Issue XXII: Anxiety & Boundaries

Issue XXII: Anxiety & Boundaries

If I had three wishes, one of them would be to fix at least one part of my mental health…

When we struggle with our mental health it is easy to feel like our mind is the antagonist. We feel like there is this force working against us, like we’re being betrayed by our own systems. For this issue, I want to talk about a type of self love that I feel we don't discuss nearly often enough. Though easier said than done, I want to talk about learning to love the parts of our mind that feel like they malfunction and let us down. Because it's only when we get to know the nitty gritty of our mind, learn to navigate the dark alleys and recognise the nooks and crannies can we have more control and set boundaries with it.

I’m a firm believer that when it comes to the inner workings of our minds, knowledge is power. When I was younger I struggled with a lot of social anxiety. Sleepovers would abruptly end in puking spells, dates would get cancelled because of the sheer stress of it. The first time a crush texted me they liked me back I thought my innards were going to fall out of my body and that suddenly there was very, very little oxygen left in the room. I locked myself in the bathroom and took a nap on the floor -oddly a lot of anxiety attacks ended with naps at that time, often in obscure places-. My teen self didn’t know to identify any of this as anxiety. Instead I just thought I was simultaneously combusting and imploding, like a socially awkward black hole. It wasn’t until a four day long catatonic state in which I couldn’t eat or move and all I did was sleep -this was in response to being asked on a date by the aforementioned crush- inspired my mother to give me an anxiety self test. I scored obscenely high and suddenly the knowledge that this was what was happening slightly dissipated the fear inhabiting my chest. If nothing, at least I knew it was “all in my head”. Knowledge gave me a sense of control. 

As time went by I sat with my anxiety countless times. Incrementally, she lost her grip over me. Perhaps I grew stronger, perhaps we just got to know each other and our idiosyncrasies a bit better. I see this progression as a relationship. I have a relationship with my anxiety because, for better or worse, that little gremlin is a part of me. I’ve come to acknowledge that just like every other part of my body and mind, my anxiety is part of a system that is trying to keep me afloat. I think of my anxiety like a little child, she does her best to protect me but she’s often easily spooked and misguided in her judgement. With time and recognition, my anxiety attacks have gone from all consuming to relatively manageable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a pain in the ass. I don’t recommend having to sit through a stressful situation while you have a dishevelled 6 year old going berserk in the driver's seat. But viewing my anxiety as a well meaning child has meant that I have been able to get closer to her and to gain knowledge on how she functions.

Getting to know the intricacies of your own mental health and the malfunctions you may face grants you insight and instincts that don’t come naturally. As much as I would have hated to admit it a few years ago, there were points when my anxiety wasn’t a malfunction at all. When the blaring fight or flight response was due to the perceptiveness of the child tugging at my trouser leg. Sometimes she was able to see things I missed. There have been certain people in my life that triggered my anxiety like no other. But like many others raised on narratives of toxic attachment -via Hollywood and what have you- I had a tendency of mistaking anxiety for butterflies. So I found myself drawn to people who made me feel insecure or made me question myself. That four day catatonic state wasn't just because I was asked on a date. It was because I was asked on a date by that person in particular. In hindsight, I notice that my anxiety could see what my rose tinted glasses blinded me to. Sitting with her taught me a lot about myself. 

I found, with time, that Ignoring her made the alarm bells grow louder and louder. Something about 6 year olds is that they are very capable of screaming the house down, and their stamina is astounding. Another thing they are capable of is reason. Sure, if they’re extra riled up it will take a minute. Maybe some breathing exercises, maybe a couple of grounding rituals. But if you comfort them and listen to them, and give them enough space to reassure them that nothing is wrong they will calm down. They will eventually listen. Ignoring my anxiety never did either of us any good. Holding her hand and growing with her taught me appreciation for myself and for the misguided [not mutually exclusive].

Most recently, she showed up when I was having a confronting conversation. A conversation in which I had to keep my composure and keep both hands on the wheel. She kept poking her head out of the back seat and screaming in my ear. It was distracting, to say the least. I felt sick to my stomach, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was on the verge of tears for about four hours straight, all while trying to maintain a straight face and make a coherent point. Though the conversation soon proved to be rather civil and pleasant, I still felt anxious for a considerable amount of time. I know that it takes a little longer for a 6 year old to regulate their emotions than an adult. So you sit with the kid, until the kid forgets all about their tantrum and gets distracted by some bird in the sky or snail on the ground. Your job is to be the calming presence in your own meltdown. Sometimes you soothe yourself through visualisation. You imagine holding the kid and keeping them safe. Other times you may have the privacy to repeat a mantra or phrase for the child within to hear. This process looks different for everyone. I encourage you to experiment with your self-dialogue. No matter how silly you may feel, there is liberation in showing up for yourself. 

A lot of this issue may sound like I’m just referring to myself in the third person in a weird, infantilising way. And to some degree, I suppose that’s exactly what I’m doing. But the self is vast and contains multitudes. I believe that one can outwardly be a responsible adult while another part of that adult tends to the wellbeing of the child within. The adult, the child, and many more are part of the whole. It is our job to learn to reconcile their relationships.

The more I get to know my anxiety the more I know when she is completely misguided and when she might be onto something. I am learning to know when she might knock on the door and I am learning how to calm her down when she does. It is not a foolproof system. Like I said, if I had three wishes one would be to fix an element of my mental health. But realism tells us no genie in a bottle will intervene with our cognition. So with time and practice, we can learn to work with our malfunctions and not against them. As we become familiar with them we can reason with them. By honouring my anxiety and treating her with respect, I can hope that when I need to draw boundaries with her, she will respect me back. We create a rapport with our many facets so as to gain their trust. 

I can go on about my anxiety and her six year old manifestation. But I can imagine how all of this may sound irrelevant and hard to pin down in applying it to yourself. As an exercise to honour your own malfunctions, I encourage you to take some time to sit with your six year old today. What element of your mental health do you struggle with? If you were to try to picture it as a character what would it look like? Perhaps your mental health malfunction also characterises as a small child. Or maybe a large, sleepy cat. Perhaps it is a creature of a more ferocious nature. It takes time to put a face to the name. But getting to know their idiosyncrasies may help heal a relationship you didn't know needed healing. 

Reading next

Issue XXI: Coming Back
Issue XXIII: Here & There

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