Seeing Beyond the Storm Cycle of Anxiety

Anxiety is one of the most-widely common mental illnesses in the United States. We live in an age of anxiety. While often referred to as an illness, it functions more as a thought and feeling response to physical or circumstantial conditions. Some walk around with low-grade anxiety all day, every day; while others, normally calm, experience full-flung panic attacks in the face of traumatic triggers.

A little stress can be good, but when stress becomes an inappropriate response (disproportionate or present without normal life stressors) we begin to have a problem. Stress that hinders your normal activities by causing you to lose sleep, change your appetite or avoid people or circumstances because of the anxiety you will feel, needs to be addressed.

Today I write directly to those who experience anxiety. Even if you do not personally struggle with it, I invite you to read on to better know the experience of those who do.

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Photo by Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash

Anxiety is a monster that makes the anxious feel small and powerless, throwing us around, knocking our heads against doubts and insecurities, whispering fears and threats into our ears until we can no longer see straight.

With each doubt, we begin to analyze and analyze, look for evidence, think if we can just find answers, we will find peace. Then the monster whispers…or shouts louder.

We analyze again, go back in time, mark up a tally sheet of all the interactions we had with a person until we are wiped out, exhausted and have pushed everyone away who could not cool the rage of the anxiety monster inside us.

The analysis gets us nowhere. Like tinted sunglasses, anxiety makes us see things through a filter. We cannot tell if it really happened the way we remember because it was so long ago no one else remembers.

Emails and phone calls begin to come out of nowhere. In such detail, you outline, “I did, she did that.”

What we walked with peacefully for so long becomes a cloud that takes hold of us. Did it always make us feel this way?

No, the spotlight of anxiety is on it now.

We want to know if our fears match up with what really happened. You try to find something stable to anchor yourself while being tossed around. It feels like a storm.

But it is a monster.

The cycle continues as you try to find some evidence to validate impressions or make it so you do not have to tear yourself apart in the condemnation which comes from anxiety.

It wants you to tear yourself apart.

But you know what, it is not healthy. It is not healthy to dig up little moments two to five years ago and say, “see what you did” to a friend. It can only lead to bitterness, resentment or insecurity.

Anxiety will not give you all the evidence. When something happened so long ago , the person can only remember it as well as she can. There might be missing details and you would never know because no one else remembers it. Memory is faulty.

Things that are long past do not make for good evidence toward the conclusion your anxiety suggests.

Memory is often unmerciful. Mercy makes excuses for others. “She was in crisis”; “She was stressed”; “She gets impatient easily”; but does not draw conclusions from them.

To be able enough to say “no” to those thoughts is part of freedom.

A lot of time anxiety will not let us.

In the midst of it, it seems impossible to see any other world than that which is storm-tossed. But there is help. Learning about how anxiety works can help you divert the storm as it brews. Therapeutic techniques can help mitigate its effects. For some, medication can help you get your bearings so that you can implement the things you have learned.

The monster is not you.

The battle is not between you and your neighbor, but between you and anxiety.

We are meant for freedom.

Life can be more than this.

Life can be good.

Massaging in Balance

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch.

Two years ago we strolled down Hughson Ave, moving through the bustle and heat of the revived Fruit and Nut Festival. Chatting with vendors, considering trinkets for the children, shaking bags of cream into a sweet confection, I paused in front of the Hughson Chiropractic Center for some shade. Thinking of my spinal curvature (scoliosis) diagnosed at age 12, I laughed to myself at the model spine on display in their booth. Claudia, a massage therapist at the Chiropractic Center made her pitch. She saw I was great with child, there was no mistaking that, and encouraged a prenatal massage. Only $20 for the first time visit, the offer read weekly on a sign on the sidewalk outside the little house of chiropractic.

In a friendly and easy manner, she kept up the pitch. I was torn. In my life, I experienced two massages from which I received no benefit. This pregnancy weighed on me. Back pain made walking difficult and limited my exercise. When my husband encouraged me to pamper myself, I gave in. Only $20 for a gift certificate, I purchased it and could schedule later. After my first massage at the Hughson Chiropractic Center, I was hooked. This indulgence gave me a moment of freedom from the physical burden of pregnancy and supported me in the stress of events following that pregnancy.

There are many ways to approach anxiety. Cognitive approaches deal with the way our thoughts contribute to anxiety. I try to capture those automatic negative thoughts that arise without my willing them, reframe them to something more balanced and realistic. Life is often not as black and white as our instincts tell us. Anxiety and stress activate an interior flight or fight response. Adrenaline and cortisol surge in order to put our bodies on high alert and prepare for action. When the setting does not call for this, as in generalized anxiety (an increasingly common experience for Americans) we become hyper-vigilant, edgy or antsy. Exercise can help relieve some of that tension created by these hormones. It can also keep our bodies calmer for the rest of the day or evening. Even with those two approaches, reframing thoughts and releasing energy, the body likely still needs a calming intervention.

Deep breathing is the go to exercise anyone can learn. Breathing in through the nose, slow enough to count to five, holding for a second and breathing out through the mouth, 1…2…3…4…5. Progressive relaxation is a technique that targets muscle tension. Massage is another option to help work out the cumulative effects of hormones signaling muscles to contract and prepare for action when there is no action to take, when we experience anxiety.

It is part the whole concept of self-care. American are notorious for needing self-care, neglecting self-care, or over-indulging in self-care (and subsequently avoiding self-giving). Life in this society is not naturally structured in a way that encourages the balance relationships and life require. Our gathering spaces are in our backyards, fenced in with five-foot privacy fences. We work 8 hours a day with an hour of driving, or stay-at-home with children, with the self-imposed pressure that comes from Pinterest-perfect fantasies of housekeeping. We have no communal siesta time, no holiday when work ceases, no time for afternoon chai. Everything requires going and doing. This structure requires us to be intentional about rest and leisure. Our brains need time to recharge. Children start to go a little wild when overscheduled. Adults do the same, but it comes out in anxiety, anger or depression, rather than hyperactivity and defiance.

What do you need in order to create more balance in your life? If the concept of self-care that includes massage or an afternoon nap is too indulgent, consider what is right for you. What are the obstacles? Self-care should not come at the expense of our life and our relationships, but appropriately build into them. If that seems impossible, maybe some intentionality is missing. We must learn our limits, create the boundaries we need, and prioritize the sigh of relief that comes from feeling good again. It is part of being human. It is part of the balance needed to live the good life.