The Fear(y) of Everything
11 May 2017
(Originally posted on my old personal blog, Adventures with KHill!)
Let me start by telling you about the love of my life, my pet chihuahua, Lilly. It’s hard to believe that she’s only been a part of the family for about three years now, as I can hardly remember life without her and believe that we were destined to find each other.
Anyway. Lilly is adorable and sweet, and shows so much love to her people. She whimpers every time I come home and follows me around until I pick her up. She can sleep any time, anywhere, though her favorite spots seem to be against something warm like my dad’s belly or under the covers of my bed beside my legs. She gets very nervous around lots of noise or crowds or new people, and when she’s nervous, she shakes and yawns a lot. She’ll run around and bark at big dogs and chase rabbits all day as if she’s some predator on the savannah, but as soon as another creature gets close to her, she immediately retreats and wants to be picked up by her humans and carried to safety. Maybe I’m projecting here, but I suspect that Lilly’s frequent napping has to do with exhaustion from all the outside stimuli. The big, big world is a lot for one little chihuahua to take in.
In essence, Lilly is me.
Alright, whatever, definitely projecting. But a lot of the time lately, I’ve definitely found myself feeling like a nervous chihuahua, only ever truly comfortable when I’m holed up under a blanket somewhere warm and familiar. Unlike Lilly, unfortunately, I can’t just make Stephen carry me every time we’re out in public and I get scared. People would find that weird, apparently.
I’ve long been a fearful person - often to the point of irrationality. Some of my earliest memories are of being scared. When I was very little, I recall my mom telling me there was a tornado warning or watch or something for where we lived. I spent the rest of the night cowering in fear of a giant tomato rolling down my street and crushing my house in its wake. I’m not sure if I misheard or was just not that bright, but the scary mental image was enough that I remember it 20 years later and think of it every time I see a Fazoli’s sign.
More ominously, after 9/11, I used to see shadows outside my bedroom window at night and fear that Osama bin Laden had found me. People explained, of course, that an 8 year-old in suburban Kentucky wasn’t likely on his radar, but the fear remained.
Stupid-young-Kaitlyn anecdotes aside, I’m sure no one needs me to tell them that the world we live in today can genuinely be a very scary place. For my generation in particular, terrorist attacks, mass shootings, sexual assault, and the like are in the news so frequently that they seem to be a tragic but nearly normal part of life. We grew up with lock-down drills - how dark is that? We were equally prepared for an attacker to enter our elementary schools as we were for a tornado or an earthquake to hit. And it’s sadly been proven time and again that those drills are worthwhile. In college, we learn tactics for looking out for our classmates, intervening at parties when a friend has had too much to drink and she’s with a guy we don’t know. Most of my female friends on campus carried mace on their keychains; I didn’t, but still held all my keys between my fingers whenever I walked alone at night, like some low-budget brass knuckles. In subtle ways, we’re always expecting the worst.
The constant influx of sad, scary things happening all over the globe combined with my anxiety have made me feel, on many occasions over the past few years, crippled by fear of basically everything. One of the things that caused me to start seeking therapy (and subsequently, to start medication) my sophomore year of college was how often in everyday situations a fear would plant itself in my mind and suddenly render the situation unbearable. Once, for example, there was an unfamiliar man sitting at the back of my classroom and I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was there to do some harm. I felt so panicked and sick that I left in the middle of class and stayed in my dorm room for the rest of the day. When I went to see the movie Les Miserables in the theater, there was someone sitting alone in one of the front rows and, once again, I was sure they were somehow dangerous. I was shaking for most of the movie (and of course it was the longest movie ever - we get it! Life as an 18th century French peasant sucks! Get me out of here!), then started sobbing from all the pent-up anxiety and ultimate relief on the car ride home. It probably scared the poo out of my sister, who was driving, but was easily disguised as leftover sadness at Jean Valjean’s death.
These days, I’m better at talking myself down from those big, less rational fears and more often experience discomfort rather than the panic or terror that I used to feel so often. I’ll be freaked out by a man walking behind me in broad daylight, but I’m able to tell myself, “This is a safe neighborhood. Nothing’s ever happened to you on this walk before. You’re almost home.” I’ll get super uncomfortable standing in a fast food restaurant because a group of guys keep looking at me and whispering to each other. It’s probably paranoia, and I probably just have ketchup on my face, but it’s hard not to feel wary when I’m rattling off the statistics in my mind about how many women experience sexual assault in their lifetime (1 in 5? 1 in 6? Regardless, WAY TOO MANY).
And still, there are times when my big fears feel validated, and that can be hard to come back from. Recently, there was an armed attacker on the campus of my alma mater. It was my biggest fear of the past five-ish years coming true. Thanks to the quick actions by some real heroes at the school, the attacker was thwarted before he could do much damage, only one person was hurt with non-life-threatening injuries, and all of my friends on campus were safe. Even 2000 miles away, I was terrified that day, and I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I was still living and going to class on campus. I think every day about the students who were there and how I hope they’re getting the help they need.
But how does a person take all this in and still exist in the world? How does a shaky chihuahua keep going out and chasing rabbits even when they scare her from up close? (Does this analogy still fit? I think I lost it somewhere along the morbid stream of consciousness.) Well, you’ve come to the wrong place with the non-expert who still hasn’t learned how to do this well. But if you’d like the secondhand advice from my multiple therapists over the years that I try really hard but often fail to adhere to, I can pass that on below…
- Contradicting catastrophic thoughts. This is most helpful to me, when I'm not being too stubborn to do it. Start talking yourself through all the reasons that your fear is not going to come true. Since a lot of my fears involve unknown men and feeling distrustful or afraid of them, I've been told to think about the men I do know and trust. My dad is a good guy who would never do any harm to me. So is my boyfriend, and he was once a stranger to me. So are all of my male friends. I even have male friends who have gone to movies alone and have sat by themselves with no plans to do harm to fellow moviegoers. The odds are slim that all these men are rare snowflakes amongst a sea of evil demon men. Thus, strange men can probably be nice people too and while I don't have to go up and give them all hugs, I also shouldn't be so terrified of them. I also think this strategy applies to the general state of mind of "wow, the world is awful and scary." It can be hard to "contradict" or avoid bad news when your cousin Jerry is insistent on sharing every "Apocalypse Today" article he can find on Facebook, or when certain government officials are trying to start World War III on Twitter. So, step 1 can be leaving the interwebs for a bit. I like to read books (have you heard?), or watch The Office or Parks and Recreation because I can just laugh and not think about much. If you have to be on your phone or the internet, I like intentionally looking up good news. Ellen DeGeneres is my go-to. Videos from her show are always funny, heartwarming, and would make anyone happy (unless they are one of the rare evil demon men, probably). I want Ellen to be the host of my life.
- Meditation and mindfulness. Full disclosure, this is something I really suck at. Meditation and mindfulness still seem kind of abstract to me, but they involve practicing clearing your mind and also being more aware of the way you are thinking. Basically, they make you calmer and more in touch with your thoughts/feelings...so that you can ultimately be more in control of them in situations where you feel panicked or helpless? I think. Wow this description is terrible, that's how much I've ignored the advice I've been getting for four years now to practice meditation and mindfulness. Here is a link to better describe it.
- Grounding techniques. For me, this applies to the times, rarer now than they once were, when I am feeling extremely scared or panicked. (Obviously, this wouldn't be for a situation in which I was scared because someone was coming at me with a weapon. In that case, I would not ground myself. I would run fast.) Grounding can take a lot of different forms, but is essentially meant to help you calm down and - in the event that you're fearing some hypothetical future situation or having a flashback to an upsetting past situation - bring you back to the present. I was taught to try grounding by the five senses. I would take some specific object around me, or just look at my surroundings in general, and pay attention to the things I am seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting. As an example, if I was imagining something terrifying while sitting where I am at the moment (my couch) I would feel everything around me - the soft blanket, the pillow behind me, cushions underneath me. I'd smell the candle burning across the room and hear the occasional car driving by outside. I'd see all the familiar furniture and books in my living area. I would focus on all these things individually, in the hopes of bringing myself to the present: I am here, I am safe, I am comfortable, everything is okay.
This may have been an abnormally dark/serious post, but I felt like addressing a very real part of my life that I’m sure is experienced by others yet is seldom talked about. We’re all scared at times - some of us (i.e. human-chihuahuas like me) more than others - and we can’t help each other unless we talk about it. Right? Now let’s circle up and sing Kumbaya.
And lastly, my book recommendation… none of the books I have been reading lately, because I’ve been on a murder-mystery kick that has NOT been good for my tendency to panic and catastrophize. Bad Kaitlyn. I do recommend a book that I read a few months ago called Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. It’s set in Seattle, which I believe is because the author lives here? Holla at me, Maria. It’s told almost entirely through emails, journal entries, and other forms of correspondence by the daughter of the quirky, eccentric Bernadette Fox. Bernadette was once a famous architect but is now essentially a recluse, increasingly hating the city she lives in and the other moms/housewives in her neighborhood. She avoids human interaction at just about all costs, hiring a virtual assistant to do all her errands (extreme social anxiety, maybe? #relatable). When she, her husband, and daughter are about to leave for a cruise to Antarctica, Bernadette disappears and the rest of the book shows her family trying to put together the pieces to track her down. It’s in no way a “Gone Girl,” suspenseful, woman-goes-missing book, but more lighthearted, funny, and ultimately poignant. Bernadette is a super endearing, hilarious, and relatable main character and I would probably read five more stories about her.
That’s all I’ve got for today, party people. Thanks so much for reading, liking, and commenting! I’d be especially interested to hear if anyone has other methods of dealing with the kinds of anxiety I talked about here.