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A man's pursuit of happiness

I Can’t Breathe

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Sometimes I feel like I have a rock on my chest. It’s pressure forces me to take short, shallow breaths. Without even knowing I begin to suffocate. This insidious affliction happens without warning and usually when I’m very very busy. It often causes me to have outbursts of anger or to retreat into a space that has no stimuli until the feeling has subsided. This makes it sound like I’m good at identifying it but truth be told, I often can’t tell that it’s even happened until after the fact.

It isn’t in my nature to think of it. I barely sit and consider most things because I FEEL too busy although whether I am or not is a different question. Lately my wife has mentioned to me that I need to try and identify it early. If I can feel it coming on then I can take steps to manage it. Writing this on a page makes it feel like it’s very dramatic but it isn’t. Not really. It’s just a thing that passes and doesn’t really slow me down much. But it is annoying because it feels horrible and if it does cause me to lash out and yell, then I do trully feel terrible about it. No, it’s isn’t completely dibilitating to me but it is horrible and I need to work on it.

Speaking with my wife (a psychologist) we agreed that I might be struggling with anxiety. Struggling is a big word because as I said before, I don’t think it slows me down but it is an annoyance. I sometimes feel a lesser version late at night, when everyone has gone to sleep and I sit there thinking. The TV is normally on in the background, but I’m barely watching. I’m just sitting, thinking about life, staving off going to bed as this is my only real “quiet time” when my kids aren’t charging at me or my wife doesn’t expect something from me. Slowly a feeling of dread creeps over as I think of the impending workday. It’s not like I’m scared of work, it’s just that it marks the beginning of the next cycle of wake-up, go to work, get home, get overrun by kids, put kids to bed, do a little tidy-up, and finally, if I’m lucky, have some time to unwind. Reading that back to myself, I see that it’s a bit of a hamster wheel and that’s what gives me dread.

That late-night dread sends my thoughts in a million different directions. From work to finances to child-rearing to family.

In the clear light of day, and with a good night’s rest behind me, my intellectual faculties take over and I see that my life is actually pretty great. I have stable work, my family is financially “safe”, my kids are happy and healthy. What more could a guy ask for? so then, what is this late-night dread? and what is the deal with this anxiety I sometimes feel? In a bid to answer these questions I did some reading and spoke to a few people with fairly broad experience in this area. No, they’re not the regular PhDs that you see popping up in this type of article, they’re regular Joe’s.

Anxiety

According to Better Health Victoria (an Australian State-based health website), anxiety is different to stress however, prolonged periods of stress can lead to anxiety. In my case, my immediate stressors were the pressures of being the primary breadwinner, a good father, a good husband, a lengthy home renovation in which I was doing most of the work myself and work.

None of the above were big enough in themselves to cause me much stress however, when combined, the added weight of all of them had an exponential effect on my stress levels. I would go from feeling relatively relaxed to overloaded in the blink of an eye. An example happened when I had just arrived home from work. I was feeling “no so great” as the work I’m doing at the moment isn’t particularily fulfilling and it had been a loooong day. I walked through the door of a rental house that we’ve been staying at during our home reno. My wife didn’t great me, all she did was ask me to clean my youngest’s face. Neither of my kids said hello, they were just screaming at each other over a toy that neither wanted to share. All I remember was that the noise was peircing. My wife looked frazzled as I’m sure my kids had been feral for a few hours already and as such, dinner hadn’t been started. I was pretty hungry and as I said, feeling a little tired already.

How did I react? well, I probably did the worst thing one could do in that situation, I got grumpy. Grumpy is a soft word as it diminutises my actual reaction, but safe to say the children got yelled at, my wife got a grumpy/dirty look and I stormed out. It had hit me. The feeling had struck. The combination of my days stress, being hungry, kids screaming and then being asked to do something were enough to push me over the edge. In short, a completely irrational response to a situation that is fairly mundane. Who’s kids don’t make a ruckas in the evening??

So what am I going to do about it? well this is the trick part isn’t it? Here’s my plan:

  1. Try not to take on too much stuff. This was a minor revelation I had while sitting around a campfire with a bunch of guys at a recent men’s retreat that I attended. The fact is, I always seem to commit to doing too much which inevitably results in me feeling overloaded. It also means that I never truly finish anything to the best of my ability which is a cause of stress in of itself. My taking on less, I’m giving myself space. Space to think, space for unforeseen things to happen and space for stress to dissipate.
  2. Mindfulness – this is one that pops up in all of the self-help articles. Why? it must work I guess. I’ll know when I actually start practicing it. I have meditated a few times and I do feel brilliant straight afterward. The issue is that I don’t think to do it in the heat of battle, when the stakes feel high and the stressors are taking up my full field of vision sitting and thinking of my breathing is the last thing on my mind. Obviously, these are the best times to go somewhere quiet and meditate but as I said, it’s often not front of mind… So, the next best thing I’m going to try is to do it regularly when I’m not stressed. My theory is that by doing it in my “low stress” periods, I’m building neural pathways between my synapses. As I practice more mindfulness, the pathways turn from barely visible lines in the grass to well-worn superhighways of electrical transmissions in my brain. The idea is that when I’m really stressed out, those pathways offer the easiest path for thoughts to flow and thus circumvent an outburst of anger or grumpiness.
  3. Look after me – I’m going to try and sleep a little more, eat a little healthier, and make space for myself a few times a week to just be. That might mean going for a run (more likely a walk) or to wake slightly earlier and drag out the ol’ yoga matt.
  4. Do some gardening. The internet is chockfull of articles on the benefits of gardening. I’ve half-read some of the articles and the benefits seem to come from an immersion in nature as well as a meditative style focus while doing something relatively mundane (think planting strawberries in your veggie patch). So that’s what I’m going to do! I might get lucky and end up with some produce that my kids enjoy.
  5. Work – I haven’t approached this yet as it’s a fairly complex ball of rubber bands. I’m just not in the right space right now to untangle it.
  6. Read. I enjoy reading, particularly fiction about ordinary humans going about their lives. The voyeur in my likes to watch what they do. Think Trent Dalton, Chris Hammer, Tim Winton, Jane Harper, and Richard Flanagan.

The Future

My hope is that the above will slow me down enough such that I can take a breath. Sometimes that’s the hardest thing for me, is to remember to breathe. Check back in a few weeks and I’ll post my progress.

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