Can You Embrace Your Anxiety?
I’m not sure when I first heard the word anxiety, but I think it was in church. Raised Catholic, I began attending Mass before I could speak. Therefore, as my ability to process language developed, I also became accustomed to the weekly ritual, and the prayers sank into my head like song lyrics.
“…and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope…” That was one of the prayers I heard regularly. It was a plea, asking God for peace of mind. But as a child with limited vocabulary, I thought anxiety was some sort of beast. (It is, of course, but I imagined a literal beast, as opposed to a figurative one.)
In fact, by the time I began to understand the actual meaning of anxiety, I was unwittingly suffering from it. I didn’t discuss it with family or friends, but I slept poorly, and typically spent at least an hour each night with my head at the foot of the bed, watching the hallway in case some evil stranger came charging up the stairs to attack my family. What could I have done had that happened? Well, nothing. I guess my hope was to avoid being murdered in my sleep, and maybe screaming loudly enough to save some family members.
I also had an irrational fear of house fires; any smell of smoke during the night would send me flying out of bed and into my parents’ room, convinced that the house was burning. And I was constantly worried about my father being killed in a car accident. That also interfered with my sleep, because my dad’s job at the phone company often required him go out and deal with emergencies in the middle of the night.
Of course, this anxiety didn’t vanish as I grew older; it simply changed form. I was anxious in social situations—so much so that I’d often wish the car I was riding in would get a flat tire on the way to a party—and about raising my hand in class. I was anxious about dating, anxious about boys in general, and so anxious about my appearance that I became bulimic as a teenager and stayed that way for over fifteen years.
So yes, anxiety led to serious health problems. But the word anxiety? Well, for some reason, I didn’t want to believe I had it. Maybe it was because of that initial negative association—the dreaded beast from church—or maybe I just didn’t want to believe there was something wrong with my brain. I knew I had a problem with eating and food, and would sometimes read articles about bulimia. But if the article mentioned bulimia being a psychotic disorder, or said it was linked to anxiety, I’d shut down. I wanted my problem to be simple. I didn’t want a diagnosis. I didn’t want therapy. I just wanted to wake up one day free from binging and purging.
Everything changed when I finally accepted the truth. You can read more about that here, but the help I received—in the form of excellent therapy—made me understand that I have a ton of anxiety. I learned ways of keeping it in check, I stopped vomiting, and life got much better. And yet, for many years, I resented my anxiety. It was, perhaps, the thing I liked least about myself.
Then, when my children were young, an elderly neighbor asked me to care for her dog and cat while she was in the hospital. She and I became friendly, and it quickly became apparent that she also suffered from anxiety. One day, the two of us ended up discussing that, and I told her how much I hated being anxious. But she surprised me by saying she didn’t mind it, and actually didn’t trust people who weren’t anxious. “They don’t care about anything,” she said. “Who wants to be around people like that?”
At the time, I just smiled and shrugged, but I’ve thought about that conversation many times since. I’ve also learned more about why humans have anxiety in the first place: it’s an evolutionary protective device that prevents us from taking too many risks. So it’s not all bad. In fact, having a healthy amount of anxiety is a positive thing.
But just as some people have a surplus in the anxiety department, there are others with a deficit. I was quite surprised to discover that those individuals tend to live shorter-than-average lives because they engage in riskier behaviors, and may not seek medical attention as quickly as more anxious people. Another thing I’ve read is that people who don’t experience much anxiety can have difficulty maintaining friendships and romantic relationships, because they don’t always worry about hurt feelings and things like that. So even though anxious folks may sometimes ask questions like, “Are you sure you’re not mad at me?” a bit too often, that can be better than the alternative.
Do I still wish I could turn off my anxiety most of the time? Absolutely. I’ve had panic attacks that have literally brought me to my knees on busy city streets, and others that have made me pull over on the highway, convinced I was having a heart attack. In certain situations, I can be extremely shy, and over the course of my life have allowed miscommunications to happen and opportunities to slip by because of that shyness. I can also be an overprotective mother; just ask my kids.
But I’m working on it. I still go to therapy, and continue trying to distinguish between legitimate fears and irrational ones. The secret, I guess, is knowing when—and how—to lock up the beast, and when to take it out for a walk.
Mary Rowen is an award-winning writer and blogger who often writes about women of various ages growing up and/or figuring out what they want from this world. She was raised in the Massachusetts Merrimack Valley, graduated from Providence College, and has worked as a teacher, marketing writer, and political canvasser. She currently lives in the Boston area with her husband, two teenage children, dog and cat. Her blog can be found at http://www.maryrowen.com