I have anxiety. I have rarely spoken about my anxiety problems though because most of my anxious thoughts are so irrational. And to be honest, I found them a bit of a nuisance and pretty embarrassing because admitting to feeling unchecked anxiety conflicted with my persona of being a glass-half-full, carefree soul in pursuit of an optimistic life filled with Oprah-inspired gratitude.
My belief that I needed to be always-optimistic (lest I anger the gratitude gods) meant that I needed to hide my anxious parts, and instead present the image I thought was expected of me. An optimistic, wisdom-filled, gratitude-espousing, never fearful, never anxious, mask-wearing beacon of hope for others. I also thought my feelings were normal. Yes, I believed that everyone experienced heart-racing, fear-gripping, body-freezing angst randomly throughout the day and night for no apparent reason.
I grew up in a home with an extremely anxious mother and I was determined that this would never be my fate. And for years it wasn’t. Until that is, I had a child, and then suddenly everything in the world felt like a threat—that odd neighbor down the street, my dwindling checking account, my cat constantly trying to kill me every time I walked downstairs with infant in hand.
In time my anxiety about my son evolved into anxiety about money, anxiety about heartbreak, anxiety about being lonely, and anxiety about work. But I didn’t feel anxious all the time. In fact, I often had long spurts with virtually no anxiety, but then it would hit me, usually early in the morning and I'd find my mind racing with foreboding thoughts warning of certain doom.
And yet no one knew, because I was so good at hiding. I knew that my fears and worries were generally irrational in that rarely were they grounded in reality. I could have a sufficient amount of money in the bank, but I still worried about becoming homeless. I could be getting along beautifully with a partner, but I’d still worry that he’d leave me for no particular reason. I might fear being lonely, while surrounded by loving friends. And I might worry about losing my job, right after receiving an award for excellence.
The most common response to unchecked anxiety is to try to talk ourselves (and others) out of our irrational thinking. That may seem a rational course, speaking logic to the illogical, but rarely is this approach successful, at least not for me. Why? Because often, our anxiety is rooted in traumatic childhood experiences, including instability, chaos and abuse. So, what my brain is telling me I am anxious about, often isn’t the actual source of my angst. Rather, my brain learned to adapt to unpleasant experiences in a way that worked during childhood, but not so much in adulthood.
Fear and anxiety are adaptive, because they warn us of danger. But childhood trauma messes up this protective alarm system, by either shutting it off altogether, or by establishing a threshold that is far too sensitive. In other words, if anxiety was a smoke alarm, trauma in childhood teaches our brains to respond to shower steam.
Logical responses to illogical fears (which actually are not all that illogical if rooted in actual trauma) will rarely work because if there’s even a 1% chance that our worst fears will come true, then that is what our brains will focus on.
People can tell us a thousand times that we won’t be alone, we won’t be poor, we won’t be rejected, but if there’s even a tiny part of us that really believes these things might come true, then no one is going to talk us out of our fears, even ourselves. And even if I could at times talk myself out of my angst, through a well-crafted logical argument, the creation of a gratitude list, and a renewed commitment to perpetual optimism, those processes always left me feeling like I was wading through tar or trying to swim in quicksand. It‘s absolutely exhausting.
I hit a point a year or so ago when I decided that I didn’t want to settle for the mental calisthenics of quieting my brain and then donning some sort of socially appropriate mask before venturing out in the world. I wanted to peacefully sleep through the night and wake up without the grinding angst of my overactive brain. I wanted to face the uncertainties of life without “what iffing” myself to death. And I wanted the freedom of openly sharing my struggles with others because hiding was making my anxiety worse.
So, I decided to stop trying to talk myself out of my fears, and instead talk myself into them. I know this may sound counter-intuition but stick with me for a minute. Talking myself into my anxiety involves crafting a detailed plan for managing my most incredibly dreaded, absolutely awful, highly unlikely, worst-case scenarios. I think the value of developing a “worst-case scenario plan” is that we don’t need to pretend anymore, acting like we’re fine when we’re really not. We don’t need to make reactionary decisions based on fear. We don’t need to remain paralyzed because making choices when dreading an outcome, is just too frightening.
Once we accept that our worst fears could actually be realized (as irrational as they may be), then we are free to develop a plan to deal with whatever catastrophes we can possibly imagine. This approach shifts our position from one of passivity to one of empowerment.
Facing financial ruin is unlikely, but it is possible, and I have a plan should it ever occur. And if I find myself alone, then I have a plan for how I can make more friends. And if I’m in a relationship and have my heart broken, I have a plan for how I will heal, surrounded by friends, because I no longer hide.
It’s a mystery to me how so many of my fears disappeared when I chose to no longer fight them. Now if I awake in the morning overwhelmed with anxiety, I never try to push the feelings away. I no longer tell myself I’m being ridiculous, and that I need to just be more grateful and optimistic. I never pretend I’m okay when I’m not, and I never hide behind a false persona. Instead, I allow the feelings of fear and anxiety to wash over me, doing nothing to stop the angst, other than to tell myself that it would certainly be awful if my worst-case scenarios came true, but I’ll be okay, because I have a plan.
Welcome to my Blog!
This is a blog for middle-aged women, like me, who want to live a life of increased authenticity, and greater well-being, with fewer masks and a lot more fun.