This post is Part 3 of a four-part series on anxiety. You can find some general thoughts about anxiety in the Prologue and some ideas for dealing with anxiety in the moment in Part 2. 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.
My anxiety attacks do not come out of the blue; it’s more like the anxiety starts low-key and builds over time – sometimes days and even weeks – until my system can’t take it anymore and – bam! – I am pacing from room to room, unable to sleep.
It’s easy to convince myself that am not anxious early on in this process. Everyone is stressed, right? It’s “just” work or money or my health – no big deal. I can handle it. Which I can, if you define “handle” as “squash it down and ignore it until I make myself sick.” I used to take a lot of pride in being able to “play hurt” and keep going until I absolutely couldn’t deal with it anymore.
That pride still lingers and I do still value my strength to power through. But I am also coming to see how toxic it is to put off taking care of myself until I am in the emotional equivalent of urgent care. So I have started developing what I think of as my early warning system.
For me a successful early warning system is dependent on me giving myself permission to not be anxious (something I talked about in the Prologue). If giving myself permission to not be anxious is hard when I am miserable, imagine how hard it is when I am fine – No really! I’m fine! Fine!! Everything is fine!!! My early warning system is even more effective when I am faithful in my mindfulness practice (which I will talk about in Part 4).
The key is to notice the anxiety before it becomes debilitating. I just recently became aware of how my anxiety was becoming the soundtrack to my life. This awareness hit me like a ton of bricks one night. I was spending the weekend with the BF. One night after we’d had a wonderful day, I lay next to the man I love feeling safe and warm and love. My job was going well, my family was all taken care of. Everything was going great. As I began to relax, I heard a voice loud in my head say with a satisfied sigh, “So, what shall I worry about?”
I was shocked to hear the calmness and casualness of that voice. It was the same tone you’d use after a fun but tiring day out: “I’m gonna get in some comfy clothes. Then let’s watch some TV. What shall we watch?” Anxiety for me was a habit. A thing my brain did when it was bored. Or when it felt the need to mentally tidy up.
The bad news is my anxiety will probably never go away. The good news is I don’t need to try to get rid of it. I don’t try to fight the anxiety. I just need to accept it for what it is. That may seem counter-intuitive; a lot of this post might. But bear with me and maybe even try a couple of my ideas.
Noticing Anxiety. Just noticing my anxiety lessens its grip on me. Then I can let it fade into the background, still a soundtrack, but with the volume turned down really low.
There are two ways I work on noticing my anxiety: paying attention to my body and reflecting on my day.
I have learned what being anxious feels like, physically. I tend to live in my head – most modern Americans do – but as an enneagram type six my energy is firmly planted in my head. If I am not careful, I can miss the messages my body is sending. Our bodies often know what’s going on with us before our minds do. For me, there is a tightness in my throat, a fluttering in my chest, a clenching in the pit of my stomach, a restlessness that makes it hard to sit still or even be in one room for long. All of these are signs I am anxious, even when I have convinced myself I am “feeling” calm.
When I started my new job last summer, I got into the habit of reviewing my day on the drive home. I would look back at times when I had been uptight or afraid I had done something wrong or made someone angry. I looked at those times and noticed how I had reacted, how I had dealt with both the situation and feelings and how things had worked out in the end. Was my anxiety justified? Had the thing I feared would go wrong actually gone wrong? If it had, was it as bad as I feared?
Years before I had ever heard of the enneagram or knew about anxiety as a problem, I did what I called “cleaning house.” I would take sound time to just look at my feelings and notice old situations I was still worried about, even though things had worked out long ago. I would just find those old worried and say to myself, “Hey, look, everything worked out. Let it go.” Back then I only did it sporadically, sometimes going for months between “cleanings.” Now I try to do it daily.
It can be – well, anxiety-producing – to notice my anxiety. My instinct is to push it away and think of something else as fast and as hard as possible. And then push it away again when it rears its head again. And again. And again. It’s so much easier – not just in the long run but also in the medium run – to notice and name my anxiety.
Accepting Anxiety. It’s even more counter-intuitive to accept anxiety than it is to notice it. But more and more I am beginning to see acceptance as just good basic emotional hygiene. There’s an awful lot in this life we can’t change (even things about ourselves). I figure I can either develop the ability to accept things as they are or I can become a cranky old woman yelling at clouds.
Accepting something (like anxiety) doesn’t mean I give into it, or that I agree with it. Is not backing down or being weak. Acceptance is a stance of strength. When we accept the realities of our lives, we are fully aware of them and are able to approach them in a different way. When I accept my anxiety, I immediately become less anxious about being anxious. “It’s OK,” I can say to myself. “It’s nothing big, it’s just that thing you do.”
Befriend Anxiety. Anxiety is doing a wonderful thing; it’s trying to keep us safe. It might be overdoing that job, and in reality making things worse, but that’s not the point, at least right now. It comes from a good place. I can berate myself for being anxious and make my anxiety my enemy and feed more energy into it. Or I can honor it and thank it for its work.
Question Anxiety. Once I’m really paying attention to my anxiety, I can start to look at what’s behind it. Are these fears real? Is this about the current situation or is some old emotional business rearing its head? It the situation real, but not as dire as my anxiety is making it feel? I try to not question my anxiety like am grilling a hostile witness. I approach it with a sense of curiosity. There’s probably a lesson there. I try to find out what it is.
Ignore Anxiety. Once I’ve accepted, befriended and questioned my anxiety, its power over me is much, much less. Now I can make the rational choice about how much attention to give it. Usually, I can decide that, yes, that is a problem, but it’s in the future and I don’t need to worry about it now. Or that it’s not much of a problem and I can handle it if and when it arises.
These are not things I can do when I am in the middle of an anxiety-driven melt down. When my anxiety overwhelms me, I go back to the techniques I outlined in Part 2.
In the last part of this series, I will look at some long-term practices and habits to make it easier to deal with anxiety.