• Thomas Rowland

Anxiety

Over the last few days, anxiety has increasingly become an unwelcome presence.


Not that it’s usually absent. It’s often there, chattering away, quietly gnawing at my bones. Yes, I’m good at hiding it, even to myself. But, today it’s different. It’s become bigger. I can feel its weightiness emptying out my stomach. I can feel its chatter more viciously spreading down my arms. I clench my fists to hold it in. I scratch my skin - already red and about to give up on holding it all together - to try to get it out.

And then there are the thoughts. Yes, like an unstoppable express train, bellowing, hurrying away, as if trying to escape the looming, sinister darkness I fear. Or a vortex, swirling round and round, submerging me deeper and deeper under its weight. Of course, getting on the train seems so appealing at first. Like, if I do, I can work out all of those controls and navigate life around the darkness. I never do. The dark presence is on the train with me.


Anxiety is not a friend. It’s a worm that eats away my strength. It’s a beast that’s chasing me down. It’s a snake slithering around everything. Yet, somehow, I think I need it. Somehow, I think it will protect me. If I just think through something enough. If I just let it drive me to do enough. If I just prepare everything well enough. Perhaps it will be OK. Anxiety is my closely held friend. A fraud perhaps. Promising much, delivering so little, stealing so much. Yet, a fraud within me, part of me.


Thankfully, today, I have a little more space. Space, I can only allow myself because of the schedule I’ve made, giving me permission to not yet take up all those internal pressures and expectations I usually carry around. And I think, ‘What do I know I need to do to help myself?’. As a therapist, you kind of expect to have some answers here.


Some forms of self-help for anxiety seem little less than forms of self-control. We should use our mind to recognise how its threats are irrational, unfounded and false. We should use our will to do things that don’t keep us in the spiral. This can help. But, I often find that, if I do this first, I just end up back on the express. I’m planning. I’m problem solving. I’m beating myself and becoming increasingly anxious about my anxiety. Anxiety, I’ve found, devours self-control as its favourite food.


In the last ten years, mindfulness has grown in popularity. This offers an alternative approach to anxiety (and research suggests it can be more effective): to, compassionately, notice it. To notice the beast. To notice the empty weighty gnawing feeling. To notice the train and when I’ve stepped on it, and then to step off.


The last few evenings, I’ve been able to catch my endless, spiralling thinking and remember that what I need in this moment is not to stay on the train, that no amount of thinking about it all will help, but to step off and let life be. This has brought relief, at least until the morning when the train begins again as if it’s been merely delayed and now needs to catch up on its schedule.


Perhaps I should do more mindfulness in the morning. But that just becomes another thing to become anxious about. And prioritising time for mindfulness with two young children and a busy job requires an awful lot of will power. My anxiety loves to feed on will power, too.


This morning, however, I could stop long enough to remember another principle, ingrained in the heart of most forms of therapy: that if we can find the words to communicate, even to ourselves, the feeling or the memory that is really haunting us - that lies perhaps out of awareness behind the dread we feel - then we can experience catharsis.


Some theories suggest that there are two core ghosts behind all human haunting: the ghost of being unlovable, and the ghost of being powerless. I sometimes wonder if I have both; I call it the ghost of feeling like I’m just not enough.


Once I remember this and name this ghost even just to myself, my body starts to relax. The right words seem to do that. I see how all this anxiety is about trying to protect me from feeling inadequate. I see how it’s a messy myriad of strategies I’ve learned over the years to try to prove or justify my existence to others. And I also remember how I’ve found that nothing I do has ever succeeded in that quest before.


I even find I can now start to be more compassionate towards my anxiety. It is trying to protect me from a deep wound. It is trying its best, even if it’s mistaken in many ways, or just outdated. And then the ghost, the beast, the snake, the worm, don’t seem quite so threatening. I start to see them not simply as an enemy, or even a closely held friend, but as me - as I was when I was a teenager or a little boy trying to work out how to survive and find my place in the world.


And then I start to remember that life is, of course, full of uncertainty and full of our past creeping into the present. That the good life is not anxiety-free but living with courage through the anxiety. And then with compassion when that courage escapes us. I remember that I’m normal, that I’m not doing anything wrong, that I’m just living. That I am just part of this confusingly anxious, anxiety-avoidant, anxiety-hating, anxiety-dismissive and anxiety-driven, human race. And so, I am perhaps already enough.


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