Yesterday my anxiety got on top of me, a period of stress and worry has made me less able to cope with life in general, and also with less energy to keep up the battle with my mental illness. My self-care has been less effective and, while I am still dealing with & managing my anxiety far better than previously, it all got a bit much.
And then, last night, I noticed I’d started counting again. Counting up to a certain number, normally 3 or 5 in my case, for no reason, rinse & repeat. Counting is a symptom I’ve had for ages but only tends to come out during especially bad mental health periods. Of course, that thought led to catastrophising and, before I knew it, my brain was running around screaming “the sky is falling down.”
This is where the narrative changes though. In a previous life those thoughts would have spiralled, my anxiety would have got worse, throw in a panic attack for good measure, probably add a side of depression, it would have gone from bad to awful really fast.
Enter community support & DBT.
A lovely member of the BPD community reminded me of the DBT skills, specifically radical acceptance, and, after a period of “I can’t do it, I don’t understand,” I managed to get a grip on my brain long enough to dig out my DBT workbook and resolve to try to find something that helped.
Please note this is what helped me and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Try things and find what works for you.
Anxiety attack to-do list!
Following that I tweeted the steps I was taking to try to deal with my heightened anxiety, and they looked something like this:
- Do not Google your symptom(s)
- Search Pinterest for the appropriate DBT skill
- Remind yourself that you cannot go back to how/who you were because you have changed.
I want to elaborate a little on how those things helped me last night because I tend to find when people suggest things like “breathe” it actually makes me worse. For me, focusing on my breath both reminds me that my breathing is getting out of control, which increases my anxiety, and also brings me back into my body which, for me, increases my anxiety & distress even more because of some other issues. “Focus on the breath” is not my thing, but I do recognise that controlling my breathing is an important part of easing my anxiety. It breaks the cycle of brain freak out – body freak out – brain freaks out more.
What worked for me was to take literally one deep breath, and then distract myself from my breathing for a minute, and then take another deep breath, and then distract myself from my breathing again.
The deep breaths helped to regulate my breathing, and the distraction prevented my brain from from using breathing to freak out more.
Never ask Dr Google
This may well be the generic advice for any symptom ever but, as I discovered, Googling a symptom to try & find ideas to treat it or something that will tell you it’s not a big deal, is never a good plan! While there is a huge amount of good information on the internet, during a mental health wobble/crisis is not the time to try to find it in amongst the inevitable fear-mongering and terrifying headlines.
Googling is a no-no but Pinterest is a different kettle of fish. There is a lot of DBT information on there, along with inspirational quotes and pretty pictures. I’m not a huge Pinterest user but I’ve started a DBT board to collect things I find on there that have helped me. I have a mental illness board too, but that’s accidentally devolved into #relateable content so don’t check that out!
If you’re not sure which DBT skill, or other coping technique, you need in that moment, I’d suggest starting with radical acceptance. I find that if I can shut my brain up long enough to hold onto the thought that it just is, if I can remind myself that I cannot change this moment, then I can see the next moment as separate & therefore also have the thought that I can change it. I can cut off the catastrophising thoughts by saying “yes, this moment is awful, but I can try to make the next moment less awful.”
My therapist told me a while ago, while I was telling her that I was scared to go back to how I was (in the depths of my illness), that “you can’t go back to how you were because you have changed.” A cognitive hypnotherapist friend of mine says similar things. At the time it felt a lot like one of those really annoying things that therapists say; you can’t really challenge it, but it feels like a superficial, inane sentiment. Now, though, I feel like it’s giving me hope & confidence. It’s true, I can see that I have changed, I can see the progress I have made, and continue to make, I can compare my reactions to things now to those from a few years back and see just how different I have become.
Whether the statement is really true or not is mostly irrelevant to me now. The idea that I cannot go back to that place because I am no longer that person is giving me the belief that I might now be a person who can learn & use better coping skills, who can exist with my mental illness without it destroying me, who can have the symptoms but not have them control my life.
Also published on Medium.