December 8, 2016

Four Ways Anxiety can be an Ally.


Four years ago, I returned home anxious from a big trip overseas and the first thing I did was go out to dinner with all my old friends.

As the night progressed, the small anxious feelings increased to a point that I had not felt before.

I remember feeling overwhelmed by the conversations and like I was losing control, enough that I had to leave.

This marked the first of many sleepless nights, which turned into days where I struggled to eat and where engaging in normal day-to-day life began to feel impossible.

My mom drove me to the doctor and after only 10 minutes of brief and general questions, he diagnosed me with anti-depressants, handing out the prescriptions like they were candy. I didn’t take them but the sheer act of prescribing me with medication had a disempowering effect.

Instead of telling me that I simply needed to change my lifestyle, I was made to feel like I’d already spun too far out of control. In hindsight I know now this was not the case, but my anxious mind couldn’t rationalize it at the time.

Instead of taking pills, it was just me, myself and my anxiety in bed together every night. I remember waking up feeling like I’d ran a marathon because of all the tension I held in my body.

When my family was sound asleep, I’d lie wide awake, unable to relax. I started to read articles from my phone in bed, searching persistently for ways to calm down. I remember reading somewhere—“No matter how you’re feeling, continue to live how you normally would,” and for some reason that stuck with me and became the first of many baby steps that I would take to heal myself.

The first thing I did with that information was catch up with friends again and it was extremely challenging. I sat there feeling anxious. I struggled to speak to them, but I pushed through it knowing that I had to keep living as normal.

I went to only one session with a psychiatrist and she showed me a diagram of the human brain that helped me to demystify a lot of the scary symptoms of anxiety. She explained that it was simply a natural fight-or-flight response designed to help me, but it had gained enough momentum to keep spinning its wheels on its own, because I had not yet learned how to take care of myself.

My ultimate defense was to pay attention and dive into the moment—instead of my thoughts—in order to slow the wheels down. I became less afraid of the processes going on inside my body and started to move back into my life. Instead of taking medication and putting a bandage on the problem, I found solace in reading constantly about anxiety, psychology, spiritual texts and philosophy. It went from something scary, evil and unknown to something that I finally understood—it had been my ally all along.

It became a catalyst for my life, a way to completely regenerate toward a new path that was more positive, and by studying consistently, I shone a light on what I was really going through and was able to heal.

Here’s what I learned:

Anxiety is a Messenger

Our minds and bodies are intelligent beyond our understanding and we are often aware of things on a subconscious level that we are not yet consciously attuned to. Whenever I felt anxious, instead of resisting it, I’d try to tune in to what was making me feel that way. Looking at it this way became an empowering process and rather than seeing my emotions as black-and-white, I realized that my entire spectrum of emotions are useful tools to help inform and navigate my life and therefore they all deserve my respect and attention.

A pearl is formed when an irritant enters a shell. In the same way, our biggest times of growth occur when there is an emotional irritant of some kind, whether it’s sadness, anger or anxiety. These days, even when I feel only slightly anxious, angry or sad, instead of sweeping those emotions under the carpet to avoid feeling them, I sit with them and tune into what they’re telling me.

I know that it will continue to return until I’ve heard what it’s had to say. While not relevant today, in the wild, our fight-or-flight response saved us from predators and other threats. Nowadays, while we no longer live in the wild, I believe it can save us from other kinds of threats to the quality of our life, like surrounding ourselves with the wrong people, perpetuating an unhealthy lifestyle or making poor decisions.

It’s the Leader of a Revolution

After practicing a return to normality, I began to feel calm enough to start talking to people about my experience. This process helped me because I started to realize I was not alone and that it was something that nearly every second person I spoke to didn’t just empathize with, but said “me too.”

I couldn’t believe how many people were also affected by anxiety and I started thinking about why this is such a universal problem. I began to make a connection between the increased rates of depression and anxiety in our world and the simultaneously increasing interest in yoga, meditation and wellness industries.

Like all revolutions, a positive outcome is first sparked by deep discontent and maybe the anxiety triggered by our modern lifestyles is the catalyst for a collective awakening. On a personal level, I was beginning to awaken. I began to see anxiety, not as a disease that an individual has, but rather a symptom of an unbalanced lifestyle that is largely influenced by modern society.

With this new awareness, I began to take care of myself better, developed a yoga practice, and finally started dancing again which I’d been avoiding for years. I started eating better, harboring better relationships and constantly searching for new ways to expand my outlook on the world.

Anxiety Gives You No Choice but to Change Your Life for the Better

One of the biggest lessons I learned from all the reading I did was that humans have basic needs and when they’re not met, it starts to affect our mind and body. In this day and age, meeting these basic requirements is a lot harder if you’re not aware of it—until of course, anxiety makes you aware.

When dealing with anxiety, I could no longer get away with a sedentary lifestyle, drinking coffee, alcohol and eating a diet low in nutrition. I simply had no choice but to do the right things to get back into a balanced state. Even in the depths of my anxiety, I would go for a walk in the park and although my head was racing the entire time, I knew that moving my body would help me get out of my mind.

This process made me so in tune with my mind and body that I started to notice when I could and couldn’t get away with having stimulants, how I felt after eating a lot of sugar or when I needed to move my body. It got to a point where eventually, these things were no longer appealing to me because I could feel the subtle or sometimes obvious differences in my energy levels and moods when I consumed them.

Anxiety gifted me with a new awareness that I never had before and I learned to read the subtle signals my body and mind sent me throughout the day based on my reactions to the food I consumed or the people or situations I encountered. I now try to always practice mindful awareness, first on the yoga mat and then throughout my day. The inner wisdom I’ve gained from simply slowing down and being still enough to notice what’s going on inside has continued to help me expand and grow beyond what I might have if I hadn’t experienced anxiety.  

It Teaches You the Power of Surrender

Sometimes anxiety can manifest in panic and when this happens, your mind becomes foggy, your thoughts begin to race and all rationality goes out the window.

Anxiety is really just a residual fight-or-flight response designed to help us back when we were subject to being prey to animals bigger than us. When the primal part of our brain switches on, the rational part of our brain switches off—so we can no longer trust our thoughts. Our palms become sweaty to grip onto trees, our blood becomes thicker so we don’t bleed to death in a crisis, our senses are heightened and our thoughts race to figure out where the danger is.

When this happens, it’s much like quicksand—the more you resist and struggle against the sand, the deeper you’ll sink.

Learning to surrender to whatever is happening in the moment is deeply empowering. While you can’t control the adrenal responses in your body, you can control how you react to them. In the last four years, I’ve only had a couple of moments where I felt something close to that heightened state of anxiety, but not once have I fallen victim to it again.

I now know better.

When it happens, I surrender and let it run its course through my body without attaching thoughts to the experience. When my fight-or-flight response switches on, I know that the part of my rationality and logic switches off. I’ve learned not to trust any of the thoughts that race through my head, no matter how convincing.

Instead, I breathe and allow myself to feel and when I do this I notice the anxious feelings dissipate as fast as they appeared.

I am alive and well.


Author: Ella Liascos

Image: Courtesy of Gloria Glo (with permission)

Volunteer Editor: Tess Estandarte; Editor: Catherine Monkman

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