Anxiety: A Confession

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It’s not a secret that I like to write about the things that are on my mind. Right now, anxiety is on the brain. I am aware that I am an anxious person, but I have been living that way my entire life and I have created an existence for myself in spite of that. It’s not the worst kind of handicap a person could have. It could be debilitating, if I allowed it to be, but instead I have worked very hard to make my anxiety work for me instead of rule my existence. Once in a while it gets the best of me and it feels a little like a runaway train of emotion inside my heart.

I am aware that anxiety can be solved, or managed, in many ways. There are lots of pills you can pop to even things out. There is yoga. There is meditation. There is creative outlet. There is reasoning. Thing after thing after thing. At the end of the day, if you are a person suffering from anxiety, then it is a part of who you are. It is not easily changed like hair color. There isn’t a switch to flip off and on.

I don’t know about other people, but there is a part of me that secretly likes it. I don’t know how else to live. It’s scary to think what I might be like if I were more mellow. In my head, nothing would get accomplished. I have found a way to make my anxiety work for me: I get shit done.

I used to be a LOT worse. When I was sixteen, I was invited to a birthday party at a friend’s house. I had never been to his house before, and I felt very anxious about driving to the party on the day of the party and not knowing where it was, dealing with traffic, finding a place to park, and also being late. So, the day before, I drove to his house so that I would know the route. I scoped out parking options. I felt better, safer, in control. Anxiety managed.

As I grew older, I learned that life is a lot more complex than where to park at a birthday party. When you become an adult, you learn that pretty much everything is out of your control. This is very scary for an anxious person, especially one whose anxiety comes from a place of needing to feel in control of her environment and what happens to her. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t control anything. I had minor and major wins, and minor and major fails. At the end of it all, at the age of twenty-four, I have finally realized that very little is in my control. Of course this makes me anxious, but it is a low-level anxiety that I mostly ignore.

Once in a while, I do get that runaway train feeling. It often happens when I am outside my comfort zone to begin with, and I feel that things are spinning out of control. I react the same way that any animal reacts when backed into a corner (metaphorically speaking) – we go into fight or flight mode. What I have also learned, over twenty-four years, is that there is absolutely no reason to believe that anything will “be okay”. It probably won’t. It’s very sad, but that is the world I live in.

On the other hand, my need to control things and my anxiety work for me in a lot of ways. I’m the girl who, when laying in bed at night, I fantasize about how I would react to the strangest things. I used to wonder what would happen if the house were on fire. Now, I am sure this is fairly common. But I’m not talking about if the house is on fire. I’m talking every possible scenario I could think of. What if the fire starts in the basement? My sister’s room? My other sister’s room? My room? My parent’s room? The living room? The kitchen?

I would play these out one by one, over and over again, until I memorized how I would react. I would wonder how I would react to seeing a car accident happen right in front of me. What I would do if I walked into my lover’s apartment to see him in bed with another woman. What would happen if I suddenly lost my job.

I’m the girl who packs a suitcase, unpacks it, and then repacks it again. Just to make sure I didn’t forget anything. I triple check to make sure I have everything I need before I leave the house, because I don’t want to be caught without anything. Now, over the years, I have learned to relax a little bit. The reality is that if I forget my chapstick, I can buy more. It’s an inconvenience, but not the end of the world. I can always buy more cigarettes or a lighter.

When I pack to move, I write lists of things in which boxes and label the boxes so when I need something in the new place, I know what box it’s in. This might seem organized to you, but it comes from the anxiety of not knowing where my things are. I think of every possible variable for every possible scenario because if I don’t, a catastrophe will happen.

When I left my marriage, I felt righteous. I was doing the right thing. A few weeks after that, I felt lonely and considered changing my mind. Why, you ask? Well, because at least if I knew what I was in, it wouldn’t be so scary. The idea of letting go of that false sense of security (my abusive relationship) in favor of the unknown was terrifying. At the end of it, the only reason why I stuck by my original decision was because I didn’t want to be a statistic – one more woman too weak to walk away. I knew I wouldn’t be able to explain my decision to stay to ANY rational human being, and I couldn’t stomach it. Sheer stubbornness won out in the end, but definitely not a sense of self-worth. I hate taking credit for this amazing thing I did, leaving my husband, because at the end of the day I was more afraid of caving than I was of being with him. In that scenario, the anxiety over being a statistic beat out the anxiety over leaving what I knew to be safe.

It all comes back to that.

I have tried, so hard, in the past year to try to be a different person. I have done so many things that are so far outside my comfort zone. It may sound silly to a normal human being, but to me it is huge. I am the kind of person that always orders the same thing at a restaurant, because no matter where I go the food pretty much tastes the same. I always order a steak and cheese sub. I know I won’t be disappointed. It’s chopped steak with delicious veggies and cheese! Who can screw that up? I have tried many new things, but under pressure I will almost always revert to type. But wait – there isn’t pressure in ordering at a restaurant. An anxious person will tell you that there is.

For me, just about everything I do pushes me outside my comfort zone. If I let my anxiety control my life, I’d probably never leave the house. I would never play in the woods, or try new food, or meet new people. I would miss out on so many opportunities! As much as I love trying new things, it can sometimes be physically uncomfortable for me to do them. I don’t feel in control, so in my head, the worst is about to happen. It almost never does, but sometimes it does. A handful of times damn near the worst thing that could happen, did happen, and as a result I have a deep mistrust of the system we call life.

On the plus side, every time I try something new and it doesn’t even in catastrophic failure, I regain some of that trust in the life-system. I think to myself, perhaps I can handle this after all. It sounds so pathetic to type it all out, but this is who I am. For better or for worse, I live with this every day. I can go from confident and breezy to sweaty palms and a dry mouth in a heartbeat. All it takes is to realize how far I have strayed from the “safe road” and into the woods. Anyone who has read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon will tell you that you NEVER step off the path, because you will undoubtedly get lost in the woods and almost die.

It’s getting better a little bit at a time. I try to take things in stride, and I try to push myself whenever possible. I have dated, examined my relationship with myself and certain types of men, modeled in the nude, started a new job and learned a complete new skill set, re-built relationships with family members, and tried new hobbies. I have canoed and hiked and wandered through the woods… and didn’t get lost or die. Despite my anxiety, I have learned that I can do all kinds of stuff if I just try to set it all aside and push through.

More important than ALL of that – I own this. I own this about myself. I don’t take medication because I believe in holistic healing, and I try to love myself no matter what flaws others may think I have. This one piece – loving myself – is the biggest part of all. I don’t know about the other anxious people out there, but it seems to me that if you have anxiety, feeling bad about it goes right along with it. It’s embarrassing to admit, especially to someone who doesn’t seem to have this kind of problem, and they always have so many helpful things to say. Read: sarcasm. In the end, we are conditioned to feel sub-par because we are afraid.

I could very easily challenge that statement by pointing out that no one ever died of an extreme sport accident because they were too busy being a shut-in because they were afraid, but then the opposite side to that coin is that most shut-ins miss out on the beauty that is the world. Just because I am afraid of it doesn’t mean I won’t do it, but I really prefer to do things my way. Why? Oh, because that’s the only way I know how to go outside my comfort zone. I typically do things in baby steps, at a super slow pace, and I make sure that I have a comprehensive understanding of what is going to happen along the way.

I have no idea what “winging it” feels like. Well, I do, but I don’t like it. I’m a planner, I accomplish things, I am methodical and creative. I try. I try so hard. Just because I have this thing doesn’t mean I like it. I am sometimes envious of relaxed people. I don’t even know what that looks like. I’ve been relaxed, sure, but only when I feel safest. Nothing interesting happens in your safe place, and you are only reinforcing those neural pathways by repeating them over and over.

That’s a concept in the book Super Brain, by the way. I suggest you read it, no matter who you are. I will tell you that because I have no idea who I will be on the other side of reading that book, I am resisting reading it. But, someone I respect and value suggested it, and it would be a good exercise for me to just read the damn thing already. I’ve gotten through the first chapter or two and I just hate it so far. It’s a reminder of every facet of my personality that I wish I could change but don’t know how. Read: don’t really want to, it’s safer to stay how I am because I am used to it. But, the exercises are very simple and the world isn’t going to implode if I try something new.

I guess… this is the only person I know how to be. I am not particularly fond of it, but I have come a long way and I can live with the low-level current I maintain at all times. But, as my father says….

Any time spent unhappy is wasted time.

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2 thoughts on “Anxiety: A Confession

  1. (Looking at this, I realize this is a huge response. I hope you find it meaningful, haha.)

    Anxiety is a fairly common thing that people struggle with. The good news is that you are the type of person that can, for the most part, cope with your anxiety. I’ve worked with many people who have such severe anxiety that even medication doesn’t work for them, and their anxiety attacks are completely debilitating. So hopefully, you can take some comfort in knowing that your anxiety is manageable without medication.

    That might seem trivial, but that should give you some confidence: you are able to manage (if not entirely control) your reaction to a chemical response in your brain over which you have little-to-no control. Although your anxiety influences you to over-plan in order to put yourself more at ease, you can at least say that your response to the anxiety is fairly healthy when compared to the alternative (the alternative typically being complete shut-down mode). You respond to your anxiety constructively rather than destructively, and in most cases that is the biggest thing that people with high anxiety struggle with.

    Managing your response to anxiety is a bit easier than actually reducing anxiety itself, as I’m sure you have no doubt come to realize. It all has to do with re-wiring your brain, as you mentioned. For what it’s worth, this is what I’ve learned in my (now 30) years of living.

    Although I would not say that I have anxiety problems, there are certain situations that make me feel anxious–or “tight in the chest” as I like to call it. Like you, I have a deep-seated desire to be liked/loved. Like you, I wasn’t popular growing up, and I feel as though I have experienced a lifetime of rejection. Two weeks ago I had my 30th birthday party. The day of the party, I was anxious all day. I had knots in my stomach because I had invited just about everyone I know, and I was afraid that not many people would show up. Not showing up, in my mind, would be a sign of rejection.

    But then I convinced myself that there would be a good amount of people (I think around 10 or 12 people came), and that the people who did show up were obviously the best people to hang around anyway. But then I started to get anxious about whether or not they would have a good time. I typically don’t stress about going to parties, but this party was about me. I would be the focus. I was afraid that I would not produce a good enough time for my friends.

    Kyrston, it was so bad that I even entertained the idea of not going–not going to my own party. I even considered calling it off at the last minute. When these feelings would come up–and they came up often throughout the day–I had to cope first by getting control of the feelings and then doing something to take my mind off of it.

    I first clear my mind, and then I tell myself why my feelings are irrational. It doesn’t make it go away altogether, but it lessens the effect enough so that when I engage in some activity that requires focus, the act of focusing on that activity almost completely takes my mind off of the anxiety, and I find that the knots in my stomach have gone away. Typically, I only feel anxious when confronted with some social situations. But most people wouldn’t know it, because I come off as a fairly sociable guy most of the time.

    One last thing: convince yourself that you DO NOT need the anxiety in order to function and get the most out of life. Don’t believe that without the anxiety you would have zero impetus to get anything done. The way I see it is that if your processes shorten or your current level of activities lessen because the anxiety no longer prompts you to over-prepare, then you are no longer wasting time on inconsequential things, thus giving you more time to spend on satisfying things that you WANT to do, rather than things that you feel like you MUST do.

    Hopefully this helps some =)

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