The Bully Within and Without

A young man described his anxiety as being like a gang of bullies surrounding and taunting him with invectives such as, “You’re going to fail anyway, so why bother trying?” “Nothing is ever going to work for you.” “What if everything falls apart?” These inner demons echoed some of what he came to believe when he was in middle school — a period which seems to be the bane of the existence for many teens. It tends to be a point in their development when they cross an invisible line into their own personal hell.

In his case there were actual human representatives of that harsh inner critic that he came to carry with him. He internalized the bullies and let them run roughshod over him.

As an adult, he worried about his future. He worried about making friends. He worried about having a relationship.

Standing in the Customer Service Line

Despite his apparent successes, such as graduating high school, preparing to go to college, finding a job he enjoys, having a small circle of reliable friends, as well as caring parents who believe in him, he would still find himself bombarded with those self-sabotaging thoughts.

It made sense to him to treat these thoughts one at a time, like a line of individuals waiting for customer service. He agreed to run each one through validation filters. Was it true and knowable that he would fail? Of course not. Was it true nothing would ever work? No, he had successes that proved otherwise. And yes, sometimes things do fall apart, but then much of the time they can be put back together. He recognized that he was not Humpty Dumpty.

He could determine when anxiety was beginning to take hold. His physical symptoms included rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, redness in his face and neck, butterflies in the stomach. They preceded the self-deprecating thoughts. He had learned to face them by doing something both physical (by taking a walk, going for a run or working out at the gym) and emotional (by talking with friends, going to church, or writing about his feelings). Still there were times when he felt as if he was aloft on a seesaw, spending most of his time dangling helplessly in the air. Rare was the time when he was grounded and solid. 

His intention was to overcome the incessant mind chatter. He was increasingly willing to be aware of when he felt hijacked by emotions and challenge negative self-talk. He began to use the mantras, “My history is not my destiny,” and “I am here and now, not there and then.”

How Anxious Are You?

This test, based upon Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 5th Ed.) criteria for panic and anxiety disorders, incorporates both the psychological and physiological symptoms and the ways in which anxiety impacts daily life. In an endeavor to understand further, I took the quiz and discovered that I am rarely anxious, but that it might also imply detachment and disconnection from my feelings. This occurs, in part because there is a desire to feel as if I can handle anything that presents itself — call it an occupational hazard. I do remind myself to take my own good counsel and recognize those moments of powerlessness, which is also how I have heard clients describe the fears that arise. While anxiety can be a springboard that motivates people to make positive change, it has been debilitating when left untreated.

In a 2012 interview on NPR, Daniel Smith, the author of Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, differentiates between fear and anxiety. “The traditional view of fear and anxiety going back to Freud — and perhaps before — is that fear is a primitive alarm in response to a present danger. So, fear is located in the present, whereas anxiety is a state of nervous vigilance that’s oriented toward the future, some threat to your well-being that’s located in the future.”  

Smith found himself overwhelmed with anxiety-riddled fantasies that led him down the rabbit hole of despair, conjuring up the worse-case scenarios that, like the young man referenced earlier, flew in the face of his apparent successes. It was by working with a competent cognitive therapist that he was able to see progress.

Calming the Body and the Mind

In addition to talk therapy, it’s beneficial to address physiological processes via mindfulness meditation, exercise, nutritional changes and engaging laughter muscles.

Laughter Yoga was created in 1995 by cardiologist Dr. Madan Kataria and his wife Madhuri who is a yoga teacher. Together they researched the connection between sustained diaphragmatic breathing combined with laughter as a means of enhancing life. Full out belly laughs are an important part of the process as one engages the solar plexus. The physiological and psychological shifts are observable. They include increased blood flow and oxygen, release of pain relieving and pleasure inducing hormones, decrease in cortisol (a stress hormone), as well as reduction in depression and anxiety.

In a world in which uncertainty about the future is reason enough to feel heightened anxiety, finding the proper tools and techniques and putting them into daily practice can make the difference between being at the mercy of the chattering monkey mind or feeding it a symbolic banana.