Anyhow, anxiety, and the related panic attacks, are horrible. Those of you who’ve had it already know that. Those of you who haven’t had it won’t really be able to understand what it’s like, and this post probably won’t help much. That’s because, as well as being horrible to experience, anxiety is also horrible to write about.
I think it starts with the word. ‘Anxiety’ is such a limp sounding word. It sounds like something that would be experienced by the “sensitive” heroine in a 19th century novel. It doesn’t sound like it’s a real problem. To me there’s a hierarchy of words that discuss this kind of thing. Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up.
Worried – this is what you feel when you temporarily can’t find your keys or your bank card. A mild sensation of “Oh dear, things aren’t entirely relaxed and comfortable.”
Nervous – a mild sensation of “I wonder what will happen” coupled with a slight sense of “I hope nothing bad happens.”
Anxious – this is what you feel when nervousness no longer quite covers it. Now it’s not so much “I hope nothing bad happens”, as it is “What will I do if something bad happens?”
Scared – “I know there’s something bad out there, and I think it might happen to me, and, please, I don’t want it to.” The appropriate response when you find yourself walking along a dark street late at night and then you start to hear footsteps following you, and they’re a long way behind, but they’re getting closer…
Frightened – “The bad thing is going to happen to me, it’s not going to happen just yet, but I can’t do anything to stop it.” Like the bit in the horror film when you see the shadow of the man with the knife through the smoked glass of the door, you go to phone the police, but the phone-line’s been cut…
Terrified – “The bad thing’s here, it’s now, any second.” The man with the knife’s smashed the glass, he’s in your house, you’re hiding somewhere, shaking and whimpering, then you open your eyes and see the knife right in front of you –
On this scale, anxiety is my default state of existence. I can’t remember a time when I haven’t felt that there’s a real possibility something bad will happen, and been worried about how I’ll cope. It’s been the constant backdrop to my life. I don’t know to what extent anyone sails through life placidly and calmly, but I know it has never been like that for me. I don’t think I’ve ever been entirely relaxed and happy and uncomplicatedly in the moment. It’s just not the way my mind works, except, possibly, once or twice when I’ve been drunk. Which sounds like a pretty good argument for being drunk all the time, but, unfortunately, that only makes things worse the next day. And it’s not guaranteed to work – often I find drinking just intensifies the mood I’m already in.
Anyway, over the last couple of weeks I’ve been bouncing around between “scared” and “terrified”. Days and days of believing that something terrible, something nameless, is waiting to happen. That feeling builds gradually over the day – my anxiety is usually at it’s lowest around 10am. At some point in the late evening/ early morning it reaches a crisis point (and sometimes at other times of day – the pattern isn’t set in stone) and I’m in the midst of absolute, mindless terror. After a while of this – usually somewhere between 10 minutes and half an hour – the feeling begins to subside, leaving me shaky, and achy, and tired. Sometimes I get past the shakiness and get to enjoy a few hours of calm, placid, nothing, before the whole process starts again.
This never ending cycle is exhausting. I’m basically never relaxed. I get shooting pains in my legs and arms because I find myself involuntarily clenching and unclenching my fingers and toes. I get really painful headaches because of the constant tension in my shoulders. I think even when I’m asleep I don’t tend to relax properly, and in any case, I’m hardly sleeping.
There are things I can, and do, do in order to minimise the effects of all this. I avoid alcohol. I’ve pretty much completely removed caffeine – I gave up coffee (and I loved coffee…) several years ago, and these days I allow myself only one cup of “proper” tea a day, first thing in the morning, and then I move on to the Rooibos stuff for the rest of the day’s tea fixes. I try to keep myself reasonably well hydrated, as I’ve noticed my anxiety symptoms are always worse when I haven’t been drinking enough water. I try to eat reasonably well, as that seems to make a difference too, although I think a lot of that is psychological. Concentrating on cooking a meal is therapeutic in itself – I’ve always enjoyed cooking – and eating “good” meal is psychologically satisfying.
I’m quite good at “distracting” myself from anxiety, up to a point, although one of the things anxiety most affects is my ability to concentrate, and that makes any form of distraction difficult. I’m quite good at keeping “mindful” of what’s happening to me, at reminding myself that I have anxiety, and that the physical symptoms, though they can be overwhelming, are the consequence of my emotional state. Contrary to what various “experts” have told me over the years, this “mindfulness” doesn’t have any effect on the severity of the symptoms, or their duration. It’s worth doing, because it reduces the likelihood that I’ll end up seeking inappropriate medical treatment. I’ve been taken to hospital twice when I was having a panic attack, but both times it wasn’t my choice to go, and I was telling the people around me that I didn’t need to go.
It may sound a strange thing to say, but there are positives to anxiety. A lot of these come down to the fact that when I’m anxious, I’m not depressed. I do sometimes experience anxiety and depression simultaneously, and those times are truly horrible, absolutely the worst mental states I have ever experienced. But for most of the time I experience either depression or anxiety on its own.
When I’m anxious I have a lot of energy. As in, seriously, a LOT. I’ve written about how I find it hard to sleep, but I don’t really miss the sleep. Last night I went to bed at 4am. I read (Terry Pratchett, Night Watch, if you’re interested – not one of his best) until about 5-30, when I started to doze off, waking myself up with the noise of dropping the book on the floor. I slept properly from about 6-30 to 7-30, then dozed fitfully until 8 or so, and finally got up, after more reading, at 9-30, when my alarm went off. Despite this, I’m not tired right now. I seriously doubt I’ll start to feel tired until about 3am tonight. This has been the pattern of things for weeks now, and it’s a huge contrast with my periods of depression, when I could sleep for my country. In that state I regularly sleep for 14, 15 or even 16 hours a day.
I said in that last paragraph that I don’t miss the sleep. That’s not strictly true. What I should have said is that I don’t feel tired. I know I’m missing the sleep. I have a kind of nervous, twitching energy all through me that I know is a consequence of not sleeping enough. I also know from past experience that not sleeping is one of the things that makes my anxiety worse, although it’s not one of the things I can control. In the past I’ve used alcohol as a kind of blunt-instrument sleeping potion, but that’s out now, and I don’t want to ask my gp for sleeping pills because I think taking addictive medication would be a seriously bad idea.
What are the other positives of anxiety? Well, when I’m depressed I feel that life is passing me by, like I’m washed up on the bank of a river, and when I’m anxious I feel like I’m in the middle of the river. It’s not exactly a pleasant feeling, it’s an out-of-control, pushed this-way-and-that feeling, but at least I feel like something is happening to me.
I said a while back that one of the things anxiety most impacts on is my concentration. That’s true. Depressed, I can manage to focus on one thing for a long period of time; I may not see the point of it, I may not produce or say anything worth the effort, but I can concentrate. Anxious, that kind of sustained concentration is much harder. I find myself skittering about from thought to thought, from idea to idea, even from task to task. But on the other hand, I have the energy to think. It’s difficult, it takes a long time, but I can ultimately force out new ideas. Over the last little while I’ve written a couple of long posts about fairly esoteric issues. There’s no way I could have done that depressed. It took a long time, there was a lot of drafting, re-drafting, deleting, re-writing, editing and so on, but I could produce the posts. I think they were reasonably lucid, and some people seemed to enjoy reading them. None of that would have happened if I were depressed.
There’s always a “grass is greener” feeling with me. When I’m anxious, depression can seem a really attractive idea. So much sleep. So much restfulness. No jumping six inches out of my seat with my skin crawling and my heart in my mouth just because the upstairs neighbours scrape a chair across the floor. No spending 20-30 minutes a day thinking that I’m about to die, or worse than die, and that it’s going to happen right now, this next second. I have to remind myself that, no, depression is horrible. At the moment I can’t remember why it’s horrible, or how it is, but I do remember enough of the feeling that I know I really don’t want to go back there.
I sometimes say that I wouldn’t wish depression on my worst enemy (not that I tend to have enemies), so it would be hypocritical to wish it on myself. Anxiety is better, the horribleness is more intense, but less chronic. Depressed I’m nothing, but anxious, I’m alive. A weak, trembling, constantly scared life, maybe – but life nonetheless.
Of course, what I really want is to be neither depressed nor anxious, to not be see-sawing constantly from one to the other. To live from day to day with gentle ups and downs, mood dependent on events, and proportionate to them. A calm, quiet, easy, happy life. But that sort of equanimity is a long way from me right now. Better not to think about how far away it seems – that way depression lies – better to think about here, about now, about what is positive at this moment, in this moment.
That’s pretty good advice, I think. Have I convinced you? I’m not sure I’ve convinced myself.