Beating Out Anxiety: One Thought at a Time
Anxiety Starts From a Single Thought
You have to literally beat it out like a nasty cold. Anxiety is viral. It multiplies thought on top of thought on top of thought and feeds on the human consciousness to the point of seemingly no return. Yes, we can certainly live with it, try to meditate or medicate it away, or pay to sit on someone’s couch and work through it. These all have their merit. I do it and did it the old fashion way. I sat down with a fine-toothed comb and carefully combed the knots away to see how it formed in me and to release the bonds that created something so monstrous out of one single thought, fear or doubt. I created my strategy out of necessity.
Anxiety Feeds on the Denial of Primal Feelings
It was my first year at Phillips Exeter Academy. My world had completely changed. I was extremely close to my mother and was used to another world with more noise, more recognizable energy and people. At the time, I considered myself to be extremely tough. I grew up in a tough neighborhood and in a culture that prides itself on developing and demonstrating your strength and resilience capacity. So, in the moment I had no idea that the transition could possibly be a challenge for me. This was the beginning of my years-long bout with anxiety. It started with denying fundamental feelings that I carried in a way that would make it hard to follow the yellow brick road back to my original thoughts, pain or confusion.
I would literally wake up in a panic, driving myself to tears, feeling alone and frightened and not being able to jump out of it. And, also just confused as to what was happening to me. It would turn into these strange panic attacks in the middle of the night. I remember one night calling my sister when I couldn’t take the feeling anymore. Wiping the tears from my face, I whispered to her what was happening to me and when I was done, she said that it had also happened to her. That was the most comforting thing she could have ever said in that moment. And, the crazy part of it is that I am not sure if she ever had the experience. But, it didn’t matter because in that moment, I did not feel alone. I felt very much connected and was able to sleep well that night with gratitude for an older sister that could protect me from myself even if for just one night.
Years later, I was getting prepared to live abroad and I was so frightened that my tools of pushing my anxiety to the background would fail me. When my sister came to the city to visit with her husband, I asked her again for her help. I asked her to write a prescription for me for whatever pill works for anxiety. There were two things that were particularly strange about this request. For one, I had never asked my sister to do anything like this before and didn’t like the idea of even taking an Advil. And secondly, I knew my sister would never write a random prescription for me. She’s a gastroenterologist. I was clearly desperate. So, the answer was no anti-anxiety meds. And, yes the anxiety came back in ways that made being able to exist fully in the present feel like a truly special gift from God. The anxiety gripped me in such an intense way that I was forced to hammer it away. One day, I just decided to write — to just write it all out. I had no other choice.
Anxiety-Ridden Thoughts Die off in the Face of Consciousness
Writing saved me and awakened me to the root of my anxiety — the seeds that I would plant thought after thought because I was afraid to address small concerns or thoughts head on. I started to visualize these messy and incongruent thoughts strewn on the pages of my journal. Re-reading them felt awful. Well, at first it felt awful. Sitting with them when they were very much alive. But, the thoughts started to die off. When I put consciousness to them, they couldn’t survive. When I realized what was happening, I kept writing more.
Feel and Think Your Way Back to the Single Thought
Then, I developed a practice around working through anxiety. Through writing and awareness, I had trained myself to recognize when a thought was on the road to becoming anxiety. I would literally hear a part of myself say “stop, stop, stop…” like an alarm bell of stranger danger — that a thought was on its way to growing into a disruptive feeling and if not addressed would develop into all-consuming anxiety. Because I had written through the feelings with such regularity, I began to be able to trail through my thoughts by sitting and taking time and finding the yellow brick road, brick by brick — feeling and thinking my way back to that one small thought. And, when I would get to it, I would say “Oh. I am afraid that the person took my email the wrong way.” That was it. That was the only thought that could lead to fright if mangled with the wrong sauce. Why am I afraid that the person could take my email the wrong way? How do I address it now and in real time? Address it.
And this is my daily freedom, getting to that single instance, thought, doubt, fear and addressing it. Teasing out a small knot before it becomes a mop head tragedy. In this way, it no longer takes a hammer to beat out anxiety but a consistent approach to being present in my feelings and thoughts.
It Always Come Back to the Cepi Style Closet Edit (Shameless Plug)!
These days, I apply this strategy to our closet edits. If you want to see anxiety in action, look into a closet of a busy executive, professional or mother. As much as women love the service and clothing they receive, the underlying goldmine is the ability to address those single instances of past trauma, doubt, fear, and indecision through the discovery process of what works, what doesn’t and what has the potential to bring more joy and presence into their daily lives.