Gifts From a Year

I’m going about this New Year’s business all wrong, I know — aren’t I supposed to leave 2014 in the dust and head boldly into 2015? I guess it’s taken until the end of the holidays to give me enough clarity and calm to see the lessons of 2014.

The thing about insights is that they always seem to carry over into the next year or two, or even three — it’s a little like going deeper and deeper into the ocean, one strata of pressure at a time. (I’d love to read a book analyzing the life cycle of insights, actually — does anyone have any suggestions?) So perhaps it’s okay to reckon a little later with what a year has taught me, now that the dust has cleared and I can see a little more clearly.

I think last year was the first where I realized just what an anxious little human I can be. I’m not talking clinical anxiety, but the garden everyday mental static that can really pull and tug at your peace of mind. Last year I felt such a lot of it — over so many seemingly out-of-control areas of my life that interlocked with one another — and for the first time I felt sometimes I just couldn’t deal because I was so overwhelmed.

The crazy thing was that so many of the changes and circumstances were so positive — love, family, creative opportunities — but there was just so much unexpected stuff alongside it all that it made me worry and fret to the point of not enjoying anything.

I forgot where I read this, but I remember reading somewhere that physiologically speaking, from the body’s perspective, anxiety and excitement resemble each other so much that they are almost identical biological responses — there’s the elevated heartbeat, the shortness of breath, a tightening in the chest. The biggest difference is the mental story we lay over it. Excitement is a kind of burst of wild anticipation of joy, opportunity and happiness; anxiety is an anticipation of failure, calamity, catastrophe. One response is joy-based, but the other arises from fear.

When I read this, something inside me clicked: a lot of my anxiety was fear of fucking everything up. I was facing a lot of wonderful life changes but I was practicing for failure already in my imagination; I had no faith in the resilience and endurance of happiness.

I had learned this fear early on; I’ve written in my newsletter about growing up with an anxious parent, and I had, despite many of my best efforts, internalized this tendency as well. In a way, this humbled me. I think many of us fear becoming our parents on some level, but if the New Age adage of “what you resists, persists,” then here was my comeuppance to the arrogance to think I could escape my familial legacy. It gave me a sense of compassion, though — for myself and for my parents, because it’s not easy to escape anxiety. And for myself, because on some level, it made me feel better. Of course I’d be so anxious in the face of such dramatic emotional, financial and creative tidal changes happening all at once! Those are the instincts I inherited, the quickest tools to draw upon when faced with the nervous tiger that is anxiety.

Anxiety, too, reflects a strange, almost dysmorphic relationship to time. By projecting your past fears into a future of failure and disaster, you’re psychologically existing in two temporal dimensions at the same time…past and future, duh! Your poor brain is taking input from one and putting it into the other. Of course, what gets squeezed out of the equation? The present moment, which is where gurus, psychologists and all sorts of wise types say is the only real time we truly possess.

Ironically enough, getting back to the present moment during an anxiety attack is one of the few ways I’ve found to stave it off. Luckily, my other familial legacy is Buddhism, and meditation does help, even the cheat-y kinds of meditations I do. Yoga helps, as does doing anything physically challenging. A beautiful walk, a heartfelt conversation, making art, riding horses or otherwise spending time with creatures with a gift for being in the moment — they help to keep your attention in the here and now. Which helps, honestly.

I also think mental states like anxiety can be triggered or exacerbated by hunger, thirst and being tired, so sometimes I have to be hypervigilant about making sure I’m not hungry, thirsty or sleepy. Sometimes I just tell myself I need to make it through the day, the hour, the minute — not every action I take has to have its long-term effects accounted for before I take it. Sometimes it is okay, and human, and real, to be fragile and vulnerable and to not have the answers or all the ducks lined up in a row. We all do our best, and hope that’s enough.

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The nice thing about the past few weeks is that life has gotten very quiet, and it’s been perfect — everything is a lot calmer and I feel so much less mental and emotional static with more “white space” in my schedule and mind. I don’t doubt that the nervous tiger will be back — I don’t think there is any cure, and to hope for one is almost like inviting anxiety to have a permanent seat at the dinner table — but it is nice to hit it at the ebb point. Hope everyone’s New Year is proceeding beautifully!

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