I have been quite open about my bouts with anxiety throughout my life. Yep, from my vomiting spells before class every day in middle school to sexual dysfunction as an adult. It’s all bad, but I held all my issues up for all to see as a plea for support and help.
Last Thanksgiving, a spell of intrusive thoughts hit me at the wrong time and turned my whole world upside down. “Whoa whoa whoa! What the h&$) does that mean!?” “Why am I thinking about this?” “What’s wrong with me?” I have spent the last 9 months carrying on with life as usual trying to answer these unanswerable questions. Carrying on life as usual is difficult as-is providing for my growing family financially and emotionally, juggling leadership responsibilities for a large company, and trying to maintain my own fading aspirations. But all this mental distress on top of it? It was too much for me. I broke. I guess no better way to end a decade of your life than with a nervous breakdown, am I right, guys!?
As I have come out on the other side and am learning to enjoy all of life again, I noticed three things that really stood out to me in my journey. I care about you, so I wanted to share them with the hope that perhaps they could help you if you are facing something similar.
1. You cannot beat it alone.
Don’t leave! I know how overused that comment is but I promise there’s more to it. When I say you can’t beat this alone, I don’t mean surround yourself with as many people as you can find. I promise you, that road has been tested and it never helped anyone in their heart. I don’t even mean surround yourself with the people that should be the ones that are there for you. Mom? Dad? Husband? Wife? We expect these people to be the ones, but not all of us are in a Hallmark situation. Not every mom and dad knows how to support their hurting kid. Not every husband or wife has the strength to love in the hardest of times or when there isn’t much return.
The Right Help
I truly believe that if you continue to seek the help and support that you need, the right people in your life will line up with you. My wife had a difficult time adjusting to my sudden neediness and insecurity. It would take months of me trying different angles to share that I was struggling, that I didn’t understand, and that I wanted help. She eventually had a sudden change of heart as she worked through her own blockage to it. I think she felt that I was ok, and that we could just work through it together. In the end, she was right, and that’s all I wanted. But that true support was a massive missing link for me to start on my road to recovery. She said it best when she said “Well, you can physically be there at the pool while someone drowns but it won’t do them much good unless you engage.”
In the end, if we can’t rely on what’s right, we have to rely on ourselves and the spirit inside us saying there is more. Find a friend, a support group, see a counselor, and I mean a good one, too, not just the ok one that your EAP covers for free. You are worth the cost of appropriate care. Look up the right therapist based on what your needs are. Look at their background and one who focuses on the area you need focus in. Meet them and test them instead of settling. It might take a few first dates to meet someone worth taking out again. Do they seem excited to make a difference in your life? Do they give you confidence being around them? These are important questions in which the answer should be yes for you to get the most out of therapy. If you are in Chattanooga, TN, I would highly recommend Dr. Brandon Santan.
If you do have the right support, for the love of God, use it. Use it every day. Lean in, open up, be brave. You’re not strong if you think you are holding the house up all by yourself, my friend. Men especially, I am talking to you. The more support you have, the better chance you have to get out and get back to you, back to caring for your family the way you know you can.
2. There is more to you than just your mind.
This idea was first planted in my mind after stumbling across the trending Enneagram. Early last year I took a paid RHETI test for fun just because we were at a family gathering and it came up. It is certainly interesting stuff. By the way, I’m a SP 1 with a 2 wing.
Hang with me, this isn’t an Enneagram piece. Information about the Intelligence Centers is readily available, but the most in depth study I have read came from Christopher Heuertz’ book, The Sacred Enneagram. It explains that we have wisdom, or intelligence, in three areas, and each of us gravitate more toward one than the others. We can exercise them all, though, and that’s exactly what we should do.
The Mind and The Body
Most of my anxious states were triggered by disturbing thoughts. I would get myself so exhausted trying to work through those thoughts, what they could possibly mean, how there was something wrong with me, that I became overly sensitized and confused by them. I began to feel hopeless, even feeling abandoned by my own self, wondering why my mind, aka me, had turned against myself. This is what sparked the depression I went through.
After reading that book, talking to my wife (like a lot), practicing mindfulness, and most importantly, detaching from the belief that I am what I think, I realized there is more to me than just my mind. Despite having repetitive, often disturbing thoughts, I started reminding myself that my body would never do any of the unusual things passing through my thoughts. My heightened anxious emotion, caused by sensitization took an experience I was having, possibly a thought that triggered fear, and made it seem real. Recently, this was set in stone by listening to a podcast about the Wise Mind, aka the gut. It was incredibly relieving to reconnect with myself by realizing that I could in fact lean on the goodness inside me, my gut reaction, and I was not alone.
3. Anxiety has tactics, and you can learn them.
Possibly the best thing I will share today is this audio recording of Dr. Claire Weekes. She is considered by many to be “the one who cracked the anxiety code.” Her voice and accent are calming alone, but her confidence and passion are truly inspiring. One of my favorite things she shares is that “No matter if you have suffered a long while, your body is just as ready to change as someone who has suffered a short while. Your illness is largely in the way that you think, and the way you think can be changed.” This is the core of all behavioral therapy, teaching you that your mind has the capacity to change. She also says “No one ought to be bluffed by a thought.”
Aside from the inspiration, Dr. Weekes will enlighten you with a lot of logic to understand anxiety. This is awfully helpful to the anxious person as they seek order in it all. Understanding the progression of anxiety also helps you put those important mindfulness practices, like acceptance, to work.
She explains that anxiety has tactics, an agenda, if you will. This can be difficult to understand or comprehend as it could give the feeling that “somebody is after you.” That isn’t the case. Anxiety can be relentless and its energy relies on your attention, which translates to the energy that fuels it. So basically, anxiety is fighting for your attention, and the more you wrestle with it, the faster you sink, much like quicksand.
1. Anxious states so often begin with “sensitization“, or a tired mind. This is a learned process where we react to certain stimuli, but the more we react to it, the more amplified the response becomes. We eventually become emotionally exhausted and are zapped of the experiences we face, including those of joy and serenity.
2. If we stay in a state of sensitization for too long and do not understand why, we become “bewildered” by it. Bewilderment is a state of deep perplexity and confusion. In Dr. Weekes’ words, “Bewilderment keeps sensitization and fear alive.”
3. Finally, fear caused by these states of sensitization and bewilderment continually douse the fiery state of anxious energy with more gasoline.
This is where all of this mess ties together now.
Our bodies will naturally release what Dr. Weekes refers to as “first fear” as a response to defense. Whether that is a thought that goes against our character, or a physical response to danger, this first fear is our natural gut reaction. Our bodies naturally recover from this quickly. But it is the “second fear” where we add stress to stress. This is the fuel for bewilderment, that which keeps us sensitized and unable to recover to a natural, peaceful state.
At the end of the day, the fight is ours to fight. Nervous illness for the average person can be cured through adequate help, awareness, and practice. None of these things can be accomplished without utter acceptance. Accept and thank your body for the protection it is trying to give to you. Accept whatever unusual thought connection your brain makes. Whatever unusual thought. Thank your mind for its capacity to make connections, and accept that sometimes those connections can be wrong. Thank it because it is trying to confirm your identity.
Working with your anxiety rather than against it may feel extremely uncomfortable for a while. Shouldn’t it, though? Isn’t it a habit you have made, perhaps for years? Wouldn’t you be wild to just go about after months, years, without thinking of or reacting to the things you’ve thought of and reacted to for a long time? Do not defeat yourself for having a thought, or having a reaction. Any change is uncomfortable, but my friend, this is a change that is worth that discomfort. Every moment of it. Be thankful when you have the thought, the reaction, because it is a chance to practice this change. You are loved.