Navigating anxiety and the unspoken abyss

Some days I am a fizz of adrenaline and avoidance. I am like a bee buzzing around and doing everything but the things that need doing. You see, I suffer from anxiety. I can become anxious about public speaking, anxious about running workshops, travel or looming deadlines and anxious about social situations. Yup, all that.

It actually took me a long time to realise this elevated fear was not something everyone feels all the time and that it might be something I could do something about. In part because my feelings of anxiety lurk inside, and don’t always express themselves outwardly, it wasn’t something others could see or help me see in myself. I didn’t realise that 11 out of 10 nerves for some work tasks wasn’t something everyone has. It took a long time to realise that the mismatch between what I can do and what I believe I can do was so large, and that I was seeing a huge gaping abyss where others saw a jaunty bridge. ‘Competent but not confident’ someone once described it.

What a pain, right?

Who wants that?

Don’t we all want to be cool, calm and collected, slouching along our way like a yesteryear cowboy or lounging like a glamorous sequined screen siren – slick and relaxed, insouciant, luxuriating in life? Not a frizzy, buzzing, pained, hand wringing person.

So let me introduce you to my anxiety. My anxiety grows bigger and subterranean when the tasks I am facing appear too big for me (something ‘high stakes’ or new that I feel like I am not likely to do well at) or when they begin to be tinged with guilt. My anxiety has a habit of snowballing, especially when I feel like I’m letting other people down. A horrible cycle of fear – avoidance – guilt emerges when I start to feel I am letting someone down by not doing the task that needs doing (the task I am avoiding because I feel too scared to do it).

Left unchecked, anxiety leads me to avoidance, which leads me to guilt, which leads me to more anxiety. If I ignore it, and try to busy myself through it, I can get lost in the feelings of anxiety and my desperate wish to run fast enough that they can’t catch me.

So… what can we do to manage these feelings and function despite them? Can we learn to love our anxiety or quotient it or to work with it?

For me, one of the simplest things that I find works is twofold – naming and nurturing.

By naming I mean acknowledging to myself that I am feeling anxious, but beyond that, actually speaking the fears to someone else; a trusted friend, a therapist, mentor or coach. The more anxious I become, the less likely it is I have spoken with someone about the concern. Sometimes when we feel ‘silly’ for being worried about something that we perceive as trivial or not worthy of fear we censor ourselves and find the fears going unspoken. They persist, but forced underground they grow unchecked and can drive our behaviours in ways we don’t even understand. When I name it, and speak it out I often hear myself explaining it in ways that reveal to me why the fear is justified, normal, to be expected. I validate my own feelings by acknowledging them, and by hearing the other person accept them at face value with curiosity and empathy.

By nurturing I mean flooding myself with alternate messages that honour my feelings and bolster my mood. I tell myself things that make me feel safe and loved. I try to follow these up with nurturing actions of preparation and support for the task. My experience of anxiety is silent – just a silent wide eyed, unsupported and terrified feeling. On the other hand my experience of nurturing self talk is that I unclench, I breathe, I relax. My nurturing self talk might be acknowledging the situation (‘gosh, no wonder you’re scared, it’s a new thing you’re doing’, ‘wow, yes, this is a big week, take care of yourself’), reducing the perceived risk (‘oh well, so long as you go and give it a try and learn something it will all have been worthwhile’), and generally reminding myself that I am loved no matter the outcome, that I can live with the outcome (‘I forgive you for being flawed, and for procrastinating, and for being scared, I love and forgive you even if you are late, or that task is overdue, or you are avoiding things’). As I say it I realise it is true, and my focus enlarges from beyond the anxious core, teetering on the abyss, to a more expansive landscape with solid ground under my feet.

There can even be protective wisdom in our anxiety – a reminder to attend to our needs, or be wary of situations that have been uncomfortable in the past. In my experience though, anxiety is like a dog barking in the night at an unfamiliar noise, our self caring and nurturing aspects are like the adult who gets up to check what the noise is all about and decides what to do with it. Anxiety is loud information, but it can’t always tell the postman from the burglar.

As an art therapist, this is ongoing work I need to do for myself, for my own self-care, and to create a flourishing base from which to work with others. Anxiety is a very familiar way of being for me, and while I have much longer periods now when it lies dormant, when it reappears I have to work through it anew each time, using tools I continue to practice. It also means my experience and understanding of anxiety is fresh and 3 dimensional – not just a word and theory I have studied but a flesh and bones experience. The gift of this in my work is that I understand how scary it can be to come to a group for example, or how unsettling the first meeting with a new therapist can be for one on one sessions. I also understand how there can be ‘good weeks’ and ‘bad weeks’ that seem to appear like the weather, or periods when we are more unsettled and prone to reacting in an anxious way. I strive to make the therapeutic process accessible and gentle, so that clients feel safe and can relax enough to share something of themselves in an authentic way.

In art therapy we talk about developing the witness, the inner voice of the witness who can observe what we are doing with kind impartiality, right alongside that part of us that feels deeply. We also work with clients to develop new thinking cycles that are affirming rather than negating. Importantly, in transpersonal art therapy, we make space for the feelings to be heard, and for the client to be lovingly accepted exactly as they are, with anxious feelings and self judgement and all. We help create a more nurturing inner voice by providing space for them to get beyond the daily chatter and into a place of contemplation and reflection. We model a stable and accepting self, we also empower the client to find this in themselves.

 

Resources:

For immediate help for anxiety or depression if you are in Australia you can contact Beyond Blue or Lifeline day or night. ReachOut is also a great resource for young people on a variety of mental health and life challenges, with resources about bullying, friendships, relationships and issues like anxiety. This helpful information sheet describes a range of anxiety disorders. In Victoria there is also the Anxiety Recovery Centre that runs specialised groups on different types of anxiety. It may also be useful to speak with your Doctor if you have concerns about your health or mental health.

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Offerings:

I currently have some spaces becoming available for one on one coaching and art therapy clients.

  • In coaching I support you to work towards your goals, making changes that you want to make in your life.  In coaching we approach the practicalities of getting things done – with clever tricks to get around anxiety and lots of support and encouragement (aka a personal cheer squad) so you feel less afraid to tackle the difficult tasks. See here for more information.
  • In art therapy I help you process and express feelings in ways that let you see yourself and your situation in new ways. We make room for the feeling dimensions of life and explore your inner world using symbols and metaphor and creative expression. We can do art therapy face to face if you are in Sydney, or by distance if you are elsewhere around the world. See here for more information and contact me here to get in touch.