My freshman year in high school, I earned an “A” in advanced geometry the first semester. The second semester I earned a “D”.
I didn’t know it then, but during my freshman year, I entered an anxiety spiral that led to self-destructive behavior that could have killed me.
I’m almost 43 years old now. I didn’t get an anxiety diagnosis until I was 32 — it came as a complete shock to me. But, after having lived with the diagnosis for a decade, I often look back at my past and see times where I was clearly struggling with mental illness.
The Tension is Building
I can sense when an anxiety spiral is coming. It feels like a spring being wound tighter and tighter in my chest and in my brain. It feels like at any moment the spring will reach a point where it cannot be wound any tighter, and it will uncoil in an explosion.
An anxiety spiral is different from an anxiety attack. It isn’t a single incident. It’s a change in my mood and ability to function that can last weeks or months. When I’m in a spiral, I feel worse the harder I try to break the cycle.
A few years ago, I got stuck in a spiral for a month. I only got out of bed to get kids ready for school and to take care of their needs after school. I spent the rest of each day either on my bed in the fetal position or crying on the floor of the shower.
My kids are probably the only reason things weren’t worse. At least every day I had to do something. I told myself I loved my kids too much for my mental health issues to affect them getting to school and to their activities.
The past few days, I’ve felt the tension building inside. Today, I feel like the tension is near the point of no return.
Taking My Own Advice
I’ve tried all of the normal things. I’ve meditated. I’ve gone for walks and taken long, hot baths. I’ve taken a break from work and tried to do something fun.
Nothing has worked. That’s another sign an anxiety spiral is coming.
But, I have one trick left.
It’s called spiraling up. It starts by doing one thing. If I can get one thing done that I need to do, I can feel good about accomplishing something.
That one thing buys me some time. It takes a little tension out of the spring. Tomorrow, I can do one or two more things. They need to be small tasks. Trying to do too much is overwhelming.
I’ve used successfully used this technique before. But, when my anxiety is building, it can be hard to remember what steps I’ve taken in the past to avert disaster. That part of my brain tends to shut down as an anxiety spiral nears.
This time I remembered to try spiraling up because I was writing about the practice of doing one thing when you don’t know what to do for a book project earlier this week.
I decided to take my own advice. The one thing I decided to do was write this post.
When I describe what functioning with anxiety is like to people who are unfamiliar with mental illness, I ask them to imagine how they would live if they had diabetes.
Would it change their daily activities? Of course. They would need to be more careful about what they ate and when they ate. They may need to take medication on a regular schedule. They would also need to prioritize physical activity.
But, a sudden diabetes diagnosis wouldn’t change who they are. It would mean that they would have to take greater responsibility for their health.
Anxiety is similar. I’m still a smart ass, an optimist, and I love to laugh. But, if I want to be around to see my children grow up, if I want to a source of comfort for them instead of a hindrance to their development, I have to take responsibility for my illness.
Today, taking responsibility means writing one article about my own struggles with anxiety even though I just want to go to bed.
I know that by doing this one thing, I give myself a fighting chance to stave off the building anxiety spiral.
A fighting chance is all I need because in addition to being a smart ass, I’m also a fighter.