Posts tagged ‘anxious person’

Embracing the Questions

No man is an island, sometimes we all need one
No man is an island. We all need one sometime!

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart

And try to love the questions themselves.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

So, Barbara (made up name, of course, but I have her permission to tell this story,) called and asked, “Why am I so anxious?” Ah, what a deceptively simple question.

I answered Barbara’s question in the way therapists (and friends) so often do. I answered the question with a question. “What’s going on?”

I want to encourage each of you who ISN’T Barbara to keep reading. Even though it may seem that this answer applies ONLY to Barbara, I have got to tell you that the more I think about this the more I believe that Barbara’s answer may reveal a universal truth. I wrote an entire book about anxiety, as you know, but I never before got to this level of awareness. I’m so grateful to Barbara because her story helped me think outside the box. Here’s how it progressed:

Barbara had been in school for sixteen of the eighteen months her chosen program would take. She had been sitting in lectures all day and studying all night. She had given up her favorite sport, tennis, which she had previously spent ten to twenty hours a week playing. She had stopped walking her dogs. They were rushed outside, commanded to perform, and rushed back into the house. This formerly athletic and physical person had become a student who sat and studied. The longer she did it, the more anxious she got.

We explored possible causes of the heightened anxiety. Was she anxious about doing well? Well, a little, but she was number one in her class, and so she knew she’d pass the program. Was she anxious about having basically ditched her friends and family? Well, not really. They all understood that this was temporary and the old, social Barbara would be back as soon as she had this degree and her new career established. Was she anxious about losing her edge at tennis? Well, not particularly. She’d been an athlete all her life, and she knew what to do to get “back in the game,” so to speak.

After much gathering of information, I gave her my two-pronged hypothesis (in my usual non-therapeutic language). “I think you’re going crazy because you are a physical person forced to be a sedentary person. Secondly, as an extravert, you thrive on being socially involved, but you have been forced to spend the last sixteen months in solitary confinement. You are literally going ‘stir crazy.’”

Now admittedly this was easier to figure out because I have known Barbara for fifteen years. I also knew, because she told me, that she was an auditory learner. This was an important factor in helping her turn the tide. She recorded information and then listened to the recordings to study them. We figured out that she really didn’t need to sit still when she listened. Couldn’t she put on headphones and walk the dogs while she studied? (I cautioned her to be careful crossing streets while wearing headphones. Once a mother, always a pain in the neck, right??)

We also talked about the ways her sleeping and eating patterns had changed in the last sixteen months. She was staying up too late and getting up too early. She was studying more, but less effectively because she was always tired. She admitted her diet had gone crazy and she was doing the caffeine and sodium fast food diet instead of her previous fruits and vegetables. She reasoned it was quicker to go through a fast food lane than to go to the store and get the natural ingredients and prepare them. I suggested she could wear her headphones while chopping red peppers and endive as well as when walking the dogs.

I also, however, suggested that her brain was no doubt fried, and the healthiest thing she could do for her education was to give herself some “recess.” As long as we’re busy putting information into our heads, there is no time to incorporate and integrate what we’re learning. That step requires that we turn off the faucet letting in the new knowledge. Things have to sit and percolate. First you put the cold water in the coffee pot and then you let it heat up and mix around with those grinds. That percolation step used to take twenty minutes. Keurig has it down to twenty seconds. But no one is going to be able to get away with NO percolation and processing.

Just the idea of getting out and walking the dogs and playing tennis once in a while had her cheered up and feeling less tense. What I suggested to her was that in the last sixteen months, in the effort to be a great student and responsible learner, she had stopped doing the two things which most kept her anxiety at bay: she stopped moving and socializing. But, as so many anxious people do, she had done so completely. Let’s even say excessively. She hadn’t added some sitting to her active life style. She had replaced her active lifestyle with twenty-four/seven immobility. She had, in her black and white overly responsible way, denied herself the method she had learned to keep the tension and anxiety out of her body. She had completely denied herself her best anti-anxiety tool. So, Barbara had done two detrimental things: she’d gone against her own true nature, which was to move the anxiety out of her body on a regular basis, and she’d done so totally, so she’d lost any balance in her life.

And here’s where I think Barbara’s individual experience might have something to teach everyone who has ever struggled with anxiety. Are you expecting yourself to be someone you’re not? And are your expectations so black and white that there is no room for grace and self-compassion.

I have never met a laid-back, laissez-faire anxious person. I have never met an anxious person who was able to say, “I got a C on that test, and that is fine by me.” I never met an anxious person who believed that dusting was a waste of time and vacuuming a weekly activity. I do, however, remember the woman who vacuumed her house eight times a day. Who could forget her? She was a hot mess of anxiety. There is a component of all-or-nothing thinking that goes hand and glove with anxiety.


I have admitted this before, and I’ll admit it again. For me, that all or nothing thinking has to do with the way I treat people. I was telling my grandchildren the other day two mean things I said to teachers when I was growing up. The very fact that I remember these two incidents tells me how deeply they imprinted on my psyche. I didn’t get punished for either. No one embarrassed me by spanking me or reprimanding me, but I knew that I had been unkind, and I still remember the second and eighth grade teachers to whom I was unkind and exactly what I said. Crumbs on the kitchen floor, mediocre grades and recipes that flop I can live with. My treatment of others causes me stress because of my personal zero tolerance policy for rudeness and thoughtless remarks. As some of you well know, I certainly don’t achieve that standard. But when I don’t, it haunts me. (Sixty years later?? Yikes.)

And what is it for you??

What does your true nature and your self-concept demand of you? Where in your life do you put undue stress on yourself? High goals are admirable. When goals become inflexible and insatiable demands, however, they become time bombs ticking away in our bodies, waking us at three a.m., giving us heartburn, headaches, fibromyalgia, irritable bowels and other warnings that we are hurting ourselves.

I believe we are born with predispositions to all kinds of things, like anxiety, depression, heart disease and cancer. But I also believe we exacerbate our chances of making any of those things materialize when we hold ourselves to rigid standards and deprive ourselves of the very things which keep us balanced and full of life. I have a friend whose home is always spotless, she hasn’t gained a pound since college, and she never forgets a birthday. The price she pays for this perfection is very high. Her physical and mental health are precarious and destroying her from the inside out. I would much prefer she forget my birthday and give her duty and obligation-bound self a holiday.

Interestingly, I happened just today upon a Rumi poem entitled Body Intelligence:

Your intelligence is always with you,

Overseeing your body, even though

You may not be aware of its work.

If you start doing something

Against your health, your intelligence

Will eventually scold you.

If it had not been so lovingly close by

And so constantly monitoring,

How could it rebuke?

Your intelligence is marvelously intimate.

It is not in front of you or behind,

Or to the left or the right.

Now, my friend, try to describe how near

Is the creator of your intelligence.


Blessings and grace – Susan


Gratitude to Mary Ellen Jelen for her addition of photography to these words




March 7, 2015 at 12:05 PM 1 comment

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