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Recognizing my triggers

Over the last two years, I’ve been recovering from a bad burnout. One that led me to developing a panic disorder. I’m still unpacking a lot of the trauma that came from the burnout, and I suspect I’ll be unpacking for a few more years. However, things have improved significantly since last year at the same time.

This evening, while talking with my girlfriend over dinner, she commented on how much better I’ve gotten at noticing the signs of panic before they cause me to spiral. I’ve had a pretty good grasp on navigating my heightened anxiety this past year, but it’s true that I’ve gotten better at recognizing the signs before they hit, and taking the steps necessary to calm myself down.

That comment from my girlfriend started me thinking—what exactly are the signs? I know them intuitively now, but is there something specific I feel or notice?

What triggers me is likely different from what might trigger you, but I wanted to take the time to write this out. Mostly for myself. But, I decided to publish it in hopes that maybe it’ll help someone else recognize their own triggers.

I’ve noticed that my thoughts tend to build and ricochet around in my head the harder I’m thinking about a problem I’m trying to solve. It feels like a bunch of energy being bounced around 4 walls looking for an escape, unable to find one, just building more speed with every hit. When this happens, it sends my body into a state of fight or flight. Which is probably because my breathing shortens and my abdomen tenses up the harder I’m focusing on a problem. These physical symptoms are often met with an interruption in thought after a little while, which typically sounds like my brain-self muttering “uh oh” or “oh no!”

Over the last couple of months, I’ve gotten better at recognizing that. Maybe it’s the meditation finally paying off, or just more distance from the original panic onslaught in 2021. Whatever it is, I can how pickup on the first few mental exclamations of trouble and interrupt them my taking some deep breaths and a break from work. Earlier in the year, I wouldn’t catch them early enough and let those mental shouts of fear grow bigger and louder, ultimately leading to a panic attack.

What’s interesting to me is the physical sensations I feel now are the same sensations I felt for years before having my first panic attack. I was just much better at recognizing them for what they were—arousal and exertion—instead of how they’re perceived now: a threat.

The silver lining to all of this for me, is that it’s forcing me to be better to myself. My body’s signals that I need to walk away from a problem are much louder than they used to be. It’s also become a good indication that I need to eat something, drink a tall glass of water, and walk around for a bit to stretch. Sure, I may have to take more breaks than I used to, but if it means I can run the marathon of life longer, it’s a small price to pay.