Anxiety and its teaching: 'create space'.
Written by Jess Sofarnos
As an anxiety sufferer from what I now understand began at quite a young age, I have always tried to find ways to ‘fix’ this part of me that seems to be just as inherent and innate as my empathy or sense of humour.
Psychologists, panic attacks, meditation, days in bed, crying, mindfulness and yoga are all tried and tested methods that I have attempted to either release or stifle that shitty, relentless tightness in my chest. Unfortunately when you lead a busy life full of work commitments, side hustles, friend dates, a partner, fitting in a coffee with Grandma, the gym and monthly health appointments, it’s not only hard to flip your lifestyle on it’s head to tend to your annoying friend anxiety, but I for one don’t want to give old mate the satisfaction of taking any more of my brain capacity or time.
It seems when life gets this way and is moving too fast we all grasp outward for more hours in the day or lament that we wished we had more ‘time’. It’s something that has always frustrated me in particular, as a perfectionist on all of my endeavors and feeling exhausted at the end of each day but never satisfied that I’ve ever done ‘enough’ with my 24 hours. How much more could a 20 year old be doing when completing full time university studies, working casually 4 days a week, interning Mondays and Thursdays, training & performing avidly in the theater, going out all weekend to inject my ‘youth’ into my schedule and then studying straight after being out all night to get an essay in? My younger self was doing MORE than enough, but I always felt this concept that ‘time was escaping me’.
Naturally I ran myself into the ground over a sustained period of wanting to do everything, for everyone, everyday, every year to the point where in September 2018 my brain and body gave in. My psychologist called it a breakdown induced from pro-longed exhaustion or a weeklong, highly elevated panic attack where it’s remnants took solace in my body for months after the fact.
Looking back on that week, it was a complete blur. I don’t remember much of what I did or said to people (note, I only really came into contact with my best friend & boyfriend who said I’d be ok and this would soon end), but I do remember how frightening it was to feel so completely ‘out of it’. For context – and let me preface that everyone feels anxiety differently – my experience is often wholly physical. I am constantly dizzy. My chronic right hip pain, which I have had since retiring from dancing, aches all day. My polycystic ovarian syndrome and suspected endometriosis gives me lower abdominal pain and irregular bleeding. My IBS forces me to lie down in toilet cubicles when I’m out for dinner with a friend because the discomfort in my stomach is too sore to endure sitting upright. I get headaches and my muscles seize up. I grind away at my teeth at night. My heart murmur amplifies and I get distracted all day by the ectopic beats.
It sounds dramatic, but it feels like my entire body is giving way and there’s nothing I can do about it but be a slave to the different aches until they end.
This then of course, makes me hyper vigilant. I can read essays and books on anxiety for days and understand logically that it’s just my ‘body looking out for danger’ & yada yada yada, but in the moment of anxious disarray it’s hard to decipher (or perhaps reassure myself) whether the person across the street looking suss is being this way because he’s just farted or is holding a gun that is obviously going to kill me. If these pains in my body are in fact just my senses flaring up from my sub-conscious anxiety or if I should book my 5th doctors appointment this month to quadruple check that I certainly, definitely, undoubtedly don’t have cancer or some kind of tumor that I have convinced myself they missed in the first four consultations.
Yes I understand the fundamentals of the flight or fight response, but when you’re constantly on edge, how do you successfully toe the line and know what’s real to fight or flight and what’s not?
This particular ‘breakdown’ meant that I felt all of the above as usual, but this time with the added brain fog I can often experience simultaneously to the physical stuff. I couldn’t hold much of a conversation with people, something I really pride myself on being able to do at any given time with any given person. I was embarrassed and aware that I wasn’t focusing on the other person like I usually would and as such I avoided leaving the house. It’s this totally imprisoning experience where I didn’t really know where I was everyday & I couldn’t really tell if I was in a dream or not. Feeling this disconnected from the world meant that I couldn’t go to work and instead continued to sleep all day hoping each time I’d wake up I’d feel normal again. If I did go to work I sat in the toilet cubicle and cried for a bit until I thought it had subsided enough to walk straight into a 2pm meeting where colleagues and clients were none the wiser. I felt completely out of control of my body and mind, which is something I deeply fear - but I had become good at putting on a face.
I have a beautiful support network; many great, supportive wonderful friends and family; yet that week I felt the true ‘shame’ of mental health when I couldn’t explain, or rather didn’t know how to explain what it felt like to be inside my head. My kind Dad would come in to my room and ask over and over ‘what’s wrong?’ and I continued with the narrative of ‘having a migraine’ as it felt like the easier, perhaps more acceptable answer. The few people who knew what was really going on kept telling me that what I needed was to slow down and in time, all would be back to normal, but it was difficult for me to understand that this construct that I always fought against by filling up my diary with an activity for each waking minute, would be the thing to save me if I just gave myself space.
I started to read Sarah Wilson’s “First, We Make the Beast Beautiful” during this period and I can’t explain how much this book has changed how I feel about my anxiety, and my outlook on life overall. She so generously, yet so succinctly dissects the idea of anxiety in all its peaks and troughs and to summarise 308 pages, puts forward the idea that perhaps it’s not something us sufferers of the beast need to ‘fix’, but rather welcome in to our homes (hearts) and offer it a cup of tea (self-care) and sit with it. Because, she says, it’s part of what makes us unique and what makes us, us.
There wasn’t one page of the book that didn’t resonate with me (just go buy it now if I haven’t already made myself clear), but the concept I really have taken with me day-to-day is learning the ability to create more space in my life, not more time. We only have a limited number of hours in each day, sure, but space can be infinite if we allow it to be so.
One of my favourite excerpts is,
“Most of us cry out for more time, thinking that’s what we need (much like balance). But tell me when more time has helped anyone in an anxious mess? Time doesn’t release the pressure. Time doesn’t take the cap off the toothpaste. Time doesn’t loosen the knots. If we get time, we tend to just fill it with more thoughts.
What we need is more space”
Indeed, if you’re anxious, part of the healing journey is to create space and understanding this notion really helped me to get back on top of my shit. I resigned from my full time corporate job to get back to focusing on my passion for performing. I don’t force myself out of bed at 6am everyday for the gym if I’m tired. I prioritize yoga and a 10-minute guided meditation when I wake up instead of looking at my Instagram. And I no longer go to every party or say yes to every event, among other things.
I created space.
I have now read two books for the first time in years. I sleep in and don’t set alarms when I can. I have time to audition, read scripts and collaborate with amazing people, which fuels the ‘real’ shit inside me. I lie in bed with a candle on and chill with my cat for hours. I can say no to things that don’t fulfill me and yes to last minute things that do – because for the first time in my 24 years, I have space to do so.
I’m not saying I’m perfect at this and I can’t promise I won’t relapse into running around like a mad woman again, but at least now I know what can happen to my state of being when I do. Obviously I wish I didn’t hit the bottom but it did teach me the fundamental lesson of leaving enough room in my life to breathe. Really breathe. You forget what that feels like when you’re running solely off your adrenal gland and 3 x long blacks.
From my experience, space allows for better things to happen and by cause and effect, leaves the flexibility for true growth.
To see a friend you haven’t been able to for a while; to get a call back from a theatre company for an audition; for the anxiety attack to come and not smother, but pass over. It’s daunting to change your lifestyle. Rewiring your brain to enjoy downtime rather than thinking of any other thing you could possibly be doing over just sitting with yourself is hard. But it’s fucking necessary. When you feel like you need to keep reaching outward, it’s the universe screaming at you to look inward instead.
Learn. To. Sit. With. Yourself.
I have to remind myself not to fight it; I’ve started to accept this will always be a part of me. Although my experience felt/feels entirely suffocating and lonely, I know I am not isolated in this and it breaks my heart to think a lot of people feel the extremity of what I felt for years, not just the week that I did. I also acknowledge that some people may not have the privilege or ability to make big changes to their routine like resign from a job, but I can guarantee that the smallest of adjustments (i.e., no coffee when you’re already on the edge) can make the greatest of changes to your health and wellbeing (supermarkets or shopping centers are also really poor choices of activities when feeling an anxious wave coming on FYI).
Finding a good psychologist or wellness practitioner is key. I’ve been through 3 or 4 and it’s only recently that I’ve felt the full benefits of really committing your time and money to someone whole-heartedly when you feel that they’re fully in your corner. He’s firm and holds me accountable, and I’ve learnt through this that it’s okay to lean on others for help, including professionals. And it’s worth every damn cent when you find the right person.
As my new best friend Sarah Wilson puts it on page 224, just “back the fuck off” yourself for a bit – and I promise your amygdala will thank you for it.
*Disclaimer: Woe is not me. I understand I am healthy, fortunate, loved and in a privileged position to access the relevant healthcare I need etc. This is solely my experience of anxiety and I acknowledge there is a spectrum to these experiences.
If you don’t already know, you can go to your GP and get a mental health plan where 10 sessions every calendar year are rebated through Medicare: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/mental-health-care-plan