Saturday, September 9, 2017

Peace among the pieces: Standing up to anxiety

Here is person who looks
like she is being offered excellent
  anxiety ass-kicking instructions 
Not pieces as in ruins.

Pieces as in all the things going on in our heads about all the things going on in our lives: working, parenting, friending, spousing, dating and, especially now, college-ing.

My blog topics are pretty eclectic but I've been watching my analytics to see what people care about most. Of all the topics, those related to anxiety are in the lead.  

By a lot.

It's not surprising; one in ten people will suffer an anxiety disorder this year. One in four will suffer an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.

As I've written before, I am a recovering anxiety sufferer. But more important, I am an anxiety veteran who knows that anxiety's ass can be very effectively kicked.

This week, I was contacted by a reader who began suffering terrible anxiety with the start of a major life transition. I could feel the distress this person was experiencing from the words on the screen alone, but also because here is what is different about  anxiety today versus twenty or thirty years ago: nothing.

When I was a wee anxiety sufferer, like wee anxiety sufferers do today, I carried the feeling around that if I was free of worry, I was probably not looking hard enough.

As a twenty-something, I no longer expected worry to hit me from behind, I just started to scan and plan anything out of my life that could be worrisome.

My "brand" of anxiety at this early-career stage of life was to fear mistakes; not small ones, but catastrophic ones,  ones that would be permanent, unfixable, humiliating, and to make it especially terrifying, would cost me the respect of people I really liked.

I knew I couldn't avoid mistakes so instead, I avoided attaching to anyone enough to care if I lost them. And that is what anxiety sufferers do. To avoid the feeling that life is bigger than they are, they shrink it.

That's sad, of course. But what is really sad, is that only some know in their hearts that it's not  okay to be like that, that they do not have to live that way, that they were not born that way,  and that life will not be a long-ass uphill trudge, punctuated by moments of stark terror and the intense need to flee.

It's not. They don't. They weren't. It won't.  

Somewhere in those anxious twenties of mine, when the only thing that seemed right about my life was my appearance, I changed this behavior with one decision. I looked up a psychotherapist – the mere word was terrifying -  and made an appointment.

"Do you know where I'm located?" he asked.
"No, but it's okay. I'll figure it out," I said.
"Would it be easier if I just gave you directions?"

It was the bravest thing I'd ever done to that point, and I'm not kidding. For some people it is just as hard as it ever was.

This therapist was a sensitive, mid-thirties guy who exuded warmth and affability, a person you could not imagine being at odds with anyone.

At the end of the first session, he looked at me and said, "Well. I believe you're going to be fine."

It was the sweetest thing I'd ever believed  with no proof that I should.

The feelings at the heart of anxiety are so powerful that whether you are a wee sufferer or veteran, you begin to feel it must mean something about the thing that's triggered them.

If you are a college student for example and are experiencing unbearable homesickness and loneliness, it's probably wrongly crossed your mind that you aren't ready for college.

If you are an older individual going back to work and feel anxious every time you see that someone has responded to your resume, it's probably wrongly crossed your mind that you are no longer a fit for the workplace.

If you are trying to make a major change in your life, and the uncertainty of it all makes you nervous and upset, it's probably wrongly crossed your mind that you are making a fatal mistake, one that will saddle you with lifelong regret and so on.

Basically, at glacier speed because I challenged everything before I embraced it, I was taught to separate  the feeling of anxiety from the situation that triggered it. I was to treat it as a thing to observe and feel until it passed, but no longer infuse with meaning, no longer trust to guide my behaviors toward or away from anything.

Anxiety stopped managing me, and I began managing it.

Do I occasionally step on a rake on the lawn? Absolutely. Do the feelings of anxiety feel better? Not at all.

But when they come, I know they're going to go and go they do, and whilst waiting, I make no sudden moves or decisions.

And it is the best feeling in world after knowing you're going to be fine, to start knowing you are the one making it happen.

It feels good to be your own proof. 

If this post is about you, believe, however you do it, you will do it.


  1. Replies
    1. I'm really glad it meant something to you. Anxiety can be a stubborn beast, but I have found that such strength comes from learning how to manage it rather than trying to eliminate it.

  2. Anxiety and depression are both so incipient - then weasel their way into our lives and undermine us (and those who love us) I think every post like this on winning the war and beating them back where they belong is worth its weight in gold.

    1. Thank you Leanne. It's hard work to co-exist with anxiety when your inclination is to flee, but it can be done.

  3. Stepping on a rake is a great visual and metaphor. Love it!

    1. I can actually remember doing that as a child. Maybe that's why I became, as my second grade teacher put it, "quite a little worrier!"

  4. I'm at the point of making my own phone call, if my anxiety would just let me pick up the phone.

    1. I found it so hard to ask for help and felt so proud of myself when I did, like I was being my own ally.

      Tell your anxiety to go lie down and then make your call :)

  5. Such good points. You're right, anxiety is not a sign you're doing the wrong thing. Many times its the right thing, but still a big step. I find surrendering makes a difference with me too. Accepting the present moment.

    1. Agree. A small thing I've started doing when something uncertain is happening: Instead of saying "I hope (this or that) happens/doesn't happen," I say "I wonder what will happen," and this tiny shift in thinking about the future has made a happy difference in my life.

  6. Many women find that they start experiencing anxiety and depression when their hormones begin to plummet during perimenopause. Having the right medical professionals to guide you through these storms are so important. Making that first phone call to a counselor and/or a menopause specialist is empowering and def the first step to the road to better days ahead.

    1. It interests me to see how readily younger people seek and accept help, versus older people who often STILL see it as a failing. We are at the mercy of so many outside (and internal, to your point) influences it would be strange if we didn't feel lost from time to time.

      I know a lot of people who are astounded by the relief they feel after one visit with a good therapist.