I have anxiety issues. Some situations trigger mild anxiety in me while others trigger deep, ‘I-want-to-throw-up-right-now’ sort of anxiety. I also find that my anxiety levels especially spike if there are too many changes happening in my life at the same time.
I recently quit my job to venture into building my own business once again. This in itself is a major lifestyle, career, financial, and social change. I have sworn to never be an employee again so that bridge is burnt and for good! Added to that are some major travel plans I have in mind. Not to mention engaging a financial advisor to help me out in the finances department. While all of these might seem like normal enough changes that one navigates, such major transitions tend to give me the heebie-jeebies. Which manifest as shortness of breath and obsessive (almost paranoid) thinking during the day and not-quite-restful sleep at night.
Anyway, a week or so before my last day at work, my anxiety got the better of me. When my brain goes into anxiety mode, it’s almost like all else shuts down. No normal processing of events – everything gets blown out of proportion. I can’t think straight, so creativity and optimism recede into inaccessible parts of my brain. Like I’m imprisoned in the ‘anxiety’ cell while the rest of the good stuff like creativity, joy, optimism, eagerness frolic in the green, sun-lit meadows outside where I can’t reach them. It’s not a great place to be.
I have a firm belief that when you need help, you gotta ask for it. Far too many times have I tried to ‘do things on my own’ when I clearly know I need external help and it’s blown up in my face. Last year I had a pretty low period after I quit the startup I’d built from the ground-up. I knew I needed help; I needed to reach out. But did I? Nope. The consequence was that I endured far more anxiety for far too long and paid the price of wallowing in self-pity for an additional few months.
So this time around when the telltale signs of anxiety presented themselves, I was smart. I reached out to my old therapist and set up a time to meet with her just three days after the last day at my (last) job. I really like my therapist. She has an air of down-to-earthness and a way of conversing which make it easy for you to say stuff like, “so, I was so anxious last night that I checked if the geyser was turned off properly at least 4 times before I felt peaceful enough to get to bed…”. She’d rad.
I was chatting with her about how I felt anxious when I needed to explore new coworking spaces or get into negotiations or speak to my boss about quitting my job while I felt a sense of eager anticipation when embarking on a new work project (such as writing an ebook or creating my own website) or travelling to a new city without any agenda. Why such different reactions? How could I control my anxiety in the former situation?
She had some profound advice to share which I thought was so profound that the world (at least the tiniest fraction of the world that would read this article, hehe) should hear it. She said, “the physiological response when you are off exploring a new city is the same as that which you experience while exploring a new coworking space. At a biological level, the exact same processes are going on. Your heart beats faster, you feel out of breath, your face feels warmer. You feel discomfort in both the situations. What’s different is how you interpret this physiological feedback in the two situations. When you are getting into a negotiation or meeting with your boss to give her some hard news, you resist the discomfort that you know is inevitable. Your thought process is situation > discomfort > I don’t want this discomfort > anxiety. Whereas, in the second scenario – the one where you throw yourself into a new project that needs you to venture into unknown territories and learn stuff you’ve never learnt before – you interpret the feedback that you get from your body as eagerness or anticipation. You like the reaction and even want it. You know there’s going to be discomfort, but you meet it with a positive outlook. Your thought process is situation > discomfort > I want this discomfort > eagerness. So what’s really different in the two scenarios isn’t really what’s going on in your body – it’s your mind’s interpretation of what’s going on.”
This blew my mind. I had never considered it this way…the same reaction but different – and seemingly unconscious – interpretations. Was there a possiblity that I could consciously choose a different interpretation and turn anxiety into eagerness? It would obviously not be easy especially if I was given to interpret certain situations a certain way…still, if there was a chance that I could experience lesser levels of anxiety, I was going to give it a try.
I then ventured to tell her about how I feel ‘at home’ in some specific cafes. How I really enjoyed the lighting, temperature, food (this one is extra important because I need to have vegan options, being a vegan), colours, seating, WiFi, and even the music. I go into my ‘zone’ and was able to get a lot of quality work done. It was as if my mind was at peace and not sinking energy into worrying about my surroundings. Consequently it had the space to focus on the task at hand. “Ambience matters a lot to you. It makes you feel safe, comforted”, she observed. “Familiar situations where things are just right and predictable evoke a sense of safety. Here’s the deal, though. Unfamiliar situations are unsettling, but build skills. And, over time, you expand your zone of comfort, so to speak. So there are more areas where you feel competent and ‘at home’. Unfamiliar territories are critical if you want to grow and add to your skillset. Of course, you can pick and choose when and what sort of unfamiliar situations you’d like to put yourself through. For eg., there might be days when you have a lot of pressing stuff to get done and all else is secondary. You can tell yourself that you will find the closest cafe to work from, familiar or not, and deal with whatever comes up. So you are saying a yes to the discomfort beforehand. On other days, you can choose safety and comfort of a familiar space and prioritize that. It’s good to keep in mind this Safety vs. Skills dynamic as it will help you in your decision making process.”
I came away from the session having a new level of understanding about my reactions to different situations. What was especially empowering was my newfound relationship with anxiety – I felt more in control of what I was experiencing. I knew that it was all about how I was interpreting the signals my body and emotions were sending me. Plus, anxiety didn’t seem like something I needed to shun at all costs. It was almost as if it were a friend with a unique personality. I could choose to engage with it in a healthy, mature way that could add to my life rather than detract.
What if you and I chose to say yes to discomfort rather than resist it? Discomfort is inevitable – what if we welcomed and enjoyed it even? What possibilities open up if we decide to get comfortable with discomfort?