Monday, May 6, 2013

Responding to Anxiety

For most of my life I have relied on my temperament to prevent anxiety. Calm is my default setting, and in stressful situations everything slows down for me. My breathing slows, my brain downshifts, and I go into problem solving mode. You know, kind of like The Matrix. I casually watch bullets whiz by my head. Oh hey, there's a bullet. But seriously, for as long as I can remember my boat has kept an even keel in crisis, which served me very well as a hospice chaplain and as a friend. I have been unflappable. I can't be flapped.

My temperament may no longer be enough. This long season of transition I have been in has brought anxiety crashing down on me and my boat has not steered as steady. Yet I have gone through big life transitions before and it has not affected me in the same way. I suspect the difference this time is this: I have gotten older. 36 year old Adam does not respond to stress in the same way that the 25 year old version did. In other words, even though 36 year old Adam is still pretty cool in crisis, occasionally he freaks out.

When I worked in hospice, the doctors prescribed two medications to just about every single patient on our service: Morphine, for the pain, and Atavin, for the anxiety. There didn't seem to be any 80 year old hospice patients with a natural physiological calm. I never heard anyone on their death bed say "It's cool." Thus I have a suspicion that those of us born with an innate equanimity will not die with an innate equanimity.

I may have reached the anxiety tipping point, when I can no longer rely on the flow of chemicals in my brain to harbor me from anxious reactions. This is when the real work begins. It's gonna get harder now, and the anxiety will knock at the door more often from this point on. Life gets more complicated as we get older, and anxiety comes with it, so it's not a matter of avoiding anxiety but of responding appropriately to anxiety. I do not believe that we are all doomed to melt into a medicated puddle of anxiety as we get older. Nor do I believe that we have to become homebodies who subconsciously try to prevent anxiety with hardened routines and the safest and slowest possible routes to get anywhere. But I do think that, regardless of our natural bent toward or away from anxiety, we must tackle the issue if we want to age unanxiously.

The most helpful school of thought I have encountered on responding to anxiety is called "mindfulness," which I have found in several places but most lucidly explained in a book called Full Catastrophe Living. I would simplify, perhaps oversimplify, the message of mindfulness in relationship to anxiety thus: YOU ARE NOT YOUR ANXIETY. Just because a situation may create anxiety in you does not mean that you have to make it part of you. When anxious thoughts run through your head, you don't have to stop the tape. You can notice them, acknowledge them, and allow them to run right out.

Anxiety has a way of taking us out of the present moment. It usually transports us into an imagined future scenario, often a hypothetical disaster scenario. Mindfulness says that THIS moment is the one you are living, and the only one you can actually live. Anxiety wants you to miss what is right in front of you. Jesus said the exact same thing:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. (Matthew 6.27-29).

Jesus' remedy for anxiety? Noticing the beauty and the life and the fullness right in front of you, right in this moment. Anxiety imagines a future of scarcity, but the moment is filled with abundance. Pay attention.

Another piece of wisdom I have heard on preventing the signs of anxiety is this: each week do something new and something that feels a little risky. In other words, you don't learn to deal with anxiety by staying safe and avoiding it, but by plunging headlong into it and responding to it there. I'm not necessarily suggesting that next week you try base jumping, bear wrestling, or screaming "Meat is Murder!" at a nearby steakhouse, unless that's what you're into. I'm talking about each week doing something that feels a little uncomfortable. Try a new kind of cuisine, talk to a homeless person on the street, pick up a new hobby. As you get older you will be tempted to constrict your life along with your tightening muscles; keep stretching.

What about you? Do you think it is inevitable that we will become more anxious as we get older? What are helpful ways you have learned to respond to anxiety?