I tossed and turned until I finally gave in and opened my eyes to look at the clock. It was only 2:30 a.m. My mind was an imaginary race track, and I was anticipating the moment the anxiety, panic, and shame would come thundering around the bend.
For years, I’ve had nights like this, lying awake, steeped in worry. One of the most reliable subjects of distress? Money.
Thoughts of money, or rather the lack of it, would find me in the darkness, pulling me into a downward spiral, pumping adrenaline and cortisol into my nervous system, causing waves of distress, failure, and loneliness. It always took concentrated attention and long, slow breaths to calm myself down enough to fall back to sleep.
When I awoke the next morning, the fear and paranoia of the hours before were long gone, but deep exhaustion and the residue of chemically-induced stress remained. Later in the morning, I was driving to meet a friend and was struck by the absolute beauty of the mountains around me. The skies were a rich blue and the mountains, covered in pink sandstone and deep green pines, were simply shimmering in the warm, yellow sun.
I took a deep breath and allowed myself to feel the joy rising up. I had a flash of my frightening night, and I wondered what on earth I let myself get so worked up about—everything was just fine. At breakfast, the subject of fear came up. My companion, a man much older and wiser than myself, looked me in the eye and said, “My dear, fear is nothing but false evidence appearing real.”
He was absolutely right. If I applied his definition to my numerous, nightly panic attacks, they were nothing but fabricated stories about impending doom. If I knew my panic was simply a product of my mind though and not really based in reality, why couldn’t I just stop?
When I took a good, hard look at why I got stuck in that rut, I saw that my stress functioned as an emotional law enforcement. As long as I had that little officer on my shoulder wagging her finger at me and warning me of things that could go wrong, then I’d be prepared. This was a defense I’d developed to help ensure that I never screwed up.
Most of us have pretty tough emotional police in our heads telling us when we aren’t good enough or when we’re in danger, and so on. Our officer is often the internalized voice of our primary caretaker as children and he/she originally served a purpose; we needed to learn to be cautious when our parents weren’t there. As adults though, we don’t need to be governed the same way, so the voice becomes outdated—but that doesn’t mean it disappears.
With that in mind, I realized that when I was “believing the policewoman,” I was relating to life as a child. I felt young and incompetent and powerless. So I decided to practice simply saying no when panic began to surface around money. If my stomach got tight when a bill came in the mail, I would tell myself (firmly), “You’re not going to worry about this, everything is fine.” It was very comforting to take the conscious role of the adult when I was in a place of stress.
Of course, I couldn’t manage my money issues when I was relating to them as a child. I knew that getting a handle on my fear was a matter of consciously switching out of “child mode” and into adult mode. If I awoke in the night with my mind spinning and gathering troublesome information (the phone company needs $129.00 by Friday; the rent is due in five days), I would take a deep breath, console, and reassure instead of panicking.
By intentionally managing my thoughts in this way, I was also creating new neural pathways in my brain. Imagine an old hiking trail where all the grass had stopped growing and given way to dirt because so many people had hiked the same trail. This is how our brains work—identical thought patterns create a path and follow it every time. Now imagine veering off the beaten track and making a different trail. As the new one begins to get used and more established, the old trail is reclaimed by grass again and ceases to exist. We can make new trails that serve us better, for thoughts to travel along.
In my work as a coach, I’ve seen many clients transform their ways of managing anxiety with the simple knowledge that when they’re relating to the world as a child, everything feels big and scary. When they catch themselves in this mindset, if they remember to consciously switch into the more objective mind of their adult selves, they transform. This one small trick brings them them into a place of authentic authority.
This technique works for me too. I’m happy to report that it’s been years since that last, horrible panic attack. I still get caught up in believing some of the stories my officer tells me, but like everything, disengaging from that voice is a process and a practice. So that’s what I do. I practice coming back into my adult perspective over and over again, and it’s been very powerful.
Author: Natha Perkins
Image: Charles Harry Mackenzie/Flickr
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Khara-Jade Warren
Social Editor: Danielle Beutell