November 15, 2021

One Piece of Advice my Therapist gave me that Brings me Back from Anxiety Attacks.

I did it again. I let myself get overwhelmed!

It’s 9 p.m., and I am standing in front of my kitchen sink full of dirty dishes. There’s garbage that I keep pretending isn’t there and needs to be taken out.

I am on the verge of an anxiety attack. I feel the heat building up. I feel the hot tears starting to fall, and I am about to scream at the top of my lungs.

How often do we overextend ourselves? At some point in our lives, we overpromise and add way too many things to our to-do lists, and when we can’t get to the lists or keep the promises, we think we are failures. Or at least I do.

Since becoming a widowed single mother over four years ago, life has been different. It is downright challenging at times. I am a self-professed control freak, everything needs to be in its place, and I need to control my environment. I am acutely aware it’s a trauma response due to not being able to prevent the losses that occurred in my life. By constantly trying to control it, I can get overwhelmed and start to spiral.

Between work, my teenage son’s schedule, attending to all the household duties—laundry, dishes, grocery shopping—and taking care of a four-month-old puppy, I tend to tire quickly and lose patience when I cannot accept that it just might not get done. This makes me feel as if I am not capable, and I feel weak.

I know I am not the first woman to lose her husband and become a single parent; hell, it happened in my own life when my dad died of cancer at the age of 12. There are so many of us out there, whether through loss, divorce, or by choice; the trials of life can be tough doing it all alone.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

We overcommit, whether at work, taking on another project, or saying yes to that weekend away to see friends, knowing we lose that time to catch up on things that we didn’t get to that week. That project may give us exposure with our boss; that weekend away with friends who love us most likely will be fun, but it will create stress in our lives.

At one of my first sessions after my husband died, my therapist told me to only do three things a day.

Only three.

I didn’t understand what she meant. I questioned her…only what’s on my to-do list? She said no, literally only three things. “Get up, take your son to school, and ensure you have eaten. If you manage a shower, that is a bonus.”

We talked about how the brain, when consumed with grief and trying to give it too many tasks, would short circuit and cause a panic/anxiety/grief attack. My goal was to keep my emotions softened to allow my brain to make sense of things.

I know what happens when I overwhelm myself. When I try to keep a white-knuckle grip on my life, I know it leads to anxious thoughts of not getting to my to-do list, the extra glass of wine because I think that will calm me down, or the mindless scrolling through social media. In reality, if I just attempted to do one thing on my list and not complete the whole list, I will be closer to finishing it.

Why do we think it all needs to be done right now? 

Where is the harm in just letting some things go? 

I was unable to stop the full-blown anxiety attack. I ultimately had a meltdown. I knew I had to let the emotions bubble up like a volcano ready to explode with its hot lava flowing from me.

In my 20s, I read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, and I return to it at times. This quote is one I return to over and over, and it was needed tonight.

“Accept—then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.” 

In accepting my anxiety/panic attack and not working against it, I could release all those repressed feelings I had been carrying. Trying to stop an anxiety attack is fruitless. It comes on more potent, and that was what happened.

I remember what my therapist said about only doing three things. I knew the next day I would only do what was necessary, which was getting up (although this is a given or I have larger issues to deal with), taking my son to school, walking the dog, and working.

I need to slow things down to get the circuitry in my brain back online. Then I can conquer the rest of my to-do list.

We all need to slow things down at times.

All of 2020 was spent slowing down, but as the world opened up, all those pressures of timelines and obligations of life came flying back at us. We need to be aware when we are stretched to the max. To maybe only do three things a day when we feel that we are not able to catch up.

I promise it will give you back your breath. It does for me.


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