Walking around my local supermarket last week* my mind suddenly went blank and I couldn’t remember what I had come in for. Then it started. That distinct feeling that sometimes overwhelms me – the growing sense of dread, nausea and dizziness. An inability to sit or stand still, yet unable to move.
Anxiety. That often forgotten symptom of special needs parenting. That transient manifestation that comes out of nowhere and leaves us literally gasping for breath.
I can usually see it coming. For me, it arrives after a couple of sleepless nights and days when I’ve felt too hot and achy. A slow build up.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not talking about generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) here. That crippling condition whereby patients suffer extreme worry in a way which is disproportionate to the source of the worry. A worry so overwhelming it is generally uncontrollable and has a negative impact on day-to-day functioning.
No – I’m talking about something more subtle and mild. A mere bee sting to the gun shot wound that is GAD, a condition that is usually only diagnosed when symptoms last a minimum of six months and the person has three of the following symptoms present on most days: feeling wound-up, tense or restless, easily fatigued or worn-out, concentration problems, irritability, significant tension in muscles and difficulty with sleep.
My anxiety attacks happen once in a blue moon. Yet when they pounce they can knock me off course for days.
It is my frenemy really – this short-term attack. As it reminds me that I can’t keep piling all my worries and stresses into tiny little boxes and flipping them to the back of my brain marked “screw dealing with that.” I like to see it as my own filter warning on the tumble dryer. When the alarm beeps – I need to pause and declutter some mental space otherwise I could cause some longer-term damage.
My body is telling my brain to slow the heck down. Stop running from my emotions and FEEL them. I blame the happy clappy lets-be-positive-even-if-your-car-is-hanging-over-a-cliff-and-you-need-a-wee brigade. It is like you are a loser if you have a negative thought. Yet sometimes it is okay to feel the way you are feeling and even indulge in some constructive wallowing. Feel it, bin it.
It would be arrogant to think that we can march through life raising a child with additional needs and remain unmarked in any way. In a lot of instances, it is not a chemical imbalance, poor coping or a psychological problem (all of which are okay too). It is just what it is. A crappy feeling about an often crappy situation.
With GAD, it may not always be clear what the sufferer is feeling anxious about. Whereas in special needs parenting the source of worry is all apparent and often merits the level of uncontrollable worry.
The time of year doesn’t help – the billion festive tasks pouring on to a plate already runneth over can add to pressure and build up. As can the additional strain of finding more of what it already limited – time and money.
So what can we do? Now that is the million dollar question. I love this quote from Anxiety UK that sums it all up:
One way of thinking about your anxiety is to imagine your stress levels as being like a bucket of water. If we keep adding stressors to the bucket (even tiny ones like the school run or commuting to work), over time it fills up until one day it overflows. What we need is a leaky bucket with lots of holes in to reduce your overall stress levels. Each one of these holes could be something positive that you do to manage your anxiety, such as yoga, exercise, reading, listening to music or spending time with friends or family.”
There are tons of great tips from a variety of sources but the crux of them is that when anxiety bites us on the bum we need to:
I know. I know. Sorry. I tend to try to eat my way through anxious periods and take “comfort” in favorite foods – but I know that is not the answer. Although I am convinced that Aldi fake Mars Bars have healing properties. That said unstable blood sugar levels can contribute to symptoms of panic.
Sort out sleep
You might want to give me a Chinese burn for this one too as I know it is no mean feat especially with a little one. Yet sometimes we all forget basic sleep hygiene (and no, I don’t mean stinky sheets). Things like associate your bed with sleep, which means no watching The Walking Dead on loop lolled across your duvet (I see you doing that); avoid heavy meals before bed; make sure your bed is actually comfortable (ditch that flat pillow man – life is too short) and neither too hot or cold. I’m not going to add the bit about sorting out your stimulants because … well… this is not a fairy tale.
Run, walk, jump
If the actual thought of doing some exercise makes you break into a sweat (I hear you) then you know a brisk walk or doing some star jumps can have a similar effect. Because alas it is all true – when you exercise those pesky endorphins create a natural high induced to relieve anxiety. There is no running away from that one (get it! running…okay! okay!)
In this TED talk Social psychologist Amy Cuddy shows how ‘power posing’ — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain. We can trick our bodies into feeling better – aces!
In SWAN UK, we call them brain farts. Pouring all your worries (irrational or not) out somewhere – to a friend, support group, a blog (ha) or even the dog. It is hard to organise your brain’s filing system unless you first empty out the files somewhere. It might create a mess that makes you mad at yourself at first, it might even take a while to get in the right order, but you’ll get there.
The Mighty recently published 32 mantras that help people get through anxiety. This is my favourite: It’s just a bad day, not a bad life. We need to remember that sometimes when things get all-consuming. Chatting it out can make us see this more clearly.
I’ve said this before but sometimes the only person that is going to take care of you is you. Because only you knows what you need in that given moment. You don’t have to be a martyr to the cause. If you don’t want to do something as it is stressing you out, find the courage to say no. If there is something that you would love to do but think it would be a bit self-seeking, just try to do it.
If it is coming to the pub with me to toast a good (better) year to come with a festive egg nog, then absolutely do that. See you in half an hour.
*Yep I know. I am always in the supermarket ha.
If you think that your anxiety might be more than a response to the usual special needs parenting stressors here are some useful organisations to find out more information: