It enters without warning, without regard for its victim, and takes what it wants. Once it gets started, it looks for ways to gain even more control. On the Most Wanted List of psychological criminals, Anxiety would be at the top. It is stealing your life away from you. Make no mistake about it.
Walk into any bookstore and you will find loads of books on the subject - all important and useful. But the book I have been trying to find hasn't been written yet, a book that treats Anxiety for what it truly is - the most formidable nemesis, a thief of the highest caliber.
The ironic thing is that Anxiety really developed to help us, not turn against us. It is supposed to sound an alarm when true danger is near, enabling us to run or hide or stay perfectly still until we are in the clear. But true danger rarely happens. Anxiety has apparently grown restless in this relatively safe time in history. So it lurks in the background or jumps at you in full force when there isn't any need for it, and then you are left immobilized or agitated for no good reason.
I too have suffered from that wicked tormentor, Anxiety. I'm not afraid to admit it because I know I am not alone. In fact, I would bet that most of us suffer at its hands - some more than others, but you will probably do battle with it during the course of your lifetime. Most of us battle with it privately, which is too bad because we would likely be relieved to find out that even the most put-together people have dealt with it.
Sometimes I think we are losing the fight. Most of my week in the therapy office is spent with otherwise good and productive people who are letting it get away with an awful lot. They are not to blame. They just seem to be either unaware of the thievery or afraid to take arms.
We seem to be letting Anxiety get away with more and more. From what I see, this is because we are spending more time being confronted by news stories that scare us - whether it's on TV or our laptops: shootings, accidents, natural disasters, crashes, robberies, you name it. It really does feel like our world is getting more violent and frightening each year. So we recoil and become a little more vigilant and a lot more fearful. Anxiety has found an easy way to thrive.
But it's a ruse. The world is not getting more dangerous. In fact, it's quite the opposite. I invite you to read Steven Pinker's important book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, written by a brilliant cognitive scientist who set out to research whether the world is really getting more dangerous. And guess what? He demonstrates that we are living in the most peaceful era in history. I know that's hard to believe because on almost any given day, more violence is reported. We just don't believe it because we have distorted beliefs based on the over-reporting of violent incidents that are occurring. As a society, we are actually getting better and better at preventing bad outcomes. However, Anxiety wants you to keep thinking bad things are going to happen in the world because it gets to win again and again.
I am fond of the phrase: Don't believe everything you think. If Anxiety has stolen a way into your mind and played tricks on you, you must do battle with it. Your life depends on it.
The first aha moment I had about Anxiety was on a long flight back from Miami to Portland. I had two meetings with Anxiety on that trip: fear of public speaking and fear of flying. I had accepted an invitation to speak in front of a large audience at a conference. I was excited at the offer and immediately accepted, but at the very same time, I was terrified. Anxiety appeared and began its assault: You're not an expert in this area and everyone will know; Word will get out that you're really a fraud; Everyone will notice that you're shaking and they will feel bad for you. And then the long, cross-country flight: Your plane will probably crash (hey, at least you won't have to do that presentation!); And the ultimate thought as Anxiety prepared to claim me as its victim: It's not really worth doing, is it?
I went. Anxiety was clawing at me the entire way. The flight to Miami was without incident. After I had settled into my hotel, feeling Anxiety mocking me at every step along the way, I realized that I had left a bag in the taxi - the very bag that had my powerpoint notes for my presentation. Anxiety was lurking in my mind, grinning with "I told you so". But a greater voice put me in a terrible quandary. Anxiety would claim a major victory if I somehow bowed out at the last minute. I could feign sickness or a family emergency - yes, I did entertain those lies, but I knew in the end, it was going to be me and that microphone.
Me and that microphone. Such a metaphor for the real thing that scared the shit out of me: speaking up and being heard. How many of you have landed upon that realization? Or maybe your real fear is some other iteration. You and that open space. You and speed. You and mortality.
I would love to tell you that I killed it that day I gave my presentation. In all honesty, it was just fine. I was nervous, but I did not pass out. I made some good points, got a little shaky at times and didn't say everything I had remembered. Overall though, the audience seemed to appreciate my talk. I was so relieved when it was over, and I felt triumphant.
Triumphant because I did not let Anxiety rob me of this experience. I realized that even if I had bombed - literally just read my slides word for word, did not make any eye contact, and raced through the entire thing, I wouldn't have died. The worst that this audience would have thought was that I was a poor public speaker. Or that I was boring. Or that I was ill-prepared. And you know what? So what if they did. It wouldn't have killed me. And the reality was that I was nowhere that bad, and that was something I could celebrate.
My aha moment actually didn't come until I was flying home. Perhaps it was because I was still feeling elated from my success the day before, but during take-off, I looked out the window and felt that exhilarating feeling as we lifted off and soared into the clouds. I was suddenly struck by a beautiful memory that I had long forgotten: The first time I had ever flown. I was 12 and I remembered the thrill of lifting up into the air with such speed. When you're 12, the world seems like a magical place - exciting, exotic places await you in the future. Lifting up in an airplane for the first time is such a rush. That singular memory came back to me and in a split second, I also came to the realization that for at least the past 10+ years, I have been Anxiety's victim and have closed my eyes during lift-off and distracted myself. It occurred to me at that moment that Anxiety had robbed me of the pleasures of flying ... and it had also robbed me of so much more. It robbed me of taking risks in my work and my relationships. I was always playing it safe so that Anxiety wouldn't have the last laugh.
I resolved that day to put it in its place whenever I could. Anxiety is now anxiety, just a state of arousal that I can decide whether it's justified in keeping me on alert. I have the last word.
It isn't always easy, I admit. Sometimes you have to work hard at putting anxiety in its place. I have to tell it repeatedly that I am boss. I do not want it to claim any more of my life.
How much has anxiety claimed in your life? Treat it like it's the enemy that it is - Fight for your right to live the life you dreamed for yourself.