Does this ever happen to you? I lay awake at night with my brain flitting through all the pieces of my life that are up in the air right now, alternating from mild worry and tentative possibilities to out-and-out panic. I toss and turn, finally fall into a fitful sleep, and then start the day with a vague sense of dread and a headache. Recently, I found myself trapped in this cycle for a few weeks.
To be fair, I have a lot going on at the moment. Steve and I are launching our oldest, Adrienne, into university. I am so proud of her… and also worried: Will she be safe in a new environment far from home? We homeschooled K-12; did I do the ultimate job preparing her? We got the first tuition bill already and holy Moses, those zeros! Will we adjust to the new rhythm without her— just my son at home, no other females to keep me company? Speaking of Addison, is he too introverted for his own good? Could I be doing more in homeschooling to help him appreciate social opportunities? My husband is orchestrating a community project, investing a load of unpaid hours. It’s brutal to watch such a kind, patient man receive criticism from a few brash, uninformed people. I’m also working this summer on something emotionally intense, at a local organization for human trafficking survivors. And then there’s The Big One that is a struggle to even write: my father is sick. We’re not close. My upbringing was simply calamitous. Nevertheless, he still matters to me. No family is ever ready enough.
Before too long, I was exhausted by this fear and worry constantly heating up in my brain. It was as problematic as trying to power through the flu. I remained in this cycle of turmoil because I labeled it grief, inevitable and unavoidable. In my experience, when grief turns on it spiderwebs to all the other places that still hurt. I replayed all the mistakes I’ve ever made as a wife, a mother, a daughter, a neighbor, a Christian. What if I were more thoughtful, tried harder, and negotiated with more grace? If only I were a stronger, more capable Melissa. I said to myself, “The present status is probably because I am not enough.” I’m a faulted person and I have so much to answer for and dig out from under. This process was one of self-incrimination and, as Brene Brown calls it, shame spiraling.
Can we be strong and fragile at the same time?
I reread the scriptures about God being a strong tower, a place of safety. I prayed that the Lord would help me calm down and reel my mind back toward a harbor of peace and confident contentment. All this time, I wasn’t calling it anxiety. Then one day my friend messaged me about a podcast by an anxiety specialist. I dismissed it out of hand. “I have never been told that I have anxiety. That is for other people. I am a pretty strong woman.” Nevertheless, I closed the message and reviewed the last few weeks: one minute I’m busy doing something, but the next minute my forehead is sweating and I am suddenly convinced that my future is bleak. It reminded me of getting tumbled in an ocean wave so hard that I no longer know which direction is the sun or the ocean floor.
I opened her message again and this time a lightbulb turned on. I prayed for a rescue and here it was, a name for this painful cycle— anxiety! It’s true that I am strong, but it is equally true that I am fragile. It’s part of the human experience. Especially in my 40s, with much to look back on and many who depend on me. I took a deep, shaky breath and allowed my core to relax as I formulated a reasonable next-steps plan.
Here are three things I did to emerge from the storm of anxiety.
First off, I determined to take gratefulness pauses, as a way to reorient my emotions. A cool ocean breeze, a drawer full of fresh fruit, deer grazing in our backyard- whatever I could lay my mind on. Gratitude is a soothing pivot, a break from being scared. I noticed right away simple moments of pure joy embedded in a hard day, and I began to collect them in my mental basket… My teens laughing together, a text from a dear friend checking up on me, a hug from my devoted husband. I also paused midday sometimes for a simple mindfulness exercise which was equally helpful in pushing pause on anxiety.
Next, I turned on worship music in the background. I wanted to passively hear reminders of who our Creator is. A couple of times during each day I stopped and let the words wash over me. Standing in the presence of a God who is forgiving and all-knowing, his goodness feels like a fresh discovery. A song plays with the words, “Father unchanging, upright, and holy.” I remember that he is dependable through every trouble. Just like now, God doesn’t back off when we’re overwhelmed. There’s no punishment for being anxious, just as there is no award for being perfect.
Third, I reread The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. There are so many ideas in here that I forgot when I was panicking, so reading it is a reset button. She writes about dealing with shame, relaxing into the experience of being human, and finding a pathway to live authentically. During a big struggle, I tend to withdraw and am slow to signal for help. This book reminded me that it is safe to be vulnerable with my friends and to let a few people know I need them more right now. Dr. Brown’s last chapters are reminders that play, music, creativity, and rest are simply life-changing. These are accessible tools for handling anxiety. Her book is like a primer for being human. I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Anxiety doesn’t get to dominate us
I do want to gently clarify for all my friends that even though this was rough, it was temporary. It’s not an anxiety disorder I’m referring to. That is something different, in which medicine and the care of a doctor are essential. I would want any of my friends who suspect their circumstance is more severe to please take the best care of themselves.
What a sweet relief to have my mind at rest again! Some measure of anxiety is a totally natural part of being any kind of human we choose to be. Life is chock full of nerve-wracking uncertainties! The best news is, we do not have to handle them all alone. Thank God for friends and family to lean on, and the faithful love of the God who put us here.
Jesus reminds us in 1 Peter to “Throw the whole of your anxiety upon Him, because He Himself cares for you.” God has a tender compassion for us and he threaded the Bible full of scriptures to restore our calm. He is in the business of calming anxiety storms, dispensing mercy, and pouring out grace for today. I hope that this blog was that grace to you. I’m writing down this anxiety plan almost as a journal entry so that I can return to it and remember, “Great is his faithfulness.” Great is my own imperfection, great is my own weakness, great is my joy, great is my future, and great are the people who love me. Great is my love for other faulted and frail people.