Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Anatomy of an Anxiety Response

Dear Reader, I had actually planned to write a funny, light-hearted anecdote as my next blog post. I can't recall if I’ve ever posted something light-hearted.

Ah, well, life happens. That post will have to wait because… anxiety calls.

People who have PTSD, or clinical anxiety or depression, or a host of other mental health issues will completely understand what I’m about to describe. For those who don’t, please read it to learn how different and difficult it is for some of us to navigate even simple things.

We learn what our triggers are for the most part. And in order to heal and temper the hyper-vigilance, we learn to avoid those triggers. But some triggers are unavoidable, and instantly hijack our physical and emotional responses. Other times, the trigger is a surprise –something that we’ve experienced many times without undue upset.

I have many years under my belt of having a dog that assumes other dogs want to attack her, and will fight them (two dogs – my former, and my current). I’ve had far too many instances to count of dogs, off-leash, charging my dog, on-leash. It doesn’t matter whether they are a boisterous puppy, or friendly and curious dog, or aggressive creature; they all look like a threat to my dog. When they come running at her, she prepares to protect herself and me.

The encounters resolve in any number of ways, some more stressful than others. Some including a brief brawl. During times of emotional vulnerability, I avoid dog walks because of this potential. But lately I consistently go on dog walks, and either change my direction to avoid other dogs, or pick up my pup, and carry on. The leap of adrenaline and anger dissipates quickly.

Two days ago I was finishing a dog walk, almost home, when two small dogs came barking and racing towards us. I’m not afraid of small dogs per se; I’m afraid of my dog feeling attacked and trapped, and an all-out dog fight starting. I’m afraid of reaching down to pick her up, and being inadvertently bit. 

They were coming fast, almost upon us. I am horrified to admit that initially, I simply pulled up on my dog’s leash, and she dangled by her collar. I know, it’s awful; I panicked. But when I saw what I’d done I let her down as I hastily and roughly grabbed her up into my arms, all the while dodging the dogs. I was holding her oddly (spoiler: she did not get hurt, thankfully). She was barking like mad, ruff up.

The two dogs were barking and leaping up at my dog, even as I tried to walk away. I saw the owner, with a third dog in her arms (probably she had managed to grab this one before it joined the other two). Of course she was unable to get the other two under control. She said something. I yelled at her (when protecting others, I can be very vocal).

50 yards later I was no longer dodging the dogs. My dog, held uncomfortably, started squirming and dug her claws into my chest. I set her down, and we returned home.

I was angry, and felt the adrenaline surging. Her scratches hurt. I recognized I needed to allow myself to come down from the experience before resuming work. I took a shower and scoured the deep scratches. After drying myself I sat on the toilet, lid down, head bent. I took long, slow breaths, making sure the exhale was longer than the inhale (lest I start hyperventilating). I kept telling myself it was time to get back to work. I kept sitting there, trying to calm down my body. I started to shake slightly, which I’d been expecting.

I can’t quite describe how I felt. But I did not want to move from where I was; doing anything felt far too difficult.

Finally I stood up, and noticed my legs were wobbly and weak. I felt dizzy, and my brain fuzzy. My entire body hurt and I felt bone-weary, like a great weight was pressing down on all of me.

I resumed work from home, but I simply couldn’t concentrate. I postponed a call with a colleague to the next day. I tried to find simpler tasks to work on, but I kept confusing which client I was working on. I kept forgetting what I was doing. I gave up and signed off.

Two hours, then three hours after the altercation, my body was still reeling: weak and wobbly, dizzy and foggy-brained, bone weary, hurting all over. I knew it would be a bad idea to watch the news, because a bad story might easily lodge itself in my mind, prompting feelings of despair and helplessness. I tried to watch tv, something that would relax or distract me, but I couldn’t follow the storyline. 

I went to bed early, but I couldn’t sleep.

The next day I signed in to work. My concentration was someone better, but my brain was still on limited capacity. My body felt heavy and weak and wobbly – still. The scratches hurt, and I found that I had badly wrenched my back. I felt vulnerable, and didn’t take my dog for a walk. I didn’t venture outside of my yard. Anywhere beyond that felt unpredictable and unsafe. A heavy mood descended.

Coinciding with all that was the critical self-talk. I couldn’t understand why I was still feeling the effects of what wasn’t an entirely uncommon occurrence; overall not a big deal. Why had this triggered such a strong and lengthy anxiety response? Why was I still so deep into its effects?

Behind those questions was the insinuation: you’re weak and pathetic.

And behind that, the frustrations both that my PTSD was still in control so many years later, and that my former self (whom I perceive as strong, capable, and resilient) was long gone.

I put in a minimum workday. I was somewhat productive, but also disorganized, forgetful, and unable to do more complex tasks. At the end of the workday, I felt exhausted and depressed – over 24 hours later.

That evening I crawled into bed with tv. Before going to sleep, I called in sick for the next day.

Which brings us to today. My brain is a bit clearer, although still far foggier than usual. My body still feels tired, but the wobbliness is mostly gone. And the depression is now joined by anger. Not at the event, not at that dog owner, but unfocused anger. Deep anger, and a sense of emotional fragility.

So I stay in bed as long as my pets will allow. Feeding them and myself feels almost too effortful. I draw all the curtains and curl up in my armchair as I allow this mood, and all the effects of being triggered, to work their way through me. Today I will not try to be normal; today I will simply be. Whatever I feel emotionally, whatever my body feels, I will try to allow it.

And when the voice inside tells me every hour or so that I’m weak and pathetic, I will try to push it aside. Even though I can’t altogether silence the judgment, I will give my body this day to recover.