By David Jones
When I mentioned I was struggling to write because of my anxiety, my wife said “Why don’t you write about how your mindfulness isn’t working?”
I laughed because it was a perfect suggestion.
I learned about mindfulness during therapy from the last time I was at my wit’s end, particularly how to focus on breathing. But sitting with the breath, like therapy, medicine and distraction, isn’t a magic bullet. Anxiety and depression don’t always respond to prayer and meditation. Sometimes one strategy or another works great for you, and good on you when it does.
When nothing seems to work, it’s time to stop fighting your anxiety and honor it instead.
Honor it by listening to it, understanding it, embracing it the way you would a crying child. And that’s an appropriate analogy, because when a crying child comes to you, don’t you want to know what happened and why? A skinned knee and a snakebite call for very different courses of action.
So as it manifested in symptomatic patterns (tension, stress, irritability, exhaustion, really bad headaches) and the breathing and other techniques weren’t even reducing my tendency to lie in bed shaking and whimpering, I realized I needed to stop fighting it and pay attention to it.
When I finally honored my anxiety, it exposed a truth I needed to face: “You need to make a change in your life, and it’s gonna hurt.”
Pain, or at least the threat of it, prevents us from getting on board with change.
It’s the pain of loss and mourning, but not necessarily mourning the loss of something we care about. We can mourn the loss of awful things simply because they were constantly there and now they aren’t—think phantom pains for parts of your life.
So many positives and joys are connected to change, but it’s unfair to ignore or dismiss the very real sense of loss one can feel about leaving an old course—even a toxic one. Knowing change might hurt could lead to anxiety about it. So don’t be in such a hurry to escape or overcome it. Honor it by listening to it and giving it a seat at your life’s table, because I’ll bet it brings a lesson.
The change I was facing was a change in career. This wouldn’t be a big deal to many folks, but for me it was mountainous. 31 years solving problems and helping people became part of my self-identity, and I stayed long after it was advisable. No matter how toxic the environment, I felt compelled to remain. Now that’s gone. I went to another federal agency to finish up my career, but it wasn’t just the flipping of a switch.
Think about the movie Saw (or don’t, I won’t judge). In a way, I had a similar decision to make: stay whole and remain trapped, or cut my arm off and leave. I opted to cut my arm off and go. For my own sake I had to lose a part of myself.
But if I’d just ignored the anxiety, always trying to beat or overcome or dodge it rather than honor it, I’d have remained in a poisonous and harmful environment. Abiding with it allowed me to see that change was necessary.
Leaving that place didn’t end my anxiety.
It’s not an environmental thing—change of scene, problem solved—but something that can lie dormant then flare up like shingles. Believing “anxiety” can be permanently defeated may be a quick path to disappointment.
No two anxiety disorders are any more identical than the folks who have them.
That means what works for you may not work for me. What works this time might not do the trick next time. We all need to seek out the means to live with this issue without letting it just tsunami its way through our lives.
Dealing with anxiety will eventually come down to listening to it, abiding with it, and heeding the insightful lessons it desperately wants to share with you. In other words, honoring your anxiety.
Don’t worry, though. My Xanax prescription isn’t obsolete yet.
Editor: Dana Gornall