In my struggles with anxiety, I’ve found a few tools that really work for me. Exercise helps keep it at bay. If I’m in the midst of an anxiety-filled time, I meditate or do a Yoga Nidra practice. Cutting back on sugar and caffeine helps, too. Getting connected with others is critical. But, there is one tool that I found particularly helpful in times when chronic anxiety and full-on fear is present. It’s only in really digging in and letting myself imagine the worst happening and writing down my options that I can transform fear into something else entirely.
A friend of mine is facing some major life changes. It’s often better in life when something happens and everything changes immediately. I don’t have time to worry about it. I just have to act. The times that I struggle with most are the ones with impending change — in my anxiety-filled mind, impending doom – that is about to occur. Or even worse, it’s going to be 6 months to a year before it really happens. That projected change can really mess with my sanity. My friend is trying to make decisions and changes on the smaller things in her life to help her feel more in control, and there is comfort in that. In fact, sometimes one small change can make a big difference. But, I urged her to accept that the big major life change that is coming is very scary and very stressful for most people. It’s okay to be filled with anxiety and fear about it. And, making those smaller changes will probably not make the anxiety she feels dissipate. It’s hanging over her head like a noose… waiting to hang her … or give her a step up… and there’s no way to know which it will be.
Things always work out. There is comfort in that. The majority of the time, in hindsight, we are grateful for what happened even if it’s just because we learned. But, that’s hindsight. There is a way to experience some hindsight in advance. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? I read a book that suggested that I write down all of my fears when I’m full of anxiety AND write down what I would do should those things happen. The problem with this is that it’s uncomfortable to really imagine the scariest things I fear happening. My first choice is to ignore it.. medicate it … distract myself … or fix something easy like re-arrange my furniture. When I was finishing up graduate school, my ex and I had planned to move cross-country. To make matters worse, our marriage was falling apart in a big way. I told him that I did not want to move and add additional stress, and he told me that he was going. He didn’t care if I went or not. Now, for a normal person that might have been an indicator that this wasn’t a good decision. But, I was a mess. And, I couldn’t make a decision to divorce at that moment. I put it off and decided to go along with his wishes.
As I was getting ready to move – hunting jobs, finishing up my capstone project, packing – my biggest fear was that we would get to Memphis and get divorced. I tried to ignore it. My anxiety and fear increased. I tried to focus on school. My anxiety and fear increased. Nothing worked until I sat down and followed the instructions in that book. I wrote down that my biggest fear was that I’d move to Memphis, and we’d get divorced. I had all kinds of fears about that. I wouldn’t know anybody. I’d be in a financial bind bigger than I was at the present moment. What if I couldn’t find a job quickly? What if the job I found didn’t pay enough? All of these fears were nowhere near as enormous as the fear of being alone. It was blinding. One day, in a hotel room, while he was at a long meeting, I put pen to paper.
I wrote down my biggest fear – D I V O R C E. I wrote down options that might help my financial situation. I could get two jobs. I could find a roommate. I could move home and mooch off my family. I could go back to school and get my Ph.D. There were so many options that I hadn’t considered. Some of them were not options I could ever see myself doing, but they were options all the same. I thought of what I might do to support myself through the loneliness of being alone. I remembered my meetings and my connections I would probably make there. If I was single, I could more freely move to somewhere where I had friends. I could join a monastery. I wrote… my fears … I wrote .. my options. By the time my husband returned from his meeting, an ironic thing had happened. My fear of divorce had been transformed into a hope that – if it happened – it would be a catalyst for a new, even better life. It was just a tiny seed of hope, but it was hope all the same.
I kept this writing for a very long time. When the anxiety would well up, I’d re-read it. I’d remember my options. Eventually, a scenario started to form that I hadn’t even considered. What if I was happier divorced? What if my financial situation improved after divorcing a person who was admittedly out of control with his spending? What if I had time for more friends and connection when I quit putting all of my effort and energy into bailing out a sinking ship? That is exactly what happened. It happened slowly, and there was plenty of time for fear and anxiety to bounce in and out of my life for several years. But, eventually, the scenario that I never even considered happening became reality. My little list of options helped me bring hindsight into the forefront of my situation.
The thing I love about writing is that it takes my worries out of my mind. It allows me to experience – if I let myself really get into it – the things that I imagine. The power of the imagination is very strong. I can touch things I don’t want to touch in real life. And, once I go there in my mind, my body responds with emotions and thoughts that are identical to what I would experience if it really happened. It lets me feel as if it really is happening. And, I may make different decisions when it really happens than I might imagine if I just stand on the sidelines. Writing about “what if” is a powerful way to transform fear. It doesn’t take it away. It came back and grappled with me often. But, it did give me a path out. All I had to do was read what I had written. The opposite of fear is love. I had loved myself enough to step into my future and write it with just a dash of hope. I think it made all the difference in the outcome.