I hesitated to write this post at first, but as I shuffled around speed-cleaning the house, the thoughts kept bubbling up, the words wanting to burst out of my head. So here I am, typing away instead of weeding through my children’s clothes to find the things they’ve outgrown (like I had planned). But as I’ve learned in my renewed love affair with writing, you can’t ignore a surge of inspiration. Poor Jack may end up sporting a crop top when he goes to put on that 4T shirt later, but at least I managed to purge my thoughts.
I’d been thinking about a phrase I’ve used lately, and frankly, too infrequently in the past. It’s a bit off the cuff, especially for me (a generally straight-laced, mild-mannered individual), but if something works for you, you go with it.
My husband had an outpatient procedure the other day that I had to accompany him to, and was also required to drive him home from. The hospital is a good distance from us, so I anticipated having to take the interstate home. I tried to avoid circling my thoughts around this too much, reminding myself that I’ve been successful lately with my highway driving, so this would be no different, right?
Two things that worried me, however; it was 8:30 am, smack in the middle of morning rush hour in metro Atlanta, and I had an adult passenger. Sure, it was just my husband. But much of my driving anxiety started with him as a passenger, so there are some pretty deep associations present when he’s in the car. Poor guy, he thinks it’s all his fault. Anyway, I briefly toyed with the idea of taking the back roads, but we had been up since 5 am, and we were ready to get home. So I put myself on auto pilot and headed for the highway.
I haven’t touched much on my social anxiety, but it plays a big factor in how my other anxieties and phobias are affected. As a people-pleaser and chronic “nice” person, you constantly worry about what other people think of you. You would rather die than ever burden anyone with your issues, so you bury your emotions. You constantly crave acceptance, so you only want to show the most acceptable side of yourself. All of this “acting” and pressure to be perfect can further contribute to anxiety by blocking any and all outlets of stress relived by showing genuine emotion. I am constantly putting pressure on myself not to fail (although I’ve drastically improved at this lately) by avoiding my real feelings and hiding behind this perception of having it all together. The “fear of man”, that I have referenced in an earlier post, carries an uneven, unhealthy amount of weight in my life.
When I’m worried about trying to drive without having a panic attack, and then you throw the social anxiety on top of it, you end up with a Double Stuff Oreo of anxiety. Not sure if this is the best metaphor, as I love me some Double Stuff Oreos. So maybe an over-flowing trash can of anxiety? Whatever works here.
Anyway, I’m driving along for a bit, while my husband is in a post-anesthetic coma but managing to make work calls, and all of a sudden, I start to feel my chest tightening up. When you start to panic, you can feel as if you don’t have enough air (this can eventually lead to hyperventilating, which ironically, is the effect of taking in too much air), and I falsely sense the oxygen thinning. I deepen my breaths and try to let the calm wash over me. I start to notice the alarming amount of cars around me, and my body stiffens at the thought of being trapped. I hang out in the far right lane for a while, giving myself an exit strategy just in case I need to pull over. I don’t worry much anymore about having to pull over with my husband in the car, as I’ve done it many times with him in the past and he has learned to be understanding. But I still have my pride, and I force myself to push through this impulse, knowing that I’ve faced this challenge before. Still, with every approaching exit sign I have the urge to give up, to take the comfortable route. My thoughts are circling again, the doubt is surfacing. My body is stiff, my chest is tight, I struggle to get enough air in, or so it feels.
Am I going too slow? Are people getting annoyed with me? Can I pass this person or will I panic if I’m in the middle lane? Will my husband be disappointed if I exit now? Will I be disappointed? Can I make it home?
Worry. Doubt. Fear.
I feel the words in my head causing physical symptoms in my body. The pressure to please. The lies of fear. The dialogue with my a-hole brain that has held me back from a full life…from freedom.
Then I remember; I have the power. It’s within me. I can talk back to my a-hole brain. It will not control me. So I fire back at it.
Who gives a shit?
You laugh, I know. This is not how I usually talk. But this is how I should talk to my a-hole brain. I mentioned in an earlier post that I needed to talk to myself more like a friend, but my a-hole brain is not my friend. It is an intruder, an annoying, trouble making creep who’s taken up residence in my brain. I spend so much energy being nice to everyone around me, but I cannot keep being nice to the a-hole. I can’t keep entertaining its thoughts and resume a passive stance.
I say this phrase silently, in my head. As soon as the words take over, the fear melts away, almost instantly.
I’m driving too slow and this might annoy people. So what?
I might panic if I switch lanes. Who cares?
I might disappoint others or myself. Who gives a shit?!!
I hardly ever curse. Not that I’m against people who do, it’s just not my thing. Unless I’m trying to learn a new sport. Then you might happen to hear a few choice words. The first time I tried to ski with my husband (who is one if those natural athlete-type people and therefore infuriating to the athletically challenged, like myself) I cursed like a sailor and at one point proceeded to throw a ski pole. But cursing at fear and doubt can be incredibly powerful, not to mention therapeutic.
I know some of you are like, this is how I think all the time, no big deal. To you I say, more power to you. Way to be resilient and confident and unaffected by the messiness of life. Not that you don’t care, but you know when to say when. You know when to stand up for yourself. For those of you like me, who care too much, who worry about everything, who can’t imagine upsetting anyone, we need some more curse words in our lives. Just stick them in your back pocket and pull them out when the too much is starting to paralyze you. Don’t feel bad about it. Don’t think you are disappointing anyone by using the power of a word. Okay, so do use your best judgment here, of course, but when talking to yourself, let it go. No one is in your head but you. You won’t offend a soul by silently cussing out the thoughts that shouldn’t be there in the first place. Go to town, my friend.
It’s truly amazing, the power of words. Words can knock you down, but just as quickly build you back up. They can hurt but they can heal. When weakness envelopes you and fear tries to trick you into imminent failure, reach into that back pocket and pull out the words that will fight back. It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic, of course. You may simply shout NO!!! STOP! when defeating thoughts begin to surface. Whatever works for you.
Of course, one of the most important things I’ve learned on my journey with anxiety and panic, is that you don’t want to stop the actual attack. When panic is coming on, it’s important to let it come, and not try to stop the actual event of a panic attack. Thinking you can stop a panic attack, and desperately trying to stop it, has the counter-effect of making it worse and more intense. But changing our thoughts in the moment is the key here.
For example, if I’m riding along worrying about a handful of things while driving on the highway in a heightened state of sensitivity, there’s a huge difference in saying “No, I cannot panic. Please don’t panic. I’m so scared that I will have a panic attack. Oh no, here it comes!!” and “Who cares if I panic? Here comes a wave of panic now. I will be just fine. It will be uncomfortable and I don’t like it, but who gives a shit? It will pass and life will go on. No one cares if I panic.” Can you pick out the better way to talk to yourself in an anxious situation? Which one is more forgiving? Which one gives you room to breathe and let go?
In the past when I would start to panic and freak out in front of my husband, he would tell me to “ride the wave”. Of course, at the time I would just get mad at him and tell him he didn’t understand. As it turns out, however, he was right (cue eye-roll). The wave of panic will come, and like any wave, you cannot stop it. It has to gradually grow, crest, and break. To prepare for this, we must learn the best way to ride the wave of panic. It will be uncomfortable, unpredictable and hard to control, but we can do our best to steady our boards and ride it out until the water eventually becomes smooth again. More waves will come, yes, and some will be bigger than others. We may be scared and unsure. But we become better riders with practice. We learn to lean into the waves and our ride becomes smoother. We are better prepared if we get tossed into the surf. We ride it out and know that eventually we will reach the safety of the shore.
It takes so much practice. That’s the scary part, starting the practice. But it can make all the difference. Don’t give your fears too much material to work with. Belittle them and they will slowly fade away. If you don’t care about them, they won’t care either. Neglect your fears and they will not survive. Don’t let them back you into a corner; just walk right past those fears and don’t give them a second glance.
I hope you care enough about yourself to not give a shit. Not when it comes to believing the lies fear throws at us. Not when our thoughts make us think less of who we are. You are too important to put up with that.
What will you say to your fear? I hope whatever it is, it’s not very nice. Frankly, I hope it has something to do with going to hell.
Okay, you can wash my mouth out now.
The soap may taste bad, but the freedom tastes oh so good.