Invisible Illness
Published in

Invisible Illness

How I Learned to Trust My Anxiety

My fear-fueled journey to getting back on my bike

Photo by Rikki Chan on Unsplash

I always viewed my anxiety as a nuisance. It was this annoying voice I had to deal with to do the things I needed or wanted to do. In the past I could push through the fear, exposing myself to the trigger to lessen the reaction in the future. But this tactic stopped working recently, and I had no idea how to handle the dread I was feeling.

I had been struggling to get back on my bicycle after a two-year hiatus. Pregnancy forced me to take a break, and afterward, the baby needed all of my time and energy. At that point, I wasn’t scared, just unmotivated. But then I had a major panic attack on my way to meet a friend, and one week later, I felt too scared to leave the house.

I spent weeks talking to my therapist about my new fear and how it was affecting my life. I could reason with my anxiety about the necessity of grocery shopping, but I couldn’t when it came to riding. I identified a route to a nearby beach to try to motivate myself, but I couldn’t even bring myself to pull the bicycle out of the garage.

The ride to the coast wasn’t long, but it wasn’t familiar either. First, I would need to cross four lanes of traffic. Then I would need to navigate roads and roundabouts I’ve never seen before. And I would need to do all this while riding on the left-hand side of the road, something I’m still not used to. I couldn’t push through the fear as I had in the past. This time it had a hold on me I had never experienced before.

In one of our sessions, my therapist told me to trust my anxiety. The concept blew my mind. How could I trust something I had been fighting with for the last twenty years of my life?

My therapist explained that my anxiety was trying to keep me safe. It was trying to warn me about potential threats. But after years of operating in fight-or-flight mode, it can react to normal situations as threats too. My anxiety isn’t on a quest to make my life more difficult, she said, it’s trying to help. She encouraged me to try working with my anxiety, rather than pushing myself too hard.

I thought about her words for the rest of the day. I tried imagining that anxious voice in my head belonged to a scared child. I thought about how I encouraged my daughter when she was too scared to walk without holding onto my hand. Maybe my anxiety would enjoy a little encouragement too.

I tried listening to my anxiety by validating its specific fears. I set small, attainable goals for myself. My first was to get on my bike and ride around my house. I hoped that once I was comfortable riding in a familiar area, I would feel confident enough to try the unfamiliar — and I did.

After four laps around the parking area, I turned toward the road. I watched an elderly woman walk with her dog across all four lanes without one car passing. If she can cross that road on foot, I can do it on a bike, I thought.

My legs creaked back to life as the bike crossed the road and headed toward the coast. My anxiety lessened with every rotation of my pedals. As I flew down the road, cars buzzing by me, I didn’t feel scared. I felt free.

I got five hundred meters away from home before I realized my bike wasn’t shifting gears, and I had to turn around. Unsurprisingly, the bike needed a tune-up after crossing the Atlantic and spending two years in the garage. Progress is two steps forward and one step back, I told myself.

After I got the bike repaired, I made it to the beach. My anxiety still whined before leaving, but I tried to reassure it, telling it that after we were moving, we would feel better — and we did. Once I was on the correct side of the road, I simply followed the traffic. Even those roundabouts seemed a lot less intimidating when I saw them in person.

When I reached my destination, I sat on a bench overlooking the wet sand and the shoreline in the distance. I closed my eyes and breathed in the clean, salty air. I sipped my water and congratulated myself on overcoming my anxiety, not by silencing it, but by listening to it.

Since then, I’ve taken a bike ride every weekend. My anxiety still pipes up anytime I leave the house for any reason, but now it’s quieter and easier to soothe. Each time I validate my fears and set small goals for myself to achieve the desired result. I also reward myself with a new book or a pastry when I’ve accomplished my goals.

I find that my anxiety doesn’t turn up its volume if I listen to it. It wasn’t easy figuring out a new strategy to manage my anxiety, but I am glad I now have more tools at my disposal. Going through this ordeal helped me have a healthier relationship with my anxiety: now we try to work together, rather than push each other around.

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We don't talk enough about mental health.

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Molly Coyle Shibley

Molly Coyle Shibley

American living in Ireland. New mom. Mental health advocate. Also writes for The Mighty and Molly Does Adulting. Just trying to get my sh*t together.

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