Fighting anxiety in the age of constant trauma
I’ve always processed negative emotions slowly.
It’s a survival mechanism. The pain doesn’t hit right away, and sometimes I’m surprised and ashamed that I feel unaffected in the moment. But it always comes. An hour later, a day later, a week later. It always comes.
Vividly, I remember being 19, a freshman in college, when I got stopped in the parking lot at my workplace and told that one of my young coworkers had died of unknown reasons overnight. I didn’t feel the pang of pain that you’d expect at news like that. I nodded, with an expression that was designed to show more than I was actually feeling.
I silently trudged into the office. The atmosphere inside was like fog, thick and heavy, uncomfortably so. A few people nodded at me as I walked in, and I nodded back, and sat down at my desk and pulled out my laptop. I got all the way into my active project file before I lost it.
The emotions hit me all at once — how he didn’t deserve it, how devastated his family must have been, how his birthday was just the day before. How unfair it was. Tears streamed down my face at a pace I couldn’t control. I felt everything that I thought I should have felt in the parking lot. In the space between there and my desk, my head wrapped itself around the reality, and the emotion hit me unexpectedly, like I’d been slapped.
We’re living in a traumatic era. Most weeks, I see at least one thing that really shocks and disturbs me (more likely, two or three things). I scroll on Twitter, or read the newspaper, and see something that makes me blink uncomfortably, and look away. I put it away in my head, but my heart has kept it.
Later — maybe a week later, two weeks later, a month — I break down. I have some kind of panic breakdown where I rearrange my bedroom furniture and cry because I scratched the paint on the wall, or I have anxiety fuelled nightmares for three days straight, or I just become depressively unable to work for a week. In the aftermath, I have to ask myself: “what exactly was that responding to?”
I usually don’t have an answer. Sometimes I’m able to drill down to the existential fear that I won’t live to see 25 in this country where climate catastrophe and right-wing violence are getting so bad so fast, and the country’s leaders are more interested in undermining the solutions than fixing the problem. But that’s rare.
I’m getting better at recognizing future trauma in the moment. The latest example of this is Grist’s recent article, about how climate scientists did not expect the wildfires to get this bad for another 30 years. This development has, apparently, spawned new terminology: instead of having megafires, we’re having gigafires now. I read the article and I think to myself: yeah, I’m probably gonna dream about this tonight.
I’m not a scientist. I don’t describe phenomena in terms like that. I don’t measure the fires by the amount of land they burn, I measure them by the weight of the feeling in my stomach, the speed at which my thoughts race, the remaining length of my fingernails as I bite them to the quick.
I try to deal with these feelings. I write, I talk to friends, I listen to podcasts, I go to sleep early. Most of the time, when I’m done with these activities, the anxiety is still there waiting for me. I don’t have a solution for it.
And I wish, desperately, that I had a better ending to this brief essay. I wish I could say “these 10 breathing exercises have been my saving grace during this troubled time,” or “check out this meditation app that has totally made an impact on my life,” but the truth is that none of those things help this deep existential fear.
The answer, probably, is to continue to fight like hell. And if you’re not fighting like hell — no I don’t mean voting — now’s a damn good time to start.