Giving Up Anxiety for Lent

After this year’s Ash Wednesday service at the Basilica of St Mary’s (see this post for more information), I felt an invitation to stop feeding my anxiety(ies) this Lenten season.  Feel free to snicker if you’d like.  I kind of thought it was crazy too.  I knew this wasn’t going to be a simple process, but I was confident my heart and soul needed this to function in a healthy way.  I was also prepared for moments of failure along the way.  I’m a realist. The journey was a roller coaster.  And it’s a journey that continues as I try to maintain new habits.  Yes, Lent is over. But no, I do not want to pick up my anxiety habits again like snacking on chocolate.

I realized that I have a problem with anxiety.  Anxiety is a normal human emotion.  And yet, for me, I noticed this month that I was feeding on the endorphins from the release of anxiety.  In the past I’ve allowed myself to get all worked up in a tizzy of worry, self-doubt and self-loathing as I pondered how I might have failed or not been good enough at something.  This spiraled into heart-pounding, stomach churning and crippling fear as I contemplated the impact of the present failure for my future.  And inevitably things almost always worked out.  I’d find out that I did not fail, and oh yes – people still like me and want to hang out with me.  The relief of things going better than expected left me feeling a rush of joy and giddiness.  After inhabiting such a dark space, the freedom of release was exhilarating.  It felt good.  Better than good — awesome even.  This pattern scares me, and I no longer want to engage it as a way of life. I do not want to be a drama queen who needs an anxiety/release fix.

As I began the process of trying to figure out what’s triggering my anxieties, I saw several threads weaving together.  I stopped trying to control my body’s ability to get pregnant; I’m done with the fertility stuff, and don’t have any current options on my plate related to children.  Recognizing the loss of control over planning the entrance of children into my life, I’d been pursuing areas where I can control things.  I realized that image management and career management feels controllable.  And because I have this significant area of my life beyond my grasp (having children), I’ve been focusing so tightly on these other areas for the illusion of security.  My ego needed boosting and stability.  If I fail at relationships, school, or internship assignments, what do I have left in my hands?  Who I am then? Will people still love me if I fail? If I don’t always have my stuff together?

So, what’s helped me this month? I’ve stopped trying to just bury the anxiety by hiding — getting lost in books, movies, tv or the internet.  Pretending it’s not there doesn’t make it go away either.

When I’m being anxious over silly things, I tell myself to stop feeding the crazy.   If it’s a more serious issue, I acknowledge the anxiety present, and then I remind myself that I am loved.  I take deep breaths. I breathe deeply enough that my chest moves up and my stomach moves out.  Then, I release all the pent up air slowly.  As I release, I imagine myself breathing out all that toxic energy.  Out with the bad, out with the self-loathing. And I take another deep breath in.  In with the good, with the reminder that I am loved. Breathe out the fear and panic.

Also, I pray.  Sometimes I find myself asking the Spirit “Help!”  Sometimes silent prayer imagining God swinging with me helps (For further explanation of this idea, see this post.).  I remember I am not alone, nor abandoned.  And the anxiety usually passes. It’s not easy, nor immediately natural for me.  My brain wants to cling to old habits.

It’s a moment-by-moment struggle to choose something other than anxiety. The hourly struggle in this battle is worth the effort.

I feel that maybe, maybe I’m making progress as I’m willing to let go of my anxiety spiral.  I’m seeing a difference in my approach to teaching this week after the Lenten process, and it begins to mirror the following quote from Living Gently in a Violent World. Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier write, “Transformation has to do with the way the walls separating us from others and from our deepest self begin to disappear.  Between all of us fragile human beings stand walls built on loneliness and the absence of God, walls built on fear – fear that becomes depression or a compulsion to prove that we are special.” Instead of the compulsion to be the best teacher, to prove that I’m smart, that I’m well-prepared and awesome – I’m noticing more of a desire for my words to impact student’s hearts. I care more about the impact of the teaching, than my students’ perceptions of me.  I long to create space where we get to encounter God together more than for the kids to know how smart I am.  I find myself more comfortable saying, “I don’t know.”

And I noticed that this space of welcome that I’ve created for my soul transfers to the way that people welcome me.  I become a safer person for others to engage when I’m seeking healing for my brokenness and acknowledging my brokenness instead of hiding it beneath a polished, perfected lacquer.  I’m not wholly there yet, but I can see progress.  And that is beautiful to me.

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