“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” ~Soren Kierkegaard
Let’s be clear:
This isn’t an article about positive thinking.
This isn’t an article about how silver linings make everything okay.
This isn’t an article about how your perspective on anxiety is all wrong.
The kids call those things “toxic positivity.”
No toxic positivity here.
This is an article about my lifelong relationship with anxiety and what I’ve learned from something that won’t go away. At times the anxiety spikes and feels almost crippling. I have a hard time appreciating the learning at those times, but it’s still there.
That is what this article is all about.
Please do not confuse me learning things from something that won’t go away with me endorsing that thing or saying it’s a good thing. I would trade everything I’ve learned from anxiety for less anxiety. I don’t even like writing about it because focusing on it this much gives me anxiety. But I want to write things that help people.
How a Bare Butt Sparked My Anxiety
Stranger Things has shown how cool the eighties were. For the most part, this is true. I miss arcades and the music. I miss the freedom I had as a kid that I don’t see kids having these days. I miss some of the fashion. I don’t miss people not knowing anything about mental health.
We used to play football every day after school at a baseball field/park in our little town. This was unsupervised tackle football with kids a lot older than me.
I remember one time a guy broke his finger. It was pointing back at him at a ninety-degree angle. He took off sprinting toward his house. One of the older kids said, “He’s running home to mommy!” and we all went back to playing.
Oddly enough, possibly breaking my finger didn’t worry me. What did worry me was one day when a kid was running for a touchdown, and another kid dove to stop him. He only caught the top of his pants, pulling them down and exposing his bare butt. He made the touchdown anyway, but while everyone else thought it was hilarious, it scared me to death.
What if that happens to me?
I started tying my pants up with a string every day, pulling it tight enough to make my stomach hurt (remember, this was the eighties—I was wearing those neon-colored pajama-pant-looking things). I started to feel sick before we played football, before school, and before everything.
You would think it was obvious that I was dealing with anxiety, but you have to remember that in the eighties and nineties, we did not talk about mental health like we do now. We didn’t throw around terms like anxiety and depression. I was just the weird kid that threw up before he went to school.
The anxiety has gotten a little more noticeable over the past few years. It seems to have gotten worse since having COVID in 2020 and 2021. I don’t know if that’s a thing, but it feels like it is. It has forced me to deal with it mindfully and with more intention. It’s never pleasant, but I’ve learned a few things.
1. Anxiety has taught me to be present.
The crushing presence of high anxiety forces me to be exactly where I am at that moment. I’m not able to read or write. I cannot play a video game or watch a movie with any kind of enjoyment. There’s nothing I can do.
This roots me in the moment in a very intense, authentic way. That might seem bad since I’m anxious, but there’s another layer to it. When I can be completely present with the physiological sensations of anxiety, I recognize that they are energy in the body. When I’m super present, I can see how my mind is turning those sensations into the emotion we call anxiety, and that’s where my suffering comes from.
2. Anxiety has taught me about control.
I’ve been told that my hyper-independence and need to be prepared for anything is a trauma response. I was a therapist for ten years, and I still don’t know what to do with this information. I do know that anxiety gives me a crash course in what I can control and what I cannot control.
The bad news is that I can’t control any of the things that I think are creating anxiety. The good news is that I can control my response to all those things. Anxiety forces me to do this in a very intentional way.
Anxiety also puts my mind firmly on something bigger than myself. Maybe it’s that higher power we hear about in AA meetings and on award shows. It’s good for me to get outside my head and remember that I’m not in charge of anything. It’s helpful to only box within my weight class.
3. Anxiety teaches me to have good habits and boundaries.
I’m bad about allowing my habits and boundaries to slip when times are good. I start eating poorly, I stop exercising, I stay up too late, and I watch a bunch of shows and movies that beam darkness and distraction directly into my head.
I also start to allow unhealthy and even toxic people to have a more prominent role in my life. This is all under the guise of helping them because people reach out to me a lot. Over the years, I’ve learned I have to limit how close I let the most toxic people get to me, no matter how much help they need.
When I’m feeling good, I start thinking I can handle anything, and my boundaries slip. Anxiety is always a reminder that the unhealthiness in my life has consequences, and I clean house when it spikes.
4. Anxiety reminds me how important growth is.
Once I clean house, I start looking at new projects and things I can do to feel better. I start taking the next step in who I want to be. This has been difficult over the past three years because the waves of anxiety have been so intense, but I see the light at the end of the tunnel as the good habits I put in place and the new projects and things I started are beginning to come to fruition.
I chose to let my counseling license go inactive and focus on life coaching because it’s less stressful, and I’m better at it. This would not have happened without anxiety. I have changed my diet and exercise in response to blood pressure and anxiety, and these are good habits to have whether I am anxious or not.
5. Anxiety taught me to be gentle.
I’ve written and spoken a lot about my desire to be gentler with people. I’m not unkind, and I have a lot of compassion for people, but this is often expressed gruffly or too directly. It’s how I was raised, and I often feel like I am patronizing people if I walk in verbal circles when I’m trying to help them with something.
When I’m experiencing high anxiety I feel fragile, which helps me understand how other people might feel in the face of my bluntness. I started working on being gentler around 2018, and I was disappointed in my progress.
It was also around that year that anxiety began to become a fixture in my life again. As I look back now, I can recognize that I am a lot gentler with everyone around me when I’m anxious. Being a little fragile helps me treat everybody else with a little more care.
6. Anxiety taught me to slow down and ask for help.
When I started experiencing increased anxiety, it led me to make quick decisions and change things to try to deal with it. This makes sense. Evolutionarily, anxiety is meant to prompt us to action.
The problem was that these decisions rarely turned out to be my best ones and often led to other consequences I had to deal with down the line. Because of this, I’ve learned that an anxiety spike is not the time to make big decisions.
If I have to make a decision about something, I slow down and try to be very intentional about it. I’ve also learned I need to talk it out with somebody else, something I’ve never been inclined to do. Asking for help is a good thing.
7. Anxiety helps me speed up.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, this is the opposite of what I just said.
Let me clarify.
One of the most important quotes I’ve ever read came from the folk singer Joan Baez: “Action is the antidote to anxiety.” (Years later, I learned she might have said despair instead of anxiety, but I heard it the first way).
Some tasks bring anxiety that I do not want to deal with. These usually involve phone calls or emails to bureaucratic organizations or errands that I find unpleasant and anxiety-inducing (avoiding these also makes sense—our evolutionary legacy cannot understand why we would do something that may feel dangerous).
Over the years, I’ve learned that anxiety diminishes if I take the steps I need to take to address these tasks. The cool thing is that this has translated over to many of my day-to-day tasks.
By acting in the face of anxiety, I’ve gotten pretty good about doing things when they need to be done. I mow the lawn when it needs to be mowed, take out the trash when it needs to be taken out, put the laundry up when it needs to be put up, and get the oil changed in my truck when it needs to be changed.
Once we start addressing tasks immediately, it becomes a habit. Anxiety helped me do this.
Anxiety Still Sucks
So there you go. Seven things anxiety has taught me. I’m grateful for these lessons, but they don’t make anxiety any less difficult in the moment.
Anxiety is meant to suck. It’s meant to make things difficult and uncomfortable for us until we do something to address the problem. The problem, unfortunately, is often un-addressable these days.
We worry about things like losing our job, not having enough money, divorce, and the general state of the world. Anxiety did not develop to address any of these things, so sometimes being comfortable with discomfort is the best we can offer ourselves.
Maybe that’s the last thing anxiety is teaching me.