Hi, my name is Jenn and I have chronic ongoing Generalized Anxiety. I can think of 1,000 ways to die in 5 seconds. It’s one of my superpowers. This is me driving to the grocery store on an average anxiety day: “I might get in a car wreck and die, my house might burn down and my dog die before I get home, there might be a shooter at the store, I may get mugged by my car, the food I will buy might have e-coli and I will die, I might have an allergic reaction to some food, I may get major food poisoning, maybe I will choke and die, maybe all this will happen to the people I love and they will die, maybe that was the last time I spoke with my mom, maybe I have cancer, maybe she has cancer, maybe an epidemic is coming like Ebola and this is my last week alive and the last week of civilization as we know it.” This line of thought happens fast, feels real, and comes with amazing visuals, it’s super fun! (Insert sarcastic, manic, crazed face here.)
Everyone has experienced anxiety, we all know that nervous feeling of taking a test or trying something new. Anxiety is part of how we learn. Anxiety disorders are similar, but more constant and robust. They can even be debilitating. Part of anxiety for many people includes various irrational thoughts, cognitive distortions, rumination and obsession like my example above. The way I see it is that people with anxiety disorders have over active minds. Our brains are constantly scanning the environment for danger, desperately trying to over protect us. It is a safety mechanism gone awry. Many of us are also gifted and highly sensitive folks who have really dense and prolific connections in our nerves and noggins. We just take in and feel more information than a neurotypical brain that can filter out all the white noise of life and assess danger more casually. This hyper-vigilance makes us really creative, empathic, interesting, knowledgeable, and hopefully delightfully neurotic. I like to think smart, attuned and quirky.
An important part of anxiety treatment is to work with the mind. Cultivating awareness of when our thought trains have run amuck is part of the path. Knowing our habits and patterns in what our minds run with is critical. Having skill sets to redirect and work with these thoughts is the only way to stay sane. If I don’t catch my thoughts quickly and redirect it’s going to be at least 30 minutes of panic as my body deals with the fall out. When our bodies get anxious our heart rate sky-rockets and a flood of cortisol, adrenaline, norepinephrine and other fun biological cocktails secrete into our system. We then go onto full alert telling us to prep for the impending doom: fight, flight, freeze or faint. In the above example on the way to the store, I had the choice of continuing the thoughts of doom or not. Best not and I will explain strategies for the big redirect in a moment.
Sometimes I get the flood of these fun chemicals without any thought at all, just laying on a beach in the sun relaxing, not a care in the world and BAM! Wake up from a dead sleep and BAM! Snuggling my dog and listening to my favorite music and BAM! If anyone truly figures out all the mechanisms that make our bodies randomly do this, please give them a nobel prize and have them call me. Because at this time, no one truly knows why some people have an anxiety disorder and others don’t. It seems to be a mix of causes and conditions stemming from biology, environment and what I think of as luck of the draw….who the fuck knows. In those moments where the cocktail comes on hard and fast with no reason I have a split second of choice that comes from years of practice and training. I can connect the chemicals with thoughts of doom or not. Best not, but that is way easier said than done.
This is an interesting topic of the mind finding an outlet for the surge of anxiety cocktail in the body. Essentially phobias and obsessive compulsive behaviors are the minds attempt at explaining the bodies spontaneous fear response. If you have ever looked at a list of phobias they are fascinating and horrifying.
Sidonglobophobia: the fear of cotton balls
Omphalophobia: the fear of belly-buttons
Pogonophobia: the fear of beards
Panophobia: The fear of everything
Phobophobia: The fear of fear
So what do you do? If I notice my spiral at, “I might die….” That’s the sure que I am anxious. If I catch it just at the first one I can divert it. My diversion usually looks like mindfulness first. I do deep breathing techniques, scan my body for tension and try to bring in relaxation, then start naming everything I see around me out loud, or put on music to focus on. I gently attend to my alert body and try to give my mind a job in the now. Basically I am trying to get my brain back online to the direct moment where I am most decidedly alive. The moment is usually pretty boring too, no danger, so my heart rate decreases. Knowing your body in this process is critical too, where you feel the anxiety first, where the tension goes and how to unwind it. If I notice the moment my stomach clenches and start breathing I may be able to circumvent the whole process. Here is an excellent time to plug for psychotherapy and mental health counseling, find a good therapist who does mindful, somatic, body-based work as well as cognitive behavioral aspects in therapy.
How does all this tie into sailing? Well, because some of us have sensitive nervous systems and brains that like to think a lot, it is also good to have what I call “Green Light Obsessions.” These are topics that I allow my mind to run with unbridled. I can research, daydream, imagine, problem solve, do anything I want that is sailing related with my mind. Can’t sleep and start thinking about death? Sailing. Can’t stop thinking about work and it’s stressing you? Sailing. Don’t feel well and want to start wondering why, googling WebMD, which always leads you to death? Sailing. Starting to analyze all aspects of your life with a fine toothed comb looking for everything that is wrong with you? Sailing. Thinking of all the stupid shit you’ve said and done, especially when you were a teen? Sailing. Money issues? Don’t think about sailing, that shit is expensive!
It’s good to have a few green light topics on hand. I like sailing, art, and writing. This blog is in part a byproduct of my anxiety, my boat is a byproduct, my work and art are definitely a product of my anxiety. In fact, the flip side to anxiety is excitement. The chemicals are almost identical, so if you can shift your brain over to the exciting part and move the energy there it can make you a superhero badass of doing cool things. Fritz Perls said, “Anxiety is excitement without breath.” So breathe, shift focus and move your bodies people! Give yourself an outlet. Sailing and owning a boat has been an amazing outlet because it requires so many different skill sets and capacities. There is the boat handling, wind, water, currents and navigation to explore. Then there are the systems and boat maintenance: electrical, structural, rigging, engines, water, plumbing and more. I need 3 lifetimes to figure this all out! YAY! Of course, it’s also a sport where you can actually die, but even that was an unexpected bonus I discussed in the first post in this series.
Having safe places to imagine, like a place you love to go to or would like to is a good one. Thinking of things you are grateful for in detail are helpful as the brain cannot process stress and gratitude at the same time. Altruism or thinking of others and how we love and connect with one another is helpful. Maybe it’s music, maybe you like to knit, maybe you love puppies and give a green light to cute videos on YouTube. Mindfulness and meditation are also training your mind and are great, but know that for some people more traditional sitting practices increase anxiety. Yoga, tai chi and other movement based mindfulness practices are better for people with an anxiety disorder. Who knows what yours will be, but have a back up plan if like me your brain likes to obsess. You don’t have to fight your mind, you just need to give it a healthy job. Know that there isn’t anything wrong with you for having anxiety. Anxiety disorders just suck and it’s something you cope with, it’s not who you are. YOU are a fucking badass. If you can’t tell yet: coping with and thriving with anxiety is also one of my superpowers. I am grateful for all of the resources and help I have had so far in my life for it, because this is a journey you need lots of support with.
May we sail in peace.