The Upside of Anxiety

When I finally visited a therapist in 2010 I was surprised to be told that, among other things, I have been living with anxiety, probably for my whole life, as evidenced by the stories I told her.  This kind of took me by surprise.  Depression I could see, I had been slowly, imperceptibly falling apart, little by little taking care of less in the house, doing less, drinking more, sleeping more, and caring less.  I knew there was something going on, but anxiety was not what I was thinking.  But as I thought about it more, I realize that there has always been this constant trill of fear, this butterfly like feeling in my chest that sometimes immobilized me and drove me to tears.  It is still there even now as I’m typing, a fluttering in my chest.  For a little while I took Prozac.  It definitely helped, whether it was the placebo effect or not, who really cares.  What matters to me is that I felt better, made some decisions about making changes in my life and decided to get better.

Doing a whole 30 paleo challenge was one of those major changes for me.  It gave me a challenge, a community and getting grains, dairy and sugar out of my diet made a huge difference in my emotional stability.

The other thing that made a huge difference was an introduction to Byron Katie’s “The Work” and her four questions.  It was the first time I was able to separate the thoughts I was thinking from my “self.”  I learned that I am not the thoughts that I think.  I encourage you all to visit her site, and absolutely listen to her audiobooks.  She is amazing.

“The Work” challenged me to think about this fluttering in my chest in a different light.  The feeling was nothing more than that, a physical sensation.  My thoughts about the feeling dictated how I reacted to it.  “I’m  scared that I’m going to give the wrong answer” and “I’m scared that I’m going to look stupid” were pretty common in my list of thoughts in school.  “I’m scared he/she is going to get mad” was another.  Something I learned to do was to recognize that the very same fluttering sensation in my chest was tied to excitement.  Looking forward to seeing my family, thinking about what Santa was going to give me for Christmas, I got the same exact feeling.  And since I am not my thoughts, I worked to change them.  “I’m scared I’m going to look stupid,” changed to “I’m excited to see what happens.”  “I’m scared that he/she won’t like me” changed to “I’m excited to see what their reaction will be.”  Any fear thoughts can be reframed to thoughts of excitement and looking forward to.  What are fear and excitement but different thoughts about what might happen in the future?

I learned eventually that this feeling in my chest never really goes away.  I have it when I wake up in the morning, when I think about what work will be like today, what I will do after work, what the workout of the day will be, what I will be having for dinner.  I’ve learned that it is a waste of my time to allow the fear thoughts much space.  The what-ifs.  What if something bad happens?  Well, what if something good happens?  So much more fun to think about what amazing things might happen.

Now I’ve discovered that I am kind of fearless.  I have gone through life with this fear fluttering in my chest pretty constantly for my whole life.  Once I figured out how to reframe the thoughts, my anxiety turned into a powerful strength.  The fluttering is the same regardless if I’m facing talking to a stranger or hiking a super high ridge on a mountain.  It’s the same whether I’m being asked to get on stage or sit and listen to a book.  When I was younger I was pretty fearless at times, but only when it came to physical activities.  Now that I can control turning it into looking forward to the unknown, I’m one of the most fearless people I know.

Amazingly, my fear has become one of the greatest strengths I will ever possess.

Have you ever experienced this?   What are your thoughts on examining your thoughts?

Author: Mary Preston, LMFT

I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Life Coach. Through dealing with my own anxiety and attention difficulties over the years I have discovered many useful practices and tools to help regain focus, shift my attention to what’s important and to stay organized enough to get the life that I want. In my practice I work primarily with women and children with Anxiety, ADHD and Depression and I share what I’ve learned to get them back on track to living a full, purpose filled life.

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