There is probably no better cohort of people to dive deep into ways to understand and cope with anxiety than a typical group of neurotic clinical psychology PhD students. While I was awake into the wee hours of the night cramming to learn how cortisol, serotonin and GABA are associated with anxiety disorders, my own cortisol levels were rising. I had placed such a huge amount of my own self-worth on the approval of others and my academic accomplishments that my digestive system never seemed to work quite right, and it took me hours to fall asleep at night. In strictly psychological terms, I was a basket case.
I’m still on the anxious spectrum—my husband will be the first to tell you that I read about escaped murderers before I attempt to go to sleep, spend 45 minutes overthinking a three sentence email to an acquaintance, and google mild physical symptoms in an effort to confirm that I likely have a deadly disease. I’m far from someone who practices perfect mental hygiene. However, I no longer feel crushed or owned by anxiety the way I did when I was a doctoral student. My relationship with Anxiety has gone from that of an abusive relationship in which I was manipulated, criticized, and left feeling paralyzed with fear to that of an amusing if sometimes overwhelming friend. “There goes Anxiety. She always finds ways to make things SO dramatic. Can someone please make her some tea?” I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on a some things that led me out of a “I’ll-never-be-good-enough-anxiety-spiral”.
1. Practicing mindfulness: As a naturally absent-minded person who loses my keys and forgets where I parked, I gravitated toward the idea of mindfulness the moment I learned about it. While a deeper discussion of mindfulness and the power of meditation is in a previous post, I found that once I tried to deeply attend to the present moment with a sense of radical acceptance, intention and non-judgment, I felt many of my anxiety hang ups float away. When I was on an airplane, I wished I was at my destination. Waiting for food at a restaurant left me feeling restless. Five years of graduate school felt like an opportunity in which I would keep my head down until my diploma was in hand. I found that when I embraced the present moment and lived in the “here and now” I realized how many positive and beautiful moments I was wishing away. There’s a Buddhist saying that those who live in the past are depressed, those who live in the future are anxious, and those who live in a fantasy world are psychotic. Mindfulness taught me to try a little harder to welcome the present moment.
2. Prioritizing a balanced life: In graduate school my primary goal was to complete my dissertation and get a job. My work was constantly evaluated and a week didn’t go by when I didn’t receive some kind of feedback about how I was doing in the program. I remember starting my job as a staff psychologist and feeling lost by the lack of something concrete to work towards. There was no person whose positive evaluation of me felt paramount. When my goals shifted from being academically successful, to living a meaningful life it felt like tectonic plates were shifting in my body. I started constantly checking in with myself about how my creative, relational, and professional needs were being met. I continue to tinker my habits and change my schedule after thinking about what part of myself feels like it needs nourishment.
3. Therapy and supervision: Therapy and supervision of my clinical work provided me with a rich opportunity to understand my anxiety in the context of biology, my childhood, and my own cognitive mechanisms for accomplishing tasks. Just like couples therapy provides an opportunity for individuals to gain a deeper understanding of their partners, accept their strengths and flaws, and embrace one another, my own therapy allowed me to get to know my anxiety on a deeper level, understand the ways that it helps and hurts me, and find ways to have a more productive and healthy relationship. “Oh hi Anxiety, you’re here again. Thanks for helping me finish that paperwork. I’ll be with you momentarily.”