Anxiety is a partnership

Lately I’ve been doing the Anxiety pack of meditations on Headspace, and something has clicked for me.

It’s not about making the anxiety feel consistent: a panic attack always feels this way, small anxieties always feel that way. Because it’s not going to be like that. While there are commonalities – tingling and expansion in the chest, crying, racing thoughts – anxiety always feels a little bit different.

It’s hard to explain, but I’ll try. It’s like this: when I can somehow think that I have even a shred of control over what happens, then there is crying and panicking and racing thoughts that make me feel like I’ve had 17 cups of really strong coffee. But when I know that I have absolutely no control over an outcome, then there’s a lot of ruminating and some sensations in my chest, but not much else. It’s the difference between having a panic attack because I want to make sure I say and do and be the right thing, and feeling anxious waiting for something like test results and knowing that I can’t do anything about it. They’re both stressful, tense situations, but I’m not fighting so hard when I can’t change the outcome because fighting it is futile. It’s already done. And as I’ve talked about before, it’s really important not to fight.

It strikes me that it would be useful to cultivate that mindset, that “it’s already done” feeling, during a panic attack if I can. In a way, that’s part of the Headspace meditations I’m working through. Andy is teaching the noting technique, which is just what it sounds like: every time you notice your attention moving to something other than your breath, you stop, name whether it’s thinking or feeling that distracted you, and then refocus on the breath.

It is so hard. Seriously. I’ve been finding my mind more apt to wander during these sessions, and that’s frustrating. It kind of makes me feel like I’m all over the place. One second I’m counting my breaths, then I’m thinking about how I have to plan later, then I’m thinking oh, that’s thinking and then I’m trying to refocus on the breath. But the thing about it that clicked for me is that I’m naming something that already happened, something I don’t have control over. I can’t go back in time and stop my mind from wandering, so I have to name it and move on. And I can see in the long run that it’s going to be really helpful; the anxiety where that has to do with something I can’t control is so much less physically awful than a panic attack or anxiety where I believe my behavior matters. I think part of that is because it doesn’t feel like I’m doing it on purpose, and that does a lot to help me accept it. When I feel like I can or should control it, then I try to, and then all hell breaks loose.

I’ve written about this before, but I keep coming back to it because it feels key. If you’re like me, you feel anxious about feeling anxious, and you get in your own way. I’m learning (very slowly) that allowing myself to actually feel the anxiety is the thing that’s going to help the most. It feels counterintuitive and unproductive and it is a struggle. It takes time and patience and compassion. It takes forgiveness. I have these things, in abundance, for other people. But I don’t have them for myself, and that’s where the work really starts.

I’m so thankful that I have a partner, a sister, and a friend (hey Bird!) who have these things for me and who are teaching me how to feel them for myself. And I know that they are not the only ones, and that is awe-inspiring. It must be difficult to love someone who has anxiety: when they lock themselves in the bathroom or they call you and they’re crying but you don’t know why; when they’re throwing up right before you’re supposed to go somewhere; when they retreat from you and spend hours with their ruminating or racing thoughts. It is so hard to be experiencing those things, and I imagine it’s difficult to watch them. Both sides have a sense of powerlessness, and it is so hard to accept something that makes you feel that way.

Lightbulb. Right now, as I’m writing, at 9:24 on Sunday morning, I just realized that that’s part of it, too. That’s part of why this is so difficult: doing something, anything, to make yourself feel better during anxiety feels productive, it feels like you have control. Sitting with the feelings, accepting them, feels hopeless, powerless. But in the long run, it’s better because you’re not avoiding the issues or running from them. You’re getting to know them. In the same way that it takes time to get to know someone, it takes time to get to know your anxiety. And like those happily-married-for-50-years couples you hear about, my anxiety will be with me for life and it will keep surprising me. Anxiety is a partner or sorts, and it’s my responsibility to get to know it, to understand why it flares up and how to calm it, to support it, to work to make my relationship with it strong.

I think a big part of why this is so difficult for me is that I have in the back of my mind that it’ll go away. That I’ll be free of it at some point. But I won’t. Ever. On a fundamental level, I’m still fighting it at every turn because I believe it’s temporary. And that’s ok for now. It takes a long time in a relationship to get to the point where you can accept the things that you know are always going to be issues for you. And that’s what I’m working toward in my relationship with my anxiety. I want to be able to accept it not only when I’m feeling it, but all of the time. That’s hard for me, but I’m going to keep working at it.

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