Thursday, October 5, 2017

Anxiety is a Blessing

I recently read an article in which the author says that having anxiety is a blessing in disguise. In this particular situation, the author experienced short-term anxiety when she left her family and moved to the United States on her own. She soon discovered meditation and yoga as a way to calm her anxiety and keep her focused in the present moment.

As I read this author's story, I had to agree with her. As I think about my own experience with anxiety, it has definitely changed my life for the better. Of course, I did not look at it that way at first. Thinking back to 2013 when I first became sick from working so many hours, I remember entering all of my symptoms into various websites and trying to figure out exactly what was wrong with me. No matter where my search began, it would always end in the same place. Anxiety. It was the one thing that seemed to explain most of what I was experiencing in my mind and body.

At first, I was not ready to accept that diagnosis. I thought anxiety was a mental illness. And I could not grasp the idea that I might have it. I was a normal person. I was raised in a middle class family and went to excellent schools. I got a scholarship to college and eventually became a successful director at a major health insurance plan. I was highly intelligent and responsible. I was a perfectionist. I prided myself on being the smartest person in the room. How could I have anxiety? It just didn't seem possible.

Yet despite all of my apparent success, I had been miserable at every job I'd had in the past 20 years. And I had been struggling especially in my most recent job. Working nights and weekends on a project that was absolutely unbearable with a narcissistic boss who I could barely stand to be in the same room with. I would write in my journal over and over again that something needed to change in my life. And I would vow to get out of the health care business once and for all. But somehow I never made the changes I wanted to make in my life.

My anxiety tends to manifest itself in two ways. First, there is a physical component. It is typically a warming sensation in my chest on the left side. And I can feel my heartbeat, especially when I lay down at night. There are times when my heart just surges and beats faster for no apparent reason. I also have shortness of breath. It's not the kind you get after working out, where your breath is fast and shallow. It is more of a chronic shortness of breath. Every time I breathe into my lungs, they only seem to fill up about halfway, or three quarters of the way at best. Then I run out of space. It is rare that my body relaxes enough for me to get in a full breath. And when it does, I savor that feeling for as long as it lasts. Usually I can experience a good 30 minutes of relaxed breathing after a yoga class or a meditation.

The other way that my anxiety manifests itself is in my mind. I tend to worry a lot about things I can't control. Everyone does this to some degree, but for me it can be overwhelming. Even though I know logically that whatever I am worried about is unlikely to happen or is something that is out of my control, my mind just cannot seem to let it go. My mind just plays on repeat and I think about the same thing over and over again until eventually it just runs out of steam and slows down. That can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending how ramped up my mind gets.

When I first started seeing my counselor for anxiety, I would tell her that I wanted to go back to my old life. I wanted to be able to work as long as I wanted without getting tired. I wanted to feel confident and in control again. I did not want to live at the will of my anxiety. Letting it decide what I could eat or whether I could sleep at night. Over time, as we started to peel back the layers of my anxiety, I realized that it actually set me free from a life that I really did not want. On the outside I may have appeared to be highly successful, but I had been measuring my success against external standards and expectations that had no value to me personally.

The first thing I learned from having anxiety is that I do not have all of the answers. That was by far the hardest lesson and it took the longest amount of time to learn it. From then on, I gave up on being the smartest person in the room. And more importantly, I gave up on wanting to be the smartest person in the room. Instead, I adopted some new traits that seem to serve me much better.

After I got sick, it gave me a license to make a lot of changes in my life that I had always wanted to make, but for some reason I felt that I couldn't. I was not living an authentic life and I was not spending my time on the things that truly mattered to me. Now I spend all of my time in an authentic way. I try to make decisions based on what I feel and not based on what others expect me to do. And that has been very liberating. My anxiety keeps me in check because if I am about to make a decision that is not authentic to me, I will feel it in my heart.

I love the word curiosity. It is the equivalent of dipping your toe in the water to check the temperature. I spent a lot of my life living in a very black and white world. I felt like I needed to know things with certainty and I needed to make decisions decisively, which was never my strong suit. Now I like to explore things. Whether they are new experiences or feelings. It is ok to just be curious about something without having to make a commitment.

So many people are too hard on themselves. I know that I was for many years. I would set high expectations for myself and others. I would find ways to keep pushing when I was too tired or lacked energy or a sense of purpose. I would stay at work late and grab a bag of pretzels and a diet coke from the vending machine to keep me going. I would over commit myself and try to be everything to everyone. Now I know that self-compassion is essential for me to live a happy life. Because my body has certain limitations, I have learned to respect them. And I no longer resent those limitations for slowing me down. I embrace them for keeping me grounded and in touch with myself.

Slowing Down
One of the first things I noticed by slowing down is that I love to be in nature. It soothes me. There are so many moments of pure beauty in the world. Awe-inspiring things that are right outside in our own backyards and yet many people fail to recognize them. I stop and look outside to watch the sunset or the moon rise. I listen to the birds outside of my window and I appreciate how lucky I am to work at home where I can open the balcony door and enjoy the fresh air all day long. I have forgotten how to multi-task. I do one thing at a time and I try to be mindful of what I am doing. Life in the slow lane is so much better than life in the fast lane.

I used to think that having anxiety meant that there was something wrong with me. But now I realize that it is just a part of me. I no longer assume that people who can work 50 or 60 hours a week or push themselves to the limit are "normal" while I am somehow broken. Most of the time, I really don't define myself as having anxiety at all. I just accept that there are certain traits I have and I try to recognize that others may have different traits.

There are still days I struggle with my anxiety. Mostly on those nights when my mind seems to grab onto a problem or worry with such intensity that I can't fall asleep. On those nights, as I lay in bed with my hand on my heart trying to quiet my mind, I remind myself of the alternative. I think about the life I would be living if I hadn't slowed down and took the time to explore my authentic self. And in those moments, I am immensely grateful for my anxiety. It spoke so loudly that I could not help but listen to what I already knew deep down inside. Something had to change in my life. And I never want to go back.

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