger in a vehicle with someone else at the wheel…zero control. All that added up to fear and stress which drove my anxiety. I feared any situation where someone else or some other force than me had control. And it was all rooted back to the situations where I truly didn’t have control or a say, i.e. the abusive situations in my life and the fact my husband was a moving target in a foreign country and the fear of possibly losing him and having to live forever without him. Because what I didn’t understand then was that he was a grounding force for me, and with him gone so often and for so long I was being launched into facing everything alone.
Once I understood what was driving the anxiety, I could then learn how to deal with it and control it. Because control was and is the name of the game. What can I control? What can I not? What’s really worth caring if I can or not? And in those questions lies the answer, at least for me (again, I’m not a doctor or a therapist, I’m simply sharing my experience and what’s helped me).
I started out by suggestion of my therapist by asking, what can I control? I can control what I eat, my sleep patterns, whether or not I use my tools, who I allow into my space, my own actions and reactions, who I talk to, what I reveal to them, and which situations I choose to participate in based on what I feel I can tolerate that day. Those things were real. They were what I could dictate the parameters of. They were tangible things about which I could say, I control that.
What I couldn’t control: who was in a public place, how many people were there, other people’s social functions, airplanes, other drivers on the highway, etc., etc., etc. When it came to these things I couldn’t control, or perceived I couldn’t control, I had to ask, what was the worst thing that could happen as a result of these uncontrollable entities?
For instance, my anxiety was so high at one point I was even having a hard time attending church services because of the amount of folks in that space. A place which should have afforded some measure of peace wasn’t peaceful for me at all. I have to tell you at this point, the fear of losing my shit and being humiliated in front of a few hundred people was actually more stressful than the unknown quantity. So, what was the worst thing that could happen? I could lose my shit. I could have a full-blown panic attack and disrupt the service. That was in my mind the absolute worst thing that could happen. The next question became…and? So what? I had to retrain my brain into believing a simple truth. No one gave a tinker’s damn if I lost my shit and if they did so what. They could get over it. Then the next question was…what could I do to mitigate the chances of losing my shit and what could I control in this situation? I could sit near the back of the church and on the end of the pew so I wasn’t in the middle of all the people. This way, if I felt anxiety creeping in, I could take a breather. I could step out into the vestibule easily, and with minimal disruption to anyone around me, and take a few deep breaths then come back in. I could control that much. If anyone breezed in late and tried to press me into moving to the middle of the pew, I could tell them, ‘I’m really sorry, I can’t do that. I have an anxiety disorder and I have to sit on the outside to maintain my cool. I’ll move and let you on the inside though.’ I either got a smile and they understood, gladly taking the inside, or they looked confused and moved on. Either way, I could control my environment, my little square of the shared space, my needs.
I used this technique again and again in countless other situations. For a while, I drove no matter who else volunteered to do the driving. I spent a stint at home for a few weeks while my grandmother was gravely ill and anytime we had to go somewhere I took control. ‘I will drive. I will drive my own car. Yes, I’m sure. I have to do this in order to maintain my space in a healthy way. Either I drive, my own car, or I’m not going.’ There was little left open for discussion. I knew what I needed and I took it. I controlled. I made myself a priority for the first time in my life and I let go of the fear of expressing what I needed and taking it.
Once I had enough of control of my own space, I realized that this control thing went hand in hand with trust. Because I’d had my control stripped repeatedly, I had developed a deep-seated distrust and was wary of placing any faith in anyone at all. Won’t lie, it took a long time to redevelop the ability to trust again, but as I regained my control more fully it became easier.
The world probably seems like a pretty scary place right now and it might seem like things are spinning out of control; like you have no control over anything that’s happening. That feeling of loss of control, of helplessness? That can lead to anxiety. That everything is actually out of control? That’s a partial truth. There are some things which you cannot control. But there’s probably more that you can control that you can’t.
Ask yourself today, what can I control? And if I can’t control something what’s the worst thing that can happen? What does control look like in your space today? Maybe it’s that you walk a few laps around your house rather than eat another handful of chips. Maybe it’s that you turn off the news and only get a daily update; allow yourself thirty minutes to catch up then turn it back off. Maybe it’s that you shower and put on real clothes rather than the lounge pants. Whatever small thing you can control, start there. Start regaining your power over your own environment, your space.
Please remember, if you find yourself in a place where you feel utterly hopeless, reach out. Reach out to a friend. Reach out to a family member. Reach out to your spouse. Reach out to the local mental health services hotline. Don’t be afraid of losing your shit in front of someone. By reaching out, you are in fact in control.
On a lighter note, because we need a little levity with such a heavy subject. Don’t exude so much control over your space you’re the person taking a pair of rusty scissors to your hair. Please. Just. Don’t. Do. It. Just put on a hat and find something else that needs more control than your hair does right now.