This sermon was for the September 13th streaming service for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick.
I like to remind myself that I would have lived. That several thousand years ago, I would have known that sometimes when the grasses rustle, it’s because there’s an apex predator behind them feeling a bit peckish. I would have known not to step on the wobbly rock in the river. And I definitely would not have tried any unknown berries that Thagmok brought back from foraging. I would have lived.
My therapist once told me that anxiety disorders are partly hereditary and partly environmental. To trigger an anxiety disorder, there needs to be a precipitating factor. For me, that light switch activated when I was around 13. A close friend died from leukemia. It was my first big death, and she was one of my peers – another tween like me. Right around the same time, the economy crashed. My dad was in construction and my family lost everything. The combination of death and disaster right as I was physically transforming into a teenager was more than enough to fundamentally alter the way my brain works.
To live with anxiety is to live with a cold fear deep in your belly. It’s a constant waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s a paranoia that the good things and kind people in your life are just veils and that they only barely cover a darker truth.
You see, without those rustling bushes and poisoned berries, an anxiety disorder like mine latches onto stimuli that isn’t threatening. Without visceral threats, normal parts of life take on a menacing aspect and trigger fear. The imagined consequences of actions are out of proportion. A small social misstep will cause me to fear losing my friends forever. Sometimes just getting in the car or watching my partner leave for work is difficult. Worst case scenarios and their accompanying fear play across my mind’s eye.
I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be neurotypical – to have a brain that doesn’t see quite so many things as threatening. I wonder what it would be like not to be afraid all the time.
But to live with anxiety is to also live with an uncomfortable superpower. It’s not all bad. My physical vision is not great anymore. I need glasses to see things clearly that are further away. However, even without glasses, my ability to detect movement and analyze shapes is unusually good. This has saved my dog and I from encountering a skunk late at night on more than one occasion. I also see dangerous patterns in traffic before they happen and have avoided collisions multiple times due to my involuntary warning system. I’m a little jumpy, but I’ve taken more good than harm from that.
My higher levels of anxiety also translate to a certain level of quality control. Even when I’m making something for fun, as a hobby, there’s a level of quality I’m unwilling to compromise on. When I submit something for work, or give something as a gift, it has been gone over many times. The weird side effect of that anxiety-fueled perfectionism is I tend to be effective in many areas of life. Fear is a powerful motivator, and when I’m not locked in or frozen with it, it keeps me on my toes.
There are ways to make living with anxiety more manageable. You see, what makes us anxious varies from person to person but is generally consistent on an individual level. Something that makes you anxious today will also do so a week from now. Self-study and tracking anxiety can teach you how to manage it. Once you know what specifically makes you anxious, you can start to shape your life in ways that reduce anxiety-causing stimuli.
The answer to ‘What makes you anxious?’ isn’t just ‘The News.’
That’s an easy answer but it’s not the whole picture. We need to consider timing. How much news can you read or watch before you feel anxious? 5 minutes? 20? What time of day is it when the anxiety is worse? If you read the news in the morning, does it trigger more or less anxiety than in the evening? What kinds of articles, specifically, set off anxiety?
When I was first in therapy for my anxiety disorder, my therapist had me start tracking. Every time I felt anxious, I wrote down what was happening and gave my anxiety a number level from one to ten, with ten being a panic attack and one being mild uneasiness. I did this for two weeks just to observe what my brain was doing and start to get a baseline.
For example, one of the things that will set off a panic cycle is running late. I’m that annoying party guest that shows up exactly on time and makes awkward small talk while waiting for the other guests to arrive. The thing is, that mild social discomfort is preferable to how I feel if I’m running late. I would rather sit in the car for 15 minutes upon arriving at my destination than run late. So, since I know running late is a trigger, I always allow more time for travel.
I know that certain kinds of conflict can trigger my anxiety. My partner and I have designated check-in times when we talk over challenges we’re facing. It’s a time where we specifically focus on helping each other, listening, and being open to constructive criticism. This means that if my partner brings up a behavior of mine that is causing them distress, I’m in a calm place so I can hear them clearly and not perceive their words as a threat.
Understanding the exact triggers that make you anxious is the first step to living with less fear.
To be human is to be aware of mortality, of all the pitfalls living can expose us to. Anxiety is natural. Anxiety is my brain’s way of trying to protect me. Remember the rustling of the grasses? My brain is trying to save my life.
One of my favorite tools for managing my anxiety is to thank it. Really. I say ‘thank you.’ Thank you for trying to protect me. I know you’re frightened, and I understand why. But I’ve got this, and we’re going to be okay.
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