Anxiety is not rational. Recognizing this and learning to expect the unexpected are key to managing anxiety—as is acknowledging and distinguishing the many different forms it can take.
Being offered controlled substances by a stranger is unsettling, but even more so when that stranger could be your grandmother.
“Thanks, but I’m fine,” I told her. I was on my way to visit a friend who had recently moved to Hawaii. This was a vacation. I had nothing to be anxious about.
But that’s not how anxiety works.
While there are plenty of distinct anxiety disorders that can co-occur with bipolar, a certain amount of anxiety just comes with the territory when you’re dealing with mood disorders, even without a separate diagnosis. For me, it’s always taken on a wide variety of unsavoury flavours. For a couple of years while I was in college and shortly thereafter, living in Manhattan during and immediately after 9/11, I had panic attacks. In time, I learned that merely having anti-anxiety medication on hand meant I likely wouldn't need it, and eventually even that became unnecessary. My panic attacks were a response to a stressful and highly uncertain period in my life; once that time and place changed, they resolved.
Often, there’s something happening in my life that’s behind the anxiety—although sometimes it can take a while to figure out what that is.
Often, there’s something happening in my life that’s behind the anxiety—although sometimes it can take a while to figure out what that is. It can also be a signal of shifting moods, as, like many with bipolar disorder, I frequently experience anxiety with both mania and depression.
If I’ve learned anything on my many misadventures in the land of anxiety, it’s how to respect the wildly diverse topography and ecology there. In order to conquer the enemy in this hostile territory, you must know what it looks like and where it’s coming from. For example, if mania is behind my anxiety, then I know the best solution will likely involve an anti-psychotic medication, a hearty meal, and sleep. On the other hand, if depression is responsible, then it’ll probably require more exercise, less sleep, lighter meals, and possibly an antidepressant. And if panic is the culprit, then something like the sedative my seatmate had offered might actually work.
But I wasn’t having a panic attack on that Hawaiian Airlines flight. While I do hate most everything about air travel, I’ve never been afraid of it. And I knew I was neither manic nor depressed. Rather, having failed to fully appreciate the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, my anxiety was the simple result of inaccurate accounting: I was expecting a much shorter flight than reality could offer, and when I didn’t get it, I grew uneasy.
This kind of anxiety falls on the high end of what I consider my normal range, and recognizing this helps me keep it in check. The moment I start imagining it as something bigger and more clinical, it becomes something bigger and more clinical. So I rock and hum and tap my feet because music and movement calm me. I may look weird to fellow passengers, but it works for me.
Unlike my neighbor, I fly in sweats. At 30,000 feet, I’m not aiming to impress; I’m aiming for comfort.
Printed as “Flight of Ideas: Anxious over the Pacific,” Fall 2014