Recently I stumbled upon the anthem for anxiety, or what I would imagine anxiety would sound like if it had its own soundtrack. There was a rapidly increasing beat, a deafening pulsing sound felt throughout the body, a less than kind voice barking orders and formulating its own reality. This tune even came complete with a countdown to what could best be described as impending doom. Now, it’s safe to say that this same song could be experienced by others in a far different way, even motivating perhaps. But that was not my experience. My experience, rather my reality at the time, was all negative.
It happened quite randomly and without any intention on my end. I was in the middle of my daily workout when a song from that week’s playlist began. It’s important to note that this particular exercise regimen changes every seven days. As this was the first day of the new week, each physical task — and accompanying musical selection — was new to me. As the song began I could instantly feel a sense of discomfort in my body that was unrelated to the physicality of the workout. Tension in my chest, cloudiness of my thoughts, followed quickly by a hyper focus on both how much I disliked the song and how powerless I was to change my experience. I recall these very specific words entering my mind… “Great, I have to suffer through this for a week.” Suffer. Because when we’re in an anxious state we often fail to see all the alternatives available to us.
This is one of the main problems anxiety creates. It removes, or rather it pushes out, alternative ways of thinking. Anxiety is a bully, and like a bully it takes ‘a’ truth and turns it into ‘the’ truth. It’s the modus operandi of anxiety. One fearful thought, one worry or questioning or wonder or second guessing, is turned into an absolute. It’s the “if this, then that” reality, except the issue is it’s not actually real. It’s not ‘the’ truth, a universally known, accepted and definitive outcome. It’s anxiety’s truth — and anxiety’s truth is whatever anxiety wants it to be. This could happen (it’s technically feasible), becomes this will happen (it’s a foregone conclusion). Anxiety’s power is in its ability to shut down the parts of our mind that might see things more clearly, might offer up other possibilities, could navigate us to safer emotional spaces even if the thing we fear does actually occur. Because it’s not the initial voice that highlights a potentially negative experience or outcome that’s the problem. That voice, when operating without the bully, is actually quite helpful. We may tweak or alter our approach to things based on that voice. We may even elect not to engage in particular ways because that voice opens the door for more pragmatic thinking if we are lost in a purely emotional response. That voice is the good guy and is an integral part of healthy mental state. But let’s not confuse that voice with the bully, who slyly and stealthily sneaks in and takes over.
Imagine you’re in a safe space. Let’s say a room, for the purposes of this exercise. It’s a room where you are comfortable and feel a sense of ease and contentment. Nothing bad is happening in this moment. You are safe. And then there’s a knock at the door. You naturally call for whoever is on the other side to enter, continuing to do whatever it is that you were doing, because this doesn’t require your full attention. The person tells you in a soft and measured tone that the room you’re in feels a bit warm. “Ok,” you think, “yes, perhaps I do feel a bit warm.” And then, without your knowledge or consent, when you have turned your full attention back to the initial activity, that person is pushed out the room and the bully sneaks in the open door. He looks a lot like the first person, he even sounds a bit like him. At first, that is. No, this doesn’t feel quite right, but he’s hard to ignore because now he’s getting louder and more worried and he appears to be very certain. As it turns out, the room you’re in is on fire. That’s why it’s hot. This is what he’s telling you. You don’t see any flames or hear sounds of desperation from anyone else in the house, but wow it IS hot in there now. All you can focus on is this threat and the only access you have to “help” is this person. So, you listen…to everything he says, and you do as your told.
That was me and the song was my room on fire. I had to suffer through it because the bully told me that was what I had to do. Bullies create and maintain their power not only through fear, but also through attention. Through a massive amount of mental energy that is spent trying to avoid them, worrying about coming into contact with them or what they might do next, actively trying to appease them, or attempting to make ourselves so small we can no longer be seen by them…or anyone else for that matter. It’s that mental energy — all those resources that go to “protection” — that actually keep us from seeing reality. That ultimately rob us from safety, in an emotional, and sometimes physical sense.
The antidote to all this, the way out, is first to simply pause. To press the big STOP button in your mind and cut off the fuel supply of the bully who feeds on attention. And then we have some space free to question that foreboding voice, to put these thoughts back in the hands of our authentic self. The one that can see things from a more holistic perspective, a 360-degree view. If we place ourselves back in that room, we might notice that it’s now the middle of a hot summer’s day and the sun is beaming though the window directly onto us. Or, we might remember that we had felt a bit chilly earlier due to the air conditioning and covered ourselves in a thick heavy blanket. Yes, we are feeling warm. No, the room is not on fire. Both things can be true. Once we are able to see things as they are, a whole host of options opens up for us. Close the blinds, remove the blanket, turn on a fan, leave the room. They all require some degree of effort, we can’t simply sit as we are not feel warm anymore. But none of them contain catastrophe, because none of them are predicated on a falsehood that the room is on fire.
That song, the anthem for anxiety, the one I had to suffer through for a week…turns out I had lots of options open to me once I recognized that voice for what it was — a bully. I stopped those negative thoughts by simply telling myself…STOP. Then I had the mental energy and space to see so many alternatives. And quickly they came to me, in a kind and calm voice so unlike that bully. I could mute the sound during that portion of the workout, play a different tune from my phone, create my own playlist for the week with songs I found motivating and enjoyable. I could even work to access a different emotional response from the song. After all, someone put a lot of effort into creating that piece and the fact that it was selected for inclusion would suggest that others appreciated it in a way I hadn’t yet experienced. Again, none of these options were without effort on my end. That song was not going to magically disappear from my weekly workout. It may even show up again next week or at some point I cannot predict in the future. But what I can control, what I can change, is my experience of it. That’s the thing we all have available to us at all times. The bully doesn’t want you to see that, so he creates a lot of noise to distract you, but as with all bullies he is thin skinned and weak. And his power is false. He’s a bad actor. I didn’t have to suffer through that song, I had options. And I took them. You can too.