Wired and Tired. The Anxiety Train

Photograph by Tegwyn Fietze

All illusions become a reality given enough time. I seem to recall reading that somewhere long ago. Are panic disorders and anxiety attacks just that? Illusions, the things that we fear the most, made physically manifest in our bodies?

How is anxiety, perceived? An illusion? To those looking in from the outside, it’s easy to say it’s all in your head. For those who know what it is like, it is as real to the person experiencing it as sipping on a cup of coffee or putting on their shoes. Like a toothache, or period pains or appendicitis, or childbirth, if you have never experienced anxiety, it is doubtful that you will be able to relate to just how debilitating this condition can be.

I see articles every day about anxiety and how to alleviate it by various means, medication and alternative therapies included, but I very seldom see articles about what it feels like to someone who suffers from it. Whether it be occasional mild anxiety, every single day chronic anxiety, anxiety for a specific reason (more commonly known as stress), general anxiety for no particular purpose or full-on panic attacks and panic disorders. I’ve researched the symptoms endlessly for myself, and I’ve lived the self-ostracised life (so that my panic and anxiety does not become evident in front of strangers, although this cannot always be helped).

I want to talk about being wired and tired because I think that this is an important area on the topic of anxiety and perhaps a phrase that many people will immediately understand if you are a sufferer of anxiety. If you’ve ever watched a duck on water, it seems as though they are tranquil and calm on the surface, yet you don’t know how fast or how furiously they are paddling under the water. Anxiety is just like that. Someone may appear outwardly calm, equitable in fact and utterly in control, but you don’t know, but just looking at them, how fast they are paddling just below the surface.

To me, being wired and tired is the simultaneous feeling of being wholly wired and hyped up and having that anxiousness clawing away at my chest and turning my knees to water and completely debilitating while at the same time absolutely physically exhausting, so that I feel like I can actually do nothing. In either state, I feel useless to myself and to everyone else.

For that reason, I call it the most debilitating sensation what a lot of people don’t realise about anxiety is just how much of a physical thing it is.

It’s all very well to tell somebody to calm down or meditate or go and do some exercise, or whatever all the conventional wisdom are, but when you are in the grip of an anxiety attack or panic attacks that literally spring a surprise attack on you, or even if you can feel your anxiety building up and you go, and you do all of those things, there are a lot of times that there is nothing you can do, to prevent or stop the actual physical symptoms that one experiences as a result of anxiety.

Therefore, I think that the subject of the physical reality of anxiety and panic attacks needs to be discussed in the broader communities we live in and with our families in more detail and talked about a lot more because this is when your anxieties begin to have anxieties. How often I’ve made excuses and backed out of plans — things I’ve looked forward to attending because, on that day, my anxiety was out of control. How often I avoid entirely or ignore people because I’m too afraid that my anxiety will be seen, and I’ll have to explain.

When someone asks, “what is wrong?” I don’t have a straight answer, because I’m not anxious over any one particular thing, I’m just anxious and scared, and I want to be left alone, not because I don’t love these people, or want to see them, but because it is taking all the energy I have to appear to be completely calm and friendly.

When you find that you actually are really beholden to the fear of going out and having an anxiety or panic attack in public and once it’s happened to you once, the concern that this is going to happen to you again in society is genuine. This fear is what keeps you even more introverted and more and more to yourself as you become less and less willing to put yourself out there. Little things become tremendous things, and it’s quite frightening how fast this can happen.

It is startling and extremely distressing when I realise how I become completely overwhelmed even by the simplest of things and actions I take, daily when I am in this constant state. Either I am in the space of calm, not happy, not ecstatic, not high on life and emotion just able to be calm, or I am entirely wired and hyped up, or just plain physically exhausted where the thought of putting one foot in front of the next becomes a challenge in itself, and I can be in both these states simultaneously.

I have been in this constant state of being wired and tired for a long time now, and it is absolutely exhausting. I don’t think that I’m exhausted on a physical level because I’m getting enough sleep and I’m getting quality sleep. I think I’m exhausted at a soul level.

What does it mean when I say wired and tired? It’s the being in a state of constant hypervigilance, and because of my being so hyper-vigilant I am also super sensitive to every energy is out there. So even if somebody doesn’t mean to make you feel insecure the slightest misinterpreted body language or misinterpreted comments can turn into a very overwhelming emotional meltdown, a slew of negative self-talk and thoughts. I don’t think this is true just me I guess it’s true for everyone, but I think that it’s particularly true of somebody who suffered PTSD or complex PTSD and who is continually having to deal with these issues

I had a conversation with a friend where he mentioned that he doesn’t experience a panic attack as a physical thing in the way that I do in in in the way that my chest tightens up and then my throat closes, and I have heart palpitations, and the pain goes all the way through to my back and up into my ears in the side of my head especially on the right-hand side of my body.

He experiences palpitations and an overwhelming sense of desperation and a sense of impending doom. I also have the feeling of impending doom but not while I’m having a panic attack. Generally, when I’m physically feeling quite calm I’ll have the mood or the thought or the feeling of something terrible is going to happen or that somehow the rug is going to be yanked out from under me. Nothing has happened to make me believe this, but past trauma has me on constant high alert. Ongoing trauma and the need to still be hyper-vigilant causes this condition to be even worse.

The attacks, however, themselves just happen out of the blue in that they come along when I’m least expecting them when I’m not necessarily having negative thoughts they just arrive. Kind of like a train pulling into the station when you can hear the vibrations on the tracks before you see the train. I can feel them coming on fast, and I can feel the pressure building up, I try to take meds in time to stop it from happening, but it doesn’t always help, and then the attack happens

The fact that these things are so entirely random makes me wonder if they would ever be able to clinically be tested because you could sit a hospital or controlled environment for days and not experienced anything like that and then the hour that you walkout is the time that you suddenly have one of these attacks. Anxiety is not always an easy thing to have diagnosed, and therefore, it can be a hard thing to treat, this I have found out the long way, with many visits to multiple doctors and all sorts of tests. In the end, I’m finding as helpful as all the doctors and medication can be. I must learn to take control of this condition myself too.

I don’t know how other people deal with these things I’ve just learned to keep cold water and cold packs on hand as the cold water to drink, and an ice-pack on the side of my head at least seems to calm the physical symptoms when they happen. On some days it’ll be one wave of attack after another after another until I do have a severe headache and other days it’ll just be one vicious one, and then there will be nothing after that for at least a week. I do know that from all the research I have done and all the people I have spoken to, that we each experience these attacks and this constant state of wired and tired quite differently. Although there are many cross overs and similarities, it can be different for different people.

For me, though, one of the things that help tremendously is to stay interested in my own life and to keep my own self-driven projects alive and healthy. There are those days when just doing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen or cooking a meal seem like a mountain to climb and beginning that simple mundane task almost seems too much. On those days, I have to dig deep and do it anyway. Inevitably this makes me feel somehow, much better and more in control, once I’ve done it.

If I carry this same mentality over to another task, work or creative project, I find there is always the resistance to start, yet ultimately, especially if it is a piece that I am writing, once I’ve done and polished it, there is a feeling of peace and reward. The more I tackle both these mundane tasks and the more complicated work and creative projects the better I feel.

What I find is that I can become absorbed in these endeavours and once I am absorbed in what I am doing, my constant obsessive thinking mind, that never seems to want to shut up, takes a back seat and I can accomplish things.

Some days it’s tiny things. It can be as simple as I just cooked dinner. Other days it could be completing a painting or a piece of writing. I have found giving myself outcomes-based activities to do daily goes a long way to solving my immediate anxious mind, as I become mentally active in another more creative area.

Something as simple as cleaning out my closets and putting stuff aside for charity can seem like a hugely daunting task, yet once it’s done, I realise I’ve spent an hour or two out of the anxiety zone as I’ve been concentrating on the task at hand. The more I do this with an end goal in mind, the easier it gets to tackle the next thing, the greater a sense of accomplishment I have, the less anxious I become.

This really is a process, I must always remember, where I am on any given day. I must give myself a mental check. How am I today? If I am overly anxious and jumpy, unable to sit still and concentrate, it’s not going to be a day that I sit down to write or paint, it’s going to be a day I take on a physical task, like cleaning or sorting out my office or perhaps even doing some mundane filing and putting things away where they belong. However, whatever it is I engage in, must garner an end result. Something I can step back and look at and say, “today I accomplished this.”

The more wired I am, the less I’m going to be able to intellectually engage as my mind is in turmoil, this is when I take on a physical thing. If I find myself starting off the day on calmer mental waters, I try to take on more of an active intellectual activity that has me thinking in creative ways.

I can’t even pretend to say that I have all the answers to this dilemma. What I do know is that taking action, any kind of activity, big or small ultimately makes me feel better. I don’t tackle difficult communication or emails or phone calls on the days that I know I won’t cope with them. While sometimes something cannot be put off indefinitely, it can most often be put off to when I can deal with it. This is not procrastination; it is understanding my limits and how much and how far I can push myself on any given day. The times when I push those boundaries beyond what I can cope with on that day are the days when I inevitably feel like a failure and all that anxiety kicks right back in again. So, I’m learning to pace myself, read my own emotions and mental state and to become an observer of my feelings and thoughts and then to decide accordingly what to take on and what to leave over for another day.

The only thing I know for sure is that propelling myself forward one inch at a time, or as I’m often heard to say “sometimes it’s one second at a time, sometimes, it’s one minute, sometimes it’s one day” helps me to move forward with my life despite crippling anxiety and depression. I take myself and my thinking less seriously and focus on what I actually can achieve, just for today, and when I look back over weeks, I discover that, in fact, I have completed quite a lot and that certainly goes a hell of a long way to helping with the overall situation.

A writer for many years. A long time ago, I used to send out articles to an email database regularly, in the days before blogs and platforms such as Medium.