Your Friendly Neighborhood Anxiety
Anxiety gets a bad rap and for good reason. It can be frustrating, terrifying, exhausting, limiting, and a huge bummer. If you gave me the option to wake up tomorrow and never have to feel anxiety again, I would be very tempted to take you up on that offer.
Still, for all the times that anxiety makes me want to throw up my hands and storm away in annoyance, anxiety actually hides a surprising good side. It’s kind of like that one friend who you can’t stand at first, but who steadily grows on you as you get to really know them. And like that somewhat annoying friend, when we really consider it, we realize that anxiety is something we can’t do life without.
First off, anxiety is not actually a bad thing. It comes for a very good reason.
When working properly, our body triggers an anxious response when it needs the energy to act. It sends our heart pumping faster and our lungs expanding farther, all to give our muscles the energy to move quickly. Historically this may have been energy to fight or run from a threat. In our modern society, this might look like the dose of adrenaline to give a speech, that push to move when our child is in danger, the awareness of that creepy guy who’s been watching us, or the motivation to make a change. This body response is a necessary and helpful biological function.
An anxiety disorder occurs when our anxious response gets triggered inappropriately. It gets put on overdrive and starts flooding us with stress hormones too often or with more than is helpful for the situation at hand. Over time, living with this hypersensitive alert system can feel like our body has it out for us. “Really body, all I wanted to do was smile at the nice stranger. Is it really necessary to start sweating and shaking?”
But before we blame our body or mind for wanting to ruin our lives, let’s take a step back.
Remember anxiety comes for a reason. So before we assume that our hormones are just rogue agents, let’s try to listen to what they might be telling us.
Anxiety has always been a part of my life as long as I can remember. But it didn’t become unmanageable until my last job. I was working as the executive assistant to the CEO of two emerging technology companies who, to top things off, was also serving as the president of a new non-profit. He was super high energy, charismatic, incredibly intelligent, and absolutely all over the place. Just keeping tabs on his schedule felt like a full-time job. On the flipside, I am quiet, introverted, and work best with a flexible schedule where I can focus on one project at a time.
Looking back, I don’t know what I was thinking. Honestly, at the time I wasn’t very accepting of myself. I thought that pushing myself way out my comfort zone was the only way to become the person I needed to be.
Needless to say, my job was not a good fit for my personality or passions. My body started sending me not so subtle signals that I was overwhelmed and stressed. When I ignored those signs, it started sending me the occasional panic attack. When that didn’t work, it stepped up its game yet again and started sending me weekly and then daily panic attacks and freezing episodes. One night during a panic attack, I tripped over a cardboard box and broke my pinky toe.
Lying on the floor at 1 am, mid-panic attack, holding a throbbing toe does put things in perspective.
Finally, I found myself barely able to work. After talking to my boss, we decided I should take a week off. Slowing down gave me the head space to think a bit more clearly, and I woke up enough to see that this job was slowly killing me. So I got out.
Quitting my job was only the beginning of a long process toward changing my perspective on many aspects of my life. Anxiety, as it turned out, had a lot to teach me. It showed me that not only that I needed to get out of my job, but that I needed to change how I saw myself. For me, it went much deeper than a poor career choice.
It was a fundamental lack of self-acceptance that fueled my anxiety.
I’ll give you one more example. My recent work on self-discovery has led me to understand that I am highly sensitive. Basically, this means that I am biologically wired to pick up on small stimuli in my environment more than the majority of people. Sounds, smells, and activity all affect me more. In addition, I pick up on body language, subtle emotional cues, and underlying moods. This is great for interacting in our world but comes with the unfortunate price of getting overstimulated and exhausted easily. I need frequent time for quiet reflection to unpack everything I’ve taken in.
All that to say, I have biological reasons for needed to take life a bit slower than many people. But being a perfectionist who wanted to do it all, I often tried to push my boundaries. And like the good neighbor it is, anxiety would always come to call anytime I started pushing too hard. An event I knew should be fun suddenly became emotionally terrifying and overwhelming. That person I had really wanted to see became a huge burden.
Every time anxiety started up, I found myself frustrated and wondering what was wrong with me.
Now I realize that anxiety was not out to ruin my fun or destroy my life. It was there as a warning light to tell me I was doing too much. My body, mind, and spirit needed space to breathe.
I, unfortunately, did not listen to my anxiety and take proper care of my body. So it kept sending out its warning signals with greater frequency and urgency. And my body learned to associate anxiety with typing an email, leaving the house, talking with someone on the phone. Once this association was made, my body thought it needed to keep sending these signals even when no threat was present. This is where the disorder comes in, when a pattern has developed in our brain to associate panic with the mundane. But this fact does not discount that the original anxiety was and still often is warranted.
The point is that anxiety, while annoying and frustrating, is almost always trying to tell us something incredibly helpful. Maybe your body is telling you that it needs a break and it’s time to take a few minutes to yourself. Maybe it is telling you to make a bigger change in your career, a relationship, a ministry. Maybe you experienced trauma and your body is trying to keep you from being retraumatized. Maybe you need to make a change in how you view yourself.
Whatever it is, anxiety comes to teach you to be a bit kinder to the person closest to you, yourself.
Our instinct in this culture is to medicate anxiety, treat the symptoms, and get rid of it. Medication can be very helpful and necessary. But let’s not be so ready to get rid of the inconvenience of anxiety without first learning what it has to teach us. If all we do is medicate it so we can get back to the same life we were living, we’ve missed the gift it came to give us. Take the time to stop and listen. Your body may know what you need even before you do.
It helps to remember that anxiety is not actually there to hurt you. Although, it can definitely feel that way when your heart is pounding and you can’t breathe. Anxiety is ultimately there to keep you safe.
So next time you catch yourself deep in anxiety mode, slow down, breathe, and ask anxiety what it is trying to show you. Take a moment to acknowledge anxiety and thank it for always protecting you. Then gently explain why you don’t need to be afraid anymore. This will be uncomfortable. Sitting with anxiety is far from pleasant. But it can be life-changing. Remember that anxiety is your slightly (or very) overprotective sister who is just looking out for you. And try to treat it (you) kindly. You’ll be doing yourself a favor.