Wednesday, November 6, 2013

On Anxiety and Organization: Lists are my Medicine

I have social and generalized anxiety. I occasionally suffer from anxiety/panic attacks. My stress level often has immediate and massive effects on my body. It usually starts with decision paralysis. For me the first signs of an anxiety attack are words like "I don't know", "I guess", and "whatever you want should be fine". Most of my friends will tell you that, despite how much I try to be a tough guy, I have pretty particular tastes and sensitivities when it comes to my comfort levels. When I am not in touch with these preferences I stop trusting my own senses. That's when my breath begins to shorten and the knots start tying up my stomach. Sometimes my heart will ache or feel pinched.

I've used a lot of things to mitigate my anxiety in the past. None of them are actual medicine or where prescribed by a doctor. Often it's been foodstuffs. I find comfort in foods like cupcakes or cheese plates or toast (it's usually sweet but doesn't have to be).

I started a very restrictive diet six weeks ago. One of the things I noticed right away is how often would crave certain food when I felt down. In some ways this makes sense. I'm the kind of person who will have some kind of mini-meltdown if I skip a meal or two.

This new awareness of how I've used food to regulate my feelings made me start to wonder. What else am I doing to manage my mood and keep anxiety levels to a minimum?

In the absence of consumable anti-anxiety measures (like of cheese, beer, and sugars) I've been noticing what I have been doing to maintain a healthy mood. Having direct online contact with my friends has been indispensable (my internet was cut for a mere 36 hours this week it affected my mood acutely). I also take walks and ride a bike.

Though lately I've been biking less and less. It occurs to me that I always forget how much I really like cycling alone until I am actually out there cycling by myself. I feel power and resonance with the landscape. I feel confident and in control.

Consequently this is also how I feel when I'm writing or editing something I've written (which also falls under the category of writing for me). And yes, free-writing regularly (every day) has also been one of the ways I manage my anxiety. Fortunately these days free-writing now feels like a reflex. I've been writing every day for more than three years. But I've only edited spurts when working on projects. The editing itself feels marvelous and in control and not the least bit anxious.

When I'm editing I can feel as "in the zone" and electric as I've felt while jotting down the first draft of a striking poem. I feel just as resonant as I do when riding my bike a long way solo. But for some reason it is devilishly difficult to get myself to schedule and start doing either of these things.

Why is that?

Well the anxious parts of me fight viciously against the memory of how powerful, liberating, and healthy these experiences are. I used to think I was just not the type of person like to organize. But what I've come to learn over the years is that it's not ME that doesn't like to organize or prioritize (or at least not all of me). It's the anxiety that doesn't like it when I organize.

I feel resistance to organizing my shit. Whether it be my actual physical stuff (my partner can attest to this) or the less physical more conceptual stuff involved in my life. For instance I have trouble showing up for physical fitness activities like yoga or bike rides unless it is made clear that there is going to be some social component. It's a battle for me to schedule things to do alone that enjoy, especially if they require me to be independent or decisive. This doesn't mean that I'm can't or don't enjoy being independent and decisive. I can and do. But my anxiety tries to convince me otherwise.

It's tell though that even on the brink of an anxiety attack I am able to do simple non-demanding organizational tasks that combat my stress and anxiety. One of the more reliable methods of staving off an anxiety attack is to make a list. It's usually a to do list, but it can also be a random list; What groceries do I need? How many blue things can I think of? What countries have I visited, which ones would I like to visit? how many prime numbers can I list until I feel better?

The fact that I find such solace in lists makes apparent to me how much I actually DO value organization. As the most stripped down, basic definition what is a list but an organizational tool? The tool of lists is often what I need to keep my anxiety levels down and my mind clear of self doubt and blame.

A list provides me with an organization system, a way of prioritizing. It lets me know that as a human I can reliably identify what deserves priority. I can discern what matters to me and to my surroundings. A list is concrete proof that I can be trusted as a decider, me and my senses know what's what. (remember that my anxiety attacks start with the decision paralysis of not trusting myself).

And really what is writing but constantly trusting your own instincts of organizing words and meaning? I take joy in choosing the right words or choosing the right idea. All writers do. But I have this force in me this anxious mess of untrusting. A force that even if, while I try to manage it, can derail and discourage me from taking the decisive actions I so enjoy.

I'd love to end this post triumphantly proclaiming "and this is how I beat anxiety!" but the struggle is not like that. All of the above conclusions were slow to germinate. And while I know a few flimsy, but effective techniques for managing my anxiety and combating its effects, the progress is slow going and complex. This post, while empowering to write, is only an exercise in shining light on the mechanisms of my anxiety. A declaration against the conniving, invalidating, anxious parts of me, a message that says "I see what's going on here buster."

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