As I write this, my miniature poodle, Midnight, is barking up a storm. He is staring out the window in to the backyard where my husband recently placed a large tarp in preparation for putting it over the broken roof of our shed. Midnight has never seen a large tarp in his back yard before – it is a change. It’s harmless, but how could he know that? It is completely new to him.
Changes are hard for all of us. As children, we were all hyper-sensitive to change; a change in schedule, for example, can throw children way off balance. Adults too are sensitive to change, I know many people who feel uncomfortable after Daylight Savings Time starts or ends. But depending on our biology and our life experiences, we may be very sensitive or less sensitive to the changes in our everyday life. I belong in the former camp.
Given that change affects me deeply, it isn’t all too surprising that I haven’t been my normal self for the past month or so. Just over a month ago I got married, then went on our honeymoon, now there is a whole lot of, “what next?”. One of the big changes in my life right now is just figuring out what my next focus will be and what my goals are now that the wedding is over. In addition to that, I am starting all sorts of new efforts to improve my mental health.
One such big change came yesterday in the form of a new group therapy course. It is a dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) based course aimed at helping people with borderline personality disorder or those who have similar difficulties regulating their emotions. It will take place every Tuesday afternoon for the next three months. Now, rationally, it can be argued that this is a really positive change for me. Taking a course which can help me learn to have better control over my emotions sounds like a good thing, right? But to someone like me, with disordered anxiety, this is very scary.
I can’t speak for everyone with anxiety disorders, but I know that many of us get stuck in the “what ifs”. What if the other patients in this group are judging me? What if this doesn’t help and is just a huge waste of my time and energy? What if it even makes things worse? What if I have a panic attack in front of all these people? What if I take courses like this for the rest of my life and never find the right solution for me? What if bringing up these emotions triggers me to self-harm? What if…? These questions can cycle on and on for an eternity.
I’ve been taught that anxiety itself is a good thing. A common way of explaining this is that if a bear is chasing after you, you will be thankful for anxiety kicking in to tell you to run or hide. When anxiety is disordered, however, we perceive a threat where none exists – or we exaggerate a threat to make it seem more threatening than it really is. There is no good reason for me to think I am in imminent danger in this new group therapy course, but I do.
With all these changes occurring at once right now, I am feeling quite unsafe. Everything new feels like a possible threat. Change is making even the things that I have become comfortable with through exposure therapy seem foreign again. I am feeling unsteady in situations that I have come to usually feel confident in. I am just a tiny little poodle whose backyard has a giant tarp in it and I have no clue how to manage that.