Anxiety: Paying Attention to the Onset

Once a week, Little Winnowers, we are focusing on anxiety. It deserves a day entirely to itself because it is so powerful, so consuming. And unfortunately, it really is one of our biggest inhibitors to growth.

For we Winnowers, our focus is on letting go – on moving through our lives in the present moment without being crippled by anxiety over the future or clinging to a nostalgia for the past. We are learning to weed out the thought patterns that inhibit us, and to hold tightly to the core beliefs that make us who we are.

Over the past few years, my anxiety has blossomed into center view. On some level, the anxiety has always been there, pulling at my brain, leading my healthy thoughts down dark alleyways, like the rule-bending older neighbor you idolize until you realize they’ve gotten you into some serious trouble.

Anxiety really came to a head over the past two years, as I’ve struggled to define my identity as an adult. In trying to move forward in my life onto new endeavors and into new challenges, there is a voice in my brain that’s grown unfortunately colossal. Anxiety tells me: NO, you! Bad things will happen if you take that risk. Stay where you are safe. Anxiety makes me a control freak.  

My brain spirals with hyperbolic thoughts: your brother’s mental health could tank if you don’t check in on him. Family members might die, and you’ll never see them again. You’ll become so homesick for Milwaukee you’ll never be able to function in a new city. Your family will entirely fall apart, and you’ll feel forever guilty that things would have been different if you’d just have stayed. This is Anxiety. Anxiety is relentless.

Again and again, anxiety has caused me to operate out of fear instead of trust, out of a loss mentality instead of a growth mentality. Anxiety is crippling in its grip – and when I am unbalanced or haven’t slept, it’s led to major panic attacks. Sometimes, the panic attacks happen when I’m driving, and that is the scariest occurrence of all. Anxiety makes me feel out of control, and panic attacks ramp up the anxiety to a debilitating emotional and physical confluence of symptoms – acute feeling of lack of control, hyperventilation, dizziness, screaming, shaking, terror. They are horrible, and they happen when the anxiety comes to a head.

To help manage both the underlying anxiety and the panic attacks, I’ve been seeing a counselor. I’m a huge proponent of counseling and psychotherapy. I believe in systemic change to the anxiety, and I believe everyone – medicated or not – needs to incorporate talk therapies into their recovery from anxiety. Medication alone is not sufficient. Unless your friends and family are trained, licensed therapists, they do not count as therapist substitutes. I feel very strongly about this, because I think people use the “my therapy is a glass of wine” or “my friends are my therapists” as excuses not to address their own mental health with honesty and clarity. I also know that therapy can be a financial barrier for many; however, the investment in your own emotional health is paramount. And it is so not the same as saying your friends are your therapists. What your friends are is really, really good friends. And that’s wonderful! But they do not offer the same resources as a licensed therapist.

One of the most influential anxiety-reducing strategies my therapist Sue has taught me is about recognizing an anxious thought pattern when it begins. The baseline Anxiety 101 trip we need to remember is that anxiety is always about the future.  Anxiety spurs and spins and spirals when our brains takes a thought and begin to develop scripts for the worst-case scenarios. These scripts are loud. They are detailed. And often, we really, really believe this is the outcome that is going to occur. The first step in beginning to work through our anxiety then is to learn to step back and recognize what is happening – you are fixated on the future, not focused on the present.

Once we acknowledge that the anxiety is there, we begin to recognize the pattern. In that moment, you anxiety is that it is telling you a story about the future. When we develop the habit of recognizing and labeling anxiety, we are then able to learn the process of working through it to a more calm, clear life.

All my love, all the time,

Laura

More Than a Soothing Smell; What Lavender Plants Teach Us About Growth

Lavender plants are often propagated by root cuttings. Instead of attempting to grow the plant from seed, many gardeners will choose to splice off a portion of the plant’s roots and replant it in new soil. The process is also called root division.

That’s a little how this year feels to me, Little Winnowers. It feels like I am in the process of digging up part of myself and replanting me somewhere else. Do you feel like that too? That process of total, severing change between your past and future life?

I like this metaphor because it’s how I feel on the inside – this drastic shift between who I was and who I am becoming. It’s not like my life has outwardly changed that much. Really. Same city, same job, same family structure. What’s different is how I move through my life. Recently, I have only made effort with friends I value. I have developed new self-care routines. I have delved into the quiet, embracing introversion in a way I never have.

This whole year feels like I’m on retreat – a sort of self-inflicted cloistering. My body is screaming that this is what I need, so I’m trying to listen to it, as scary and unfamiliar as the aloneness is.

When I was in seventh grade, my middle school organized a retreat at small retreat center in rural Wisconsin run by some Catholic nuns. There was truly nothing fancy or modern about the retreat center buildings –  neutral colored dining hall with metal chairs, lots of nondescript shades-of-brown carpet, minimal artwork on the white walls. In fact, the space looked outdated and stuffy. 

But the grounds…oh, the grounds were stunning. They were not stunning in a grand or magnificent or extraordinarily unique way. Objectively, it was nothing more than a few acres of rolling grassland with some dispersed trees throughout it.

What was stunning was the calmness of it all. Under soft overcast skies, the crinkled bark of the deciduous trees seemed stoic and complex. The wind rolled openly, uninhibited by urban buildings, suburban homes, or the whirr of passing traffic. The first few conversations outdoors echoed across the expanse, until they trickled away into silence. Here, on retreat, it was calm.

Though my own introversion was a concept entirely unbeknownst to me at the time, I flourished in the setting, relishing the sound of only the breeze. I remember hearing my thoughts loudly that day. Invigorated and inspired under the blank canvas sky, I began to journal, to draw, to write letters, to compose poetry and songs. In the rapid, unceasing inspiration, my soul lapped up the silence like a dehydrated fawn that stumbled upon a spring creek. My soul whimpered to me – the quiet is what we’ve been missing.

Quiet, I learned, is what my artistic self needs. On that day, I began to understand what it means to retreat, and soon after, what it means to step away transformed.

So this is the dome in which I live right now – this intentional retreat into quietness, into a life so simple and introvert it scares me sometimes. This is foreign soil for me, as I try to sever away the parts of myself I wish to keep, as I transport my newly gleaned self into new soil. I am leaving parts of the old me behind – the mother plant that grew me. Our challenge now is to learn from the lavender – to strip ourselves away from the overgrown host plant of our past lives, to take only what is necessary, and to begin to grow somewhere new.

Photo credit: Dana DeVolk @thissillygirlskitchen

Feeling Tangled? A Go-Getter’s Guide to Anxiety

Remember that L’Oréal hair detangler spray for little kids? That potent pear-smelling spray you’d spritz on tricky knots of hair, and work through with a comb until the hair is orderly again?  I want a grown-up detangler spray for my life. I would spray it all over my room, my car, my job, my relationships, and then douse myself in it.

I need an adult detangler. I need it to help me undo all these balled up, knotted emotions, these hardwired emotional responses that are buried so deep in my emotional core. In this intentional examination and rewiring of my core beliefs, I want a lubricant to help me slip and slide my way through the process.

Sometimes those emotions feel too deep to untangle on our own. When we are anxious, we need to do some subterranean uncombing, unraveling of those underlying emotions that are so hard to reach and work through. I know that the only way to make it better is to work through it…but an emotional detangler be SO much easier.

I wonder what the equivalent of an emotional detangler would be. Writing? Talking with friends? Going on a run? Taking a hot bath? Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. You know what else though…? Those can also look avoidant.

The thing that I have to do – that I absolutely I do not want to do – is sit. I hate sitting quietly. Really. As an oldest-child, highly-motivated pitta & nurse, sitting is my least favorite activity. I don’t even like to sleep that much, because it stops me from moving.

I am very, very good at trying to force a solution. If I am unhappy at work, I will become a search engine queen, planning ten different future careers for myself in the process. If family relations are strained, I will pour energy into repairing & reworking them. If my romantic relationships are struggling, I assume the answer is talking things through over and over. I fix, fix, fix, always moving, moving, moving.

For we determined, solution-seeking go-getters, the solution is counterintuitive to what we believe. Whether we like it or not, we have a core belief that actively designing solutions is the key to change; this core belief can be detrimental, sometimes contributing to the anxiety instead of aiding it.

No matter how anxious I am, there is one solution that has always proven to be true: In order to begin to work through those super-speedy anxious thoughts, we first need to slow those thoughts down. We need to act less. We need to breathe, grounding ourselves in the present moment. Instead of pouring energy (lighter fluid) into those anxious thoughts, we need to sit quietly with them, simply observing the fire.

When we are anxious, we live in our heads. Anxiety is always about the future. To counter that then, we need to focus on the present.

When I am anxious, the most helpful solution is to find a quiet place and to focus on my body.  If you’re feeling anxious, I recommend setting aside just five minutes for a grounding exercise. Here’s my go-to guide to get out of your head and into the present moment:

Take three deep breaths. As you take a few deep breaths, place both feet on the floor. Wiggle your toes. Now begin to rotate your feet, pressing into the ground with the ball of your foot. Move your feet up and down – pushing into the floor as you pump your feet. Notice that your calves are moving to. Continue this pattern as you work your way up your body. Focus on your thighs, contract and release your glutes, contract and release your core. Twist your spine to the left, then the right. Roll your shoulder as you move your way up the body. Gently shake our your arms, working your way down to your fingertips. Stretch your next as you move your head in circles. Finally, with straight spine, inhale and exhale deeply, releasing the tension that you just unworked from your body. As you begin to feel the energy move throughout your body. Feel yourself here – in this physical world around you.

Feel a little better? Focusing on the present is not the end-all solution to anxiety. However, it is an extraordinarily helpful and go-to tool to use when you feel anxious. By focusing on your body, you focus on a central truth: You are present. You are here. As we continue our journey of working through the emotional untangling process, we begin here – grounded and centered.