The Anxiety Paradox – Turning Off Our Survival Instinct

Breath work, meditation, yoga, grounding techniques, etc. all of these things are very familiar to me. I practice them all daily. For a long time now I’ve also unfortunately been practicing “toxic positivity” by beating myself up when I’m unable to utilize these practices when it really matters. I often find myself feeling like a hypocrite, a phony, or a failure because of the frequency and intensity of my chronic anxiety. Why can’t I overcome this? Why can’t I practice the things I preach every Saturday morning to my yoga students? Why hasn’t any of this spiritual work helped me find my way back to inner peace when I need it the most? These are the questions I beat myself over the head with when I’m already in a state of anxious distress.

The other day, it was almost as if in the midst of my panic, I could hear this inner battle going on inside of me. Each time I tried to soothe my agitated mind, it lashed out and resisted that comfort. No! It seemed to be saying. Don’t you understand! These feelings, this fear, is important! You have to stay vigilant. You have to stay alert, or you won’t survive. This is serious!

Regardless of what you’re anxious about, this is what your body and those lower parts of your brain truly believe. The nervous system is on high alert. In the majority of human history, this would only occur in possibly life threatening situations. Our bodies and minds aren’t able to differentiate being chased by a predator and being afraid to make a phone call. No matter how many times we try to calm ourselves down or how many different methods we use to do so, our deeply ingrained survival mechanisms are resisting it with everything they’ve got.

I really don’t know how to overcome this. It seems like if we can practice talking ourselves down, so to speak, enough times that we will learn that certain experiences aren’t really life or death. However, there are so many complex variables that trigger my anxiety. It’s not always something as straight forward as making a phone call or meeting someone new. In addition to that, it’s not usually in response to something that happens regularly in the same way. Anxiety seems to be lurking behind every corner for me just waiting to pop out at the worst moment. Sometimes I genuinely can’t even pinpoint what’s causing it. So how can I reassure myself when I’m so afraid?

The strongest thing any living thing has is its instinct to avoid danger and stay alive, so how can we possibly override that powerful urge? How can we teach it that it’s okay in some situations but an overreaction in others? These are the questions that leave me doubtful that I’ll ever truly be able to make peace with anxiety. It feels so pressing, so urgent, and the mere thought of letting it go when it’s gripping me in that moment feels the same as accepting death.

Nothing to Fear

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I find myself wondering about my anxiety a lot. It seems like it never leaves me. But at the same time, aren’t I always looking for it? Checking around my inner corners even in calm moments, hoping not to find it lurking there. Sometimes I wonder if me and my anxiety have become somewhat codependent. Who would I even be without this constant nervous, fearful energy inside? It feels like a core part of my existence. To be alive is to be anxious. At least that’s what it feels like for me.

Anxiety has started to feel like just another part of my rigid routine. Wake up, make coffee, start worrying about everything and nothing at the same time. I’m so used to feeling this way that often it helps to just try to pinpoint exactly what I’m anxious about. Normally it’s nothing specific, just a vague cloud shaped ball of static inside me, flashing at intervals that seem to spell out in morse code: DANGER. But when I search my heart and mind for the monsters and find none are really there, for a moment that cloud dissipates.

It’s exhausting and time consuming to keep going through that check list in my head though. That list of what I’m worried about and why it’s actually okay. It’s almost like OCD actually. I feel like I need to keep checking that I’m not forgetting anything, that my life is in order, before I can relax for even a moment. It’s starting to feel more and more like the reason I’m anxious a lot of the time is simply because I was anxious at this time yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. My brain no longer searches for something to trigger anxiety, it just has itself set that way by default.

It always comes back down to trust. Can I trust myself? That I’m doing everything I need to do? Can I trust the universe when some things are out of my hands? I’m wary of that trust. I’m always afraid that if I allow myself to just trust, I will have been foolish to do so. I’m worried that when things fall apart again one day, I will blame myself. I’ll say if only I had paid more attention. If only I hadn’t let myself relax, and trust that I was doing enough.

I guess that’s just an excuse though. I’ll always find a way to blame myself when things go wrong. I think in some ways it helps to blame ourselves. It gives us the illusion that we are in control, that we have complete power over every situation. But in the end we know that isn’t true. That’s why we need to be able to trust. So that we can find the strength, the courage to keep going despite that uncertainty, that lack of control.

Anxiety is a signal. It tells us that something is wrong. It promises to go away once we are safe again, once we fix whatever problem there is. The issue is that anxiety never tells us what the problem actually is. In nature, it would be obvious, whatever is threatening your very life at that moment. But in modern society, it is much harder to tell where the danger is. If it’s even there at all. It makes me feel like a wild animal. On edge, looking around wildly, searching for the threat, searching for a way to escape. There is nothing more difficult that overriding your bodies natural impulses. But that’s what I’m asking myself to do every day. I have to keep telling this frightened animal inside not to run, when everything it knows is pleading, begging it to run. It’s a constant wrestling match between my body’s wisdom and the thinking mind. It’s no wonder I am always so tired. Sometimes it seems like all I can do is keep telling myself: It’s okay to feel anxious.

It’s okay to feel anxious.

It’s okay to feel anxious.

It’s okay to feel anxious…

Mental Energy

I remember someone telling me once that the time you spend mulling over your options in your head is actually using up energy. He told me that he thinks that’s why by the time I get around to doing something, I feel exhausted and uninterested. This made a lot of sense to me. I spend so much time, and energy apparently, agonizing over even the smallest decision. By the time I finally decide, if I ever do, I have nothing left to put into the activity itself.

While I found this idea very fascinating, it didn’t really help me to address the problem. I may know now that I’m wasting energy when I run through everything in my mind a million times, but how do I stop? How can I teach myself to be more impulsive? Intuitive? I wasn’t always so neurotic. I still remember being in high school making plans with friends. We always agreed that whenever a plan fell together all of a sudden, last minute, it ended up being more fun. Now it’s been literally years since I’ve made any last minute plans. I always want to have plenty of time to mentally prepare myself. But maybe that’s done me more harm than good.

When it comes right down to it, I need to remember that most if not all of these decisions don’t matter. Everything will turn out okay no matter what I choose. I spend my day to day in rigid structure to eliminate as many decisions as I possibly can. But of course I just find new smaller decisions to consider. What yoga poses should I do today? What should I draw? What should I eat? Which video game should I play? All absolutely inconsequential. I am always struggling, looking for the “right” answer. But of course there is no right answer. None of that stuff even matters.

I can’t even commit to the decision after I’ve made it. I continue to second guess myself. I want to remind myself that none of these things even matter. I could skip them all together if I wanted to. I began most of the things I do everyday because they are things that bring me joy. That’s it. That’s the whole point. Somewhere along the path of my life I have forgotten how to have fun, how to just be with myself in the moment.

I want to rediscover that connection with myself. I want to quiet my mind and listen for that soft voice inside. The voice of my inner child, my joy, my instinct, my intuition. I know that it is still there somewhere. I just need to uncover it again. And until then, I’ll keep reminding myself not to take life so seriously. Not every little decision is life or death. I am blessed with so many equally wonderful options to choose from. Each as good as any other. The point isn’t which I choose. It’s how I live in the moments to follow.

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Learning to Ignore that Little Voice

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder. People with OCD perform rituals in order to keep their anxiety at bay. Many people with other anxiety disorders also do this, but to a lesser extent. I believe I am somewhere teetering on that edge. There is always that little anxious voice in my head whispering, rambling on. Telling me that I’m forgetting something. Saying there is something I should be worried about.

Most days I have a vague fear that there is something very important I am overlooking. One way of combating this momentarily is to make lists. Lists upon lists. It provides a few moments of relief. It feels like I have finally grabbed ahold of the thoughts swirling around inside my head driving me crazy. It is calming to know that they are somewhere tangible now. Somewhere they won’t be lost in a soup of psychosis. It affords me a certain sense of control. But it doesn’t last. No matter how many lists I make. Something always feels undone, forgotten.

One of the scariest things about mental illness is not knowing whether or not you can trust yourself. Most people follow their instincts, their intuition, with faith and conviction. But what if your intuition is misleading you? What if these instincts can’t be trusted? Now you are adrift. The only tools you have to gauge reality are faulty. Where can you go from here?

It is only natural for me to want to trust that sense of panic as it builds in my chest, telling me that something is wrong. Normally that feeling would be the difference between life and death. But in this strange new world we all live in, this feeling is misplaced. It is time I practice ignoring it instead. Rather than trusting my instincts, I’ve got to learn to trust my higher self. I need to stop letting these bodily sensations of panic keep making me doubt myself constantly.

Instead of letting myself run over all the reasons everything has been taken care of and accounted for again and again in an effort to dismiss my nerves, I am going to breathe deep. I am going to trust that I am okay, that I am capable of facing and overcoming any problems that may arise. I don’t have to be in control. I just have to be present. I just have to do my best. The feeling may never go away, but I can learn to live with it. I can teach myself that it’s okay to feel anxious. I am not required to respond to those feelings. It isn’t my job to make them go away. To “fix” whatever is causing the anxiety. Because this is a disorder. There is no “cause.” My anxiety is a part of me. A part that I can learn to live with rather than run from.

Anxiety is a cue. But I think I can decide what it is a cue for. Maybe instead of looking outside of myself for a way to alleviate that feeling, I can start going within. To “ignore” my anxiety sounds a little harsh. It is just a primal part of me, trying to do it’s best. Trying to protect me. But when I know I’m not in danger, when I know there is nothing to be done, perhaps I can use these feelings as a cue for some self-love instead. As a reminder to be gentle with myself. As a signal that says “check in with yourself.” My anxiety is the scared child inside of me. Rather than responding with frantic irritation or trying to brush it under the rug, I should try just being there with it, holding it’s hand. Taking a moment to tell myself, “I’m okay. Everything is okay.”

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