Real Talk: My Dear Friend, Anxiety.
I have a confession: I deal with anxiety every day.
I become faint when the cashier at Trader Joe's is taking too long. I lose my appetite when waiters seat me in the middle of a restaurant as opposed to against the wall. I get stress headaches when I don't know what I'm going to eat for my next meal. I don't enjoy driving because I feel vertigo at stoplights.
Sometimes I feel like anxiety controls my life.
But it's not my enemy. Anxiety is my dear friend.
I first learned that I had an issue with anxiety the year that I began therapy (2012). That's when I learned about panic attacks, because I was describing them to my doctor without realizing it. At this time I believed that the symptoms of a panic attack (feeling dizzy, sweating or having chills, and loss of breath to name a few) were being triggered by malnutrition. It made sense, because I had starved myself for years under the duress of an eating disorder.
But even after re-feeding and returning to a normal weight, the symptoms remained. I would often feel like I was going to faint, and the no matter how many almonds or Luna bars I carried around to "boost my blood sugar," nothing helped.
When I described these experiences to my doctor, I finally learned what anxiety was. I was diagnosed with panic disorder. Naming the problem had some relief, but my journey with anxiety was far from over.
Anxiety is the reason I flunked out of a semester at UNC. I couldn't summon the courage to take a bus 2 miles to campus, so I skipped classes. Being anxious at the size of one of my classes made me skip a final exam. I've lied my way out of a lot of jobs because I was too anxious to leave my apartment.
Medication didn't help me. Everything I took turned my body into a zombie, which left my mind wide-awake and feeling trapped in a body that couldn't escape whatever situation I was in. I sat paralyzed on the couch at a party while my thoughts swirled around and around. One day I felt so anxious and full of energy that I had to do something, so I went to get these wrist tattoos. And I had to stop the guy halfway through because I felt faint - again, a panic attack.
I hated this part of myself for a long time.
What ultimately helped me (aside from therapy) was a tidbit that I read in a Thich Naht Hanh book (check out his new release here). I'm paraphrasing here, but Hanh talked about the part of ourselves that we hate. He said to not choose hate, but to choose to show this part of ourselves pity.
Say to that part of you, "you poor thing."
Instead of berating myself every time I feel like my anxiety is holding me back, I show myself grace and acceptance. I think about my anxiety as a friend, who is simply misunderstood, but needs love and patience just like the rest of myself.
If I told you to NOT think about pink elephants, where does your mind go? To pink elephants. But you don't beat yourself up over it.
Why beat myself up over anxiety, something that pops into my brain against my control?
My anxiety has actually helped me paint better. When I let it in, acknowledge it's presence, it shows me color combinations, compositions, and marks that I would never come up with in a calm state of mind. I have learned that anxiety doesn't shrink my senses, rather it opens them up. I can actually settle into my body rather than feeling numb, and that has been helpful for my creativity.
This piece to the left was completed with anxiety.
Being kind to my anxiety has also helped me take back my life. Anxiety's bark is worse than it's bite, and by showing it patience I'm actually retaining control - by the time I search my anxiety for it's motives, I'm calmer.