Unglamorous Advice for Approaching Anxiety
If, like me, you’re a semi-neurotic Googler of all aches and pain, whether they be physical or emotional, you’re probably well-versed in the many, many…MANY shades of advice in the world of self-help. I’m certain I’ve found about 5,397 different ways to solve my problems.
Niche that search down into specific categories like sobriety, anxiety, or stress, and the rabbit hole expands further. Down you tumble. Hours of your life. Gone!
Historically, I’ve behaved like a chronic fad dieter, except with self-help. If it’s novel and promising, I want it! The problem is, these endeavors have brutally low success rates.
These days, I read wellness trends with the crotchety skepticism of an old lady who’s seen and done it all. Which is all well and good, I suppose. It makes the a-ha moments that DO break through, all the sweeter.
Which brings me to a recent revelation that has helped me A LOT. And Lord knows I needed a boost.
I’ve been in a funk lately. Sobriety, it turns out, does not vanquish the ickiness of life, which is why it requires constant care and maintenance.
Funks are disarming. Especially if you haven’t been paying attention (and I haven’t).
What do I mean by “paying attention”?
There are things human beings have to do each and every day to pay attention to their inner world and I’d be willing to bet that most of us don’t do them consistently.
These are things like meditation, unplugging, journaling, going for a walk – anything that makes you slow down and say, “How am I doing?”
Without these daily check-ins, the little “stuff” goes unnoticed as they start to pile one on top of the other. Before you know it, they’ve grown into this monstrous thing you have no choice but to deal with.
What does that look like?
Have you ever caught yourself ravishingly hungry and realize you’ve eaten an entire pint of ice cream in under 10 minutes?
Or maybe your body feels stiff all over, like you’ve been hit by a truck, except you haven’t. (Thank God for sobriety, amirite!)
These are all little clues that something in our inner world is out of balance and we’ve left it for too long. A horrendous mood is sure to follow, along with fatigue and lethargy.
That’s where I find myself these days. I got off my routine. I stopped paying attention. And now I’m paying the price.
The Body’s Reaction To Stress
According to the ever-trusty and panic inducing site, WebMD, stress is defined as “the body’s reaction to harmful situations – whether they are real or perceived.”
“This reaction is known as “fight-or-flight,” or the stress response. During stress response, your heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises. You’ve gotten ready to act. It is how you protect yourself.”
But here’s the thing – we aren’t built to handle stress for extended periods of time. And yet, we frequently do. Our body perceives threats everywhere. Getting cut off in traffic initiates the same biological response as spotting a lion in the savannah.
Sobriety is incredibly stress-inducing in the beginning. It seems like the “fight-or-flight” response is kicking in every five minutes. Don’t drink! But man I really WANT to drink? Why is this so hard? Somebody please punch me in the face.
Anxiety is the same. It can feel like a never-ending cycle of cortisol spikes and emotional volatility. Maybe in the past, you used alcohol to cope. Now it’s cookies.
Anything to escape the laundry list of physical symptoms associated with chronic stress including but not limited to:
- low energy
- aches, pains, muscle stiffness
- colds that won’t go away
- chest pain and rapid heart beats
- dry mouth
- clenched jaw or teeth grinding
It’s a veritable smorgasborg of shit you don’t want to be feeling.
Despite nearly three years of sobriety, I STILL struggle to manage my anxiety consistently and the past several weeks have been a humble reminder that there is more work to be done.
So imagine my utter joy when I happened upon a little nugget of wisdom that turned on every lightbulb in my delicately frazzled brain!
Here’s the advice you’ve been waiting patiently to read…
Right, so back to that advice I tantalized you with in the headline.
It comes from Sarah Wilson in her book, First We Make The Beast Beautiful, which has been pulling me out of a month-long fog page by page.
She talks about a serendipitous meeting she had with the amazing Brené Brown. (If you haven’t read or work or listened to her speak, please do!)
Brown was talking to Wilson about discomfort. You know, that thing we’re always trying to manage and/or escape.
Anyways, Brown got her to think about discomfort differently. She suggests that the extraordinary discomfort fueling our anxiety is the vehicle by which we change and grow.
So all this stress – the racing heart at the sight of a forgotten six pack in the fridge, or the swelling urge to eat an extra slice or two of cake – it all means something. Fighting our feelings is doing more harm than good.
We try to squish them down like the clown inside a jack-in-the-box, fighting against it’s natural outward momentum and cramming it down just in time to get the lid closed.
So what do you do instead (and this is the advice).
You sit with it.
Wait, what? That’s it?
Yes, but let me explain a bit.
Every single relapse I’ve experienced in my life has been a result of fighting the discomfort driving me to drink or smoke again. I would white knuckle it while the addict monkey brain got stronger and LOUDER.
I’d try to fight it until it became too much and then I’d catch myself back at the bodega getting my sixer of Angry Orchard and a pack of Marlboro’s.
Anxiety is the same way for me. If I’m feeling particularly anxious, I end up getting anxious about feeling anxious. I’ll try to sit in meditation or do breathing exercises. Find ways to avoid the feelings and return to “normal.”
Those things don’t really work as spot treatments, so I inevitably end up in the cupboard or fridge, scrounging for snacks. Something sugary or carb-heavy to give my exhausted brain a dopamine hit.
It hadn’t occurred to me that riding out the wave might be the best approach. Or maybe it did once and I’ve forgotten. (That will happen on this journey.)
What It Means To “Sit In” Your Discomfort
They say the only way out is through.
Sitting in your discomfort means being with it. Not fighting it. Not identifying with it. Just accepting it.
Wilson mentions sitting with discomfort by talking to it. She’s a big fan of personifying her anxiety as a way of separating herself from it.
How does one sit in anxious pain as a matter of course? I mean, we often hear this kind of thing said, but what does it actually look like on an average Tuesday when you have the life blahs and you really don’t have any tolerance for anything that sounds like it comes with a pack of angel cards.
We can sit with it by talking to it. Hello there, old friend, you’re a bit needy today. Tell me about it. Yep, you’re rage-y today. You’re lodged just under my solar plexus.
Wilson, Sarah. First, We Make the Beast Beautiful (pp. 186-187). Dey Street Books. Kindle Edition.
She goes on to talk about observing her physical discomfort from a place of curiosity. Sitting in your discomfort could be stopping to notice what is happening. My heart is racing. These pants are a bit tight. My stomach is bloated. I have a weird urge to eat an entire bag of Doritos.
Why does this work?
When you sit with your discomfort, you accomplish several things: 1. you diminish its power over you, and 2. you learn and grow from it.
I firmly believe that many of our failures in life are a direct result of our desire to avoid discomfort at all costs. What good does it do?
It is a total waste of energy and I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of being tired.
Rebranding Stress & Discomfort
Stress and discomfort serve important evolutionary purposes. It’s how we learn. How we protect ourselves in the wild.
Wilson sites the work of Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl. In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, he talks about the difference between the men who survived the camp he spent three years living in and those who did not.
Those who made it out alive, he said, were the people who “nourished their inner lives”. They didn’t try to reject or run away from their pain (of which there was PLENTY). Instead, they sat with it, found meaning in it. And they survived.
Those who fought against the pain and kept searching for something in the external world to fix it died. It was too much for them to bear (understandably so…I don’t know that I would’ve survived either).
“Frankl also concluded that the purpose of life is to suffer. Actually, he went further. The purpose of life is to suffer well. By which he meant to go down into pain, own it, and not run from it. To sit in it. And in the process find meaning.
To be specific, Frankl maintained that finding the meaning of life is our ultimate purpose and suffering brings us to this purpose.”
Wilson, Sarah. First, We Make the Beast Beautiful (p. 189). Dey Street Books. Kindle Edition.
How beautiful is that?
When Sitting Becomes Work
When we talk about our discomfort and suffering, sitting IS work. Hard work.
Accepting that your current moment is stupid, frustrating, or shitty AND allowing yourself to sit in those feelings, observe them, let them run their course – wow! Not easy.
Our instinct is to do the opposite. In doing so, we’re making our lives much worse and we’re not getting anywhere in the process.
On the other side of your discomfort is a better YOU, something updated and transformed.
Over the past few weeks or month, I’ve found myself slipping back into old patterns of railing against stress and discomfort. I’ve tried burying them in food or work. And my body has had enough.
This morning, I did a gentle yoga routine and could not believe how stiff and weak the muscles felt throughout my body. How long has it been like this? Where have I been?
I worked through it and felt better afterwards. It reminded me that I’ve been off my game and need to do better.
No More Running From Discomfort
I used to do a decent job sitting with my feelings and not allowing them to overtake me. It’s how I managed to get sober.
But sometimes we need reminders of how to take care of ourselves. To hear it be said in a different way.
All this tumult is for a reason. There’s a REASON you’re here right now going through all of this.
We just need to sit with the pain and find out what the reason is.