There is hope for anxiety
As a teenager with an anxiety disorder, I feared I would be anxious forever. I feared that I would grow up to be a hermit, secluded in my house and paying someone to bring me groceries. This was actually the more positive view of my future. Other possibilities seemed much worse.
People told me it would get better. Many of my family members had experienced anxiety and told me this. I saw how my parents lived normal lives, or how my sister went to college and even took trips across the world. But, for some reason, instead of believing I could get better, too, I exaggerated my condition in my own mind and told myself that I had it worse. What to me may have seemed like self-deprecation was actually an act of melodramatic pride. Did I really think I was too “different” to change?
Of course I wasn’t. But change looked hard. I didn’t want to travel the world. I didn’t want to do normal things. Those things looked too scary. What I really believed, then, was that I would never be brave enough to even want to change.
If you are still in the deep pits of anxiety or despair, it may seem like you will be this way forever. You may have even grown comfortable with the idea of being the hermit who never leaves the house. Life would be easier that way.
What I wish I had known is this: 1. Time heals anxiety by lowering our sensitivity, and 2. One day, I would be doing what I didn’t think was possible.
Time heals anxiety by lowering our sensitivity
When anxiety is new, the feeling is scary. One way anxiety manifests itself for me is hypersensitivity. Any sensory change in my surroundings or body could trigger more fear, which would make me even more aware of my feelings. This cycle amplified my anxiety both mentally and physically.
But as time went on, those sensations didn’t concern me as much. I usually know the difference between anxiety and when something is actually wrong with my body. I know that, even though anxiety makes me feel bad, it doesn’t mean I’m sick. I have had enough panic attacks to know that they end. I have been uncomfortably full enough times to know I won’t be sick. I have been overheated or even lightheaded enough times to know it will pass.
The more of life we experience, the more confident we can be that we can handle these moments of discomfort.
When I see a child cry because they scraped their knee, or scream because a bee got a little too close, I’m reminded of this. When we are young, all of those experiences are new and frightening. But as we grow up, we see them from a different perspective. We realize that the things that used to trigger anxiety are now only inconveniences. Over time, even the things that trigger us now can become this way, and we’ll realize that we have grown.
One day, you will be doing what you didn’t think was possible
I still have anxious moments, and I am still working on many of my fears, but I do things every week that would have terrified me when I was younger. It’s not because my fears weren’t valid. It’s because of the small steps I’ve taken to face my fears over time. It’s because I decided that I did want to change. It wasn’t easy, but the power of fighting anxiety is that it does get exponentially easier.
It’s like working out, which is something my husband and I have tried to do more of lately. The first few sessions are difficult. You have to force yourself to stay resolved, to keep the habit, and to not give up. You’re out of breath and feel sick, and you wonder if you can even make yourself do this again. After a few times, though, you realize you can talk while you jog in place because you’re not out of breath. The weights you were using feel lighter, and you switch to something heavier. Or maybe you can do more reps than before.
The craziest part is that you begin to like the challenge. The “burn” you hated before is now desirable, and you work harder for it.
Facing my fears was hard. I’ve written before about my first few days of college and how I almost quit. But I forced myself to stay, and after awhile that became easy. Once I was comfortable just going to classes, I was able to take on the next challenge of going to the cafeteria. After that, I tried hanging out with people on campus, or even meeting them off campus. When all of those things became so normal that I barely thought about them anymore, I decided to live on campus. Then I was carpooling with people, going out to eat, seeing movies, or presenting in front of classes.
Not only did things become easier, but I also became addicted to growth. I may not have realized it, but every time I faced a new challenge, it felt great. I had a burst of confidence and pride, and that made me think about what else I could do.
Now, I do things all the time that used to terrify me, and that list keeps growing.
I believe this is because, even though my anxiety wants me to believe each individual thing is uniquely frightening, I’m not actually overcoming things. I am overcoming anxiety and self-doubt. So if you have one big thing that you’re afraid you will never overcome, it may be that the best thing to do is pick away at the anxiety itself. Every small victory weakens anxiety and strengthens us, until those big things don’t seem as scary as they used to.
Growth is possible
I remember my counselor telling me once that my anxiety disorder may never go away, and I was so discouraged. I thought she meant that I would never face my fears. What she really meant was that those feelings of anxiety would probably stick around, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t overcome them. We may experience hunger multiple times a day, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be fed.
The more we learn to feed ourselves and stretch our muscles, the smaller our anxiety becomes. It may still be there, but it’s just an inconvenient fly buzzing in our ear.
If none of this feels real to you right now, or if it just sounds too hard, please take heart. The best is yet to come. Growth is possible. One day, you will look back and wonder how you traveled so far.
In fact, now might be a good time to name your victories. What have you already done that you didn’t see yourself doing before? Remember those victories. Write them down and celebrate them. It’s those victories that will remind you that you can do this, and that you can keep on doing it.
Come back every first and third Sunday of the month for more posts about living courageously.