Three a.m. is without question or exception my least favorite time of day. The reason? I see it way too often. There is something about this particular time of night where if I’m having any kinds of anxiety or stress, they seem to bubble to the surface, break through the edge of my subconscious and begin dancing a jig on the stage of my brain.
Suffice to say, it is currently 3:04 a.m. and I’m up.
I have a theory about why. Not based in any kind of science or anything – yes, I took at least half a dozen different psychology courses in college, but they didn’t really stick. Just based on my own experience, like most of my ramblings here. I think it’s because this is when my defenses are down. It’s also when, often, I’m in between dreams. I dream A LOT – very vivid, motion-picture length dreams, and I tend to have two a night. I consider myself lucky there because the more I talk to people the more I learn in-depth dreams are not common. Snaps for L.D.’s subconscious mind!
Anyway, tonight, I suddenly awoke…and felt like I couldn’t breathe. I started to feel terrified, but enough of my conscious mind was alert to scream “It’s just a panic attack – calm down crazy.” Ok, that sounds weird. “just” a panic attack? Wow. Has my stress level become so high that things that would freak out most people just roll off my shoulders? That’s not good.
But here’s what IS good. Once upon a time, waking up with a panic attack would have wrecked me for hours. Tonight it didn’t. Tonight, I sat in my bed and breathed slowly. I counted. I grabbed the nearest cat (boy they can be handy) and pet her slowly as I calmed. I waited for my heartbeat to return to something of a steady rhythm and then let her go. Then I began to think.
You see, I learned something about myself a few years ago. I don’t tend to deal with stress. I laugh about it, make jokes, smile and move on. I’m like Dory in Finding Nemo – if I just keep swimming, everything will be okay. Except, a few years ago I was having back pain. I didn’t understand it, but my back hurt. Then I decided it was a combination of back/stomach pain and being the self-diagnosing hypochondriac I am, decided I had pulled something in my back AND developed lactose intolerance. Because I went to medical school and I learnd-ed so many book things. Yeah, I’m an idiot who needs to stay away from WebMD. I didn’t want to go to the doctor because those guys NEVER have good news and besides, I had to go to NY for work, and was TRYING to have fun. That worked well.
Turned out (when I finally DID go to the doctor) I was giving myself an ulcer. I’m sorry – a pre-ulcerative condition that would develop into an ulcer if I didn’t do something about it. The doctor pressed on my stomach (even though at the time I swore it was my back) and I nearly leapt off the table. There was nothing wrong with my back. The pain in my stomach was radiating around and all the ibuprofen I’d been popping for my “back pain” wasn’t helping. Whoopsie. He asked what had me so stressed out. I said nothing at all. Then I listed what was going on in my world. His prescription? Prevacid, a vacation and to learn that denial is not a river in Egypt.
I began doing serious self-analysis with the help of an AMAZING therapist. Turns out I have a little bit of stress in my life. And by little bit I mean I have a tendency to allow in a great deal of crazy from others that I internalize as my own. I also have difficulty with my friends in using the word NO. As a result, I would become overwhelmed, stressed out and my stomach was eating itself to deal with it. Not happy making.
So I took the Prevacid and began listening to the signs my body gave me. I used the pain to indicate when it was that I wasn’t actually coping with whatever was stressing me out – usually it had to do with someone treating me badly and me pretending like it was fiiiiiine (so you know, the number of i’s you use in the word fine is an indicator of how NOT fine something really is). And do you know what happened? The pain stopped.
Not completely…I still have days where I get a twinge. But what it has taught me is to stop, think, resolve. It’s kind of the “Let go and let God” theory. Or, to quote one of my favorite A Different World moments: to Relax, Relate, Release. You see, I know way too many of us get caught up in our lives every day and we stress but don’t actually DEAL with the stress. We ignore the signs of it until it too late. That’s how heart attacks happen.
So on nights like tonight, my first step is Relax. Take deep breaths. Center myself. Pet the kitty. Heck, sing Soft Kitty if it works. Wow – I just Googled looking for a video of Soft Kitty from The Big Bang Theory and came up with this that has me crying in laughter…even better. But whatever works for you to find your calm.
Step two: Relate. Relate to myself. Think about what has me upset or stressed out. Is it a real, valid worry that I can do something about? Is it something that is wrong, but I have absolutely no control over? Is it something that is just my insecure side (known as Delores) is coming up with to just drive me nuts? I take the time to look into myself, talk it through. With myself. With God. With the cat. Just to find an answer.
Step three: Release. Let it go. If it was something that I actually can *do* something about, then I have a plan and I put it aside. If it was something out of a neurosis, then I put it in its place, let go of my fears, tell the crazy in me I can’t play and let it go. Sometimes this is easier said than done, I know that, but practice makes perfect.
My point in this middle of the night rambling is that we all have things that pull us in a million directions, give us grief, stress us completely. You have to find ways of coping that don’t involve just pretending that they’re not there. Anxiety can actually cause you physical distress, but it also can just ruin what would otherwise be an amazing journey through life. We can’t avoid everything that potentially makes us unhappy, but we can work to make those the exceptions to our journey, not the rule.
That’s my goal – find my happy and hold onto it as tightly as I can. We only get one chance at life. Live it well.