About 25 years ago, I stepped away from the living of my life far enough to make a profound observation. I saw that my life consisted of a series of reactions to the circumstances in my life. Further, I realized that I was reacting to my interpretations of those circumstances. I perceived almost everything as a potential threat, a criticism, a slight, or evidence that I wasn’t safe, appreciated or liked. I reacted by withdrawing from life and playing it safe.
But I couldn’t play safe enough. I could never live life small enough to feel safe. My body reacted as if I was under constant attack or threat of attack and the result was ongoing anxiety. I didn’t know at the time that what I was experiencing was anxiety. What I experienced was shortness of breath, racing heart, high stress, self consciousness, reluctance to be social, isolation, and extreme emotional sensitivity.
I never wanted to have these feelings again. I theorized that if I could question my fears rather than reacting to them, those fears wouldn’t accumulate and turn into anxiety.
To a large degree my plan worked. But occasionally I still had these feelings. I want to believe I am winning my WAR ON ANXIETY, but I haven’t been able to completely eliminate anxiety from my life.
Tax season brought an opportunity to see that there was a flaw in my plan. I believed that anxiety was something to be rid of – that I shouldn’t ever have it.
Last year was the first year that I generated substantially more revenue than expenses. Recently, I received a letter from the Department of Revenue for the State of Washington. They noticed that I had done well last year and wanted their share. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that since I’d never done well enough to pay Business and Occupation taxes, I was caught completely off guard when I got the letter. I suddenly felt anxiety.
My mind and heart raced, my breathing became shallow and I felt an icy tightening in my gut. I wanted to avoid dealing with the letter and had a lot of fear that I wouldn’t have enough money to cover the obligation. My mind also began to blame the government and to want to give up, throw in the towel.
I tried a letting go technique that I’d been practicing. The technique had worked well in other circumstances but didn’t even seem to phase my anxiety related to this unexpected tax obligation.
The deadline for paying the taxes was still over a month away. I didn’t know how much the taxes would be until I filed a State return. The more I put it off, the more anxiety I felt. Finally, I went online and filed the return. I was shocked at the amount I owed but when I checked the balance in my bank account, I realized I still had plenty to cover the tax bill. I paid the bill electronically and felt immediate relief. The anxiety disappeared.
So, what did I learn about anxiety?
If I am experiencing anxiety, it’s because I’m supposed to have anxiety. The proof? I have it from time to time. Sometimes the anxiety reflects current reality, other times it doesn’t.
Anxiety is supposed to serve me. Imagine standing in front of an oncoming truck. If I don’t move, I’m going to get run over. The longer I stand in front of that truck the more anxiety I will feel until I get out of its path. Anxiety is supposed to motivate me to take action.
When anxiety is based on the meaning I give to circumstances rather than on reality, it becomes a negative, toxic and dominating influence in my life.
Declaring war on anxiety just doesn’t work.
Judging myself for having anxiety doesn’t help. Having anxiety doesn’t especially mean there is anything wrong with me. But it may mean there is something for me to pay attention to. It helps to recognize anxiety as a part of the human experience.
It helps to embrace and accept that I have anxiety sometimes. I have learned to do my deep inner work and have successfully reevaluated most of the more destructive and disruptive interpretations of my life. So, I don’t experience it as often as I used to. But when I do have anxiety, I want to pay attention to it.
There are healthy ways to respond to anxiety. I can take the healthy actions the anxiety is indicating (get out of the way of the oncoming truck), I can reevaluate the fears and interpretations that are creating the anxiety, or I can learn to relax and release the energy behind the anxiety when there is nothing that is causing it in the present moment. This last one is easier said than done because relaxing and releasing anxiety requires letting go of control.
For some, medication may also make sense. I’m not a counselor, therapist or a doctor and am not making medical or psychological recommendations. If you are struggling with anxiety, I recommend finding a professional anxiety specialist for help and recommendations.
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