April 21, 2020
I came across a meme recently that depicted a conversation between a person trying to sleep and their overly active, anxious imagination. The imagination said with disgust as the person slept soundly “I don’t even know who you are anymore, it’s like you don’t even care about that thing you did in third grade!” I’ve never felt more seen! My name is Daniel and I have anxiety!
Anxiety defines everything I do. Every word I type. Every word I speak. Everything I create. I worry about it all. How will it be received? Will they like it? Did I check my grammar? Maybe read that again before you hit send…are you sure your hair isn’t flying all over the place. Are you talking too much? Check your tone in that text…you hurt their feelings didn’t you…They all hate you and are only nice to you so you’ll leave them alone….and on and on it goes from the moment I wake up to the moment I wake up…even in sleep I cannot fully escape my anxiety.
It's something I’ve learned to mitigate over the years. I’ve learned to cope in some healthy ways…some ways though, not so much. I have learned to be (or at least project the image of) a productive professional, capable and qualified. Truth is, my biggest fear is being exposed as a fraud, incompetent and overstated.
During my Clinical Pastoral Education residency I decided it was time to face these anxious, self-defeating behaviors. It was time. So, in my individual supervision sessions with my mentor I would openly share when and where they popped up during the week. I became laser focused on taking note of all the circumstances surrounding my fear and anxiety. I brought them all to my mentor wrapped up in a package ready to be examined and picked through and forced into submission. What I got was two of the wisest, most sobering words: STOP IT!
My mentor then played a clip of Bob Newhart in a Mad TV sketch. Whenever the client mentioned something she felt was wrong with her like over analyzing everyone’s motives or being fearful of intimacy the wise doctor’s response was “STOP IT”! As I sat there stunned with half my brain shocked by the simplicity of the cure and the other half ashamed because I couldn’t do it, my mentor gently reminded me that the first step to easing my reactivity to anxiety is to stop reacting.
He taught me to stop. Not ignore, not escape, but stop. Stop giving fear power. Stop giving worry the right to control my life. Once I reclaimed the power anxiety had over me, it freed my resolve to address and heal the wounds and scars underneath. I defeated the chaos by standing still. This is not a platitude of “oh don’t worry, it’ll be ok.” That doesn’t work and it is harmful. Instead it is a way to retake and reorganize power. It is also not a cure for extreme cases of pathological anxiety disorders. Sometimes we need the assistance of medical and pharmacological interventions to give us the clarity and the strength to be still long enough to overcome our anxiety.
As we each adjust to life in new and strange ways the opportunities to worry will increase. Will my work expose me or those I love to danger? Will I be able to keep my job and provide for my family’s needs? Will my friends survive? Will I survive? All of those reasonable questions that arise in times like these are part of our evolutionary response to danger. If we didn’t weigh possibilities and make informed decisions we could die.
Worry, however, is allowing the process of informed decision making get stuck in an infinite loop of analysis. I call this the paralysis of analysis. We never move beyond the what ifs. We worry about things beyond our control and we weaken. We obsess over things long past and we shame ourselves into inferiority. We stress over the worst case scenarios and we grow weary before we’ve even begun. Worry wears us down and neutralizes our dynamic agency over our physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.
So, STOP IT! Stop giving all of your power away. Stop allowing the monsters of the world overcome you and paralyze you in fear. If you can’t stop, find help! Use the benefits of your Employee Assistance Network, join a support group, call your doctor. Make a decision, even if it’s a small one. Don’t let that which cannot be controlled steal your free agency over that which you can.
This is life long work. Only now in the increased stress of living during a pandemic are most of us waking up to the presence of anxiety or noticing how much power we have given to it. So take baby steps if you must. Adjust your eyes to see. Allow yourself some grace. Soothe your aching soul and be kind.
I leave you with my favorite poem by Mary Oliver: I Worried!
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,