By Dr. Henry Cloud
The chills are eating me from the inside-out. I can barely feel my hands, gripped tight to the steering wheel as they are, and what I can feel is coated with clammy perspiration. My heart is racing in a flurry of shuddering beats. Instead of being warmed by the heat blasting from the vents in my car, cold blankets my skin, and I might as well have been exposed to the elements in the thick of winter. Blinking twice, I remind myself that I’m not dying — yet.
Driving somewhere new. Going to an interview. Calling a business on the phone. Meeting new people. They can all make my hands shake and my skin crawl. The anxiety wells up like blood in a fresh cut and spills over into my whole body, paralyzing my senses and making it difficult to talk, and even walk.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. Myself, and an estimated 40 million other people, live a not insignificant amount of our lives in a state of mortal panic.
Anxiety is the “fight-or-flight” reflex built into our physiological systems. This means that, when we’re anxious, our fight-or-flight response charges our metabolism and prepares us for what has been deemed the inevitable: an all-out battle, or a mad dash. This is one of those adaptations that seems beneficial to other mammals, but humans? Personally, I don’t have to literally fight for my life with any regularity.
Anxiety may be our fight-or-flight response, but that doesn’t mean we have to let it be our only response, nor must we be defeated by its chilly grip. In fact, engaging that chilly grip is one method of — believe it or not — extinguishing it. I may not be able to escape my anxiety, but by embracing it I have a chance to let it exist without owning my existence. As my hands begin to shake and my palms sweat, rather than turn a blind eye to my body’s reaction and let it run its wild course, I take the chance to step back and observe its approach.
As the cold takes over I allow myself to mentally take flight, observing my physical reactions to insignificant stimuli with interest and curiosity. When anxiety sets your heart racing, don’t simply ignore that absurd cadence. Instead, stare it down, consider it, mull over why your body is responding in such a way, and understand that its response is out of proportion to the situation. The physical feelings of anxiety tend to ebb and flow differently for every person. Figuring out the when, how, and why of your overwhelming anxiety is the first step to embracing it — and then, ultimately, to exterminating it.
By understanding your body, you give your mind the chance to take back control, and when your mind comprehends the situation, your emotions inevitably will follow suit. You may not be facing a literal lion when your anxiety kicks in, but that anxiety itself may be the real lion. By acknowledging its existence and giving the physiology behind it a nod, you can conquer one side of your anxiety disorder. Anxiety often plays off of uncertainty, and by being certain that you don’t need to be anxious you can help to lessen its damaging- and deeply uncomfortable- physical effects.
The next time your body thinks it needs to fight or fly, embrace that instinct. When I do that, my mind stays in control, my emotional state doesn’t waver, and eventually my anxiety subsides.