dis·pro·por·tion·ate | \ ˌdis-prə-ˈpȯr-sh(ə-)nət
being out of proportion*
I have been known to overact a time or two. Possibly more. Someone without anxiety would look at me and think “get a grip Michelle”, but truly, either I can’t, or I am, and you just can’t tell because my reaction to things doesn’t match yours. Believe me when I say, in stressful situations, there are scenarios, usually bad, running through my head that you would never think of in a million years. Lucky you.
When I was a kid, I was, to use a term from my childhood, a cry-baby. By my adolescence, I could have a full-blown fit about things that would seem inconsequential to someone else. I remember one particular incident really well.
I was probably around 12 or 13 and I was at our cottage with my parents. It was bedtime and, for some reason, I was alone in the room that I shared with my four sisters. Just after I turned off the bedside lamp, I could hear something flying around, hitting the fake wood-paneled walls. I turned the light back on and spied a moth clinging to the wall next to my bed. I looked around the room and saw another one. And another. Five moths in total. Five, seemingly harmless, little brown moths. I called downstairs to my dad, asking him to come up and kill them, but he just told me to go to sleep. After all, it’s a cottage. There are a lot of bugs, both flying and un-flying at a cottage. But my mind started to race. What if I turned off the light and a moth flew into my mouth? What if it landed on my pillow and I rolled over on it and got moth guts in my hair or worse, on my face. What if all their racket attracted the spiders that I knew were hiding in my room, just waiting for an all-you-can-eat buffet to open? What if one of those spiders landed in my mouth? I really, really hate spiders, even more than I hate moths.
My worries mounted and I, for lack of a better phrase, lost my shit. Now, I could have avoided all of this drama had I simply gotten the fly swatter and killed them myself. (Who am I kidding…I can barely use a flyswatter in my 60’s, what chance did I have then?) Or just let them be because, really, what’s a little brown moth going to do to me? But instead, I felt overwhelmed, immobilized, and helpless. So, I cried, wailed, and had a full-blown meltdown. Curiously, I can’t remember how that episode ended. I just remember the feeling of doom.
As I’ve grown, I’ve learned coping strategies. I no longer freak out, although if tested enough I certainly could.
Here are my top strategies. Feel free to borrow any or all.
1. Deep breaths: I do a lot of belly breaths, not counting the ones I do when I’m walking uphill. I deep breathe when I have to be around a lot of people. I deep breathe when I am entering a situation where I can’t control the outcome. I’m doing it right now because I really should stop writing as I have other things to do, but I’m on a roll.
2. Avoidance: I don’t do stuff that freaks me out. You will never find me tied to a bungy cord, hand gliding or jumping out of an airplane. Sensible, I think. I avoid crowds and generally anywhere where there will be a lot of people gathered. And you will also never see me with a library book in my hands. I can’t look at a library book without seeing every scenario that would include someone I don’t know touching that book while doing something unseemly and most certainly unsanitary. Thank God for E-books. Best. Invention. Ever.
On a side note, when the pandemic started and there were shutdowns and everyone had to stay at home, I was relieved. Finally, I had a reason to stay home without feeling guilty. No appointments, meetings, dinners etc., just me, myself, and I, puttering around the house, doing all of the things that I love to do, with no guilt. My husband started to work from home at this time too, but he’s very quiet, working away in his office, and I no longer have to worry about him driving to and from the city in bad weather. It’s a win-win. After talking to several other people who also live with anxiety, I think this was a pretty common phenomenon. Guilt-free avoidance.
3. Control what I can: I live in a very calm, quiet house. During the day, there is no TV or radio broadcasting. My husband has headphones that attach to the TV so he can watch and listen as much as he wants without me having to listen to it too. Funnily enough, he bought the headphones for me because he swears that I’m deaf and I have the volume too loud on the TV when I watch it in the evenings, but I can count on one hand how many times I’ve used them. He, on the other hand, is on his second set.
If I have to travel, I travel with disinfecting wipes and as soon as I enter a hotel room, I wipe off every handle, knob, or surface that I may have to touch for the duration of my stay. Same with airplanes. I know they’re probably not good for the environment, but I recycle, so hopefully, I get some brownie points for that. And you don’t want to know the scenarios I imagine when I walk into that hotel room.
I also try to get as much information about what I’m about to encounter so that I’m mentally prepared if I have to do it and can decline if I don’t. I remember when I was a kid, and my Aunt Della would ask if I would like to stay for dinner, I would always ask what she was serving first before I agreed. I was a very picky eater, and if roast pork or peas were on the menu, I’d decline because I couldn’t bear the anxiety of having to sit at her table and not eat or to eat what I didn’t like. I think she thought this was strange, especially when I was having a great day playing with my cousin Margo, but the lure of continued joy was no match for the anxiety that a green pea could produce. Happy was I when the answer to my query was corn from her garden. Playing could continue, and those sweet yellow kernels bathed in butter and salt were on the horizon.
4. File it in the vault: If I’m in a situation that I really can’t control, like having to use a public bathroom with nary a Clorox wipe to be found, I’ve learned how to take my thoughts and put them in a box in my head labeled “Things We Shall Never Think About Again”. It’s the equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and saying lalalalala really loudly when you don’t want to hear something, only it takes place quietly and in my head. This also occurs when I get in and out of my kayak and have to put my feet in a river where the cleanliness of the water is questionable. Also, when I have to talk in front of people I don’t know, or drive at night or…