Anxiety is such a huge issue these days.
I honestly don’t think there is anyone that doesn’t have it to some degree. It’s definitely the new black. The way it manifests itself from person to person is different, but regardless of the actual symptoms, it all points to the fact that we are generally stressed out. You may catastrophize and/ or have physical effects such as panic attacks, chest pain, or heart palpitations. You know what I’m talking about.
If we view anxiety as the enemy, then the remedy is to be void of anxiety.
We strive to feel relaxed and chill. Maybe we self-medicate and numb out through wine, food, social media, or shopping. It’s about distraction or sometimes even creating physical pain that eclipses the feelings of anxiety. Those are all temporary fixes with negative side effects- and anxiety still comes rushing back when it’s over. We are missing the mark.
Anxiety is not the enemy.
It’s the red light, the warning sign. You know what happens when you try to act like it’s not there? You know and so do I- it just doesn’t work. It creates a lifestyle of survival through numbing out, over and over. Instead of numbing out, you can view anxiety as a red flag that helps guide you along. Story time!
In the summer of 2018, my husband, A.J., and younger daughter, Ava, were driving from Guatemala City to San Pedro La Laguna, a city on Lake Atitlan. It was a four hour drive that took us nine hours to complete.
As we drove through a small village along the route, we came to a complete stop. We were in a line of cars that were attempting to exit the village but could not because the road was shut down. The workers were trying to repair whatever made the road inoperable, with tools that seemed to be hauled out of someone’s junk yard, and it didn’t look promising. There was no detour, either. Just people getting out of their cars and fanning themselves as they watched the repair operation and talking with each other, pointing at the obstruction. For some reason, no one was irritated or in a hurry.
There were only two rudimentary lanes on this road- an in and and out- with corn fields on one side, and a grassy hub by a field with a lonely donkey tied to a fence on the other.
We were about 100 yards away from what looked like an exit but would require our car to hug the shoulder of the corn field if we were going to take it. We did. As we tore through what became a very bumpy rock and dirt road that narrowed down to the width of an alley, we came to a massive ditch filled with water that was impassable. Somehow we did what felt like a 36 point turn to go back to where we came from.
We didn’t want to stay stuck in the same spot so we tried to take another route out of this town. It required some backtracking in order to get on another road, but we thought we were good to go. After about 30 minutes of driving, we came to a warning sign. Even though it was in Spanish, it was pretty clear that it probably said something like “Do not pass”. We wanted to pass. We thought it would be fine. We already invested 30 minutes of driving on this road and the thought of backtracking again wasn’t appealing. We went around the warning sign and continued on. Yee haw! Screw the sign. It wasn’t until 45 minutes of weaving our way around narrow switchbacks on the side of mountains with unprotected cliff drop-offs that we saw why the sign was put up. We had to cross a river in order to continue on this road but the bridge that led to the other side of the river had broken down and washed out. There was no way across. Yeah. It really was weird how there was no traffic on this road, right? NO! We stupidly ignored the warning sign and this was the consequence.
Besides being fun to tell, (and this is only half the story of that particular road trip!) I share my story as an illustration.
Warning signs are a good thing AND I view anxiety as an emotional warning sign.
If you ignore the warning that anxiety is trying to bring to your attention, you can create a lot more stress than necessary. It could also make your metaphorical journey even longer. On the flip side, you can have too much of a “good” thing.
When you get overly anxious, you’re likely to stay stuck in flight, fright, or freeze. I would put self-medication in the “flight” category because you are escaping from the feeling through distraction.
If you are stuck in “freeze”, you are paralyzed from making a decision or taking action, and instead you create a mind storm of worry which, of course, produces more anxiety. Ironically, while worrying doesn’t accomplish anything, the simple act of doing it fools you into thinking that worry is a form of action. You think that if you don’t worry, you aren’t paying attention or that worry is necessary to make decisions.
Give anxiety the attention it deserves.
Gently question the thoughts and beliefs that are creating anxiety. Ask if they are really and absolutely true. If they are, ask what you could do about them if you accepted it as true. If you can’t do anything about them, ask yourself what will happen if you let go of trying to control the situation and just allow yourself to be at peace with reality. What would that look like? How would it feel in a week? A month? A year? Give yourself a hug. Soothe your anxious mind with the reassurance that you will be fine.
In reality, anxiety’s intention is not to tell you that you’re never going to be happy or that you will never figure out how to get what you want. It’s prompting you to take a closer look at what has caused this feeling, decide if it’s a legit or false warning, and then take action when warranted.
Can’t pinpoint the feeling to a thought? Then just start with “Am I ok? Am I safe? Can I breathe?” Don’t try to escape it by numbing out. I know this is tough and yes, it will take some work. Practice feeling anxiety while reassuring yourself nothing has gone wrong. I also know it feels like you may actually die sometimes (hello, panic attacks), but you aren’t. I say this with love, understanding and compassion.
Practicing acceptance and compassion for yourself when you are in the midst of anxiety helps break the well-grooved patterns of worry and false beliefs in your mind.
If you have long battled with anxiety, this will take time but know that it will get better over time, with practice. Your tolerance will expand from a few seconds to minutes. Any longer than that is very likely unnecessary. Anxiety will usually come and go in waves, so in reality, you will not have to sustain a marathon session of feeling out of control. As a matter of fact, it’s the byproducts of anxiety- worry and fear- that can circle around your brain in an indefinite holding pattern. You can alleviate those through managing your thoughts.
Need help figuring out anxiety? Talking to me is like a much needed hug! I’d love to chat with you about whatever’s got you anxious. Click here and share your thoughts.