Post-Anxiety Anxiety

It seems strange to say that I’ve overcome an anxiety disorder, yet I still have occasional anxiety attacks. Yet I know that there are others out there who understand. You get through the battle with anxiety, which may last years, and you consider it as a past experience; but every now and then you still have to battle those voices that whisper despair and those sudden loud noises that make you want to crawl into a ball and cry. Still, you know that this isn’t you – you’re stronger and healthier than that.
It seems strange to say it, and feels strange to live it.

I have medication which I need to take to process information properly, but one of the side effects is fairly intense anxiety. It’s quite strange to have a healthy mind experiencing unhealthy symptoms. On the one hand, there’s that black little blob that sits on your shoulder, whispering in your ear every second. It makes you believe others are speaking badly of you – and it makes you believe that they have every reason to. It tells you that those people who are giggling quietly to themselves somewhere behind you are laughing at your. After every interaction with someone, it makes you think that all they’re thinking about you is how terrible a person you are.

On the other hand, you have your rational mind working, which knows exactly what’s going on. With every whisper from the dark blob, it reminds you that it’s probably not true, and that you’re just dealing with symptomatic anxiety. As your heartrate quickens, it reminds you that it’s just adrenaline being released, and controlled breathing will slow it down. As your head starts spinning and muscles start tensing up, it reminds you that there’s nothing wrong in or outside your body, and that grounding exercises will help to relieve this experience.

The hardest part of this strange dilemma is that giving in to the anxiety would be so much easier. So much harder in the long run, obviously, because of the toll that an anxiety attack takes on you. Yet when your body is experiencing symptoms that tell you to shut down and protect yourself by withdrawing, and when your brain is telling you that you should feel guilty, ashamed, or hurt, it is our natural inclination to respond to those messages. For example, when you feel terrible pain in your ankle, you stop walking on it.

To give another physical example, I have two herniated discs in my lower back. There was a period of about four years when this injury worsened and caused me inflammation and pain, and further injury to other parts of my body. The right thing for me to do then was to rest it – to stop playing sport, stop lifting weights, stop running, and let my back rest so that it could heal. Eventually, though, if I wanted to be able to run, play sport, or even carry my groceries without pain, I had to start slowly getting back into the (right) exercises.

For the last two years, my lower back has been great. I’ve been able to do everything I once did, and without pain (sidenote: I owe that to getting help from the right health professionals). However, the discs are still herniated, and probably will be for the rest of my life. The difference is, the surrounding muscles are stronger, the inflammation isn’t there, and I’ve trained my mind to understand that my lower back doesn’t require so much protection (i.e. pain and muscle tension). I still have an injury, but I’m not injured (but if I don’t manage my body well, the pain, tension, inflammation, and disability will return).

The cool thing is, sometimes when I exercise, my lower back still gets painful and inflamed. Sometimes this pain is legitimate; I’ve pushed myself too hard, and I need to rest that area, be gentle with it, and focus on mobility. Other times, it’s a pseudo-pain; the pain is very real, and so is the inflammation, but my back hasn’t been hurt. My body is simply now wired to protect that area, and becomes sensitive when the muscles start working hard.

The last three years have been about training myself to recognise which symptoms are legit, and which symptoms I should (perhaps tentatively) ignore.
But when I need to ignore them, I can’t just power through. If I do, my body will cause an “injury” to stop me. No, I still continue on, but must focus my mind and my breathing, must remind my body that it’s not injured, and must be just little more gentle with how I exercise for the next day or two. It’s about understanding my body and showing it kindness, without letting it stop me from doing what I need or want to do.

The similarities with anxiety are astounding – and this is because anxiety presents very much like other illnesses or injuries in many of its symptoms.
Anxiety disorders register a false “injury” to your body or psyche, and sets off all the processes in your body to try and shut it down. Don’t use that muscle anymore; it’s hurt!

For those who have come out of their battle with anxiety, it’s important to train yourself how to recognise legitimate adrenaline cues telling you to slow down, rest, and take care of yourself, and to recognise pseudo-symptoms.
Much like a physical injury, we can’t just power through those anxiety attacks, lest we prolong them! But we can’t give in to what the symptoms are telling us we should do, either – no matter how real they feel. We have to listen to that rational voice that is telling us the facts and reminding us of the truth of our situation; that’s focusing your mind. Slow, deep breathing helps to decrease the physical symptoms, and allowing yourself more time for breaks or to do tasks that you enjoy doing whilst not deviating too much from what you are meant to be doing is a good way to continue on whilst being gentle with your mind and body.

It’s a very strange place to be in, but it’s much better than where we were.

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