Up until 2014, my life was primarily comprised of outer peace and inner turmoil. On the outside, everything was excessively “normal”. Make a living, have a good marriage, be a good dad, go to church, maybe take a vacation now and again. But inside, I suffered from severe and debilitating depression. This manifested in a number of ways — from mania, to crashing, to destructive behavior. It showed up in physical ways as well — primarily as crippling migraines.
As I’ve written about here before, that all begin to slowly change starting in 2011. It initially culminated in a big bang of a spiritual awakening in 2014 — which lead to stripping away all of the “normal” and getting to the root of who I am and what I’m here to do. In the process, I had less and less bouts of depression — to the point that I haven’t had a serious episode in over five years. Even the migraines have greatly been reduced.
In short, I moved from outer peace and inner turmoil to inner peace and outer turmoil. The outer turmoil was based around either the dismantling or evolution of these outer conditions and systems. A massive upheaval that has revealed a life that I had no plans on living.
One side effect of all this outer turmoil has been anxiety. From unease to screaming panic. Depression and anxiety are often lumped together. But not for me. When I was dealing with depression, I had no real anxiety. Depression robs you of pretty much all feelings. For me, anxiety came to me when I started feeling everything.
Depression feels like a permanent weather pattern. Like living in an air inversion or a fog bank. Anxiety feels like a submarine under attack. Dive! Dive! Dive! Do it now! Urgent, urgent. Panic, panic. Then it goes away. The outer conditions shift and anxiety disappears. Almost as if had never happened.
In working through anxiety, I’ve learned a few things that I felt compelled to share here. A strong disclaimer: I am not a therapist. I have no formal training in dealing with anxiety. These are just my personal experiences and observations.
- I stopped treating anxiety like a disorder. Society, religion and pop psychology would have us believe that if we aren’t happy-dappy all the time, something is wrong. This is how I first responded to anxiety. “What are you doing here? Why are you threatening my happiness? Go away!” I was treating anxiety as an unwelcome guest. Then I realized this … anxiety is a signal. It can’t hurt me. It’s not here to hurt me. It’s here to provide a signal, a warning, a protection. Now when I feel anxiety, I consciously accept it. I listen to it. I often visualize it as a messenger sent to my door to warn me of something. Then, instead of treating it like a problem to solve, I treat it as a mystery to unlock.
- I determined the triggers. If anxiety is a check engine light, it requires some investigation. This investigation is tracing anxiety back to specific triggers to understand the source of the warning. This was impossible to do when I was responding to anxiety as a disorder. Once I accepted it, I was able to follow the clues to reveal the triggers. Which are … 1) Fatigue. When I’m exhausted physically, mentally, emotionally, I see the world as a scary, threatening place, 2) Hunger. Again both literal hunger, but also a hunger for connection, for meaning, for spiritual bread. Hunger makes me desperate, self-absorbed, greedy. 3) Isolation. One of my greatest fears is to be isolated with nothing to do. This is different than solitude — which is isolation that I chose to create. This isolation is the confidence-eroding blend of being left out/left behind, boredom and waiting. In knowing the triggers, I can pre-plan, take ownership over what I can control. This is empowering and greatly reduces the length and severity of an anxiety attack (I don’t really like that word for it, but that’s what it’s called)
- I heed the warning light. As I mentioned, anxiety is an alert, a warning, as signal. For me, this warning light almost always means that I am either A) Too attached to someone or something or B) I am anticipating future pain or suffering. As Buddha said, “All suffering is attachment”. This profundity helps me to see that anxiety is warning me that I am attaching my happiness to someone else’s behavior, the outcome of a situation, etc. Because of the systems upheaval of the past few years, my psyche is highly sensitive to future suffering. The only cure for this to be present. To be here. Right now.
In understanding these three areas and their sub-sets, I can now be proactive about anxiety. I know that when I’m anxious or uneasy, I tend to attach the alleviation of this feeling to someone else. This makes me modify my self in order to get attention, affection, validation. Which erodes my confidence. And if I don’t get those, I will create conflict instead. Because conflict is way better than anxiety (according to my ego). By taking ownership of anxiety, I can then take another pro-active step. I can tell someone that I love that I feel anxious. By expressing without attaching to them, I can use vulnerability to proactively thwart anxiety.
These are helpful tools and resources, but the #1 proactive ownership I can take is to work on my confidence. Self-love and self-worth are engines of happiness. If these are tuned up and performing at a high level, the warning light of anxiety rarely comes on. But if it does, I now have the awareness to pull over, pop the hood and understand the source.