I was originally going to title this blog entry “My Addicted Life”. I was inclined towards the title because Anxiety can feel like an addiction, and my particular brand of anxiety, that special kind linked with obsession, can be a cycle that feels out of touch. I feel at once guilty for my lack of control over this weird bodily quirk, and also drawn to it, nearly doomed to repeat it over and over again.
Anxiety came to the table in our home uninvited a few weeks ago, attacking in a way unfamiliar to me, and that is to say, it came at my partner instead of at me. As a minor incident of discomfort quickly turned into a series of panicked situations.
So we did all of the things that I wish I’d done when first confronted with anxiety. We cancelled daily responsibilities for a day, and went to the doctor. We talked about the experience. We worked on controlling our thoughts in situations of high stress.
We talked to people about our experience, too, because anxiety can be very isolating. It feels intimate, and I think that’s where the sense of addiction comes in: I have this intimate thing that I can’t share because everyone will think I’m crazy, but I can’t stop because...I am crazy? And what we found was that every single person we talked to said “oh, actually I’ve been through a period of that myself.” Or “I’ve never felt that way but I know someone who has and this is what they did…” There was a huge outpouring of empathy, and within it, a common trend of stories. Personal narratives, essays of experience, were brought to light, all centering around some issue or emotion that hadn’t been expressed adequately suddenly bubbling to the surface, with the resolution coming only once the protagonist had reconnected their surface story with their back story (their emotional ebb).
These stories made me dig deeper, and ultimately, I decided to move away from the idea of Anxiety as an addiction, because I’ve realised through the stories above that I was dead wrong. Anxiety is a visceral, shockingly present reality, a moment of being forced uncomfortably to confront our inner lives. Christiane Northrup, M.D., in her discussion of intuition and intuitive guidance writes “...addictions keep us out of touch with what we know and what we feel and most of us are out of touch with our intuition much of the time…”(Northrup 59) Anxiety is not being out of touch--it is a physical response calling us back to the centre, whether we like it or not. Quickened heart rate, diarrhea, insomnia, heartburn, etc. Lots of symptoms, and you have have all of them, or some of them, or a handful every once in awhile, and all of them say “I will not be denied!”
I’ve started to think of the physical response that is anxiety as a combination of our higher intellect and our gut-intellect. The higher intellectual part determines the logical outcomes of the situation and elaborates on them. This is the part of the brain that is telling the narrative of your day to day, and also the narrative of your “attack”. Then there is the gut-intellect, and this is the flurry of hormones and genuine “gut” reactions that make you say “oh, I’m getting anxious” or “I feel like I’m dying.” Gut-intellect is also that primal reaction that reads people before you even get the chance at interaction, and it’s the bit that waters your eyes with emotion, that tells you that you are experiencing joy, or loss. Before you jump ship and decide I’ve taken to wishy-washy madness, note that Chistiane Northrup discusses the enteric nervous system (the gut) with reference to Columbia researcher Michael Gershon, M.D., who “details the discovery and gradual scientific acceptance of the enteric nervous system, which actually operates independently from the brain in the head…[and produces] 95% of the body’s seratonin!” (Northrup 54)
So at the crux of anxiety, we have the interaction of the intellectual response to a situation mixed with gut-intellect. And based on the anecdotes of those we spoke with over the past few weeks, and knowing my own and my partner’s experience, it seems that our anxiety based gut reactions were rooted in something that was being held back and not allowed into the daily flow of our intellectual narrative. For example: “I’d never experienced anxiety before, but it came over me in a wave, and after I’d calmed down I realised that I’d been feeling worse and worse about this situation at work, and nothing made me feel better until I talked/cried/worked out.” That’s a common one.
Or, in deeper situations, it seems that the gut reaction has been suppressed for a while, and as a result becomes inflamed. This brought light to my most recent wave of anxiety, and my voyage home. I had separated from my ex, an overwhelming split that had left me feeling raw and defensive. Fighting for survival in a foreign country, I put all of my energies into working hard and keeping myself afloat. I networked and built up relationships, but didn’t take time to process the loss I was experiencing. Eventually, as I sat a year later with my partner, the tension flooded me and I started weeping for home. It was the least control I had exercised over my emotions in about two years. And when I finally arrived again at home months later, courtesy of my partner who immediately recognised that need, I cried constantly. I cried over familiar songs, talking to family, friends, eating familiar foods, even familiar landscapes. I cried over my partner taking care of me. It was a tremendous and uncontrolled release. And after this experience, and the reinvigoration of those relationships I’d been torn up about, I came back ready to take charge of a new narrative in life, one where I integrated my gut with my intellectual side BEFORE I became anxious. I would be owning my story, and experiencing my emotions as and how I needed.
This leads to the critical point here, where we talk about bringing our gut-intellect into line with our higher intellect and our actions. My anxiety is not an addiction--it is a learned response, a demand from my body to experience and process those things I’ve constantly tried to control. My way out of it is a narrative written not by denying my gut, but by embracing it. So I embraced my gut (an odd term I know), and I came back and recognised the change that needed to happen for me to move forward and feel healthy. I needed stability, I needed a new environment, and progression. I took control and took a leap--I had a chat with my partner and told him what I needed to have happen. Then I talked to my boss and explained the kind of change that I was looking for, expressing my reasoning behind that change.
I connected with myself, aired the suppressed emotions, and jumped into a more connected personal narrative. This is a skill that I’m still trying to perfect. How do we allow ourselves to express our gut-intellects and create our own narratives?
Part of this process is learning that your gut reaction, which is your body’s way of telling you that you need to address something NOW, is not a selfish thing to be denied. Parker Palmer writes, “I have become clear about at least one thing: self-care is never a selfish act--it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others.”(Palmer 30) In other words, caring for yourself is the only way you can ensure you’ll still be around for all of those connections and commitments you’ve made...and if these things are important enough for you to have an anxiety attack about missing, then surely the maintenance of yourself is at the top of the list.
And how to do the work of maintaining oneself, of writing that personal narrative? Well, there’s the big question, and my challenge to you (and to myself!) moving forward.
Northrup, Christiane. Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. New York, New York: Bantam Dell, 2006. print.
Palmer, Parker. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2000. print.