My no-bullshit ways of surviving periods of extreme stress

I thought I understood stress and anxiety, having suffered from both afflictions to varying degrees persistently since moving to Sydney in July 2014. As I dealt with shortness of breath, dizziness, a drought-dry throat, and the inability to swallow on the train home from work on Monday, I came to the sudden and urgent realisation that I am like Jon Snow. I know nothing.

I sat through my first entirely public panic attack and wondered how on earth I would move forward from that moment. I wondered how I could possibly explain what had happened to my partner without causing him to worry. The thought of talking to people about what had happened only increased my sense of unease and discomfort, because for many of the people closest to me the answer to my anxiety is a distant sort of concern, the kind where you are left feeling like at least to them, your problem is not that bad in the ‘big picture’. While the social attitude towards mental illness is changing, I still perceive my anxiety issues to be a sort of failure, and I’m desperately trying to understand how I can get them under control while fighting off a pervasive sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

I’ve come a long way over the past few months to get my regular day-to-day stress and anxiety under control, but as it turns out they both come racing back during periods of extreme stress, such as the one I’m currently experiencing. Our lease expires this weekend and rather than re-signing with our terrible agency, we took a risk and decided to end our tenancy with them. I wouldn’t say this decision has backfired per se, but we haven’t found another place to rent and instead we’ve had a close friend of mine generously let us stay with her. This isn’t without its own stress, as I’m constantly living in fear that I’m a burden, along with experiencing the crippling sense that I should have my life more in control than this.

Packing most of our belongings into storage containers and cleaning after work during the week isn’t ideal either, but this was the only time we were able to get containers delivered prior to our lease ending. I’m a state of flux where I feel homeless (though I’m well aware that I’m not), I feel like I’m an inconvenience, and I genuinely feel like I don’t know where I belong anymore. Add to this massive upheaval at work (the one place that is usually a constant source of stability in my life) and my head is all over the place. Fortunately all this is only temporary, but that doesn’t make the process of getting by on a daily basis any easier.

(Side note: This may not sound stressful to you, or you may be thinking that I’m being dramatic, but change is one of the things a) I’m worst at coping with, and b) that most exacerbates my anxiety issues, and I truly haven’t felt this out of sorts since I moved to Sydney.)

I realised earlier this week that I needed to do something (anything) to help get these awful feelings back under control, but without any of my regular routines in place finding a solution was harder than I expected. So, naturally, I turned to the internet and social media for advice.

I’m sorry, but I don’t have time to sit and meditate, or to take stock of my vibrations. No oracle card or guided meditation is going to help me in this moment, and while I believe there’s a time and a place for this sort of healing if that’s what works for you, right now if I had an inner guide it would be asking me straight up why the fuck did I decide to move to Sydney in the first place.

A couple of silly things I’ve read that don’t help me in any way include:

  • Take some time out of your schedule for yourself. I fully intend to; however, this isn’t as easy as it sounds when I’m required to be in an office from 8am to 5pm five days a week, and can only use the hours I have around that to pack up my entire life and put it into two large wooden boxes. I then have the joyful task of making sure all my other possessions that didn’t fit into storage can be packed away neatly at our temporary accommodation so as not to inconvenience my friend. While I can appreciate the sentiment, any time spent ‘journalling my feelings’ could be used more productively elsewhere.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. I can truly forget about being too hard on myself at the moment. When all my stuff is packed into bags that defy any logical storage process, when I haven’t worn pyjama bottoms for two days because I honestly don’t know where they are, and when eating a cold pizza is something I look forward to because my fridge is unplugged and my food is elsewhere, any notion of being hard on myself disappears. This is actually hard enough for me.

Things I’ve discovered that do actually work to help calm me down:

  • Make sure I always have a water bottle with me. I have no doubt that my panic attack on the train would have been easier to manage if I’d had water with me, and I think I managed to avoid a much smaller attack this morning by closing my eyes and focussing on drinking water, rather than the weight of my perceived failures. (I’m only half-serious here.)
  • Write a list. Or, even better, write many lists. This is ten times more therapeutic for me than writing about my feelings, and it helps to get my scattered thoughts out of my head and into a logical order on paper. It’s also incredibly satisfying to tick things off, no matter how minor they are, and the added boost of accomplishment helps when life is chaotic.
  • Avoid alcohol. Because drinking so much I forget my problems is fun, but packing/cleaning/going to work the next day feeling like shit is not so fun.
  • Listen to music that makes me feel happy. And do it regularly. It’s not going to make scrubbing bathroom tiles or cleaning dusty skirting boards enjoyable in any way, but at least it’s better than doing chores in silence.
  • Prioritise sleep if possible. The other night, we had the option of sleeping in our old place on camping mats or driving 40 minutes to a bed. We picked camping mats, and yesterday was a far better day because of that choice.
  • Be okay with letting other priorities and goals slip temporarily. It’s not worth the added stress in my life to keep on top of all my competing priorities (like reading, exercise, and blogging) so I’m trying to give myself permission to just get through this shitty period, and then my regular programming can resume. Not exercising this week is just fine if it means I won’t get sick. I haven’t lost motivation and I’m not a failure; I’m just really stressed.
  • Find something minor that reminds me of my regular routine. I have two things: in the mornings I am still getting up early enough to get a cup of tea and read before getting on the trains, and in the evenings I am still using the Perfect Potion Chill Out Balm. The scent instantly reminds me of every night I’ve ever used it, and that relaxes me.

Even just writing this post over the last couple of days has helped to remind me that this chaos is only temporary. Things will go back to some sort of normal very soon, and I just need to get by until then.

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