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In praise of anxiety

A healer I have recently been working with asked me the other day what percentage of my day — and of my life — I feel anxiety.

Sitting opposite me on a couch, she noticed I was having some trouble answering because sometimes it can be hard to pinpoint anxiety, especially if it is a constant kind of “white noise” in the background of your life, which it often is for me.

She posed her question differently, “How much of the time do you feel peaceful, safe, shoulders relaxed, that you can say anything, and that things are generally okay?”

I thought about it.  I consider myself a fairly calm and unarmored person, but as I scanned my body for the familiar signs and sensations of anxiety and traced through my days and my life, I reported a meager 30%.

Meaning, seventy percent of the time I feel low levels of anxiety, stress, worry, unsafety, and constriction.  Meaning, about only three out of every ten minutes do I actually feel calm and unarmored, but the rest of the time, the white noise of my system is vigilantly aware of any potential way I could be hurt.

I was surprised.  Shocked, even.

And then she said something equally as surprising.

“Don’t forget that your anxiety isn’t inherently a problem.  It has wisdom.”

Being a mom, wife, coach, business owner, and friend, I am tracking and juggling a mind-bending amount of details at any given moment.  As a woman, like nearly all women, a part of me is aware at all times that I could possibly be physically overpowered — hurt, controlled, even raped.  My gender, my health, and my rights don’t feel particularly valued in this country (USA) at the moment.  My ancestry is Jewish, and folks on both sides fled from war and genocide in the first and second world wars, all of which is passed down (as it does through all ancestral lines) through our emotional DNA. This is all potentially stressful stuff.  Anxiety-producing.  In your own way, I’m sure you can relate.

For these reasons and a thousand others, it makes sense that I am — like too many of us are — chronically anxious.

But. Here’s the but: I have been subtly assuming my own anxiety is a problem.  Because it is hard on my health and my overall sense of satisfaction.  Because it is hard for my partner to be around.  And because really, objectively, my life is pretty darn easy and great and there are no daily tigers to outrun, so why all the stress again?

And the truth is, anxiety IS a problem, on some level.

Too much anxiety wears at our mental wellbeing, our immune system, our sleep, and it compromises our quality of life.  It certainly has affected all of that for me.

But I have a regular practice of regarding all aspects of me — even the really hard and ugly aspects like anger and competition and depression — not as problems, but as wise in some way.

I didn’t realize I hadn’t yet done this with anxiety.

Upon inquiry into what wisdom my old friend anxiety might have for me, at first I got the somewhat obvious.  Anxiety is wise to be on the lookout for what could hurt me.  Anxiety is like a sentinel, a faithful dog at the ready at any moment to snap to attention and defend against an intruder.  A wise and useful aspect of me, to be sure.

And then upon further inquiry, I got to sense the heart of the sentinel, not just its job description (warn me of potential threat and harm), but why it cares about its job, and about doing a good job for me, and for us.

At the heart of the sentinel, I sensed such tender love.  For me.  For us.

This aspect of me, anxiety, is more than happy to sleep with one eye open and pace and growl and bristle and bite, because it loves me dearly, because it is honored by helping to protect me.

Self-love is a very popular term these days, as it should be, but I think it is often misunderstood as something saccharine and pastel, or something that you can just slip into gently like a warm lavender-scented bath.

Self-love is sometimes a tough and terrifying process, requiring you to walk into the pen of trained attack dogs, grasp one of them by the jaw, and stick your face inside its stinking maw, looking for wisdom.

Face inside maw, self-love then asks you, “Can you love this? Even this?”

Sure, sometimes self-love is easy and sweet.  Hallelujah.  And sure, anxiety levels should and could be lowered.  Halle-double-lujah.

But this is the wisdom I found in a most unlikely place today: When something as unsavory as anxiety asks me, “Can you love me?  Even me?” because I can now feel that its heart is made of molten love, I can say … yes.

Which ironically allows the sentinel to chill out a bit more.

OK, self-lovely, come share with us an aspect of yourself you find sweet and easy to love, and an aspect of yourself you find tough and terrifying to love.  I’ll see you there.

To all of it, even this,

Photo by Drummond West

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