I’m restless. I worry a lot. I talk a lot. My mind races. People have called me high energy or hyper my whole life. Over the last two years, I’ve come to recognize that I have generalized anxiety disorder.
I have a lot of company, given that 18% of adults in the US (40 million people) have some form of anxiety: panic disorder, social anxiety, specific phobias, OCD, PTSD, or my type, GAD, aka generalized anxiety–which also looks like fear, worry, and dread.
Whether anxiety first appears in the body, my thoughts or my brain chemistry, it soon travels to all three centers. I do my best to address my anxiety on several fronts. It’s something that requires my attention every day so that I can function. I consider it a part-time job.
If people know what to look for, they can read the anxiety in my body.
I fidget. I tap my toes, doodle, wiggle in my chair, stand in the back of the room during meetings, rifle through my purse. I move fast—my feet, my hands, my mouth. I often get headaches, neck aches and backaches. I grind my teeth. Others with GAD experience problems with their GI track. I startle easily since I hold so much tension in my body. I feel as though a current of electricity is coursing through my body. It’s always humming—sometimes louder, sometimes softer, but always present.
Unfortunately, these behaviors can communicate anxiety to people around me and it can make it hard for me to sleep, eat or work. Consequently, I try to wring the anxiety out of my body through cardiovascular exercise, deep breathing exercises, progressive relaxation techniques and yoga. Sometimes I lift weights. I’ve been practicing yoga at least once a week, sometimes more, since 2004. It’s the most effective way for me to reduce the embodiment of my anxiety. If I work to still my body, my mind and my brain chemistry follow.
My anxiety also can run wild in my thoughts.
I talk fast, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. I often experience racing thoughts. Thanks to my many years as an avid reader and my 10 years in three different graduate degree programs, I have a lot of fuel to put my mind in overdrive. I think quickly about dozens of topics at once. I review events from the past. I anticipate events in the future. I analyze present phenomena through dozens of frameworks in rapid succession. It’s hard for me to take things at face value.
Psychologists suggest cognitive behavior therapy CBT, but after seeing 7 therapists over 25 years, I find psychotherapy to be just another rabbit hole. The most effective way to harness my mind is by reading Zen Buddhist meditations. They teach the art of not thinking. I anchor my mind to my breath and to my immediate surroundings. I escape regrets from the past or worry about the future. I reduce my world to the present moment, and my anxiety diminishes. For those wanting a licensed therapist to help achieve a similar result, Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is the psychological school of thought where East meets West. I’ve seen a lot of evidence-based research heralding MBCT’s results for both anxiety and depression.
In my own religious tradition, I find the Psalms, some hymns and the teachings of Jesus contain similar peaceful results. But I have to be careful about reading a lot of doctrine, theology, and other religious texts. If a text focuses a lot on complex and abstract theology or if conveys shame or includes long lists of “shoulds,” I actually suffer greater anxiety in the name of religion. I used to poor over the letters of Paul and think complex thoughts about spirituality. At midlife, I prefer a more basic approach. My favorite scripture over the last decade has been “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalms 46:10).
I recognize that my anxiety has a chemical basis in my brain.
My constant companion “dread” isn’t necessarily tied to something I’ve done (sin) or something I am (crazy, evil or stupid). It’s a bio-chemical phenomenon that is telling me there is a big problem. It’s not real. It’s faulty wiring. I have to tell myself constantly that the great dread I’m feeling can’t be fixed by talking, organizing, apologizing, cleaning, or in other words working to “fix” the horrible problem that is looming somewhere in my psyche, my soul or my actions.
So far, I have been able to address my anxiety by exercising, eating balanced meals, getting a good night’s sleep, avoiding overcommitting, and monitoring my thoughts. However, I see that prescription medication is a valid avenue for addressing uncontrolled anxiety as a complement to these other strategies. And if I have a prolonged time period where I have trouble eating, sleeping, working or maintaining healthy relationships, I will ask my doctor to help me find a prescription medication for managing anxiety.
Actually, there was one time that my body was totally free of all tension and anxiety. It was a moment of grace where I felt the presence of God speak to me. But that’s another story. For now, let’s just note that it takes an act of God to achieve total relief from my anxiety. In the meantime, I work every day to address my anxiety so that it stays within manageable levels.