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Creating Calm and Releasing Anxiety: Go Deeper, Not Faster

“It’s not the load that breaks you down; it’s the way you carry it.” ~Lena Horne

Friends, relatives, and the waitress who served me breakfast said I was the most relaxed bride they’d ever seen. “Most brides are ordering the bloody Mary’s right now, not the green tea,” the server remarked.

This was July 9, 2011, and I was about to marry my husband, best friend, and favorite comedian. Our wedding washed over me like a peace I had long forgotten.

Aside from finding the person I always knew I was looking for, the grace I felt that day resulted from a wedding process infused with tranquility.

Because of a hypothyroid diagnosis the year before, I had slowed down my life considerably to try and heal naturally. Graduate school completion got delayed. My health coaching business, an all-consuming love for the prior four years, was now prioritized alongside my personal life.

For the nine months leading up to our wedding, I had a social life again. I exercised consistently. I had space to breathe.

Slowing down wasn’t a winning lottery ticket. It involved examining the deep distrust of life felt in my core after being diagnosed with cancer as a teenager.

While chemotherapy and radiation cured me by the time I was 14, healing turns out to be a lifetime process.

Because I knew slowing down was temporary—“I’ll never get this chance again,” I reminded myself when old habits flared—it became easier. Rest became a foundational healing element in my life and within seven months my thyroid returned to normal. My business got incredible results for clients and I continued to easily pay my mortgage.

Life felt safe and beautiful because I was in control. The deep cancer wound I had carried around for 19 years appeared scabbed over completely. I wasn’t just the calmest bride but the calmest me I’d ever remembered.

August 22, 2011, I watched my husband leave in a taxi. He had been accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was en route to a fiction writer’s dream. I knew since he got the acceptance phone call back in March that we’d be spending the next two academic years long-distance.

Suddenly, the Rainer Marie Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet reading I had chosen for our wedding ceremony weren’t merely words on a page but my real life:

“Even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

It’s poetic on paper. In real life, it’s jarring non-fiction. Things now out of my control, my anxiety story returned.

My anxiety didn’t look like panic attacks or heart palpitations. It was self-doubt that kept me constantly busy.

One more research study to analyze, one more blog to post and I’d feel safe. Eventually, I would know enough and market enough. But it turns out enough never comes if you don’t feel enough.

Doing cannot fill a being with something missing from their core. Enough is enough, not incomplete.

In an empty condo, there was tremendous space for me to be. Unlike my wedding process, this scenario wasn’t full of parties, friends, and an elegant event at the finish line.

Because I have a coaching and counseling background, I knew this wasn’t about my husband being gone. I knew it was about me having to be with myself.

Over the next couple of months, I intellectually sliced and diced thoughts and feelings only to get nowhere.

I got back into yoga. I continued with my green smoothies. Then I visited an integrated M.D.

I went in wanting to discuss the effects of screening tests I have for secondary cancers. Unexpectedly, he said he sensed I hadn’t fully integrated my cancer experience. After explaining I had seen a therapist eight years ago and felt I’d intellectualized the experience as much as possible, I surprisingly burst into tears.

To a medical doctor.

He said there are many ways to communicate with the body. He recommended an art therapist who could help me with visual imagery. This type of therapy works to communicate and heal the body at our core, or what some would call the soul.

I thanked him for the referral. Before he left the examination room, I asked how he got through medical school. He replied, “That was my near-death experience.”

What I discovered in my visual imagery work over the next seven months is the body’s intellectual technology makes the Internet look like child’s play.

I wasn’t over being sick at such a young age. I had packed my remnant pain into the trunk of a car hoping the speed of my life would help it fly away.

At autobahn speeds, the weight and awkwardness were easily forgotten. However, my tires became bare.

Visual imagery isn’t about intellectually getting over or through pain. It was learning to slow down and be with it. To accept that “it” happened.

Imagery brings buried pain to the surface in a gentle way. I found parts of my life that I wanted to deny. The parts that, at age 13, were so scary they had to disappear for me to survive the most grueling year of my life.

As I embraced those parts, the sense of peace and confidence I was looking for in all that doing surfaced on its own. The more I experienced uncomfortable feelings with a bodily intelligence, they more they dissolved into wisdom.

Caring and respecting ourselves involves honoring uncomfortable feelings as a reason to go deeper, not faster.  And as wisdom dictates: to go fast you need to go slow.

I now understand the need or urge to consistently over pack my life as a warning sign. It can be a message for you too. If you are craving calm, here are some steps that can help set the stage:

1. Create an “artificial” slow down period with a beginning and end to experience how more gets done and enjoyed.

Leading up to my wedding, I received a sample taste of the joy in taking life slow, in being versus doing. Knowing this was a temporary period allowed me to enjoy this time without guilt. The pleasure and magic of experiencing myself and things seemingly happening on their own gave me the desire to keep this pace of life more consistently.

2. Stop thinking positively and allow your feelings.

Thinking I had such a great life (wonderful husband!, both fulfilling our dreams!, healthy!) made me feel guilty about feeling so down post-wedding. But these emotions were guiding me to some outstanding business that needed to be reconciled. By embracing my feelings, I was able to let the wounds of trauma not just scab, but scar—which is a lot less delicate.

3. Lose your mind and get into your body.

My pain wasn’t rational but emotionally lodged in my body memory. Regardless of how deep your pain, tapping into your body can be your prescription for an emotional release. Try starting a dialogue with your hidden emotions using visual imagery, yoga, dance, or walking meditation.

Healing isn’t a linear, rational process. As my therapist says, “In imagery, 1 + 1 equals purple.” Emotions may come up at random times.

As long as you feel more still, more complete, it’s working.

Or your symptoms may also be, like mine have been, friends and family saying they sense a new peace in you. They can’t describe it and most likely, neither can you. For it’s not what is there but rather the absence of frenzy in your core.

On August 22, 2012, my husband left after the summer break. But this time, I’m feeling centered in the transition. And I’m in no rush for these feelings to change.

Photo by ristok

Avatar of Ali Shapiro

About Ali Shapiro

Ali Shapiro, author, speaker and health coach, supports individuals and groups to see the emotional intelligence and wisdom in their weight-loss and wellness challenges. 
A regular health contributor to the NBC 10! Show, she's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Magazine, and CrazySexyLife.

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  • TB at BlueCollarWorkman.com

    What a freaking timely post. My family and coworkers have said that over the past couple weeks I seem tired and unhappy and weird. They just “sense” it or whatever. And I have been carrying around some things and not just dealing with them — and everyone could feel that. The 1+1 equals purple made me laugh. Awesome.

  • Tracy Carpenter

    Thank you for this. I am 60 years old, a senior in a counseling program, and an RN working at hospice, and I wonder why I am tired and wound up! Thanks for permission to SLOW DOWN.

  • Sneha

    Thanks for such a beautiful inspirational words.

  • Dawn

    Thank you for your words, they have such resonance with me at the moment. 1+1=purple, if I ever get around to writing a book this would have to be the title! Brilliant post. x

  • Ali Shapiro

    Thanks for the work you do Tracy. I think slowing down is the most important Rx of our time.

  • Ali Shapiro

    Our bodies intelligence is just as important as our intellect. While “society” may not value it, we are society and can take our experiences to change that view. Isn’t it incredible technology that you don’t have to say anything and your family and coworkers just know? It can be a super power if we develop it. I’ve been so much more intuitive since this experience it’s kind if freaky! Thanks for reading.

  • Ali Shapiro

    Lol. That was the original title of the post. It’s true though. I think it makes more sense than some of the “logical” arguments being made out here. Thanks for reading and I hope it can help you honor what your body is speaking to you.

  • Ali Shapiro

    Thanks Sneha for reading. I was nervous to have people read but not after comments like yours. Much gratitude to you.

  • http://twitter.com/CarmeloBryan Carmelo Bryan

    I loved your post Ali, and the original title! ;-)

    So glad to hear you talk about the wisdom of the body. Our society is geared towards thinking and the mind. Of course thinking can be done in the body but we just don’t realize this.

    My own personal growth has come from attention paid to the body. Thanks for the example you’ve provided. And, I hope your “comedian” gets back soon!

  • Ali Shapiro

    Thanks for reading Carmelo. I think so many of us learn and grow from the body. I just wish it wasn’t most of the time after all else “fails”. This line of inquiry should be in tandem with “talk” therapy and other cognitive tools. And I look forward to my husband returning too…laughter is key for body and soul!

  • http://How-toBeHappy.com/ TJ Chasteen

    Thanks for sharing your story Ali. This inner peace you explain is something that I currently desire. I think I too my have issues from the past shoved in the attic. It’s time to use mediation and see if my can open the dusty boxes from my past and allow me to accept they are a part of me.

    I am also going to a green smoothie! I hope this peace continues to live within you.

  • Erin

    Thank you so much for this. I’m currently transitioning (or trying to transition) into being more healthy and kind to my body, while also trying to be a more responsible, self-accepting adult and handle various school and professional goals. Sometimes I feel like I’m throwing a lot on my plate and get anxious to achieve all of my goals, but thank you for the reminder that change is going to be a process.

  • Ali

    Hey Erin – I did this too…put way too much on my plate and then in the midst of it, try to be gentle and self-accepting. What I’ve learned is your process informs your destination. So if you are gentle as you go (doing less, embracing the process), you’ll arrive where ever that change takes you gentle and self-accepting. Good luck – I’ve found it to be a life long process, but one that gets easier the more we do it 8-)

  • Ali

    Glad you are going to meditate TJ. I’ve started and am pretty consistent most days. It’s amazing what it does. And of course, those green smoothies seal the deal! Thanks for reading.

  • Jen

    Thank you! And of course right on time. I teach art how funny I forget my own therapy:-)

  • renpic

    I really love the line about your anxiety being self-doubt, not panic attacks. I can so relate to that. It is also so important to just be, no matter what emotions are coming up. We are so trained to just shove them aside, distract ourselves, try to be ‘positive’. But there is only so much we can do that. I find that peace comes when I stop and ask myself really what is wrong. It doesn’t matter if there ‘is’ or not, but whatever I’m feeling I’ll just drop or go into it. Thank you for this reminder!

  • Elisa

    Great post Ali. I have been on & off the burnout trail for a while now, & no sooner do I reach a place of calm & have slowed down, I have picked up old habits again. Stop thinking positively is one of the sagest pieces of advice which initially can read counterintuitive but helps let go of the over-controlling which I find is half the problem. :)