Full disclosure: I’m not a doctor or a mental health professional, so what I mention here is what works for me, and this might not be what works best for you.
I’ve been pretty open on this platform about my struggles with mental health and anxiety & depression. I say this because believe it’s important that we talk about the things that don’t get talked about because of stigma and we normalize conversations about mental health & wellness. 1 in 5 adults struggle with mental illness in the US, so I believe it’s worth talking about. If sharing my experience can help just one person, then I’m here 👏🏻 for 👏🏻 it 👏🏻.
Personally, I’ve had a rough couple of weeks. Things just kind of … went off the rails, all at once. This is a typical pattern for me, but it always takes me by surprise when it finally happens.
Recognizing The Triggers
I usually feel an inkling that something just isn’t quite right long before things start spiraling out of control. My usual MO is to ignore that inkling and just keep on keeping on; I basically just tell myself that everything is fine and to just keep doing what I’ve been doing. This works for a little bit, but slowly things start falling off. It’s little things.
For example, most recently, I stopped caring about meeting my weekly exercise goals and gave myself excuse after excuse as to why that was okay (you’re pregnant, it’s too hot to run, etc.). Then I stopped caring about what I was eating and just generally eating like an asshole, repeatedly, and making excuses for why it was okay (you’re pregnant, it’s just this one time, tomorrow you’ll get back on track). These are both things I’ve built into who I am and how I do life because it makes me feel like me. These are both things that help me feel like my best self and allow for me to feel “in control” of my life.
After the little things start disappearing or stop becoming important, I notice that my usual triggers start bothering me more than they normally would.
For example, one of my biggest triggers is conflict with other people in my life. The one that is most extreme is when my husband and I argue or experience conflict. All married couples experience conflict, this is extremely normal. When I’m in a “funk” or the middle of an anxiety spiral, this becomes unbearable for me. Even the tiniest disagreement will explode and become much, much bigger than it should be, usually leaving him completely confused & bewildered about how a disagreement over what to order for takeout turns into me sobbing and declaring that maybe we should just get divorced.
What actually happens is that the trigger (conflict) ignites the negative internal monologue (he doesn’t love you, you deserve to be alone and you’re unlovable) and the physical/emotional response (heart racing, panic, crying). The spiral continues until I can find a way to break it. That’s where the work is. It’s finding an action and a statement that is stronger and louder than the negative internal monologue. It’s a way to find the truth when anxiety is telling me lies. The work lies in finding those activities and phrases when you’re not in the throes of an emotional event and having them ready to go when the anxiety takes hold, so that you can find your way out.
Finding A Way Out
The number one thing, for me, is to finally accept that this isn’t right. Unfortunately, I’m not perfect, so it usually takes a few big meltdowns before I actually collect that something needs to change and that I am not actually okay. Once that happens, the smoke usually clears enough for me to see the light and calm down enough to make a plan to right the ship again.
Most recently for me, my wake-up call was experiencing three panic attacks within the span of a week. That’s a lot. I had gone months without an episode, and then bam! everything kind of came to a screeching halt. The first time, I explained it away as a fluke due to a justified high-anxiety situation where I felt like was in the right within a conflict. The second time, it came out nowhere, and even looking back, I still don’t quite understand how everything ended up how it did. The third one felt like an after-shock from the second one, where I hadn’t quite settled and it piggybacked on the conflict from the day before and set it back into motion.
One of the ways I can try to get myself out of an emotional spiral (or at least prevent it from further escalating) is to try to distract myself in a number of different ways. A few favorites:
- go for a walk
- take a shower
- fold laundry
- dance it out
- breathing exercises
This is useful because it helps stop the intrusive thoughts and ruminating on the negative internal monologue. It’s a way to circumvent the anxiety and channel that energy into something either more positive or more productive. This doesn’t mean that those feelings just get buried and hidden; it’s important to come back to them and process through them, but you can’t do that in a productive way when you’re in that escalated emotional state.
I didn’t do a great job this time using the coping mechanisms I’d previously built to put into motion. I didn’t catch it fast enough, so that made it harder to grab ahold and reel myself back in. Time and being uncomfortable were the things that ended up being what allowed me to see through the darkness & finally see a way out once the dust settled. I’m not good at sitting in the anxiety and waiting it out; I’m not good at being uncomfortable, not when it comes to anxiety. But in this case, it was the only option, and I allowed it to be a part of my plan instead of part of the problem.
Making A Plan
The first thing I did to help myself was reach out to my therapist. I made an appointment with her for the first available time that she had that worked with my availability. It ended up being a few days out from the panic attack that woke me up and told me I needed to see her, but just knowing I was on the books brought be great peace, comfort and relief. She did offer to do an emergency phone call that evening, but I declined, knowing that I’d already put into practice some of my coping mechanisms and that I was not in an emergent state of emotional crisis. The wait time, even if it was uncomfortable, felt like something I could handle.
The next thing I did was acknowledge the issue at hand: that I wasn’t taking care of myself. I said it outloud to myself. As mentioned above, I used one of the distraction techniques to allow myself to try to calm down. I hopped in the shower and I cried. I allowed myself to feel. I acknowledged that I wasn’t okay and that I’d stopped taking care of me. I spoke out loud to myself (and to God – because that’s something that works for me and brings me comfort) and then I gave myself grace. This was the first place I was able to say out loud to myself that I had not been taking care of me, and I forgave myself for it. I asked God for strength and to help me find the truth. I also went for a walk to find the answer to the most important question of getting back to “normal”: what are you going to do to change things?
After that, I reached out to a trusted friend. I told her that I was in a dark place and that I hadn’t been taking care of myself. We have the closeness in our friendship that allows us to talk like this with each other. Instead of trying to solve it for me or telling me that everything was going to be okay, she asked me if I had thought about what I would do to try to change this “out of control” feeling I had and what I was going to do to try to get back to caring for myself. If she wouldn’t have asked, I still would have told her my plan because it creates a sense of accountability. When I’m struggling with my own self-confidence and it feels like I’m not worthy enough for me to hold myself accountable, I can trust that this friend will help me hold myself accountable. She will check back in with me to ask how it’s going or if I’d made any moves towards the goals I’d identified.
So, I set realistic, actionable goals for a measured time period. Not only did I tell someone about them, I also wrote them down. This is helpful for me to make something feel real and like I’m committing to it. I start with a measured time period (like a week, for instance) because when I’m in a heightened emotional state, time seems to stop and moments feel infinite. If I can identify a timeframe that feels manageable to try to sustain a certain behavior, I’m more likely to believe that I am capable; it’s not something that I have to do forever, just a week, and then you can re-evaluate. After that, I needed to identify what it was that I was going to do for a week. I try to limit the list to no more than three things because anything beyond that feels like too much.
Here’s what my action plan looked like:
- Appointment with Therapist
- Get Back to Healthy Eating
Making the plan is step one. Once I identified what I can do to help myself feel more “in control” and less “untethered” there was a certain amount of relief and peace I felt. But other part, though, the really important piece, is to actually put those steps into motion. So, it wouldn’t have been enough for me to just tell myself (again) that it felt like I should probably talk to my therapist, I needed to actually make the appointment, and I need to go to that appointment (and follow up as necessary). It won’t be enough for me to just say I’m going to take two Peloton classes this week; I have to actually do it. In fact, I already planned out which days and what time I plan on doing it so I’m more likely to achieve that goal. Finally, it’s not enough to just say I’m going to “eat healthy” this week, I have to actually do it. So, I sat down and meal planned, made my grocery list, cleaned out my fridge and pantry of “naughty” foods and started “pre-tracking” my days in the WW App like I used to do when I was more diligent about following the WW Lifestyle.
I went back to a worksheet from my RisexToronto workbook that I found really helpful. I’ve recreated it below so you can download it for free and print it out. It’s a really good way to work through what your triggers are and help you identify what you plan to do for yourself in those moments of high emotional responses.
Click the link below to download a copy for yourself!
Drop a comment down below and let me know what you thought about this!! If you liked it, please share it with your friends! If you used the printout, feel free to take a picture & tag me @glimpseatgrace on social media.