Facing Your Anxiety

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By Carolyn Shields

One of the biggest fruits of prayer is recognizing the signs, from wherever or whoever, and it can only come from lots of interior stillness. Whether that’s hearing God’s whisper, calling out the devil while he lays his traps, or even feeling the currents shift within you, we can all benefit a ton from slowing down to read the signs. They’re usually subtle but they aren’t hidden. You just have to know how to recognize them.

I knew after the high from publishing Visio Divina, combined with the usual mental struggles of this time of month and this time of year, that I needed to brace myself a bit. But recognizing things is one thing, going through it is another. So when I woke up already tense with anxiety, I knew it was going to be challenging day.

Oh boy.

I’ve struggled with anxiety since I was little, though I never knew its name until my senior year of college. I go through seasons in life when it can be, well, crippling and paralyzing, and I go through seasons in life when my prescription expires and I forget I even have it. Sometimes it can be triggered, other times I look down at my lap while driving and realize I’m clenching my fist. There’s not much rhyme or reason to it but occasionally there are signs, like the world’s softest knock.

This season is the more sucky one. And these months? Under these circumstances? Well, it was hard to get out of bed this week because oftentimes, anxiety is just the start of interior and spiritual struggles for me.

A few months ago I read something by Fr. Michael Gaitley that gave me a lot of comfort: “While desolation is a spiritual reality, it’s closely linked to our natural feelings and moods. In fact, it easily sprouts up in the fertile soil of our dark and down emotional states.” It was a comfort because it made things normal. It’s hard to explain, but maybe you get it.

Being anxious doesn’t always mean being depressed or sinking into a spiritual desolation, but for me it usually looks like this: I feel anxious, which makes me even more anxious because I don’t want to be anxious, and then I become upset because I hate feeling this way and then overwhelmed and gosh I just want to cry because this is hard and then what the heck, God, this sucks, and this is hard but I trust in You but why…

So while sitting at my desk at work after a morning of mounting anxiety, I started to feel the physical symptoms. I hate it when it gets that far: nausea, the shakes, and other stuff…Usually it’s just like this persistent hum. I always had the image of a hive of bees in my chest, and I can get used to that buzz, but sometimes that hive gets really agitated. Like today. Thank God, I was able to make it to the chapel where I curled up in my pew and shut my eyes off from the rest of the world.

It felt like a thousand not important things were demanding for my immediate attention, and I thought about my usual responses. You know that fight or flight thing? Flight, total flight. So I retreated to the chapel. Check. But I pressed on.

Okay, I thought. I can ignore it by taking a nap. I don’t always feel that much better afterwards, but sometimes sleeping it off does help. Or I can run away from it by keeping myself busy and going home, distracting myself. Which isn’t a bad thing, because anxiety is just one big lie and sometimes shrugging it off as just that helps. Other times I do fight it, but it’s exhausting how going to a friend’s house feels like the bravest thing in the world to do. You know that episode from the Office where Dwight fights himself? That’s what it feels like fighting anxiety, only way less comical. You become your own opponent, and my gosh do you know the shots before they’re fired.

But instead of all those usual tactics, I looked up at the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue, felt that freaking tug on my heart again about praying a novena to the Sacred or Immaculate Heart, tried to overlook his apparent hat hair, and focused on his outstretched hand.

Alright, I thought. What happens if I just face it? What if I just said okay to this anxiety?

And the next twenty minutes, I sat there, letting it wash over me. I imagined just standing very still in some nondescript, barren landscape as an army surged at me but it turned out to only be the wind. But still, it lasted twenty minutes, and I forced myself to stand there as it kept rushing by me.

And, well, I would be lying if I said it stopped after that. My heart rate still wasn’t normal, and sitting here I’m still a bit off, and that’s okay. But instead of ignoring it, fighting it, running away from it (all valid responses!), facing it gave me a new perspective.

I’ve been learning to find a lot of peace in things that are out of my control. Why? Because that usually means God’s totally behind it. If I can’t make this anxiety go away with medication or prayer or any line up of antidotes, then there’s something happening behind the scenes for a reason. So I said okay. Let’s just face it.

It felt like facing a boggart or standing my ground at a lion charging or calling out a phony. I tipped the power back in my court. (18yr old guy language: come at me, bro) And it was way less exhausting than any of my previous methods. “What even are you?” I asked, and it didn’t even have a name.

Engaging with reality, even the sucky parts of it, well, especially the sucky parts of it, strengthens us. It makes us grow. A lot. It can be so hard giving our okay to something that seems out of our control. (Heart break? Okay. Poverty? Okay. Humiliation? Okay. Failure? Okay.) But it awakens your free will. It echos the fiat. Exteriorly, it doesn’t change much. You still might blush, your heart rate will still be erratic, and you may still cry a lot. But interiorly, it changes everything.