Anxiety’s Golden Key
Friday January 6, 2017
We don’t want to experience anxiety. We want to get rid of it. We speak about anxiety, or depression for that matter, as if it were a thing, an albatross, which has perched on our shoulders, occupied the pits of our bellies or frenetically taken over the bellows of our lungs.
We imagine anxiety as something fundamentally disconnected from us. Like an evil alien from another planet it wants to occupy our psyches and our bodies. When, as is the way with the medical model, we consider anxiety pathological, or like a disease entity, then, logically, we pursue means to get rid of it.
We might meditate, take a walk, do yoga, make love, drink, or punch pillows. We can also distract ourselves with a movie or a book if we have the concentration, or get prescription medication. After all, our brains have gone loco, gotten hijacked, dislodged. We walk the tightrope of too much adrenaline and cortisol coursing through our veins, threatening to throw us off balance, make us sweat, palpitate our hearts, and cause hyperventilation and even fainting at worst. Sometimes anxiety, like a drum beat that won’t quit, just expresses itself in pacing, wringing hands, or just plain jittering.
Anxiety demands our attention in a powerful way. But we have the capacity to listen, to watch and to reflect on what our anxieties ask us to consider. In effect, anxiety offers us a golden key to rooms of possibility we might consider. When we commit to paying attention to the sometimes provocative sensations of anxiety, instead of trying so darned hard to get rid of them, we might learn more about the ways in which our perceptions of possibility have locked us into one room full of rocks and hard places. Whatever our anxious perspective on life and on our own particular life, this drives the ways in which we respond to, or react to the situations which we find problematic. We, the heroes and heroines of our own scripts, can benefit from listening to our prompters in the wings–like anxiety–holding out its golden key.
Clients often mention that they wake up feeling stressed, even before anything has happened that day. And lo and behold, I feel glad to share with them that their CAR (cortisol awakening response) is functioning as it was meant to; to help ready them for the oncoming stressors of the day. The CAR, bolstered by several areas of the brain, functions to remind and rev us for the requirements of our day, and this readying, this servicing, while initially uncomfortable—like mom waking you when you were thirteen and wanted to sleep-in rather than make the bus for the first period’s test in geometry—remains doggedly, and ultimately helpful.
There are many kinds of anxious experiences, of course, and many sources to stimulate anxious reactions, but the CAR reminds us of our programming, our wetware, our inherently benevolent and protective modus operandi.
When we experience our moments of anxiety as only moments to avoid, then we miss the golden keys offered to us. Anxiety’s golden keys open windows and doors onto landscapes and skyscapes of beauty in which our bearings in the world reside. Our willingness to hold onto these proffered keys, and to employ them in processes of opening, of following, and of exploring can lead us to understand what matters to us most. And to how we might address those highly prized concerns that currently stand at risk.
Here is one small example: Jane could never make up her mind about which restaurant to go to. Her partner complained of always having to decide. Jane felt an almost excruciating nausea when called upon to choose. Chinese? Thai? Italian? Even telephoning a restaurant triggered a cascade of bodily sensations and anxious feelings.
When Jane and I explored what lay in the room beyond her anxiety about making a decision on cuisine, it turned out that her real horror concerned waste, or wasting. As a conservationist at heart, it mattered a great deal to her that she like the food she ordered so that she would eat it. Food going to waste, furniture going to waste, landfills growing exponentially, concerned her and she recycled everything possible with intense religiosity. Jane had grown up poor, with a striving single mother, and nothing could go to waste.
Through Jane’s willingness to use anxiety’s golden key to open up her real fear—that of wasting—and her serious conservationism, we were able to see her anxiety in a positive context. This immediately lessened Jane’s anxiety—no longer a pathological villain—and to help her think through ways to increase mindfulness and thoughtfulness about conservation without a punishing self-narrative that said she was incapable of making decisions.
Anxiety, depression and other mood states don’t arise in a vacuum but in a context of environmental stressors and triggers. Anxiety actually connects us to our living world. Otherwise, impervious, we would not feel anything, nor would we feel connected to what goes on around us, both in our own worlds and in the larger world beyond our own families, friends, coworkers and communities.
Milos grew up with a very strict and impatient father who frequently criticized Milos’ efforts. If Milos hammered a board onto the deck incorrectly, dropped a bag of nails, or got deck stain on his jeans, he got harshly reminded of his imperfect behavior. As a married adult Milos continued to berate himself, frequently and vociferously, whenever he forgot his wallet, or his computer froze, or he ran late to a job.
He extended this anxiety about imperfection to his wife, and this often resulted in angry explosions which seriously threatened their marriage. In therapy, he felt both saddened and mystified by his wife’s intolerance of his outbursts. His narrative was, “That’s just who I am.” In his self-narrative, if he were to muzzle his explosiveness, he would not be himself.
Over the course of several conversations, he was able to identify that he had anxiety, on one hand, about not being allowed to be himself, and on the other hand about losing his wife because she thought he was a bad person.
After several more conversations we opened a door that helped Milos to tell his story differently. He was a man who valued hard and expert work. He held himself to high standards. It mattered to him to leave his customers, and his wife, pleased with his efforts. He realized that he had left no room for imperfection along the way; no detours, no second chances. He realized, most importantly, that he was not just “an angry person,” or a bad person, but a man whose angry outbursts expressed his strong desire to do things well and to please people important to him, professionally as well as personally. He could respect himself for those values. And he began a chapter in which he afforded himself a bit more latitude to accommodate the roadblocks, unanticipated breakdowns, and moments of miscalculation that influence all of our lives.
As in Milos’ case, most of us have experienced painful interactions in our childhoods. Often, the present circumstances of adulthood trigger off, not only present frustrations and responses, but also the more intense feelings, sensations, and even behaviors that took shape around those earlier experiences. Present insults and injuries, like “all roads, lead to Rome.” So we may find ourselves panicking or more despairing than would seem relevant to the incidences experienced in the present. Sharon, when confronted with her boyfriend’s dismissive comment, as an example, suffered from feeling “not good enough.” Her reaction, amplified by the triggered theme of feeling less-than, came across as out of proportion to what the present situation called for. Reengaging in our present, as if “refreshing the screen,” can function like a new room, once the golden key of anxiety or depression allows us to open it.
Sometimes anxiety bowls us over and we feel overwhelmed, crushed, beleaguered. But anxiety, just like a great big shaggy dog that greets us with two paws barreling into our chest, means well. Anxiety and depression can be dogged indeed, tenacious at reminding us of what we need to keep track of; what problems we need to solve; what courageous actions we need to embrace in order to get out of a slump or over a hurdle or through a judgmental filter. Our bodies, including our brains, do not rest easy when we have work to do, the work of living.
Mindfulness, the Zen-like way of acceptance, of loving what is, of abundant awareness within the present moment, requires us to exercise discipline. It is an art form. Mindfulness and awareness in the moment do not come naturally. Our minds chatter, skip beats, point daggers, race to finish lines, confuse us with ambiguity, scare us with worries, or stun us with the beauty of poetry, architecture, music, or mathematical calculation. When we feel enrapt in the present our minds do not fill with worry about the future or regrets about our past. But no one lives moment-to-moment that way. The mind cannot be static. It is vital, and responsive to the environment with more than simple awareness. We have brilliant minds that imagine different scenarios, problem solve, rehearse, remember, and so forth. We bring all of that to bear on the various situations in which we live, work and play.
We can think of anxiety as an example of how our bodies talk to us. The sensations and feelings of anxiety can occur with speed and potency, but be preverbal or nonverbal. Our bodies, on alert, tell us that something important is happening but it may take a while to translate this experience into a cohesive narrative. People anxious about driving on a highway do not want to get killed or to kill someone else. In a high volume, high speed, traffic situation, accidents seem more likely. This is not, as some would say, irrational thinking. But higher levels of anxiety make us think that a merely possible situation is the probable one. There is a big difference between what is possible and what is probable. People with less anxiety who drive on highways are willing to take the risk because they have calculated the risk as not that high, not that likely.
When speaking to a group of others, some people feel anxious because remembering what they want to say is important to them; presenting well and making it worth the audience’ time is important to them; and perhaps winning social approbation or validation feels important.
Anxiety before taking tests also has to do with what matters to someone. He or she wants to do well, wants to succeed. Someone who has insomnia might feel anxious about going to bed because getting a good night’s sleep seems important to going to work the next day and meeting one’s obligations in the world.
Caring about these things is endearingly human and engaged. And if we want to feel less anxiety then we can allow ourselves to feel informed by it and choose to do the feared thing more often so that we build more confidence. Sometimes new contexts allow us to see things differently. If we can downgrade the significance of social acceptance, for example, we may find ourselves more able to do something we believe in, even if it comes with the price of some popularity.
As a “bodymind,” of course anxiety and depression have an expression neuro-chemically. Low serotonin, for example, tends to reduce the enjoyment we cull from our experiences, even when before these amplified mood states, those experiences enhanced our senses of wellbeing and gladness. Stress, and its consequent chemical productions of adrenalin and cortisol, rule. When we get stressed, particularly over a longer period of time, its chemistry dominates, and dampens mood, creates irritability, and fosters anxiety.
Some people may require medication to re-balance their neurochemistry enough to begin a process of unlocking new doors of thought and feeling. When we have narrated our lives in ways that renders us locked in—to a particular job or company, to a role within our family, to the way we spend our time, to servicing the needs of others at the frequent expense of ourselves—then we can begin to view anxiety as a knocking on the door, and as a key to places with breathing room to explore, to grow, and to nurture our lives.
Camel Saddle: When do you experience most anxiety? If you let it speak to you, what does it say? What matters to you so much that anxiety offers you prompts to take it seriously? Is there work to do on this matter that anxiety wants to unlock for you?