Updated: Sep 25
When did I become a student of anxiety? It’s hard to remember because I’ve been stalked by it for as long as I can remember, but thankfully, in the last decade, I’ve been becoming wise to this thug of the mind. Here’s some of what I’ve learned:
It’s about the anxiety, not what the anxiety has landed on: There’s nothing like waking at 3 a.m. and realizing anxiety has broken into my psyche and is pulling open every drawer in my bedroom, every cabinet in the kitchen, even the refrigerator, to look for something to eat. “Anxiety is an asshole,” my therapist once said to me, and it’s also a hungry asshole, going through the trash to find something to fret about or sometimes rummaging through the rolodex (remember those?) of everything I’m uncertain about: whether any of my offspring will get the job of their dreams, anyone will enroll in a new class I’m teaching, or any parts of my body will seriously malfunction.
Anxiety is contagious: Yup, this is especially true when with family, but we can also catch it from co-workers or good pals. This is not to say we should flee any anxious humans, but it’s helpful to recognize when others are anxious and to remind ourselves (especially people like me prone to take on others’ worries) that it’s theirs, not ours. Realizing someone is just anxious and not upset with me or being obstructive also helps me grow a bit more compassion.
Anxiety is sneaky: It’s hard to discern whether a challenging thought is real fear about imminent danger, a figment of our imaginations, projections on the what-ifs of the future, or just old-fashioned trouble-shooting. It helps me to sort out where and how I feel such thoughts since real fear tends to make me feel like the running of the bulls is happening in my chest or that my stomach is ready to leave my body.
Avoidance and hypervigilance can be two sides of the anxiety coin: I have some of Granny Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies in me, ready to stand guard with my metaphorical shotgun when I sense danger is threatening my people, place, or body. Occasionally that’s warranted but mostly it’s hypervigilance, and I’ve learned to recognize it, then call a friend and say, “please talk me out of the trees.” Some people tend to avoid what makes them anxious, which can also be a waste of energy. Only we can figure out what we’re actually doing (although someone to talk with can help), and whether Mr. Anxiety is in the house.
Sitting with anxiety is hard but necessary: This is where meditation, prayer and sometimes writing come in for me: it helps me be with the flying squirrels and popping prairie dogs of my mind, recognizing what’s propelling them and finding a bit more space to forgive myself for having a mind full of critters. It’s hard to just be with it all, but that’s one of the most effective ways for learn what “it all” is, and from this continual education, garner an inch more freedom and a whole lot more breathing room.
What have you learned about anxiety?