Treat Anxiety Like an Old Friend

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Photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash

I don’t know much about the ancient stoics. I’m a little loathe to read them too deeply, because I feel like a lot of white conservative-leaning grifter self-help dudes refer to ancient stoics and their writings as their guideposts for life, and that makes me a little uncomfortable. Still, there was one time I came across a concept from the stoic Epictetus that stuck with me: the reality that we wouldn’t happily let people abuse our physical well-being, and yet we often let mental or emotional issues run rampant over our minds and emotional states, and willingly.

“If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?”

Something about that simple concept struck me, and honestly, it was less in regards to setting emotional boundaries with toxic people, but more about things I willingly indulged in that didn’t make me feel good. Too much alcohol. Cigarettes, sometimes. Not working out. Panicking. All of these things make me feel like garbage, and I know that, yet I kept doing them as if I had no agency in my relationship with them.

So as a strategy, I started personifying things. Let’s take alcohol, for an example. Would I want to hang out with a friend who literally injected poison into me that made me feel like garbage the next day and in fact would cause me to waste endless hours of a productive weekend? A friend who left me feeling like I’d been beat around the head and stole lots of my money? No. No, I would not want to have a friend like that in my life. That made it much easier to cut back on the amount I was drinking, particular in the wake of the 2016 election. (I sometimes give my personified things names. Alcohol’s name is Ron. I don’t know why. It just is. Anyways, I don’t like too much Ron in my life. Sorry, Ron.)

After I had started anthropomorphizing other things in my life (lack of sleep, cigarettes, my fucking phone who is trying to fucking ruin my life), my boundaries with those things became clearer and I was able to manage them much more effectively.

Enter anxiety.

Anxiety I also personify, but with a slightly different outcome. I in fact try to think of anxiety a friend — a very old friend. A friend that has probably been with me since birth and that is in my cells. A friend that is a part of my very makeup and in the air I live and breathe.

I definitely don’t always like this friend, and she doesn’t always have my best interests in mind. But she’s a persistent bugger, and if I don’t listen to what she has to say, she seems to linger longer than I want her to. (Her name is Sally. It just is.)

So I like to think of anxiety as an old friend who drops by to visit whenever she wants, and I’ve learned to treat her accordingly. And doing so has completely shifted my relationship with her for the better.

Think about this: what would you do with an old friend who suddenly showed up at your doorstep? You would probably welcome them. You’d make them some tea, maybe put out some cookies. You would ask what brought them to your place. You would listen to them. You would have a thoughtful conversation about the things going on in both of your lives.

Things you would be more unlikely to do: immediately get the both of you wasted on a bottle of wine (well, maybe). Make your friend take a lot of drugs. An old friend deserves better than seeing you blotto in front of her when she has something important to say, and she certainly doesn’t want to be forcefed Xanax (unless she is me on election night 2016). Also, you wouldn’t whip out your phone and look at it constantly during an old friend’s visit. That would be just rude.You certainly may have had other things to do before this old friend visited, but in this moment, she’s here, and you want to pay attention and not dismiss her out of hand, ignore her, look at your phone instead of her.

It can be hard to sit with an old friend who dropped by unexpectedly and may have some difficult things to say. But your anxiety is showing up for a reason, and the more you can accommodate yourself to her visits, and not dull your way through them, the more wisdom you might learn about what she has to say to you. Just try to sit and listen.

So in thinking about anxiety as an old friend who has come to visit me for a particular reason, I am much gentler with her, and with myself. I try to pay attention. I make space for her in my life. I try to understand why she has come by. Instead of pretending she doesn’t exist, or dulling her down, or trying to shove her into a broom closet (I promise I have never done any of these things with an old friend, by the way), I listen, pay attention, and try to hear her out.

Now, an important caveat that I had to learn the hard way about making anxiety your friend: you can’t become too close friends with your anxiety. You can’t let it become the bully who pushes you around, or that friend who encourages you to do things you know are bad for you. You can’t always be saying “yes” to whatever anxiety is trying to get you to do. It’s more like, anxiety has to come to visit to say that you’re worried about not succeeding at a particular prestigious work project perhaps. You should listen and ask, okay, so what exactly about this project is making me anxious, and go down that line of questioning. You shouldn’t say, “Well, anxiety, you’re right, instead of going into work tomorrow for this, I’m going to stay in bed and mainline Nextflix for six hours.” There’s the listening to and asking questions of anxiety and why she’s there, and then there’s the letting anxiety make you believe she’s there to make you feel not good enough.

When I think about setting boundaries with anxiety-as-a-friend, I think of two writers in particular who talked about falling into the trap of doing whatever you want and whatever is easiest as a form of self care, when it’s really just saying yes to the bully because it’s easier than standing up for yourself.

In one column of Dear Fuck-Up on The Outline, Brandy Jensen writers, “I can’t imagine how much worse I would have been had I been reading memes on Instagram about how I was simply a wild, unruly, messy soul who deserves to be accepted and loved by everyone around me. If anyone had told my 23 year-old self that bailing on people is self-care I would have eaten that shit up.”

Then in her book Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person, Shonda Rhimes discusses how she realized she wasn’t taking care of her body under the guise of practicing self care in the form of food: “By being so obese, I wasn’t saying Yes to being healthy. Instead, I was saying yes to being fat.”

You can’t be saying ‘yes’ to whatever your anxiety wants and thinking that is the way you get to be friends with it. Your anxiety is wily. It wants to cross healthy boundaries. Your anxiety often wants you to think you’re not good enough and that any project you try will fail. That others will be talking behind your back at you. That your boss thinks you’re dumb.

You can say “yes” to your anxiety sometimes. On some occasions, it’s probably even a good idea to say yes because it’s trying to truly tell you something.

But the most important thing you can do to your anxiety is listen. Open the door, see what good old Sally has to say. Don’t try to get her to leave immediately. Offer her some cookies, ask her some questions, both of you put your feet up for a while. Learn. Then, eventually, shepherd her out the door, say you’ll see each other again soon (because you probably will) and go on with what you need to do in your day.

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