Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Anxiety and Me

May is Mental Health Month. To mark it, I've been wanting to write something about my own recent mental health journey, but it's been difficult to find the right words. Here nevertheless is an attempt, right at the end of the month, because it's taken me this long to order my thoughts enough to talk about it.

Sometime last year, I became very interested in the Enneagram. A lot of my colleagues swear by it, and I finally decided to get over my contrarian tendencies and begin exploring what number I am. 

Depending on the day, it turns out that I'm either a 5 or a 6. They're definitely both in there somewhere. Both numbers primarily like to think, sometimes or often to a fault. It's both their greatest strength and biggest downfall risk. 

The 6 in particular is known for their anxiety: they have tendencies toward preparing for the worst case scenario, or worrying or wondering about what could go wrong or what has already gone wrong. In turn, they are seekers of security and safety.

Many Enneagram disciples like to say that whatever number description most upsets you is probably what you are. And I have to say that, given that point in my life, this one upset me the most. As mentioned, in more recent times the 5--essentially, one who likes to retreat into their own head instead of dealing with issues in real, practical ways--has been just as upsetting, which is why I'm not sure today which one I am.

That's a long introduction to say that exploring this model has sent me on a journey of examining the role of anxiety in my life. I can now look back and identify so many times when it has been the determining factor of how I've responded to situations: the times I've lashed out in anger, or surprised or hurt loved ones with my reactions, or when I've deferred to others to avoid conflict, or given into toxic people's demands on my time and resources.

I can go all the way back to high school, over 20 years ago, and tell you about times when anxiety has determined how well or how poorly I've dealt with things in my life.

Before I go any further, let me tell you what anxiety feels like.

Imagine just sitting on the couch in your living room. You have a free afternoon and you've grabbed a book or put on a favorite Netflix show. Seriously, there's absolutely nothing that you have to do, nowhere you have to be. This time for you is completely free.

And yet you think that something is about to happen. You don't know what it is, but it's going to happen soon. You even know in your rational brain that it's just you and your book. Your intellectual self is fully aware that nothing is going to happen. And yet something is definitely going to happen.

For me, this constant state of high alert manifests in a tightness in the chest, headaches and muscle aches, and digestive issues. I grind my teeth so bad that I now have two crowns and an implant. The dis-ease affects your entire body.

It finally got bad enough near the beginning of March of this year that I knew something needed to change. I made an appointment to talk about options. Some of the factors involved are out of my control, but I needed to do something about what I could.

So for over a month now, I've been taking medication for anxiety. And it's the most amazing thing: I've been sleeping better, many of the physical symptoms have lessened, and I no longer sit on my couch trying to be ready for the thing that is going to happen. My reactions to stressful situations are not nearly as volatile as they used to be. I'm in a much better state of mind and body than I was ever so recently.

There is more work to be done, but finally taking first steps this year has made an incredible positive impact.

What I've been learning, and what you the reader may need to hear, is that there's no shame in admitting you might need help. There's no shame in seeking a professional to talk to or in taking a pill every day. Because, as it was put to me, "we need you to be healthy." The main way to do that is to reach out, because nobody should go through whatever you're facing alone.

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