Seriously, Anxiety, F--- Off.
There was a time when Anxiety ruled my life. It told me where I could go, who I could talk to, what I could wear, what I could eat, how to feel about myself and my body. It was constant domineering thoughts in my mind, excruciating tightness in my throat and chest. If I didn’t obey Anxiety’s demands it would send along a debilitating attack of panic, forcing me into submission. And such is the experience of so many of us who live with Anxiety.
I had a therapist, Paula, whom I began seeing after Anxiety had begun to make life intolerable. I hated Anxiety and I didn’t want it around anymore. I hated the fact that I had it. I simply wanted it to go away, yet it wouldn’t. In fact, over the years it seemed to be only growing in strength. I wanted her to help me figure out how to make it stop.
She asked me what the Anxiety would be if it were an actual thing such as ghost that haunted me or a stray dog that would simply not leave my side. Immediately her question invoked its name; the Unwanted Visitor. That’s exactly what it was to me. It was not there 24/7, but suddenly it would drop in out of nowhere and refuse to leave making my life seem intolerable, only making an exit when it saw fit. I hated the Unwanted Visitor.
Yet, Paula suggested that hating it was one of the problems I faced, when you hate something it creates tension and heat in the body, it causes terrible anger and resistance to what’s happening, thoughts become more negative, the outlook becomes more bleek. It’s the perfect environment for Anxiety to thrive.
She suggested something that seemed ridiculous to me. Accept the Unwanted Visitor, in fact, welcome it. Well, how the hell do I do that? I felt frustrated, I don’t want to accept it, I want it to get the f--- out of my life. She smiled because she understood. She acknowledge how much it simply sucks to live with Anxiety. Yet, the fact of the matter is that... it is. No matter how much I wanted my situation to be different, it wasn’t. Constantly wishing for it to be different only created the experience of feeling hopelessly stuck.
So what then… just let the Unwanted Visitor hang the f--- out? (I still swear like a sailor when I’m with my therapist… it feels really good, too). To my demanding question she replied, yup. How maddening! She explained that once I made peace with the Unwanted Visitor it would simply lose its power. It may not go away completely like I’d hoped, but it would not be so loud anymore, so domineering, and I would be able to live how I chose rather than being ruled by an emotional experience.
I left that session frustrated. I had hoped to find a method to simply make it go away. Yet, my desire for relief pushed me forward to try. I felt Anxiety driving home, so I looked over at the empty passenger seat and said out loud, so you’re along for the ride… fine. But from now on, I’m going where I want to go.
I started to imagine the Unwanted Visitor standing beside me every time the throws of Anxiety began to take over. I imagined it leaning on my shoulder as my chest and throat felt heavy and breathless. Inhaling deeply I thought, I see you’re here again and that kind of sucks, but I am doing what I want to do anyway. I’m having a good day whether you’re here or not. However silly that sounds… it worked.
What I discovered is that I could do what I wanted with Anxiety. I could even chose to enjoy wherever I was with Anxiety. It was not always easy and nothing works perfectly, but life began to improve. The key fact is that every time it did work, every time I could walk with the Unwanted Visitor and do what I wanted regardless of its presence, I felt more powerful, more capable. I felt hope.
Some time later I learned the strategy is a clinical tool called externalization in the realm of Narrative Therapy. Yet, the details of this style of therapy and its origins are not the topic of this article. In all honesty, to those suffering it usually isn’t too important. Yet, if you are a person who is comforted by information then by all means take time to do some research.
Emotional experiences do not have to be our ruler. We can live how we want to live regardless. If you are suffering, I get it. If you want to try this, by all means. Yet do keep in mind that it takes repetition and works in conjunction with ongoing support and guidance. Nothing comes easily when living with a mental illness. We must have perseverance, we must accept help, we must practice and practice and practice some more in order to be well.
Even though I’m a psychotherapist myself, I have a network that provides me the support I need to be successful; a psychotherapist, a nutritionist, a psychiatrist, and a primary care doctor. These people are key in helping me stay on track, which we all need from time to time.
Through the years, as I’ve gotten to know the Unwanted Visitor, while there have been ups and downs, its once loud voice has now dwindled to a whisper. The Visitor may always be a part of my life, however, it doesn’t come by daily anymore. Sometimes not even weekly. When it does drop in I’m not thrilled about it, yet I also know my day no longer has to be ruined. I can be okay. With practice, I can promise you, it can get better. I’m here to let you know first hand. There’s hope.