Anxiety disorders have the ability to make your world smaller and smaller as you avoid an over-growing list of places, activities, and situations that trigger more anxiety than you think you can handle. My anxiety disorders have led me to avoid (and miss out on) a lot over the past few years: attending social gatherings, going on trips with my husband, travelling to my home town to visit my family. During those years, I’ve been trying diligently to resolve my anxiety issues, waiting for the day when I expected I would finally banish my symptoms and feel “ready” to be a full-fledged participant in the world again. In the meantime, I’ve continued living in my little bubble of avoidance and safety.
I’ve been reflecting on that approach a lot lately, on the assumptions and limiting beliefs that have kept me on the sidelines of life while I’ve struggled with anxiety. It took a recent conversation with a good friend for me to start challenging those assumptions in my mind, and for me to start to realize that they really were just assumptions, not necessarily the unassailable truth – I sometimes forget that anxiety lies to me, and makes me believe things that aren’t necessarily true.
So lately I’ve been trying to get my head around the idea that maybe I don’t have to wait until that magic day when my anxiety is cured before I start doing the things I’ve been avoiding. I honestly don’t even believe (at least not anymore) that there is such a thing as a “cure” with anxiety disorders, just an increasing ability to manage symptoms (although there’s probably still some small part of me that dreams that there is a miracle fix somewhere out there). Even knowing that there is no wondrous cure coming, I guess I’ve still been waiting for the illusory day when anxiety would be a barely-perceptible part of my life, and then I would get on with that life. Now I’m trying to accept that getting to that point might take me a while – after all, I didn’t get the way I am overnight, so fixing it is going to take some time, maybe even the rest of my life. And I’m going to have to be OK with that.
Today I’m reflecting on a passage I read in The Worry Trap by Chad LeJeune, a book about using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy to manage anxiety. It has lots of great analogies in it, and the one I’m currently thinking of is about passengers on a bus. LeJeune uses the image of your life as a bus that you’re driving, and anxiety as one of the passengers you might pick up along the way, a particularly loud, obnoxious one. Just as LeJeune suggests in the book, when I see Anxiety waiting to get on “my bus,” my urge is often to drive right by that stop, and to take a complicated, inconvenient route to avoid that stop in the future; in doing so, I probably miss some really valuable stops. Or alternatively, if I actually let Anxiety get on my bus, I’ll typically spend all my time and energy trying to quiet down this rude, overbearing passenger, pulling over frequently to try to control him, until the bus is just stopped altogether, and I’m going nowhere. (Oh, and sorry guys, no gender offence intended, but for some reason Anxiety is a “him” for me; maybe it’s because I want to separate or detach myself from anxiety the feeling, and it’s easier to do that if Anxiety the person is the opposite gender to me.)
LeJeune suggests that there is a different, better way to deal with this difficult passenger, and I’m starting to embrace that other way. I imagine myself driving my bus, fully anticipating that Anxiety will be at one of my stops (after all, as my psychiatrist gently reminded me this week, “Yes, you will be anxious sometimes – you have anxiety.”) I picture myself pulling up to the stop where Anxiety waits, and I cheerfully shout to him, “Well, I’ve been expecting you! Get on if you want to, but this bus is going, with or without you. And don’t expect any attention from me along the way!” And I picture Anxiety getting on board, and off I go, with Anxiety as my passenger. He’s not a particularly welcome passenger, but for now at least, he’s going to be on my bus sometimes and I can keep right on driving my desired route with him on board. And maybe if I just let him on and allow him do his thing without gaining attention (or distress) from me, he might just shut up after a while.
I’m thinking a lot about that bus story today. I know I’ve still got work to do on myself, lots of it. But I guess while I continue on with that work, I could also venture out into the wider world a bit more. Sure, I’ll probably be anxious while I do it, and that feels scary to me. But maybe that doesn’t have to hold me back any more. Maybe it’s time to stop waiting. Maybe it’s time to start living.