Off and on throughout this whole process of preparing to move, I’ve been struck periodically by what I can only describe as panic: Clenching stomach, sometimes a racing heartbeat, a strong sense of dread.
Sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere — I’m not consciously thinking fearful thoughts, but my body goes on high alert anyway. Other times, like today, it precedes a big transition.
As many times as I’ve talked to my therapy clients about anxiety and panic, I still have a hard time recognizing and managing it when it’s happening to me — my “old brain,” the part that responds by instinct, is bypassing my “smart brain” to put my body into fight, flight, or freeze mode for my very survival. In 2010, during my last semester of graduate school when I was dealing with my mother’s loss of mobility and need to move to assisted living, I thought I was having heart problems. And even after a series of normal tests, I didn’t really believe the cardiologist who told me that I was probably having panic attacks.
This year, as I navigated life in Louisville while Mark was in training for the Foreign Service, those panic attacks came back. I was going into fight-flight-freeze so often this summer that I finally sought out a therapist who specializes in mind/body work. She told me much of what I already know, but with a kind of calm authority that encouraged me to listen to my body instead of trying that old standby, “Stop it!!”
Even if there’s nothing, logically, to be scared of, she pointed out, my body’s threat-detection system is on overdrive. Ways to walk it back include breathing from my diaphragm, performing a body scan and relaxation exercise, and trying some autogenics — talking my body through a process that moves blood from my trunk or core, where the blood rushes to prepare me for the worst, to my extremities. Walking itself is excellent too, engaging my arms and legs as well as both sides of the body. Any kind of activity helps.
And on a particularly difficult day, I can add my own written exercise that helps me tap into negative thoughts, expose their distortions, and replace them with realistic alternatives.
Today that would involve surfacing “Everybody’s going to say no to all my last-minute phone calls today and nothing will work out! I was an idiot to wait this long!” Then identifying the cognitige distortions — fortune telling about what others will think or do, overgeneralizing, seeing life through a dark filter, labeling myself — and replacing them: “I don’t know what people will say to my phone calls. If they say no, I am competent enough to try something else. Mark has been willing to help in the past and he probably will again. I made reasonable decisions to wait because of information we needed or because I didn’t know I needed to act earlier.”
Now. Let’s get on with our day, shall we?!