Triggers. Ugh. I hate that I have them. In fact, I hate that I even know what they are. Nevertheless, they exist for me and for most people who experience anxiety. I know a few people who cope with panic attacks that seemingly come from out of the blue, but for many of us the overwhelming, or even slight, mental and physical symptoms of anxiety are triggered by situations, experiences, even people.
Interestingly PPD wasn't the beginning of anxiety for me, but it was the beginning of naming what I had been experiencing for practically my whole life. I'm not sure if I can't remember symptoms prior to age 5 because I didn't have them earlier or because I just can't remember that far back. But, even now, I clearly remember laying in my twin bed, draped in a white eyelet comforter, recounting every conversation I had in Kindergarten that day. Beating myself up for the dumb thing I said and nervously anticipating the following day and whether I'd be liked and accepted because of or in spite of my clothing, my favorite toy, or my choice of best friend. I'd experience an almost out of body train of thoughts several times each month as I considered what it meant to be human and pondered the meaning of life, the possibility of life on other planets, how faith and God intersected with all of that, and how Christianity and Jesus' crucifixion impacted me. Kind of heavy for a six year old...
It took me until 31 or 32 years into this life of mine to recognize that feeling so incredibly self-aware and nervous wasn't "normal". That it was years of training my body and brain to be unnaturally uneasy and having been exposed to inappropriate and traumatic experiences that created this "default mode" for me and not just being human.
Over the past five years, thanks to PPD, I've become much more aware of not only my mood, but my anxiety level. I've kept kind of a mental journal of times, places, and people that seem to coincide with an increase in symptoms. Evidenced by tightening in the chest and throat. Slight nausea. Teeth clenching. Tense and raised shoulders. Squinty eyes. These physical symptoms come first for me. Once they are many enough and of a noticeable intensity, I check in with myself mentally. Why am I feeling this way? What happened earlier? What situation am I about to enter?
There are lots of strategies for coping with anxiety, thankfully. From Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to simple avoidance of triggering situations, there are things we can do to minimize symptoms and deal with everyday anxiety. I am so grateful for the toolbox of skills and methods I have learned over the years as I experienced therapy with several different professionals. These certainly have been helpful and continue to be.
In addition to all of these therapeutic practices, I have found that one of my greatest coping mechanisms has been the practice of acceptance that I have focused upon this year. Beginning in Lent, I decided to make an effort to expend more energy on embracing life as-is and less on judgment and lament. It wasn't easy. In fact, it still isn't. When self-defeating thoughts enter my head I often have to physically stop myself from doing anything else until I've replaced the negative thought with one with a positive, or at least neutral, theme. In moments of frustration with others I demand of myself that I not resort to name-calling or catastrophizing but rather aim for prayer.
If the saying "practice makes perfect" was true, I'd be on the Dean's List for Acceptance by now. But, alas it doesn't. Practice does make progress, though. This practice has allowed me to find myself in typically triggering scenarios and rather than spiraling out of control and anticipating the worst, I surprise myself by moving on with life without even noticing at times. Sure, there are people who irritate me and situations that leave me exhausted or overwhelmed. But, in a way I never expected, I no longer take responsibility for the behavior of the people around me or the potential repercussions of it. And when faced with blocks of time not chock full of activities and fellowship, instead of overcorrecting by over-scheduling, I talk myself back, remembering that a bit of screen time or a temper tantrum aren't things that will successfully put me over the edge. I've been there before and made it through and I will again.
As we approach the often hectic, lonely, or anxiety-producing holiday season, I hope that you and I will both find moments of peace and joy, as well as acceptance, in the midst of it all.