When I first decided to take on the monumental project of dealing with my anxiety, I just wanted it to go away. I tried to find ways to ignore it. I tried to find ways to minimize it. To me anxiety meant a grip of terror. It meant a pounding heart and the sensation of the world collapsing in on itself. I hated it- and I wanted it gone.
Grounding exercises like progressive muscle relaxation were somewhat helpful when I had moments of acute panic. Focused activities like painting and other hobbies helped distract me from nagging anxiety thoughts. I noticed that vigorous exercise gave me a rush of endorphins, and helped keep me optimistic in the few hours afterwards. And I recognized that not overusing drugs and alcohol made me less susceptible to feeling that dreaded sense of despair. All of these things helped. But in terms of deep and lasting change, I knew in my heart it wasn’t actually going to do much. These were all coping skills. These were all band-aids. There is nothing wrong with having good coping skills- sometimes you do need a band aid. But I wanted to heal that core wound- I wanted to drain the deep lake of anxiety in my belly.
Thinking back, the first thing I did that actually set me onto a path of recovery from anxiety was making a list of all the ways my anxiety helped me.
I thought about how anxiety has been useful to me. I thought about the times it had saved me. I thought about the ways I was grateful for it. At first thinking of examples was hard. But once I really committed myself to trying, they came pouring out of me.
Anxiety has helped me be more responsible. It has helped keep me focused on projects. Anxiety has helped me take the time to think through my decisions better. Anxiety has helped me avoid over using drugs and alcohol. Anxiety has helped me think through the consequences of my actions. Anxiety has helped me not be impulsive in ways that are destructive. Anxiety has helped keep me on track with my life goals. It has helped me stay organized. It has helped motivate me to do menial but necessary tasks like keeping my house clean. It has helped me stay cautious and safe. It has helped me not do risky things where I might have gotten hurt. It has kept me from trusting people too quickly and possibly get taken advantage of.
I can also think of twice as many ways that anxiety has not been helpful, sometimes in ways that directly contradict what I have written above. I can think of so many ways that anxiety has been terrifying and destructive in my life. But this exercise helped me uncover the deeper, gentler, more vulnerable voice of my anxiety that all my coping skills had been drowning out. It was a quiet, desperate, voice. A voice that cared for my own Self so greatly that it was destroying itself trying to find ways to express it’s love.
I finally saw: my anxiety didn’t hate me. My anxiety was trying desperately to take care of me. My anxiety is the over protective mother in my head. My anxiety loves me with all it’s heart. My anxiety just needs help knowing the best way to show it.
Once I was able to recognize how my anxiety was trying to help me, I could more easily reach a place of surrender: where I could accept my anxiety as an often misguided but always well meaning companion in my life. Now, we could work together in a more collaborative way- instead of shoving her down into a corner where she would simply be less heard and more desperate.
In this way, I could ask my anxiety more about herself, and recognize that she is as complexed and nuanced as any other part of myself. I learned so much about myself from my anxiety when I was able to genuinely ask her about her origins, about her fears, about what had affected and influenced her, about what she hoped for. And through this process, I found that the more distressing symptoms of my anxiety mostly evaporated on their own.
It turned out that I didn’t have to reject my anxiety. I didn’t have to simply get rid of it. To be honest, I never really wanted to cut out and throw away a part of myself anyway.