I love those funny YouTube videos: stress/anxiety as a person that follows you around and ruins your day. It’s a cute analogy. If my anxiety was a person, she wouldn’t be the all-in-black, vampiric, nightmare that usually comes to mind. If my anxiety was a person, she’d be a Mary-Sue.
A bright, peppy, middle-aged white lady that constantly reminds me to smile more, slouch less, and definitely make sure there’s no space between the bed and the dresser in my son’s room because what if he rolls off the bed, and his head gets stuck between them and he breaks his neck? I wouldn’t even know until morning. Tsk tsk.
Of course, she says it all with a convincing smile and a concerned lilt in her voice that makes it one hundred times more reasonable and believable. And yeah, I’ll probably spend an unnecessary amount of time rearranging all the beds and dressers in my house, just to be sure.
And then she’ll smile and nod and remind me that the toy box is too close to the heater and it’s probably going to start a fire and kill us all in our sleep. And by the way, when was the last time I checked the batteries in the fire detector? Is the front door locked? Do I have some sort of make-shift weapon at the ready in case someone tries to home-invade while my husband isn’t home? What if my husband doesn’t come home? He gets distracted driving sometimes, do I really think he’ll make it home from every shift he works? That seems hopeful. Better panic for forty-five minutes about him dying in a devastating car accident until I give in and call him to tell him to drive safe…six and a half hours from now.
This is all before ten a.m.. I could go on, but I won’t. It’s enough to make me want to pull my hair out by the roots. I don’t though. I’m already going grey before thirty; I don’t need to be bald as well.
I don’t like to take anxiety medication because instead of helping me manage the problem, I’ve noticed that it makes me feel like the problem doesn’t exist. That’s not how I want to cope with my disability. Still, there are things that help this madness. Meditation. Mindfulness. Breathing exercises. Exercises in logic and something I call “doom thinking”. Which is basically forcing myself to think of the worst-case scenario and letting it play out in my mind until it’s not as scary. My therapist made me do this a lot, in a world pre-COVID19, where things like mental health were still considered essential. Thanks, Alina; I miss you.
Sometimes though, it’s not enough. Sometimes I can do all of those things and still be stuck in the “what if” loop that is my constant fear. So the only other thing I know to do with it is to use it as a tool. I’ve realized that I can sit and wallow, and allow my thoughts to run roughshod over my day. Or I can harness their power, and pretend that it’s super.
For instance: Did you know that cleaning reduces stress? I didn’t for a long time. In fact, cleaning was a trigger of stress for me. I’d think about all I had to do and just spiral into an anxiety attack about how it was going to take forever and be so much work. It would pile up around me until it was almost impossible. Then I discovered something. As rewarding and incentivizing as the end result always is, the act of cleaning is almost more so. Like, why would I feel less stressed while I’m cleaning than when I’m sitting in my cleaned space, relaxing?
So I did some research. This is what I discovered: We have a part of our brain called the amygdala, which helps us facilitate fear, anxiety, and emotion; my therapist calls this the “lizard brain”. It can create physical sensations in the body to correlate with the fear/anxiety/emotion. I.E. Sweating, nausea, muscle tension, etc. At the same time that it ramps up and starts to affect the body, the prefrontal cortex—the part of our brain charged with regulating emotion—dims and becomes less aware. Until we’re in literal fight or flight mode. In essence, the more we feel anxiety, the less naturally able to combat and logic our way out of it we become.
Nice. Thanks biology.
The good news is that we can retrain our brains by meditating and guiding thoughts away from the “what if” spiral, back to something that’s grounding. Cleaning, chores, exercise, art, are all repetitive actions that allow space for the brain to focus on the task at hand. They are forms of mediation that also promote productivity. A win/win if you will.
For me, not only do I feel accomplished and less pressured after I’ve completed a chore but while I work my brain is focused on the physical task. It’s retraining itself to think about that task, rather than “Oh my God, the world is in chaos, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t cook that chicken all the way last night and did the baby swallow something when I wasn’t looking? Why is he coughing? Is he sick? Is he choking? Oh, it’s just spit? Can he drown from his own spit? Does he need water? Is he dehydrated? Do I need to call the pediatrician?”
You get the idea.
So yeah, scientifically speaking: chores or any repetitive action = mindful-meditation. As such it reduces stress, relieves anxiety and when properly executed has turned panic into productivity. Sounds pretty super right? Well, there’s more. Something it took me way too long to figure out. So I’m going to share it with you.
All of those “what ifs” have a super-power of their own. I know it sounds crazy, and most of my “what if” examples have revolved around something awful happening to my family. But they are a way to mentally experience and become aware of things that will (hopefully) never happen in my life. They’re a gateway, a glimpse maybe—to an alternate universe, to a future that could have but won’t be, to a worst-case scenario, whatever you want to call it—through which I gain insight into why certain things happen.
All of those overwhelming sensations spilling out into my limbs from my amygdala, they are mine. The morbid and terrifying thoughts that propel the reaction, they are mine. I can use them, shape them, turn them into a warning for others. Or a riveting story.
You can use that too. If you’re a writer like me, use it to write a book or poems or a movie or a comic or a blog, based on your fears and your “what ifs”. If you’re a painter, paint it. If you’re a musician, play it. Whatever it is, do it. Channel it into something that you can look at and say, “Now you live somewhere besides my mind and you can’t hurt me anymore. I have the power.”