How Changing My Internal Monologue Made Me Grateful for My Anxiety
Lately, I’ve been working pretty hard on gratitude. As an agoraphobic, incredibly anxious mum to an adorable two-year-old, the idea of gratitude is often something I both overlook and scoff at. Grateful? Yeah, sure — I’m grateful I’ve had four hours sleep, spent three years housebound, my hair is going grey before I’m 30 and my living room floor looks like it’s carpeted but really it’s just a lot of dust and pet hair that I “forget” to vacuum on a regular basis. I’m super, duper grateful! Anyway, I finally realized that this constant state of frustration was not only a shit place to be but not in any way helpful to me or my family. So, I decided to spend a couple of minutes every day writing a list of all the things I’m grateful for, in the hope I’ll realize my life is actually pretty damn good. You know, despite the floor fluff and the gray hairs. And four months in, there is something a little bit surprising that frequently comes up on my gratitude list.
I am grateful for my anxiety.
Two years ago, if you’d asked me to affirm that I was grateful for my anxiety, I would’ve done it; I’m a pushover like that, but in no way would I have really believed it. Anxiety robbed me of my life as I knew it; anxiety kept me locked inside my house, inside my head, kept me from enjoying my days, instead spending them fearful and teary, wondering where in the hell I had gone wrong. It is like that for so many people with anxiety. But at the end of every day, when I write my little list of things I’m grateful for, I often find myself writing that I am grateful for my struggles, grateful for the fear and the shakes and the nervousness and the sick feeling that I get in the pit of my stomach sometimes, and grateful I am where I am today — not in spite of my anxiety, but because of my anxiety.
Maybe it’s that I’m taking my power back. Or maybe I’ve just come to realize that the last four years haven’t been a blip, but an eye-opening journey. The thing is, I don’t want to change myself anymore. Sure, I want to improve, but not because I dislike who or where I am right now. I’m not angry at my anxiety anymore. I’m not afraid of it, because — and there’s a bit of a paradox here — I am not my anxiety, but my anxiety is me.
You might not have control just yet over what your anxiety does to you, but you can have control over what you do to your anxiety. Are you constantly cursing your anxiety? Are you running from it? Are you pretending it’s not there? Or do you just absolutely hate on it with every single fiber of your being? You probably answered yes to one or many of those questions, and I get it. I do. It’s really hard to feel positive about something that gets in the way of you doing your thing and enjoying life to the fullest. But remember the paradox I mentioned above? Your anxiety is you. You can’t run from yourself, you can’t pretend you aren’t there, you can hate and curse yourself but it sure doesn’t feel good to do so. Yeah, when you feel an anxiety attack coming on, it’s so frustrating that your body is reacting in the “wrong” way. But the important thing to remember is that your body is doing this to protect you. The danger gauge is off, but the good intentions were there.
Why not try giving your body some credit for looking out for your best interests, however misguided — so that instead of this internal conversation:
Anxiety: Hey! We’re in danger!
You: Are you sure?
Anxiety: Pretty sure!
You: I don’t think we are, but… well, now I’m freaking out a bit.
Anxiety: Me too! I think something bad is going to happen!
You: Why do you always overreact? Now I feel nervous and weird and I hate feeling so anxious… oh god, I think I’m going to throw up.
Anxiety: Told you we were in trouble! Sound the alarm!
You have this internal conversation:
Anxiety: Hey! We’re in danger!
You: Are you sure?
Anxiety: Pretty sure!
You: I don’t think we are. But I appreciate that you’re looking out for me all the same. You do your thing and I’ll just keep doing mine.
Anxiety: Oh. I was just trying to protect you. From… you know… the dangers…
You: I know.
You: Thanks though.
Anxiety: I gotchu girl.
A much better internal dialogue, am I right?
The next time you start to feel anxious, I want you to do the following things:
1. Acknowledge Your Anxiety.
Before you do anything else, you need to just identify with how you’re feeling. For example, when I was at the very beginning of my exposure sessions, I would be thinking “I don’t want to feel anxious… I don’t want to feel anxious,” instead of just saying “I feel anxious.” So instead, simply notice how you are feeling, and acknowledge those thoughts.
Remember what your anxiety is: a response your body is making to a perceived threat. It isn’t an external force or person, it is you. Accept how it feels – is it only in certain parts of your body, or is it all encompassing? Is it consistent? Rising? Coming in waves? Affirm that however your body is feeling right now is OK. You don’t need to fight it or change it at this present time.
3. Appreciate Your Anxiety.
Say thank you to your body for looking out for you. Treat your anxiety like a super shy and really loveable child. How would you react if your kid came and showed you an incredibly adorable-in-only-the-way-kid’s-drawings-can-be piece of artwork that said “I luv u mum,” that they’d done it with your favorite, most expensive lipstick? You wouldn’t tell them they’re useless and that they ruin everything – you’d say “Thank you! That’s so good!” It’s the same with your anxiety. Treat it like a small child with the best intentions. Don’t constantly bring it down and hate it for existing. Show it love, show it care and appreciate it for being there.
And if you really want to go the whole way and treat your anxious self like a damn queen instead of some kind of exile, go ahead and write a list of all the reasons your anxiety has actually made you a stronger person. For example:
1. You face your fears every day.
2. You know what it means to be truly afraid, but try again and again anyway.
3. You have more empathy for others.
4. You have a deeper understanding of yourself.
5. You have a better connection with your family or friends.
6. You appreciate the simple things, like going for a walk in the sunshine.
7. You are on more of a journey of discovery than ever before.
Then write a list of all the things you can do to honor yourself and your anxiety. How can you strengthen your relationship with yourself so that you don’t always feel as if your anxiety is controlling you, instead of the other way around? My list looked a bit like this:
1. Practice yoga every day.
2. Meditate every day.
3. Eat foods that don’t irritate my gut.
4. Learn to relax – take a nap if I need to.
5. Read books that inspire me.
6. Be present instead of always zoning out on my phone.
7. Smile at myself more.
8. Let my body feel the way it wants to. (The other day I had some weird nervous energy happening and instead of mindlessly watching something on my laptop while anxiously ruminating about everything, I actually danced around the lounge room like a possessed woman because I obviously just needed to express some shit. It was weird and wonderful. Sorry if you are my neighbors.)
The next time you’re feeling anxious, try to give yourself a mental high-five instead of a face-palm and see what happens.
Follow this journey on the author’s blog.
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Thinkstock photo via fcscafeine