Third Level Anxiety: The Paradox of Overthinking

Anxiety and overthinking go hand in hand. It’s a chicken and the egg scenario. Does the anxiety cause the overthinking or does the overthinking cause anxiety? Hard to tell. In the end, I’m not sure if it even matters which comes first. The result is the same, discomfort, distress, and inability to make decisions. The prefrontal cortex shuts down in that all consuming sympathetic nervous system reaction triggered by the amygdala, or the emotional center of our primitive little lizard brain.

Over the years, anxiety has a way of building. The pathways between stimulus and response get more and more defined. My anxiety used to be directly related to specific instances. I would get anxious in social situations. Soon that anxiety would begin to bubble up at just the thought of being in said situations. Now it’s transformed into more of a vague fear of the anxiety itself and trying to avoid all situations in which I may start to feel anxious. I’ve reached third level anxiety, fear of the fear of the fear. This stage is practically paralyzing. It can cause you to avoid your life completely just in an effort to avoid anxiety. It can manifest in a covert way, such as the inability to make decisions.

I have to admit it is humorous to realize I’ve always tried to “fix” my anxiety by somehow thinking myself into a sense of ease. But it’s pretty hard to use logic and reason to defuse a completely illogical physical reaction. It’s counterproductive to try to think your way out of overthinking. But what else can you do?

Learning to Cope

One of the reasons I have my doubts about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy’s effectiveness when it comes to my mental health specifically and anxiety disorders in general is the focus on the thinking mind. CBT’s primary method is changing the way you think in order to change your behavior. But you can’t solve the problem of too much thinking with more thinking. A lesser known therapy called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy or DBT feels like a better fit. Rather than teach you how to reframe your thinking, this therapy helps you cope with and understand your emotions so that you can feel safe and accept yourself.

Even though in the moment anxiety feels like it’s demanding action or some solution, I’ve learned by now that there really isn’t anything I can do or think that can dispel my anxiety completely. The frantic effort to avoid it only causes more mental suffering. The only real way I can learn to handle this fear is to let myself feel it. More than any catastrophic imagined outcome, I’ve become afraid of the physical sensations themselves. I’m anxious about feeling anxious. However, that quickly dissipates when I face those feelings rather than try to run from them.

How to Face the Feelings

Coincidentally, I’ve found the advice from my previous post about how to help yourself focus and be mindful in a calm, neutral setting works just as well when you’re lying in bed on the edge of a panic attack. This time rather than being unable to focus because of the vague sense of disinterest or boredom at the everyday objects around me, it’s the exact opposite. It’s hard to focus because everything just seems so overwhelming that I don’t know where to begin. But nevertheless, imagining I have to describe what is happening in that moment as if I’m writing a story is tremendously helpful.

The next time you find yourself feeling anxious, overthinking, or distressed by indecision, take a moment to step out of the thinking mind all together. Accept that the solution you’re desperately trying to find with your mind is not in the mind at all. The solution is surrender. It’s accepting that sometimes there is no solution but to sit with the sensations. Try to describe the feelings of anxiety swirling around in your body to someone who has no idea what anxiety even is. Be as detailed and creative as possible. Get curious. What is anxiety? Where does it manifest in the body? What does it physically feel like? How long can it last? Does it ebb and flow? Does it get stuck in your chest, in your throat?

Avoid concentrating on what it is that’s making you anxious. That is irrelevant once you’ve determined that it is irrational. Let it go. Show yourself that you are capable of feeling these difficult feelings. Even if they don’t go away. That’s not the intention. It’s learning that you can handle them. When I slow down and breathe into my anxious feelings, I often realize that the feelings themselves are no where near as bad as my struggle to avoid them. I can befriend these sensations by simply allowing them to exist.

Conclusion

I know all this is easier said than done. It’s hard to do anything with intention and mindfulness when your brain and body are on red alert. However, knowing that this is an option available to you is the first step towards practicing it. You won’t be able to every single time, but the more you notice the opportunity to sit with your difficult feelings instead of trying to fight them, the easier it will become. Give yourself the time and the space and the permission to experience even unpleasant situations with patience, curiosity, and equanimity.

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Passenger

A coyote cuts across the foggy highway
a life held inside indecision, a moment's hesitation
could be a violent end of everything all at once

Sulfurous air that once shrouded out the sun
a sudden impact that swallowed the earth
in many decades of dark, lifeless winter

Time has a way of emphasizing
the absurdity of right and wrong when
final outcomes are impossible to predict

Half the suffering I've known has been
an inner upheaval of moral outrage
resistance to the evils of this world

My stormy turmoil subsides if only
I can learn to surrender all judgement
and accept my place as a humble passenger

Who am I to hold dominion over
the way life is supposed to unfold?
I prefer the role of patient witness anyway

To watch with curious eyes and an open heart
ready to embrace all of life with equanimity
a grateful submission to existence beyond understanding

To play my small part with a soft hand
extending a gentle, hopeful intention of pure love
prepared to let go of any and all expectations

Tender feet along the balustrade, balancing
between engagement and surrender
too often falling into indignation and anger

The perpetual repetition of life can be tedious
but it offers endless chances to keep trying
precious lessons linger behind a door that is always open

Every failure is an opportunity to find grace
there is no permanence, perfection, or wasted effort
everything is as it should be, everything is as it should be

Where Am I Trying To Go?

It’s hard to find a moment where I’m not rushing blindly into the next. As if there is some final destination that I’m frantic to reach. Without even realize it, I’ve spent half my life in fast forward. It just feels like the past and the future are somehow more tangible and quantifiable than the present moment ever can be. I’m afraid to rest here precisely because it is so fragile and fleeting. Fearful that if I live in this moment, I won’t have anything to show for it a few years from now. But focusing on an imaginary future can never serve me. The happiness I say I desire above all else, can only be found right here.

For someone who is so caught up in mental machinations, it’s extremely hard to settle into the simplicity of bodily sensation and experience. Language and logic cannot hold onto the slippery, ineffable value of being just as I am. The effort to try to make sense of everything pulls me out of every moment and places me in an artificial bubble of self-awareness, severed from the here and now unfolding before me. It feels foreign to forget myself in the soft feeling of fabric against sensitive skin. My mind has become so powerful and proficient at wrestling my other senses into stale submission. Finding myself suddenly surprised to scan my body and realize, once again, I’ve bitten my finger until its stinging and bleeding. How can I continuously be so cut off from the physical manifestation of me?

Never would I have imagined that one of my life’s greatest challenges could be participating in it. I’m much better at meticulous planning and pushing and pulling myself than planting my feet mindfully in front of me with every step. How bizarre it is to attempt to do nothing, and fail so reliably. Sitting on the bank of a river, utterly unable to keep myself from casting a line again and again. Not even noticing that I’ve been fishing, then suddenly coming back to reel my over eager hook back in for the thousandth time. Not even finishing setting my intention to be silent and settle into the stillness before realizing that damn bobber is already back on the surface of the water. The stamina of my persistence and patience needs to be built up, and that will take time. I’ve been strengthening my practice of falling into frustration these past 28 years. I must allow myself to surrender to the possibility it may take 28 years to rectify that habit.

It seemed simple and exciting when I first stumbled upon the ancient knowledge of yoga, mindfulness, and meditation and learned all that I truly desired was already mine. Little did I know that getting to a point where I was capable of granting myself permission to enjoy it would be a tremendously tedious and time-consuming trial. I must constantly remind myself that my repeatedly frustrated efforts, my failures, my relapses, my misdirections are all worth it. I want life to be easy, but I need it to be challenging so that I may learn and grow and develop into a being I can be proud of.

Every moment can be a celebration, a chance to be grateful, when I remember that I’ve already reached the destination I’ve been striving for. Every time I take a deep breath and notice the world around me is a victory. I won’t be discouraged by my many mistakes and missteps. They cannot spoil the joy contained within the rare moments where I manage to be fully present. Small successes still count. Whether I feel like I’m moving forward or backward, in the end I will always be right here. And right here is the only place I need to be.

Patient Separation

This time apart
was meant for me
I'm not yet ready
to have you

There are so many things
this solitude is teaching me
preparing me for
our perfect reunion

I can wait
I can be patient in this pain
for as long as it takes
for you to return to me

Perhaps this is my punishment
for proving I couldn't appreciate you
or the way we were back then
to be fair, I deserve far worse

But if this is all that's left
if I linger on in loneliness
with only the memories
to keep me company

That's enough
your fading image
these pangs of pure feeling
are gifts that I will continue to cherish

Leftovers, mementos of better times
breathe life into me still
the ghostly gifts
of all that you've given me 

Spirituality

Spirituality is religion without shame
detaching from the dogma
to discover the true essence of the soul
a soul that's not sinful and soiled
but a small part of the grander perfection
that swirls throughout the cosmos 
and stitches the universe into one cohesive cloth
deconstructing the hierarchy 
propped up by people with impure intentions
a recognition of my inner light
in the eyes of all others
a curious innocence allowing everyone
to be their own guide, their own fractal of God energy
not offering ultimate, immutable answers
but instead offering peace and patience
in the shared presence of the unknowable
the loving awareness of uncertainty merged 
with a deep, yet inexpressible inner knowing
a humble surrender to our own unanswered prayers 

Patience

Winter’s gonna end, I’m gonna clean these veins again

So close to dying that I finally can start livin’

An Attempt to Tip the Scales – Bright Eyes

Why has anyone chosen to live in a place where it’s winter? Where half the year is a living death. Where the color bleeds away with the leaves, dissolving deep into the soil before the freeze. Without my even noticing, the bird songs have all gone silent. I hardly ever realize until I feel that fluttering joy in my chest in the bleary moments of morning as they slowly begin to return bit by bit. A half asleep smile reminds me of the sun.

I see flashes of it through half lidded eyes. Those days where the air was warm and thick. When the light penetrated everything and soaked us all in pulsing heat. The heartbeat of existence ever so lightly touching the finest hair on exposed skin, tickling and translucent. These memories are stale now like old photographs. A hollow nostalgia for what’s been lost.

Abandoned each season by love, by heat, by life itself. Left alone in a silent, grey vacuum. The absence of everything. Even what’s inside. The very air around me, turned sharp. I must tether myself to hope, to the reluctant reassurance of spring. Glistening diamonds spread across snow remind me that the sun still lingers here. Whispered promises of her return.

Soon the earth with burst forth from this frozen tomb. The colorful explosion of unfurling leaves, the small scurrying sounds of our mother’s smallest beasts. The air will fill again with song. And surely, surely so will my heart.

Top 5 Colors and Gems for the Spring Season | Angara Jewelry Blog

Pushing Through Inspiration Stagnation

It feels like it’s been a long time now since I’ve felt passionate about my creative endeavors. Sitting down to write each morning used to be one of my favorite parts of the day. Now it feels as though I am just going through the motions. I’m not particularly proud or excited about any of the posts I’ve made this past month. I think that is partially due to the pressure I put on myself to perform. The longer this dry spell goes on, the harder it is to just relax and allow myself to enjoy the act itself rather than the product that’s produced.

Inspiration and the creative process are very amorphous things to me. I really don’t know what causes me to feel motivated and excited about my work one day and completely disinterested the next. Sometimes I’ll sit down with a great idea only to find myself unable to get my ideas out on the page. Other times I’ll sit down with absolutely no expectation of creating anything worthwhile and discover I’ve come up with some of my best work. The only thing that seems like a constant is that the more I force it, the more impossible it seems to find that flow state.

I was listening to a podcast the other day about this and I really liked the way the guest speaker described the creative process. Sitting down to create isn’t about productivity or expecting any particular outcome. It’s about making space. It’s about getting out of the way and allowing the universe and whatever else might be out there to flow through you. Many artistic geniuses throughout history have been hesitant to take credit for there most renowned works. When asked how they came up with them, they say that it was as if they had no control over it. Some unknown energy was simply moving through them.

In times when you don’t feel particularly inspired to make art in whatever form that may be, don’t get too discouraged. There is no need to try to force that creative energy to flow. It’s out there and it is within you. Time spent on creative endeavors even when you don’t feel motivated, still is not time wasted. In these moments our focus should not be on whether or not we produced an impressive or moving work. The point is to sit down and make yourself available to whatever force it may be that possesses us and causes us to create miraculous things. All we have to do is be there, go within, and wait. You inspiration, your muse, will surely find you again. Just have patience and allow.

Web Design Inspiration Sites 2022 (Tips from Designers) - UX studio

Forgive Yourself

I’ve spent a significant portion of my adult life agonizing and lamenting some awful decisions I made. Thankfully as time continues to pass, I’ve been able to gain the space I needed to find perspective. Eventually we are able too look back on our younger selves with compassion rather than shame and regret. We begin to realize that we have to forgive ourselves for not knowing what we didn’t know.

As a child, my family had five dogs at one time. We lived out in the countryside and a lot of our dogs ended up with us because people would drive down our road and abandon them there. Ultimately we were being kind in taking care of them, feeding them, making sure they had all their shots, etc. But my parents would not allow them to live inside the house. It still haunts me to know that those dogs spent so many cold winter days and nights with only a plastic dog house filled with hay to keep them warm, chained in one small area for most of their lives. I still live with a lot of guilt about this which manifests itself in the form of reoccurring dreams where dozens of animals are confined, sick, dying, starving, and forgotten in dirty cramped cages.

I had always blamed myself for the way those dogs lived. Although my sister and I constantly pleaded with my parents to let them live inside, their response was always that if we were so concerned about it, we could give them away. Given this decision I always felt I should have allowed them to find new homes that would have treated them more properly. I was too selfish to do what was right. One day my sister made me realize something though. She said, “That was not our fault. We were children. We shouldn’t have been expected to make such a difficult decision. We loved those dogs and we did our best.” Until that conversation with my sister, I had never really considered the fact that we were merely children. I still have to remind myself of that fact from time to time. Now I’ve even begun to look back at my adolescent mistakes and realize that I was just a kid.

Only since finding another person that I truly love deeply and unconditionally, have I been able to look back at my time in college without immense pain and regret. For a very long time I thought I had destroyed my life. Even though the boyfriend I had back then was incredible and still one of the greatest loves of my life, I cheated on him. Not only that I cheated on him with two different people. Neither of which gave a single shit about me. Ultimately I broke up with that boyfriend in order to continue to explore what else was out there without guilt.

I can’t say what might have happened if I had stayed. All I know is that the years that followed were filled with disappointment, frustration, and heartache. But with my extremely limited romantic experience, how could I have known what I would find? How could I have known that the relationship I had was so uncommon and wonderful? If I hadn’t made the mistakes that I did, I may still be unaware of that. In the end, I’m grateful for the painful lessons I’ve learned through my mistakes. They have allowed me to become the person I am today and to be with another amazing person whom I love dearly.

I’m sure that I will continue to stumble and fall as I move along this path called life. There will be many more difficult lessons for me to learn. I only hope that part of me can remember that despite the pain, time will transform it into something worthwhile. I can recover from my mistakes, learn from them, even be grateful for them one day. But we don’t have to wait for that shift of time and perspective to be kind to ourselves. Punishing or belittling ourselves over our mistakes does not serve us. If nothing else, mistakes are an opportunity to practice self-compassion, self-acceptance, and self-love. It is also a reminder to be gentle with others as they make their own mistakes.

It's Time for Forgiveness to Go Viral | Time

Being Better

Sometimes I get frustrated by the seemingly endless cycle that my mind traps me inside of. I spend most of my time just anxiously trying to occupy myself with nonsense activities to make the day go by faster. It seems like I am always looking for things to waste my time with. What makes this so frustrating is that there are actually a lot of important, helpful, productive things I could be doing with my time instead. I come up with lots of great ideas of how I can be more helpful around the office. I am always getting excited about all the ways I plan to improve my performance at work and prove that I am a valuable asset to my friends and coworkers. But despite all of my initial enthusiasm, once the time comes to sit down and do the work I’ve planned for myself, my anxiety always overwhelms me, paralyzes me.

I spend so much time feeling guilty for not being better. I am so smart and capable. I know I could do far more than I currently do. It’s just difficult for me to switch my energy towards more important pursuits over the ridiculous personal projects I am always working on. I blame my anxiety, but even that doesn’t fully make sense to me. I don’t have any explanation as to why doing these things cause so much fear and hesitation. In the rare moments when I am feeling calm, it seems more than possible for me to accomplish all of these lofty self-improvement goals, but once I begin to feel those first twinges of anxiety, it seems like all I can manage to do is survive. Avoiding that anxiety becomes my top priority, the only thing that matters above all else.

With our therapist at work leaving this fall, I feel even more pressure to amp up my work performance. It’s made me realize I’ve been leaning on my coworkers too much. I feel like I’ve been making them carry a lot of my weight this past year and a half. It’s crazy to me it’s only been that long. It feels like I’ve worked here all of my life. I really don’t want to ever leave. And I’m so tired of feeling guilty for not being more of a help to the people I work with. I’m tired of being afraid of them resenting me for it. Also as a state funded facility, I become more and more anxious about job security every day. At a small organization like ours, we really can’t afford any extra dead weight. I want to do my part. Even more than my part. I want to secure funding so that we can all feel safe to continue working here. I want to go home at the end of the day feeling proud for all I’ve accomplished for this organization that has given me so much. I want to feel like what I do here is really making an important difference.

I think one of my main issues is getting carried away when I am in my more upbeat, hopeful moods. I come up with so many ideas and tasks for myself to complete. Writing them out in never-ending lists only serves to make me feel even more overwhelmed. I know that what works best for me is to break down those long lists and schedule one task or so per day. That way I am able to actually accomplish a lot of my goals without feeling suffocated by the pressure of doing them all at once.

It is quite fascinating to me just how eager, happy, and excited I am able to get at the idea of doing all these extra tasks, but then just to put pen to paper or pick up the phone to make a single call sends me spiraling into fear and self-doubt. Not only that, I feel guilty for always using my anxiety as an excuse. I shouldn’t need someone to hold my hand and force me to do the things I want to do.

For the rest of today at least, I am going to try to stop my thinking mind from keeping me crippled and terrified. Instead of spending my energy contemplating and worrying about what I’m going to do before I do it. I am going to try my best to pick a task, take five long deep breaths, and then just do it. No more thinking. No more wondering if I should be doing something else, if I could think of a way to do it better, etc. I am grateful for my intelligence, but often it feels like a curse more than a gift. Wouldn’t it be lovely to just be able to act without thinking all the time?

Sometimes it helps me to remind myself that this is just one single day of my life. I remember all of the countless others that have come and gone without much consequence. It won’t kill me to do things differently or test my limits for one day. If it turns out to be unbearable, I don’t have to do things the same way again tomorrow. There is nothing to fear in trying and failing. It’s okay if something makes me feel anxious. There is nothing inherently wrong with feeling that way. It is the avoidance of that feeling that is truly causing me all this grief. I want to practice making peace with my anxious feelings rather than running from them. I am going to make today different. Even if it’s just today.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Sit With It

When you notice yourself starting to feel overwhelmed, remember one thing. It’s okay to feel that way. There seems to be a constant pressure to make every moment of your existence pleasant or pleasurable or exciting. It is easy to forget that there is still value in the more difficult moments. There is nothing wrong with having an off day, month, or even an entire year. We don’t need to hurry ourselves to get out of these low periods in our lives. Often it is that very desperation to avoid our feelings that causes them to be such a burden on us. I would definitely say that my panicked reaction to noticing that I’m anxious or worrying that something will make me anxious is far worse and occupies more of my time than the anxiety itself.

It’s easy to skip a day of meditation or shorten my practice when I am feeling particularly jittery or restless. Even if I do make it into my seat, it can be an irresistible temptation to fidget, twist, stretch my neck, etc. Sometimes it’s impossible not to give in and allow some gentle movements as I’m first settling in. One of the things I’ve learned, however, is that resisting those urges can lead to a very meaningful, reassuring, and nourishing practice. Letting our minds trail off in thought or moving our bodies around are excellent ways to distract us from what we are feeling. Sometimes it feels like I am afraid of having any free time, because I won’t be able to avoid myself. But the beauty of these moments is what happens when you force yourself to face them.

I’ve learned that when you run from things, they keep chasing you. It becomes an endless race that leaves you exhausted. There is no true escape. On the other hand, when you ground yourself in the moment and allow your fears to catch up to you, they often dissolve in your gaze. It is so strange to be human, to be this unnatural animal living in an artificial reality. The mechanisms of evolution that have led us to this place, given us these bodies we now have, no longer seems to serve us. We are fish out of water. Yet we are the ones that have removed ourselves. We have created technology that allows us to breath on dry land, yet our physical forms continue to send signals of danger and death with every breeze.

While these signals are meant to protect us from real danger, sometimes the signals themselves become the thing we fear most. When we simply allow those feelings to wash over us, something amazing happens. We realize that these feelings cannot harm us. Subconsciously it seems like stress alone will suffocate us, so we continue to run from it every day. Once we finally decide to stop running and sit down to face these feelings of disease, we see that we have nothing to fear. We will survive the stressful moments. We will survive heartbreak and embarrassment. These emotions may never be easy, but we don’t have to let them control us either.

Meditation can be similar to exposure therapy. When a person is put into contact with an irrational phobia, this shows their body and mind that their phobia won’t really harm them. Then the fear can finally begin to dissipate. Meditation can be scary for this very reason. This is what makes it so hard for so many people. The fear of the unknown or even the fear of ourselves keeps a lot of people from every venturing to begin a meditation practice. Even after years of practicing every day, I still get nervous at the thought of sitting in that stillness. But it is always worth it. It is difficult to face your fears, but we must challenge ourselves to do so. We’ve got to have faith in ourselves in order to carry on. We must trust that we will make it through and that we are capable of handling whatever this life brings to us. Even when it seems impossible, take a deep breath, and try to sit with it.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com