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.

Bee in My Bonnet

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I jab at the keyboard like the keys have offended me. It’s 7:30 pm, and I am sitting in the Miami heat having a cup of coffee as I try to override the mounting irritation. I need to complete a couple projects this weekend, but I am currently angry at a particularly rude individual. The individual was not rude to me per se, but rather rude adjacent, attacking a peer and disparaging others.

As the debate regarding the appropriateness of the individual’s behavior percolated, I found myself irritated that such a debate was even taking place. I try to stay calm because I know it is my personal bias rearing its ugly head. I am irritated because I know that if I had behaved that way, retribution would have been swift and from multiple sources. Although I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, such behavior would be deemed inexcusable. I would have been taught a lesson. I would have been put back in line, roughly if necessary. Yet, I am supposed to make accommodations for others who are unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their own actions. I struggle to take the higher road that would not be extended to me.

Perhaps tough love begets tough love. I was always taught that tough love was the best way to handle inappropriate behavior, and I experienced it first hand when I had a bad bipolar episode five years ago. But is tough love really the answer? Obviously, I still have some unresolved resentment to the method. My hatred for the participants bubbles just below the surface. There is a trust that has be broken, and perhaps, it will never be repaired.

It did, however, modify my behavior. I learned how to feel one way, but behave another, at least until I could process the emotions at a later time. Sometimes it feels dishonest, even if courteous. But, isn’t that maturity? So here I am, trying to focus on what I need to do, despite the irritating rage swirling inside me.

The key is recognizing that my perception of reality is just that, a perception. My anger was triggered not by the event, but by what the event represented to me. I take a few more deep breaths. My mind is still not convinced. I am still not ready to let it go, but at least I have some space between my emotions and my response. I know in a day or two I will be fine, the incident far behind me. The trigger, well that is a different story. Perhaps there is some damage that can’t be repaired. At least I can choose how to respond.