My Anxiety Had Something to Teach Me

Often daily, and for almost a decade, I’ve had to fight it off. I’ve plied almost every wile, stunt, and tip I’ve heard of, using fire, ice, spikes, and iron; cajoling and hollering; pleading and ridiculing; trying to kill or at least quell it, an alarm so loud, its ring so urgent, that I can feel as if I’m dying. Only as if, though: If I believed the alarm enough to, say, go to the hospital, I’ll be told I’m all right, that it’s in my head. It’s nothing but anxiety.

For most of my life, the anxiety was under control. I thought it a friend, a benign sentinel guiding me away from errors I’d regret. It pushed me to live up to promises, to plan ahead, to avoid hurting others. If it also meant I lived on edge—fretful, inclined to picturing worst-case scenarios in lurid, extravagant detail—so what? It kept its vigil, this anxiety, with the hope of keeping me safe; plus, for all I knew, perhaps I kept others safe, too, my private disquiet a protective spell I flung across my beloveds’ lives. It’s the most obvious sign I care about a person: If I love you, I’m fretting about you.

But at the end of 2019, this control began to slip. I was six years into working on my upcoming novel Exhibit, and I’d just finished writing a draft that read less like chaos—disjointed scenes, notes, inchoate scraps—and more like a book. Instead of the relief I might expect upon finding that six years of work could lead, after all, to a novel, I started gasping. For all I inhaled, I couldn’t seem to bring enough oxygen into my lungs. I felt myself to be in terrible peril. I choked and wept. While not the first panic attack I’d known, it was by far the longest, going on for hours. I kept having rolling panic attacks over the next few days, each fit surging into the next—and I didn’t know how to stop them.

If I lacked a cure, I did know the etiology. Exhibit is about a photographer who gets into a clandestine relationship with an injured ballerina. Both are Korean women, and the novel is fueled by desires they’ve mostly kept hidden, including queer lust, kink, and ambition. I’m also a Korean woman; I come from people so reserved about sex that, growing up in L.A., what I had for a parental sex talk was a total ban on sleepovers. It can feel as though I’m risking far too much by writing anything, even fiction, giving the slightest indication I might want a great deal for myself, might have desires like my characters’.

It’s also true that I seem to feel compelled to write about what I can hardly stand to put on the page; if anything, profound fear points me to what I must write next. But then, as a result, I can be lying in bed, and in the quiet I’ll hear sharp, desperate warnings from my body’s depths: I’m going to be killed. I need to flee. Run, my body demands, but I don’t; thus, anxiety.

I can be lying in bed, and in the quiet I’ll hear sharp, desperate warnings from my body’s depths”

Since I don’t plan to flee, I work instead to figure out cures. Here’s a catalog of what I’ve tried and found to be helpful, physics reputed to be of use at varying points along the anxiety spectrum, including at the start, when disquiet has just begun its tolling:

Lifting weights. The heavier the better, as I find that, if I’m lifting a weight I can barely manage, I have to pay full attention to how I’m moving, a focus that is capable of breaking an anxiety spiral. I especially love dead-lifting and other kinds of power-lifting: I can badly injure myself if I’m not careful, and so, I’m careful. Under the aegis of this same logic, I’ve loved rock-climbing—loved, past tense. I stopped going after spraining my ankle three times. But oh, I miss it, and if you’re less injury-prone than I am, maybe it will suit you. Dancing fast, hard, sometimes helps; so do handstands.

A friend once said that, in my devotion to climbing and power-lifting, I lived in pursuit of tiny emergencies to distract me from the larger emergency of novel-writing. Not an invalid point, and watching horror movies and fraught thrillers can also ease anxiety. I can’t and don’t otherwise watch horror, but when the anxiety’s running high, watching terrified people run around on a screen can be so intensely calming that it feels like running cool water through my agitated head: “Behold,” my mind says, “the world is dangerous, just as we said. But the danger’s contained, localized, in the box of the screen: you see, we kept you safe.”

I ask the anxiety how I can help, what else I might be able to do to address its concerns.”

I often thank anxiety for looking out for me. Doing so while the anxiety is still mild can forestall a panic attack. Similarly, I ask the anxiety how I can help, what else I might be able to do to address its concerns.

It’s useful, in general, to remind myself that I’m a person existing in a body, an animal. There’s such a thing as a mammalian diving reflex, which slows the mammalian pulse—i.e., our pulses—if we believe we’re underwater, an instinct that allows us to conserve as much heat as possible in cold waters. A less sped-up pulse is also less unsettled; so, washing my face can relieve anxiety, as can a simple sheet mask. Even better is frigid water for my whole body, whether it’s a cold plunge or a quick blast of cold water as I finish showering. Holding a glass of ice between my hands is medicinal, as is, conversely, adding layers or getting in bed to provide my body with the solace of physical warmth.

In-bed options abound. I prize my acupressure mat, for one, finding it so oddly relaxing I can fall asleep while lying on top of one. If you haven’t tried this yet, an acupressure mat is covered in sharp plastic spikes; I lie on top of it, careful not to move too fast lest my flesh snag a spike. I’ve liked weighted blankets, but what I really love is a weighted blanket with an acupressure mat, the added weight pressing me into the mat’s spikes. Tapping acupressure points on my body—on my hands, face, clavicles, and head—has worked. With or without the mat’s spikes, I also love clenching my muscles as hard as I can, holding that grip for half a minute or so, then letting go: in that instant of undoing, as I physically relax, my anxiety will, too.

‘Exhibit’ by R.O. Kwon

'Exhibit' by R.O. Kwon

Out May 21.

Singing, if possible very loudly, is said to stimulate the stress-regulating vagus nerve. Naming and listing details of the physical world reminds me of the vast living that takes place outside of my fears. Box breathing and other kinds of counted-out respiring are usually too mild for me—by the time I’m working to calm anxiety, I’m past a point at which I can inhale and exhale to a count—but it’s essential to a lot of people. Prescription drugs also help people, though they’re a tonic I largely avoid.

Before long, this book will publish, after which, at some point, or so I hope, I’ll return to having pre-Exhibit levels of anxiety: the relatively pliant kind, the type that doesn’t tend to kick up hours’ worth of panic. It’s also possible, though, that the anxiety won’t be allayed, in which case I’ll keep grappling with this angel-beast of a guardian, my Janus-faced sentinel. It’s trying to help, but so, by writing, am I.

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