I am all too familiar with that feeling. That anxious feeling. That feeling of perpetual tightness in my chest and my stomach twisted in knots. Sweat pouring off my body making my hands clammy while simultaneously staining my clothes. The thing is, I have always been an anxious person. I can remember having anxiety from the time I entered pre-school. I would feel anxious as I waited to be told what to do next, where to go, don’t touch that, and wait in line here.
In reality, the anxious feeling probably started even before my own memory of it. The anxious feeling led to subsequent action, and oftentimes that meant that I was mean. I didn’t discriminate either, I was mean to everyone. It could just as easily be the people I loved as strangers on the street. Sometimes, I didn’t have the energy to be mean, so the anxiety made me feel really low, heavy, and burdened.
I went through periods of time where I was resigned to feeling this way forever interspersed with trying everything I could think of to change the anxious situations I faced and the way I felt. I practiced yoga and tried to get in tune with my spiritual side. I went to different therapists and tried different medications and forms of talk therapy. I read self-help books. I talked to friends and family. I incorporated exercise and ended up running a few half-marathons and even a full marathon. I got advanced degrees. I traveled around the world. I read for pleasure. I self-medicated. I separated from my spouse thinking maybe my relationship was the problem. And some of it worked, for a little while at least, but the sinking, anxious feeling always crept back in.
As I got older, I experienced greater responsibility, greater hardship, and greater loss — as most of us do. Through it all the feelings of anxiety got worse and I began to feel like my ability to control the situation was impossible. Then, after one particularly devastating loss in my life, I became completely overwhelmed. I couldn’t talk to anyone or do anything or go anywhere. I felt utterly hopeless and trapped.
I repeated to myself over and over that no matter what I did, there was no way to avoid these stressors and the inevitable anxious feeling that both preceded and followed seemingly every event in my life. I felt exhausted and like there was no way I could go on trying to keep everything in control. I couldn’t control it, and I couldn’t avoid it. As I had this conversation with myself I began to connect with what I was saying and ultimately I realized that I was right. There is no way to avoid stressors in life. Stress has always been there and would always be there and I wasn’t going to be able to control that, and to an extent, I also realized that I wasn’t going to be able to control the anxiety that accompanied those stressors. And so, for the first time, I made the conscious decision to let go.
I let go of my attempts to micromanage even the smallest events in my life, I let go of being upset about other people, I let go of all of the events happening throughout the world that I could not impact, and I let go of the feelings of unfairness I had been hanging on to all of these years.
I let go of trying to control everything around me and began to focus my time, attention, and motivation on myself. Now, this isn’t a magic fix of course. I obviously still face stressors and, to be honest, I still feel my heart flutter and stomach turn every time the anxious feeling creeps back in. But letting go of trying to be in control allowed me to welcome these situations and feelings with open arms, and place the focus of my control instead on my response.
Now I — not my anxiety — am the one to decide how I am going to respond in the face of stress. I admit that sometimes I still get caught up in wanting to avoid triggers to my anxiety, but when I find myself cycling I pull back and re-focus on myself, my interpretation, and my response. Letting go of the things I couldn’t control, turning inward, and refocusing on myself, my response, and what I put into the world saved me from succumbing to my own anxiety.