Life Lessons Learned from Tetris

I’m hungover. I’ve been hungover all summer, actually.

There’s been no alcohol involved. Those who knew me in university will be amused to know I have one drink of wine these days and need a nap, so that type of hangover isn’t too likely. What I’m experiencing is one massive anxiety-hangover.

I’ve had migraines and stomach issues this summer, which I know are my body’s way of releasing all that tension I felt over the past school year.  I stopped imbibing those stressors a couple of months ago, but I’m still waking up each day surrounded by a mess, not quite sure how I got here, and feeling like hell.

I have fewer stressors in my life at this moment, but I’ve got more anxiety. Stress isn’t the same as anxiety. Stressors are things can make a person sad, angry, or worried, while anxiety is a feeling of fear, dread, and apprehension. Stress is often caused by external influences, while anxiety is an internal response. Anxiety can manifest on its own, without any real “trigger” or cause.

It almost seems that without being in a constant ‘fight or flight’ mode, my brain no longer knows how to function. Not having stressors is actually anxiety-provoking for me. I lie in bed late at night, sure that I’m forgetting things (and chastising myself for little things I did forgot to do five months ago, or when I was 13) and making endless mental ‘to do’ lists. I struggle to focus during the day, and have even started drifting off to sleep mid-afternoon. Too often, I find myself at the end of another day, having accomplished little on my many colour-coded to do lists.

My anxiety has turned me into a procrastinator. I was never a procrastinator. I was the type of student who finished an assignment weeks before it was due. Now, I know how much I have to do, but I can’t get out of my own way and do it. Instead of working, I spend too much time on social media, letting my inner critic jab me in the ribs and point out how focussed and productive and successful everyone else is.

I started off the summer by trying to be patient with  myself. I tried to practice self-care, and give myself time and space to bounce back and feel like myself again. But as the summer has gone on, my anxiety has only gotten worse. The level of my anxiety-hangover has grown in direct proportion to how well things appear to be going in my life. I’ve lived for so long with our anxiety amp turned to 11 that I can’t remember how to dial it back. Without a crisis to focus on, I can’t seem to focus, at all.

While everyone else went to the cottage last week, I stayed home and went on a midsummer cleaning binge. Cleaning and organizing helps me focus, and it’s also much easier to do when no one else is around. So I grabbed recycling bags and hit the closets, throwing myself into a task that was productive and didn’t require me to think much.

One of the treasures I found was my old GameBoy, circa 1990. It came with one Mario game, and Tetris. Tetris was my favourite — again, all about organizing and focussing. Things I used to be good at, back in the day.

I feel a bit like I’m living in that Tetris game, these days.This summer has looked lovely, on paper (or on Facebook). The kids spent leisurely days with friends, and swam and explored at our cottage. Puck has been as relaxed and happy as he’s been in years, knowing he’s not returning to the school where he felt so different. I learned this week that we won our appeal with the Department of Education, and we’ll receive tuition support for Puck to attend his new school. I have a few new pieces of work, and things are feeling more secure. I’ve been asked to speak at a number of conferences this fall, and have fresh story ideas bubbling in my imagination.

All of these pieces have been drifting down around me like the pieces in a game of Tetris: slowly at first, deceptively easily. I started the summer feeling I had a blank screen, and could make room for new things and rearrange our lives with little effort.

But there’s still my mother’s declining health to worry about. And while I hope Puck’s positive attitude about school bears out, I know the transition will be rocky. I’ve always had ‘imposter’s syndrome’ and feel like people I work with will soon find out I don’t know what I’m doing. Moreover, I worry that with my current anxiety hangover, I’m not going to ready or strong enough to deal with whatever fresh crisis gets thrown my way (and let’s not even get started on nuclear war…).

The pieces drift down faster. Work assignments. Meetings. Deadlines. Kids. Parents. House. The approaching first day of school. I’m challenged to find the right fit, until at last, demands are raining down on me like missiles, and it’s all I can do to watch the screen fill up.

Tetris gives you the option of pausing the game, so you can catch your breath and keep trying to fit the puzzle pieces in. Or, when it all gets out of control and the screen fills up faster than you can cope and you lose,  it encourages you to try again.

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As critically as I treat myself these days, I know that are my options: pause and regroup, or just try again the next day.

I’m not doing too well with the pausing. I can pause, but the universe keeps moving, and then I have to run twice as fast to catch up. So I need to learn to accept that when my screen fills up faster than I can manage, I can just try again. Keep trying. New puzzle, new day, new attempt. That’s all any of us can do.

If, like me, you’re caught in a Tetris game of anxiety, what can you do to help?

  • Turn to Relaxation Techniques: Music, Meditation, Exercise, Personal Rituals  Yoga, walking, meditating, deep breathing…anything that helps you focus and calm your mind
  • Track your mood    Puck’s been using a mood tracker app for months now. There are some great ones available. I’m a little more analog, and like to track my mood in a bullet journal. Tracking your mood helps you identify patterns and triggers, and to anticipate when something might heighten you anxiety.
  • Outsource the stressors   Reducing the stressors in your life can be easier said than done. I have a tendency to take on responsibility for all domains of my life. While I need to focus on getting my work done well, there’s no reason the piles of dog fur under the coffee table should be causing me stress. There are three other humans living in this house. They can take responsibility for the general state of (un)cleanliness.
  • Talk to someone    I have friends I can trust who’ve had their own experiences with mental health challenges. Sometimes, professional help is really what you need. If your employer has an Employee Assistance Program, give them a call. If you need help finding a professional to talk to, or don’t know where to start, you can call 211 in Nova Scotia for assistance finding community resources.

This takes time. It requires actual rewiring of the brain. It’s not a matter of simply relaxing or practicing good self-care, although those things help. You need to learn to pause the game. The game might end, but your world won’t.

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