Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Living the Anxious Life

Pumpkin has been having a hard time falling asleep recently. She says that she gets bad thoughts in her head and can't get them out. This has happened before. I am sympathetic- I know exactly what she means, since I once laid awake working through the scenario of what I would do if someone crashed their car through my bedroom wall (it faces the street, but it is an extremely quiet and really rather straight street and there are several feet of bushes between the window and the street). Granted, I was pregnant at the time, but I can work myself into a worry about random things even when I'm not pregnant. It is a skill I have.

In one sense, I'm the perfect person to help Pumpkin figure out how to handle her anxiety problem. I've tried to teach her my tricks of short circuiting the weird, anxious loop in my brain. The best one, by far, is to have a mantra to recite silently. It helps nudge my stream of consciousness into a more relaxed place, where I can go to sleep.

Me being me, my mantra is from John Donne:

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
(Meditation XVII)

Yeah, it isn't a super happy mantra, but I've used it since high school and it works for me.

So, Pumpkin is working on picking herself a mantra. In the meantime, I spend a fair amount of time on her floor, reading tweets in the dark while she falls asleep up in her loft bed. She finds this helpful. It is a good thing she doesn't know what's in my Twitter feed, or it would probably cease to be helpful.

In another sense, I'm a terrible person to teach Pumpkin how to tame her anxiety because at 43 years old, I haven't really learned how to tame my own.

I have always been the type to conform to expectations, and to pay attention to what the people around me need and want. I don't really feel bad about that. I don't think there is anything wrong with trying to be nice to other people, or sensitive to their feelings. But it does sometimes make it hard for me to really know what I want. And the instinct to always do the right thing, or the nice thing, can make it hard for me to relax and enjoy myself, especially now, when there is pretty much always something more virtuous I could be doing (for the kids, for my career, for my health, to take care of the house, to plan for our future, etc, etc, etc).

Even beyond that, there is just a feeling that I should be doing something more virtuous. Or, if I can push that feeling aside, the thought of something unpleasant or downright bad that could happen... Let's just say, I find it difficult to unwind.

This is probably one of the reasons I love to travel so much, because when I'm traveling, I for some reason get a free pass. Yes, I can have the ice cream! Yes, I can have another drink! Yes, I can just sit there and read! OK, only the first one is really true when I'm traveling with my kids, but I really like ice cream, so that's OK. Regardless, I do just relax more when I'm traveling. I have no idea why, because frankly, travel can be kind of stressful. But it is a different sort of stress that somehow causes me less anxiety.

I know, that makes no sense. I wish I understood it, too.

I also wish I could tap into that "free pass" feeling more when I'm at home. I live in an awesome place, I have an awesome life. I want to learn how to relax and enjoy it. Maybe I should try eating more ice cream. But maybe that would just make me gain weight, and then I'd be anxious about that.

Sometimes I think the solution is to exercise more (exercise makes me happy, and also it enables me to eat more ice cream)... but that requires me to do some other worthy thing less, and that triggers anxiety, too.

It is a bit of a conundrum.

If I can't tame my own anxiety, I'd at least like to teach my kids how to relax and enjoy life. Petunia seems to have it down, to be honest. She probably got that from her father. Pumpkin got my anxious genes, I guess, and I feel bad about that.

Yeah, I know. That's sort of ironic.

Share your anxiety taming tips- for you or your kids- in the comments!

20 comments:

  1. I just finished reading "The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living." It was excellent, well-researched, and had a wealth of ideas for reducing stress under any circumstances. Highly recommended.

    The author says there are 3 types of stress: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Traveling and children are in the good category. Lack of control at work is a bad stress. Getting terminal cancer at age 33 as the mom of small kids is the ugly. He's taught classes for many years on reducing stress and has had students of every description.

    I used to get those worry loops in my head as well. Though I do recommend reading that book, I think the author would say to focus your thoughts on gratitude, and list everything you're grateful for. Like in the movie "White Christmas," you should fall asleep counting your blessings. He also recommends taking 5 minutes laying in bed every morning, giving thanks for the important people in your life.

    Good luck. I realize it's difficult to retrain your brain, but it can be done. I'm glad Petunia has you to help her along, and hopefully won't struggle with anxiety forever!

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    1. That sounds like an interesting book. I may check it out! Thanks.

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  2. This might not be a very good tip for everyone but it works for me. Whenever I get anxious over something trivial (like a talk the next dar or a grant due or missing an event at school), I think of something catstrophic - like kids on Somalia, repressed women in Iraq or kids with really bad medical conditions who cannot even go to school. Then I tell myself to count my blessings and that the fever my son has will pass, or the talk I am giving is no big deal even if I mess it up. So I think of the much bigger picture and how I am just a tiny spec in it. I guess kind of similar to your mantra!

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    1. If I think of something really catastrophic, I'll be awake thinking about how I'd respond to a catastrophic event like that! I'm glad it works for you, though.

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  3. Thanks so much for writing this post. I've been reading your blog for a while now but this is the first time I have gotten around to commenting. I really identify with what you said about always feeling like you should be doing something more virtuous. I haven't heard anyone else describe their anxiety that way before but that's how it manifests with me. I'm still working on ways to break through this pattern, but it's helpful to know I'm not the only one who feels this way. I found the book "There is nothing wrong with you" by Cheri Huber to be really comforting.

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    1. Thanks for commenting! I do better than sometimes than others with being able to relax. I'm trying to figure out if there is any pattern... if I come up with anything, I'll blog about it!

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    2. I'm glad you are able to relax sometimes! I also go in phases, but since I'm in grad school in a group where we are expected to be very independent, I have been struggling more lately. It was a big transition from a structured undergrad environment where it was very easy to tell whether I was doing the "right" thing.

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  4. Anonymous1:00 PM

    I used to feel like I needed to be productive ALLL the time. The two things that improved it were having kids and getting tenure. and exercise always helps too.
    On one hand, it isn't very fun to worry about being productive all the time. On the other hand, I probably would not have been so successful if I were easy going. so maybe some level of this type of anxiety isnt so bad?

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    1. Exercise is a big help with reducing anxiety for me. I just feel all around better when I'm getting regular exercise. My routine has been disrupted by the construction we're doing, which is probably part of the reason I'm having trouble right now.

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  5. Someday I'll finish our CBT post, but CBT is what I use for anxiety, mostly the breathing and the cognitive restructuring.

    I have decided to accept the need to feel productive all the time because when I try not to, I end up not getting things done which makes me feel sad. I'd rather be happy but slightly guilty about work all the time while knowing it's ridiculous to feel guilty rather than feeling really guilty about failing at not feeling guilty and also not getting anything done. (This may be an academia thing.)

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    1. I keep meaning to read up on CBT and I keep not doing it. That is probably some prime self-sabotaging right there. Thanks for the reminder!

      I *can* get to a good place where I'm productive without stressing about it, but I can't really say *how* I get there. So I can't get myself back there when I wander away...

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  6. Your post so accurately describes where my daughter and I are right now. I also feel bad about passing on my anxiety and insomnia to her, but at least I've explored a lot of options to help. With the added complication of not rewarding her bedtime behavior of trying to manipulate us to stay in her room, it's extra tough. Keeping our long-term goal of healthy sleep habits (mine were terrible as a kid) in mind, we've tried to help her develop habits that don't require us. Maybe that's too much to expect for her age (4 years).

    So far, we've tried counting together up to 100, then back down again. We've tried soothing classical music. She had tons of stuffed animals (friends) that I hoped would kind of be talismans for her. We've had her sing them songs and tell them stories, which sometimes just gets her amped up more. I may have her count sheep, since she lives Shaun the Sheep right now. When she's a bit older, I'll teach her how to meditate with a mantra or picture. Zen meditation has been the most effective thing for my anxiety. It neutralizes the value judgments of the constant stream of noise in my head. Karen Maezen Miller & Pema Chodron are two of my favorites writers about being present in your life. Both are super helpful for anxiety.

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    1. You're probably the 5th person to recommend Pema Chodron to me. I should try reading something of hers!

      I find meditation- or at least a regular yoga practice- really helpful, too. I have been struggling to get a yoga routine re-established for at least a year. I can't find a class that fits my schedule and I have no space in which to do yoga at home right now. The latter should improve when the remodel is done. We'll see if that is the nudge I need to get back on track.

      As for your daughter: I think every kid is different and every family has different needs, so this isn't advice, so much as an observation of what happened with us: I worried A LOT when Pumpkin was a baby and toddler about establishing good sleep habits and what not. And nothing we tried helped her (and therefore me) sleep. We finally gave up and did partial night cosleeping and my sleep got sooo much better. I was still worried she'd have trouble adjusting and we'd have her in our bed forever... and then she just stopped coming in and joining us. Then, awhile later, she stopped needing our presence to fall asleep- usually. She has periodic times when she wants company, but they go away on their own, so I've stopped worrying about it too much. Now that she can describe what is happening, we problem-solve together, but I don't worry about habits anymore, because I've watched her form and break so many.

      I worried a lot less with Petunia from the start, and that may yet be a problem. She still joins us in the middle of the night a lot. But she just started camp (and therefore stopped napping- her old day care had her nap every day) and her sleep situation is much improved now! So I'm hopeful she'll break the habits without too much drama, too.

      But, like I said, different things work for different kids.

      Funny story about sleep music: we tried all sorts of soothing things with Pumpkin, and the CD she has settled on is traditional Irish music, by Altan. Not really that soothing, if you ask me, but it works for her!

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  7. Your post so accurately describes where my daughter and I are right now. I also feel bad about passing on my anxiety and insomnia to her, but at least I've explored a lot of options to help. With the added complication of not rewarding her bedtime behavior of trying to manipulate us to stay in her room, it's extra tough. Keeping our long-term goal of healthy sleep habits (mine were terrible as a kid) in mind, we've tried to help her develop habits that don't require us. Maybe that's too much to expect for her age (4 years).

    So far, we've tried counting together up to 100, then back down again. We've tried soothing classical music. She had tons of stuffed animals (friends) that I hoped would kind of be talismans for her. We've had her sing them songs and tell them stories, which sometimes just gets her amped up more. I may have her count sheep, since she lives Shaun the Sheep right now. When she's a bit older, I'll teach her how to meditate with a mantra or picture. Zen meditation has been the most effective thing for my anxiety. It neutralizes the value judgments of the constant stream of noise in my head. Karen Maezen Miller & Pema Chodron are two of my favorites writers about being present in your life. Both are super helpful for anxiety.

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  8. I echo the sentiment above that it's not a bad thing to feel like you should be doing something virtuous/productive all the time. That's why you're such a high achiever. I don't think it would necessarily be better for you to be eating ice cream in front of the TV all the time and feeling swell about it.

    Sometimes high-achieving sorts do well by putting relaxation on the to-do list. Like "20 minutes in hammock." Then you cross it off the to-do list and feel productive as a result.

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    1. YES. Scheduled breaks are the BEST. Especially the to-do list part.

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    2. I think the thing that is bugging me is that I'm usually rather good at putting boundaries around work worry and the feeling that I should be working... so I find it unsettling to realize that this is part of my difficulty relaxing right now. Also, I know from past experience that this feeling of being "always on" is not sustainable for me. I WILL crash out if I can't figure out how to really give myself some downtime. Maybe I do need to schedule in some "purposeful relaxation" time on this weekend's to do list.

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  9. I relate to your issues around sleep and anxiety for two reasons.

    The first is that I too have a lot of trouble falling asleep at night because I worry, a lot. Unfortunately the things I worry about are both quite rational, and pretty enormous. I have a twin brother with schizophrenia, whose illness is fairly resistant to control by medicine, (he has a team that visits him nightly to administer his meds, so the problem is not whether he is taking them) and who is unable to meet his own basic needs, but will not consent to living in supported accommodation. He has a toddler son, who lives with his Mother, who is an alcoholic. There have been times when my nephew has been placed in my care by our child protection system (I'm in Australia) but he currently lives in his Mother's care, as she is relatively stable at the moment. The truth is that both the Mental Health system and the Child Protection system are massively underfunded and woefully inadequate. All three of these people are extremely vulnerable, and need way more support than they are getting. I am doing all I humanly can to provide support, but I have no legal rights in regards to their care, and am pretty powerless.

    The best advice I was given, by a psychologist, regarding my rational but overwhelming fears about harm befalling my nephew or either of his parents, was that while my fears are rational, I should not dedicate too much time to them. Once I have thought about the situation for a little while, I should "put my thoughts away" for the rest of the day, especially if I am feeling physical manifestations of my thoughts in my body (such as a lump in my throat for example).
    I make a very concerted effort to not think abut these problem at all in the evening. I read (novels) every single night, and go to sleep thinking about the plot, to stop my thoughts going elsewhere.

    Secondly, I relate because two of my three kids have had problems with anxiety and sleep. For one of my children we employed my strategy of thinking about the plot of a favourite book or movie, in detail, when trying to fall asleep. That seemed to work really well.
    For the other we use a fabulous free Australian app designed for children and young people called "Smiling Mind". It's a meditation app, that my son and occasionally my daughter listen to at night before sleep. I first became aware of "Smiling Mind" because the teachers were occasionally using it in the classroom at our primary school. It might be worth a try.

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    1. Thank you for the app recommendation! I'll take a look at it.

      I think having rational worries would be even worse than the irrational ones that tend to keep me up at night. You are dealing with a lot! Yikes. I don't think the US social support system would do any better than the Aussie one in this case. In fact, it might do worse. As your nephew gets older, you might find it helps to have him learn your cell phone number. It really helped me worry less about my kids when they are out of my sight (or even when they were with me, but in crowded situations, like the county fair) when they were able to remember my cell number. They both were able to remember it when they were about 4 years old.

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  10. I read your blog occasionally, and always enjoy it and plan to become a regular. I just got off the phone with my 94-year-old father. Just chatting with him allays some of my anxieties. His sweetness, his cheery outlook on life, and just listening to the details that lie ahead for him on a given day, usually breaks me out of my own preoccupations. I know not everyone has a parent who is like this, but maybe there is someone who could serve in that role.

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