Most of us have experienced that familiar falling dream. It happens to me just as I’m slipping into a deep sleep. I begin to dream that I’m walking barefoot along the edge of a crumbling precipice, my toes curled tightly around the edge of a sheer cliff.
Then suddenly, I trip and tumble with arms flailing violently as I plunge headfirst into a dark chasm, screaming in terror — though I can’t hear my own screams.
Bam! I kick my feet out from under the blankets and startle myself awake, eyes snapping open. My cat leaps onto the floor, his furry face a combination of annoyance and WTF? My breathing is rapid and shallow. Sometimes I’m even sweating. I blink a few times. Shake my head. I realize I’m in my bedroom.
A warm calm washes over me as I plop my head back onto the pillow, pulling my bare feet back under the warmth of the comforter. Maybe I giggle to myself, realizing I was always safe in my bed. My cat meows and jumps back onto the comforter, curling into a ball next to my legs.
I equate anxiety with this falling sensation — except I never wake from the nightmare. That terror which floods the chest stays with me while I roll out of bed. While I force myself to eat breakfast. While I brush my teeth. While I drive to work.
Always falling. Always feeling the tightness in the chest. It’s exhausting.
Writer Andrew Solomon has spent the majority of his adult life lecturing about his own struggles with depression and anxiety. He penned a similar description in his 1998 article “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” published in the New Yorker.
“If you trip or slip, there is a moment, before your hand shoots out to break your fall, when you feel the earth rushing up at you and you cannot help yourself — a passing, fraction-of-a-second horror. I felt that way hour after hour.”
Anxiety has become my depression’s evil twin, jumping into the bloodstained arena just when I’ve got the high ground on my depression. And while depression is sometimes described as brooding over the past, anxiety is like ruminating over possible futures.
My entire thought process is wrestled away from the present, and I’m stuck ruminating about possible catastrophes that might come crashing down on my skull, crushing my bones into dust.
What if I lose my job? I’ll be homeless. My friends will rightly abandon me. I’ll die alone under a bridge, cold and hungry and forgotten.
Of course I know I’m not really falling. But facts can’t keep the feeling of falling from overwhelming me. Free falling on my feet every day. It’s maddening.
I’ve only just begun exploring the slew of deep-breathing exercises, muscle relaxation techniques, and sensory and visualization meditations designed to keep that powerful spotlight of the mind focused on the present.
The trick seems to be acutely mindful of the now. To foster that feeling of calm after you wake from a nightmare. To remind me that, similar to the falling dreams, these catastrophes that make me so anxious only exist in my brain. I just need to wake up.