I’m currently facing up to the fact that for the first time in my life, I have Anxiety. That capital letter is deliberate.
Even as I’m writing this I’m thinking about Googling “how do i know if i have anxiety” because in truth it’s been a very gradual realisation to come to. I know I don’t have a Generalised Anxiety Disorder because most things in life don’t worry me that much: I’m naturally a very sensitive person but since I hit 30 and stopped working in Finance I’ve found that I reach a state of calm just before an important meeting, an interview, speaking publically, or meeting new people. I’m relying on myself in these situations- to be prepared, to be engaging, to be intelligent- so my fears are really pretty minor here. In my everyday life I don’t have panic attacks and I don’t experience phobias or incapacitating fears that stop me getting on with things. But there’s something there.
I realised last year that I’ve been using stress to motivate myself. I’ve always worked well under pressure: I like to trot out the anecdote that one of my lowest ever marks for an essay at university was for one that I wrote and handed in early. And while all jobs have their pressurised times, for most of my working life I’ve worked in very cyclical roles that have periods of frenetic energy, and working in the charity sector often means being many things to many people. I’ve been riding that cortisol and giving in to a feeling of fear or stress in order to sharpen my mind and work quickly and efficiently. This probably helps to quell any fears about my abilities too as I don’t have time to worry about that aspect of my performance when I’m up against a tight deadline. Whether this plays in to my feelings of anxiety I don’t know, but they don’t feel unconnected.
I used to have this silly internal game with myself when getting off the final bus on my commute home: the Six Cat Challenge. If I could see six cats on that five-minute walk I felt like I’d won the lottery, and I would often report to M that day’s tally when I got indoors. The way my anxiety now manifests is to worry about each and every animal I see, whether pet or wild. I stare at cats’ stomachs to check that they aren’t too skinny, and I watch owners with their dogs to check they aren’t being angry or cruel. The sense of relief when I can’t see them any more is palpable. There’s a squirrel that I keep seeing at home and I feel so worried that there aren’t enough trees for it to be safe. Side note: did you know that squirrels screech a warning to other squirrels when they spot a predator? It sounds like a bird dying a slow horrifying death extremely loudly and it is chilling. That was my 5am wake-up call at the weekend, and of course I had to get dressed and go outside. The squirrel was fine.
Twice I’ve had episodes whereby I have felt I needed to help pigeons who were injured or abandoned and I have become hysterical. I now watch pigeons on my walk to work, willing them to be OK. A few months ago a man outside the Starbucks near work was surprised by some pigeons as he sat outside and his reaction seemed nasty to me so I shouted at him. Three times recently I have gotten up out of bed in the night to see what an animal-related noise was and I’m terrified that I will find a wounded animal and what will happen if I bring it inside (we have a cat). I put earplugs in if I can feel that I’m being hyper-aware of every noise in our quiet cul-de-sac, and I’m relieved when a crying noise is a baby not a creature. I can’t really give any examples of when an anxious or panicked feeling takes hold that isn’t related to animals, with the exception of M coming home after a few drinks and me getting worried, but that’s manageable. What bothers me the most is that it’s getting worse. And it can be really quite overwhelming.
Partly I just want to be the person who does the right thing. I’m sure I let people down all the time and that we all do, but I want to not be the person that walks away when they see something that I should help with. Somehow this has got enmeshed with the worries about animal cruelty that have been developing over the last year and have no doubt worsened since our precious Puss was poorly at the end of last year. When I read this very brief article from the School of Life it made so much sense to me: not only does it ring true that anxiety is a manifestation of self-hatred and self-esteem issues, but it makes so much sense when I think about my own anxiety. My self-esteem has some deep-rooted issues but broadly I’ve shaken off those ways of thinking that I allowed to dominate my twenties. I’m not too much- although if I’m too much for you, that’s OK- and I deserve to take up space. My weight is no concern of anyone’s and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. But I place much of my value in being a responsible, caring person for various reasons that I won’t go into now, that it seems totally logical that my anxiety would be related to whether I’m doing the right thing with animals that can’t defend themselves.
So I’m not too sure what to do. The first thing I go back to year after year is a set of four principles that I copied sown in 2015, god knows from which source. I just remember searching online for how to build my emotional resilience when things were feeling too much but I knew they shouldn’t be making me feel as out of control as they were. Number 2 is a life-saver for me:
- Dwelling on over-sensitivity tends to reinforce it, so make it a habit to notice these exceptions in real life when you show resilience. Now imagine what life would be like if you were resilient and didn’t feel so sensitive. How would you react? Focusing on your resilience as opposed to your sensitivity will cause it to increase.
- Write down the following words on a card and carry it in your wallet or handbag: ‘Just because I feel it does not mean it’s true.’ Reflect on this when your emotions start to spiral out of control to help you put things in perspective.
- Know your ‘soft spots’. This will help you to identify when you’re over-reacting. Where in your life do you feel most insecure? Gradually, you’ll be able to detach from the situation and observe patterns in your behaviour. For example, ‘Here I go again, freaking out about my boss praising a colleague instead of me. And there’s no need, it’s just my insecurity about competition’.
- Take a cognitive break. Go for a walk; sleep on it, count to 100. If someone has hurt your feelings, just consider the possibility that their intention was not to wound you. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. Empathy is the best way to tackle hyper-sensitivity.
The next thing I’m going to do is to channel my stress into something that I’ll love so I’m finally having a consultation about the tattoo of a pigeon that I’ve been thinking about for so long. It’ll be my first where an artist has had input, and my first with colour. It feels cathartic.
Finally I know I need to read more, both to feed my intellect and to better understand what anxiety means. I have it pretty easy compared to so many people but that doesn’t mean I have to put up with a pit in my stomach and a racing heart every time a cat miaows at me. I can do little things like put out dry cat food, and I’ll continue to get up in the middle of the night if I think I need to. And I will think, deeply, about how I need to care for myself and what ways I can soothe the scared child inside who’s freaking out about why they can’t make a situation better. And I’ll stroke both of my beautiful cats.