(not) Being Anxious

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By Marie Pappas

It’s a curious fact that people often call me brave.

The actuality is I’m no stranger to anxiety and fearful thinking—but I can see why people might think I’m brave. I have changed homes, entirely alone, to three different foreign countries (so far!). And yet an important meeting, going into a new experience, the prospect of a painful conversation, and walking into a room full of people are just some of the many things that can cause my stomach to churn. (Doing all that moving hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park, either.)

I doubt I am unusual in this. Anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental illnesses, and even setting that aside, the ever-changing economic and political landscape is enough to make anyone uneasy. The national mood in general seems to be clouded by anxiety these days.

While I am not sure how to fully relax my anxieties about elections and economies, long practice has taught me a few tricks when it comes to the fears and anxieties of everyday life. For me, the first step may seem paradoxical—admitting, even embracing my fears. For a long time, I would get incredibly frustrated at myself over my fears and anxieties about everyday things. I felt like there must have been something wrong with me. But the more I tried to tell myself to get a grip and stop being so silly, the worse it would get.

These days, though, I don’t try to scold myself out of it. Instead, I take a moment to stop and breathe. And in that moment, I acknowledge to myself what I’m feeling. Maybe I’m feeling nervous, or maybe I’m afraid. Maybe I have a reason (rational or irrational), but sometimes I don’t. And that’s okay. It is perfectly acceptable. I have found that by taking the time to acknowledge and face my anxieties, I don’t banish them. But I do take away their power to paralyze me. It can be hard to escape from a vortex of negative thoughts. By stopping and thinking about my thoughts, worries, and fears, by definition I have to be outside of them. It’s a way for me to step off the anxiety treadmill.

After breaking free from the grip of my fears, I’ve found Newton’s first law to be a comforting truth: an object in motion tends to stay in motion, while an object at rest tends to stay at rest. That is, once I get started, it’s easy to keep going. The first day at the gym is the hardest; volunteering for a new project at work or getting into the car to drive to a big party is the most difficult part. But once that first step is taken, it generates momentum and it’s not so hard to keep on.

The question is how to take that first step. First, you have to bring your fears along. It’s okay to open the door to a place you’ve never been before with hands that shake a little. I once read in a book that “only priests and fools are fearless,” so when I am afraid, I tell myself that at least I’m not a fool. Besides, if I were to wait until I was fearless, I would never do anything, and how boring would life be then? Another strategy I like is to grab a friend and make a date to do the thing I’m afraid of together. It’s harder to duck out if it means letting down a buddy. Also, having at least one familiar face I know nearby makes it easier to walk into a room full of people I haven’t met.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of mixed satisfaction, exultation, relief, and exhaustion I have after accomplishing something despite my fears and anxieties. Like any skill, confidence in tackling difficult situations comes with practice. The more times I face a closed door, my stomach clenched and my palms sweating, the easier it is to open it anyway, because I’ve done it before. I know from experience that whatever is on the other side, whether it’s difficult or easy, enormously fun or deadly boring, I will come out the other side just fine. With a little luck, I very well might come out with a new friend, a great memory, a little wisdom, or a new skill. And maybe someday the knowledge that I’ll be okay will make it from my head to my nervous system.

In the meantime, I’ll wipe off my palms, take a deep breath, and step forward—bravely.

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