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.

Evolution is Exhausting

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I try to increase my energy level with a sheer force of will. I want to focus, be productive, but my brain is drained tonight. Not even an afternoon coffee could stimulate my intellectual faculties. It’s not just my mind that is worn out; my muscles ache from yesterday’s workout. My triceps, my biceps, my quads, each movement stretches a tight pain out of my body. I’m emotionally drained, too. Implementation of a new element into one of my course threw everything out of balance and I have been concerned about how it will affect my students.

This is the cost of evolution. When you push yourself to keep improving, eventually it takes its toll. That doesn’t mean it’s time to quit. It’s just time to rest. Since I can’t get any work done now, I decided to develop another plan. Instead of working tonight, I will set my alarm for early tomorrow and go to bed early tonight.

I grab a bottle of Diet Coke from the fridge and the Captain Morgan from the cupboard. I mix a drink and settle in. What will my writing reveal tonight? It has already revealed that I am not Wonder Woman, no matter how much I want to be. I have my limitation, but I am happy to have the opportunity to reach them.

We often forget to be grateful for our difficulties. Many of my students are first and second-generation college students who struggle to work and go to school. When they are stuck in the struggle, they forget it’s the very thing they came to America for, the opportunity to evolve. We forget that evolution isn’t easy. The evolution of a caterpillar into a butterfly is not painless. It is stressful.

We should each keep that in mind. Ease is not evolution. To wish for ease is to wish that things stay the same . . . forever. If you want more, to become better, stronger, wiser, richer, happier—whatever you want more of—you will need to struggle. You will need to evolve, and evolving is stressful. Evolution is not for the weak.

How we define the stress is the important part. If we view stress as a noun it is “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances,” but if we use it as a verb it means “give particular emphasis or importance to (a point, statement, or idea).” So, stress could be a difficulty we must endure, or serve as an emphasis highlighting where we need to grow. Pointing out what we must overcome to evolve.

You’re not Superman or Wonder Woman. There will come a point when you might start to feel overwhelmed. When that time comes, rest, but don’t quit. Evolution is exhausting, but it’s worth it.

When You Don’t Feel Like Adulting

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The digital clock on my tablet reads 8:58 am, and it is time to head inside to work. I snap the keyboard cover over the touch screen and put it in my backpack. Standing up from the quaint bistro table, I toss the backpack over my shoulder and head to the automatic doors. Like a magic portal, the doors transport me from a sunny, subtropical paradise into the artificial chill of the Green Library. I find myself slightly annoyed, not because I dislike my job. I love my job. I just don’t feel like upholding my adult responsibilities today. I want to write, read, doodle in my art journal, and enjoy the sun. Basically, I want to relax and play.

I find my resistance a bit humorous since I only have to work five hours today. I have plenty of time to do my own thing; although, the idea of going to the gym at 5:00 pm makes me feel petulant. I have a feeling I am going to be a bit sassy with my trainer today.  I have learned that if I acknowledge and accept these feelings with the same patience I would extended a strong-willed toddler, my day goes a lot smoother.

Would I be happier if I were home today? Probably not. I would probably lament the wasted time and opportunities lost. In fact, when I leave work today, I know I will change into my gym attire then go to the coffee shop right next to the gym to work on my scholarly article for a couple hours. I am just having one those generally dissatisfied days.

Being bipolar, I have learned how to separate feelings and thoughts. Thoughts create feelings and feelings create thoughts, but if you can stop the transaction for just a moment you can see how illusionary it can be. There is no reason why I shouldn’t have a good day at work today, unless I decide my irritation is a valid emotion. So, I recognize it for what it is, restlessness. There are so many things I want to do today, and there’s no possible way of doing them simultaneously, so my brain has thrown its metaphorical hands into the air and said “Whatever!”

I remind myself that there is plenty of time to do everything, and everything will get done as long as I do one thing at a time. I remind myself that what I consider work and play are so closely aligned they are almost the same thing. I purposely designed my life to be that way. I remind myself that I like getting paid. Being free is not fun when you are broke. I remind myself that the sun is almost always out in Miami, and that after a couple hours, I would be so hot that I would want to come back in. I remind myself that I signed up for the gym because I wanted to be strong and active. It’s all about the story I tell myself, so I choose the story that makes me the happiest.

Closed Form, Open Form

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I take another bite of tuna fish on pumpernickel, and wash it down with sip of iced green tea. I cue episode 2 of Westworld. It’s 8:00 pm, and I’m done working for the evening. I wrap a fluffy robe around me and sit on my bed with my tablet on my lap.

After teaching class, and consulting at the writing center, I came home and worked on my scholarly article. Writing an academic article is like putting a puzzle together, conforming to the expected structure, blending original ideas with supporting research. A restrictive, closed form. My students think I have forgotten the stress of academic composition. But, I haven’t. My word count just got longer.

Now, I sit back and tap out words between scenes on tv. I no loner worry about form. I no longer worry about proving my point. Do I even have a point? Blogging, for me, is just an experiment in which I connect one word to the next, one thought to another. No critique. No peer review. I write as an act of exploration, the most open of forms.

I feel the tension slowly dissolve as I wander through my metadiscourse. My hands shape words like a potter molds clay. I feel them slip between my fingers, spinning on the potter’s wheel. Pulling here, pushing there, my hands morph the clay into a vessel, the words into meaning.

Are you still with me dear reader? Are you committed to our rambling stroll through the word garden? We pluck a bouquet of flowers: adjectives, nouns, verbs. We ad a spray of prepositions for delicacy. What do they smell like to you? Sweet? Subtle? I smell the exotic sandalwood scent of incense. Words flap overhead like Tibetan prayer flags.

Is this how a word feels after you scribble it on a scrap of paper and stick in a book? Hidden words become soft memories waiting to be spoken back to life. I close the tattered book and slip it back onto the shelf. I will save the rest of the words for later.

Core Values Part 2

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The summer sun is low in the horizon and there is a faint ghost of a breeze. The direct heat has subsided, but the humidity is still thick. I just finished working on my scholarly article for the day. Now it’s time to return to my nightly blogging ritual.

This morning I blogged about the first five of 10 core values I had listed in my Rituals for Living Planner. In that post, I discussed kindness, purpose, expression, the balance between individuality and community, and learning. As the sun begins to fall behind the trees, I begin to contemplate the last five:

Discipline: This is a trait that I highly value, but it is also a trait that I struggle with the most. As someone with bipolar disorder, I am prone to impulsiveness. Impulsive eating, impulsive spending. Untreated, bipolar disorder can lead to a destructive level of impulsivity. Perhaps that is why I value discipline so much. It shimmers on the horizon like an oasis. It is the holy grail of productivity, and I watch others practice with awe as though they appear invoke a super human power beyond my abilities. But, I am not completely incapable. I simply have to keep my tools close at hand, a constant reminder of what I really want and what I need to do to get there.

 Devotion: This is probably the easiest value for me to manifest. Admittedly, it is not easy to gain my devotion, but once won, it is unshakable. Like “purpose,” devotion is a core value I cannot live without. I have a deep need to love others, a small circle of others, but it is a need nonetheless. To win my devotion, there must be an unconditional bond. We know the good and bad about each other, but still consider ourselves fortunate to be connected.

Optimism: I feel I am at my best when I am optimistic. Some might say I am too optimistic, and perhaps at times I am. Although, my bipolar brain is prone to the pessimism that grows out of anxiety and depression, I see it as my false self. Pessimism is the lie my dark brain tells me as it tries to push me into despair, but optimism is a choice I make to believe in the best possible outcome.

Vision: What does vision mean? Vision is the ability to imagine your ideal reality and create the action steps to get there. Vision isn’t just a representation of the future. Vision is a manifestation through daily action. Vision breathes life into all my other core values because without vision, they are just words.

Persistence: This is the sister of vision. It is the choice to take the right action each day. Without persistence, vision would never manifest. Dreams, goals, and values would dissolve into nothing. Persistence is the next step in the right direction. Persistence is getting back up when you fall. Persistence is starting over when you fail. Persistence is a gift of love you give yourself.

I’ve enjoyed writing about these core values. Some of my responses even surprised me. I guess that’s why I love to blog so much. It’s like having a conversation with myself. I can reach out into the universe and sing my song to the endless sky. If it resonates with someone else, we have a unique opportunity to connect and our tribe grows. I hope you all have a wonderful evening.

Core Values Part 1

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I sip my coffee in the cool of the air conditioning as I look out the window. The sunlight bounces off everything outside like a spot light in a house of mirrors. Today will be another hot Miami day. I take a few moments to enjoy a casual Sunday morning. I already completed two of the projects that I had on my to do list this weekend. Later, I will work on my academic article.

I pull out my Rituals for Living Planner and review the work I did, yesterday. In the section on discovering my core values, I identified 10 from the list that were most important to me. They align easily with my mission statement. Here are the first five:

Kindness: This is a trait I highly value in others as well as myself. It can also be one of the most challenging. Kindness flows easily when we feel generous or when we believe someone is worthy of kindness. Other times, kindness doesn’t flow quiet so easily. My resent post on tough love illustrates that I sometimes struggle with this concept. For me, kindness is an act of compassion that can meld with the idea of self-sacrifice. I have had to learn how to establish boundaries as well. Sometimes, kindness can also be “no.” There is no rule or formula for kindness. For me, kindness is simply taking a moment before I react and trying to decide what would be best for the other individual as well as myself.

Purpose: My bipolar disorder has taught me that this is probably the most important value for me. Without purpose, I fall into depression and lethargy. I need a reason to exist. The consumer cycle of going to work each day to make money so that I can turn around and spend the money on more things is not enough to get me out of bed in the morning. I need to be making a positive impact on the people around me in a way that supports my personal mission. That’s why I developed a personal mission statement and use it as a gauge for my actions.

Expression: As a writer and an artist expression has multiple purposes. It’s explorative, communicative, cathartic, and often helps me to connect with like minded individuals. That is why I have built a life around those core value, helping students and aspiring writers learn to express themselves through written communication.

Balance Between Individuality and Community: Although individuality and community are often represented as two separate value, I see them as intertwined like ying and yang. Asserting individuality often taxes our communal connections, and upholding community can sometimes stunt individuality. Since I feel strongly about both of these values, I simply try to keep them in balance.

Learning: This value is the core of my happiness. I have a deep need to learn new things, a drive to read and research, to take courses and acquire new skills. I am also drawn to people who like to learn. I love people who get excited by some new idea. That’s why I am involved in higher education. There is always something new to learn. Even teaching is a learning experience.

Those are the first five values on my list. I will share the other five in my evening post.

What are some of your key values? Have you actively designed your life around your key values? What stories do you tell yourself about the importance of those values in your life? I would love to hear from you in the comments below.

Rituals for Living by The Dragon Tree

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I dump my colored pens onto the table and open my new planner. I uncap the orange pen and start to answer the first question: “What are you longing for most in life?” With each consecutive question, I uncap another pen, filling the planner with a rainbow of color.

This is not just another planner, it’s my new Rituals for Living Dreambook and Planner from The Dragon Tree. I have written before about my struggles to commit to my weekly planner. Although, I love the concepts of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the planning tools, though effective, felt a little too linear for me. I wanted something that was more like an art journal. I feel like I have found it with this new tool.

The Rituals for Living Dreambook and Planner starts with probing questions about core values and your vision for the future in many key areas of your life. It then uses a mind mapping technique for goal setting in 1, 3, and 10-year intervals. The ritualize section helps you break down your dream into actionable steps, then monthly and weekly calendars help you stay focused on those long-term goals on a day to day basis.

I am really excited about using this book because I feel like I can use my right brain and left brain together. I feel like there is plenty of room to make my planner colorful and personalized. More importantly, it fits in my backpack, so I can use it review it often.