Everyone’s Got It
These days, seems like everyone’s got anxiety. I’ve been there. Sometimes I’m still there. And, while it’s obviously bad form to imagine I could ever possibly one-up somebody else (believing that my anxiety was worse than theirs, let’s say), yet I find myself doing it. Is this an irrational practice? Totally. Is it ugly? Definitely. Is it infantile? Are you kidding me?
Why, then, do I do this?
Because I’ve battled acute inner fear states for nearly half my life, and in some twisted kind of way, maybe I believe that journeying with this particular challenge entitles me to feel the tiniest bit territorial when it comes to the ground I’ve gained. I know that my gains don’t make me one bit special. Still, I have to pardon myself for occasionally nursing a secret desire to quiz people who seem to be throwing the term ‘anxiety’ around like confetti. “Come on,” I’m itching to say. “How anxious are you, though? Like, shaking-with-terror anxious? Or just moderately uncomfortable?”
Years ago, when I checked into the hospital to have a baby, the nurse was holding up a convenient chart with emoji-like faces whose moods went from happy all the way up to sweating-drops-of-blood, a scale that let me rate my pain level accurately in case my contractions were apocalyptic enough to render me speechless. I think I gave my pain a ‘7’ that morning — strong, yes; apocalyptic, no. (I mean, I could still speak.)
But if I’d had access to that chart during one of my protracted anxiety episodes? I definitely would have said that my pain was a straight-up, blood-sweating 10.
Yes, people. Anxiety is real. And it sucks. Anyone who’s experienced it knows how debilitating it can be. So if you, too, are journeying with it, I have all the compassion in the world for you — even as I’m inwardly wondering how you’d rate your pain.
What Anxiety Really Feels Like
I come from a long line of anxious people. My father claims his first episode occurred at the age of nineteen, when he witnessed some unfortunate person having a grand mal seizure during a sporting event at a local community college. Somehow, the act of watching another human reduced by a brain glitch to a state of total powerlessness triggered something, and my Dad was thrust for roughly a year into a state of near-constant terror so sharp that he wondered how he was going to keep on living, the sensation was so unendurable. Back then, they didn’t have a name for what he suffered. He just thought something was horribly wrong with him. The son of a profoundly mentally ill father who used alcohol and gambling to mask his pain, my father likewise turned to alcohol to self-medicate, a practice which resulted in some damage over the decades.
My first bout of serious anxiety occurred nearly twenty-five years ago, after the birth of my second child. I had no idea what to label the disturbing sense of unease I felt day and night, as if something nameless but catastrophic was about to unfold at any moment. One evening I was out with a close friend, and she, undone by my mood, burst into tears, it was that unnerving for her to be in my energy.
Andrew Solomon is a well-known lecturer on politics, culture, and the arts. He’s also a National Book Award winner and an activist in LGBT rights and mental health. He weighs in on the theme of anxiety in a TEDx talk given back in the fall of 2013 and viewed more than five million times. Perhaps more than anyone I’ve encountered, he captures the unbearable nature of the inner state we now call anxiety. His tone is both candid and confessional when he says, “If you told me I’d have to be depressed for the next month, I’d say, ‘As long as I know it’ll be over in November, I can do it.’ But if you said to me, ‘You have to have acute anxiety for the next month,’ I would rather slit my wrist than go through it. It was the feeling, all the time, like that feeling you have when you’re walking, and you slip or trip, and the ground is rushing up at you — but instead of lasting half a second the way that does, it lasted six months. It’s the sensation of being afraid all the time, but not even knowing what you’re afraid of.”
If you haven’t seen the talk, take a few minutes and watch it. While it focuses mainly on his walk with depression, the segment on anxiety is instructive. Solomon has a way of elucidating not just what it feels like on the inside, but also how unremitting the pain is.
Having tried both medication and therapy, I know that while both modalities can be helpful, the road back from anxiety is more switchback than highway. For me, medication was hit-and-miss, and while I felt it gave me a modicum of distance from the relentlessness of the disorder, I also felt disturbingly flat sometimes. My anxiety didn’t trigger as often when I was medicated, but neither did I feel particularly energized or creative, ultimately a deal breaker for me. Therapy was likewise helpful, but it sometimes felt like an excuse to be heard rather than an investment in a blueprint for tactical success. Ultimately, what I wanted were workarounds! — actionable steps I could take to try to manage the tumult in my inner terrain. What I also really wanted (but didn’t dare hope for) was a way to teach my brain to reframe the anguish, so that I could keep on keeping on, you know? I wanted to be able to inch my way forward in spite of whatever I felt on the inside.
Which is why, almost seven years ago, I titrated myself off the compounds I was taking. I just didn’t want to deal anymore with the expense, either financial or neurochemical. It’s also why, six years ago, I took up a meditation practice, a decision which proved to be a complete game changer for me.
The Power of a Sitting Practice
Meditation allowed me to go inward. It taught me to acknowledge my precarious moods and thoughts and inner states and just be with them. It promised me that I would not die if I sat with what felt unendurable. And, sure, I cried (plenty). And of course I wanted to turn my inner gaze away from memories and feelings I did not want to reckon with. Sometimes I actually physically shook as fears both inchoate and ancient seemed to overtake me. However, the miracle was that the more I practiced, the more I learned that it all could move through me without being me.
And I absolutely did not die.
Moreover, there have been moments during my six-year practice which I can only describe as startling. In rare instances, all thought would cease, and in those brief but quiet interstices, I touched into something that was both me and not-me: a stillness, a peace, a sense that what I knew as my “self” was interconnected with everyone and everything else, expanding infinitely. And while I sometimes yearned to have those experiences every time I sat, through my reading and study I came to understand that it’s called a “practice” for a reason. You learn to welcome all that comes. You learn to sit with all of it — both the wanted and the unwanted things. And when the waves of anxiety roll through, as they inevitably will, you learn to place your faith in the practice itself, knowing that in fact you will not capsize. Pain can move through us, it turns out. Again and again.
As a literary researcher, I took my study of both ancient and modern meditation texts as seriously as I’d ever taken anything. For the price of a book by Jack Kornfield, for example, I could absorb a whole course of study, whereas a week’s retreat might have cost me thousands. Through Sharon Salzberg, I discovered the ancient Buddhist idea of metta — lovingkindness practice — which has softened and shifted my relationship with myself. I also found the wise and gentle Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who taught me to treat my anger with great compassion, seeing it as something that needed my kind and constant attention rather than my reckless surrender. I happened upon the work of Tara Brach, whose teachings about the power of radical acceptance allowed me to come into a longed-for peace about the things in my life which I could not change — like being the adult child of a beloved alcoholic who still is leashed to his cravings and who now suffers from alcohol-related dementia.
I could go on and on, but I won’t. This and other invaluable content is out there, ready to be studied and incorporated as part of a commitment to a consistent practice. It’s easily available, and if you’re willing to dive in, you can prepare to be transformed — not without effort, of course. And not without reckoning with your own discomfort, which is inevitable. But you will begin — slowly at first — to rate your pain level differently. And you will begin to gather momentum as you connect with your own fragile humanness in a way that feels surprisingly like forgiveness.
Another mentor-from-a-distance is Kelly McGonigal, a health researcher and psychologist, bestselling author, TED talk phenom, and Stanford lecturer. I’ve never met her, but through her work I’ve discovered the power that comes from reframing states of discomfort by training yourself to redefine them. In her interview with Tom Bilyeu on Impact Theory, McGonigal sat down to talk about the way she uses the art of the reframe to manage her acute fear of flying. “When I decided that I finally wanted to face [my fear of flying],” she tells Bilyeu, “I knew I needed to learn to deal with how I feel on a plane: my heart is pounding . . . I feel like I can’t breathe . . . I feel like I’m trapped.” But to execute the reframe successfully, she had to find another activity that in fact produced the same physical sensations in the body. Oddly enough, she recognized the same fear whenever she went to an indoor cycling class. There, too, she experienced the racing heart, the sense that she couldn’t breathe, the sense that she was trapped. Yet cycling also was exhilarating; it made her feel powerful, too. And she wasn’t about to give it up just because the class happened to be offered in an enclosed space.
So, she decided to recast the sensations that accompanied the experience, reimagining them as signs not of fear and weakness, but of strength and tenacity. And, sure enough, when next it came time to board a flight, she told herself that flying was no different than cycling indoors. “I learned to tolerate the sensations of discomfort,” she says. “Somehow my brain reorganized how it experienced the physical sensations of fear, so that in moments when I actually was afraid, suddenly I was like, ‘I guess I’m brave, I guess I’m a badass!’”
For McGonigal, the key was movement. Movement signals to the brain that in spite of the paralysis you feel when you’re anxious, you’re nevertheless going to do something. “Movement is so amazing [because] it gives us access to physical feedback that allows us to have this different sense of self,” she affirms. “When you move, you’re telling your brain that you can tolerate the discomfort. Often, the one skill you need is to say, ‘I can’t always control my inner experiences, but I can make a choice right now that I know my future self will be grateful for and that reflects my core values, and I’m going to learn how to tolerate this.’”
I’ve been practicing this skill throughout the pandemic, and, like meditation, it’s a game-changer. Because feelings of anxiousness have a physical signature in the body, when you bring your awareness to just the feelings of tightness or contractedness in the stomach, for instance, you start to view them as information whose meaning you can redefine. McGonigal calls it proprioceptive feedback, or feedback relating to sensations that are produced and perceived within you, especially as they relate to movement. Like her, I’m learning to gravitate to forms of movement with strong signatures of joy: “your arms stretched out . . . your gaze lifted, and your heart open.”
Learning that sensations which I’d previously read as anxiety could be reread was an incredibly novel idea. Now, when I feel my nerves fraying (or seeming to), I can direct my inner gaze, so that I’m focusing on just the physical sensations. Then, I can begin playing with the business of redefining them as something else — excitement, ideally. In short, cultivating somatic awareness, or awareness of what’s going on in the body, has given me a new tool for reimagining what’s happening in my inner landscape. Moreover, renaming what I perceive gives me the power to decide how I want to react to it, which lets me take a pause before I abandon myself to old thought forms and habits of thinking.
Will I ever be one hundred percent free of anxiety? Probably not. Especially during a pandemic. But that’s okay. I know now that it’s actually not going to kill me. And I have an expanding toolkit that helps me manage what comes up. My tools also remind me that I’m no longer a hostage but an agent, with choices about how to proceed when fear sets in.
So if we’re ever having a conversation about our anxiety and the expression on my face signals that maybe I’m doing the unthinkable — mentally questioning your pain rating — hopefully you’ll have some grace for me! My journey has cost me many of my old, familiar narratives about the meaning of who I am. Cut me a little slack then, will you? It’s the least you could do for someone who has come this far.