“My mind is a bad neighborhood I don’t like to go into alone.” So quips Anne Lamott, a well-known American author and woman in recovery. She goes on to describe lying in bed, wide awake at 4 AM after a night of partying and binging, her mind whirling in circles – the same negative, self-effacing loop, over and over and over. And we’ve all been there, haven’t we? In that middle-of-the-night state of anxiety that only gets worse once we give it some attention.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety affects over 40 million people age 18 or older in the United States: over 18 percent of the population. And the interesting thing about anxiety is that, well, the worse it gets, the worse it gets. Because once it gets triggered, we start to overthink it. Maybe we’ve been triggered by some smell, thought, sensation that reminds us of a past trauma. And then our mind starts telling us all kinds of things about that trauma that aren’t real: it was our fault; we’re unlovable or not worthy; we deserved it. The list goes on. And sometimes we just have no idea why we’re feeling anxious.
And our negative self-talk not only exacerbates our feelings of anxiety but sometimes actually causes the anxiety to occur. I also know that what you focus on expands. In other words, the more attention and negative self-talk you give to any situation, the bigger and darker the situation becomes. When we engage in negative self-talk, we’re literally rejecting ourselves. We’re telling ourselves that we’re unworthy, that something is “wrong” with us, maybe even that we’re unlovable.
Now, I’m not trying to say that anxiety isn’t something to be paid attention to. I am suggesting that we need to do our very best to make friends with our anxiety: to actually see it as a messenger, a helper here to alert us that something bigger is brewing under the surface that needs to be acknowledged and expressed.
In my own experience – and the experience of countless others who are challenged by anxiety – the best and most effective course of action is to attempt to lean into the anxiety and actually ask it what it’s trying to tell us. What do we need to really feel? What’s right under the anxiety that we’re trying to avoid, or that we need to pay attention to? And how about telling ourselves that we’re part of 40 million people who experience the same thing that we’re not alone, we’re not unworthy, and we’re not going crazy. Talking about it helps, meditation helps (a lot), praying helps (a lot), surrendering to the feeling and trusting that it will pass helps. And, for me and many others, getting out of your head and into your body works wonders. Do something to get your mind off of the anxiety and into the present moment.
When my Mom was alive, I’d often be in the midst of a paralyzing anxiety attack and I’d call her on the phone, crying, asking her for some words to soothe me. And good ole Mom, she’d say, “Why don’t you go get the broom and sweep the kitchen floor.” It was advice that always annoyed me, but you know, it worked every time. Move a muscle, change a thought. Get out of your head, because it’s true: sometimes it’s just a dangerous neighborhood to go into, alone or otherwise.