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.