What If Anxiety Is the Messenger?

I woke up feeling anxious today. Again. This is not something new. Anxiety and I are old friends. And though it’s been away for a while, it seems to have come back for an extended visit. It is not a welcome guest.

I did what I so often do in this situation…I pulled the covers over my head and tried to sleep. It’s an old habit. But ignoring anxiety does not make it go away. Neither does staying busy, eating, watching TV, exercising, shopping…or any number of things I’ve done over the years to try to numb those feelings. Oh sure, any one of those things can distract me from my racing heart or that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach…for the moment. But nothing takes away the anxiety. Believe me…I’ve tried.

I am somewhat of an expert on this subject. I can remember having these feelings as far back as junior high school. I was often anxious, worrisome, fearful. As a child I was afraid of growing up, growing old, dying. As I got older I worried about doing well in school, getting in trouble, making a fool of myself. Even now I fear making a mistake, upsetting someone, not being good enough.

Off and on in my 20s and 30s I took medication to control my anxiety. I believed there was something wrong with me that medication could fix. If I could just stop the anxiety, I would be fine, right? But I began to wonder, what if anxiety isn’t the problem? In the last several years, I have realized anxiety is the symptom of something deeper. And I have recently begun to consider those feelings serve a purpose I haven’t been willing to acknowledge before now.

What would you do if the smoke alarm in your house went off? I’m not talking about when it goes off because you were burning dinner or you lit a fire without opening the damper (not that this has ever happened to me). I mean, if it woke you in the middle of the night from a dead sleep. Would your first reaction be to take the batteries out so it would stop making noise? Would you put a pillow over your head and go back to sleep? Or would you realize it was a warning that something was on fire? At the very least common sense tells you to check it out first, right?

Anxiety, or any other ‘negative’ emotion, is like your own internal alarm system. It’s factory installed to let you know when you’re doing something that’s not in your own best interest. Or when you’re not taking good care of yourself. Or when you’re ignoring that child inside you who just wants your attention. Whether the fear is real, or imagined, or based on a belief you have from your past, it is still trying to tell you something. I have not been a good listener.

Yesterday I woke up in a panic. Heart racing, shortness of breath kind of panic. This week my company was closed and as usual, I had a long list of things I wanted to accomplish during my time off work. But, as so often happens, I have lacked the motivation to do much of anything.

I often feel like being productive and checking things off my list is time well spent. While I get down on myself if I’m relaxing, reflecting…just doing nothing. I know myself well enough to know I need my down time, but by society’s standards, it just doesn’t feel productive. And I continue to buy into that. I have long held the belief that if I could just get it all together, I could relax. If my house is clean and the laundry’s done and I’ve exercised and paid the bills and gone grocery shopping and gotten organized…then I deserve to relax. Then I could actually enjoy it.

But is that really true? Am I ever going to get to the point of crossing everything off my to do list? Unlikely.

Recently there have been two sides to anxiety. One is the fear that if I don’t accomplish everything on my list while I’m off work and have the time, I’ll kick myself later. The other is I have a very demanding job and am exhausted. I don’t want to push myself during my time off the way I have to push myself at work. It’s a double-edged sword and it seems no matter which one I choose, I can’t win. But what if, instead of trying to figure out what to do, I just listened to that anxiety and what it is here to teach me?

If anxiety is the messenger, then maybe the message is to let go of perfectionism. Be okay with being wrong, making mistakes, not getting everything done, being lazy. To slow down. Stop for a moment. Just be.

I have been so busy with work and the holidays, I have gotten away from my daily meditation practice. Those few minutes each day help calm and center me, but it’s the first thing that goes when I feel like my time is limited. Maybe anxiety is reminding me to get back to that. Maybe all there is to do right now is stop fighting these feelings and just settle into them. To be still for fifteen minutes and listen. Just listen.

While I don’t like it, I know there is a purpose for anxiety and that getting rid of it, doesn’t solve the problem. Anxiety is the teacher. And little by little I’m learning the lesson.