I woke up with a start about 10 minutes before my alarm this morning. Annoying, I know. Sleep is precious these days. I have woke up like this a lot, off and on, in the last 5 years for various reasons. It always seems to happen after the same number of hours of sleep (either 3 hours or 5 hours). The waking stimuli is always something that has popped into my head in that light phase of sleep that is a part of every sleep cycle and it has upset or horrified me enough to make sleep no longer a possibility. I will lay there feeling wound up. Sometimes my heart will be racing. It doesn't seem to matter if this thought is a dream or my imagination or even if it is real. It has that same ultimate effect of making me feel an impending sense of doom.
I researched the origin of the phrase "Waiting for the other shoe to drop" because the sentiment reminded me of how I feel for the majority of the day after one of these startled wake-ups. One of the historical accounts I read stated the phrase may have risen in popularity because of a comedy joke brought to life in a play about two lodgers on different floors. The lodger on the lower floor is settling off to sleep when the lodger above drops one shoe. The upper floor lodger becomes aware that he is disturbing others so he takes the second shoe off more carefully and places it on the floor, but the lodger on the lower floor continues to lay awake in waiting, believing eventually, the lodger on the upper floor will drop his other shoe. When it doesn't drop, he finally yells out to his neighbor, "Well, drop the other one then! I can’t sleep, waiting for you to drop the other shoe!”
Other accounts date the saying further back to a meaning that implies, "Make your next obvious point." Drop the other shoe then.
Waiting for the other shoe to drop perfectly defines my personal brand of anxiety.
Do we not all have our own personal brand of anxiety? Be honest here. Everyone has something that makes them anxious. Death. Public speaking perhaps (a fear supposedly greater than death). Sickness. Needles. Flying. Heights. Claustrophobia. Talking to the opposite sex. Those are just a few of the more common ones. I would trade my anxiety in for any one of those any day because exposure therapy works. My most recent anxiety provoking situation was uneven twisty downhills on my bike -- fear of falling and injury.
Many people could not write a blog like this because the anxiety and the potential for being judged and criticized is too much. On some days, it is nearly too much for me.
Everyone's symptoms of anxiety are unique. Everyone has a story to tell. But at what point does anxiety become a problem that isn't simply just an annoyance? Being woke up by, perhaps suppressed, thoughts and emotional fears, as I am on a semi-regular basis, is more than an annoyance because it affects my whole day. And the thoughts that wake me up are about things that are tremendously emotionally painful for me. And most of the time what wakes me up is a fear that hasn't even happened yet ..... but I believe it could.
Most anxieties, like my uneven downhills, can be avoided without disrupting my life. Stay away from it and I don't have a problem. Or I can choose to take a deep breath, suck it up, and tackle it head on, learn a new skill, get tips from those that have been there before me, and it is usually never as bad as I feared. Practice makes perfect. Familiarity breeds contempt? (That's so easy, says my kids about things that once upon a time they couldn't do and were afraid to try.) That is what exposure therapy is intended to do.
But for some, anxiety is paralyzing. It can create odd behaviour. It can cause you to overreact to what, for others, may be a seemingly benign situation. It can hold you back from achieving a goal in life. It can cause one to take action that forces the other shoe to drop, even though there may be nothing more. The other shoe may be safely tucked under the bed.
I'm a college instructor. I deal with my student's anxiety every day. Presently I teach one course that has 98 students in it. Of those 98 students, 21 have been assessed and granted access to write their test in our exam services department, many of them because of test anxiety. These privileges allow them extra writing time. Usually, up to an hour. They have physical symptoms at the beginning of a test that cause them to become paralyzed for a period of time, blank out and forget things they knew easily the night before. They can feel faint, heart palpitations, blurry vision. They feel like they are having a stroke. Like they can't breath. Like they are going to die. I've watched students call in sick for tests, ignore emails, not show up for meetings because avoiding their anxiety is an easy coping mechanism.
Recently I met a young, obviously intelligent, woman who, when she found out that I also teach a writing course, pulled me aside and asked if she could sit in on my course sometime. Writing essays has held her back from going into university, where paper writing is essential, and she's not living up to her potential because of it. Why? Because as a shy child she was forced to read things she wrote in front of the entire class. Just the memory of this makes the act of writing paralyzing for her.
I have another friend who is a performer. He is not comfortable performing if he doesn't have several drinks in him. Why? He sees people out in the crowd chatting and laughing and he thinks they are laughing at him and noticing his mistakes.
Another friend was getting up numerous times in the middle of the night to be sure his child was still breathing. An unusual fear? Not at all. It is the compulsive checking that is the unusual part; especially unusual, in this case, because it is not his first child. This started with child number three.
And while I may be successful for 99% of my waking hours at hiding my fears, waiting for that other shoe to drop seeps into my subconscious and disrupts my sleep. It is a very powerful form of negative thinking.
And I don't know what to do about it. When I am in this state the most useless piece of advice you could possibly give me is, "relax and be yourself." "Think positive" is another trite gem. On some days I feel like I am lashing out at everything and everyone while desperately trying to keep my emotions under control -- masking my pain in sarcasm and gentle insults which only leave me feeling guilty and raw inside. And it begs the question of the self fulfilling prophecy because I am certain, at times, I have taken action that forces those involved to pick up that damn shoe and throw it at me.
I worked with a woman once who was always the biggest grouch. She snapped at people unnecessarily. She really didn't seem to like us young people at all (I was fairly young at the time). People were nervous of her, they tiptoed around her, walked on eggshells, (in a blog entry full of cliches and metaphors used to create irony and enhance cryptic-ness, let's add a few more), people avoided her and talked about her behind her back. People tend to condemn what they don't understand. I always tried to be extra nice to her. Complemented her, "sucked up," so to speak, and my experience with her was not as negative as some although I remember once being a couple minutes late relieving her from her station and she snapped at me, leaving me feeling torn in two. She is an extreme example of how fear of the world's opinion creates negative behaviour.
I ran into her a few years later, now older and now well on my way to my future health care life, and she was in emergency at the hospital I worked at. She was there because she had brought in her son who was in the end-stage of AIDS. Nobody knew about this part of her history when I worked with her in a past life. I supported her and her son through the night and she couldn't have been more relieved to have a friendly familiar face at her side. She was pleasant company and I thought nothing of giving her a hug at the end of my shift. It was also the last time I saw her.
I suppose my final message is this: If you see someone behaving in a way that is out of character, seeming irrationally angry, insecure, bitter, loud -- almost like a six year old acting out to get attention -- take the time to find out why. Surprising things can happen. Life gives us all a beating sometimes. Their behaviour probably has nothing to do with you.
So what is your anxiety and how do you attack it? I would love to hear your stories if you can relate. Sometimes its nice to find out you're not the only one.