Anxiety is one of those familiar torments that doesn’t get easier with age. People will do all kinds of crazy and unwise things to avoid it. It’s an undermining experience, as if the world itself is unreliable, and nothing outside of one’s very own home or refrigerator or circle of friends feels secure. The thinking brain stands by, befuddled and humiliated. We feel overwhelmed. Most of us know this sensation, and would prefer to avoid it.
The easiest thing to do when anxious is to capitulate. The emotion that clenches our guts is generally willing to calm down, for the present moment at least, if it gets its way. There are moments when we can get away with it, and find some temporary comfort by postponing our confrontation with the demon. Maybe you can skip the staff meeting, or dental appointment, or family dinner, if you say you have a migraine or something. But it’s unsatisfying, because we know we will eventually run out of excuses. Anxiety has an appetite for being appeased, and it grows, whenever it successfully changes our plans. In a while, we won’t remember how it started, but it will continue to make demands. Capitulating to anxiety only gives us the illusion of peace.
More illusions of peace: finding a cozy relationship that offers reassurance and a place to hide from anxiety — maybe it’s about your looks or your creativity — under the guise of emotional support. The trouble is that the relationship then becomes necessary at all costs, just to keep from feeling anxious. The prospect of losing that source of comfort can lead us to cling to a relationship that’s not good for us, in exchange for this protection. Alcohol and other substances are also famous for the siren song of temporary relief from anxiety, whether it is about money or the faithfulness of the heartthrob who is your source of daily reassurance. Prescription anti-anxiety medications offer relief, welcome in those rare moments when a person has a sudden, intense sensation of having a heart attack, with no medical cause. But while the pharmaceutical companies are delighted to make more, how long do you want to depend on the meds for your wellbeing?
So what works, when a quick fix isn’t what you’re seeking? Anxiety is part of our body’s effort to protect us from imminent danger, but it can go awry. The conscious, thinking mind can be the friend we need most. If your anxiety really is a warning that your safety requires immediate action, it’s time to stop worrying and make a plan. If no immediate action is called for to keep you safe, then take care of the anxiety itself, because it is not helpful. Anxiety creates muscle tension, and gentle movement like yoga or a slow walk can provide relief. Comfort foods are forms of self nurture, if you commit to tasting the chocolate, slowly and mindfully. Compulsive snacking doesn’t have the same benefit. Call upon your memory of peaceful, meditative experiences, or music that transports you to a gentle interior landscape, or interrupt the wild ride with wilder humor. Tending our spirit does not guarantee us an anxiety-free life, but it does remind us of who is steering this tugboat.