Anxiety - The Only Way Out Is Through

In the summer of 2012, I felt an immense pain in my body that convinced me I was dying. I had just finished my degree and thought, “Great, I put all that hard work into school and now I won’t be around to reap the benefits of it.” As the uncertainty over what was wrong with me increased, so did my hopelessness and despair. Over the course of several weeks, my mind went to incredibly dark places that bred anxiety so strong it began to have its own set of physiological symptoms (panic attacks, muscle twitches, clammy skin, insomnia, racing thoughts, etc.)

I had heard of people dealing with anxiety, and until my own experience with it (which I wouldn’t shake for another 12 months) I didn’t really understand how crippling it can feel. I was in a double bind. I was scared I was dying, but I was also too scared to go to the doctor to find out what was wrong because I didn’t want them to give me bad news. Avoiding the doctor, ironically, just inflamed my anxiety.

A psychologist I love to read, Dr. Richard Beck, reflects that “neurosis is the avoidance of legitimate suffering” - a term we get from Carl Jung. I ended up dealing with my own anxiety by taking some hard truths to heart from Beck:

”I often tell my students, "One of the secrets of mental health is learning how to suffer well."

Because what we'd like to do is avoid all suffering and pain. We'd like to avoid the shame of the confession, the entry into rehab or therapy, the request for help. Avoid the grief of loss. Avoid the effects of consequences that are rightly coming our way. Avoid the sting of disappointment in the face of failure. Avoid the hurt in a faltering relationship.”

My experience with anxiety has taught me that the primary coping mechanism in trying to deal with it is avoidance or denial rooted in fear. The only way it got better was for me to acknowledge what I was scared of verbally and mentally and then commit to walking through whatever bad news the doctor might give me.

A line my clinical supervisor (Jenn Silk) uses is, “lean into your suffering.”

So, I went to the doctor with fear and trembling, sat down in front of him and he said, “Dallas, you are totally fine. What you have is painful and it will be for an unspecified amount of time, but it’s nothing dangerous.”

It took some time for me to really believe the doctor’s report because I had convinced myself that I was indeed dying. I catastrohpized my situation so intensely (no thanks to Googling my symptoms). That process of overcoming my anxiety and fear of uncertainty was a long process, and one that I am still learning how to walk through - but it was only possible by making the decision to move through my suffering. That takes courage, which is the willingness to act in spite of your fear. Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit comes to mind… J.R.R. Tolkien writes, “You can only come to the morning through the shadows.”

If you’re dealing with anxiety, whether situational or chronic, I encourage you to lean into it. Be honest with yourself about why you are feeling anxious and explore it. Doing that can help you move through it instead of increasing your pain through avoidance.

Anxiety

Anxiety is excessive worry over a variety of  problems for a prolonged period of time unique to each individual. It is the most common mental health issue that the general population deals with and is rooted in a deeper fear of the unknown or what might/could happen. People who don't deal with anxiety as an ongoing issue struggle to see how paralyzing and intense it can feel for the one it plagues. 

This fear of uncertainty manifests itself in cognitive distortions such as catastrophizing, exaggerated expectations and black and white thinking patterns that leave little to no room for flexibility of possible outcomes. While the initial symptoms of anxiety begin in our thoughts / emotions, extended periods of anxiety that are not dealt with can result in physiological symptoms such as tingling of the skin, random muscle spasms/twitches, sleep problems, sweating, clammy/cold skin, or paralyzing fear that results in an inability to move or make decisions. 

Precipitating factors for anxiety might be a specific event, stressful situation, distorted way of thinking, unhealthy belief systems, or dysfunctional coping patterns we've learned from others. Sometimes finding out "why" we are anxious is not so easy because it requires digging through our inner-self and being honest with what is really bothering us. It often helps to talk to a counsellor to help us draw out our fears and learn how to cope/manage/ heal from them more effectively. 

An effective form of counselling for anxiety is cognitive-behavioural therapy. CBT teaches you how your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours work together. A goal of CBT is to identify and change the unhelpful patterns of thinking that feed anxious thoughts. Over time and through active practice, people struggling with anxiety can begin to take control of it. It is a very manageable problem to deal with even if you feel presently hopeless while you're enduring it.