May 28, 2014

Sitting With Anxiety.

anxiety fear

I am not an anxious person. But I do have anxiety from time to time, and it’s not fun.

This fresh bout of anxiety has been coming on for days now, like some spiritual PMS. I’ve felt its irritation at the back of my skull, seeping into my throat and down into the pit of my belly. Yesterday was a gorgeous, 80-degree day. I never left the house. I checked the charts: none of my planets is in opposition; nothing is in retrograde.

This is all me.

I woke up this morning with the full-blown, hairy deal. After a night of tossing and turning through dreams of unsettlement (in the form of trying to find office space in New York City), night sweats, and general dread descending upon me like a humid fog of darkness, I (reluctantly) awoke to the agony of a laundry list of things I had to do:

>> Work out
>> Meditate
>> Take shower
>> Teach online classes
>> Toy with idea of working on my novel
>> Pick up son from pre-school
>> Grocery shopping
>> Try not to have melt-down in front of son

How was I supposed to go about performing all these human tasks when I felt like a cheesecloth bag full of raw nerve endings? I’d felt this way before, haunted by the ominous list of Things I Must Accomplish in order to be a productive member of society (and not the isolated hermit I felt more comfortable being).

Then it hit me. Sit with it. Just be with the inner grappling, and see what comes up.

So I closed my eyes and rode the vertiginous waves of skyrocketing synaptic firings that I felt coursing through my body. I fell into them and let them buoy me back up only to toss me around again. Then I asked myself, “What is it you fear?”

Because that’s what anxiety is, isn’t it? It’s the anticipatory fear of something that may not even happen. What was it, then, that I truly feared? Working out? No, that was just a drag but I knew it would make me feel better. Meditating? Hardly. Taking a shower, then? No, I knew that would feel wonderful. Teaching? Writing? Oh, the joys of my life? No, not those.

Picking my son up from school. Ah. Yes. I hadn’t seen my kid for three days, as he was with his father over the weekend. Panic. What if he was mad at me? What if he had such a fabulous weekend that he didn’t love me anymore?

I drove on autopilot to the school and took a deep breath before entering the yard where all the kids were playing. When my son saw me, he dropped everything, leaped into my arms and wrapped himself around my neck, chanting a happy “Mommy, mommy, mommy…” mantra. Miraculously, the anxiety dissipated.

I’m not at all implying that having children is the cure for anxiety. If you are a parent, you know that our children, while we love them to distraction, can also be the cause of much anxiety. But it was the metaphor of the thing. You see, being caught up in my own worry and fear, I was looping. Trying to stay afloat in an ocean of what ifs.

Once I removed myself from that ever-refreshing pool of fear and realized there was someone else who needed me, I was able to step away from my own worries and see the bigger picture.

Philip Martin teaches in his book, The Zen Path Through Depression, “Being of help to another human being is…a strong antidote to the feelings of worthlessness… In addition, we gain some perspective through helping others so that we don’t believe we are the only individual in the world who is suffering.”

It doesn’t even have to be a huge act we perform for someone else.

My simply being there to collect my son from school made him happy. Getting out of my own head and putting myself in service to another human being helped lift the veil of anxiety because I had a purpose. It also helped me realize that I have a choice to stay mired in the quicksand of anxiety or to move out of it and put myself to work in service of others.

Maybe next time I’m the throes of that familiar downward spiral, I’ll buy a coffee for the person behind me at the café. Or take a walk and move a rain-crazed worm off the sidewalk and into the grass. Whatever we do, we cannot forget that we are needed in this world.

What we do for others, we do for ourselves. Sometimes that reminder alone is enough to shake off the choice to stay stuck in the nonsensical fear of what-may-be and move out into the light.


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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Amy Wilbanks/Flickr

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