This guest blog is from a listener named Emma.
Last week I had an unexpected anxiety/paranoia day. Earlier this year a run of them, capping a gradual shift into the unhappies, sent me into therapy.
Sudden onsets stink. Heightened anxiety/paranoia with no obvious triggering incidents brings a painfully out-of-control feel to the party.
I’ve been learning that recognition is nine-tenths of the battle. I don’t know how many other people struggle with sudden onsets of anxiety, or what alerts them that the blue jebuses are on board. It would be interesting to find out if recognition is part of a learning or management curve for other people, and what that curve looks like. I’ve also noticed some great management strategies on the forum – my personal favorite of those so far is the “giant green salad” ploy.
During my crap day this week, I figured out what was happening when the road rage hit. In retrospect, probably the first clear manifestation was waves of panic when a supervisor left a phone message asking me to call about some paperwork. The next clear sign was a marked increase in snapping and snarling at other drivers.
But the clue made me recognize my own toxicity was when I heard myself snarl at a plump Hispanic woman in the parking lot of Costco. She was walking a HUGE cart in the center of the driving lane. There were three cars backed up behind her. There is no question she was irritating, but not to a degree that I should seriously think about stopping my car to rank her out. I mean, the woman was wearing an office suit — a cute little black and white blazer, sad little black office pumps — and she was clearly upset because someone yelling at her on the phone.
Where was my compassion? I know the pain of those un-foot shaped little pumps, of being yelled at on the phone, of pushing a too heavy cart full of things I can’t afford but need.
I realized I’d been eaten by the blue jebuses, by an Oscar in a garbage can, a slash of anxiety/paranoia washing over my consciousness like watercolors going muddy. It is a horrible feeling.
But as horrible as it was, the fact that I was able to recognize the external quality, the otherness of this state of mind, helped. Recognition offers potential for control.
I also had a management strategy: I slowed the car down, pulled to the outskirts of the mall, and began self-talk. In a loving tone of voice, I said the things I’d want to hear, things that would ground me, calm me, which a loving friend would say: “E, you’re OK. It’s OK. Sounds like you’re having a pretty wretched time right now. It happens, and it doesn’t make you a bad person. Let’s let this wash over us, around us, through us, and eventually we’ll step out on the other side of the anxiety.”
There was more of that, a soft dialogue from the empty car seat to the empty car seat. When I got clear enough of the nastiness to not shame myself with poor behavior, I went into the store and got through my shopping list (which included a frightening purchase, perhaps the trigger for all of this), then I went home.
Now, of course, I’d eat a giant green salad during some phase of this. Vitamins, eating therapy without high calories, the ritual of preparing salad, the distraction of variety… and all those wonderful dark green leafies – premium self-care.
In general, one goal in therapy has been good self-care, including consciousness management. I’ve worked hard at learning to recognize a bad head and be realistic about what it’s doing, prioritize what is important, and contain the damage.
In practical terms, once I understood how much anxiety and paranoia were driving me in that parking lot, I managed the immediate crisis, then went into longer term damage control. Among more extended strategies, I clipped off several other errands from that day’s list (re-allocating them to later in the day, tomorrow, or if necessary, later in the week).
Then I prioritized what absolutely had to get done (always a surprisingly small part of the list). I got out of my car determined to shut up as much as possible, and filter what I said and did through compassion and necessity. I abstained from engaging except for the immediate business of my purchases and drive. At home, I stayed off the phone and email, got much needed sleep, food, relaxation, and when I woke up in the morning, almost all the anxiety/paranoia was gone.
And I’ve been thinking ever since about what it’s like when the stain of bad head doesn’t go away, what it would be like to live with it all the time, what larger portions of it might feel like.