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Living with Anxiety: Changing the Story We Tell Ourselves

Delilah backs out of the driveway and waves goodbye to her parents. High school is over, the goodbyes have ended, and the only thing that stands between her and college is a five hour drive. She now has some free time. Plenty of time. Too much time. Radio is her only distraction, but it's not enough. And the thoughts begin.

So many new people. So many new experiences. So many new fears. The "what if" scenarios cycle in her head like a military drill. What if she chose the wrong major? What if she fails her first classes? What if her roommate hates her and she can't find any friends? What if she gets sick so far from home? What if she can't get a job after graduation and can't pay back her loans? So much time, so many fears. College is going to be a complete and utter disaster — she is sure of it — and no one can convince her otherwise.

The one adventure that Delilah had dreamed about her entire life — now fills her with fear.

The Evolution of Anxiety

Delilah's story is familiar to many of us.

Life is overwhelming. Period. No caveats. No conditions. Unless you're a monk, or nun, or hermit, or someone completely isolated from the outside world — modern life will overtake you like a Sherman tank. And how do we respond to it? Well, if you're anything like Delilah, with a five-alarm blaze of stress and anxiety. It sucks. But, it wasn't always that way.

There was a day when a human being's primary concern was simply, not to get eaten. If we made it through the day alive, it was a good day. Survival occupied much of our thought. We didn't have time to worry about "lesser things." It was simpler times. Not better, just simpler. If we could eat, sleep, and reproduce — life was good.

Then came language. Societies. Laws. Currency. Businesses. Buildings. Computers. MTV. Social Media. The Kardashians. And Toaster Strudel (I may have been hungry when I wrote this). Life got better in many, many ways. But simpler? I don't think so.

In the past, changes in the ancient world affected our evolution slowly. Very, very slowly. About a million years appears to be the best guess. While some "rapid evolution" has taken place over shorter periods of time, these changes are rarely sustained throughout human history. True, lasting evolutionary change takes a very long time.

But the world around us, the world we created, it doesn't have the same degree of patience.

Comparatively speaking, our technological and societal changes happen at lightening speed. We try and adapt — with some success — but the gap continues to widen. While our physical and behavioral traits remain very similar to those of hunter/gatherer days, our society is ages ahead in some futuristic Brave New World.

And there are few places where this gap is more obvious, then in our reaction to stress and anxiety. In particular, fight-or-flight.

Fight-or-Flight Response

The fight-or-flight response is a physiological response to perceived danger. This process prepares the body for either fighting or fleeing. When triggered, the body releases a cascade of epinephrine, norepinephrine, estrogen, testosterone, dopamine, and other stress hormones. These trigger reactions in the body including increased heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension, and an increase in oxygenated blood to the larger muscle groups.

Now the body is prepared. It's prepared to survive. The only problem is, we don't experience true risk-of-life situations as much as we used to. The amygdala part of our brains, which triggers this fight-or-flight response, can't always identify a real threat from a perceived threat. And this response is often triggered when we really don't need it.

When the human race was in its infancy, our lives were simpler — but also more dangerous. We spent most of our days seeking food, water, shelter, and warmth. We also spent time eluding danger. But things have changed. Few of us must face off a wild hippo just to get to the office in the morning.

Even in our modern world today, anxiety is still a regular part of life. You might have felt it when that car almost hit you on 25th Street. Or perhaps when you wanted to ask that boy out to the dance. Or maybe when you were in the waiting room for your first acting audition or when that sudden turbulence hit mid-flight somewhere over Ohio. We experience some level of anxiety every day. For most people, it's a normal part of life, and it doesn't cause any long-term complications.

It becomes a problem when it becomes excessive. It becomes a problem when it becomes chronic, when it interferes with a healthy life or keeps you from doing things you want to do. For some, anxiety includes excessive worry, insomnia, chronic nervousness, panic attacks, stomach distress, muscle tics and tremors, heart palpitations, hot and cold flushes, depression, and even suicidal ideation. For some, anxiety is a life-altering condition. One, from which, they want nothing more than to escape.

Anxiety kills relatively few people, but many more would welcome death as an alternative to the paralysis and suffering resulting from anxiety in its severest forms. — David H. Barlow, Anxiety and Its Disorders (2002)

What Can We Do?

Delilah wants to escape, but doesn't know how.

She can't directly change her physiology. She can't just think "stop releasing the neurochemicals that make me anxious," and expect everything to be better. We wish it worked that way, but wishing doesn't make it so.

She can't isolate herself entirely from the outside world. Many have tried this — and while it may have a few short-term benefits, it is far from a realistic solution. She can't take anxiety medications like Xanax, Ativan, Valium, and Klonopin and expect her problem to improve. Most people who have visited our site know that these cause far more problems than they cure (visit our website for more info).

But, there are many options that do work — and have been proven to do so. She can learn proven anxiety management tools and techniques. She can take up mindfulness, meditation, or yoga. Or try breathing exercises and spend time in nature with the animals. She can exercise, eat healthy, visit a therapist, or explore a daily practice of gratitudes. The list is endless.

Now, most of these do take work. There are no easy fixes here. But still, every little bit does help. And eventually, the little bits add up.

There is one more thing, though. One more tool that I forgot to mention. And that is the technique of changing the story you tell yourself.

Changing the Story

Jess is driving down the highway — the same highway as Delilah. She is also heading to her first day at college. New people, new events, all the same stuff awaits her as Delilah. But, there is one significant different between the two. Jess is smiling — arm out the window, head bobbing to the music, her jet black hair blowing in the wind. To look at her, you'd think she doesn't have a care in the world.

She does care, though. She has some of the same fears and worries about college as Delilah. The difference between the two, are the stories they tell themselves. The core of Jess's story is excitement. The core of Delilah's, is fear.

"We are what we think." — Buddha

Jess's story is one of adventure. She is still as clueless as Delilah about what lies ahead, and yet she is eager to find out what happens. There will be some failures, but there will also be successes. There will be some painful relationships, but there will also be new loves and friendships. But most of all, it's something new, and she can't wait to experience it.

Unfortunately, this way of thinking is foreign to Delilah. How can she be excited about something, when so many things could go wrong? Her mind is filled with chronic anxiety, ruminations, obsessive thinking, and looping thoughts. When something happens in her life, she jumps to the worst case scenario, and her fears overwhelm her.

It's not really her fault. Perhaps it was genetics, perhaps it was her childhood, perhaps it was the result of brain injury or medication. Or more likely, perhaps it is a combination of all the above. It may not be her fault — but it is her responsibility. No one else is going to change Delilah's story — but Delilah.

Most anxiety stems from self-fabricated stories based on speculation and assumption. We tell ourselves fictional stories about the people in our lives or the circumstances that befall us. We do it all the time. Seldom do we notice what we're doing. Even more rarely do we see the connection between our incorrect assumptions about others and our internal anxiety level. — R. Scott Gornto, Psychology Today

Changing her thoughts, her story, is not going to be easy. But, she can change.

Delilah can modify the messages she tells herself. She can tear down the false assumptions she has focused on, and replace them with more optimistic, more realistic thoughts. And it doesn't have to be some massive change. In fact, it's better to start small. The first step in this process is simply learning to notice your internal messages and emotions.

Here are eight tips from a Psychology Today article titled, "The Anxious Stories We Tell Ourselves." Please visit the article for more background and information.

8 Tips to Help Change the Story You Tell Yourself

  1. Notice your body and emotions

  2. Breathe deeply

  3. Connect with your environment

  4. Control what you can control

  5. Let go of what you can't control

  6. Talk to yourself in a positive manner

  7. Do something life-giving in the moment

  8. Repeat steps 1 through 7 as necessary

Delilah Arrives at College

Now, I know I couldn't end this article without telling you what happened to Delilah. So, here it goes.

A tear sliding down her cheek, Delilah stands at the closed door of her dorm room staring at the door knob — frozen. It's been almost five minutes now. She is seconds from turning around and driving back home. All her fears were correct — she can't handle this.

Then she hears a soft voice next to her, "It's just a door." She turns to see a woman with jet black hair and the warmest smile she has seen in years. It's her new roommate — Jess. Delilah grins quietly, wipes away her tears, and turns the knob.

Yes, this story may be a bit campy. And yes, it is quite predictable. And yet, it still made me feel warm inside as I wrote it. I can't help it — I'm an old sap.

I don't really know what happened to Delilah at college — since she only exists in my mind. But, I like to think that with time, with the help of a good friend, and with some therapy and a little guidance, that she thrived. I like to think that, because I have seen it time and time again.

Life moves fast. Too fast. And many of us can't keep up. And we find ourselves trapped in our own minds occupied by nothing other than worry and fear. But, it's not hopeless. Not by a long shot.

Anxiety is a loop. It's a vicious cycle. Stress causes anxiety which causes symptoms and pain and fear which causes stress which causes anxiety which... get the picture? But that cycle also works in reverse. Easing stress eases anxiety which eases symptoms and pain and fear, etc., etc.

Next time the looping thoughts start, step back. Observe the voices in your head and see where they are taking you. Then edit your story, just a bit. Change it up. Turn a horror flick into an adventure pic. You wrote the movie in your head, and only you can change the ending.

Try it out. You're worth it.

See ya next time.



This post is for informational purposes only, and should never be considered medical or professional advice of any kind. Please visit our disclaimer page for more info.

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