Anxiety for me is that skin-tightening, heart-racing, dizzy haze that floods your body and mind. Limbs feel as if they are melting into their corresponding bones, and your sense of body is lost. Your mind jumps from conclusion to conclusion until it is decided: This is the end of the world. It’s true; the small detail that you changed that morning has altered the fabric of the universe. This is anxiety.
Anxiety is a very normal response to stress and danger. It’s a form of energy, and it surges through us, either empowering us, readying us, or paralyzing us. Thoughts move while we are frozen, breath is hard to find, and lungs seem to collapse on them. Christ, why can’t we/you/I just calm down?
I feel this, too, and then I’m told to hold it. To hold the anxiety, give it a place to settle, to breathe. This made me very anxious, naturally. “Your anxiety is a gift,” I’m told. “A message, it’s asking you to look at something.” I sat with this new information for a while until anxiety itself—with all its little fast worrying hands—decoded and reconstructed it in my mind, and it goes a little something like this:
Anxiety is a series of communications with your limbic system, amygdala, and sympathetic nervous system giving you all the sensations and emotions that create our familiar foe or friend, anxiety. At times, these feelings, reactions, and thoughts can grow and consume you—until you are a breathless body of a panic attack. But why was the anxiety there in the first place?
I ask myself these things as it arises. Perhaps it wants to be heard. To finally be acknowledged. Perhaps it wants to know that it isn’t so bad. My advice:
Give it a place to settle when it arrives. Here, you can say, take this space in my chest. Yeah, you can settle right there near my heart. Like any guest—frequent as they may be—they like to feel welcomed. The natural reaction is to fear the anxiety itself, is to become anxious about the anxiety. Here, we want to greet the anxiety with compassion. “I shouldn’t be feeling this way” becomes “It’s okay to be feeling this way.”
As anxiety settles in, you can ask your guest if they are comfortable. (You, of course, might feel completely unsettled.) And after they are settled in and awkward introductions are over with, you can start introspection. What message is being sent?
I’m not talking about the small detail that set it off; I’m talking about the core issues. Anxiety can be considered as a message—or the messenger, if you will—of the core issue. Maybe you can’t find it. Maybe it is unclear—this is okay. Maybe all the anxiety wants in this moment is some simple recognition. “Yes, anxiety I see you, and I call you by your name.”
Your anxiety might grow, it might overwhelm. Like all agitated guests, it might get up from the place you gave it and overwhelm. This is okay—this entire exercise is a process. If you can couch your anxiety back in that welcomed spot, try to listen again. Try to tell your guest that you see them, and that it is okay to be here. On that note, try telling yourself that as well. It’s okay for your anxiety to be there.
It is uncomfortable, difficult, and exhausting, but your anxiety now is a guest—welcomed and calm. The effect of this exercise is to decrease the anxiety of the anxiety. To have the initial anxiety settle and swim in your system—to float. It speaks to you and occasionally asks for a glass of red, but it doesn’t overwhelm. It doesn’t separate mind from body and suck the air of your lungs. It keeps the panic attacks away and you at bay.