This week was my latest scheduled catch-up with my psych. As it turned out, it was well-timed.
My life is going through a few big changes right now, on top of which a lot of small but important tasks have all come up at the same time. None of these things are bad (some of them are quite exciting), but taken all together the effect has been a tidal wave of busy.
I’ve been writing to-do lists dozens of items long, while still weighed down by the constant worry that I’ve forgotten something important. Sliding guilty eyes away from unfinished tasks I’ve let slide while trying to keep up with newer, more urgent calls to action, and bracing myself for the influx of further responsibilities seeming to pile on daily. My inbox has become an object of fear.
I’ve been going to bed already trying to plan out tomorrow, to-dos and timing tumbling through my brain. Waking up to a sense of catastrophe already primed and telling me I can’t get done everything I need to do, counting the balls I’m dropping left, right, and centre, and then taking two hours, or three, or four to get out of bed, because getting up means facing up to it all.
Down the rabbit-hole
By the time I saw my psych, the individual worries had coalesced into a continuous, directionless fear.
Ironically, by that point I’d actually made it through a lot of the really urgent stuff that needed doing, but I couldn’t even tell anymore, because my fear was no longer tethered to specific goals; the direction of stimulus-response had reversed. No long Thought (I really need to get x, y, and z done today!) → Emotion (stress/fear), but Emotion (stress/fear) → Thought (something’s wrong but I don’t know what so everything is terrible).
Overwhelmed by emotion, my ability to plan had dissolved completely. I was lurching from task to task pretty much at random, driven only by a sense of urgency. I was an hour late for my psych appointment, not because I didn’t know I needed to get to it, but because I simply couldn’t focus enough to plan and carry out the steps of shower – get dressed – eat lunch – leave house (neither showering nor lunching happened, in the end).
I’d slid right back down the anxiety rabbit-hole, scrabbling at the sides but unable to fight the momentum dragging me deeper.
One more thing to do
My psych and I talked about what was going on in my life and how I was feeling. We reviewed my medication (it had been working just fine until this recent anxiety spike), and he reminded me of useful techniques I could use for calming myself down when the everything got too much: slow breathing, thought challenging, nothing I didn’t already know. I complained that I was still doing my usual five minutes of slow breathing every morning, but that even while I was doing it, my brain was all over the place and I couldn’t make it stop and focus.
Clearly, he said, right now five minutes a day that isn’t enough. I want you to practice focused slow breathing for a couple of minutes every hour.
I stared at him like he was talking Swahili. Slow breathing every hour?? Hadn’t I literally just told him the cause of my stress was that I couldn’t keep up with everything with my life??
And then he said something so smart and so obvious it stopped me in my tracks. He said: If you don’t look after yourself, you won’t be able to do all those other things you want to do.
When someone frames it like that, it really is blindingly obvious, isn’t it?
I’d been staying in bed for hours; I’d been procrastinating; I’d lost the ability to focus on tasks – in other words, my brain was so occupied with retreating from the constant assault of anxiety that I couldn’t even manage my usual level of busy, let alone take on more. And the more I fell behind, the more anxious I became – a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle.
Since my psych visit, I’ve programmed a gentle reminder into my phone: every hour it pings to remind me to stop and take a few minutes to set aside whatever I’m doing, close my eyes, breathe slowly and deeply, and focus on the sounds around me, not the noises in my head.
It’s amazing how quickly I’ve come back to myself. It only took a day of breathing practice for me to start feeling focused and present – ready to take on the world again (or at least my personal piece of it).
I’m still busy; I still have too much to do. But that would be true whether or not I was spending time looking after myself. At least this way I have the mental capacity to get the most important things done, and to forgive myself for the things I still don’t have time to do.
So if you ever feel like you have too much to do, and you don’t have time for self-care, remember: looking after yourself is the first step to being able to handle everything else.