Anxiety is tough enough to cope with in your own life. How do you conquer anxiety while being bombarded with negative news from around the world?
Is it just me, or is the world really as bad as the headlines make it seem? I’ve decided it’s not the world; it’s just the way we’re bombarded with 24-hour news coverage. Even my friends who don’t officially deal with an anxiety disorder have to shut it off from time to time, just to recover their equilibrium.
In a world that often feels alarmingly dangerous, anxiety may feel like one of the top defenses we have to keep us safe. It warns us of potential risks around us and prepares us to act accordingly. An anxiety disorder, on the other hand, is like a broken “threat detector” with no off position. It sees risk everywhere, preparing a person for the worst, even when life is at its most ordinary.
That’s what happened a few years ago when I went from merely feeling anxious to actually being diagnosed with anxiety disorder. Despite having survived a series of truly life-threatening experiences in my youth, it was the low-level threats of daily existence that finally got to me.
As I reached middle age, a pervasive sense of peril settled on my soul. I could not filter out the noise of ordinary worries from legitimate stirrings of danger lurking around the corner. The threat-regulating mechanism in my brain was broken. In my worst moments of anxiety, my instinct was to flee. I longed for a place of refuge where I’d be safe from harm, even if the threat was only in my mind. And of course, no such place existed for me.
Like many people, I ran from the fact that I needed help. The running only reinforced my panic. Once I hit the brick wall of reality, I was forced to face the biggest threat of all: the roots of my anxiety were not in the world but in me. That’s when I got in therapy.
Ironically, it was fear that kept me from seeking treatment. I dreaded the thought of looking weak and admitting I had a problem I could not solve on my own. Once I overcame those self-imposed restrictions, I was surprised at how easy the rest of it could be.
The first big thing I learned in therapy is that my basic style for dealing with anxiety was avoidance. I denied there was a problem. When the problem became too disruptive to ignore, I coped by retreating from the world and other people. This approach yielded temporary relief. But being alone made me depressed, and protecting myself from the threats of living only fueled my anxiety.
This is something I always knew about myself but was never able to understand as a coping strategy. In therapy, I found the safe place I was looking for—not from running away, but by looking at the things that troubled me and learning to co-exist with them.
It took me months to understand that the anger I tried to deny within myself was actually trying to protect me. Once I accepted that, I let it do its job and it no longer felt so threatening to me.
Feeling I was accepted, not judged, by another person helped me find self-acceptance. It was a huge step in my coming to terms with my anxiety.
The other safe place in my life is family. Family can be a source of stress and strife, but they know me at my worst and continue to accept me. Family may not have affirmation down to the practiced art of a skilled psychotherapist, but they love me and that does a lot for healing. From there, the zone of safety extends to friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.
The world still seems like a perilous place at times. When those old urges to run take hold of me, I turn off the news and remind myself that the safest place of all is self-acceptance. At times that place seems lost to me.; fortunately, I have a great support system of loving friends and family to help me find the way there.
Printed as “Dateline: Anxiety,” Summer 2019
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