This article originally appeared on Thrive Global.
The first time I knew I wanted to run away and hide was when I was playing hopscotch on my third grade playground. My long black hair was flopping in the wind, and I did not want anyone to see me so I pretended I was invisible and had super powers. Little did I know my reverie would be rudely interrupted by obnoxious Ruthie Ann. She hopped in front of me making a face as big as a Lucy Smile and asked me if I knew how my father died.
Of course – I said to myself – in the recesses of my mind he was Superman. He was killed when Kryptonite fell to the ground. I did not respond. I kept on skipping and put a super shield around me.
And then she announced in the same voice one would use when ordering a five cent Thrifty Ice cream cone that he hung himself with his tie.
My mind stopped as I tried to imagine his impeccably coiffed closet full of the best ties from Frank and Cedars Department Store had to offer hanging off of a bathroom fixture. This was my first flash of anxiety.
A bolt of lightning struck my stomach and rendered me immobile on the playground. My head whirled and I saw spots. All I could think was how that good friend that taught me how to walk, how to talk in that moment had rendered me speechless and unable to continue the normal course any 7-year-old girl may have.
Anxiety has always served me well. In fact as a licensed clinician I believe anxiety comes into play to help one learn. Just take a look at infants or toddlers learning to crawl, walk, babble and talk. Just the right dose encourages forward movement to learn to be. In that respect anxiety is our friend propelling us forward.
In the behavioral health care field folks who are ready for recovery from mind altering substances, chronic pain, etc. must learn to take an inward look at their dark interiors and allow themselves to feel. That is not an easy task.
To cope with uneasy feelings, traumatic events and/or physical maladies, their anxiety took them out of daily living and into a world where numbing became the operative word. This takes them down the road of lying, stealing and cheating in an alcohol and drug induced haze. Anxiety is powerful in this way.
And while they may have started off trying to quell their anxiety by using mind-altering substances in the hopes that they would be brighter, better, faster, stronger, etc. their addiction overwhelms. It crescendos into a ceaseless ocean of anguish where feelings are the sworn enemy in a land of “no not now” – just like that scared little 7-year-old feeling anxiety for the first time and shutting out the truth about her father.
Still, I look back on that moment and see how I was a lucky little girl. I had a village to help me deal with my anxiety and grief, and other feelings of loss and abandonment. A wise camp owner who was a social worker and believed that adventure- based-therapy like cleaning horse stalls, shooting rifles and bows and arrows, being in a camp play and doing art projects was the best way to teach me how to manage anxiety.
Later in life, deep breathing and mindful meditation strategies coupled with talk therapy, somatic experiences, exercise, journaling, gratitude lists and service work all help me when I become anxious. Also I ask myself: is my feeling of anxiety a blessing? Is it code for me to look at something and change what I am doing? Or is it sending me down a rabbit hole of fear? If so, I ask myself: How can I find a friend in there?
Today I am blessed to work with anxious families all over the globe who come to be scared frightened, sleepless, confused, angry, anxious and in despair as they don’t know how to help their loved one who is experiencing a mental health, substance abuse, chronic pain or process disorder. It is their anxiety that propels them to call and it is their anxiety that makes them a good learner. Together I teach families how to handle their anxiety in the following 12 ways:
- Learning about addiction, mental health and process disorders and chronic pain.
- Learning that they did the best they could do with the resources they had and now they can learn new skills and actions.
- Taking action (appropriate, professional and ethical) to help their loved one get treatment.
- Learn that these are systemic family diseases and everyone in the family feels the impact.
- Embracing those triggers that cause us anxiety and learning how to respond and not react.
- Learning what a boundary is.
- Setting healthy boundaries.
- Developing a weekly wellness calendar, which takes care of you physically, emotionally and spiritually or consistent with your values.
- Going to self support groups.
- Engaging with professional counselors.
- Practicing mindfulness.
- Stop, pause and respond.
Daily practices like these have taught me to love that anxious little girl on the playground who sometimes pops up every now and then – especially when death and loss rears its head. I invite you to let your anxiety in, nurture and welcome it, and learn that to embrace our feelings, to grieve our losses and to take action leads us into courageous recovery.