Anxiety can appear out of nowhere. At least, it seems like nowhere. You're sitting eating your breakfast protein bar just like you do every morning when suddenly your heart starts pounding. Or you're standing in line at the same supermarket you've purchased your food from every week for the past 4 years when you get the urge to run out of the store and scream. What's going on??? You're hesitant to tell anyone lest they secretly wonder if you're losing it... or, worse yet, lest they suggest you see a counselor. That thought alone sends an anxious shudder down your spine and seals your lips.
Then it happens again. And it feels more intense.
"I don't want an anxiety diagnosis," you think to yourself. "I'll have to take pills for the rest of my life. I can handle this. I just need to think positive. Practice some mindfulness, some breathing exercises. Maybe even something extreme like gratitude."
Whether you choose to go the medication route or not, you get really good at "handling it". You learn how to ride the anxious waves when they come, you watch every breathing exercise video your phone suggests for you, and you've found a reason to be grateful for everything from blue skies down to the grime in your sink drain. You even read a book about anxiety by an author who has apparently read every word in your journal (I forgot to mention that you started journaling).
What you begin to notice is that you're getting a lot of practice managing your anxiety. You feel somewhat proud of your Herculean efforts and yet, you miss your pre-anxiety self. You miss the anxiety-free person you know you used to be. Life is exhausting enough without this soul-sucking ingredient called anxiety. Especially if it jolts you awake at night. Plus, anxiety begets anxiety. In addition to the fear, there's the fear of fear. There's the anxiety that fears that the current anxiety may get worse. There's the dread of the next panic attack.
"Laura, what's your point??" I hear you demand. "Can you please stop talking? You're triggering my anxiety by writing about it!"
My point is this: anxiety has a purpose.
It has a reason for being there. Your pounding heart, that tightness in your chest is trying to tell you that somethin' ain't right. Pain has a purpose. We can numb a headache with a painkiller, but if the headache keeps recurring it would be smart to ask what's causing the pain. Emotional pain operates along similar guidelines. Just like a headache doesn't announce, "I'm here because you've been staring at a screen and consuming sugar all day long", anxiety doesn't send a text saying "I'm here because you've been stuffing sadness for 6 months."
To find out what's under the surface of that anxiety, we might have to slow down and pay attention. We might need to stop ignoring it or numbing it. We might even need to find a safe person to talk with or cry with.
While there are numerous reasons for anxiety, about half of the clients I work with discover that their anxiety is stemming from suppressed emotion. The tears that were never shed. The fear stuffed deeeeep down. The disappointments they considered trivial. The questions that were too terrifying to ask. The unfelt feelings.
There's so much more I'm aching to say on this topic, which the school of hard knocks has taught me much more about than grad school ever did, but first let me prevent some hate-mail by saying that I absolutely believe in mindfulness, breathing exercises, and gratitude. I believe in medication when necessary. What I don't believe in is using these interventions as "painkillers" that keep us from discovering the root, the true reason, for anxiety.
Secondly, this post is not meant to diagnose or treat any illness or disorder. As if a blog post could diagnose anything, much less treat it. It is intended to stir up hope inside of you that freedom from anxiety is possible. I didn't say easy, but I did say possible.
Live in peace, my friend. If, in order to live in peace you must take a look deep inside at the un-peace, then please do so. If it would help to have someone "walk" alongside you through the un-peace, then please reach out.
The peace is worth the process.
What tears remain unshed for you? What might lie under the surface of the anxiety you feel?
Laura Lanford is a professional counselor with a special place in her heart for internationals, expats, immigrants, refugees, third culture kids and all who have been "uprooted". She focuses on trauma, grief and loss, attachment and relationships, and finding connectedness and a sense of home in a world of global uncertainty. Learn more at lifeuprooted.com.