ANXIETY & THE BODY

When you have anxiety as a child, you lack the words for what you feel inside your body, and what you feel inside your body is so acutely awful, so wretched and horrifying, most anxious kids will spend their time actively looking for ways to avoid feeling the percolating dread filling their chests, bubbling into their throats and tingling down their arms.

The more they turn away from their own feelings, the more they suffer. If no one intervenes, they grow into teenagers who can easily find unhealthy ways to numb their suffering (which achieves their goal of avoidance) through alcohol and drug use. By now, these kids have gone so long trying to avoid what’s in their bodies, they’ve grown to fear not just the feelings, but the bodies that contain the feelings. They can’t drop down into their feelings, so they rise up and get trapped inside their heads.

This disconnection between head and body makes ignoring your body easy. When they grow into adults, this separation can be so acute that in order to actually feel their bodies they need to overeat or undereat to the point of discomfort. They drink to excess or rely on drugs to either numb or amplify their terrifying feelings. Their relationship to their body becomes dysregulated and they’ll spend years trying to work through it all.

If you have children, how do you prevent all this from happening? Well, you must start teaching your child how to listen to her body. When she’s angry, ask her where she feels it and what it feels like. Don’t let her get away with “I don’t know” or “You’re so annoying.” Make this question a habit. Ask her to point to where she feels her sadness, her gladness, her laughter.

If we can begin to train our children to listen to themselves early, we have a much better chance of reaching them when they’re teenagers. And they have a much better chance of developing a healthy relationship with their body.

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SECOND RESPONSES

Whenever something feels off in my body, it’s cancer.

Whenever someone says they “have to talk to me,” they’re going to end our friendship.

Whenever something even slightly out of the ordinary occurs, I respond the same way–with an automatic over-reaction. This is anxiety. It’s the most reliable feature of my personality and if you have anxiety, it’s familiar to you, also.

Last week, I gave a big talk and was interrupted from the audience, by the woman running the show, telling me to hurry up and finish because people were walking out (actually, two women were just going to the bathroom). When the event ended, I was rushed out of the hall by another woman and into a smaller room to record a podcast. No one said thank you. No one emailed me the next day or the day after that. Obviously, they hated my talk and they hated me and I should just impale myself on something so that I am unable to ever travel and give talks again.

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“TEDxMtHood2016-233-DSC09868” by TEDxMtHood Planning Team is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Not once did it occur to me that their behavior was unprofessional, or even–the horror–rude! Nor did it occur to me that not everyone is gracious, or even good at what they do. Nope, it was me. It’s always me. ME ME ME ME ME. I’m the worst. I’m the ugliest. I’m the dumbest. I’m the most pathetic. These are my first reactions always, and they are not healthy or good for me, and they are never correct (but they sure are narcissistic!)

Anxiety is all about the first reaction, and that first reaction is often never right. And that’s why creating a second response to every situation is important, because most likely the second response is the one that’s more accurate.

Here’s an example: have you ever run into someone you know who has to hurry away, or can’t stop and say hi, or just waves and keeps going and you think: shit, what have I done? Then you worry all day that this person is mad at you for reasons you cannot guess, but you know MUST exist? And then you get an email a day later from the person apologizing, and explaining that they had just left therapy, or had been broken up with, or got rejected from law school or were withdrawing from meds or a hundred other things that happen to us on any given day.

Think about all the times you went to a fantastic party, sang its praises to everyone for weeks after, but for some reason never emailed the host. You didn’t hate the party. You were so caught up in the post-party reverie, it slipped your mind. There are so many things that we let slip that hurt other people and we don’t even know. Just how we become gripped by anxiety at other people’s foibles, so too are we causing others to feel anxious. We just don’t know about it.

Building a second response is fairly easy, and here’s how it’s done: Start writing down all the times you thought something was your fault and it ended up not being your fault (they weren’t mad at me, they were heartsick!) Write down every time you were wrong about why someone was late (they didn’t die! They were just on a stalled subway!) After a while, you’ll see that your reasons and the actual reasons don’t line up, and you’ll come to accept that there are tons of reasons why things happen and you are almost always wasting your time guessing.

Next time someone snubs you, or turns up late, or calls at you from the audience to tell you that people are leaving, you’ll have an arsenal of options for what might ACTUALLY be going on. First responders may be heroes, but for people with anxiety, second responders are who we want to be.

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