I’ve talked about my mad addiction to movies and television shows before and how much I love the fantasy genre.
But there are a couple of shows that I regularly watch that don’t have supernatural themes. And one of them is a hilarious and popular show called Modern Family.
In one episode the main character is having a conversation with an elderly guy who is on an oxygen tank most of the time and the younger guy asks the older one “Do you ever think about death?’ And the old guy just snorts with laughter and says ” I’m 83 years old. Death is my roommate!”
Which is how I feel about anxiety. It is DEFINITELY my uninvited but here to stay roommate. I think that anxiety just comes with the territory if you are breathing and alive.But there is an extra added dose of it if you choose to devote yourself to living a creative life.
But it’s also one of those things that no one likes to talk about. Like bankruptcy or erectile dysfunction anxiety makes us feel out of control and like there is something wrong with us. So it has a strong association with shame.
And whenever we feel ashamed of something we are experiencing our first impulse is to make sure no one ever knows what we are going through.
So I’m here to do my part to bring anxiety out of the closet and into the light of greater awareness. I actually consider myself to have a PhD in anxiety. I’ve suffered the entire gamut of it’s painful and debilitating influence at different times in my life, from insomnia, to panic attacks to obsessive catastrophizing.
I know what it’s like to be standing in line at the bank and having such intense heart palpitations and overwhelming, out of the blue, irrational fear that I was sure I was going to pass out. I’ve had the experience of being relentlessly tortured by obsessive thoughts that someone close to me was going to die. Of taking twice as long to get somewhere because I was too terrified to drive on the freeway and had to take surface streets. Or being totally convinced that I was going crazy and was only one step away from being hospitalized.
And I also know what it’s like to feel that I had to keep my suffering hidden and pretend that I was just fine.
For me, the anxiety demons would show up at times of great transition. And especially when that transition involved not knowing what was coming next like when I decided that it was time for me to give up my private practice as a psychotherapist but I didn’t have a clue about how I was going to replace that income.
They would also show up in droves whenever I was doing something radically new that I had never done before. Like offering my first weeklong intuitve painting workshop in a venue that was a 1,000 miles away from my home ( i.e. my painting retreat in New Mexico.)
The thing that both of these experiences have in common is that they were about leaving my comfort zone, stepping away from what was familiar and diving headfirst into the unknown and the unknowable.
Anxiety has been on my mind quite a bit these days. Partly because it seems to be something that is on a lot of people’s minds. We are collectively facing a huge variety of unknowns as we go through the monumental shifts and changes that seem to be the norm on our little green planet at this time.
Anxiety actually happens on a lot of different levels. It’s a multi-layered event. So I wanted to offer you all some tips and hopefully some understanding about how to deal with it based on my vast PhD level experience of grappling with anxiety over the years.
Anxiety And The Mind
When we are in a state of anxiety we are most definitely not in the present moment and are usually running around in circles inside our head, making up stories about some situation in the future that we are sure is not going to work out well.
We can also intensify anxiety by how we think about it. We habitually and without realizing it give ourselves internal messages that throw gasoline onto an already raging fire of fearfulness. So it’s really important to find ways to talk to yourself that don’t make it worse.
What you DON’T want to do is say things like “Oh my god, this is never going to end!” or “I’m going to die!!” or “I am really, really messed up and this just proves it!” or “My life is over!”
One of the best anxiety self talk tips I ever received comes from the cognitive-behavioral therapy world. They have a short and very unglamorous script that I found to be extremely effective when I was in the throes of anxious overwhelm.
Their suggestion was to say to myself something along the lines of:
“I am feeling incredible anxiety right now. It’s a tremendously uncomfortable physiological experience. But that’s all it is. Nothing is really wrong right at this moment.”
There were many times when in the grip of an emotional surge of fear that I would hold onto this phrase for dear life, saying it over and over again like a prayer or a mantra. Repeating it desperately and incessantly until it began to sink in.
Because anxiety WANTS you to think that something is very, VERY wrong and that you need to do something immediately. It puts your whole system into emergency mode. And then your mind starts frantically looking around for where the danger lies.
Except that anxiety isn’t about anything real. It’s always related to our fantasy about something that hasn’t happened yet.
The most important thing I have learned about dealing with the mental level of anxiety is to bring myself into my body and into the present moment. To breathe, walk, dance, eat, get a massage, inhale the scent of one of my favorite lotions or essential oils, listen to music or sit on the earth with my back against a tree. Anything that will get me grounded into a direct sensual experience of the here and now.
Sometimes simply focusing my attention on the physical sensations in my body without commentary can help to calm me down. The story we are continously telling ourselves about being headed towards certain doom is what gets us in the most trouble. So try not to tell yourself those stories.
Anxiety And The Emotions
Anxiety is on the fear continuum.
And many of us have had childhood experiences where we were terribly frightened. I think that having early experiences of trauma is probably one of the factors that makes someone more prone to anxiety in the first place.
So if you are experiencing anxiety there is probably some younger part of you that is crying out for lots and lots of comfort and love and reassurance. That’s why it’s so important to be very kind to ourselves when we are in an anxious state. We need to make space and time to listen to the child inside who is freaked out by whatever changes our adult self is trying to make.
And we need to address whatever concerns that child might be having. When I was going through my career transition I would regularly take time to talk to my little girl and tell her things like ” I can take care of us. I’m an adult now and I’ve done a good job so far. You can count on me. I can figure out what we need to survive and thrive. And most importantly … figuring it out is not up to you.”
Anxiety And The Body
Anxiety IS a physiological event.
When we are in an anxious state it’s because our body starts producing an overwhelming cascade of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that flood our system in an attempt to get us to fight, flee or freeze. When we are in constant states of stress those systems of hormonal delivery become overused and overtaxed and never really get a chance to calm down and replenish.
The sad and ironic truth is that because anxiety IS happening in the body we try to “self medicate” through food or other substances that only end up making it worse. We exhaust ourselves with too much work or worry or overstimulation of sensitive nervous systems. And then we drink coffee or eat chocolate or smoke cigarettes to get the boost that keeps us from crashing into fatigue. Which just taxes our adrenals even more.
Sugar, alcohol and refined carbohydrates, which we use to comfort our poor overamped and pressured selves, are also directly related to increased cortisol production. So even though these sweet treats may make us feel calmer in the short term, over the long run they keep those stress hormones operating in high gear.
The best thing you can do for yourself when you find yourself plagued with anxiety symptoms is to do whatever you can to eliminate some of these physical anxiety triggers from your life.
Your body will thank you for it by giving you the immediate feedback of calming down. And the thing to remember is that you won’t necessarily have to stay on this food path forever! However, you may actually choose to because you are feeling so much better.
The most important thing to keep in mind when you find yourself struggling with anxiety is to not try and deal with it alone.
Isolation around your distress will just feed the shame which will then feed the anxiety in an ongoing loop of suffering.
So please don’t be afraid to ask for help. Take the risk to open up to friends, family and health professionals. What you need more than anything during this time is compassion and love. If you start to talk about it I guarantee you will be surprised to find out how many other folks have been or still are right there with you.
And knowing you’re not alone can be the greatest healing experience of them all.
Postscript: This article was inspired by a powerful astrological influence between Pluto and Uranus that is beginning soon. I wrote about that in more detail here.