We assume anxiety can suddenly appear for no reason. But what if it was trying to get your attention?
Jim would pace multiple times throughout his apartment in a state of worry and unease. Several nights he couldn’t sleep, but only fret about the future.
I first met Jim years ago when he was knee deep in addiction. Over the years, and with the help of counseling, rehab, and tight-knit friends, he’s grown exponentially. But despite his monumental growth, anxiety continues to plague him. Enough so, that professional counselors diagnosed him with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
In his struggle with anxiety, he explained he often “catastrophizes” everything. Mundane life events or drama will become a mental holocaust where he becomes convinced the worst will happen. When he started pacing and not sleeping, the instance aggravating his well being appeared innocent enough. He was about to buy a home. After years of scraping by, his excitement to own property suddenly coupled with an intense anxiety, and not long after, the catastrophizing began.
His thought patterns ranged from “I’ll be a horrible homeowner” to “they’ll deny my mortgage application” to “I’ll end up burning the house down.” With the fear, anxiety sank its claws in and he began the pacing and sleepless nights.
But not long after, he conquered his anxious thoughts when he discovered they were trying to communicate an important fact.
An unlikely advocate
Most of us assume mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and loneliness are evil entities that begin with a sudden onset. But what if — like hunger or romantic feelings — they were trying to tell you something? For instance, when you’re hungry, the body is telling you it’s time to eat. When you feel fondly toward a man or woman, the mind and heart are telling you this person has the potential to be something more. So what on earth could anxiety be telling you?
In one of his therapy sessions, Jim’s counselor revealed that sometimes depression and anxiety are trying to help us. Much like a friend warning you or a hunger pang setting in, they’re trying to pull our attention to an area we’ve ignored or allowed to fester. The more you ignore the symptoms, the worse it can become. Destructive coping mechanisms can set in, and before you know it, you’re drinking, abusing substances, or getting into other unhealthy practices to deal with your poor mental well-being.
Jim had never thought about it in this light and phoned me one afternoon to share the epiphany. His revelation made sense. The times in life where I’ve struggled the hardest with addiction or anxiety have been when I ignored what was under the surface. When I came home from war and struggled with PTSD, I refused to acknowledge trauma. Only through exploring what I faced overseas with a counselor and dealing with my demons did the effects subside. Prior to exploring what I’d been ignoring, I had drank heavily because I didn’t want to process hard emotions and memories.
For Jim, he realized he was worried about finances the costs involved with owning a home. Anxiety became the driving force to get his attention even while it kept screaming that owning a home would “never work.” Once Jim sat down, did the math, pulled his finances, and talked over options he realized he could afford a home and his anxiety subsided.
Explore the unexplored
At the end of each year and beginning of a new one, holidays, parties, and New Year’s resolutions can fill many of us with anxiety. What if I don’t bring home a significant other and grandma makes a comment again? What if I don’t have the money? What if my boss has certain expectations of me I can’t fulfill? What about finals? What if this year just repeats itself and I’m no better?
Underneath most of our anxiety is something deeper that we’re leaving unaddressed. As a people pleaser, counselors have repeatedly told me I live in a constant state of anxiety that’s now become a baseline. Until they explained this, I’d always assumed staying high strung was just “stress.” Yet underneath all that so-called stress, is something I often ignore — I want (and crave) for people to like me. If I sense someone is upset, hurt, or less than amicable I’ll work myself up into a tizzy and worry about how to control a more positive outcome.
Most of our fears and worries operate in this manner: what we can’t control ends up controlling us. Once anxiety sets in, the more we can’t control, the more the catastrophizing begins. But underneath is a dark and unexplored cavern we often perceive is too scary to explore when it just might hold the key to unlock our cell. Anxiety might be the friend trying to get ahold of us and explain something is amiss. For example, if we fear questions about a non-existent significant other during the holidays, perhaps anxiety is trying to communicate we’ve failed. We want a relationship, but it’s also something out of our control. So when we know the question is coming, we give into anxiety rather than exploring the underneath: Why do we believe a relationship is the defining factor in our lives? Parental expectations? Our society? Friends? If we are to combat anxiety in any manner, first we must decide whether we’ll be brave enough to explore areas we’d rather ignore.
Maybe then we just might hack away at the monster of anxiety and find our victory.