“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
My unwillingness to accept my anxiety disorder (there, I said it, I have a disorder) results in panic.
It results in waking up at night, heart racing, body tingling and trembling.
It results in driving down the road in a thunderstorm thinking I am having a heart attack—but I just keep driving and talking to my beloved on the phone because “if I can just keep driving away from it, it will be okay.”
Instead of accepting anxiety as a family member of sorts, I resist and resent her visits. She’s always forced into drastic measures to get my attention.
When the panic and physical symptoms of anxiety start, I assign it to something else.
My heart races and I must have a heart condition. I’m dizzy and I must have a neurological condition. If it’s not me I assign it to, it’s my children. My son has a horrible bruise; it must be Leukemia. Life is too good; something awful is going to happen to someone I love.
It always happens just like this, I’ve realized recently.
Anxiety shows up over and over the course of my lifetime, yet my expectation is that it won’t.
Instead, I expect that I will always be happy, stress-free, compassionate toward others (but not myself), kind, thoughtful, smart, successful, fit, skinny, wrinkle-free—the list of things I “should” be goes on for miles. That word, “should,” is something that I need to eliminate from my vocabulary.
I convince myself that anxiety can’t be the cause of these physical symptoms, because that would mean that I am something less than happy.
Ah, there it is. Feelings other than happiness are bad, and I should (there’s that word again) be happy all the time; so therefore, if I’m not happy, I’m not perfect and I’m a failure. See how that works?
Yeah, I see how irrational, uncompassionate, and unforgiving that is when it’s on paper, which is one reason I’m writing this. The other reason is because I realized I’m not being true to who I am without accepting this part of me.
People who know me describe me as an open book. I would have described myself that way until recently.
This is a part of me that I’ve hidden for years. I tuck anxiety away like that black sheep of the family and make sure no one, not even those closest to me, know her.
I’ve been ashamed of my anxiety and I’ve realized that all along that black sheep family member just needed me to accept her.
To sit with her and maybe give her a hug and say, “I see you. I know you’ve visited before. Feeling something other than ‘perfectly happy’ is a normal part of life and I should expect to feel anxious, worried, upset, or even sad sometimes. You’re here to help me figure out what feeling is really behind this anxiety and what actions I can take to feel better.”
Recently, my children went out of state with their father for a week. This was the first time I had been that far away from them for that long.
Every day I would wake with a jolt, heart beating fast, wondering why I felt so anxious. I finally realized that being away from my children and worrying about their safety was causing these feelings of panic.
After recognizing this, I decided to focus on the fun things they were doing every day and how this trip would provide them great memories for many years to come instead of thinking about all of the “what ifs” associated with their trip.
I see this recent epiphany as progress in my lifelong journey of self-acceptance.
I am going to try hard to see anxiety as the gift she is, because every time she leaves, I’m a little more enlightened. I feel more capable of managing my anxiety and I realize that I am in control of my thoughts, not the other way around.
I am able to be more compassionate to others when they are feeling less than “perfectly happy.” I’m able to dig a little deeper into what is causing my anxiety versus denying I have it at all.
When I do that, I can develop a plan, which either addresses any legitimate concerns or dispels any irrational ones. It’s a lot easier than continuing along just being a victim of my own thoughts.
The next time anxiety shows up, I’m going to try to embrace her visit so she doesn’t have to go to such drastic lengths to be seen and heard. I’ll simply say, “Oh, it’s you again. Come on in and sit a spell. We have work to do.”
If you also have a family member named anxiety that’s visiting you more often than you would like, sit with her for a while. Think about why she’s there. What are your anxious thoughts?
Write down any irrational, anxious, or self-defeating thoughts on one side of a piece of paper. On the opposite side, list any actual evidence that the thought is true.
An example for me would be “I’m a weak person because I have anxiety.” To challenge that thought is easy—I can list 100 examples of how I am not weak, and have a hard time coming up with even one that proves my thought is true.
Most of the time writing it down takes away the power of the thought and brings some clarity. If you do have a thought that’s true, figure out some steps you can take to address it. Put yourself back in control. Try it the next time anxiety visits and see if it shortens her stay.
About Stephanie Nelson
Stephanie Nelson is a fledgling writer, health care executive, and mom of two. Two years ago, she lost her marriage, her fifteen-year job, and her mother. Those events catapulted her into a journey of self-discovery that has changed who she is in every way. She seeks out knowledge in order to better understand herself and in hopes of helping others do the same.