I know more about anxiety than the average person, more about neurology, more about the neurology of anxiety, of triggers, of fight and flight and freeze.
My anxiety is a gift that lets me understand, in my very body, how a child feels when their emotions are too big. I know the instinct to flee, the running to hide under a table, to get out now, how your body moves quick, and if someone catches you, you flail. I know the feeling of raging fury and a sobbing meltdown, the way your body shakes, how your whole being vibrates with torrents of feeling. I know how a body becomes still. I know about staring at the ceiling when your insides are liquid and the whole world pours in through your not-there-skin. Or you are ice and nothing comes in or goes out, you’re paralyzed in the present, and no one can reach you, there’s nothing before or after, just the hugeness of now.
My haywire nervous system means I know, I have easy access the place in me that mirrors the place in others who feel scared or mad or so, so quiet. I know the science. I can explain how the prefrontal cortex disengages in moments of fear or immense feeling. I know how fight and flight are survival mechanisms, how they evolved to help humans overcome existential threats.
But sometimes it’s maddening to know the science. Like being split, body and brain. My internal scholar observes that I’m being triggered, while my body floods and my heart pounds and my eyes squeeze shut to block the sensation of panic. My brain observes that my heart is flying. I’ve learned to notice the signs of my own distress, to know their cause, but my body proceeds anyway. Days like today, my nervous system kicks into danger-mode. Too many of my preschoolers needed help regulating their feelings and their bodies, there was too much chaos in my classroom, too many adults, too much sound and movement. I had to hold one of my students in their car seat and force their arms through seatbelt straps at the end of the day while they fought to stay free because they didn’t want to go home. I felt that child’s distress acutely, and I had to put them in their car seat anyway, and there wasn’t time to stay and bring them back to felt safety.
That last experience pushed me over my emotion-regulation threshold today. It’s taken my heart two and a half hours to slow down. I am glad for my sensitivity, glad for the ability to feel with others, glad I can be a container for others’ distress. But shit, it is hard some days.