A Chance Encounter Leads to a Struggle With Anxiety
A few years ago, my mother lived alone in an Arizona ranch home. While folding laundry one day, she felt a sting on her arm. When she looked down, she noticed a scorpion scurrying away. Her adrenaline spiked, and a profound sense of fear rushed through her body.
Her mind scrambled, living out every worst-case scenario it could imagine. Eventually, she reached out to a friend in the medical profession who gave her signs to look out for in case of infection. Her friend told her that her best course of action was to remain calm.
But staying calm proved to be an overwhelming task as her mind insisted on preparing for the worst. Finally, after a few hours, she found calm as the sting proved harmless in this case.
The incident, however, would send her on a months-long struggle with acute anxiety.
Understanding How Our Bodies Trigger Anxiety
Our brains are equipped with instincts to keep us alive. For example, in moments of perceived danger, the brain will send messages to our body to mobilize and avoid destruction. This reaction is common in all animals and a necessary evolutionary impulse for survival.
For humans, however, we have the added element of personal psychology, which judges our experiences and filters them through an ever-changing sense of self.
Rejecting Fearful Feelings Can Trigger Anxiety
When we have an unpleasant emotional experience, it may feel safer to turn away or reject the feelings, especially if the mind screams, “I can’t handle this!”
Turning away is an understandable response to unfamiliar feelings. However, we can store the emotional memory of this resistance in our bodies. We then become beholden to fear, doubting our abilities to handle the complexities of life.
Storing this anxiety memory creates a cycle of avoidance and anticipation that the trauma will repeat itself. We know this cycle as anxiety.
How Judging Anxiety Makes It Worse
As therapists, we’ve found that when people suffer through anxiety, the most debilitating aspect can be an adjoining sense of personal failure. We live in a very self-sufficient culture and are often raised to pride ourselves on our abilities to keep all the elements of our lives in place.
With anxiety comes a sense of powerlessness. We often feel as though we’ve lost our primary functioning. Atop the fear comes a profound sense of shame and guilt. We feel as if our suffering is a testament to something deficient or morally flawed within us.
We often don’t realize the loneliness of our fear, the pain of feeling alone in our struggle. (Anxiety is less prevalent in cultures that emphasize community and interdependence.)
How Fear and Anxiety Can Deceive Us
Understand that fear is a protective force trying to keep you safe from what it falsely believes you cannot bear. When fear grows strong, our:
- Senses can be altered
- Thoughts can grow wild and confusing, insisting that something is terribly wrong with us
- The mind looks to the future and wonders if we’ll ever be ok again
When fear reaches the mind, it can be profoundly convincing, and it uses our imagination to make itself feel “more real.”
It’s natural to resist fear, to want it to stop, and to feel victimized by it.
The truth is that resistance to fear makes it feel much more powerful. Instead, we can learn to stop believing everything it tells us. We can learn to find calm in the face of our mind’s most dire stories.
How to Calm Yourself When Anxiety Takes Over
When our emotions flood the brain, it’s crucial to find ways to calm our system.
Know that no matter what it seems like:
- You are safe
- You have the strength to weather any storm within yourself.
Keep in mind:
- The anxiety feelings will pass
- We are almost always safer than we realize
Knowing this can help you avoid believing anything is wrong with you or that you are somehow cursed.
If you don’t wrestle with fear, it can pass like a dark cloud, hardly damaging the spacious sky containing it.
Releasing fear requires tremendous self-compassion and courage. Yet once we do, we can start reclaiming our lives.
Seeking support for anxiety from a professional is often recommended for learning how to discover the resources to do this.
Exposing the Mind’s Beliefs and Making Peace With Anxiety
If we make our anxiety into an adversary, we only inflame it. We unwittingly make anxiety another thing to be anxious about!
While it may feel wildly unimaginable, the only way out of anxiety is by making peace with it. We can do so once we start to understand that its underlying assumptions about ourselves are untrue. While profoundly fearful experiences can throw our bodies into a temporary state of destabilization, it is our negative beliefs about ourselves and life which keep us stuck there.
Anxiety is synonymous with a lack of trust, and it weaves a story insistent on:
- Personal deficiency
- A lack of secure belonging in this world
It’s important to note that when anxiety is inflamed, it feeds off negative belief structures present in our psychology well before the panic. It’s an opportunity to question everything we’ve thought to be true about ourselves. It’s an invitation for self-discovery.
Anxiety as a Teacher of Self-Compassion
Anxiety may guide us towards caring for ourselves in a way we’ve never known. If we have a negative belief structure around trust, worthiness, or perfectionism, it’s hard to allow ourselves to be loved. Many of us have gotten quite good at giving love. However, we’re nearly deficient at receiving it. Love, in its infinite forms, is a profound anxiety queller and pain killer.
As the anxious mind replays past pain, it can bring a sense of you being alone and unprotected.
In these stories, we find it easy to forget the love that has always been with us, from our friends, community, and earth; the list is endless.
Without anxiety, we would never be:
- Forced to question our lonesome beliefs
- Guided to trust the support in our lives
- Learn to support ourselves more compassionately
Consider listing all the ways you are loved and cared for. Then, if you open your heart to the experience, what you find may surprise you.
Notice how little is asked of you to be so loved.
The journey is not easy. But it’s not here as a punishment but as a wake-up call to realign us with what is most true about ourselves. There is no shame in anxiety. On the contrary, it serves a noble purpose. It exposes the structures in our minds which make us feel so alone. It is a masterclass in trust.
Making Peace With Anxiety
Through therapy, meditation, and other forms of support, my mother learned to make peace with her anxiety, slowly reclaiming her sense of wellness. The experience has taught her how to care for herself and her emotional world compassionately. It has strengthened her faith in both her spiritual connection and the strength of the human spirit. The memories are unpleasant at times; however, she can call upon resources within her she never knew she had.
She’s now much freer to live a life in her deepest values of love, connection, and compassion. This chance encounter with a scorpion has helped my mom embrace what matters to her. The most challenging experiences often become our best teachers.