A little over a year ago, I had a moment where I realized I didn’t recognize myself. There I was: about to start my master’s degree in Counseling and move back to Hammond (where all my friends lived), but I couldn’t make it through a day without bursting into tears. I had anxiety. In fact, I had been having “anxiety attacks” for the past year prior to this moment. But this time, I happened to look in the mirror and saw swollen eyes that were utterly unhappy. I also saw two choices: start taking medicine or change your life.
I was SICK of anxiety and was getting rid of it one way or another.
I’m so happy to tell you this story has a good ending. I sit here typing a year later with renewed strength because I look in the mirror and see laughter, tears, fear, joy, etc. but behind each of those, I see me. I see peace. How did I do it? I started to speak anxiety’s language. Now that I’m beginning to understand how it speaks, I have power over it. So without further ado, here is what my anxiety taught me:
Before I go on, let me clarify something: I’m writing this from the standpoint of someone who is not diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. I’m talking about those of us who at some points in our lives experience bouts of anxiety, but who can still function relatively normally.
What is anxiety?
First, we need to look at what anxiety is…according to the American Psychological Association (APA), it’s “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. People with anxiety usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns.”
When I was in the midst of anxiety, I would’ve circled, highlighted, bolded, and italicized the word “intrusive.” I saw it as an enemy who was infiltrating my mind and showed no mercy. I felt ravaged. Now, I look at this and focus on the words “emotion” “feelings” and “thoughts.” What is something they all have in common? They can be changed (enter Hallelujah chorus). Emotions, feelings, and thoughts are fickle little things. Seriously. Keep an emotion journal and you’d be amazed at how frequently they change, but the good news is we can use this to our advantage. We can affect our anxiety.
Does anxiety have a purpose?
Go on Facebook and you see so many people sharing articles and pictures about anxiety with the caption “My life.” Or talk to people and hear how so many people deal with anxiety on a daily basis and have just accepted it as a part of their life. I can’t be the only one who sees a problem with this… When did we as a society begin to simply accept anxiety as an unwelcome house guest who has overstayed his welcome? “The Guest House” by Rumi comes to mind as I’m writing this.
One interpretation of this poem could be that whenever we are visited by anxiety, it comes with a purpose. Not just any purpose, but a good purpose! So often though, anxiety is banished to that spare room we never go in. We know it’s there, and although we think it’s tucked away, others notice. It interferes, so we paint anxiety as a negative. But what if it was a positive? What if anxiety could prompt you to make a life change for the better?
During that bout of anxiety I mentioned above, I would have sworn that I had no idea what was causing it. I was a victim to this faceless fear…a hero, if you will, battling to overcome this cross I had to bear. But I was lying to myself. My anxiety had a purpose, but I was ignoring it. I knew what was causing it…the relationship I was in. I knew it was time to end it, but I didn’t want to. I was contemplating taking medicine rather than give up that person, that relationship.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the majority of us fall in this category: paralyzed by fear. Fear of pain, fear of failure…whatever your fear is. Although I can list reasons why I hate this fear, the fact of the matter is, it refuses to let me live in a state of deception; rather, it relentlessly reminds me that things are not “fine.” Whether it be an external or internal problem, my anxiety’s purpose is to ultimately lead me to deeper healing and growth. As the poem said, “He may be clearing you out for some new delight.” So far, this has proven true 100% of the time.
If you want to see if this is you, start keeping an anxiety journal. Every time you feel anxious, write down why (what triggered it). After one hour of doing this, I stopped because I had enough evidence to tell me what I knew but didn’t want to hear. Even if you’re not ready to make a change, it’s so important to be able to name where that anxiety is coming from. I’d say it’s a crucial step in overcoming the vicious cycle.
Ok, now what?
Assuming you agree with me that anxiety has a purpose, it isn’t some emotion we’re just meant to live with, you’re probably interested to hear what you can do to get back your life. When I was reading up on it, time and time again, people would suggest simple things that centered around one idea: Get out of your head!
Like the definition mentioned above, anxiety consists of intrusive thoughts and concerns. Have you ever tried to tell yourself to stop thinking something? If you’re like me, it led to even more frustration. That’s why we have to go into battle equipped. Instead of focusing on what we shouldn’t be doing (the absence of thought), focus on a positive. Not focusing on anxiety is going to free up a lot of time…make sure you have something else to fill it. What this came down to for me was an overall rediscovering of who I was: what I enjoy, what I’m good at, what fills me with energy.
Rediscovering myself was the main thing that gave me the strength to do that one thing I was avoiding, and it’s something I continually go back to even today. Self care has been my key to a balanced life, and it starts with the questions of “what do I want to do?” and “what do I need?” Read books, go on a picnic with your friend, kick butt in soccer, paint, walk your dog(s), listen to loud music, volunteer somewhere, go driving, watch birds…really anything that brings you back to the present moment. Anything that reminds you that beauty exists and that you are capable of creating it. In other words, do something that reminds you of your self-worth. You are worth taking care of.
Be Patient with the Process
While I’m sharing what steps I took to control my anxiety, it’s only fair to tell you that this was one of the hardest things I ever did. I started off by saying that I couldn’t recognize myself when I started, so coming back from that was a long road. Months of fighting with myself, of getting it right then falling on my face, and overall, a sense of weakness and disappointment.
However, within that first week after I decided to start taking back my life from anxiety, I remember I happened to look in a mirror (I guess I do that a lot…) and realized that for the first time in a year, I was proud of myself. I wasn’t “damaged goods!” I think it was the first time that year I genuinely smiled at myself. Even though my eyes were still puffy from crying the day before, and I had spent most of that day drowning in my emotions, I could see something deeper. A breath of relief was starting to emerge in my chest. That thick cloth over my eyes was lifted for a moment. I was on my way to healing. It took time to undo those bad brain habits I had adopted…those obsessive thoughts and triggers. But in the midst of those months, I had little moments like the one above to hold onto. The ones that showed me I was growing and reminded me what I was working towards. It’s a painful process to change your life, or really to change your brain, but the rewards are immeasurable.
Anxiety as an Asset
Some of us are more prone to anxiety, and we live much of our lives viewing it as a cross, a burden. But if we approach it from the way I’m suggesting, it can be used for good. Instead of sticking it in a spare room and blocking out its voice, what if we greeted it at the door and listened to what it has to say? Imagine that for a second: You could stop yourself before you get burnt out from work. You could avoid a painful relationship/break-up. You could break out of the fear and begin to see your true capacity. But most importantly, if you stopped fighting your body and instead worked with it, I think you’d find peace.
One way of looking at living with anxiety is to think of our bodies as being sensitive. Others seem to live in monster trucks that can bulldoze past the “Lane Closed” signs and orange cones, whereas we’re in our Prius taking the detour. I don’t know what it feels like to live in a monster truck, but I’ve come to appreciate my little car that stops me from danger (plus it’s great on gas mileage).
Also, I’ve found that those of us who deal with anxiety are also perceptive to other emotions. Ever since I’ve begun the healing process, I’ve noticed empathy and compassion come naturally to me because I’m so in touch with emotion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been able to use these skills for good. Every area of your life could use someone who is more compassionate…more merciful, but if you’re stuck in your head, you miss so many opportunities to reach out. If you haven’t experienced it yet, there’s nothing like being able to BE THERE for someone else. To have someone tell you, “I’ve never told anyone else this before.” To be able to offer understanding. It’s a gift. And if you have anxiety, I bet you have the potential for that gift.
There is so much more to you outside of your anxiety: so many gifts, so many unique thoughts and words to be shared. Let your anxiety push you past this state of living called “it’s fine.” Past the fear and into a world much deeper that is eagerly waiting to be explored. I know this is starting to sound like a fairy tale, but that’s how GOOD life can be on the other side of anxiety.
My hope is that after reading this, you feel more fluent in anxiety’s language. I know what worked for me won’t work for everyone, but I think it’s time to start speaking out on anxiety. We all carry a different face,a different dialect of it, and if we share how we’re dealing with it, we can broaden the language. Too many people suffer from anxiety instead of thriving with it, but that can change. Anxiety doesn’t have to be a curse. We are not damaged goods!