It would happen at night. I’d be so exhausted after a long day of work and caring for a kid and a toddler, I’d almost miss the bed while falling into it. But as soon as my head hit the pillow, it wasn’t sleep that came.
It would happen during the day. Longing for some uninterrupted writing time, I’d be so excited when my husband volunteered to take the kids out for a few hours. I could hardly wait to line up my coffee cups, my pens and pencils. I’d settle in my favorite chair. But as soon as the car would pull out of the driveway, it wasn’t beautiful prose that flowed out of my mind.
The Frights. The Voice Inside Your Head. Grecco the Gorgon. Whatever you call that “What if!” voice that feeds you horrible scene after scene in your mind, I had it. Therapists call it “invasive thoughts.” They say it’s a symptom of anxiety. I call mine a simple, sneered, “Her.”
Her always fed me the big ones: my husband and/or kids dying, total financial ruin, rape, pain, car crashes, name-your-horror. Never anything like spiders or a basket of snakes for me. Nope. Only the Full Monty of Human Terror: in bloody, screamy gore. On repeat.
After years of insomnia, dragged days, stalled creativity, fights with kids and my spouse over my (didn’t-feel-crazy-at-the-time) fears, I finally decided it was time to face this fire. Today I can report that I rarely have any of those fight-or-flight, tight-bodied moments that would wreak havoc on me so often. I can’t say I’ve 100% conquered Her, but I can say I get to sleep pretty OK and I don’t ever lose creative time to Her’s bloody musings.
How did I move to being paralyzed with fear to moving through life in (relative) peace? I wish I could tell you to “DO THIS 1 THING TO STOP ANXIETY IN ITS TRACKS.” But this is real life, and I’m no guru. But I did stop Her. You can stop your Her, too. But I have a question to ask you first:
Do you really want to?
Let’s pause for a second here. If you want a quick-and-easy tip to help stop invasive thoughts, I’ll give you one. Here are two steps to do right now:
- Name your nemesis. You can call it Grecco the Gorgon, Satan, or just Her.
- When the thoughts come, bellow (in your mind, or out loud if you’re alone) in your biggest, gigantiest, hairiest, scariest voice, “HOW DARE YOU TERRORIZE ME?!! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? I AM TRYING TO SLEEP!” Interject as many curse words as you prefer. Go for full, monstrous intimidation. Imagine yourself HUGE and Grecco as tiny.
OK. Try those two steps for a bit and come back later.
Now. Back to the addiction.
Oops, did I say “addiction?” That was a bit cheeky of me.
Addiction, to a professional, is a physical process where a person displays “the compulsive uncontrolled use of habit-forming drugs beyond the period of medical need or under conditions harmful to society” (Merriam-Webster). Addiction to a non-medical person is an “enthusiastic devotion, strong inclination, or frequent indulgence” (Merriam-Webster).
To call Her an “indulgence” is a bit cruel, wouldn’t you say? You may ask: What kind of pleasure or service was I getting from Her scaring me stiff every night? Is it possible there was not only a mental service Her was giving me but a physical one as well (i.e., endorphin or other hormone influx)?
It wasn’t my fault that Her was terrorizing me. I did not invent Her or want Her to do that. But. BUT. I was allowing it, and banning it wasn’t something I felt in control enough to do.
So I sought out some answers. I’d heard about “addiction to anger” and its hormonal implications. That was definitely a part of the anxiety, as the processes behind anger and anxiety are similar. After researching the physical “pleasures” of anxiety, I went to psychology for insight into the mental habits (or “addiction”) I’d formed. My advanced degree in Psychology helped a bit here, because I knew where to look. There are many different theories and approaches to anxiety or “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” (I was never diagnosed with this, btw). I searched high and low and gathered insights from many different sources. I’ll sum up what I found that made sense and worked for me.
HOW TO HEAL YOUR ANXIETY IN 3 (not) EASY STEPS
SERVING A PURPOSE
“How does it serve you?”
This is a question I came across during my research. Every action we do, whether consciously or unconsciously, serves some purpose. The purpose can be huge or trivial, but there is a reason for it. The key is to find which actions are not serving us well. We want our actions to align with our values. We want our choices to take us one step closer to overall good health. Her was not serving me well. She was serving me sick. I had to find out why Her dogged me so terribly.
I asked the Universe (my books, articles, therapists, etc.) where Her came from.
Once there was a time that I was small, vulnerable, and sometimes for just a moment and other times for a long, long span, alone. I had to find my own way. Although I survived, I learned some tough lessons. During the challenges and in the aftermath, Her started bending my ear. As I experienced more and more challenges, Her was there, picking up queues, sniffing out clues, and predicting the next onslaught of threat.
Her, see, thinks she is Guardian Angel Gorgon. She got a little miffed when, in my youth, I ignored her warnings. Her got a little louder. Then louder. When we feel vulnerable, our good ol’ gal Gorgons come to call.
Here’s where the truth gets a little ugly: We feel better when Gorgon is screaming. Our brains are tricked into thinking that if we watch the bloody footage then we are in fact preventing the said tragedy from happening. At the same time, we indulge our car-wreck curiosity over the devastation. Humans are fascinated by death and destruction, maybe more so than with birth and creation. Our Gorgon shows and re-shows a rotten reel of devastation to serve that morbid pastime.
It’s no way to live, but that’s the only way we know how.
TALKING BACK TO YOUR GORGON
See the “Click Here” section above.
I responded, “I am an adult now. I’d prefer you be an adult too. Advice is OK. This terror is not. It’s really mean and I want you to stop it.”
“OK.” She said.
Of course, children take a while to grow, so that wasn’t the exact end of Her’s terrorizing, but it did calm down a lot after that. Also, now when Her starts up, I pause and ask, “Woah. What’s going on here, really? What other truth are you really trying to hide from me?”
Sometimes I get an answer, like, “You are afraid you will never be a novelist.”
Ouch. I see why Her was trying to not tell me that.
I respond, “Wow. Am I thinking about that right now? I must be, deep in my brain. Well, thank you, Her, for trying to keep that bomb from me. But I’d rather take the bomb, please.” Then I get to work unpacking that fear (you learn how to do this by reframing and other techniques from therapy).
Sometimes I don’t get any answers. Her just tries to barge in and terrorize me. Sometimes I get a bomb like the never-a-novelist one and I can’t face it right then. At those times I try to be easy on myself and find a physical activity to do for a few minutes. Dancing, walking, yoga, arts and crafts (I am an avid crafter and colorer-in of mandalas). Walking or dancing are the most effective and I’ll tell you why.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE and ADHD
You’ve heard about the fight-or-flight response. It’s an instinctual decision process your body/brain uses to assess threats to your person. Can I take this lion or not? Do I lunge or run? These decisions are made in milliseconds, but all your bodily and intellectual information is assessed.
So far we’ve talked about the mental
exercise of reframing your Gorgon into a helpful but misinformed voice. That’s relatively easy to do and doesn’t require much of a lifestyle change. Reshaping your fight-or-flight response won’t be so easy. And this may be the hard truth of managing anxiety that you may not want to hear.
Anxiety, loosely defined, is when we think our skill set does not match the challenge at hand. You can lessen the challenges (reframing) or you can up your skill set (training), or work in a combination of both.
Here’s the thing: Your body/brain knows only one skill set: Physical. Sure, it takes into small account your wits. But mostly it makes decisions based on your body’s ability to face physical challenges, even if those challenges aren’t at all physical. This means, dear friend, you must train your body to the point where it feels like it can handle threats.
Now. Before you stop reading, know that I do not mean signing up for a six-pack class by some fitter-than-you shady gym cult. The bad news is yes, you must exercise. But the good news is that bodies are dumb and even just a little exercise works.
Kenneth Ginsburg is a medical doctor who specializes in resilience in Adolescents. He’s written a few books on the subject and lectures widely as well as maintains a post at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. On my anxiety research journey, I came across Dr. Ginsburg’s books. I had an opportunity to hear him speak. What he said about kids with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) really struck me. He said: they need a lot of exercise.
Duh, right? Of course hyperactive kids need a lot of exercise. But spasmodic movement isn’t what Dr. Ginsburg meant. He said one particular muscle group must be exercised. The research showed that if ADHD kids had more time moving this one joint and muscle group, they did better in school, behaved better generally and some could actually reduce or eliminate their medication.
What joint and muscle group was it? The hip flexor, glutes, hamstrings and quadricep muscles.
At the talk I attended, Dr. Ginsburg demonstrated the movement he said is so critical for the health of ADHD kids. He lifted up his leg so his bent knee was hip-height, then he put the leg back down again. He repeated the motion. “This,” he said (and I’m paraphrasing), “this movement here. It’s what tells our body we can outrun the lion. This is the movement, when repeated regularly via running or walking, that will help kids feel able to make themselves safe.” He suggested ADHD kids run before school and maybe run after school too. He’d seen results in the research where kids who started running regularly could reduce or eliminate medication. That’s freaking amazing, right?
Let’s take a short break from that shocker to talk about an easier thing you must do.
Ugh. I hate even writing this part. SO MUCH SHIT is all over the interwebz about “mediation this, meditation that,” I can’t even take it anymore. But I would be remiss to not include it in this article.
My writer friend Jaye* told me once she has too hyper a brain for sitting and meditating. That’s like someone saying they are too dirty to take a shower. Of course you have an addled brain. That’s what brains do. That is their job, to take in all sorts of information and cattle-prod it to different places. Unfortunately, brains are terrible cowboys, and don’t organize your loose livestock well. They must be trained.
The concept of meditation is so simple, it’s dumb. It feels dumb doing it at first. Here’s the crux of it: You sit still, you close your eyes, you concentrate on observing your breath going in and out of your nose. That’s it. That’s the basics of mediation. Anyone can do it. The key is to expect your mind to wander. When it happens, you laugh at your “monkey mind” and gently bring it back to observing your breath. You may have to do this 1000x in 10 minutes. That’s all part of the work. Advanced meditators still have monkey mind. That’s why they still meditate. It’s an exercise, not some quest for perfection.
I try to meditate every day for 10 minutes. I use the Calm app. My average in the past was 100% every day, but now I’m at 4-5x a week. My goal is to get it back up to 7days/week, and I’m almost there.
I don’t know exactly why focusing (and refocusing, and refocusing) your attention on your breath every day for ten minutes is an effective tool against the Gorgon. Perhaps it is just exercising your focus muscle? But something happened to me after just six months of trying this everyday: I heard from Her less. I wasn’t doing anything else but meditating, and I saw results. When Her would start up, I’d stop and breathe and see if I could feel exactly where the air hit my nostrils and left again. It’s like magic why this works, but it does. Try the Calm app. People also seem to like the Headspace app. (These are paid apps but worth it. I’m not getting any ad dollars from this endorsement, and I’m in no way affiliated with those companies).
OK, back to physical exercise.
OUTRUN YOUR LION
As the disability advocates say, we all have a disability of some sort, you just can’t see it. Our lions may be different.
My friend Parvati, who is very scootery to deal with her Multiple Sclerosis, can’t run or walk or even swing dance anymore like we did together in days past. Parvati, like most wheelchair-bound people, has a different lion. Arm strength is the key to fighting off hers off. Wheelchair-bound people take arm strength very seriously. If they can’t lift themselves out of a chair, they are in big trouble. If anyone you know that is chair-bound is suffering from anxiety, my advice would be to get those dumbbells out.
My blind-from-birth friend Aster learned how echolocation (clicks with his tongue) to help him navigate outside. I saw him in action. It’s pretty amazing. The point is, we all have something physical that requires some grit to learn and do that will help us control the Gorgon.
If you are only limited by your lifestyle choices, then you have two options for Gorgon control.
1. You can find some common ways to deal with your Gorgon, like:
- Coping strategies like shopping, drinking, addictions
2. You can accept the hard truth and regularly move your hip flexors. You can walk almost everyday (like 4 or 5 days/week) for at least 20 minutes at a good-ish pace until you start to feel more in control, then maybe go to 3 days a week (and 30 minutes), never letting 3 or more days in a row go by without exercise.
If you notice in Option #1, the solutions are expensive endeavors. In Option #2, you have a choice that is almost free. In the short term you may have to purchase some equipment. Winter is tough, but as the Nordic people say, “there is no bad weather; there is only bad clothing.” You may have to buy jackets, scarves, boots, etc. Once you get used to walking outdoors in the wintertime, it can actually be quite peaceful and refreshing. You may have to get up early in the summer to walk before work. You may have to buy sneakers and air-wicking clothing. If you’re like me, you will have to invest in lots of bug spray and SPF. If walking outside isn’t for you, get a treadmill or find a mall or an indoor track.
An hour or two of your day, every day, must go toward body maintenance. Once the Gorgon is under control, you can probably get away with every other day for exercise. I don’t walk everyday. Sometimes I do yoga instead or sometimes nothing at all. I’ll be busy writing and I won’t feel like it. But I promise you, I do not go 3 or more days in a row without some sort of exercise. If I do, Her comes back in childish, brutal force. I lose sleep. I start eating bad foods. A downward spiral starts and gets hard to hop out of.
Listen, I recommend therapy for everyone. EVERYONE. If you haven’t done your therapy work, then get on that, especially if your Gorgon is debilitating you. I suggest looking for a Cognitive/Behavioral Therapist. That’s the method I’m reflecting in this post, and it is the leading trend in psychotherapeutic approaches for the past decade or more. It’s effective and “short” (not a lifetime of couch-laying like in the “talk therapy” of past eras).
You may not feel like therapy, and you may not feel like walking or running or dancing or moving your butt at all, but the hard truth is the work must be done if you are to be in control of the Gorgon. That’s why I asked if you really wanted to silence the Gorgon. It takes work, but no work you can’t do.
NOW YOU KNOW THE TRUTH
All these cute click-bait articles about how to “conquer anxiety” are the junk food of the psychology world. You click on them for a quick fix, but tiny bit of wisdom won’t fake our body/brain into feeling like it is nimble and clever. Soon we forget the bits we consumed, and the Gorgon is back, screaming louder than ever.
Gorgons take a long time to form. The lifestyle additions of reframing, meditation and exercise (and maybe therapy) will be the strongest, most effective combination to get them under control.
I can say this: you will probably see a marked improvement within weeks of a walking routine. Meditation will get easier, too, as you learn to be easier on yourself for your mind wandering. And if you want further reading that may be helpful, search on “reframing technique” to learn how to situate events in a proper, less scary, light.
You can do it. Serenity now, Sister.
*Names changed to protect the possibly-unwilling-to-be-singled-out
All images from Pixabay. Click on each to navigate to source page.