Comedian Steven Wright describes chronic anxiety better than anyone else I’ve ever known. I will paraphrase him loosely here:
You know that feeling when you’re sitting in a chair and you rock back on two legs and you go back too far and you start to fall, then at the last minute you catch yourself? I feel like that all the time.
That’s it. That’s what it feels like to live with anxiety. It’s a feeling I wouldn’t wish on anyone I deem to be a basically valuable person my worst enemy.
I have worried for most of my life. And I don’t mean worrying about normal stuff, like sliding into a ditch during a snowstorm, or about one of my kids when they are sick. I mean making up stuff to worry about. I mean watching the news (which, if you haven’t noticed, is always bad — and if it’s not, it’ll be spun that way anyway) and then taking it even further in my mind, spinning it into nightmares more horrible than any that would be spun on the AGBATT (All Glenn Beck All The Time) Channel. Incidentally, this is how you get to have your own show on CNN — take a headline, run the story out to its ultimate dreadful conclusion, speak loudly and urgently, have experts on your show to agree with you or, hopefully, tell you that it’s probably much worse than you think, and combine it with flashy graphics and other high intensity entertainment pieces. (If you’re unsure how to do any of this, from the fear-mongering to the flashy and entertaining graphics, simply visit most contemporary churches to learn how).
What was I talking about? Oh yes, anxiety. It’s amazing how our minds can take us from one thread to another to another, until eventually the stream of thoughts take on a life of their own and carry with them all the force of reality. I am an expert at this. I have seen things that would scare most people half to death. I mean I’ve SEEN them. In living color. Playing on the screen of my mind. Engulfing my emotions in wild flurries of helpless panic. I have lived in this state for hours, sometimes days, sometimes weeks, at a time. It doesn’t matter that they weren’t “real.” My brain obviously didn’t know the difference, and generated the adrenalin and dread anyway.
Tons of people live with chronic anxiety and panic. Some are reading this post, and I have a message for you. You don’t have to live that way. You can move beyond it. But you cannot do it by direct effort. You cannot do it by trying harder not to worry. You cannot do it by praying more, or trying harder not to think about what worries you. Anxiety is a problem that, by and large, you cannot directly confront. Instead, you will have to subvert it. How do you do this? The good news is, you’ve already done it!
Flash back: Remember when you used to believe in the bogey man? Remember when you’d express your fear to your mom or dad and they’d say, “Don’t worry, there’s no such thing as the bogeyman”? Remember how completely unhelpful that was? Why? After all, they were correct, right? Why didn’t their reassurances help you? They didn’t help because you were at a stage in your mental development where there was room for that belief. And all you had to do to feel that anxiety was think about that belief. Thoughts always lead to feelings.
Flash forward: Do you still believe in the bogeyman? I’m assuming probably not. Every four-year-old I’ve ever known believes in the bogeyman (or something like it) and yet there are no full-grown adults who believe in him. But do you remember when you stopped believing in the bogeyman? I’ll bet you don’t. The amazing truth is that you outgrew that belief. You dropped that belief as your world view grew bigger, and you came to understand better the nature of reality. You subverted the belief. You undermined it, simply by growing and coming to understand reality in new ways.
But the bogeyman lives! He lives in all the various fears that still haunt you as an adult. Nuclear war. H1N1 Swine Flu. Financial collapse. A day without a warm shower. The bogeyman is all those possibilities, the vast majority of which will never materialize. The bogeyman lives, not in reality, but in the way your emotions take on these worries and give them life, with a backstory, a plotline, and an always-tragic ending. The possibilities exist of course (a possibility, by definition, is something that hasn’t actually happened), but the fearful things themselves do not. All that actually exists is the present moment. So how you are doing right now? I mean right now, at this exact moment, as you read this? If you had any crisis-level problems at this exact moment, you sure as heck wouldn’t be sitting here reading this post.
If you are going to stop worrying about your monsters in the dark, you are going to have to “outgrow” those fears. You will have to learn to think in ways that simply do not include them. There are specific ways of doing this. I’ll tell you about them in my next post.