I’ve always thought of myself as a relatively calm person. I soothe and reassure others and have been told many times that my voice has a calming effect. I even have a meditation practice of 4 years which I thought contributes to my calm demeanor. Of course, I would get anxious at times, but those moments seemed to be fleeting, or maybe I never really paid much attention to the extent of my anxiety. I would get anxious about being late, disappointing, or upsetting someone, speaking out, not being good enough, the list could go on and on. When I am anxious my heart beats so hard, it could pop right out of my chest. I can’t think about anything other than what I am anxious about and then when the moment passes, I would dismiss that awful feeling and go back to the calm grounded person I thought I was. It wasn’t until I began to experience symptoms which turned out to be cancer that I understood on a deeper level what anxiety really is.
When I began to feel my symptoms, I became preoccupied and fearful that something was wrong with my body. It was all I can think about and because my energy level became depleted, I stopped working. I retired 5 years ago from my full-time job as a social worker and then worked part time in a hospice agency and began stress management talks with senior citizens. It’s ironic how I was able to teach others to be calm, through meditation and relaxation techniques, however when I began to become persistently anxious, none of what I taught was effective. They were all wise words of wisdom from the many books I read and meditations I practiced over the years, but when l began to lose my health I saw that the anxiety was deeply rooted and entwined with other emotions. I saw that even though my seniors appreciated my talks and the attention that our groups provided, I didn’t see how their anxiety was attached to loss, an overall lack of control and grief, all camouflaged by various symptoms of anxiety.
Now that I felt it too, anxiety took on a deeper meaning. The anxiety was different from being late, though that is not to be ignored either because being late feels disrespectful to the person waiting and I am anxious about disappointing people. The anxiety I felt over my health, however, made me frightened. If I can’t do things for myself, what will I do? How will I manage? My body is broken! I must have done something wrong! I didn’t follow healthy diets and now I am paying for it! Will I die? Am I ready to die? What about all the money I saved for my old age? Will I not get old? Oh, if this is as old as I’ll get and still haven’t spent it, I did my life all wrong!
These are only some of the thoughts go through my head when I am anxious. Some thoughts are filled with self-criticism, which I am becoming more aware of. However, anxiety based on fear of loss of health brings us closer to our mortality. We are grieving for the loss of our health and fearful that we are near the end of our lives. It also means we are in a vulnerable position where we have to depend on others and that brings up trust issues. Feeling regrets over what we did or didn’t do feels like an issue of high expectations instead of self-acceptance.
I now see that anxiety is a real part of me and though it’s puzzling how I can be both calm and anxious, both qualities co-exist. Anxiety doesn’t define me. It is only one of many qualities that make up who I am. We are not all one thing or another. We are a mixture of ingredients that make up our identities. Like the Yin/Yang sign that balances the positive and negative. It is the balance that is worth reaching for. But that reach, I know, is sometimes beyond our grasp and we are not always in perfect balance as the ying/yang symbol portrays.
Those months of tests to find out what was wrong was overwhelming. I experienced shame and the feeling that I did something wrong to make this awful thing happen to me. It took a long time for me to ask my doctor how I got T cell lymphoma. He said it was a mutation of certain cells. His answer was more complex, but in essence, his answer helped me to see how I beat myself up. I turned a mutation of cells into an old self-hating agenda.
I have come to understand that anxiety is also because of our fear that we will not be able to handle whatever stressful situation we are facing. We won’t be able to control the uncontrollable so we get anxious, but in truth there are many things we cannot control.
I am now more than halfway through chemotherapy and though my anxiety continues, in many ways it lessened. I carry my anxiety with me like an overloaded suitcase, knowing I won’t be able to leave anything behind. As I became familiar with the amazing staff of professionals taking care of me, my anxiety lessened because I began to trust them. Whenever I get a new side effect, I become anxious again, thinking that my body is frail and will break somehow and I worry about calling them for fear that I did something wrong. I usually end up calling and am reassured.
It helps me see that by carrying my anxiety with me and not fighting it, I look instead for ways to manage it, like striking a balance. At times, the balance comes by trusting the professionals who take care of me, and always by trusting myself. I begin to remember that my old agenda is not helpful, it is not useful or even accurate. It has nothing to do with who I am today. I work at managing my anxiety by balancing it with trust. I get annoyed when someone trying to be helpful says, “Calm down” because I know it won’t go away on demand. Instead, I look for ways to lighten my load, like asking people to help me, because after all there is so much beyond my control.
My anxiety also lessens when I see that I am managing after all, like following written directions that initially look too difficult, but in rereading it, it looks easier. By balancing anxiety with trust, in yourself and in others, it lightens our load and we can leave past trauma behind, because it interferes with who we are today and in our present ability to function.