I realized I had a diagnosable anxiety problem after diving with manta rays in Bali. No, it’s not what you think.
We had just surfaced from our second dive and I was still beaming from my first ever encounter with the *~aLiEnS oF ThE sEa~*.
As we were heading back to shore, suddenly the boat captain cut the motor and we slowed to a bobbing roll. Lunchtime apparently.
Manta Point is notorious for some really rough swell and today was no exception. My stomach turned and twisted. I retreated to the back of the boat as far away from everyone as possible, but I assure you the sounds of me wretching into the sea still probably ruined their takeaway nasi goreng.
(Could they not have waited 10 minutes to eat on solid land??? my inner dialogue screamed between gags.)
After that day, Dramamine made a pretty big appearance in my life. And I began to notice when I took it, my mind felt clearer than it had ever felt. I wasn’t worried about anything and the world didn’t feel threatening, if only for a few hours. Hm.
The ‘film over my eyes’
It was like I had had this film over my eyes, over my brain, making the world and my life seem difficult, scary, worrisome…And when I took the Dramamine, the film dissolved and I could think without all the noise clouding my judgment.
The vomiting-off-the-side-of-the-boat incident and Dramamine realization happened last year. Then this year when I came back to Atlanta to stay with my parents during the pandemic, I dug up all of my old journals and re-read them page by page. What did I find?
Sure enough there it was in writing: my anxiety was rampant.
If you’re thinking ‘that’s cherrypicking because you were probably more likely to write in your journal when you were worried about something‘.
YES, yes you are right! A dozen journals full of worries.
It’s normal to worry sometimes but I knew this wasn’t normal.
That was when I realized I had been living with this film over my eyes for decades! I had generalized anxiety about both everything and nothing and it had affected every thought and every decision in my life.
(I mean I’m sure I haven’t been anxious 100% of the time but definitely more often than not.)
The life-changing discovery of attachment theory
But wait — there’s more!
Shortly after the catastrophic failure that was my last relationship, I started learning about attachment theory and, more specifically, my issues around anxious attachment.
Attachment theory is the psychological explanation of how a person forms relationships based on how they attached to their caregivers early in life, plus genetic factors, temperament as an infant, and past romantic relationships.
There are four attachment types:
It felt liberating to finally understand the psychology of the patterns I’ve been reliving in my relationships over and over and over. I decided I didn’t want to be anxiously attached to anyone anymore. It had caused me so much inner distress for years and years without me fully understanding what was happening (“I just like guys who are hard to get!!” HA)
Without really meaning to, I ended up using attachment as a gateway into healing my generalized anxiety.
(P.S. If you want to know your attachment style, I recommend this free online quiz.)
Working to heal my anxious attachment
I delved into attachment theory and learned as much as I possibly could. I read (and re-read and re-read and re-read) the book Attached. I watched YouTube videos and took notes. I created spreadsheets documenting each event that triggered anxiously attached thoughts and what the ‘secure’ thought would be instead.
I am aware of the irony here: yes, it’s very anxious of me to become obsessive about my own anxiety lol.
But it really paid off!
I’ve come a long way
In terms of GAD, I think Step 1 has been becoming acutely aware of what it feels like to be in a triggered / anxious state. I needed to know what baseline feels like in comparison and recognize when I’m not at baseline.
In doing this, I ended up separating myself from my anxiety. Maybe this is Step 2. This means I can feel when I’m triggered and not let that feeling carry me away, even if I can’t change the way I’m feeling in that situation.
Step 3 has been about introducing both preventive measures and in-the-moment coping strategies. Here are the things that have made the biggest difference for me:
- Walking a few miles outside every single day
- Exercising almost every day (currently using the app Seven and a resistance band but started with hot yoga classes)
- Waking up at the same time every day
- Stepping away from working online and using social media
- Getting a job that has me leaving the house, being around other people, and in a routine
I’m not saying I’m “cured” or whatever. That’s not a thing. But I spend a lot more time at baseline than in an anxious state and I would call that progress.
Why right now is the best time to confront your anxiety (or other inner turmoil)
You would intuitively think now is a terrible time to try to deal with a mental health struggle you’ve had for, I don’t know, A FEW DECADES. We are in the middle of a pandemic, many people are jobless, isolated, grieving, and completely uncertain about the future.
But that’s actually why this is the very best time to address your own inner storm.
THE WORLD IS ALWAYS GOING TO SERVE YOU CHAOS. No matter what, life is never going to be easy or predictable.
My goal is to maintain inner peace even amongst the outer chaos. I’m working on it, and a bunch of other stuff that isn’t in this post.
(To be clear, it’s not a time to be hard on yourself for going through any wacky or debilitating mental health stuff. The ups and downs of this time are nutso and you gotta just ride it out sometimes.)
Resources: I’ve used both Talkspace and BetterHelp online therapy in the past and would recommend either one. I’ve compared them in this blog post.