Pacing Tiger: Dealing with Anxiety

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It feels like being trapped in a cage with a hungry tiger. The cage is small and you can’t turn your back on the pacing animal that wants to maul you. Any sign of fear or aggression will trigger an attack, so despite the fear and tension, I must remain calm and avoid any indication of my inner reality.

That’s what anxiety feels like to me. I have come to realize that my anxiety can sometimes be triggered by “neediness.” When a lot of people need my help at the same time, or one individual becomes excessively reliant on my help, I become overwhelmed and frustrated. As a teacher and graduate writing consultant, this is not a helpful trigger to have.

I can’t exactly cancel all my appointments and take a mental health day every time anxiety hits. It’s a regular part of my emotional cycle. The only thing I can do is manage it. I take a lot of deep breaths to center myself and release the tension. I take a 10 to 15-minute break every hour, so I can consciously refocus my mind. I remind myself that each request for help is an opportunity to connect. Most importantly, I must remember that I am not anyone’s solution. I am just here to facilitate an individual’s discovery of his or her own solution.

Helping others understand that I am not the solution to their problem is sometimes a careful dance. It is natural for individuals to try to impress the urgency of their situation on those around them.

Before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I often pushed my anxiety on to others. At times when it felt like my life was spiraling out of control, and I was on the verge of panic attacks, I would snap at others for their insensitivity. I would resent their lack of accommodation. I would blame them for the way I felt due to their “inappropriate behavior” or “lack of attention.” My diagnosis helped me see how relative everything is.

Now that I have space between my emotions, thoughts, and action, I can make room for multiple perspectives during tense situations. It is not always easy, and I am not always successful in the attempt. Yet, more often than not, I can recognize how important someone’s problem is to them without accepting responsibility for it myself. (Unless, of course, I truly instigated it.)

Today, I move through one moment at a time. I try to find the points where I can make small positive contributions, and acknowledge the things I cannot do anything about. I have no magic spell that will make the tiger vanish, or unlock the cage, but I can look the fickle creature in the eyes and step softly in our familiar, cautious dance.

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