Anxiety is a sneaky little bastard. One second you’re okay, and the next.. BAM! You’re in the clutches of the devil. For me, it’s like shards of ice running through my veins, my skin feels tingly and cold and my stomach drops away like I’m on a rollercoaster. It’s often accompanied by a depression too – a feeling of dread, sadness and ‘not this again’.
When I was a child anxiety presented as stomach aches (as it often does with children), they were so bad I waited 3 days to go to the hospital when I had appendicitis, because I just thought it was one of those stomach aches I always got. Another time, one of my stomach aches sent me to emergency, and no matter how much morphine they gave me it just didn’t go away. Turns out I had strep throat, but the stomach ache was so bad I didn’t even know my throat was sore.
Accompanied with all the physical feelings is usually the most outrageous drama playing out in my head – I literally feel like I’m watching a movie of an inevitable future -everything seems so real it’s as though there’s no possible outcome other than the little imaginary scenario I’ve drummed up.
Stemming from the fear response, anxiety is that old evolutionary ‘fight-or-flight’ gone wrong in our modern world. A world that constantly bombards our senses, one with high stress work and home environments where we jam-pack our days with so much we can barely breathe til the weekend. A world where we smash our bodies in the gym, deprive them of food to fit into a body we’ll never feel satisfied with and compare everything to everyone else – car, job, house, career, children, appearance, income, holidays, lack of holidays, the list continues. A world where our ideal way to relax is to send our body into another high-stress, toxic environment when we get so drunk on the weekends that we spend the only days we have to relax on recovering from our hang overs. Yeah, that world. It’s not surprising our senses are confused, that our brain interprets threat from every direction. The difference with anxiety and fear, though, is that fear is rooted in the present – all our senses switch on, our muscles gear up and we have clarity in this moment. Anxiety, on the other hand, has the physical feeling of fear, but is accompanied by worry over the future. It’s accompanied by thoughts, and is anything but present.
Whilst anyone with anxiety will tell you that it does serve some purpose, usually to prepare us for the worst (which just isn’t true), I’ve realised that actually, anxiety can teach us something – it can teach us to stay. While it seems very counter-intuitive, staying in the moment and becoming present in anxiety (rather than listening to it and avoiding a situation or numbing out of the feeling itself), can almost instantly make it go. At worst, it teaches you that you can cope, you can deal with it, and that actually, it will go away eventually.
Pema Chodron (my greatest hero) talks about staying a lot. She says that in those moments when you’re really triggered to do the thing you always do when stressed or anxious, instead you sit there and stay, like a Labrador. The reason I think it works is because although anxiety is telling us to run, what we really need to learn is to stay. If we always run, avoid, numb out.. then all we learn is to run, avoid, numb out. We never actually realise we can take on the beast, in fact, we never actually see the beast because we tap out before it gets too close.
Learning to be present, in my humble opinion, is the single greatest lesson we can learn. It solves problems, increases your feelings of well-being and reduces stress levels a hundred fold. Anxiety teaches us to be present so quickly and efficiently, because the only other option is to remain in the nightmare you’ve created in your head.
Anxiety is usually something that rears its head when the cup is too full. For me, it’s when I haven’t slept, I’ve had too many nights partying, or I’m not living in line with my values (should I choose not to assert myself, say ‘yes’ to please others and end up resentful or doing something so that I’m not disliked, I find that icy liquid spreading through my veins). So anxiety can also teach us to stay on our path – stay true to ourselves and keep that cup from filling up too much. It’s a good lesson to slow.. down… and take some time out for play and rest.
If you’re an anxious person, anxiety can also rear its head when we try something new, or get the courage to do something brave. Stay your course! When we limit ourselves and avoid stretching in order to avoid anxiety, we teach anxiety that it’s won, and teach ourselves we’re not strong enough to climb those mountains. So stay your path, be vulnerable, keep stepping forward, keep climbing up and the claws of anxiety will not hang on for long.
So next time you feel anxious (unless you have a panic disorder), take a few deep breaths and speak to your inner labrador “Stay..stay…stay”.