Anxiety + Fear = Chaos

The word “chaos” has always intrigued me.  I remember my mom using it when she had to raise her voice a couple of octaves just so she could be heard over the chatter of little children. “This is chaos!” she would exclaim and throw her hands up in the air.

Chaos actually has a few different definitions. Chaos theory is a mathematical theory used to explain things such as the weather, astronomy, and politics. The term chaos is a used to describe “a state of utter confusion or disorder; a total lack of organization or order; any confused, disorderly mass,” which I am sure my mom was referring to.

I don’t know much about chaos theory, but I can relate to the latter, through my experience of raising four children, long before co-parenting was cool. As their fathers saw it, the kids lived with me, so they were my responsibility. End of story. (Eye roll)

Chaos. I lived it. My life was “a state of utter confusion.” Every day there was a new problem, or 10, and I worked through them like a champion. No, that’s not quite how it went. It was more like crawled my way into a hole I didn’t want to come out of. It wasn’t pretty. But somehow we lived through it, and my kids turned out to be pretty good adults.

I have dealt with anxiety all of my life. As a kid, I was plagued with neurotic fears that kept me from enjoying my life. I was scared of everything, all the time. There was no escape from my nightmares.

I developed panic attacks when I was 19, which made me isolate and become a hermit, for fear of having an attack in public. All I could think about was how to prevent the attacks from ruining my life. My life became all about damage control.

I self-medicated with alcohol, and although it helped “take the edge off,” it didn’t help me deal with the attacks. Pretty soon, not even that helped. I lived my life constantly on the verge of a breakdown, letting my emotions control me. I lied and made excuses to hide my feelings of helplessness, but I knew the truth. I was afraid of life itself.

But then I did something I never thought possible. I took back control of my life. (I’m not sure “back” is really an appropriate way of wording it, because I am not sure I ever had control of it. I’d like to think I did, but looking back, I seriously doubt it.)

If I make it sound easy, I assure you, it wasn’t. It took the past 15 years of confronting those fears, accepting who I am, letting go of resentments and regrets, and changing my overall attitude about life to bring me to where I am today; a confident and self-assured woman. I thought I finally had a handle on life, but then the pandemic happened, and the fears I thought had been resolved slapped me upside my head.

Not only was I thrown into my own chaos of figuring out how I am going to deal with this new kind of life, but now I have to do my best to soothe my children and grandchildren’s fears that everything is going to be ok.  Because, who knows if it will? The fear of the unknown, the fear of losing something or someone precious to us, are two of the greatest fears plaguing most people today.

As I sat deciding what title I was going to use for this blog, it occurred to me that my anxiety is not helping my situation. I worry too much about things I can’t control. (I blame my overactive imagination.) And for a naturally anxious person like me, adding unfounded fears to the mix just naturally creates an outcome of internal chaos–the belief that we do not have control over our lives.

The truth is, and something we have to continually remind ourselves of, is that we ALL have control over our lives, even while we are forced to stay home to protect ourselves and others from the virus.  We still get to decide whether or not we are going to let ourselves be manipulated by our own neurotic minds, or if we are going to take control of the situation and do something constructive, rather than wallow in self-pity.

There is a quote by Franklin D. Roosevelt that I use to remind myself that the anxiety-inspired fears are the result of my imagination: “The only thing to fear is fear itself.”

When I start to feel anxious about the things I can’t control and the “what-ifs” start to race through my mind, I take a step back and look at why this is. It usually indicates that it’s time to turn off the news or get off Facebook.  It’s important to stay informed, but if you find yourself reading every single blog that reminds you how bad it is and not balancing it with the good news, of course you are going to get anxious.

Our emotions are not our reality, but it sometimes feels like they are. Our emotions are driven by our thoughts and assumptions. If we change the way we think about something, we can change the way we feel.  That’s why it is so important to focus on something positive.

So, we can sit in our homes and twiddle our thumbs, and be anxious and fearful that something bad is going to happen to us, or we can do something positive with our time and focus our energy in a more positive way. A few ideas:

  • Start a new creative project
  • Take up a new hobby
  • Volunteer to help make masks for the hospitals
  • Deliver groceries to the elderly
  • Learn how to cook new recipes
  • Spend quality time with your kids
  • Take an online course
  • Make cards and take them to the local nursing home
  • Read a book or learn a new language
  • Clean and declutter your house
  • Exercise or take a walk
  • Clean up your yard
  • Write your life story or the next bestseller

The choices are endless!

Keeping busy is what helped me deal with my anxiety in the past, and I have a feeling it’s what is going to help me get through this latest challenge.  But even more than that, I need to remind myself I am in control of the situation, and I can make it a bad experience or a better experience. It’s all about perspective.

Butterflies

 

I have a butterfly tattoo on my ankle; a reminder of the changes I have made in my life. Sounds kind of corny and cliché, I know, but it’s a good analogy of  my life.

Twelve years ago, I was broken. I hated my life. I hated my job. I hated me.  I felt lost and alone, and what hope I had left was quickly diminishing.

But something happened that year. My first grandchild, Thomas, was born April 18, and at the time, I was unaware of the impact he would have on the decision to change my life.

Later that year, in July,  I was climbing the 20-plus stairs to our apartment. It was a hot and humid day; one of those days that Iowa’s known for. I had to stop half-way, because I couldn’t catch my breath. I drew air in air in, but I felt like I was suffocating. My heart began racing, and I literally saw my life flashing before my eyes.

I saw Thomas growing up without me. I saw an empty chair at his wedding. I saw him holding his child, and I wasn’t there to tell him how proud I was of him.

But as fast as the visions came, they were gone, and I was back in the hallway of our building, breathing normally.

The thought that came to me was, “I don’t want to die.”

I immediately opened the door of my apartment, took my cigarette pack out of my purse and threw them into the wastebasket.

I tried to quit smoking before, but it was only a day or two before my willpower gave out. But this was different. I knew if I kept going the way I was, smoking two packs a day, I would die. I was sure of it.

I got through the first day, and then the second, and soon I was celebrating a month without smoking.  I felt great! I could climb the stairs to my apartment without stopping to rest. I stopped coughing up crap from my lungs. I could take deep breaths again, and I knew it could only get better.

I was so proud of myself, because quitting smoking was no easy task. I used the patch for eight weeks, and then graduated to nicotine gum. I used the gum for a year and then switched to mints, which I carried in my purse to curb any lingering cravings.

I quit smoking when I found out I was was pregnant with my first baby, but started again as soon as she was born, kicking myself with every drag I took.  By the time I finally quit, I had convinced myself that I would die with a cigarette in my hand.

That is, until I realized I had two choices; I could continue living my life in the prison I had built for myself, or I could break free and do something with my life.

You see, smoking wasn’t my only problem. I had a drinking problem. I used alcohol to self-medicate, to calm my fears,  alleviate the stress, and numb the feelings of shame and guilt that consumed me.

My intention was to just to have one or two beers, to take the edge off, but once I started, I couldn’t stop.  I was drinking a 12-pack of beer a night, and that still wasn’t enough to keep those horrible feelings down.

The night of August 31, 2005, I was sitting at the computer, while my daughter was doing homework. She’d had a rough year and was trying to catch up so she could graduate with her class.

The third time she asked me for help, and I said, “Just a minute, I’m busy,” was her breaking point, and she threw her books against the wall.  She had a history of extreme outbursts, but that’s not what this was. I truly believe it was divine intervention, because what she said next blew my mind:

“I’m sorry you have so many problems, and that you’re so unhappy, but I have problems, too. …”

For the first time, I heard her words. She saw my pain and my unhappiness, and I saw hers. She was reaching out to me the only way she knew how.

She taught me something significant that night, something that has made me get out of myself and really look at the world around me:

“We don’t live in a bubble; what we do affects others.”

I had been so busy worrying about me and focusing on how bad my world was, I wasn’t seeing what my own children were going through.  My selfishness and self-centeredness had kept me from being emotionally available for my children, and now I had to take responsibility for it, and do something about it.

I was hurting, and I didn’t know what else to do but to close the world in on myself. All this time, I had been inadvertently killing myself, because I couldn’t face the pain I had caused others. It had gotten so bad, I couldn’t live with myself.

I knew I needed to take control of my life.  That night, when I went to bed, I did something I hadn’t done in years; I prayed. I asked God to help me. I promised Him that I would do whatever it took to have a better life, to be a better mother, a better person. I begged him to show me how to do it.

And he did.

The next day, I threw all the beer away and got rid of all the empty cans.

A few days later I met someone who introduced me to Alcoholics Anonymous and I started attending weekly meetings. A few months later I ran into a friend, who was also in the program, and she became my sponsor.

God was putting people in my life to help me.

But that was just the beginning.

To be continued ….

 

That’s What Friends Are For

One day a woman found herself in a hole. She looked around for a way out, but there was none. Suddenly, a man’s head appeared in the hole.

“Hello! Do you need help?” he called. He was wearing a stethoscope around his neck and holding a note pad.

“Yes, thank goodness! Please, help me, Dr.!”

The doctor wrote something on his notepad, tore it off, and tossed it down to her. 

“Take these pills and call me in the morning.”

She looked at he paper in disbelief. Then she crumbled it up and started to cry. 

“Hello!” she heard from above. She looked up and saw a man with a white collar. “My child, why are you crying?”

“I’m stuck … I can’t get out of this hole!”

The pastor made a sign of the cross, and said, “Bless you, my Child,” and walked away.

Just when the woman began to lose all hope, a shadow was cast across the the hole. She looked up and saw a face, smiling down at her.

“Need some help?”

Before she could answer the man jumped down into the hole with her.

“What are you doing?” she exclaimed. “Now we’re both stuck down here!”

“Yes,” he told her. “But I’ve been here before, and I know the way out …”

Sensitivity is a Gift

I came across a Facebook post that contained a link to a study that was done in 2011 that links social anxiety to empathetic individuals.

And because I am always intrigued with articles that try to explain my unique character, I read on:

“Being an Empath means you literally feel what other people are experiencing emotionally. You can feel it in your body, your mood, sensations and in your thoughts. You can also feel it consciously and on a subtle level without realizing it.”

I know this for a fact I can literally feel the tension and negative vibes when I talk to people who are upset or excited or anxious, even on the phone, and I can’t wait to get away from them. I want to stay and listen, and if they need me to listen or talk, I will, for a while anyway. But the entire time, I am looking for an out, trying to wrap things up, or ask them to call me later when they calm down. (I leave out that part so I don’t offend them.)

Which brings up the whole co-dependent thing. Consciously I know I am not responsible for people’s feelings, but I don’t want to hurt their feelings if I can help it. Sometimes I can’t and I just have to accept it. But I know I am more considerate than many, and I take that into consideration. (It’s exhausting just listening to myself as I write this.)

It’s not just people; social activities, even the ones I want to be at, or so draining I have to leave after a short amount of time.  I can tolerate social gatherings, but I’m not comfortable. I would much rather be home, in my room, on my computer. I’m a journalist, and kind of expected to experience the world I am writing about.

It was easier when I was drinking because a few drinks would take the edge off and I could relax. But since I quit almost 11 years ago, I don’t have that “crutch,” and it’s difficult to relax at social gatherings, even with my own family.

Most people understand, but some are offended when I leave a party early. It’s just to hard for some people to understand.

Imagine a wild deer in a locked pen. It realizes it’s trapped and frantically looks for a way out. It paces back and forth until finally the gate opens and the deer bolts out. That’s kind of how I feel in many social situations. A little extreme, I know, but I have learned to manage it. I no longer run for the nearest exit. I edge my way towards it …

I have always been extremely sensitive and because I  care so much about what other people think, I viewed my sensitivity as a curse. It wasn’t that long ago that I heard, “Don’t let people walk all over you,” “You need a thicker skin,” or “Get a backbone.”

I thought there was something really wrong with me. When I was angry, I’d cry, because I was more hurt than angry. I couldn’t understand how people could be so hurtful and hateful. I became confused about love, because how could people say they love you, and then hurt you?

But once I understood how my sensitivity is a gift, not a curse, I accepted it, and now I’m glad I’m ultra-sensitive.

I feel things deeply and I connect with others on a new level, which is important to me. I actually look for that connection, that common bond, which helps me relate to that person on a deeper level. By empathizing with them, they will know they are not alone with whatever they are dealing with.

Some people say, “You’re too sensitive,” like it’s a bad thing. But maybe the people who see it as a bad thing are actually jealous because they don’t have the same ability.

And for the record; being sensitive is not the same as being emotional.  According to psychologist, Nancy Schreinre, “being sensitive implies empathy towards others outside of yourself. Being emotional doesn’t necessarily imply empathy and is more about the person being emotional than about the person needing empathy.”

Crying at sappy movies is one thing, but I cry at the horrible things going on throughout the entire world. I cry because I feel bad that others don’t have a place to live, or not enough to eat, or are abused, neglected, or bullied.

I cry for all human kind. That’s who I am. And though I am learning to stand up for myself and getting good at creating boundaries, I will always feel empathy, and I will always be socially anxious.

Psychologist, Nathaniel Branden said, “The first step in changing anything is being aware it needs changing.”

I agree with the statement, but there are some things you can’t change no matter how hard you try. Besides, in this case, would I even want to? I would much rather be sensitive and have to manage the anxiety that comes along with it, than be inconsiderate and uncaring toward others.

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