Anxiety is an A-list actress. If anxiety were to audition for a role, especially one that involved imagining threat of death, feeling “insane,” and experiencing pain, anxiety would secure the lead. Because anxiety doesn’t just affect your mind, it inhabits your body too.
Something a lot of people might not realize about anxiety is just how much it hurts physically. People with anxiety don’t necessarily look different to anyone else. There’s no red flashing light spinning on top of their heads. But you know you’ve met a fellow person with anxiety when they get it: the intense sensation that makes it feel like your body is, quite literally, on fire — like someone’s taken a stack of firewood and a big old match and lit a bonfire in your belly, or legs, or back, or whatever body part it chooses to seize the most.
Anxiety is like that. It tends to favor a particular place and hang out there. For me, it’s my legs for adrenaline and my stomach for terror. For others, it might be their throats, that feeling of difficulty swallowing, of tightness, like your neck is a narrow tunnel and your adrenaline is in a traffic jam with your breath. For almost everyone, there’s muscle tension. And of course, at the center, in your most vulnerable place, there’s the heart of you beating like an out-of-control, twitchy metronome. Sound dramatic? Well, remember what I said: drama is anxiety’s favorite past time. Anxiety hates rest and favors fight-or-flight.
If it could have a career preference, anxiety might like to take up personal training, but not for well-being and balance. Anxiety prefers intensity and dominance. I remember once, in a particularly difficult period, beating my fists against my husband’s raised palms (don’t worry, he suggested it) and trying to box it out. With each blow I told anxiety how much I hated it. As it turned out, this only gave it more attention. The boxing match against my invisible foe ended with me collapsed in a stream of tears and it gloating in a corner with a celebratory drink. Fighting is not, I have learned, my best recourse to tackle anxiety, but we will get to what I have come to believe is in a moment.
Anxiety always wants to be front and center. There’s that drama-queen again. And, if it can make you believe it’s all there is, that there is nothing beyond it, that you are no longer you but entirely dictated to, directed by, and controlled by it, then anxiety smiles smugly and calls it a good day at the office.
Forgive all the mixed metaphors, but, see, metaphors are what is needed to define anxiety, because, despite all its kicking, screaming, whining, wailing, beating, baffling, and curtailing… anxiety is not an it after all but a sensation. No, I’m not saying it doesn’t exist because believe me, it does, but rather than a permanent point of identity, a defining characteristic that renders a person little more than anxiety’s puppet, anxiety is a sensation. And sensations don’t define you.
I remember the liberation I felt rushing over me like a sea breeze at sunset when someone first told me this. You are not the subtotal of your anxiety. Too long it has sought to define you. But the truth is, you are more than it. You are bigger than it. No matter how much it seeks, like a machine pumping hot air to inflate you, to occupy not just your legs, and stomach, and mind, but all of you, anxiety is not the only song on your playlist, not the only player in your life.
Psychologists call this expansion. You are bigger than it. Sensations cannot overtake, no matter how much they threaten and cajole. And if you are a Believer, you are bigger because He is bigger. Which leads to another point: acceptance.
I, and many wiser people around me, have been studying anxiety for a long time now. And this is what it comes down to. Anxiety likes fight, it likes attention, it likes center stage, but what it doesn’t like is acceptance. You might try, then, saying something like this politely to anxiety when it drops by stamping, screaming, and frothing at the mouth: ‘Oh, hello old friend, it’s you again. Well, I hardly need to give you a guided tour, you know the place well, so, come on in if you like. But don’t expect royal treatment. Just take a seat. Yes, in my stomach, if you wish, or my legs. I’m not going to fight you anymore. Because I don’t have to.’
That fire, it loves attention, but it can’t stay aflame too long if I don’t keep feeding it. And if it does stay burning longer than I’d like sometimes, because it’s pretty stubborn and those embers hold a lot of heat, that’s OK too because I won’t be consumed by it. No, sir, not anymore. And then, a little while later, perhaps when I least expect it, I might even say something like this, “What, you are leaving? Well, OK, but don’t worry, I won’t even lock the door. There’s no need to. It’s big enough for both of us in here.”
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Stock image by Pitju