That night, I followed all my usual bedtime routines to ensure a good night’s rest.
I put my phone away early.
I didn’t watch TV.
I soaked in a hot bath, made the room dark, and immersed in darkness, sipped my Slumber Time tea. I laid there, relaxing, allowing my thoughts to come and go. As I felt sleep start to take over, I put the teacup down, and snuggled into my crisp white sheets.
I felt satisfied. I felt safe.
Yes, I told myself with a smile, sleep was coming.
But before long, thoughts began to encroach my peace like hungry vultures, slowly eating away at my slumber.
Thoughts that take over my mind are one of the ways my anxiety manifests. They can be of any variety; a problem that needs to be solved; a conversation from the day before; a conflict arising; parenting; what to make for dinner; something that triggered me that day; stories I create of judgements and criticisms; all of the shoulds that I need to do; the list is endless.
The thoughts have a beginning, and I could never seem to find an end, until recently.
That particular night, I was wrestling with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming, daunting task of constructing an online elementary curriculum with my coworkers. Thoughts pilfered my peace as I attached myself to each thought riding it to the next.
Within an hour of restlessness, I had planned out the entire curriculum day by day in my head. I solved all of the problems that I could possibly encounter, yet sleep failed to take hold.
Anxiety is my addiction.
It keeps me safe.
I stay safe within the thoughts in my head, planning, calculating, sorting out different scenarios, and creating stories.
When I plan out different scenarios and calculate different outcomes, I am subconsciously trying to control what cannot be controlled. It is exhausting, never satisfying, and incredibly difficult to stop.
The thoughts come day or night.
To be clear, no thoughts or plans that come from my anxiety are brilliant. The anxious thoughts are not fruitful. I certainly cannot act on them, because I plan too far ahead, dilemmas are not solved by telling myself stories or mapping out solutions.
Anxiety keeps me safe, by keeping me in my habitual patterns, linked to my past traumas. My addiction to anxiety keeps me in my head and out of my body, so I can avoid feeling out of control. So I can avoid feeling the fear of the unknown, the fear of being unprepared, sadness, loneliness, and more.
Anxiety is my ego stepping up to protect me. My age-old coping mechanism says, “Don’t worry Elizabeth, you don’t have to feel scared, I will make sure you don’t feel any of this pain.” As long as I stay in my head with my thoughts, I avoid pain. I avoid fear. I avoid feeling.
Sometimes I find satisfaction in ruminating in my anxious thoughts.
When I have a particular issue rolling around in my head, it is satisfying to me to just sit and play with the thoughts, thinking scenarios through over and over. The satisfaction of dwelling uninterrupted in my thoughts parallels the satisfaction of taking the first sip of wine, poured to perfection in the thinnest of glasses, or smoking the day’s first cigarette.
Sometimes I call friends, spilling my anxiety onto them, as I dish out my stories again and again, feeling briefly satiated. I become irritable when my ruminating is interrupted by a phone call, text, or someone needing me. I just want to be in my thoughts, in my stories, in my head, making sense out of no sense, gaining the illusion of control.
That particular night, I was feeling frustrated with my inability to sleep, which also added to my anxiety, “What am I going to do if I am tired tomorrow? Will I be able to rest? I have such a packed day tomorrow!” My thoughts bounced from COVID-19, to school, to lack of sleep, and then, out of left field, came the thought that my boyfriend was cheating on me, a thought that is farthest from the truth. That thought transported me immediately to the moment. It was my red flag.
I had known for some time that I had anxiety, but I never knew what to do with it, how to discern it, or how to alleviate the mental anguish it caused.
That night, I was able to separate myself from my thoughts.
For the first time, I visualized all of the thoughts in my head and I identified them, out loud to myself, as anxiety.
After, I guided myself through the Somatic Healing steps Galina Singer had taught me. I picked a thought and asked myself, “What feeling does this thought bring?” Then, I placed my hand on the part of my body where I felt that feeling. I described that feeling out loud to myself, “My heart feels tingly and swooshy.”
I sat there feeling each feeling, when my mind tried to attach to memories and thoughts associated with that feeling, I silenced them, and brought my attention back to sensation within my body. The feeling was gone within a few minutes.
Anxiety tried to burgeon its way back through, but I was present, in the moment, now.
The next technique I tried involves eradicating the critical voice, and replacing it with supportive self-talk.
I said to myself “Elizabeth, these are just thoughts, this is your anxiety, there is nothing you can do about any of this now. All of these problems and ideas will be there tomorrow.” I said this to myself a few times over because the anxious thoughts, well, they are persistent.
But I had successfully transported myself to the moment, by bringing myself to the feelings within my body. I was able to use supportive self-talk to self-soothe and stay present.
I am weaning myself from my addiction, day by day.
Now, I am not only aware of the anxious thoughts when they arise, but I can now label the thoughts as anxiety and not wisdom to heed. I self-soothe myself and ask, “What am I feeling right now? What feeling am I trying to avoid?”
I bring myself out of my head and into my body with compassionate, supportive self-talk.
Instead of planning, I tell myself that I am smart, that I have the resources to solve any problem when it arises. I do not need to ruminate on multiple solutions to multiple problems so I can avoid the feeling of not knowing or being unprepared.
Like any addiction, I am aware that some days are harder than others.
The days when I am tired or stressed, I know that my capacity is diminished, and I am more susceptible to anxiety taking over. Sometimes I have a full-blown anxiety story in my head before I realize a takeover has happened. Like with any habit, it takes time to break. But I do not need this addiction to keep me safe anymore.
I am safe in feeling my feelings. The feelings themselves—the ones we are so afraid of—only last a few minutes, and then they are gone.
The addiction to anxiety is the true pain, but one I am feeling myself free of with compassion and self-soothing, one day at a time.