The anxiety attack of January 25th knocked me flat on my emotional ass. Not my functional ass, which got itself up out of bed in the days following, and was back to completely normal function within a few days. But it’s been almost three weeks, and only this week have I finally been in a mental place where it’s productive to think about it. Where it doesn’t start to spiral into frustration and anger and self-disgust again. I am in a good place; “a good place” being here defined as a mental state where I not only know that my frustration, anger, and self-disgust are unfounded in any reality, but believe it.

I drive myself nuts trying to find out where anxiety attacks come from, because I’d really love to find a way to prevent them. I have this idea that there’s a formula – a list of triggers, a combination of circumstances that is more likely to set them off, and prevention comes from controlling those factors I can and trying to make sure that when I’m feeling tense, the right circumstances don’t come together to start me rolling down that awful hill. When I find this formula, when I can prevent almost every anxiety flare-up by this force of will, I will be cured.

When I went to a counselor last summer, I told her at the beginning of our first session together that my anxiety was self-inflicted. I have always believed this. I always say it in a self-deprecating kind of way: Hahaha, yup, I’m an overachiever, yup, I’m kiiiind of neurotic, yup, I work myself too hard, have since high school, just an unfortunate quirk of personality, isn’t it kind of funny how I wind myself up! In our last session together, after two and a half months of my talking and talking and talking, a few weeks before an anxiety attack that would leave me paralyzed for an entire Sunday, I asked her, tentatively, whether she thought my anxiety was self-inflicted. “Some of it,” was her reply. “Some of it is, honey, and some of it… really, really isn’t.”

Some things always set off my anxiety. Steady as clockwork. Moving is one of these things – whether across the state or the country or the world. I could always count on a really vicious anxiety attack before I moved back to school from my parents’ house at the end of the summer, and my most recent one before the one that hit in January was in the week before I moved to Chicago. Interpersonal drama among my close friends always triggers anxiety. Applications, for schools or jobs or internships or whatever. Having to send emails to people I don’t know. Obviously, these aren’t things I can avoid, and I have gotten better about most of them – been able to see the storm coming, and found ways that allow me both to function as an adult in the world, and not suffer a breakdown every couple of months. This is better than it used to be.

But when I had my anxiety attack three weeks ago, nothing like this had happened. I remember how baffled I was by how I was feeling, in the days leading up to it. Because on the one hand: I was in a good mood! Nothing I was doing in school was frightening me. I was feeling on top of schoolwork in a way I hadn’t. I was enjoying what I was learning. I was bopping to good music on the train and getting out of the house on time. Correspondence wasn’t getting me down. I was in a good mood.

…and at the same time, I wasn’t sleeping soundly. I chewed my lower lip bloody sitting in class, and tapped my foot and couldn’t stop. I couldn’t nail down my focus except in a kind of guilty attempt at distraction. I was convinced, convinced, that a close friend whose behavior toward me hadn’t changed remotely was secretly furious with me. And I’d see myself feeling this way, and I’d try to stand outside myself and laugh it off, in a positive-affirmation kind of way – “Oh my god. You’re fine. You’re fine. Calm your shit, babe. You are doing okay.” When that didn’t work, I’d do the mental equivalent of repeating everything I said in a high-pitched voice to make it look stupid. “Waaah! I’m Sarah and I’m upset about fuck-all nothing! I had a great day so now I’m nauseous and angry at nothing! I make so much sense!” When that failed to produce results, it turned into bemused, irritated commands: “Jesus Christ, Sarah. Get it together. You’re being an idiot.” And somewhere, imperceptibly, that turned into actual insult, riding hard on the back of self-disgust; a week-long chant of There’s nothing to be afraid of, you absolute moron, there is literally nothing wrong, you have every reason to be happy, get over this shit already, will you, why are you so goddamn pathetic, why can’t you just fucking function, why can’t you just get your goddamn shit together–!

…Until I found myself stuck staring at one place and breathing as deep and slow as I could, telling myself over and over again that I was fine even while my pulse skyrocketed and my hands twitched and my stomach lurched and every muscle went tense and I sat down and curled up in a ball and sobbed with helpless terror for a straight half hour, and then spent two days feeling fragile and frightened and inches from crying.

I wrote in my most recent post that I was going to take my anxiety attack apart, once I had the brain for it. I thought I was going to look back on it and find the thing that Caused It, the reason for my bad weekend, the thing I wasn’t going to do again or let happen again.

But there’s nothing to take apart. I had a great week, and I was anxious anyway. I was happy and productive and social, and I was anxious anyway. I got shit done and made good plans, and I was anxious anyway. I need a new way to approach this, is what it comes down to. “Find the reason and kill it before it comes” is not a strategy that can work in every case. In some cases, maybe – but not in every one. Sometimes, this is just going to happen. Sometimes, I’m just going to be anxious anyway.

It’s stupid. I don’t want that to be the answer. I don’t want to look into the future with a helpless shrug when it comes to my mental health. But I also wonder– is not fighting it something to consider? Like– what if I did this revolutionary thing, which sounds so obvious as to be embarrassing now, where, when it happens, and I can’t think of a solid cause for why it’s happening, I don’t… get angry at myself for not having a reason to be anxious? Like. What if I did that? What if I didn’t call myself an idiot for being pointlessly anxious, because my mind is obnoxious and prone to housing spiders? What if I… made that a habit? Would that make it happen less? If I stopped worrying about making it happen less and worried more about, you know, my mental health while it was happening, would that be better…?

Immediate instinct, of course, says “Yes.” Will report back when I know how that’s working out for me.

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  1. Pingback: Jesuit homilies, self-compassion, and mediocre poetry | I WROTE THING

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