A Bucket of Anxiety
A friend of mine suggested this week’s topic and asked if my anxiety attacks have gotten better as I’ve learned to anticipate them.
In a lot of ways, they have. However, it’s taken me a long time to be able to anticipate them, because my anxiety attacks have changed as I got older. They’ve shifted from child-like meltdowns into a more stereotypical presentation. Now when I have an anxiety attack, I can't breathe, I can't speak, I have no sense of time, etc. You can read more about that here.
But to answer my friend’s question: yes, they have gotten better as I’ve learned to anticipate them.
Think of it as a bucket. A bucket of anxiety. This is an analogy the therapist I saw in high school used. In the past, when my anxiety was untreated, it alone nearly filled the bucket. Any kind of anxiety trigger could make the bucket overflow. Aka, an anxiety attack.
All kinds of things add to the bucket. Overarching stress adds to the bucket. Bad days add to the bucket. An unanticipated handshake adds to the bucket. Any kind of anxiety trigger adds to the bucket.
Some things fill the bucket more than others and some things stay in the bucket longer than others. To try to make this more tangible, let’s say a handshake adds 5% to the bucket and lasts an hour. A class presentation may add more like 30% and can last hours to days.
When the bucket was almost full already, it was very easy to overflow and cause an anxiety attack. Now, my anxiety is treated. I take medication. I was in therapy. I have coping mechanisms and plans. It doesn’t fill my bucket as much. I’d say it fills somewhere between 25 and 40%, depending on the day.
That means a handshake won't push me over the top. A presentation might get me close. A presentation plus a handshake plus overarching stress, lack of sleep, or a general bad day would overflow the bucket.
That results in an anxiety attack.
But because I have a better handle on my anxiety now, I can also do things to lower the bucket. Taking alone time lowers the bucket. Deep breaths lower the bucket. Drawing, reading, and writing lower the bucket. Taking a walk in the woods lowers the bucket.
Again, some things lower the bucket more than others and some things last longer than others. Deep breaths do the least. Taking a walk in the woods helps the most.
Because I know myself, I can keep my bucket from overflowing most of the time. If I notice it’s getting full, I do something to empty it. If I don’t have time to empty it, I avoid situations that will fill it more.
Sometimes, it overflows anyway. Sometimes events are more stressful than I thought they’d be. Sometimes I forget to take the time I need. Sometimes days are just full bucket days for no apparent reason.
But full-blown, overflowing bucket anxiety attacks aren’t nearly as common for me as they used to be.
However, that doesn’t mean anxiety attacks don’t happen. If my bucket gets close to overflowing, I might start to have symptoms of an anxiety attack. I may feel like I can't breathe, or my hands might shake, or I’ll end up in a state of sensory overload, described here.
Those aren’t full-blown anxiety attacks, but they will be if I don’t get some anxiety out of my bucket fast. I need to get away from the situation and take time to calm down. I need to treat these events like full-blown anxiety attacks to keep them from becoming one.
But the answer is still yes. I don’t have to experience full-blown anxiety attacks as often as I used to. I still experience the same anxiety and I still need to do something about it, but I know what I’m looking for. Most days, I can keep my bucket from overflowing.