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.

Handling Productivity Pressure

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The ground is covered with recent rainfall and the air is thick with humidity as I walk to the Green Library on the Florida International University campus. I have a morning shift at the Center for Excellence in Writing.

I am definitely feeling the pressure today. Not stress. Just productivity pressure. I have multiple projects that I want to complete this summer and work that I need to catch up on after two days of jury duty.

In the past, I would have felt guilty for taking the time to blog, or I wouldn’t have blogged at all, deeming it a self-indulgent, low priority on my list of tasks to complete. I have since come to realize that my writing is not self-indulgent. Writing is an integral part of who I am. As my fingers fly over the keyboard the pressure starts to subside.

I start to tick of the days tasks in my mind. First, I need to respond to student emails. This has the highest priority because they are working on a literary research paper, and for many of them, this is the first time they have ever had to do academic writing of this type. I break their assignments down into manageable steps and give them feedback alone the way. Students have my email and my phone number, and I try to respond to any questions or concerns as soon as they arise. Before going on jury duty, I worked with the writing center at Miami Dade College to make sure each student could have a one on one appointment with a writing tutor during my absence.

Once I answer emails, grade assignments, and input grades into the gradebook, I need to move on to my own research and writing. I am working on a scholarly article to submit for publication. I have already read 25 peer reviewed articles and compiled my notes into “literary review” spreadsheets. I now have two weeks to finish 2,500 to 3, 750 words before my appointment with a peer who will help me review the structure and content. Even as a writing coach and an English instructor, I use peer review to improve my writing.

In addition to the academic article, I am doing research for a tutoring conference this October. A couple of my peers and I will be presenting on a panel, addressing our roles as mentors as well as writing coaches. Our work together may also result in an article for publication, but our main concern right now is preparing for our presentation.

During the break between summer semester and fall semester, I would like to record some video lectures to improve the online content of the blended courses I teach. I pay close attention to student feedback. If my students seem to have difficulty understanding something, I automatically assume there is a gap in the instruction that needs to be filled, and I look for ways to fill it.

Finally, there are my own projects. My poor neglected novel and Crafting the Message instructional videos I would like to produce. Those two must wait patiently.

I guess my leisurely summer is over. I enjoyed a slower pace during June, but now it is time to kick it into high gear. I usually work well under pressure as long as a stay organized, and I start early. I also make it a habit of breaking things down into manageable steps as well, just like I teach my students. The deadline for my scholarly article is not until September, but here I am, working on the first draft in July. I know when the Fall semester hits, those 50-60 hour work weeks will start.

I have also learned that I need to take time to be creative. Writing, painting, drawing, and art journaling can help keep the creative impulse fresh and creativity is key to productivity. I also recognize that I also have to exercise to relieve the tension (I look forward to my appointment with the trainer later today). Finally, rest is also important. It’s funny how exhausted you can get from thinking. It’s a different kind of tired than the physical exhaustion you feel from manual labor or exercise. Mental exhaustion leaves you feel tense instead of relaxed. The gears in your mind seem to slow down and then screech to a halt as you try to push yourself beyond your capacity. That’s when I read or watch a little Netflix.

So, there you have it. The messy hodgepodge that is swimming around in my mind today. I feel ready to face the day and tackle each task one by one.

What about you? How do you handle productivity pressure? How do you keep it from turning into more destructive forms of stress?2013-09-10_1378814124

Jury Duty Part 2: Anxiety Dance

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At 2 pm, 34 other jurors and myself entered the court room. It would take four hours to narrow us down from 35 to the 8 that would sit on the trial. Although we did nothing all day but wait, line up, wait, sit, answer questions, line up, wait, it was a long exhausting day.

I think I managed well considering the circumstances. My anxiety levels started to rise early in the selection process, when I discovered the trial in question would not be a simple DUI or shop lifting case. The charges indicated that the narratives and evidence presented might trigger some of my own past trauma, instigating even stronger anxiety. I know from experience that anxiety can cloud my judgement, so I try not to make important decisions when I feel emotional. I certainly didn’t want to decide someone else’s guilt or innocence while I was emotionally impaired. I was open and honest in front of the entire court room, and better jurors were selected for the case.

Now that I am home, I still feel a little of the tension, and the adrenaline drain has left me feeling exhausted. I feel a headache starting, and at 7:30 at night, I am ready for bed. I’m still proud of myself, though. Despite my apprehension, I showed up and went through the process just like everyone else. Once there, I also respected my boundaries.

That is the delicate dance of bipolar, gently pushing yourself to do a little more than you think you can do and knowing when to stop. Many people think bipolar is just being moody, but it’s not. The down side of bipolar is feeling unreasonably afraid, desperate, and even hopeless. For those of us who are high functioning, it often takes a combination of medication and coping techniques to keep those emotions isolated in the neither regions of our minds, a distant shadow that we barely notice. If we push too hard those emotions will surface, but if we don’t push at all our world can get increasingly smaller and smaller.

There was a time in my life when I gave in to the desire to isolate myself from the stress. I watched my life collapse in on itself, losing friends and jobs as panic attacks clawed through my chest every time I left the house.

I have also pushed myself through anxiety, bit by bit, as I built a new life, a new career, a new business. They say a little bit of anxiety is a good thing. I guess I am living proof of that. If you have no anxiety, you’re not challenging yourself. Sharing my experience with others helps me, and I have been reading blogs by others who do the same.

So, tell me what you think. Are you afraid of anxiety? Or, do you embrace it? Do you try to push through your limits alone? Or do you ask for help? I would love to hear your stories in the comments below.