I used to think that happiness was about not having bad things happen to you. So I dedicated myself to figuring out how to avoid difficult experiences or uncomfortable feelings. I decided that if I could be in control of things, I’d be OK. I signed up for any workshop that promised quick and easy enlightenment. If there was a mantra or a diet or any technique to release us from pain and uncertainty, I tried it. I bought crystals, wore specific colors, watched my thoughts and convinced myself that everything happened for a reason so I didn’t need to feel bad about it. I denied the parts of me that felt sad, scared or angry, and I acted happy and optimistic even if I didn’t feel that way. Whether it was dealing with a breakup or a health scare, I would always respond with a smile, saying that this came to teach me a lesson. Rather than feeling my feelings, I intellectualized the situation I was in. This is also known as spiritual bypass, by the way.
Performing Being Happy
Essentially, I was performing being happy. All my difficult feelings were bottled up inside, and when they would surface, usually at night when my busy day ended, I would just eat until I couldn’t feel the feelings anymore. I spent many years hyper-focused on kicking my sugar habit and losing weight. It was much easier for me to think about sugar and the size of my thighs than my vulnerability, grief, and anger.
“Essentially, I was performing being happy. All my difficult feelings were bottled up inside, and when they would surface, usually at night when my busy day ended, I would just eat until I couldn’t feel the feelings anymore.”
My story is not unique, most of us developed survival strategies in our youth to avoid difficult feelings. Why? Because most of us weren’t given the tools to deal with our feelings. For trauma survivors, a natural response to the overwhelming feelings associated with a traumatic event or circumstance is to dissociate from the feeling, or to numb the feeling through various addictive behaviors. Our coping strategies got us through the difficult times, yet sometimes these coping strategies end up becoming the source of our suffering.
I managed to get through the first half of my life without having to confront my feelings in a substantial way. I was a perfectionist and over-achiever. I poured my energy into school and work. I managed to stay busy enough during the day, and eat enough chocolate at night, to avoid the depths of my feelings. This is not to say that I didn’t struggle. I did. But my struggles were about things like my weight or my grades, or wanting people to like me … not about the deeper issues. I managed to make it through my twenties and thirties without any major emotional challenges other than my neurotic perfectionism and tendency to do too much. I even kicked my sugar addiction and body image issues. My emotional world started to feel like a boat on a calm ocean that could go with the flow of life fairly easily.
When I was 41 years old, I experienced anxiety for the first time. It started as a fear of flying: on the plane my heart would race, my hands would go numb, and I felt sure that the plane was going to crash. Then the feeling would come up in cars when I wasn’t the driver. Eventually the feeling could creep up on me at random times, sometimes immediately upon waking up. It took me almost a year to realize that this was anxiety and that I needed to do something about it! I kept thinking it would just go away as suddenly as it appeared. This is so ironic given that I’m a therapist and support so many people grappling with anxiety and depression.
For so much of my life my emotions were very level; anyone who knows me well would say that. But at 41, my inner world suddenly felt more like a roller coaster than the boat on a calm ocean I was used to. Sometimes my anxiety felt like an overreaction to a situation: I might hear about someone with an illness and suddenly start to think about what would happen if I got ill, how my children would cope, etc. One trigger could turn into a cascade of fear-based thinking and feelings that were very difficult to loop out of. Sometimes the anxiety felt random, like a sensation in my body not related to any thoughts or external events… just an elevated heart rate, tight chest, and a feeling of general fear, like something bad was about to happen. What was so striking to me is that my inner state suddenly felt precarious and fragile, like I could get anxious with the smallest provocation and not be able to come back to a regulated state. The image I had was of a cartoon rendition of machinery where the screws are all loose and things are bouncing around haphazardly. I felt vulnerable to the world in a way that felt out of control and precarious, like at any moment something overwhelming could occur to me. That feeling sucks!!
When I’m anxious I find myself negotiating with the universe, thinking about what bad things are likely to occur and which ones are unlikely. I calculate what I could handle and what I can’t. When I’m anxious it feels like life will either be fine or completely awful; there’s no in-between where life presents me with difficulties that I can handle. Either everyone is fine, or everyone is going to die. When I’m anxious, the future feels overwhelming and exhausting rather than hopeful and exciting. When I’m anxious, I’m hypervigilant to cues that I’m going to get anxious or that I could panic. Anxiety is a prison.
When I’m anxious it feels like life will either be fine or completely awful; there’s no in-between where life presents me with difficulties that I can handle.
Once I admitted that this was an issue, I got to work on addressing it. I have many tools at my disposal as a therapist and yoga teacher. I used them all: breathing, grounding, tapping, supplements, essential oils, etc. I did more yoga, booked extra therapy sessions and bodywork, reached out to loved ones, got my hormones tested (anxiety is a common symptom of peri-menopause, I learned), and tried to reduce my stress. All of this helped, but not completely. All of these tools were about trying to make the anxiety go away; and although this was my ultimate goal, the final piece that I had to do was actually be with the anxiety. Get curious about what it wants me to learn from it; what it wants me to feel.
For me, my anxiety is asking me to be with the vulnerability I refused to feel in the first half of my life. My anxiety is breaking me open to my own humanity and the humanity of those around me. For the first half of my life, my role as a therapist and healer was partly a way to distance myself from my own pain. I became an expert at supporting others in their struggles, so I wouldn’t have to feel mine. After grappling with my own anxiety for 4 years, I’m coming out on the other side more whole, more integrated, more humble and more wise. I don’t have the magical belief that nothing bad could ever happen to me or my loved ones. I know I am not exempt from life’s difficulties, and I experience a range of emotions rather than the two or three I’m comfortable with. I’m not building an emotional life that is a defense against feeling my own vulnerability, but rather I’m becoming able to feel both my vulnerability and resilience at the same time. I know that I have so many resources to deal with difficulty* and that there are tons of challenging situations that I can absolutely handle, and even grow from. As I accept that life will bring me challenges and that I am not in control of this, I actually feel less anxious.
Last summer I took my kids to ride a downhill coaster. On this ride, the rider controls the breaks; you can ride without touching the breaks and go full speed, or you can slow yourself down when you like. The first few times, my arms were sore from gripping the break and trying to control my movement. On my final run, I reminded myself that the tracks were designed to carry me to the bottom without falling. I let go of the breaks completely and surrendered. I found that my body was able to relax once I stopped trying to control the ride. I was able to feel exhilaration and joy rather than contraction and fear. I felt free!
Life doesn’t always guarantee that we’ll make it if we let go completely, but sometimes gripping too hard keeps us from noticing the signs that we’re actually OK. Sometimes the gripping becomes the source of our suffering. For me, anxiety is my mind and body gripping against the flow of my life. I know there are no guarantees that life will only deliver me challenges I can handle, but I also know that gripping and fearing will not help.
Life doesn’t always guarantee that we’ll make it if we let go completely, but sometimes gripping too hard keeps us from noticing the signs that we’re actually OK. Sometimes the gripping becomes the source of our suffering.
If you resonate with this, consider trying this: when you feel anxious, first find something that is grounding and supportive: your breath, your feet on the floor, hands on your body, etc. Then try to just be with the sensation. Be curious about the sensation and try not to attach a story to it. Ask yourself, “can I tolerate this right now?” If the answer is yes, then continue to be with the sensation and your resource. Eventually you might find that the less you fear the anxiety, the less it has a grip on you.
Eventually you might find that the less you fear the anxiety, the less it has a grip on you.
*I want to note that this isn’t true for everyone. There are certainly people who do not have adequate resources and support and their anxiety is an accurate reflection of their external reality.