It’s rare for me to have an anxiety or OCD crisis nowadays. I see my therapist regularly. I have a medication regime that on the whole is working. I have changed a lot of things in my life to support my mental health. All of these things keep me fairly on an even keel.
However, I can take it for granted, stop working on my mental health, and let my anxiety gradually increase. It can take hearing from someone else close to me to realize that I’ve let my anxiety escalate. For example, the acupuncturist asked me today why I’m so tight and I had no response. I had done nothing differently the last week.
There was no physical reason why I should be so tense and sore.
But then she asked, “Have you been stressed lately?”
She followed that up, “How have you been sleeping?”
I never know how to answer to the “Have you been stressed lately?” question. On one hand, yes, of course. When am I never stressed? I just have periods of greater or lesser anxiety. One the other hand, though, I realized yes, I had been extra anxious lately. I wasn’t so anxious that I felt incapacitated, but my anxiety had been ratcheting up and up and up.
I realized the reason I couldn’t fall asleep last night, was not because I was driven by the work I was doing (although that was part of it), but because my adrenaline was pumping even at night. And my muscles had reacted to this rising tension by shutting down.
It’s a clear reminder that I cannot let my awareness of my anxiety level slide or they can rise until I am no longer maintaining and acceptable (to me) anxiety level. Instead, I have to engage in triage. And that takes a lot more energy, time, and effort (not to mention anxiety) than working on keeping the level stable.
I also have to remind myself that I don’t have to be in extreme need before I deserve to take care of my mental health. I can and do need to take breaks, so that I don’t end up being forced to take much more time off later.
It’s similar to trying to avoid migraines—if I push through early migraine pain, I can provoke a full-blown migraine that will last for days. This is a lot more debilitating than taking an evening off.
Now I have to take my back pain down from an 8 to a 4, instead of maintaining it at a 4 or 5. Same goes for my anxiety.
I’m grateful for the reminder from the practitioner. On my own it might have taken me a few more days to notice the signs of increased anxiety and, at the same time, it would have continued to get worse.
My sleep might have had to get quite broken or my back really hurt before I noticed. Or maybe it would have taken an outsize panic reaction to smaller triggers, because I feel more vulnerable when I experience raised anxiety levels.
I now realize why a negative review from a student I’m tutoring this past weekend bothered me so much. I have a bunch of good reviews. I feel confident about my teaching ability. However, one review that basically said I didn’t fit the student’s style sent me into a tailspin.
I worried about the opportunities for new students that I would get. I felt like a failure at teaching. I panicked about my short and long-term career opportunities. It made me go after a ton of other work opportunities in order to feel secure.
As a result, I felt more anxious, because I was already in a heightened state of anxiety. Then this instance and my response to it further ratcheted up my anxiety without me being really aware.
Physical and mental recovery is non-linear. This was a step back for me, but now I am renewing my commitment to try again. I am going to try to pay attention to my health and course correct when I notice I’m getting off track. This means taking care of myself before I desperately need it even if I think I don’t “need” it. Because I do. Maybe especially then.
Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash