Article by Irving Schattner
Edit and post design by Christy Zigweid
Photo by Silentpilot via Pixabay made using @WordSwagApp
As we head into a new year, I am reminded of how many people are out there needlessly suffering with anxiety and depression. I also ask myself why so many people are willing to “settle” when their lives could be so much better; filled with joy, purpose and direction. As I ponder this question, I am reminded of my own experience with anxiety and the years it “stole” from me; how it zapped my energy, denying me simple pleasures of life and forcing me to pass on opportunities that could have enriched my life. I remember an old television commercial from the United Negro College Fund stating how “a mind is a terrible thing to waste,” I reflect back on my own negative state of mind and how it colored a distorted lens through which I viewed myself and the world around me. My negative state of being easily led to feelings of frustration, anger, suspicion and, at times, hopelessness and despair. Yes, there were good times, but even the good times were short-lived, as anxiety and its aftermath would once again take hold and bring me back to my reality.
And so, because I struggled with anxiety and feelings of sadness, hopelessness and despair, I contemplated the value of my worth which translated into a poor sense of self. Feeling somewhat lost and disconnected led me to feel sorry for myself and so rather than take action to do something to manage and overcome my negative emotional state, I continued to daydream about what my life could be like. I was living without a sense of real joy, purpose, or connection with myself and the world around me. It was hard for me to imagine anything other than how lousy I felt. Although I made my mark on some occasions and went through the motions on other occasions, I continued to feel unfulfilled and ridden with anticipatory and situational anxiety.
Unrealistically high expectations, a need to be perfect, possessing a strong need for approval, and fearing negative evaluation were the by-products of my anticipatory and social / situational anxiety.
Seeing no way out, there were times when I pondered my miserable existence by entertaining thoughts of departing from this Earth. Fortunately, for me, these were only thoughts as I had no plans of acting on them. Realizing that doing myself in was a one-way trip with no return, I continued to hold out some hope that one day I would overcome my anxiety and live with joy, purpose and connection.
Fortunately for me, that day came. I saw an ad in the local newspaper (this was many years ago before there were computers or the internet) advertising a group for persons suffering with anxiety and depression. Of course, as fear was typically my guide, I came up with a number of reasons why I couldn’t attend:
Despite all these excuses, I finally decided that despite my suspicion and ambivalence about how the group could be of help, I would give it a shot and go.
So, I showed up to group about a half-hour earlier in order to ease myself into this potentially terrifying situation. The last thing I wanted to do was walk in and have all eyes upon me. As each new member showed up, I said “hello” and introduced myself in an attempt to desensitize myself from the anxiety of what was yet to come. When all the members filed in, and the group room door was closed, I felt a wave of intense panic overcome me. My immediate thoughts were “What the hell am I doing here?" followed by “What if they notice how nervous I am?” and “What if I feel the need to walk out and leave?” It was a living hell on Earth.
Despite my intense fear and anxiety, I did stay (probably because I was too embarrassed to draw attention to leaving) and somehow muddled through. Sitting in a group filled with fellow anxiety suffers, my thoughts were focused on how “together” many of the members appeared and how out of place I felt. I was going through the motions while frozen with fear. I listened to people share and when it was my turn, I shared very little and was quite general and superficial. In what seemed like an out-of-body experience, I listened to what others had to share while very much preoccupied with my own internal state of mind and physiological state. When the group adjourned for the evening, I felt relief, said goodbye, got into my car, and went home.
On the way home, my anxiety eventually diminished while my evaluative self remained. Despite my success at attending the anxiety group, my anticipatory anxiety persisted as I continued to ponder reasons for not returning to next week’s group. The closer I got to the day of the next group, the stronger these negative feelings were. Despite my excuses and negative frame of mind, I went back to group the following week, followed by the next week and the week following that, and so on. With each meeting, I shared more and came to realize that no one was judging me; I was the only one doing the judging. And...over time, my comfort level with group increased. I came to realize that despite our different life experiences, we all shared the burden of living with anxiety and were all committed to finding freedom through mutual aid and support.
Attending the anxiety group was a turning point in my life. It led me to pursue individual therapy, where I unraveled the mystery behind what was fueling my anxiety and learned healthy strategies for finding joy, purpose and direction. My most important lesson in therapy was learning that despite my worst fears and scenarios, my anxiety would not kill me. I came to realize that the more I tried to hold onto or “control my anxiety,” the more my anxiety controlled me. (This is known as a “paradox,” which involves doing the opposite of what your brain is telling you to do). And so, despite my initial resistance, with support, encouragement, and even prodding by my therapist, I began to allow myself to feel that which I feared most – my anxiety. At first it was scary as hell. My therapist was asking me to do the very thing I was avoiding, facing my anxiety and allowing it to pass through me while continuing to do whatever I was doing. But with repeated practice, my anxiety came to diminish in intensity, as I allowed myself to “face it, feel it, and let it pass through.” Through this process of walking through my anxiety, I came to the realization that fighting my anxiety was futile, and learning to accept (rather than fear) what I was feeling was my answer to gaining freedom from anxiety.
In telling my personal story, my wish is for you to reach out and seek help. If I can do it, so can you. It takes some courage and persistence, but the payoff is tremendous. Since my recovery from anxiety, my life has only gotten better. Yes, like most people, I still feel anxiety from time to time, but it no longer throws me into a panic. I now see my anxiety as a way of letting me know that something is troubling me and use the skills learned in therapy to channel this anxiety for positive change. And… as a licensed clinical social worker / psychotherapist, I’ve taken what I’ve learned (both personally and professionally) into helping others achieve freedom from anxiety and depression.
Take the challenge… step out of your comfort zone, attend a support group and seek professional help for your anxiety and depression.
Irving Schattner, LCSW
About the Author - Irving Schattner, LCSW
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