[Content note: grief; anxiety symptoms]
There’s a story I have about anxiety and self-care that I keep finding reasons to share with friends, so I think it’s time to put it in writing. I tell it when I am trying to encourage friends to try therapy, and when I am describing the physical ways grief can live in the body, and when I want to help a friend identify a negative thought pattern that has got them backed them into a corner.
Two years ago, I lost a friend to depression and alcohol abuse. A few months later I started seeing a counselor.
Sometimes I tell people I was seeing a short-term grief counselor. Regrettably, this is a partial truth. I probably needed a grief counselor, but sidestepped the reality of my emotional state by joining a short-term mental wellness study at a university. I was paid to be there. We did talk about grief, though.
At the time, I had some prior experiences with talk therapy through the student center at my graduate school, which I had found to be about 50% helpful. Sometimes I connected with a kind-voiced counselor who helped me talk my way out of bad relationships; these counseling sessions saved my life more than once, but tended to peter out after the relationships ended. Sometimes I got the kind of therapist who just stares at you until you say something, which honestly just replicates the dynamic of most grad school seminars and does not work for me at all.
But the short-term study counselor was a cognitive behavioral therapist. She listened to me talk, but her whole deal was about helping patients plan and carry out behavioral changes to bring about positive outcomes–breaking bad habits, or creating good ones. So when we talked about grief, we mostly talked about coping.
For a while after my friend died, I would experience shortness of breath every afternoon. I’d be sitting at my desk at the museum where I worked, and out of nowhere my chest would tighten and my heart would pound and I would feel that I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. The feeling would pass after some time, but it was stressful and unpleasant while it was happening.
“Have you tried taking deep breaths, as you would in yoga?” asked the counselor.
I said that trying to breathe deeply as my chest tightened just made me feel like I was having a panic attack.
“Can you think of anything else that would help?” she asked.
I thought about it and recalled a time that the tightness and shortness of breath happened outside of the office. I made a cup of tea, and the hot liquid helped release the tight, breathless feeling. But I can’t just make a cup of tea at work, I added. I worked in a historical house and we couldn’t bring any food or drink up to our desks.
“Is there a place you can go to drink tea?” she asked.
Yes, the breakroom.
“Why don’t you go to the breakroom and get a cup of tea when you feel this way?” she asked.
I told her I can’t just leave my work like that. We had just opened an exhibition. I had too much work to do.
“What if you brought some work down to the breakroom with you?” she asked.
And of course my first impulse was to argue that I absolutely can’t just stop in the middle of work and give myself the one small thing that would make me feel better, even if I checked emails on my phone while I did it. But by this point I could see that I was no longer making sense. I was holding myself hostage and I was instinctively, unhesitatingly refusing to negotiate. Who knows why–maybe I was afraid I would never feel better ever again. Maybe I didn’t even think I deserved to feel better ever again. We didn’t talk about that. CBT is about making sure you do take steps to take care of your body and mind, even if your own brain is trying to talk you out of it.
So, friends, this is your reminder. If you are feeling stuck, pressured, weighed down, or unable to catch your breath, take a minute. What do you think would release the tension, lift off some of the pressure, give you room to move and breathe? For this minute, don’t worry about the bigger, terrifying questions of whether to quit your toxic job or leave your bad relationship, or whether you’ll ever feel happy again. That’s a lot to ask of yourself in one minute; lay it aside for now.
Right now, there is at least one small thing that will make you feel better: what is it? Maybe it is a comforting food or drink. Maybe there is a tool or service that will help take care of your needs that aren’t being met. Maybe you need to set aside a little time every day for solitude, self-care, or creativity.
Now let yourself have that one small thing. Don’t talk yourself out of it. Let me talk you into it.
Take the tea break.