I am one of the many who experience anxiety. Since I was a kid, I’ve felt this niggling sense of wrongness and low-level stress cursing through my veins – I just never had a name for it. Anxiety is in my DNA, my cells, my blood. The fact that I couldn’t cope with things that other people thrived on, like busyness, partying, and getting shit done made me feel like a loser in my twenties. Now that I’m in my mid-30’s, I look back on my life and realise that anxiety has actually been instrumental in forcing me to create an authentic, healthy life that I love. It has been the quiet (or loud) messenger sensibly sending me notifications when I’ve gone off-track. Anxiety has rarely visited me without bringing a gift. This reflection had me asking: is anxiety a disorder or could it also be seen as a healthy response to the inherent ‘wrongness’ that is rampant in our culture and in our own personal lives?
This idea is not original. I’ve been reading Charles Eisenstein’s new book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible (do book titles get any better than this?). In it, Charles says: “A multiplicity of basic human needs go chronically unmet in modern society. These include the need to express one’s gifts and do meaningful work, the need to love and be loved, the need to be truly seen and heard, and to truly see and hear others, the need for connection to nature, the need to play, explore and have adventures, the need for emotional intimacy, the need to serve something larger than oneself, and the need to do absolutely nothing and just be.” When I think back to all the times anxiety has visited me, it has shown me that one or more of these needs is not being met in my life.
Here’s what Beyond Blue has to say: “Anxiety is more than just feeling stressed or worried. While stress and anxious feelings are a common response to a situation where we feel under pressure, they usually pass once the stressful situation has passed, or ‘stressor’ is removed. Anxiety is when these anxious feelings don’t go away – when they’re ongoing and happen without any particular reason or cause. It’s a serious condition that makes it hard to cope with daily life. Everyone feels anxious from time to time, but for someone experiencing anxiety, these feelings aren’t easily controlled. Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. On average, one in four people – one in three women and one in ﬁve men – will experience anxiety at some stage in their life in a 12-month period, over two million Australians experience anxiety.” This sounds like an epidemic – and it is. But maybe it’s an epidemic that is calling us collectively to go within and address the parts of ourselves that are hurting. Perhaps the discomfort of anxiety could be channelled into transforming what we can in our own lives and letting the effects of these changes make their way out into the world.
Sensitive people are often anxious; it is harder for us to stomach the loudness, the wrongness, the rudeness, the harsh chemicals, the passive aggression, the relentless work for work’s sake, the fakeness and the busyness that permeates our culture. We can’t handle it. For the anxious person, the primary choice up until now has been to medicate and get on with business as usual. And by medication, I don’t mean life-saving drugs that are necessary for many people to manage a condition that has become unmanageable. I’m talking about the more ‘acceptable’ medications of overdoing the wine and coffee, talking shit about other people to make yourself feel better, doing good deeds to make yourself look better, being mindlessly busy to stop yourself from feeling (I’ve tried all of these things). These more insidious medications are not bad in themselves. Drinking can be pleasurable, doing good deeds can be genuine, working hard can come from a place of passion. It’s the intent that counts, and for many of us, the reason why we do so many things and have so many addictions is because we’re trying to keep the low-level sense of wrongness at bay. We’re trying to stop ourselves from saying, “fuck this shit”, and opting out of society (because that’s hard, too). But what if there were another option? What if we told ourselves and our children, “anxiety is visiting you for a reason: Pay attention to the pain underneath and let yourself be transformed. Most of all, know that you are not broken, you are already whole and beautiful, and you are so, so loved.” This story is a different kind of medicine – one that is sustainable and beautiful and transformative. And it is just a beginning. If the culture we currently exist in won’t tell us this story, then we must at least tell it to ourselves.
The story around anxiety has been slowly evolving, thanks to writers like Sarah Wilson who have bravely opened their hearts and lives to help the rest of us heal. What I love about Wilson’s book, first, we make the beast beautiful, is that she advocates facing anxiety and paying attention to it without minimising how difficult and painful this process is. In a blog post, she says: “Do you feel there is more to this mortal coil than what is served to us on the conveyor belt? Sure, we can stick to the conveyor-belt. But if we have a glimpse of a bigger truth we have to step off and wrestle our own way to our better ending. We have to go down in the muck and the mire and get ugly with ourselves for a bit. We need to practice this sitting in non-happeningness to be able to experience the freedom that comes with it. We need to sit in this still, alone shit when we start to fret that no one has called, or when there’s no little red notification on your Instagram app, or when a day passes without discernible achievement.” Anxiety forced Sarah Wilson to get off the conveyor belt (she was a top magazine editor and TV host), and as a result, she has created so much beauty and awareness in her life and work.
Entrepreneur and writer Danielle LaPorte adds to the conversation on Wilson’s blog, “Every time anxiety shows up, it’s our psyche’s way of saying, “knock knock, I’ve got something to show you about yourself that you really should see. Anxiety is a wakeup call, it’s our soul’s GPS system that tells us when things aren’t right. When you’re in the anxiety, sure, you can’t analyse what your soul is saying and get back to centre. The trick, then, is that when you’re back to centre, you MUST analyse what got you off centre.” Contrast this with the the conventional message about anxiety on a leading health website, “You have a mental health condition. It’s called anxiety.” Which story feels more empowering?
There’s no getting around the fact that anxiety is a modern-day epidemic. For me, rather than a disease, the anxiety that so many people are experiencing feels like a collective cracking-open – a chance for us to band together and say, “me too” (I love the brave souls who speak openly about their experiences on social media). Maybe anxiety is not a sickness meant to be endured alone, but a vehicle for individual and social transformation. When we start embracing it as a trusted, yet brutally honest, friend who is visiting to say, “hi, I’m inviting you to face your pain and transform it” we are also empowered to access the empathy, compassion and love that we long to give ourselves and each other. Making friends with anxiety is not easy, but it is possible. And it can be beautiful.