Lately I’ve been working pretty hard on self-care. As a mum who suffers from an anxiety disorder, self-care is something that should be high on my priority list but often ends up taking a back seat to everything else like laundry, cooking, cleaning, play-dates and reading The Hungry Caterpillar for the thirty-thousandth time. Hell, self-care is something that should be high on everybody’s priority list, and I’m probably not alone in letting it fall by the wayside. But after the New Year, I found myself burning out a little (a lot) and searching for ways to improve my well being. One of the promises I made to myself was that I’d keep a gratitude list every day. And four months in, there is something a little bit surprising that frequently comes up on my gratitude list.
I am grateful for my anxiety.
Two years ago, if you’d asked me to affirm that I was grateful for my anxiety, I would’ve done it, but in no way would I have really believed it. Anxiety robbed me of my life as I knew it; anxiety kept me locked inside my house, inside my head, kept me from enjoying my days and instead I spent them fearful and teary, wondering where in the hell I had gone wrong. And it is like that for so many anxiety sufferers, after all, the clue is in the term -‘anxiety sufferer‘. But at the end of everyday when I write my little list of things I’m grateful for, I often find myself writing that I am grateful for my struggles, grateful for the fear and the shakes and the nervousness and the sick feeling that I get in the pit of my stomach sometimes, and grateful that I am where I am today in spite of my anxiety…or more accurately, because of my anxiety. And there is something in feeling that way that is so incredibly freeing.
Maybe it’s that I’m taking my power back. Yep, that old chestnut. I really, really despise the term I’m about to use for reasons I won’t explain because it totally shows my addiction to watching Real Housewives – but…I’m owning it. I’m going a step further, even. I’m honouring my anxiety, in all it’s angsty, shaky-handed glory. I don’t want to change myself any more. Sure, I want to improve, but not because I dislike who or where I am right now. I’m not angry at my anxiety any more, I’m not afraid of it, because – and there’s a bit of a paradox here – I am not my anxiety, but my anxiety is me.
I know what you’re thinking. Stop talking in riddles and get to the damn point, jeez. You want me to honour my anxiety?? YES! Yes I do. Hear me out. You know when you eat an incredibly delicious meal and it’s so incredibly delicious that you eat way more than you should and get a serious case of belly bloat? And then you end up having to pop the button on your jeans (unless you were already wearing stretchy pants to begin with, in which case god bless you, intelligent human) so that you can let your stomach breathe? Well fearing your anxiety is the same thing. You shovel down all these thoughts on a daily basis like ‘I can’t stand these feelings’, ‘I’m so anxious, I hate it’, ‘oh god, here comes the anxiety again..’ and then all this anxious pressure builds and builds and builds and if you don’t give it some bloody room to just BREATHE then you’re going to end up in a hell of a lot of pain. Your anxiety is a part of you, and it’s not going to go away. Just like overindulging in delicious meals every now and then is probably not going to go away either (I know, that was a terrible metaphor. I’m sorry). When you honour your anxiety, you give it space to just be what it is. And if you end up being grateful for it – then that’s awesome. But the main idea is to just be comfortable with the shitty feelings and own them, guuurl.
(Alright. No more housewives, promise.)
You might not have control just yet over what your anxiety does to you, but you can have control over what you do to your anxiety. Are you constantly cursing your anxiety? Are you running from it? Are you pretending it’s not there? Or are you just absolutely hating on it with every single fibre of your being? You probably answered yes to one or many of those questions, and I get it. I do. It’s really hard to feel positive about something that gets in the way of you doing your thing and enjoying life to the fullest. But remember the paradox I mentioned above? Your anxiety is YOU. You can’t run from yourself, you can’t pretend you aren’t there, you can hate and curse yourself but it sure doesn’t feel good to do so. Yeah, when you feel an anxiety attack coming on – it’s so frustrating that your body is reacting in the ‘wrong’ way. But the important thing to remember is that your body is doing this to protect you. The danger gauge is off, but the thought was there. Why not try giving your body some credit for looking out for your best interests, however misguided – so that instead of this internal conversation:
Anxiety: HEY! We’re in danger!!!
You: Are you sure?
Anxiety: Pretty sure!!!
You: I don’t think we are, but…well now I’m freaking out a bit
Anxiety: Me too!! I think something bad is going to happen!!
You: Why do you always overreact? Now I feel nervous and weird and I HATE feeling so anxious….oh god I think I’m going to throw up
Anxiety: Told you we were in trouble!! SOUND THE ALARM!!
To this internal conversation:
Anxiety: HEY! We’re in danger!!
You: Are you sure?
Anxiety: Pretty sure!!
You: I don’t think we are. But I appreciate that you’re looking out for me all the same. You do your thing and I’ll just keep doing mine.
Anxiety: Oh. I was just trying to protect you. From..you know, the dangers…
You: I know.
You: Thanks though.
Anxiety: I gotchu girl.
A much better internal dialogue, right?! So, how can we get to this stage?
The next time you start to feel anxious, I want you to do the following things.
Acknowledge Your Anxiety. Before you do anything else, you need to just identify with how you’re feeling. For example, when I was at the very beginning of my exposure sessions, I would be thinking ‘I don’t want to feel anxious..I don’t want to feel anxious’, instead of just saying ‘I feel anxious’. So notice how you are feeling, and acknowledge those thoughts.
Accept Your Anxiety. Remember what your anxiety is: a response your body is making to a perceived threat. It isn’t an external force or person, it is you. Accept how it feels – is it only in certain parts of your body, or is it all encompassing? Is it consistent? Rising? Coming in waves? Affirm that however your body is feeling right now is okay. You don’t need to fight it or change it at this present time.
Appreciate Your Anxiety. Say thank you to your body for looking out for you. How would you talk to a child if they pulled out next doors prize-winning flowers in order to present you with a lovely bouquet? Would you yell at them and tell them they’re stupid and wrong? No. You’d thank them, say how special the bouquet is, and maybe gently explain to them that next time they might like to use flowers from their own garden at home (And then you’d move house and never talk to the neighbours again). Treat your anxiety like a super shy and really loveable child. Don’t constantly bring it down and hate it for existing. Show it love, show it care, and appreciate it for being there.
And if you really want to go the whole way and treat your anxious self like a damn queen instead of some kind of leper, go ahead and write a list of all the reasons your anxiety has actually made you a stronger person, eg.
- You face your fears everyday
- You know what it means to be truly afraid but to try again and again anyway
- You have more empathy for others
- You have a deeper understanding of yourself
- You have a better connection with your family or friends
- You appreciate the simple things, like going for a walk in the sunshine
- You are on more of a journey of discovery than ever before
Then write a list of all the things that you can do to honour yourself and your anxiety. How can you strengthen your relationship with yourself so that you don’t always feel as if your anxiety is controlling you, instead of the other way around? My list looked a bit like this:
- Practice yoga everyday
- Meditate everyday
- Eat foods that don’t irritate my gut
- Learn to relax – take a nap if I need to
- Read books that inspire me
- Be present instead of always zoning out on my phone
- Smile at myself more
- Let my body feel the way it wants to. (The other day I had some weird nervous energy happening and instead of mindlessly watching something on my laptop while anxiously ruminating about everything, I actually danced around the lounge room like a possessed woman because I obviously just needed to express some shit. It was weird and wonderful. Sorry if you are my neighbours.)
The next time you’re feeling anxious, try to give yourself a mental high-five instead of a face-palm and see what happens.
In what ways do you work with your anxiety?