Welcome! This blog post can also be heard here – Episode #2 of the PERFECTLY PAN!CKED podcast.
First, let’s be crystal clear – no one is ever free from all anxiety. It’s natural and necessary to be anxious sometimes. Our bodies are built for it, ready to fight, flee or freeze as the circumstances require, all in the noble cause of self preservation.
But when your anxiety controls your life, you’re imprisoned. Taking back control is freedom!
After decades of suffering and retreating deeper into my safe place, my comfort zone, my box, whatever you want to call that mental construct, it became so small that I realized I was in a prison.
Let’s talk about what that looked like so you have a clear image of life controlled by anxiety – at least in my own experience. But don’t worry! I’m confident there’s lots of relatable stories in here for you.
As a child, my home could be very volatile, so I internalized the fear and anger. I isolated myself and became hyper-vigilant. I knew when the rage was coming. I could smell it before it rose to the surface and I prepared for it. I was hyper-alert and sensitive to everything going on around me.
It created an over-active imagination and over-stimulated fight or flight response. And it metastasized over time and manifested in these ways…
- terrified when my parents went out at night convinced they would die and never return because I believed I was the only thing that could save them from danger and from themselves
- vigilant that all doors and windows where closed after sunset even in the hellish heat of summer
- phobic of rain imagining floods I would drown in – same in the car wash
- unable to breath in church pews, movie theaters, restaurants – always sitting in the end seat in the back row needing an escape route.
In college, the anxiety became so intense that I had a few months of dissociation where I couldn’t remember what to do when I woke up. I couldn’t read an entire page of a book, which made it difficult to study.
I didn’t recognize myself. It was as if someone cleared my brain like cleaning a computer’s hard drive.
That’s when my suicide ideation started and intrusive thoughts. I thought about hurting myself and others, which terrified me. I cancelled my study abroad and I spent less time with friends. I added an eating phobia after a raw cauliflower incident where I almost choked to death. I became hyper-focused on death and stopped eating anything but frozen yogurt for a while. I lost weight but not for the right reasons. I was afraid to sleep and never wake up, drive in cars, fly on planes, etc.
ADULTING WHILE PANICKING
Into adulthood I became a master of hiding these building disorders with perfectionism, people-pleasing, over-achieving. But I couldn’t drive distances or in traffic without panic attacks. I couldn’t exercise anymore because I as so dizzy and I’d have a panic attack even walking fast. I couldn’t leave a very small radius around my house without panicking.
I wasn’t eating, exercising, traveling, socializing – there was no fun, no play, no rest – just sitting, waiting for more anxiety to cloud my brain or another panic attack to devastate my body. I started to constantly monitor my vital signs – which is where I first recall my sensorimotor OCD. That coupled with health anxiety was paralyzing. I noticed every sensation in my body. I counted my breaths, took my pulse, explored the bones in my mouth with my tongue looking for tumors, felt every sensation and assumed the worst case. I was essentially making up stories to torture myself. Not intentionally, but the hyper-vigilant voice had taken over. At this point, I didn’t know who that voice was. But if you’ve read my book, you know exactly who that voice was.
So by the time I’m married, have a job at a big law firm, a dog and a house, I’m having at least two major panic attacks a day and can barely get to work. I have disordered eating and drinking.
I’m panicking outside the house and also inside the house, because there’s no place to run from yourself.
THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE
How does this happen? I hated myself. I feared my body and my mind. I felt broken, which constantly triggered my fight or flight response. I wanted to flee myself – my mind and body – and find safety somewhere outside of me.
But there was no place safer. I had to come back home and heal the trauma that I was carrying in my bones.
I had to release the pain by speaking my truth – a truth we had all in some nonverbal, implicit way agreed to ignore and deny.
I went along with that for a long time to protect someone else’s feelings or sense of peace. And in doing so, I abandoned myself. I was drowning in it – I was suffocating. It’s like when I would try to speak it would be met with someone putting a pillow over my mouth to silence me. Not literally of course, but figuratively. Well that pillow was also suffocating me and triggering my anxiety more and more. I was asked to carry what I couldn’t bear alone without it tearing me apart.
Because in examining what happened to you, it helps you make sense of who you are now and what you’re feeling. It’s not about blame or justification, it’s about freedom.
It’s about understanding. I am not fundamentally broken. I am reacting to a situation and to circumstances with a normal human response. We aren’t able to do that when we are silenced – told and taught to hide from it and pretend everything is fine.
The pain, trauma, fear, shame was all locked inside of me and my anxiety was rattling the cage to get out! I felt the energy in such a strong and powerful way that it terrified me. That’s why I avoided meditating for so long. I was terrified of what I would encounter in my own mind and that it would destroy me. I feared never finding my way out. That’s because those emotions and unanswered questions that became irrational fears were still locked inside.
It was screaming to be heard and healed. That meant forgiving those around me and most importantly myself.
We are all flawed and afraid and doing the best with what we have been given and taught.
WHAT DOES FREEDOM LOOK LIKE?
If we can’t erase all of the anxiety, how do we find freedom? It’s like an eating disorder in a way because you still need to eat, so how does one find the balance? You can’t go cold turkey like alcohol or drug recovery.
It starts with a revelation, then a decision. When you recognize that yes, you’re in a tiny box, a prison, at first you think – “but I had to build this to protect myself.” And then you realize, it was all a lie. It was the lie that the voice was telling you all along. That anxious voice is different for all of us. Ask yourself who your voice is? Meditate on it. Who is talking when you hear those narratives, those stories?
I got to a place where my fear of not fully living became stronger than my fear of dying.
So I started my messy work and continued for several years before knowing where that voice was coming from and where it would lead me. I started traveling with groups and then alone. It wasn’t pretty. I was drinking my way through flights, I was clutching my Klonopin, but at least I was out there.
It reminds me of when I started skiing as a 38 year old. I literally took my skies off and walked down many mountains. I side-slipped and side-stepped. I did a lot of things to get down that in my mind were not actually skiing. But my husband would always say “you got down the mountain. Why are you judging it? Everyone gets down in their own way.” That’s freedom right there. That’s permission to “do you” with whatever you’ve got that day.
And this is what I was doing at the beginning. Taking one small step outside my box at a time to see what would happen. What it would feel like. Each experience exposed me to more. I had fewer panic attacks. I was less afraid. I ran a half marathon. I asked for and got a divorce. I was not only functioning again, I was doing things I’d never done before.
But as the years went on, I realized that even in that space I was finding ways to hide. The walls of my box weren’t quite as thick, so I could see life on the other side more clearly. It was like I would dip my toe outside and feel how amazing it was to live again and forget for a moment. And then I’d remember and run back in. I was still accommodating my anxiety on a daily basis because I hadn’t identified the voice, the bricks and mortar of the walls and done the work to dismantle them. I was still hearing that voice and negotiating with it all of the time. I was still letting it speak for me saying “I can’t do that. I have anxiety.”
I was still drinking alcohol to relieve the mental and physical symptoms. Still starving myself if I had a panic attack as a way of punishment. I was still clutching a Klonopin in my hand whenever I felt challenged and compromised. Never taking it, just using it as a crutch.
I still couldn’t reconcile what I was able to accomplish and the mental illness I couldn’t confront.
First, why wasn’t I fine with what I had? I had met my current husband. I was high functioning, managing my anxiety well. For me, I could hear that authentic voice all along. I recognized it from before that first panic attack when I was 6 years old. It never left me. It called me off the bed in college when I was contemplating suicide and led me to a bench outside in the sun. Even when it was a faint whisper, I heard it. I recognized it as God, as my guide, as my soul, as the spirits who were protecting me. But it was getting harder and harder to hear. I needed to turn down the volume on my anxiety to amplify that voice. Because that’s where my life was calling to me. The life I’d always wanted to live. I knew I was meant for more than managing my disorders.
So life now is not anxiety free or happy all the time. But I’ve cultivated a power and a peace that I never thought was possible for me. Through meditation, exposure therapy, introspection, excavation, forgiveness, my anxiety has become a guide. It’s voice is loud sometimes, like a child who needs more attention than the others and that’s how I treat it. It’s no more deserving of my attention. But I ask it what it needs and as it informs me, it empowers me. Because I am in charge now and I have the tools to take the good and control the bad.
So many times I’ve heard my anxiety tell me to run – meeting my husband who I’ve been delighted with for 13 years, growing with my stepchildren, traveling the world, skiing, sailing, writing my story, speaking in front of hundreds of people. But as my authentic voice gets louder, I can hear my truth. Now I not only have the tools to defuse my triggers, ride out panic attacks but I can recognize my anxiety levels, question my thoughts and learn from them or just toss them away. Because my next thought is my choice now.
Speaking and owning your truth is vulnerable. You feel exposed. When my book – The Box: An Invitation to Freedom from Anxiety – came out last May, I felt exposed and judged, even by those who I thoughts were my tribe. But here’s the thing – when I saw those walls and decided to figure out why I built them and then dismantled them brick by brick,
when I stepped out beyond that rubble outside of that box and into the light, I felt exposed in the most liberating ways.
I bet a lot of you can relate to that. Realizing that the cage door has always been open, some may choose to stay. That’s everyone’s personal choice and cannot be judged. My choice was undeniable. I had to leave.
And it was difficult, amazing and redemptive. Now I love more deeply while completely committed to non-attachment. This balance removed all anxiety from my relationships. To be clear, non-attachment isn’t about caring less, it’s about being confident that you’ll be fine either way.
Now I can walk into any room and feel like I matter and belong whether I say and do exactly what I planned or have a panic attack and excuse myself for 5 mins and come back and try again.
I travel, I push myself physically, I practice self-care. I meditate and cultivate a deep peace that I found beneath the anxiety.
By releasing my grasp on the fear and shifting my focus to self-love, compassion and curiosity, I’m able to surrender to what is rather than fear the “what ifs”. And in that surrender is profound silence and that is where I’ve never felt safer. That silence is so much more powerful than the noise. In that space, I find myself again. In that space, I hear my authentic voice loud and clear. In that space, I find my true nature, which has always been peace. In that space, I am free.
My anxiety comes and goes as it should. They talk about poking the bear or waking the lion, well mine is a little girl, in her PJs, tugging on my pant leg. Asking to be heard and held. So I give her what she needs and she goes back to sleep. She’s a part of me and I can’t ignore or reject her anymore than I can abandon myself. Trying to hide or feel ashamed would be choosing someone else’s story about me and my disorders. Freedom is choosing me, my story, my truth, my integrity, my peace, my boundaries.
But the work is never done. Because Once you’ve found your way back home and rediscovered your badass self and you’re living out loud again, you don’t just settle for that. God no! There’s always another mountain to climb. There’s always another layer to shed. Another challenge that didn’t even exist inside your box, but that you’re presented with because you became your wild wonderful self again. And if you can do that, you can do anything.
WHERE CAN YOU START YOUR JOURNEY TO FREEDOM?
Would you love your own curated roadmap to finding freedom from anxiety? If you’re wondering, “where do I start?” – this is it! I had a feeling you’d be asking that because it’s exactly what I was asking when I decided to find my way out.
I’ve curated a collection of questions, prompts and guides that will help you recognize where your anxiety is coming from and where you need to focus, so you can begin to curate your own roadmap to freedom. It’s the Anxiety Audit. Download it now for free at wendytamisrobbins.com/anxietyaudit. This where personal discovery and transformation begins!