What's the most random thing you've had an anxiety meltdown about?
This month I can add 'choosing sandals for my holiday' to the list of things that have sent me over the edge. And yes, counsellors get anxious sometimes too. We just know how to deal with it well. So let me enlighten you...
There I am, on my lunch break, hunched over my phone, frantically scrolling, jabbing impatiently at the screen and frowning. I'm looking at sandals. So many types of sandals! But which ones shall I get? What if I don't have the right kind of sandals for my holiday? Can I afford them? Do they look stupid? Maybe they won't arrive in time? Will they be comfortable? And go with every outfit? Which ones are the perfect sandals? I have to decide right now!
Ah, anxiety, my old friend! I see you're back - it's been a while since we last caught up! I can't say I've missed you all that much, but as you're here now I'd better listen to what you have to say...
Eventually the awareness comes and I recognise my thoughts - urgent and irritable - my sensations - tension, nervy energy - and behaviour - fixation, perfectionism, impatience - as symptoms of a dysregulated nervous system. I am experiencing anxiety.
Awareness is the first step. It's crucial for any change to happen. Without awareness we are stumbling through our lives unconsciously, driven by impulse, habit and raw emotion. I have a lot of self awareness around anxiety; thanks to therapy and mindfulness I know how to recognise the signs early on that I've gone into a fear response. Just saying to myself "this is anxiety" is a powerful way of getting a bit of perspective on what's happening.
So why am I flipping out about sandals? To answer that question is to get ahead of ourselves in the process of calming the f*ck down, which is step two in managing anxiety.
Now that I've identified what's going on I need to park the need to know why or to solve the sandal problem and get my nervous system back to a regulated state. My prefrontal cortex needs to be brought back to fully online and neither of these things happen via thinking. I need to breathe. I need to put the phone down and walk away for a bit. I need to move slowly and engage my senses in soothing experiences. Basically I need to do the opposite of what anxiety wants me to do in that moment; I am in flight mode which wants me to go go go! But the reality is there is no danger. No one died from not having the right sandals. So I put down the phone. I make tea. I deadhead some flowers. I practice long, slow exhales. I sip the tea and look at the clouds and the tops of trees. I feel more sane quite quickly. The anxiety has not completely gone away - because I haven't tended to the thing that triggered it (which I'll get to shortly) - but it's much less and I can function far better now.
We can be in any one of three emotional regulation states at any time; threat (stress response), drive (doing stuff) or soothe (rest and play). They all have important roles, but of course we don't want to be hanging out in threat very often or for very long. Most people make the mistake of trying to get quickly out of threat and back to drive. Whilst this is understandable, it's ineffective because we need to get back to drive (and in this story I needed to get back to work) via soothe. Only then can we get sensible about the problem and deal with it from a calm, rational, adult state of mind. Which is why the tea, the flowers, the breath etc were what soothed me so that I could return to drive mode and get on with my day.
The sandals are actually a red herring. That's what I realise later, after work when I have time to process my experience. Putting the issue aside for a while was not only necessary because I had other responsibilities but helpful because it gave me some breathing space and perspective.
It certainly seemed like I was anxious about sandals, and on the surface I was, but of course there was more to it. When our reaction seems 'out of proportion' to the situation that's because there's something deeper at play. Just like when a couple argue about whose turn it is to do the washing up/laundry/feed the baby etc it's not just about that task but about other things, such as ongoing workload imbalance, work stress, lack of trust, lack of sleep...the list goes on. Until the underlying issue is addressed the symptom continues.
So no, it wasn't really about the sandals. Yes I need some new ones and yes the choice is a bit overwhelming - which is what provided the right habitat, if you like, for anxiety. But when I went beyond the surface issue and asked myself what was really going on I could see that it was about the holiday and all that it means to me. The anxiety had latched itself on to whatever was around - those bloody sandals - but had other, truer sources.
Out came the journal! And in it I found that the real worries were unsurprisingly more meaningful and important than sandals.
It's my first trip abroad since the pandemic, have I forgotten how to do travelling? I used to be so good at it, it feels like I've lost a part of myself....
I'm worried we haven't booked enough time away, I really need a break and a week doesn't feel like enough....
A holiday is expensive, can I justify this with the rising cost of living....I'll have to use savings and what if we need them for winter?...
The destination is so important to me. I've put a lot of meaning onto this holiday and it's weighing quite heavily when what I need is lightness and relaxation...
There's often no quick solutions to the real worries, which is partly why the mind jumps to the surface things - how great it would be if a pair of sandals made everything OK!
So there's no "quick tips" here at the end of this story, only the advice that managing our emotions is an ongoing practice that requires self awareness, compassion and mindful action. Let's take a look at those in a little more detail:
Self awareness: know what anxiety looks like in your thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations and behaviour. Practice checking in with yourself regularly so you can spot the signs early on. When you notice it, don't push it away, acknowledge it: "this is anxiety".
Self compassion: when we're anxious our brains tell us what we "need" to do (e.g. buy the perfect sandals, check the door is locked again, clean something... etc) but most of the time these thoughts are not helpful or accurate. What we need is to soothe our systems with gentle activity, social support and relaxation.
Mindful action: once we're calmer we can look at what's really bothering us and tend to that, something that might take time and we might need help with. Sometimes there is something we need to do (e.g. that task we've been avoiding or a difficult conversation we need to have) and sometimes it's a mindset we need to shift (e.g. more acceptance, improved confidence, greater understanding).
And so, I bought some sandals. I've accepted the 'perfect' sandals do not exist. I've taken the pressure off myself about the meaning of this holiday and explored the reasons I got into that mindset in the first place. I've spoken to my husband. I've done some budgeting. I've gone for a walk to look at a beautiful sunset and allowed myself to forget everything else for a moment.
I hope that sharing my story of the sandals of anxiety has helped you understand more about the nature of anxiety and how we can live better with it.
And now, get me on that beach!!