When I Need to Feel Normal
A lot of the time, I live with sort of a low-grade dread, kind of like coming down with a fever. I’m well-known for overthinking and catastrophizing. The combination is exhausting.
When anything alarming happens, I ratchet up into an agitated state. It could be anything – a relationship problem, a looming financial disaster, a health scare. I respond with racing thoughts, trembling hands, and sleep disturbances. I find myself at 2:00 a.m., wide awake though a little bit foggy, with no real idea what I should do. Most of the time, there isn’t really anything I can do.
This happened a lot when I was in college. My life was complicated then – well, it always has been and still is. I wasn’t particularly worried about my grades or about graduating. No, it was other things that occupied my troubled mind. A difficult relationship was ending in great turmoil. I had lost a lot of weight and didn’t look or feel healthy. I had to pack, move, and find a job. My parents were coming for the graduation ceremony and I didn’t want them to see me in such distress. It was all overwhelming.
I had insomnia that summer. I would find myself lying on the sofa, wide awake, my brain on overdrive, with only a large black cat to keep me company while everyone else in the house slept. That cat kept me anchored in a way. He distracted me with his solidity and his insistent purring. He was a soothing presence that helped me not feel totally alone, without putting any demands on me.
It was that summer when I learned a technique I could use when everything seemed to be spinning out of control. I found that I could ground myself and stop all the whirling thoughts, at least for a while, by doing something small and totally normal. Making myself a cup of tea was my go-to. The familiar actions of finding a mug and a teabag, heating the water, and steeping the tea gave me something physical to do that would get me out of my head and back into my body. No matter how distraught I was, I could always manage to make a cup of tea. It’s not a demanding task. I could do it practically by rote. But it was so familiar – so completely normal – that it was a form of reassurance.
It turns out that the feeling of normalcy can soothe other people too. Once that summer, my uncle Phil was also having a hard time sleeping. Like me, he was afflicted by personal problems and feeling out of touch with his body and tangled up in his head. I busied myself making him a can of soup. It kept me from getting swept up in his turmoil, and it helped him become calmer as he watched me puttering around the kitchen. Again, it was all so normal that it soothed us both.
Now, when I have racing thoughts and distress, I try to find something manageable and entirely normal to do – something I can do automatically, without expending any thought. Putting out fresh food for the cats. Making lists. Watering a plant. Anything that I can do with little expense of energy or thought. In a way, it’s kind of a mindfulness exercise, paying attention to the steps involved and experiencing every movement as I go about accomplishing my normal little task.
This technique doesn’t work for me if I’m having a full-blown panic attack, but maybe it at least helps me stave one off if I catch it creeping up on me. It’s one of my more effective – and non-counterproductive – coping mechanisms.
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