When I was growing up I suffered a lot from anxiety. Every exam we had at school I would get diarrhea and frequently run to the toilet.
My stomach was constantly in a knot and I felt nauseated and shaky all the time. More than it was uncomfortable it was actually really annoying.
Why couldn’t I be just normal?
Sure, my friends got nervous too, but none of them had to sacrifice their precious breaks for constant bathroom time. They were able to manage their nerves much better than me, even though I was actually really good at school!
It would be a few more years before I finally understood what actually happens to my nervous system (NS) when I experience anxiety and to drop the very harsh self-criticism that would make things even worse.
Here is what I have found
Anxiety happens when there is more energy running through your system than you can handle.
The human body and its nervous system function like a channel in which energy moves freely up and down as well as being connected to the earth and the sky. This energy needs to be grounded and receptive for us to feel balanced.
If we go into a Fight and Flight response because of perceived danger, we run a lot of adrenaline through this channel. In order for the Fight and Flight to complete this charge has to be discharged, if it doesn’t, it stays in our system and creates discomfort to the point of the system going into shutdown mode (also known as collapse or freeze).
Put simply: if you press the ‘run or fight’ button in your brain and you don’t give your body the permission to follow the instructions, you will end up with anxiety.
This then happens on a very subconscious level. There is no immediate danger out there (no tigers for example) and therefore the solution is not easy to see.
What are we supposed to run away from or fight against when the trigger is in our minds?
Let’s go back and have a look at my school experience. There were no real predators and even the exams were logically speaking not so frightening (since I was actually really good at school!).
The tiger existed only in my head in form of a belief that was saying something along these lines:
If I don’t succeed I will die.
If I fail I will be rejected, laughed at, ostracized, and eventually, I will die.
That may sound dramatic but the subconscious doesn’t know that. It simply makes assumptions based on the imprints we have received in early childhood.
For my parents being good at school was very important. Even though they never said it, it literally meant survival. Not that they did it on purpose, but that’s the post-communist reality they grew up in.
And for me as a kid, it meant if I perform well, I will receive the love and approval of my caregiver.
That’s actually all that my NS was really after:
feeling safe and acknowledged in my inherent goodness no matter my performance which would have allowed me to ground my energy. And to have faith in my ability to learn and grow no matter my mistakes, which would have allowed me to stay open, curious, and trusting.
Here is how to deal with your anxiety
- Don’t make it wrong — seriously. The more you hate it, the more it will stay. The more you try to fix it, heal it, or get rid of it, the more persistent it will be. If you fight it, it will fight back. And it’s more clever than you are, I’m sure you know that by now. So any strategy you use against it will not work (even if the strategy means telling yourself that you love it!)
- Be vulnerable — what does the little one in you need right now as you are feeling this energy? It needs reassurance, it needs permission to feel scared and angry (or whatever else is present). It needs to feel loved and held even if it’s a failure. Would it help to ask someone to hold you?
- Discharge — that literally means: move your body. It’s stuck energy in your system. This energy needs an outlet. Go dance. Run. Scream if you must. Just don’t stay stuck. Give yourself permission to feel your feelings and express them. Being so authentic with yourself is what starts creating the safety that you long for.
The importance here is to let these three aspects work together. If you just move in order to get rid of it, it’s probably not going to work. If you are just vulnerable without moving, you are probably going to stay stuck in it. The letting go- the full acceptance of where you are at- happens naturally as you exhaust yourself trying to get out of it.
After years of struggling with it, my moments of anxiety have become much less frequent. However, they still do appear when I put too much on my to-do list and I buy into the belief that ticking them off like a good girl will give me what I need: feeling good enough about myself.
The difference now is that when anxiety appears I don’t berate myself for it anymore. I don’t think: Shit, here it is again, that monster that makes my life unbearable.
Instead, I stay in curiosity and think: Oh, interesting, I wonder what ‘codes’ I’m running that make me feel unsafe? And secondly, what do I need right now to make me feel safe again?
Anxiety is like the internalized voice of the critical parent.
And therefore you need to learn how to become a good parent unto yourself in order to make your inner child feel safe again.
It’s a process and there is no quick fix. Especially in the perfectionist culture that we all swim in, where we are made believe that unless you are successful you are not good enough.
But the more you stay kind to yourself as you are experiencing this energy the more it starts naturally discharging. The more you will be able to feel solid ground under your feet and regulate your NS when you start getting out of balance.