When I was about fifteen or sixteen, I had to write a kind of list poem for my English studies. I think I called it something like ‘Nervousness’ and it was a whole list of things that made me feel ‘nervousness’. My teacher corrected me, writing that ‘anxiety’ was a better word to use. She may have been right, but I still think ‘nervousness’ has the right kind of twang to it. It seems to better describe the anticipation/anxiety that lingers in my stomach before any event of importance to me.
Anyway. My point is this: it was a long list. Now that I’m aware that I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP) the ‘nervousness’ makes sense. It is mostly about anticipation; it is normal for a highly sensitive person to seemingly ‘overreact’ to certain situations yet to come. For me, there is BAD anticipation and GOOD anticipation. Normally, I don’t like to use words like ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but you know what, for anxiety these words fit!
GOOD anticipation can make my stomach flutter and twist at the mere thought of something that I’m looking forward to, such as meeting with loved ones or friends; a good TV programme, a yummy meal, a chance to do some art… the list goes on.
BAD anticipation was at its peak when I did my piano exams when I was a teenager. The coming piano exam would loom large and fill me with dread, twisting my stomach into knots, days before the actual event. Then hours and minutes beforehand it was all I could think of… my stomach would threaten to empty its contents, my legs turned to jelly and my hands became sweaty. (The aforementioned sweaty hands are not good for a pianist!) I didn’t tell anyone about my anxiety – externally I must have looked okay, and I managed to sit the exams and pass. But, but, but… those nerves were dreadful. Joanne Limburg is spot on when she termed her anxiety ‘my Unbearable Feeling’ in her excellent book The Woman Who Thought Too Much. For me it is (almost) unbearable too.
I recently had to dialogue with somebody about something that I felt passionately about. It had the potential to be stressful. Days beforehand I worried about it, thinking through various hypothetical conversations, what phrases I should use… On the actual day of the dialogue I got myself into a right old pickle, crying on the loo… my stomach threatening to empty its contents, my legs turning to jelly and my hands becoming sweaty. Not good for a grown-up with a Ph.D., a mother of two, a professional…
Like most of the other situations that I’ve been anxious about though, it ended up being fine. I looked okay from the outside; I spoke calmly and it went okay. But afterwards I had a good cry. It was all so overwhelming. It’s at times like these that I hate being an HSP. Hate it.
Focussing on breathing, being mindful of the actual present moment can all help in the run-up to the stressful event, but I’ve not yet found myself to be able to fully control my nerves. Perhaps it’ll take a lifetime of trying. I don’t know.
Is there anything useful about these nerves? Well, they tell me that I care deeply about certain things. And despite putting myself into a situation that is high-stress (in my view), I can do it. I can do the stressful ‘thing’ (and cope with ‘the unbearable feeling’) and come through the other side.
I recently started Zentangling (learning from this wonderful book) and one of my favourite Zentangles is called ‘Knight’s Bridge’ (basically a checkerboard pattern of black and white squares). Getting through the stressful situation is like crossing a ‘Knight’s Bridge’. If I can see that I’m doing the stressful thing because it is of benefit to me or my family (or simply the right thing to do) then that helps. It is also good to know that there is an end in sight. Perhaps afterwards I can even feel a little ‘knightly’ for having done the thing and endured ‘the unbearable feeling’. This zentangle will be a small reminder that there will always be bridges to cross, hurdles to overcome. The ‘unbearable feeling’ may always want to tag along while I’m crossing the bridge, but who knows, maybe one day it’ll get bored and go away; and whether or not it’s there, I’m still going to cross the bridge.
Many thanks to Amanda at WriteAlm for the writing prompts :-)