Befriending the Fearful Parts

Today is barrels of fun as I’m dealing with the potential for severe weather as well as the ongoing pandemic. Right after learning about the upcoming weather events, someone posted “tips” for dealing with anxiety on a social media site I visited. What they wrote immediately irritated me as their message was basically “think positive” and “distract yourself.” That approach may work for some people, but, to me, it dishonors the role that parts of myself–the ones with strong emotions–play.

Anxiety is often relegated to the role of a deceptive betrayer, a cowardly enemy or a feminized hysteric in modern culture and modern psychotherapy. I find it unfunny but ironic that many of the exposure and response prevention tasks that people with contamination OCD have had to endure, such as touching a doorknob and not washing one’s hands, fly directly in the face of declarations from the W.H.O. and the C.D.C. in terms of dealing with the pandemic. We have been told to fight our fears, to quell the whispers of obsessive thoughts and to “calm the f*ck” down” when, in reality, the world presents dangers. I find myself deeply questioning the years of training I received in graduate school, wondering how much the “treatment” of anxiety is really a tutelage in social norming in order to not disturb the sheltered peace of the privileged optimists among us.

What relationship can we have, then, with our anxiety that does not trade fighting for subservience and terror? I view it as one of acknowledgment, honorance and the formation of an alliance. If this framing doesn’t work for you, ignore it! I first encountered in during Buddhist practice and immediately knew it was for me, but it may not be the story you need to tell.

To me, getting to know the scared parts of myself is first a practice in realizing there have been and continue to be things that are frightening in the world. I’m not “stupid” or “over-reacting” when I worry. I concentrate on the process of how I worry and thank the parts of self that bring worries to my mind for their care for me. There is a way to worry well or at least to negotiate with worry. I take action based on my fears, action aimed at reducing the likelihood that they will come true as well as methods of building resources if they do. Sometimes, my fears fuel panic-buying, but I’ve grown to trust myself more deeply than I did in the past, so this happens here and there, not with consistency. In short, I prepare for danger, and, in doing so, often fear it less.

I also check in with myself and with my fear to watch the extent to which it is based on concrete reality and the extent to which it is a physical reaction to stress. I find that I actually have the most difficulty with anxiety after a stressor has occurred, when I’ve taken all the practical steps possible and simply am in a state of waiting for resolution. For me, behaviors such as not sleeping or eating poorly can create their own spin-offs of fear that have to be managed by self-care.

Perhaps because I’ve been invalidated for my fears on a non-stop basis, told not to worry, that my worries are unreasonable or that they don’t deserve attention, I’m not good at remembering that, even if the worst happens, I’m not alone. There may or may not be people willing to help or sufficient resources to recover, but, even if safeguards fail me, we are interconnected and each of our lives, in my worldview, are more than a beginning and an end. What would it mean to tell the next person you hear panicking that you will be there for them in whatever way you can if their worries come to fruition, rather than telling them not worry? To have that said to you? I try to do this for my anxious parts, to let them know they aren’t going to be abandoned to fear, that the rest of me will consolidate and bring the resources I have to bear to manage the situation.

Anxiety, even at the “pathological” level I possess of it, isn’t my enemy. It does not deceive me. It isn’t hysterical. It is a biological response that has been preserved in pretty much all animals by the process of evolution to warn us of danger. Humans have the gift of foresight, of anticipating threats before they occur. We can rage against this capacity, deny its presence, numb it or attempt to silence it through invented worlds of positivity, or we can come to know the inner monsters we hold and realize they are frightened children who need love. We can come to know it as a part of us, steady in its reliable angst, and, like all parts, only made whole when it is welcomed into the family of our being.

A Crisis Averted (Today’s Moment of Gratitude)

My dog is much less anxious than I am, and his willingness to barge into situations head-on can get him into trouble. This past week was no exception as he managed to eat a few foreign objects and I was highly concerned he was going to have an intestinal blockage. Today, I got the best Valentine’s present ever when he passed the item about which I was most concerned through. I never expected to celebrate poop, but here we are!

The relief I felt as a potentially life-threatening situation coupled with thousands of dollars in costs faded from view was overwhelming bliss. It got me thinking, though, about how my mind works. I was left wondering whether part of the reason I am extremely anxious and frequently feel like I’m on the edge of disaster is because, when the storm clouds clear and the sun comes out, the physical response I feel negatively reinforces me to respond to the next threat in an equally overwhelmed manner.

I am much more punishment-averse than I am reinforcement-seeking, and this experience has given me possible insight into my internal experiences that might be maintaining that discrepancy. I’m curious what it would be like, the next time I am catastrophizing, to ask myself “how good will it feel when this situation is resolved and I don’t have to worry anymore?” I have no idea what I will actually be like when my own mortality comes to call, but I think it strikes me as the resolution of everything and I anticipate relief rather than anxiety might overtake me.

Perhaps my gratitude isn’t all feelings of joy because something good has occurred, but also the feeling of my body stepping out of fight and flight into a more peaceful state. I am so, so appreciative that my weekend might not be spent in the fullness of anxiety I had anticipated it being. What’s something you’ve felt relieved about lately? What is the balance for you of seeking rewards and trying to avert danger?