Redefining Bravery (in a life steeped in anxiety)

Like a lot of folks with anxiety disorders, I have an ongoing monologue in my head pretty much every waking moment (also known as “self-talk), in which I constantly judge myself and the things I’m doing (or have done). Usually I don’t even notice I’m doing it (not consciously at least), it’s just second nature.

Too frequently my inner monologue consists of throwing a lot negative words at myself, words like “weak,” “stupid,” or “loser.” After all, I think, how else could I describe someone whose anxiety issues make it ridiculously hard to do things everybody else just takes for granted, things like grocery shopping, eating with friends, or going down to my basement (there could be mice down there!)? It frustrates me that I have to expend so much energy just doing the things that I consider the bare minimum for normal functioning, things that I feel like I should be able to do with ease. Everybody else does it, why can’t I? Thoughts like these leave me feeling like I’m less than everybody else, and, sometimes, kind of ashamed of myself. 

One example of my typical self-talk is the things I would say to myself when my drive home from work would inevitably take me across a fairly short bridge over the North Saskatchewan River. Driving over bridges is one of the (many) things that make me anxious, but I live on the south side of the river and I work on the north side, so I have to get across one way or another! I drive over that bridge every day I go to work, and every single time I do it I feel my heart quicken and my body tense up, even after having done it hundreds of times. My reaction isn’t as intense as it used to be, but it’s still there. And my most frequent response to that sensation is to think to myself, “Damn, there it is again, that stupid bridge fear. Why hasn’t it gone away? Are any of my ridiculous fears ever going to go away? I don’t see how I’ll ever get any better at all.” (Yeah, it’s pretty common for me to take something relatively minor and turn it into evidence of some sort of inescapable hopelessness.)

Just lately, though, in keeping with the principles of my Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, I’ve been trying to respond less negatively to my fearful feelings as I drive across the bridge, and not to resist or challenge my anxiety. Instead, I try to accept and almost embrace that nervousness. I try to interpret my slightly panicky sensations more as excitement, like an adrenaline rush, and I let out an enthusiastic “Whoop!” as I drive along (after ensuring the car windows are rolled up, goodness knows what other drivers would think of this woman who appears to get her thrills from rush hour traffic!).

One day recently, as I arrived safely as usual on the south side of the river on the way home, I was feeling a bit silly for acting like driving over an ordinary bridge was akin to some sort of extreme sport like skydiving or rock climbing, activities that take a lot of bravery to do. Then I remembered the ideas in my blog post that talked about anxiety as “The Passenger on My Bus.” I was thinking especially about the idea of accepting (for now at least) the fact that doing some things will make me anxious – and what matters isn’t that I’m anxious, but that I’m doing those things anyway.

Most of the time, because I know my fears are irrational, I tend to consider them unimportant (no matter how strongly I might feel them). So I usually believe that acting in spite of those fears isn’t remotely courageous, it’s just what I ought to be able to do anyway, like everyone else does. But that day I realized that feeling afraid and doing something anyway is what bravery really is, even if it is doing “normal” things, like driving across a bridge; it’s not the activity itself that defines bravery, it’s the very fact of acting in the face of fear, whatever that fear may be. So for people like me with anxiety disorders whose brains get thrown into a state of fear more easily than most, and who feel anxious just doing everyday tasks, I guess maybe we’re brave a whole lot of the time.

So lately I’m trying to remember to use more positive words in my self-talk. Words like “brave,” “strong,” and “warrior.” There are still days I have a hard time accepting that those words could actually describe me. But I’m starting to find that there are also days when I believe they actually do.

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