Agility vs. Anxiety: Part 2

What I’ve learned from 90 days of internal crisis.

Photo by Cameron Stow

Someone once told me that anxiety is like being out, soaked by pouring rain and everyone around you has an umbrella. From time to time, someone notices you and asks, “why don’t you have an umbrella, dear?” You have no answer. You do not want discomfort, nor do you have some story to tell. You simply don’t have this thing that seems obvious to everyone else. And so you walk on, cold to the bone.

Six months ago, I wrote Part 1 of Agility vs. Anxiety, where I shared my thoughts as a fellow human trying to make it in today’s workforce. At the time I was feeling hopeful about working on my ‘agility’– my ability to immerse myself in my fears and get comfortable with them.

A mental storm hit a couple months later. I went to my toolbox and unloaded the full arsenal: therapies, meditation, exercise, transparency with loved ones. I thought I had mastered the process of getting out of this dark pit, but weeks went on without a day of rest from the insomnia, back sweats, indigestion and some worse things.

Each week my tools would show me something fundamentally wrong with my perspective on life and so I’d change it, thinking this must be the real message my body is sending me. But days went on and peace never came. I’d wake up on Mondays at 4am, probing my anxiety to see if it was still there after all the work I’d done on myself so far. Still pouring rain and no umbrella.

Now, 90 gruelling days later, I can’t tell you why I feel absolutely better, but I can share the things that helped me get through the storm. Consider this article my attempt at turning back to build a bridge over the chasm that I managed to cross painfully.

1: Trust life

At one point I completely broke down on a plane with my best friend and finally blurted out the question, “what should life feel like?” I meant, how much uncertainty is ok vs. how much planning? How much ambition vs. how much wandering? She yelled “YOU CAN’T CONTROL EVERYTHING, Mich–each day should feel like its own journey.” I wrote those words down and looked at them every day to remind me to trust uncertainty and wandering, that planning and ambition would come at a better time.

“YOU CAN’T CONTROL EVERYTHING—each day should feel like its own journey.”

2: Gratitude can unlock a bright perspective in the darkest of times.

There was a phase where it concretely helped me to visualize the people I am grateful to have in my life. I would bring myself to see that, despite feeling totally debilitated by this suffering, there were truly good things and loving people that were worth surviving for.

3: Breathing in, I realize I’m alive. Breathing out, I smile.

If there is only 1 thing you can manage to do, read Thich Nhat Hanh. His book No Mud, No Lotus not only transformed the way I view my pain but also provided me with practices that I use daily to live that new perspective.

“We need spiritual practice to have the strength and skill to look deeply into our suffering, to get insight into it and make a breakthrough.” 

4: Care for your bad feelings. Don’t try to control them.

My therapist was trying to get me to understand this concept for a while. I finally got it when I spontaneously assigned a rock (yes, as in a stone) to personify my anxiety. Her name emerged on its own as Anne, which was a little disturbing to accept because it’s actually part of my first name, a hyphenated second half that I omit for the sake of ease. As soon as I’d feel the onset of anxiety, I’d ask Anne what she needed to calm down. I’d invite her along for the day, in my pocket, but not in my way. She was welcome to join and speak her mind. She’s still here with me, always, making sure I do the right things for us. (She’s my rock)

5: A big tree takes a long time to make its roots.

Be confident that you are learning every day, that the time will come for clarity to present itself. Hang in there til then.

“You are like an oak.” 
—my mom

6: Show up anyway.

For those 90 days, I still showed up for my responsibilities, but at about 40% capacity. I let my colleagues, friends and family know that I was going through something rough and working hard on myself, that one day soon enough I’d be bright and strong again. I could have taken some kind of leave of absence from life, but I knew that although I couldn’t do great work, I could at least do good work and be on time.

7: Rose, Thorn, Bud.

This is an incredibly easy yet thoughtful activity (thanks Jo!) that gets you to tap into yourself and document your emotional journey through time. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the past and plant seeds (buds) for the near future. It’s just a list of 3 categories that you can write in your journal:

Rose: Good things in your life right now (or that happened) to be grateful for
Thorn: Not-so-good things to acknowledge or mourn and consider working on.
Bud: Things to look forward to

I used this activity to structure my journaling or ritually check in with myself.

8: Have fun.

Ouf. This one felt ridiculous at times, but it was helpful to wake up and set this as my goal/intention when I wasn’t sure how to proceed out of bed and into the world. It was too easy to tend toward darkness and confusion this affirmation kept me on track and was helpful when gratitude didn’t quite do it for me.

9: You need physical activity.

“You can’t cry when you’re doing cardio cause you’re breathing way too much.”
 — Johanna Brenner

Ninety days of hard self-work changed me in fundamental ways that I am profoundly happy about. Leaning back, the list above looks so neatly packaged, so ready to be deployed at the next sign of panic. A mistake I repeatedly made was to think that I had finally mastered the way out. Now, the only wisdom I can rely on is that when the storm comes again, I expect to be totally shattered. I expect to be paralyzed, to sink far down beneath the surface. As contradictory as it sounds, if that’s where I am, I’ll know I am in the right place.

Please do not hesitate to share your own practices as responses to this story.

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