Like many people, I have a chronic anxiety disorder. Specifically, I struggle with PTSD. Because of this, many everyday tasks can become overwhelming, unnecessarily time consuming or impossible to focus on.
A few days ago I was finishing up my morning routine and thinking through what I needed to get done for the day. I still needed to walk the dogs, type out this article, do yoga, get a balance sheet done and potentially go swimming. I grabbed the dog leashes and as I did so it started to rain. Without knowing it I began walking back and forth between the door and the chair where I put the dog’s leashes on for 20 minutes. In that time, I had picked up the ipad, opened and had started typing on it. I had drapped the leashes over the chair and began typing (this article actually) and talking to my wife about what… I don’t remember. Nothing truly productive was going on in those 20 minutes because my attention had become split between a multitude of tasks. What I realized after observing the confused looks by the dogs, my bizzarre exhaustion and the bemused expression of my wife (as this is not an uncommon occurrence) is that the rain had altered my course of action. I knew that I had to adjust my dog walking time and I was adjusting but my brain hadn’t adjusted yet and I hadn’t given it the time to do so. I was spiraling in a mild anxiety loop caused by the alteration of my plans.
I had to stop, breathe for a moment, find a chair and physically sit myself down despite the hundreds of alarms going off in my brain that wanted me to do “one last thing” before I sat. Once sitting and centered all I had to do was talk to myself and reassure myself that the dogs would get walked when the storm passed and right now I was ok if what I did instead was sit and write this article. I am a flexible person. That is not the problem. The problem was that because anxiety controls my daily thought pattern the piece of my brain that should have allowed me to put down one activity and start another doesn’t work right. So my brain, unless I catch it and help it, gets stuck in “we are walking the dogs” while I am trying to transition to “we are writing this article”. Anxiety takes time but does not have to have ultimate control over your thought process.
Those of us who have chronic anxiety don’t process things the way healthy brains do. Our brain’s normal processes become disrupted. This disruption makes it difficult to concentrate and causes us to over process and ovelr think because we get stuck in anxiety loops. These can occur on micro levels like my story above or on macro levels. They can freeze our days progress for minutes or even hours at a time. At my worst I have lost an entire day frozen in an anxiety cycle that caused me to wander my home trying to organize my thoughts and turn them into productive actions. Why do we torture ourselves like this? Because in the minds of those of us with chronic anxiety these anxious thought loops are very necessary for our survival. Those of use with these disorders must recognize that these thought patterns are not a part of a healthy brain and they do not ultimately benefit us nor keep us from harm. Indeed, more often than not they do the exact opposite. Anxiety loops tend to be riddled with negative outcomes or worst case scenarios rather than more rational and realistically optimistic possibilities. The thoughts also occur with such rapid fire there is no time to reflect on the true priority or seriousness of the situations in front of us. Furthermore, the brain begins to branch into such a wide range of possible outcomes that it cannot decipher what the statistically more probable possibilities are. This kind of rapid fire thinking combined with its tendency towards negativity tends to create both paranoid thinking as well as he replaying of a singular set of thoughts rather than the progression of those thoughts. Again, the only way to break free of this cycle is to recognize your personal pattern of anxious thinking. This is not an easy task and it takes time and hard work but there are tools that can make it manageable.
The first and easiest tool at your disposal is breath control. When I find myself spinning between several different activities and sort of half moving on more than one thing at once and/or I have found myself treading water in a single spot without any really movement and/or my brain becomes too loud with all the things in my life clamouring for attention, I have to stop and literally sit myself down and breathe. Not to align the thoughts, or to accomplish anything but literally to bring my anxiety down. What is going on does not necessarily feel like anxiety. It isn’t that gut wrenching, mind racing stuff. It is the result of an anxiously programmed overactive brain. My brains inability to focus and persist on a thought is PTSD manifesting in everyday life. When I sit and breathe it sends a physiological response to the rest of my body that says it is ok, we are ok, nothing here needs to freak you out right now. It is only then that my thoughts come back together in a way that no longer feels like I am trying to run a three ring circus in my brain space. This technique can be deepened and honed into a more effective tool through the practice of yoga and meditation.
Some people may need more than the assistance of breath however. Some my need chemical assistance in the form of anti anxiety medication. This could look like pharmaceuticals or medicinal marijuana. In my opinion, medications should never be used as the sole tool for dealing with anxiety. They should be used as a way to calm the brain enough to experience what a baseline of normal could feel like. Once that has been achieved, breathing exercises, reflection and talk therapy can become a more effective tools because you know what feeling you are shooting for. If we simply medicate ourselves to alleviate the anxiety without ever addressing the thought patterns or their roots then we will only ever medicate. It is like taking cold medicine and then pushing forward. You are not healing, you are covering symptoms and then straining an already strained system.
Talk therapy is another fabulous tool for discovering the effects anxiety is having on your life and gives you access to a trained professional with a myriad of tools. Many people have had poor experiences with talk therapy perhaps as a child or maybe even as an adult. Finding the right therapist is key. Maybe you have a brain that needs to process more creatively. Find yourself an art therapist and see what kind of creative therapy methods they have to offer. Maybe you are more spiritual, there are plenty of therapists who work with animal guides, meditation, crystals and more. Maybe you like more traditional psychoanalysis. That’s fine. No matter what kind of therapy you choose make sure you like your therapist. Don’t just open a book point to something and go. Also know that it is ok if you do not jive with someone who is “highly recommended”. I come highly recommended as a massage therapist but I have had plenty of clients who just didn’t like my style. That is ok. Trained professionals give us safe space to explore ourselves and heal the pieces of our lives that are holding us back.
No matter what you do the point is this. The mental issues that haunt our lives, controlling us at times, do have ways of being healed. What it takes is the ability to accept that these things do need our attention and then the bravery and dedication to address them. Dealing with mental weight is just like dealing with physical weight. First, you have to recognize and come to terms with the fact that you may not be as healthy as you want to be. Then, you have to develop an informed plan to drop the weight. Then you have to dedicate yourself to that plan, play with it, alter it, personalize it until it fits your needs. Finally, you have to accept that at times you will fail and that doesn’t mean you give up. You keep going until you drop the weight. Progress only stops when you do, everything else if just a bump in the road on one of the most important journey’s of your life.