My base state of existence is somewhere between panicked and frantic.
Sometimes I feel dumb for being as stressed out as I am, like when a medical professional asks if I have a "stressful job" and I have to be like "I'm a writer and editor, but I find it very stressful, yes." I mean, I'm not a heart surgeon. Nobody's life hinges on how well I schedule a 2 pm. But I do have hourly deadlines, and I receive a lot of direct, not-always-friendly feedback on even my smallest workplace decisions. And I just don't manage stress well, I never have.
Starting from kindergarten on, I found "work" very overwhelming. My dystopian nightmare future doesn't involve zombies or anything, it's basically just having to go back to college and write 10-page long papers about gender relations at the turn of the century or whatever. I can't imagine why anyone would ever go to grad school.
It probably didn't help that I always waited until the night before this stuff was due to start writing it. In my screenwriting classes, that meant that I wrote entire 120-page screenplays in one night. Around 3 am, I would just start transcribing my roommates' conversations. FUNNY HOW I WASN'T GOOD AT SCREENWRITING.
Basically I'm that kind of perfectionist who sees failure as so unacceptable that it's better to remain paralyzed in inaction than even risk it. But it's not like I just kick back and forget about it. Nope, I spend all my time obsessing and worrying about what I'm not doing, which is obviously a lot harder than just doing the damn thing in the first place.
For instance, the first time I was ever assigned a magazine feature -- 4,000 words, requiring a lot of research and reporting -- I was convinced from the moment I was given a due date that I would not be able to do it. I had a month of waking up every morning with this thing looming over me. I couldn't even watch a movie without thinking about how I should be spending every waking second on this article that there was just no way I was going to complete successfully. Of course, I did it in small pieces. An interview here, one there, and eventually all the building blocks came together into a satisfactory end product. (I think it was this piece, on female sex tourism.)
As with literally everything bad about me, I'm a lot better than I used to be. When that little voice kicks in to tell me that I'm incapable of completing a task and bound to fail, I am able to mentally trace my steps back through all the other times I've thought that and then done it anyway. But whenever things start acting up in more than one area of my life, or I stop focusing on all the self-care stuff that keeps me sane, I end up right back in the panic zone. My jaw clenches, I have trouble breathing, I feel like there's an agitated bird flipping out in my chest and it all starts from the moment I open my eyes in the morning.
Or before -- this last go-round with anxiety was seeping into my sleep life. For several weeks, I was having really intense and vivid rape dreams and when I woke up, my neck would be locked up entirely.
I seemed to get some relief when I used my fingers to press on the pressure points on the back of my neck, right at the base of my skull. To try this: Place your thumbs at the back of your neck, on the base of your skull on the two sides of your spine. If you're tense or stiff, the right spots will feel tender. Tilt your head back a bit and press your fingers in while pushing slightly upward. They even sell a tool designed for this purpose -- you just lean back on the Neck King to relieve tension and pain.
Since pressure points are a key component of acupuncture, the next time I woke up with a neck so stiff I couldn't turn it, I decided to make an appointment. I met with Suzanne at Five Seasons Healing and we had a 90-minute initial appointment in which I thoroughly described my current issues -- anxiety, nightmares and stiffness and tension centered mostly in my neck and shoulders. I filled her in on my trauma background and PTSD diagnosis and she took a thorough health history. She explained that acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine in which needles are inserted into pressure points in the body in order to restore balance and appropriate flow to the body's energy. I have no idea what that means and it sounds literally crazy to me, but I was willing to give it a try.
Suzanne had me lay on my front with my head resting on a hollow headrest like when you get a massage. Then she entered needles into a bunch of points on my neck, jaw, under my ears, and a few on my legs, wrists and feet. I'm covered in tattoos, so I'm accustomed to needles, but I really didn't feel any pain, just relief. In the sessions I've had since, there have been a couple of times that I've felt a strange sensation when a needle entered -- once I got sort of a zap through my palm, and another time it felt sort of like my tension was a bubble that "popped" when the needle went in, but neither instance hurt, they just felt a little weird. It's actually kind of reassuring to feel something weird, like a shampoo that tingles so you know it's working.
Once all the needles are in, she leaves me to relax for 20 or 30 minutes. As my stress unwinds, I usually start to drift a little. Sometimes I'm not sure if I've slept or not when Suzanne returns. Mostly I get into a deep meditative state. Sometimes I feel euphoric and a little "high" afterward, which is the holy grail for a recovering addict. We usually do one session on my front and the next on my back, to work different points.
Sometime after my third or fourth session, I started to feel really weird at work one day. Something in my chemistry seemed to have fundamentally shifted and I couldn't tell what this strange new feeling was. It only took a few minutes to realize that I just wasn't feeling anxious. A base level of anxiety has become so natural to me that it felt strange, and a little frightening, to be suddenly relaxed. Oh my god, this is what it feels like to be normal, I realized. I almost cried.
Suzanne also prescribed me some herbs to take at night and a powdered kind that I'm supposed to make into a tea during the day. I can clearly feel the effects of the tea when I drink it when my stress levels have started to creep back up. But I just really don't have the same issues with anxiety that I did before -- no more nightmares, no more locked-up muscles, and I wake up relaxed and happy, not feeling like my heart is about to jump out through my throat.
I don't know if all these effects are from the acupuncture or just from the extra hour of self-care in my week or the increased attention I'm paying to my stress levels. But I did have one experience that convinced me this stuff isn't playing around. Like I said, most of my sessions are extremely relaxing to the point that I look forward to them, but I started to have a different reaction to my "front down" treatments.
The first week I just felt a little restless and uncomfortable. I was counting the minutes until Suzanne would come back in and take the needles out, which took me by surprise since it's usually a very calming process. The next week we did the "front up" treatment and everything was wonderful. But the week after that, when I was on my stomach again, I started to feel the discomfort again.
This time I was able to lean into it a bit more, and I distinctly though to myself, This feels like the kind of uncomfortable I get when I'm avoiding a feeling. Within a few minutes, I had an out-of-body experience, where I felt like I was floating above my body. This feels like dissociation, I thought to myself. Finally, something came crashing to the surface -- a memory or a flashback of having a leash placed around my neck during my rape. Suddenly it made perfect sense why all my tension accumulates in that one spot, and why this particular position had been bothering me -- the needles were placed in a band across the back of my neck where the collar would have hit.
When my acupuncturist came back, I told her what had happened and she didn't seem too surprised -- I think she sees weird stuff come up for people all the time. I feel very safe there. When I got up from the table, I expected to feel horrible considering what had just come up, but after I cried for a few minutes I actually felt incredibly light, and I haven't had an issue with that treatment position since. Suzanne said she thought I had probably just needed to feel it and release it. It's almost like that detail was lodged too deeply for my years of therapy to access -- it took a physical treatment to get to it.
There's a little bit of therapy to our sessions; my mental state informs her strategy as much as my physical state. (Although plenty of people go to acupunture to help with straight-up physical pain like an injury, but it's a little different when you're treating stress.) And ultimately, the goal is to help program a better stress response so that I don't need to go every week. For now, I'm enjoying our sessions so much and they're working so well that I don't want to scale back. My insurance pays for it, which helps.
I still don't get all that crazy hocus-pocus about meridians and whatnot, but I'd definitely recommend giving acupuncture a shot if you struggle with anxiety. (There's a long list of physical and emotional/mental issues that acupuncture is supposed to be able to help with, so maybe look into it if you've got another issue as well.) I LOVE NEEDLES! Maybe I should get Botox, too, since everything's going so well with acupunture and tattoos? I'm a writer, so it's not like I need to use my face for anything.