I imagine my mind has a million places and when I’m put together and focused and present, these places communicate effortlessly with each other. Gentle waves of bright energy fly through my brain grabbing exactly what they need – a past memory, a piece of knowledge, a feeling. The result – what flows out my mouth is exactly what I intend. My words sound coherent. I feel coherent, like I fit perfectly in my skin. My body and mind flow as one. I feel in one piece.
When my anxiety punches me, these millions of places become abruptly inaccessible. It feels like each one of them is closed off with a steel door, so now the seamless flowing of ideas is replaced by the sound of thudding steel. This thudding blurs me. I’m in a fog and the fog is in me. But I’m still there, frantically looking for a way out. I’m walking through mud holding a terror that wants me to run as fast as I possibly can. In this moment my anxiety doesn’t speak English. That skill lies behind steel. In this moment my only reality is pure fear. I have no rational thought and no way to stop the rising wave that attacks me all at once – my head, my heart, my hands, my stomach.
When the anxiety is too much, I am a blubbering blob unable to function. But sometimes when it is less, I am able to do things like walk, talk, drive, brush my teeth and get dressed. In fact I can do everything (maybe without the usual gusto) that is habitual – things that are so second nature, I don’t have to think about them. During these times I respond from my unconscious and the more I have put in place there, the better I can cope.
For people without anxiety, the unconscious is something they can pretty much leave alone. But for those of us who suffer, it is key to coping. I live with anxiety and I think I do it quite well because I understand the role my unconscious plays in my anxiety and more importantly, how it can be effectively used to help deal with it.
A simple way to think of our unconscious is this: anything that feels out of our control probably belongs there. Much of our unconscious is essential for living. If we had to think consciously about everything we do it would be exhausting and debilitating. Right now I am watching my daughter’s unconscious working beautifully and efficiently. She is learning to drive and I watch her as she mumbles all her checks – mirrors, blind spot, gear, check for cars, seatbelt. Soon, as all drivers know, she will not think of any of these. The checks will still be done but from her unconscious mind. And if she’s anything like me, she may drive from A to B sometimes and have no idea how she got there.
Unfortunately, anxiety also resides in the unconscious, which is why anxiety sufferers must learn how to feed their unconscious with strategies that will kick in when they are needed the most. These have to be practiced to the point of habit because ALL habits are unconsciously driven. To deal with anxiety we have to create habits that kick in automatically in response to our anxiety. You cannot tell yourself to breathe deeply in the midst of an anxiety attack unless you have practiced deep breathing to the point of habit, crossing this skill into the unconscious.
Life is complicated and we are complicated. There is no “one” thing to do for anxiety and I would suggest some skepticism towards someone that claims they have the one answer. Truthfully, I have embraced many ideas and strategies and continue to do so. And depending on the situation, I may grab one over another. My personal favourite is to allow myself to ‘feel’ and resist pushing my feelings away. In my experience, when I allow myself to really feel my anxiety, I diminish its power to grow and lesson the duration of its stay. This may sound absurdly simple to do but trust me it took years of practice! In situations where I have to act right away, this may not be appropriate and I may engage instead in mindful breathing. What works for you is what works for you.
Here is some advice for people who want to help someone during these times. Don’t. Not in the traditional sense anyway. Their anxiety will not hear you. It does not understand. “Think positively, stop wallowing, it’s all in your head, pull yourself together,” are not helpful and may cause anxiety to increase as feelings of failure are added to the mix. Hold them, be there but let them be. If you want to help, timing is everything. Wait until they can understand English.