Heart Caretaking: A Mother and Scholar Turns a Corner on Panic and Anxiety
by Sarah Barnette
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I sit in a coffee shop and regulate my breaths. My eyes rest gently on the honeycomb-patterned tiles at the entrance, warm and sweet to my mind with their hive-humming rhythm. I try to forget about the unfinished book review with its blinking cursor at my elbow. In front of me, my notes recline out of focus and the book perches quietly at the edge of the counter. Panic quaked within me only moments ago. Finding me distracted and nervous about a deadline, it surreptitiously blasted the heat under all of the anxieties I keep on back burners, quietly simmering in dusted, well-lit corners of my mind. Suddenly my fears boiled over—for my children, my job search, our finances, our future, our country, the climate—and their heat invaded my workspace. Numbness crept into my arms and hands and prevented me from typing. Toiling through a panic attack only intensifies its internal pandemonium, so I stopped everything and simply sat. Now, cloaked in outward calm, I sip my water with feigned nonchalance, privately combatting a host of dreads as they lift their contorted faces to mine.
This was a scene from last autumn when my primary concerns were securing an academic job and providing day-to-day care for my children. I was writing a book review then as yet another attempt to improve my CV and make myself more appealing on the higher education job market. A thankless task, generally.
Now, in our COVID-19 era, the anxiety I describe from that morning in the cafe predominantly takes place at home. My new primary concerns are to keep my family healthy and to effectively practice social distancing. I still take on academic-oriented projects. I write articles and academic blog content and volunteer remotely with a museum I admire. But I no longer do it with an ulterior motive. I decided, somewhere along the line, to pursue what I enjoy without worrying after the “perfect” post or fixating with a lump in my throat over the next rejection letter on the thought, “If only I’d done X, then that would have gotten me the job.” I’ve learned that it’s time to stop putting the onus on ourselves. The problem rests elsewhere. The academic job market has been broken for some time and it’s not news. For years there have been too few jobs to be shared by too many Ph.D. graduates. Too little pay for adjunct positions that generally have no benefits and no security. Too many difficult and absurd sacrifices to make to get a sought-after position. Needing to exhaust your savings to relocate for a post in a department that has not budgeted for moving costs. Living in separate cities or states from your spouse (and sometimes children). Adjuncts having to choose between their job or their health. These things take a toll on us and the people who love us.
The rise in alt-ac (or alternative-academic) careers, too, speaks to the reality of the flooded market and I’ve finally embraced it. I’ve let go of the tenure-track dream. It couldn’t have happened at a better time. According to Karen Kelsky, famed author of The Professor Is In (2015) who has helped thousands of academics navigate the job market and decide whether or not to pursue alt-ac careers, COVID-19 is “an extinction event” for “a whole mode of operations in higher education.” She warns that the fallout from this pandemic will dwarf the negative impact of the 2008 recession on the academic market. She writes in no uncertain terms, “Begin to allow yourself to imagine a life outside the academic career.”
Perhaps it’s needless to say that my panic and anxiety have been inextricably tied up with the state of academia for years. But now, as we face dire global situations from coronavirus, racial injustice, and climate breakdown, just walking outside seems to activate our collective panic and anxiety, like generating static electricity with every step.
Lately, I’ve started to analyze my panic and anxiety more closely. With or without an academic job, during or not during a pandemic, I cannot remember what it is like to live without some measure of anxiety. It has always been with me in some form and seems a part of me, as if I were rooted in angst-ridden soil. My panic attacks are a more recent phenomenon. They began with the stress and grueling case of imposter syndrome that I experienced as a doctoral student. Panic attacks are not easily ignored or reasoned away and so they have brought me to a range of techniques for self and bodily awareness, including a series of physical-minded decisions to encourage calm. Only one cup of coffee in the mornings. Chamomile in the evenings. At least a few minutes of stillness with the greenery outside each day. Sunlight. A balanced diet. Regular cardio exercise. Morning pages for catharsis and self-reflection. For the first time in my life, I have the opportunity to see a therapist regularly to disentangle complex built-up emotions. As a Muslim, I also pray five times a day and recite duas, or prayers, in the Islamic tradition that are specifically geared towards alleviating anxiety and fear. Meditation, or dhikr, has become a lifeline in mitigating the effects of panic and bringing my parasympathetic nervous system back into play.
In all of this, I have found that, while panic attacks tell me there is a problem, or trigger, that I need to address, anxiety itself plays a more ambiguous role. I struggle with anxiety, yes, but when I feel that it has made me vulnerable or open to criticism—seeming to tell others that I am too negative or too indecisive or too self-conscious—I rush to its defense. I rename it Sensitivity—Thoughtfulness—Pragmatism—Rationality—Prudence. Where panic attacks periodically blaze red like an inner inferno, my quotidian anxiety thrums through me like a sixth sense. A useful thing to have in this world, after all, but misunderstood and underappreciated, I tell myself. In paying closer attention to this self-soothing habit of mine, I wonder if its underlying premise—that anxiety can be a strength as well as a weakness, a boon-burden with untapped potential—is justifiable? I seem to be arguing that anxiety, like wind, comes to us in dynamic bursts that take many forms. It can strip away our self-worth in a wuthering gust, or exhaust our minds under an oppressive, hot sirocco. Or—it can fine-tune us to catch and sound the inspirational music of an aeolian breeze.
In short, I notice that I own and identify with my anxiety in ways I never do with panic attacks. Why this discrepancy when the two are so obviously linked? Is anxiety a tool and a resource, or is it fundamentally debilitating? A white noise of the psyche that curtains round us and forbids positive thinking?
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Our word panic derives from the Greek god Pan. According to myth, in the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE) Pan let out an immense war cry that frightened away his enemies, the Persians, even though they had the military advantage. His battle cry reverberates today as the inspiration for our understanding of panic as a sudden, uncontrollable fear that takes over our minds and bodies and leads to irrational behavior. Anxiety, too, takes over mind and body. When I see an electric plug half-out of a socket, I have to snugly fix it in before visions of wayward sparks and electric fires chase me. I notice a heavy object at the edge of a counter and automatically push it in a few inches to foil toddler-reaching schemes. I press the recirculation button in the car to limit my family’s exposure to exhaust fumes. I check the air quality every morning alongside the weather and it determines whether or not I take my children for a long walk. I cut and mash my toddler’s food with abandon. I try my best not to waste water, to recycle correctly, to purchase food with a lower carbon footprint.
Anxiety, as you can see, reader, pulses through most of my day-to-day activities and choices. Some of this has come with increased awareness—as a mother, a consumer, a citizen—while other examples existed earlier in life. Before motherhood, internal doubts and indecisiveness plagued me when I dressed for important social engagements (or, now, Zoom calls). How will I be perceived in an outfit, what will this or that item tell people about me? Most difficult of all, there are many instances, too, when something sparks anxiety and presents no immediate or commensurate action. I physically wince at the sight of white contrails funneling from a plane’s engines in delicate filaments across a blue sky. I imagine the incessant crisscross of vapor trails around our planet, treacherous in an age of climate breakdown. But what to do about it? And has this reaction ever kept me from flying when I’ve needed to travel? Agitation mounts while powerlessness haunts. Emotional surge without ballast. Crescendo sans diminuendo. Anxiety in a nutshell.
So, in all honesty, is there any way to construe anxiety as positive, or am I fooling myself? Where is the line drawn between compulsion and care? Between apprehension and conscientiousness?
Half-man and half-goat, the god Pan is typified by his love for the forest and fields and he was cherished for the poignant music of his wind-instrument, a river-reed flute. He is a deity of nature, symbolizing its force as well as its serenity. His name stems from the word paon, or herdsman, a root-word that also gives us pastor and pasture. There is an earth-fastening richness and fecundity to Pan that at first seems to conflict with the alarm of anxiety and arrest of panic. In Ancient Greece, he was considered responsible for possession-like disruptions of the psyche: epileptic fits of divine inspiration called panolepsy. I find him a lesson in contradiction. Shrewd and humorous, energetic and frightening, Pan exudes ambiguity, being simultaneously divine and animal, cultivated and primal, spiritual and bodily. An internal guide and source of divination that comes at the price of a (at least temporary) loss of physical control. In other words, he sounds like anxiety personified.
In this light, I think my ambiguous relationship with anxiety makes sense. There is room for a more positive interpretation. Poetic wishful thinking, you may say, reader. But, in truth, anxiety and panic are widely recognized as evolutionary tools, known as internal alarm systems and fight-or-flight responses to life-threatening situations. The question is—in our hyper-connected, digitally-enhanced, modern and fast-paced environment—can we learn to optimally wield our natural disposition towards anxiety? Can we adapt in one lifetime as separate individuals when our species has been used to adapting collectively over millennia?
My own methods for adaptation seem to have taken on a theme: heart caretaking. Our hearts leap and bound and, during a panic attack, palpitate and quake. We tend to fear for our hearts the most when we experience panic and anxiety. Our hearts exist at our core; they are our center, servicing the rest of our bodies, life-giving and sustaining. I have been learning, lately, that heart caretaking is integral to general well-being. My cardio exercises emphasize the health of the heart, as does my balanced diet and minimal caffeine intake. Unburdening each week to a sympathetic listener in the form of my therapist brings to my heart emotional relief. Writing in a journal has also been healing; it invites the heart to move onto the page through the hand. And the heart needs this space to express itself. We actually have neurons in our hearts, over 40,000, that literally “think” and make decisions for themselves. Intelligent creatures, our hearts send messages to our brains related to emotions, learning, and reasoning that our brains must obey, but when our brains send messages to our hearts, our hearts are independent enough that they can choose whether or not to comply. Our hearts have needs and wants and anxiety is one way that they communicate.
Connected to this, it is so telling to me that Pan is associated with the natural world and music, particularly with an instrument made from river reeds. Communing with the natural world grounds and settles us, while music uplifts. How significant that one can be found in, and leads to, the other. There’s an implicit rhythm to this movement and exchange that matches the beating of our hearts. So, then, how do we come by serenity when we are beset by anxieties? How does the heart find peace? The methods from person to person may differ, but at bottom I think the answer is to stay grounded through knowing our world and ourselves—our hearts love recognition and care—while also finding and pursuing outward purpose that inspires and enlivens.
Some researchers today argue that anxiety and depression are evolved adaptations signaling our advanced analytical thinking and not—as principal medical opinion claims—disorders. For the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), anxiety is an appropriate philosophical mood because it fosters self-awareness. This rings true in my experience and it sanctions my suspicion that anxiety can be harnessed as a (heart)corrective. On the global stage, we have seen anxiety spur action through heightened self-reflection and renewed purpose. Greta Thunberg was once completely silent under the weight of her anxiety and depression and now she speaks for all future generations. The unjust burden of anxiety and fear that has fallen again and again upon black communities across the country has brought forth a reinvigorated protest movement and ever-widening #BlackLivesMatter Global Network. Our anxiety about COVID-19 compels us to care for ourselves and others with social distancing measures, face masks, and good hygiene. In smaller but no less important ways, my anxiety drives me to learn, read, write, check, and double-check. It is the making of my meticulous self. Even that word—meticulous—is rooted in the Latin metus, meaning “fear, dread, apprehension, anxiety.” It intensifies my self-awareness—it propelled me to write this essay —and it tells me to think twice before I judge or label others.
The philosopher and psychoanalyst Julie Reshe recently compared depression and existential angst with fever. She reminds us that a fever is frightening but not fundamentally bad. It serves an important purpose. It is self-restorative and tells us when there is an underlying issue. Similarly, anxious thinking and depressive rumination are ways we analyze and solve problems. And, in my case, they have positively redirected my attention to my heart.
Anxiety is still a hardship. It motivates and encumbers by pernicious turns. Pan was known for his capriciousness. But I think it has helped me to see anxiety from this perspective: as a natural response and a natural state. We need not belittle ourselves for struggling with anxiety, not even in a crowded café on a perfectly good pre-pandemic morning. For me, with every chest-pounding, torrent-laden moment, I have been led (back) to a renewed desire to learn, to strive, and to be still with the breaths connected to the beating of my heart—on the prayer mat, by the cedar tree in our small yard, in my turquoise-sealed bedroom laden with books, and beside my children. I hope to teach them from the first that the heart is an organ worth hearing.