I know what it’s like living with anxiety. How many posts did you read before this one today? Do you have thirteen more browser tabs open, just waiting for the one that gives you a foothold on your worrisome mind?
In fact, I know what it’s like living with anxiety right now. This post is not a diagnostic reference or an umbrella for all kinds of anxiety – it’s is written from the experience of an anxiety-er… uh, an anxious-ness… person… with… uh…
This is a reflection piece about living with anxiety – how I learned to live with it, how I continue to learn, and what it’s like to grow a relationship with your panic.
For anxiety sufferers: this article intends to help you relate, and to help you grow your perspective.
For everyone else: this article can give you a look through an anxiety sufferer’s eyes and help you to understand their struggle. Because it’s all but impossible to support someone you can’t understand.
What is anxiety?
To be more specific: what is anxiety in the scope of this article? What is the experience of living with anxiety?
Anxiety is a broken helper – a lost warrior fighting for our best life.
Worry is a useful emotion, as it helps us to become hyper-aware of circumstances both outside and inside of us. We’re wired to worry because it keeps us alive. But it’s only meant to be switched on for a short time.
Anxiety is Natural
When a deer is grazing and a threat comes along, they switch into anxious worry mode. They stop grazing and set their attention on their surroundings. Every sense is hyper-aware as adrenaline pumps through their body.
As the threat approaches, they take off. A body and mind supercharged with worry get them away from there – almost anywhere will do – as fast as possible.
After a few minutes, they’re back in the clear. The anxious state switches off and they go back to grazing.
Human biology is wired to respond the same way, except that we keep our anxious state on for hours, days, years… a lifetime.
Chronic Anxiety is Not Natural
Ever have that feeling when you’re falling in a dream and you wake up in a panic? Or when you tilt your chair back too far and your life flashes before your eyes? It’s like that, but instead of a few seconds, many of us live that way most of the day.
This puts a lot of strain on every part of our body. This is peak physical performance mode – it burns a lot of fuel, strains all our tissues, and shuts down our higher thinking.
Anxiety is Paralyzing
There are many times that we anxious folk actually know what we want – or need – to do next. We can see the next step in our current project, but it’s like being strapped to a chair facing an open door. We spend all our time staring but our limbs won’t move.
Or we can take a step forward, but that kicks the anxiety up even more. You can go from a worried state to a panic state surprisingly quickly.
The flip side of this situation is too much activity. You’re in the floor section at a rock concert and there are five people at once trying to hold a panicked conversation with you. Your senses are overwhelmed and you can’t keep track of which emergency is the real emergency. They all sound legit.
The Anxiety Alarm Doesn’t Need to Stop
Living with anxiety drives a person to wish for an off switch. All they want to do is switch it off, and the more they try to do that, the worse it gets.
This is why anxiety sufferers are so prone to addictive behaviour – there’s only so much sensory overwhelm and emergency messaging that one person can handle. Alcohol takes the edge off. Marijuana takes you somewhere else for a little while. Casual sex is… well, it’s sex. Even bad sex still feels pretty good.
Better than all-day anxiety.
But compulsive behaviour always takes more than it gives. Using chemicals or experiences to drown out the anxiety means it will just try harder to get you to listen.
You don’t need to shut it off – you can learn to stop listening to it
That’s right. Believe it or not, it’s possible to let your anxiety do its thing without having to run along with it.
It’s possible. And it is that simple. But it’s very difficult, particularly when you’re starting.
This is the source of so much hype behind “mindfulness.” The idea is to learn to live with whatever state you experience without subscribing to it. This is like learning to watch trains go by without grabbing on to each one as they pass.
You are the observer, not the experience.
Emotions are too powerful to control. Trying to do control them is very much like trying to stop a passing train by grabbing it with your hands:
- you’re going wherever it goes
- you’ll feel frustrated and powerless
- and you’ll probably get hurt.
Have you ever seen a parent hold a conversation with their kids nearby? Tiny people just running, screaming, laughing, crying. It’s chaos, but the parent has well-developed selective attention. The kids can scream bloody murder and the parent – while still listening – can choose to filter the message and respond with patience and love.
You are not a single identity – you are a walking community
There are many approaches to taking personal responsibility. When chronic anxiety is present it can be too heavy a concept to think of ourselves as one, complete being.
Why am I at war with myself? How can I take responsibility for everything that’s going on? There’s too much!
The truth is, we can be vastly different people as circumstances change. We are influenced by our environment – physically and socially – which accentuates different traits within us. It can lighten the load to think of the forces inside of us as many instead of one.
This is not to avoid responsibility – to shift the blame and say, “well, it’s not really me, it’s the anxious part of me.” It is to say that they’re all you and your job is to make friends with each of them. They all mean well and it’s a powerful thing when you can find the good intent behind your destructive thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.
Sometimes Healing Feels Worse – In a Good Way
The pursuit of healing from living with chronic anxiety is no steady path. It will be painful, scary, and confusing. You’ll uncover things that you need to see, but you will not want to see them.
See, the thing is, you’re not healing anxiety – that is a symptom of other hurts. Anxiety is your unintentional attempt to fix something within your experience so that you avoid future pain. You’ll face many forgotten parts of you that are digging into your ribs and causing your worry machine to burn you out.
It’s a labour of love, and I promise that it’s worth the trouble.
“The examined life is the only life worth living.” -Socrates
Sweet. Let’s go to town examining and getting those good feels.
“The examined life is painful.” -Malcolm X
Healing means growing
Even the word itself – “healing” – means there’s damage that needs to be repaired. There is no way around the pain tied to healing – but it doesn’t have to be all for nothing.
After you lift weights, your muscles hurt. They have been torn and are in the process of rebuilding themselves – healing. It hurts, but it’s an empowering pain. You’re sore, but you’re also energized.
To look inside – to examine yourself – and pursue healing will be painful. At times – not all the time. You will expose some cuts and flex them around, which will sting. The truth is that they were already there, and the pain is simply because you’ve disturbed them. You’ve exposed them so that you can see where they are, learn what they need, and nurture them to a better state.
Birth to the new means death to the old
As you work through these troubled parts of your soul, you will uncover just how fractured and unhelpful certain parts of you are. You will realize that some of your old habits have to go, but you may find it very difficult to let them go.
We become attached to our routines and we seldom realize just how comforting they are. We’re wired for familiarity and we go back to it – even when it hurts us.
This is why we end up in the same relationships over and again. Our deepest parts don’t understand logic, they only recognize familiar patterns. We tell them not to light up when we meet yet another emotionally detached person, but that does absolutely nothing to change that response.
Letting go of our old patterns means letting them die out from our experience. As with any other death, it’s important to honour that passing and mourn it properly so that you can move on and make room for the new.
Life is going to hurt no matter what
It’s easy to look at what we’ve talked about here so far and say, “man, screw that.” It’s a difficult and painful process to follow a path of self-recognition and healing. But I have bad news for you: it’s going to hurt no matter what you do.
I love chips. Like, I have a problem. So I don’t buy them. It’s been a while since I had chips. Because they make me feel sluggish, anxious, and they make me want more chips. There is no end.
In years past, when I put comfort as a priority, I would eat them until I felt absolutely sick. Each moment a new chip was in my mouth giving me that pleasure, it was a fantastic five seconds. But it hurt me.
Now, almost never having chips – it’s painful. It’s the pain of longing for that which I enjoy. But it’s bearable. And it, too, becomes familiar. When I hold off long enough, an appreciation for better digestion starts to take the place of that longing.
So… Will Anxiety Ever Go Away?
No. Sorry to throw that at you, but no. We are wired to worry.
This isn’t bad news. The goal was never to get rid of anxiety, it is to make friends with anxiety. It’s our natural warning system and works very well for us when it’s balanced.
Will chronic anxiety ever go away?
Sure! You can craft realistically yourself into a person that doesn’t experience anxiety all day every day.
NOTE: While there are options for many different types of anxiety sufferers, this may not apply if you have an unmanaged anxiety disorder. You can manage it, but your needs may go beyond the self-reflection focus of this article. Consulting with a medical professional is always a crucial first step.
Your relationship with your worrying side can be one of mutual benefit. You can learn to comfort the terrified parts of you, and they can learn not to scream all the time.
Some people are dealt a worse hand than others, so your mileage may vary. As I said, this is not an article about diagnosis or a solution for everyone with anxiety.
From what I have learned, I believe my anxiety comes from generations of stress being passed along, and bad habits being repeated. I don’t seem to have an anxiety disorder as much as I have bags to unpack and demons to face.
You may have something deeper going on that requires medical intervention – talking to a doctor is always a great move in this process. I have ongoing visits to the doctor as I unravel this mysterious maze of worry within myself.
Nobody can get through things like this alone. Nobody. We are wired to be connected, and pursuing a challenge like living with anxiety is a long and difficult process. Get connected with friends, families, doctors, therapists, support groups. Over time you’ll see what works for you – you’ll become an expert at your own health.
What resonated with you in this article and why? Where in this reflection did you see yourself – or a loved one?