Tag: strategies

What anxiety feels like (for me), and how I survive it.

What anxiety feels like (for me), and how I survive it.

This is one of those posts that can only ever be accurate to my experience. There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to experience anxiety, just a combination of symptoms that affect particular people. I find my experiences of anxiety fit into some smaller sub-types that I’ve defined for myself, and by defining those types, I’m better able to treat myself when I need to.

Anxiety is often mis-understood as a psychological illness with purely psychological effects. This is very rarely the case. Anxiety starts in the brain, but the physical effects that result can be debilitating.

So here goes. My anxiety and panic sub-types, as defined by me.

PANIC DISORDER

For some, the terms ‘panic’ and ‘anxiety’ are interchangeable. I don’t feel they are, but those are just the words I use to label how I feel. I have been formally diagnosed with panic disorder, and to be honest, these days–it’s the easiest of all to manage.

Panic disorder, for me, is the sudden, crippling, struck-by-lightning, acid-down-your-back, stomach-through-your-toes, overwhelming sense of sheer terror that grips me out of the blue.

The weird thing about it, is usually I don’t realise I’m anxious prior to the attack occurring. I’ll be fine one moment, and then bang–it hits.

After the initial terror shock, my heart rate sky rockets. I breathe fast, I feel nauseous. I very rarely have the ability in these moments to think straight, my thoughts are in a blender on the fastest speed. Everything is fragmented.

The more it goes on, the more symptoms join the party. My head feels like lead, my legs are made of incredibly heavy jelly–but the middle of me doesn’t feel like it’s there at all. I might vomit. Colours become brighter, white becomes unbearably incandescent and black looks like a void I’m about to be sucked into. Eventually my vision clouds over.

My body is utterly out of control, and still spiralling. So it does that one thing computer techs around the world wearily ask:

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That’s right, an unexpected reboot!

Fainting is the body’s way of taking human thoughts out of the equation, and restarting with enough basic functions to get the terror under control. Before… you know. I have a heart attack or something.

Problem is, it’s also absolutely fucking terrifying.

So, how do I avoid getting to that drastic point?

It’s actually simpler (and still harder) than it sounds.

I don’t fight it anymore.

When that bolt of terror hits, my initial instinct was to forcibly regain control of my body. I would fight to get my heart rate down, I would fight to stay standing, and I would fight the urge to vomit. More to the point, I was creating additional stress by trying to stop these things from happening. I was afraid of what would happen if I let the panic attack continue, so I did my absolute damnedest not to let it continue.

Rookie. Error.

It’s far easier said than done, but once you accept that it’s happening–it starts going away. It doesn’t hold power over you. The minute you realise that this attack isn’t putting your body in danger, there’s no need to fight it. The sickening thunderstruck sense is usually only a spark that needs more fear to grow, and that fear comes from fearing the symptoms of your own anxiety.

Panic attacks in this sense don’t last long for me anymore. Thirty seconds to a minute, long enough for that initial bolt to wash away. These aren’t generally caused by any identifiable trigger, which is what makes them different to anxiety attacks.

When I first started practicing this technique, I started by identifying the sequence of symptoms in the usual order they would occur, and how I could minimise any damage caused by them. Note that I did once split my chin open and break two teeth in a fainting episode!

So getting on the floor is crucial. When that bolt hits, I quietly and calmly lower myself to the floor and lie in recovery position. Then I just–let it do what it will until it’s gone. Every time I do this, I reinforce the understanding that these attacks can’t hurt me, and the next one is easier again.

An anxiety attack? Well. That’s another thing altogether.

ACCCUTE ANXIETY

On the surface, ‘accute anxiety’ or an ‘anxiety attack’ looks much the same as a panic attack. It hits fast, hard, and if it spirals out of my control you can bet I’ll end up on the floor.

The primary difference in my definitions of panic and anxiety attacks, is what causes them. An anxiety attack usually occurs in response to something. An unkind word from someone else, making a dumb mistake, being surrounded by too many people, or just the insane amount of reflective surfaces in Target.

Just as a panic attack will feed on the fear of the attack itself, anxiety attacks also need fuel to keep going. Problem is, there’s plenty of that! And it’s fuel that is a lot harder to dismiss, especially if I’ve done something spectacularly dumb.

Feelings of being stupid, inadequate, incompetent, isolated, crazy, weird, and other horrible thoughts about myself are usually circling about in that blender-like brain feeding the fire.

Of course I’m hyperventilating, curled up in a corner, having a breakdown because I am a completely useless piece of shit. 

And other charming things to say to yourself in crisis.

These can often feed into meltdowns, which just makes for a splendid day.

Symptoms include, but are not limited to: fast breathing, elevated heart rate, tight chest, crying, nausea/vomiting, diarrhea (fuckin’ yaaay, right?), tremors, inability to speak, cold sweats, clouded vision, heavy limbs, and a critical reduction in my ability to function as a human.

But here’s something else fun about anxiety attacks:

I can be having one right in front of you, and you would never know.

The other major difference between panic attacks and anxiety attacks, is I have greater ability to mask my symptoms in an anxiety attack. They aren’t less intense, and I am deeply suffering under all that make-believe, but sometimes it’s enough to look like you’re coping until you can get somewhere and break down. Which… I think is the life goal of most autistic people too.

Basically, if I’m having a visible panic attack, the shit has really hit the fan. I do not ever, EVER like people to see me this way. If it’s visible, it’s beyond my ability to control, and that is a pretty bloody bad day for me.

But–how to deal with it?

If I’m in an attack, it’s too late for prevention. We’re in damage control.

If I’m in public, my first step is to excuse myself to a quiet place where I can let go a little. Hiding an anxiety attack is exhausting. I need to get down to the ground, at least into a sitting position. I do find lying down to be the most effective calming position, though.

The darker and quieter a place, the better. Otherwise if I have my phone and earphones, some gentle music with my eyes shut. I can ‘disappear’ into music until my rhythms return to normal.

The horrible thoughts that fuel the attack will continue until I’ve soothed myself a little, and get the energy back to fight them. I almost always don’t want to talk about it during, or immediately after, the occurrence. It takes me hours, sometimes days, to process what happened and how I feel about it.

Often I’ll feel like a failure for not being strong enough to stand it.

The trick with these ones is to be able to stop the flow of negative thoughts. Stop feeding the fire, and it won’t burn–same as panic attacks. Just a lot harder to put into practice.

PROLONGED ANXIETY

This is above and beyond the most dangerous, insidious form of anxiety I know. This isn’t the intense anxiety you know is happening to you, it isn’t the whirling stream of terrible thoughts that make you sick.

It’s the days of feeling gross, on edge, grinding your teeth in your sleep, with an unsettled stomach and no explanation why. It’s similar to that feeling you get in the lead up to a big horrible event, only there’s no end in sight.

It grows so slowly it feels normal. Like depression, it takes over your life until you can’t remember what a proper resting heart rate feels like. You don’t know when the last time was that you ate food and didn’t feel sick. You’re not sure how long it’s been since you had a night where you were able to sleep, and not oversleep. It’s wearing you out and every day you feel more tired and you don’t know why.

You don’t feel like you can breathe properly, but what is properly? The longer it goes on, the deeper you sink into it, the more the symptoms grow. You’re on a hair trigger, will you scream, cry, or murder someone? Small things are irritating when they shouldn’t be. You’re restless, hungry for a taste that only exists in your imagination, and at the same time paralysed. You can’t… you just can’t, everything is too hard for some reason.

When did this start getting bad? Why? What has happened? It doesn’t seem like there should be any reason for it, and by the time you realise–you’re drowning. Lulled into a false normal bit by bit. When was the last time you didn’t have a headache? What is the deal with all this farting??

Your body isn’t as it should be, you’re not relaxed even when you’re asleep. Tension builds on tension, until eventually it explodes in an anxiety attack. And boy oh boy are they worse when they’ve been brewing like this!

So—what do?

Practice extreme self care! I don’t know if there’s any better excuse for having your favourite things on hand.

For me, that means scented candles (jasmine, frangipani, and gardenia!), a good quality blend of tea, some favourite shower gels (peppermint, and neroli jasmine… not at the same time, obviously!), comfortable snuggly clothing, and other items of general comfort.

At work I find having something to fidget with releases a lot of that tension in a less explosive way. Fortunately my new work sells electrical components like switches and buttons and wires, so I’m always able to find something to carry around and fiddle with. My favourite so far has been about three inches of double-insulated six-core copper wire. It was so bendy and fun!

Music, movies, games, all of those things that I can ‘escape’ into until my body calms down are also incredibly useful. As is the company of friends and family, both virtual and in meat space! Blogging has also become a source of self-care, and a critical part of processing and understanding how my brain functions. I learn a lot about myself writing these, as it forces me to think about things in a different way than I do when the thoughts are swirling uncontrolled.

The other really important thing? Celebrate. Genuinely celebrate your wins, however small. Whether that’s climbing a mountain, or brushing your hair. If it’s a success for you, celebrate it. We get far too caught up in our losses at times, but if you remember to celebrate the wins, they’ll help balance out the bad when you need them.

And take note of what your body is doing, and where you end up. You may not pick up the slide into prolonged anxiety this time, or even next time. But, if you begin now, you’ll start noticing the patterns and each time you’ll be better placed to rescue yourself sooner.

How do you cope with your anxiety? What do you experience?

I would love to know! The more strategies, the better!

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How I compensate for my lack of social understanding (and how that also is a trap).

How I compensate for my lack of social understanding (and how that also is a trap).

One of the key stereotypical aspects of autism/aspergers is the inability to read the finer points of social interactions. It’s true of most people I know with an ASD diagnosis, and like any autistic feature it presents differently in each individual.

There is, I’ve discovered, a secondary issue that comes with this lack of social awareness that develops as autistic children become autistic adults. It seems to be more common in those with an internal presentation, but who am I to say I know what goes on in anyone’s head?

The problem is this: we are aware that we have social deficits in reading situations, and overcompensate.

Deeper understanding of an interaction isn’t natural to me. It doesn’t arrive in a neat little package at the time, I don’t listen to someone’s words and thing ‘they mean something else’ or ‘this is definitely genuine’.

Instead, I take in the information and react to it on face value. If someone says they’ll do something, I nod and agree–yes, they will do it. If someone delivers a back-handed insult, disguised as a compliment, I’ll take the compliment first. Perhaps I’ll get a small inkling that there was something else going on… but I won’t know instinctively what the person was actually saying.

Not until later.

Deciphering the ‘true meaning’ of an interaction is more like wading through a literary text and picking out the themes and symbolism to work out the author’s message. It’s time consuming, inexact, and based on the premise that the other person put as much effort into coding the message as you did to decode it.

Everyone does a little of this after-process, especially after odd interactions. For me, it occurs after almost every conversation. It keeps me up at night, trying to work out what cues I may have missed and how I should have interpreted a situation differently. It’s an active process that requires quite a lot of brain-power to complete.

And it’s the basis for oh-so much anxiety.

Because here is the problem. I am aware that I have an impaired ability to decode situations on the fly. I also have thirty years experience in social interactions, and learnings from those that can be applied to analysing new situations.

My tendency isn’t just to miss the meaning of an interaction as it takes place, but to read too far into interactions when I analyse them later.

I find myself critiquing word choice, stance, tone, level of distraction–all things that I know academically can communicate extra bits of information. I look back to past interactions with that person and try to match up the similarities like a forensic investigator.

So I’ll get offended by throw-away lines that I decided were ultimately an insult because of how the person ordered their words; my default setting is to err on the side of caution and look more for threats I may not have seen.

Sometimes I get it right. Sometimes I even see things that those gifted with intuitive understanding of interactions don’t see. My process is based in logic and prior learning, so if human beings were rational things it would always be spot-on.

This compensatory method of deciphering interactions after the fact is a dual-edged sword. On one hand, it allows me to mask my lack of understanding by providing me with the information I missed at the time. On the other, my awareness that I miss things drives me to look for more than is actually there.

11 coping mechanisms that help me through each day.

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Animals can provide an amazing source of company that doesn’t demand resources you don’t have. Just make sure you can give them the love and care they need on your worst days, as well as your best!

Coping mechanisms are dime-a-dozen on the internet, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the mystery of the brain. I don’t know what underlying processes are tripping me up, and I know that I still need better techniques and more direction in managing myself.

That said, I’ve collected a toolbox of strategies and work-arounds that get me through most days. They don’t work all the time every time, but I’ve found that regardless of actual progress, the feeling of attempting to combat something (taking it into my own control) gives me a much more stable feeling than surrender.

In short, I’d rather fight than be a victim of my own mind. These are my weapons.

  1. Toilet time
    This came from a psychologist who pointed out that ‘no one actually knows what you’re doing in the bathroom’. Once we established that the bathroom could be used for more than human necessities, she opened my eyes to the concept of a ‘five minute break room’ where I could unwind and gather my thoughts.

    I was working in a hectic retail environment at the time, somewhere very difficult to find any semblance of quiet. Ducking to the loo was something I could do when I felt that I was getting edgy or anxious, a place where I could refocus and stabilise myself before going back to work.

    And funnily enough, once I accepted it as an option and knew I could do that–the less I actually needed to.

  2. Let it happen
    When you’re beginning to spiral into a full-blown panic attack (especially the ones that don’t seem to be triggered by anything, they just hit like a truck on the freeway), ‘letting it happen’ seems like the stupidest idea in the world.

    You feel like if you let it have its way, the panic attack will leave you broken and battered and you won’t recover. It’s not hyperbole to say you think you might die–because sometimes you find yourself very concerned that if you don’t force yourself under control you literally won’t survive.

    Counter-intuitive as it is, accepting the panic attack and letting it happen without a fight actually helps to restore calm. Panic attacks feed on fear. Your fear of the panic attack causing harm to you is what makes it last longer. Your fear of the horrible heart-racing, mind-dizzying, body-shaking, nausea-inducing symptoms–and your subsequent fight to stop it all from happening–is you engaging with the panic and making it stronger.

    Don’t let me kid you, it’s hard. The first few times it feels impossible. And yes, I still fail at this frequently–but where you can, take one deep breath. Accept that you’re having a panic attack, and you’re going to let it do whatever it has to.

    Then, without trying to fight or stop what’s happening in your body, observe how you feel. Gosh–that’s a fast heart rate. Ah, I’m sweating in a cold environment.

    If you feel dizzy, lie down and do the same. After a few incidents, you’ll learn by experience that the symptoms won’t cause lasting harm. You’ll become more comfortable with the way your body responds, and you’ll have a lot less fear feeding the panic attack. And if you’re not feeding the panic attack, guess what?

    It doesn’t last anywhere near as long.

  3. Vitamin D
    This comes with the standard disclaimer: before taking on supplements of any kind, consult with your doctor and/or therapist. I am not a doctor. I don’t pretend to be a doctor. However, I was advised by a doctor that my Vitamin D levels were low and that this could be making depressive episodes even worse.

    Vitamin D is the one you can get naturally by soaking up the sun, so it’s no surprise that I was deficient. Once your levels are low to the point mine was, it’s hard to boost them back up without some significant help. A few hours outside wasn’t going to cut it, so I began taking supplements.

    The difference was more drastic than I could have imagined, and it’s now part of my daily routine (when I remember. I suck at routines). If you think this may help you, speak with a health professional.

  4. Silly Tap Games
    When I’m feeling edgy or scattered, I find I can bring myself in line a little by forcing myself to focus on a single thing. In school it was drawing or writing stories that had zero to do with classwork, but as an adult I don’t always have pen and paper handy. Even if I did, it’s not always convenient to whip out a notepad in the middle of a supermarket.

    This is where touch-screen smartphones came to my rescue: a narrow point of focus that I can hone in on and tune everything out while I put myself back together. Games like Candy Crush Saga, 2048 and even Pokemon GO have minimal real-world value, but for me they provided the perfect two-minute reset I need to keep moving forward.

  5. Keeping it simple
    There is absolutely no reason you should make life hard for yourself, even if you don’t have a rebellious mind. But if you do, it becomes doubly important to think about the way you do things and whether you can do them when you’re at your lowest.

    Could you cook a full meal in your worst state? No? Keep a stash of microwave-ready meals.

    Could you complete a full wash-tone-cleanse beauty routine? No? Get the all-in-one wipes off the supermarket shelf.

    Could you shampoo and condition your hair? There’s no shame in having a children’s 2-in-1 on your shower rack for those days. Or weeks. Or months.

    Other strategies include wearing dresses to avoid the choice-burden of selecting a shirt and trousers (it sounds dumb but it’s a thing. Dresses + black tights provide an instant outfit with minimal thought), finding a hairstyle that doesn’t require precise preening (the messy bun is a blessing); and hanging your shirts and other hanging items on a hanger as they come out of the wash (I often peg these hangers to the line… or hang them on the curtain rail) will take the pegs on/pegs off element out of laundry and as a bonus… you can carry it straight to the wardrobe for hanging!

    I’d love to hear other strategies to simplify tasks that feel overwhelming on a bad day!

  6. Don’t assume. Ask.
    If you’re like me, you spend way too much time wondering what someone really meant when they said something. Did that half-sideways look mean they are upset with me? Were they joking with that insult, or sincere? Did I say something offensive and not know it?

    Those thoughts are toxic and they get really ugly really quickly.

    So I try not to engage them. In fact, I openly challenge them. Nothing defeats a malicious lie your head tells you like the honest truth.

    More than a few of my friends have been confronted with my ‘I’m not sure if this is a thing, but I think you might be upset with me and I just wanted to make sure that I hadn’t done anything wrong because I want you to like me and if I did something dumb please tell me’ conversation. Almost every time, it’s my head lying.

    Yes, there’s the fear of having that horrible whisper in your head confirmed as truth. But I no longer have time for these sorts of misunderstandings. If someone doesn’t like me or want me around, I’d rather hear it from them–however hurtful it is–than wonder about it indefinitely. It’s the uncertainty that makes it harder.

    Once you know something, and it becomes real, you’re in a position to make a new plan and move forward. You can’t do that while you’re unsure. So ask.

  7. Do what you can, when you can
    Sounds like advice so simple it’s obvious, and yet it’s not. It took a counsellor to point out that I was expecting myself to retain eight hours of constant focus when my body was not wired to work that way.

    I was getting unreasonably frustrated, constantly throwing myself into tasks when I didn’t have the mental resources to complete them, and beating myself up every time I failed. Now, I have the capability to get a lot of work done in a very short time–providing I don’t spiral into bleak and paralysing self-loathing.

    There are times where, yes, I have to fight it and force myself to be productive when I honestly and truly have very little left. And I never, ever bank on having a ‘productivity boost’ to get something done. But being productive is more than just getting the task done.

    Consider this scenario where you have an essay to write:

    Low energy and just want to be in bed? Switch Netflix for a documentary or youtube lecture on the subject.

    Can’t focus fully? Scribble out any thoughts pertaining to the essay topic as they come. However messy and unformed.

    Visual stimuli (screens, books etc) causing issues? Find a podcast related to the topic, or use your time in a dark room to meditate on what points you may cover.

    When you do feel productive, capitalise on those times. Have a list of things you want to accomplish, know what you want to achieve when you have the resources–and leave yourself enough time to still get things done if you have to fight through it.

    Don’t expect miracles of yourself. Work with your mind, rather than against it.

  8. Know what you need to be comfortable
    I get laughed at sometimes for the heavy bag I lug around with me, even if I’m only going somewhere for a few hours. But that bag contains everything I need to be comfortable if plans change. Chief among them, a spare set of clothes and my laptop.

    I always worry that I’m going to be ‘caught out’ somewhere. I want to be flexible enough to go with the flow. As someone who doesn’t drive, being prepared to stay  somewhere I didn’t expect to stay is important. I can’t always be mentally prepared for changing plans, but I can make an effort to have things on hand that will make it easier.

    There’s a lot of ‘in case I’ scenarios and items that fill my bag that I may never bring out. I have my Nintendo DS in there in case I want to play a proper video game. I have a sketch pad and full set of mechanical pencils, in case I feel the overwhelming desire to draw.

    Mostly I just need spare clothes (logical) and my laptop, which allows me the comfort of being able to do what I usually do at home. Check Facebook, skim my emails, research whatever weird thing has popped into my head today. Some times I need it more, other days I don’t even get it out. But like the pencils and the Snickers bar hidden at the bottom of the bag for emergencies, I know it’s there.

    Nothing upsets me more than something not being an option. My bag of options allows me to be flexible in ways that my mind often doesn’t.

  9. Know what soothes you
    For me, it’s water. Showers and baths especially, which has the bonus effect of being personal care as well as self care. It’s more than just getting physically clean for me. It’s like the water can soak out all the shakes and regulate the storm inside my head. I lose time in the shower as a result, and what feels like only a few minutes can end up being hours and a lot of angry knocks on the door.

    Still, I know that most of the time it works. And if there’s something non-harmful that soothes you, you shouldn’t feel ashamed about indulging in it.

    Accept it, and turn it into a defense against bad days. Only when the frequency of your soothing methods disrupts your ability to function is it ever a problem.

  10. I’m armed with alarms
    I forget really, really dumb things. I also lose time very easily. I’m the classic ‘opened Google to look up something and suddenly it was 3am’, ‘one more chapter’, and the TV binger that Netflix was made for. Mostly it’s fine. When I stay up late, I cop the tiredness the next day–but it was worth it.

    What isn’t worth it? Forgetting to eat.

    For whatever reason, my body just doesn’t poke me and say HEY. HEY YOU. WE NEED FOOD. So it’s not uncommon for me to get to some post-9pm hour and realise that I should probably deal with that. I am similarly bad with medication, or basically anything that involves a routine.

    Solution? My phone is full of alarms. Now that I’m in a more regular 8-5 job I don’t need them as much, but working supermarket shifts across the schedule I used them to remind me of basic things that would otherwise slip my mind. I still have one that prompts me to take my medication.

  11. Cats
    Although I no longer have cats of my own, I enjoy the presence of my housemate’s cats. I had three before I moved interstate, which was probably too many if we’re perfectly honest, but the rewards far outweighed the responsibility.

    Animals can provide an amazing source of company that doesn’t demand resources you don’t have. I miss quietly sitting with my boys curled up on my lap, watching trashy TV. I didn’t feel alone.

    It can be extremely isolating when you feel like interacting with another human being is going to take the last of your resources away, like you’re going to snap if you are forced to make conversation one more time. I feel like that a lot after work, and the quiet snuggly company of a cat allows me the breathing space I need to recharge and calm down without feeling entirely disconnected from the rest of the world.

    But–cats, and other animals of course, are not just for therapy. They are beings with their own needs and wants, and they will be dependent on you as a human to help meet those needs. If you’re considering animal company, ask yourself what you’d be capable of on your worst day.

    Don’t get a dog you won’t be able to walk. Don’t get a cat if tending a litter tray will be a struggle. Don’t get a bird if noise makes you uncomfortable.

    It might be that you have to accept some hard truths about yourself. That doesn’t mean you have to go without, though.

    Find a shelter that wants volunteers to play with their occupants. Walk their dogs on a good day, or have coffee with a friend to snuggle their cat. There are ways and means for the people who look for them. Me? I have housemates with two gorgeous cats.

 

There’s no shame in using strategies like these to make your life easier. I like to prepare for myself as I am on a bad day, which allows me the freedom of seriously easy-breezy good days to make up for the struggle.

Whether they were advised by doctors and therapists, or things we discovered in ourselves, we all have our own coping strategies. I’d love to hear yours!