On Anxiety and Serenity

When most people think about anxiety, they think of panic attacks. A panic attack is both a dramatic event to witness and to experience. It can heralded by the horsemen of heart palpitations, difficulty or inability to breathe, nausea, dizziness, sweating, and, of course, acute panic or worry. Many people feel as though they are actually dying. It’s searingly memorable.

My experience with anxiety – and, I suspect, that of many others – is less acute. It is not some antagonist that I encounter and defeat on occasion like a boss in a video game. It shares more similarities with chronic pain – a constant hum of worry that I carry inside me all the time, which can sometimes flare up if the weather serves or which can even occasionally leave entirely, but never for long. Like many who deal with generalized anxiety disorder, I have a personal fingerprint of stressors that I know can send me in the wrong direction – climate change is one; money is another – but anxiety is more inclusive than not, meaning that if I have an opportunity to worry about something, I tend to take it.

This means that much of the time, I have intrusive, worrying thoughts that are difficult to control. It can make my thinking feel frenetic and disorganized. Imagine the last time you left the house and felt like you had forgotten something important but couldn’t place it. Now, imagine feeling that way all the time, as the rule, not the exception.

Days like Friday, and indeed, the last few weeks have challenged me for reasons micro and macro. Like many, I met the inauguration with emotions that range from trepidation to outright indignance. There is a lot of build up to the ‘peaceful’ transition of power in this country, and we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. That’s a playground for anxiety.

I manage my anxiety through exercise, doing good work, being creative, getting quality sleep, and being mindful of the things that tend to generate anxiety for me and managing them. But sometimes, those things are difficult or impossible to manage – in case you haven’t noticed, you can’t go anywhere today to ‘get away from’ what’s going on (and I’m not convinced you should be trying to – in fact, it’s more important than ever to tune in and put ’em up). It’s on the radio, it’s consumed the Internet, it’s at the family dinner table, and it’s an adversarial climate at every turn.

Needless to say, my go-to techniques haven’t been working as well. Back in November, after election night, my anxiety full-on melted down. I went outside in the dark, went to my car, closed the door, and wept deep, loud, and wet sobs for a solid ten minutes.  That wasn’t the only time since, and it won’t be the last.

After a long time of accepting that periods like this were a fact of my life, I started to realize something very important: I needed “serenity now!” I know this sounds like a punch line at best and new-age bunk at worst, but listen: the experience of the last few months has made me realize I had made no room for peace in my life, so I couldn’t find it even if I wanted to. You need that place to exist, because it provides you the tools to be creative or productive in your worst moments, to mount the kind of resistance needed to battle the instruments of unpredictability, fear, anger and darkness wherever you find them.

It doesn’t mean you run away from or ignore pressing problems. It means you need to prioritize which you deal with first, how soon you attempt to solve or neutralize them, how much of yourself you’re willing to give to them. It means acknowledging them when they do present as anxiety, regarding them with a nod, and perhaps saying, ‘not right now.’ Maybe you’ve already set aside time to deal with them; let that plan appease them for now. Find an activity that brings you perspective, gratitude, or awe and guard that time against the worries that do nothing but thieve your energy and capability.

I am trying to think of myself like a river. My worries, tasks, thoughts, feelings, are all stones in the riverbed of my life. Hope, optimism, empathy, compassion, freedom from worry are gold. I make myself a sieve and separate the gold from the rest. I’ve surfaced the elemental human stuff. The worries are still there, but they’ll be constantly smoothed over and reshaped by time until, when I pick them up next, they’re soft to the touch. That’s what I mean by serenity.

I will be calm. I will be mistress of myself.  – Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility


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