Staying in the Anxiety
A friend I met from my Come Alive last year was attending two programs at Haven about a week after I left. My attempts to call him during my Phase program resulted in telephone tag so I decided to try to reach him at supper on his second night at Haven. He reported that he had a feeling of anxiety in his stomach that was not going away. I recognized this feeling. It was there through out the whole Phase program. I felt it in my stomach also.
The intensity of the anxiety changed from moment to moment. Sometimes I was just barely aware of it being there in the pit of my stomach and sometimes I thought it would overtake my whole body. There was also the whole range in between. In that anxiety, I knew that I was alive and present. If it disappeared completely, I knew that I had shut down. I wanted the anxiety to be there. I think it was a vital part of any new learning.
In the past, my tendency has been to avoid this anxiety. My pattern has been to shut down, going deep inside to a place that I feel safe. In that place, I have put up very thick walls that cut me off almost completely with the world around me. In my isolation, I felt safe. This strategy worked well for me growing up. It was a place I could always escape to when the insanity around me was too much.
This place that had become my security for so many years was becoming a place of greater and greater discomfort. It was not working for me. I was becoming aware of many things that I was missing. AND I was choosing to stay there! It was so much easier to stay in the old patterns rather than creating new patterns. For this reason, with the first sign of the anxiety overwhelming me, I turtled inside with my hard exterior shell to protect me.
I’ve been stuck in this old pattern for so long I don’t even know what it is that I am protecting myself from. I imagine my worst fear is that if I show who I truly am – people would not like me and turn their back on me and go away.
When growing up, my father was very critical of me and I have no memories of experiencing his love for me. I was never quite good enough to be loved by him. I grew up expecting the whole world to treat me the same way. Rather than giving others a chance, I turtle away. Better to be safe than sorry.
In the past few years as I have had some experiences of staying in that anxiety and imagine my surprise to learn that the whole world is not like my father. The other amazing thing that I have learned as I connect with people is that everyone I have met has similar feelings of anxiety. It is only in staying in that anxiety that I can connect with others.
At Haven, in Phase One, I became more comfortable in that place of anxiety and I would actually seek it out. I was able to recognize when I was distracting myself from the anxiety. I could catch myself more quickly. I learned how to do that within myself and also strategies for times when the anxiety overwhelmed me. I learned new patterns.
I made a connection with a dear friend early in the program. She was my anxiety buddy. I remember often being with her as she struggled to stay in her anxiety. I sought her out when the anxiety was starting to overwhelm me to the point that I wanted to withdraw. Simply telling her what was going on for me was enough to keep me present with the anxiety and to keep it at a level that was manageable. Eye contact with her from across the room and a deep breath was often enough to help me choose to stay present in the anxiety. In talking to my friend, the physical contact or the eye contact, I was putting myself into a position of choice. I could in that moment choose a different way of being rather than simply allowing the old pattern of turtling to engage.
Last week I wrote about my struggle to speak in the large group and how I felt more part of the group when I did manage to get my voice into the group. A couple of days into the program we divided into two small groups that met during the evening part of the program for the rest of the month. There were no new people, just a smaller selection of the large group that I had worked so hard to get myself comfortable with. The energy of this group was quite different from the energy of the large group. I found myself right back into the place where the anxiety was overwhelming me and I desperately wanted to withdraw and yet using every bit of courage that I had I hung on by finger and toenails.
That night small group started with a check in as it often did. A check in is a time to take a body reading of what is up and report that to the group along with what’s been happening in your own process as the program unfolds. I was experiencing a very high level of anxiety. I felt the uneasiness in my stomach. I felt a tightening in my chest. I felt my shoulders roll forward. I experienced a dryness in my throat. I desperately wanted to go away.
My turn eventually came and there was no avoiding saying anything. I expressed my anxiety. Next for me came another experience of Haven learnings -self-responsibility. The question was asked of me – why did I need to keep my anxiety at a level that was comfortable and not overwhelming. I had to think about that for a moment.
Earlier in the program, I learned the relationship between physical contact and my connection with others. I expressed that I thought I might feel better in that moment if I had a hug. I then asked my friend and we met in the middle of the circle and hugged. Self-responsibility 101 again – Breathe. Take a check inside. How was I? Was there anything else I needed? I requested another hug from another friend. I met him in the middle and hugged. In my next check inside, I realized that the anxiety had dropped and I felt more comfortable about speaking.
From this experience, I learned the value of reaching out to others. When I was aware of my anxiety level rising, I would choose to sit with someone I had made a stronger connection with. Sometimes it helped to reach out and hold that person’s hand for awhile. In that place I knew that I did not have to face my fears alone. This was a valuable learning for me again and again as the program progressed.
The old pattern was becoming less and less automatic. It does not matter what the pattern is. I’m sure the process is the same for many of us. By taking the time to breathe and check inside, I was in a place of being where I could notice what is going on rather than in a place of the mind where I would normally think my way through. In that place of the mind, I tended to follow old patterns very quickly. They worked in the past didn’t they? In this new place of being, I could notice what was going on. In that noticing, I had more freedom to choose different strategies for life. All it took was a little breath and time to check inside.
I, too, have been reading Radical Honesty by Brad Blanton. I am thoroughly enjoying the book and am savouring it slowly, chapter by chapter. He described the old patterns that I referred to as being a victim of previously learned ways of handling life. These previously learned methods do work. They are methods of survival. Blanton suggests that we be willing to experience whatever comes up as part of being a creator of life. When we take the time to notice, we can choose new methods and in that place actively create a new experience of life. It is all a matter of choice.