Anxiety Spiral

Today I am applying for my Masters degree.

I am applying for my Masters degree today and it is fucking terrifying.

I have been staring at the ‘Send’ button for hours. I have talked myself out of applying at least 4 times, and I’m probably going to do it 4 more times before I finally just press the damn button. Why is this button so scary? What am I afraid of?

Well the most simple answer is: rejection. I’m afraid I won’t be accepted. I’m afraid they won’t let me in. Or I’m afraid they will let me in and then I’ll feel like I don’t belong there. Something my mother used to say about not wanting to be a member of any club that would have her is clanging around in my brain and refusing to shut up.

I decide to read a chapter of the book I’ve been reading, but I can’t focus. I water all of my plants, even though I watered most of them yesterday (this may be why they keep dying). I stare into the mirror for 5 minutes. I tie my hair up, then let it back down, then tie it up again. I rearrange my bookshelf. I clean my bathroom sink.

I sit back down to hit the ‘Send’ button. I pick up my phone. I text one friends ‘I’m finally doing the application today’ with a muscle arm emoji. She does not respond to me in the next 10 seconds, so I Snapchat another friend a goofy picture of my face with the caption ‘mfw I’m finally finishing my Masters app’. I stare at the screen for a bit. It is still indicating ‘Delivered’ but not ‘Opened’. I am throwing out a lifeline, begging for someone to take the other end and haul me out of my anxiety spiral. The first friend texts back ‘You got this girl!’ with a fist pump emoji. It doesn’t make me feel better and I do not feel like I ‘got this’.

I start to feel a little angry at myself. WHY am I acting this way? WHY am I so anxious? WHY am I always like this?

This is what I like to refer to as an Anxiety Spiral. An Anxiety Spiral happens when my anxiety becomes so powerful that I can no longer function as a regular human being. It usually goes something like this:

  1. Twitchy Phase. I get twitchy. My eyes start to dart around the room. I start to sweat a lot. I get agitated and more quick-tempered than usual. I’m snappy and dismissive. I start getting weird chills down my spine.
  2. Manic Phase. I set aside what ever I’m supposed to be doing and I start distracting myself with meaningless bullshit. I clean things that are already clean, or rearrange drawers (this can actually be quite useful sometimes). I decide to draw, get all my art supplies out, then decide I don’t feel like it and put it all away again. I scroll through Netflix but can’t decide what to watch, or start watching the first 10 minutes of things and then getting too agitated to keep watching. I am particularly prone to making large, expensive online purchases which I cannot afford and don’t need. I am now basically impossible to coexist with without any other rational party wanting to push me out of a window.
  3. Glomming Phase. I glom on to people. I message everyone I know. I desperately search for someone to save me from myself. I feel like maybe if someone just gave me a hug I’d probably be ok, but will hiss at anyone who tried to touch me. Then when they try to offer practical solutions, I get angry and snap at them. Even the most tolerant friend/partner now actively wants to murder me.
  4. Full-on Panic Attack. I just have a full-on actual fucking panic attack.
  5. Crying Phase. I have a cry.
  6. Numb Phase. I now have basically nothing left.
  7. Just Fucking Do it Phase. Having tired myself out completely, I actually just fucking do the thing I’ve been freaking out about. The sky does not fall and I do not die. I feel like a total fucking cabbage.

If you’re thinking ‘This girl is insane and I can’t fucking tolerate her’: join the club! I’m the president and founder.

The reality of having anxiety and a panic disorder is not pretty. You become very good at hiding that part of yourself. Most of my closest friends would probably not recognise me at all, and would read this and think I’m exaggerating or being melodramatic. I’m not exaggerating. It is melodramatic, but I can’t control it and recognising this is part of what makes me freak out in the first place. I get stuck in a loop where I realise I’m being irrational but I can’t stop, and that makes me freak out more. I start thinking there must be something wrong with me, and then I think ‘of course there is, I have a panic disorder’. Then I start to beat myself up about it. At this point, I’m fully in the grips of the Anxiety Spiral.

The thing about an Anxiety Spiral that I’ve found is: it’s usually justified. Occasionally I am just losing my absolute shit over something small and stupid like whether my earrings match my outfit, but more often I’m using the freakout about my earrings to cover up a bigger, scarier freakout that I don’t belong at what ever event I’m going to and will be rejected by everyone there. I’ve had so many shitty, unsupportive friends and partners tell me I’m being over-dramatic and ‘making mountains out of molehills’. The thing is: when you’re a mole, molehills do look like mountains. And anxiety has the power to tear you down, make you feel small, scared, and mole-sized. Anxiety may be a chemical overreaction but it doesn’t come from nowhere, and it’s never ‘stupid’ or ‘melodramatic’. Catastrophizing is a defense mechanism that, while useless against masters applications, probably would have saved me if I was a hunter-gatherer living on the savannah. Worrying every morning about whether I’ll trip over my long dress and somehow fall into traffic if I mess up and pair it with the wrong shoes is probably irrational, but worrying every morning that the bush over there may actually be a hungry lion here to eat my family is a matter of survival. And all the research I’ve read says our brains haven’t changed that much, it’s the environment that’s shifted around us. My brain is trying to tell me something: ‘I am overwhelmed. This is frightening. We’ve been here before and it went so badly the last time, and I felt so bad, and sad, and it took me so long to come out of it. What if there’s a lion behind that tree waiting to maul us?’

In this case, it might be because this is the fourth time I’ve applied for a Masters program. (Actually that’s not true. This is the fourth time I’ve tried to apply. Okay that’s also not true. This is the fourth time I’ve thought about it, which in my anxious brain is just as bad if not worse than actually having to do something.) I first tried to apply fresh out of university, but then my graduation was delayed because I couldn’t afford the fees, then I ended up homeless and working a dead-end job at a Wetherspoons in a desperate bid to pay off the fees so I could graduate a year late. Then I tried to apply again but was informed by my family that they were cutting me off financially due to my mental health issues (it was actually because of my terrible behaviour but I like to think that was at least in part due to mental health issues). Another time, I filled out all my applications but couldn’t finalise them because the department that gave me my degree doesn’t exist anymore and all of my former lecturers I contacted told me they couldn’t remember me or just refused outright to provide a reference. My point is, I’ve faced a lot of rejection in my life so maybe that has taught my brain some troubling lessons about what happens when I try new things. And maybe those lessons aren’t easy to unlearn.

Part of the very long, very difficult journey of coping with my anxiety is to turn off that voice that says ‘You’re being stupid. You’re making a big deal out of nothing. You need to stop feeling this way’. It’s not easy, because the anxiety voice always has a come back. It always says ‘Remember last time, when you convinced yourself everything would be fine? How did that turn out for you?’. The more times something goes wrong, the more fuel it has to throw in its fire of negative bullshit. The more you try to argue with it, the more negative thoughts and emotions it brings up to show you just how wrong it could go this time. It’s an annoying toddler than won’t stop asking ‘But what if? What if? What if? WHAT IF?’. And you can’t fight a toddler (or you shouldn’t, really).

The only thing I’ve found that really helps with my anxiety is to just sit with it. In The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, Catherine Gray compares emotions to children in a car: you don’t want them driving but you also can’t just chuck them in the boot. You have to let them sit in the back seat. You have to talk to them every once in a while. When they ask you ‘How long until we get there?’ you have to tell them something or they’ll just keep asking.

I am learning to sit with my anxiety. I imagine it sitting next to me, like a shakier, sadder, shadow version of myself. This probably makes me look like a total psycho but it helps. I can’t push it away or fight it. I have to hear it out, listen to what it has to say, acknowledge it, and say ‘That may all be true, but it doesn’t change what I want and it doesn’t change what I’m going to do’. And then press ‘Send’.

Photo by Hailey Reed on Unsplash

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