This post Part 1 of a four-part series on anxiety. Please note I am not a medical professional. In these posts I am sharing my experiences and insights in the hopes they will help others. Please seek medical help if you need it.
The last month or so has been stressful for me, and it’s only ramping up. The details are not important right now. Stress is a reality in everyone’s life – it never actually seems to leave, it just ebbs and flows. And the particular stressors I am dealing with are nothing new for me. It’s almost like we are becoming old friends. Well, maybe not friends. More like familiar enemies.
The thing that is different this time around is I seem to be winning. And by that I mean I am managing my anxiety better. The cold, hard ball of dread in the pit of my stomach is for the most part gone. When it is there, it’s smaller and softer. The panic attacks are shorter and rarer and less intense. I can sleep at night. I can focus during the day. I haven’t even had the urge to pace like a caged animal.
And that is awesome.
None of this has changed the circumstances of my life. The stressors are still there. The unknowns, the looming changes, the potential dangers, the white knuckle situations, the goals I need to meet, the ways I need to stretch myself in new ways. They are all there, looming and unknown, still needing to be taken, met and stretched. But carrying less anxiety has freed me to meet them with strength and flexibility and courage and – here’s the best part – to relax and let go and live life when there is not a fricking thing I can do about it right now.
I know for a fact I would not have been in this space a year ago. Maybe not even six months ago. I credit my time studying the enneagram with that growth. I have learned to recognize how big a part fear plays in my life and how constrained and constricted it makes me feel. I have begun to find some ways to see my anxiety for what it is: a habit. And I have begun to discover ways to break myself of that habit.
I will probably never be free of anxiety, but I don’t need to let it run things. I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but these past few weeks have convinced me it will worth it. I never imagined I would be where I am today and despite all the stress, I can’t wait to see where I am going.
Let me share what I have been thinking about my own anxiety in the past months. Maybe they’ll help you or someone you care about too.
We all know the difference between fear and anxiety, but let’s review. Fear is a perfectly normal survival reaction to an immediate threat. Anxiety is a reaction to a possibility of a threat. Sometimes anxiety creates just a general sense of uneasiness or discomfort. Other times it pumps our systems with stress hormones producing sweating, rapid breathing, dizziness and all those other wonderful effects that frankly I fail to see support “survival” in anyway, thank you very much. Besides interfering with life (and not being very fun) anxiety can have long-term health effects.
I have recently learned a couple of things about anxiety that kind of blew my mind:
Anxiety happens in the head. In the enneagram we talk about “head energy.” Anxiety is one of the aspects of head energy. I always thought of it a body thing, since that’s where I usually notice it. But it’s a head thing, which means getting out of your head helps. Thinking about it only makes it worse.
A third fear response. We all know about Fight or Flight, but I just recently learned about Freeze. Sometimes our fear or anxiety sends us into inaction. This made so much sense to me that I swear I heard angels sing when I learned it. For me, anxiety causes more freeze than fear does. I can be pretty brave when faced with real in-the-moment fear (ask me about the time I broke up a fight between my dog and a snarling, barking pit bull). On the other hand, anxiety about losing my job because I might have made a mistake can make me so frozen, I can’t even check to see if I make the mistake or not.
Over the next three posts, I am going to break down what I’ve been doing to ease my anxiety into three categories: in the moment, early warning and long-term maintenance. No one (or maybe it’s just me) reads anything looking for a long-term solution that they can start today that will help in three or four months. We want quick fixes. So let’s start with the quick and easy stuff first. Then will get into the long-range plan.
But before we start, repeat after me: it’s OK to not be anxious.
Before any of the things I am about to share could work for me I had to give myself permission to not be anxious. It makes no logical sense, but sometimes I seem to feel I deserve to be anxious, almost as if it is a punishment for something I did wrong in the past. Other times, anxiety is a “logical” choice: something stressful may happen, I’d better ramp up and get a head start being stressed so I am good and ready for it. Other times, I convince myself others expect me to be stressed and if I am not, they will be upset with or disapprove of me. And then there is the lovely anxiety spiral where my anxiety floods my body with stress hormones which cause my heart to race and my breath to quicken, which my mind takes as a signal that SOMETHING BAD IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN RIGHT NOW!
Those things are rarely, if ever, true. They are a trick of my Inner Critic trying, in its sorely mistaken way, to keep me safe. Mostly by never, ever letting me to anything more exciting than lying in bed and looking at the wall. And then berating me for that.
Ready? Alright then, let’s do this.
Dealing with Anxiety: In the Moment