The Unbearable Lightness of Anxiety
By Scott Acomba, a Haven Intern and Assistant in Transforming Anxiety and Stress, coming up November 28th - December 1st, 2019.
I remember walking in to a 7-11 convenience store one night, back in my early twenties, after a night-out on the town with friends. There was nothing special about the night or the store, but something happened to me in that store that I never forgot. It changed me. Forever.
Looking back now, almost 30 years later, I remember being struck by how unnervingly bright the store seemed as I entered from the darkness of the street. There was an eerie silence as I walked past the attendant heading to the back wall where they hid the drinks. As I made my way, I became increasingly uneasy about something. I had the unmistakable feeling that I was being watched.
…and it wasn’t by someone who liked me. It was as if I was being scrutinized, not just for something superficial like my clothes, my walk, or my body, but scrutinized to the core of my being…scrutinized for my very right to exist.
There was a malevolence to the watcher.
I became more and more anxious as I made my way back over to the cash counter. I noticed I was the only one in the store except for the attendant. As I approached he turned to face me, my heart was now pounding and my breath so shallow I felt as if I was being choked. Time seemed to be moving in agonizingly slow motion. I was confused and terrified, the tension was unbearable. Finally, he focused his eyes on mine and spoke…
“Is that everything for you sir?”
“Yes” I said, trying to look calm and normal.
“How is your evening?” His mouth bending into a smile
I felt my stomach tense even more and I could barely breathe. I didn’t dare look him in the eye as I replied,
“That will be $1.25 please” he said.
I handed him my money and got out the door as fast as I could, thinking to myself “What the hell just happened!?”
I got back to my car, catching my breath and tried to take stock of the situation. My uneasiness had turned to terror so quickly. Why? On the outside, I’m sure I looked relatively normal, maybe a little aloof or distracted, but internally it was a different story.
I was in full fight/flight mode. Logically, I knew I wasn’t in any real danger and there was really nothing sinister about the cashier. Then it dawned on me…the malevolent watcher was me!
I had just experienced my first panic attack. It wouldn’t be the last.
After this experience, I remember thinking…Am I losing my mind? But then I thought...No, if I'm rational enough to be asking myself that question then I think not. I decided there must be something “wrong” with me... so began my journey with anxiety…and what a journey it has been.
Of course, the real journey had begun long before and it had just come to a dramatic climax in that convenience store that memorable night. I didn’t call it anxiety at the time, but when I was thirteen, I had had a year-long major depression/anxiety episode that was triggered by a painful bullying experience at school. I remember feeling like a turtle without a shell, exposed and alone in the big bad world.
Now in my twenties, it had come back with a vengeance, seemingly out of the blue. I had grown used to a persistent low to mid-level depression like a dark gloomy backdrop to my life. The anxiety aspect seemed new. It was anything but mellow like the emotional narcotic of my depression. This was an altogether different experience full of energy and terror. Let me tell you…it fucking sucked. I felt utterly alone and alienated from everyone and everything and especially myself.
It was like being a stranger in my own body.
Many years later, I would learn how to claim the raw energy of my anxiety and transform it into something amazing. I now see my anxiety as an expression of my life force energy in the rawest form. Back then I didn’t see it for what it really is…a massive opportunity!
I had many more episodes of panic and background anxiety throughout my twenties. I finally sought help from various professionals and even tried pharmaceutical solutions with limited results. Inevitably I would always sink back to the familiar comfort zone of my depression/anxiety pattern. It wasn’t until I really dug in and did my deeper work at The Haven that things finally shifted for me. Now I was getting somewhere.
When I first arrived at The Haven I was on a mission to “fix” myself and be rid of my depression and anxiety. I signed up for Come Alive and after that Transforming Anxiety & Stress, both of these programs helped me to see the potential for growth and the opportunity in my struggle with anxiety/depression. Something changed for me along the way and I stopped seeing myself as broken. Maybe, there was nothing to fix? What?!
As I began to explore and connect to my inner world through the varied transformative learning experiences offered at The Haven, I had many incremental shifts which all added up to a huge paradigm shift...I’m OK just the way I am!
I realized I’m just a passionate person with a lot of energy and feeling to move through in the course of my life. When I try to stuff down (depress) my feelings, they inevitably leak out in some way (anxiety, panic, rage). Having anxiety is like having a pressure release valve opening, releasing big energy (in the extreme a panic attack). I did not have to reject or get rid of my anxiety/depression. Instead, I could harness and transform them and use them to enhance my life.
By learning how to responsibly express these feelings in a healthy way I finally made peace with my process.
Anxiety and depression are like fingerprints, there are commonalities but everyone expresses them differently. One of the main distinctions for me, is that I internalize the drama and chaos I feel. If you looked at my face during a depressive episode or during a panic attack it would pretty much look the same…relatively calm. As crazy as that sounds I think the reason is that I thought I needed to hide my big emotional reactions to be safe as a child.
I seemed to get emotionally attacked when I had the “wrong” feeling and I couldn’t figure out what was acceptable so I hid my emotions with a mask of depression and inaction. During a panic attack on the outside my body is relatively still, my face looks calm, but on the inside it’s another story.
I don’t see myself as a helpless bystander in all this. I chose to depress my feelings and emotions as a child to feel safe. Anxiety and depression were the byproducts. By taking responsibility, I am no longer powerless. I now realize my anxiety and depression are inextricably linked. Like two conflicting forces inside, locked in a power struggle. Lucky me, right? Actually…maybe. I have learned after living with these forces for so long that I can use the energy and momentum of my anxiety to jump out of depression. In fact, literally jumping is a great place to start transforming your anxiety. Yes jumping!
Now, when I notice my anxiety ramping up, I will often do “burpees” which are a combination of jumping and push-ups. They aren’t for the faint of heart and will have you out of breath in seconds, but it’s the fastest way to get out of your head and into your body. It’s my way of claiming and harnessing the energy of my anxiety that is rushing through me.
I have used this analogy to describe a panic attack for me,
…imagine a freight train at full speed comes out of nowhere and is barreling past you, inches away from your body, and all you can do is stand, frozen, with your heart pounding in terror, waiting for it to pass. That’s how I used to ride out a panic attack. Hanging on for dear life with white knuckles. Now? Instead of freezing, I take flight and instead of fleeing from the train, I run after it. I try to CATCH THE TRAIN!
I realized the train is my life force coming to my aid with my trying to resist it (good luck with that). I have learned that if I can match the energy of my anxiety and externalize what’s going on internally, I can propel myself out of passive (futile) resistance to my life-force energy and into empowered, motivated action.
What does this process look like from the outside? My anxiety is usually like background noise. As soon as I become aware of the sensations and thoughts that come with it, I have trained myself to simply stop and take a big breath. This is the initial interruption to my anxiety process. From there, I remind myself I’m not in any real danger and I continue to breathe deeper and start to feel more grounded in my body. I don’t focus too much on the thoughts rushing through my head, instead I focus on the physical aspect of my experience.
If I’ve allowed myself to get to near to a panic attack before I become aware, I take more drastic action. Depending on where I am at the time, I get myself outside or find a place I’m comfortable and start doing burpees or running up and down a staircase, doing jumping jacks or whatever to get my blood going. Within a minute or two my heart is pounding and I’m breathing quickly and deeply. I do this until I’m completely out of breath. It might last 2-5 minutes max. The point is, I match the energy of my inner experience and make it manifest externally. Everything changes for me in that short time. It’s more than physical exertion. I’m also bringing to bear all the cognitive tools I have, but in the moment they are in the background.
I go from feeling like a freight train is about to run me over to feeling like I AM the freight train and I can take it anywhere I want to go!
When I do this, I usually have a feeling of excitement wash over me as I claim my life-force energy, my aliveness. I’m not the first one to realize this…
“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom” - Soren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher (1813-1855).
“Breathe a little in to your anxiety and feel the excitement” - Fritz Perls, German psychiatrist (1893-1970).
I take it a little further and I breathe a LOT and literally jump in to my anxiety. This is how I harness and transform my anxiety into the unbearable lightness of being…ALIVE!
Scott Acomba is a Haven intern working toward his Diploma in Haven Group Facilitation (Dip HGF). You can read more about his experience in our Training programs here. Scott first came in The Haven in 2009 for Come Alive and participated in Transforming Anxiety & Stress the following year. Since 2015 Scott has become part of the program's leadership team, sharing his transformative experience with dozens of others to help them reframe and shift their own relationship with anxiety. Scott lives and works in Victoria, BC as a contractor and musician along with his 2 kids.