I’ve taken a lot of time off the past week because of a viral infection that’s been wracking my system. Normally I fill up every gap in my day with things to do, but now that I didn’t have the health or energy to go out or do important things, I more or less spent the week with myself. This went really well for the first five days where I spent all my time sitting on couches watching movies or playing games. It was tremendously rewarding to finally make the time to accomplish a whole bunch of little things that I’d been meaning to do for ages, to take a significant chunk out of my “List of Games I Own But Have Not Yet Passed” and to just rest. But on the sixth day, I was sick enough to stay at home from work, but well enough to think clearly and feel restless. Games just weren’t satisfying me- I was getting really anxious and stressed to the point where it spiraled into consternation or panic. I couldn’t even read a book because it was such a stressful task.
Long story short, I spent a whole day getting to know my anxiety and how it affected me. It was really, really challenging, but at the end of the day, I managed to regain some self-determination, and I sat in a position of competence. I looked back on the day and saw logically all the things that should have made me feel better, and the reasons why they didn’t. I realised that sometimes avoiding feelings of anxiety just make them worse rather than better, and that it’s all about choosing to do things that are good for me rather than having to play games because I’m too anxious to do anything else. I am still the most powerful agent in my life, and my thoughts and feelings only have as much power over me as I give them.
Saying all that now is well and good, but when you’re freaking out none of it really makes sense. When I woke up this morning my anxiety was much smaller and I was feeling better about myself, but it was still there and I wanted to understand why. I got thinking about narrative therapy and I decided to try some. And I just wanted to record the sort of conversation I ended up having with myself as I drove to work, to remind me of how powerful I am, and in case it helps any of my friends who are experiencing something similar.
Dr John (apparently, my counselling persona is a Dr): So John, I understand you’ve come to see me about Anxiety. Is that right?
DJ: I want you to know that you are not anxious. Anxiety is something that impacts your life. It is external to you.
Me: Yeah… Yeah, you’re right.
DJ: If Anxiety were a person, what do you think he would look like?
Me: He’s got a bowler hat. He wears a suit, and he has long, spindly fingers. He creeps around. He stalks, and he’s pervasive. And he walks with a hunch.
DJ: Right. I can see how he creeps around your life, tricking you into doing things and feeling stressed. I want you to imagine something for me. I want you to picture Anxiety, exactly as he looks in your mind, doing the chicken dance. See him cluck and bawk and flap his arms like wings.
Me: *laughs* Okay, yeah that’s pretty funny.
DJ: Now I want you to picture him in a nappy. It can be over his clothes, or the only thing he’s wearing.
Me: I’m finding that a little hard. I’m not very good at being mean, and I don’t want him to get angry at me.
DJ: He’s not going to get angry. He might get upset, and he might leave you alone for a while, but he won’t come back with a vengeance. Do you know why? Because he a subset of your mind. You are omnipotent in your own mind- everything you think of you can control. And you can make Anxiety do the chicken dance or wear a nappy any time he shows up and you feel like it, so you don’t need to worry about him being angry, because he’ll just get upset and leave whenever he’s had enough.
Me: Okay, you know, that makes sense.
DJ: Think back on your life. Are there any times when Anxiety wasn’t with you?
Me: It’s really hard for me to imagine my life without Anxiety. I can remember that I was playing with my toys as a kid and Anxiety wasn’t there, but if I were to sit down and play with my toys now Anxiety would be all over them.
DJ: Okay. What about this? Think of the last time Anxiety really got hold of you, and he really stressed you out and made your life hell. What sort of things did you do to protect yourself and make it easier for you?
Me: Well… I read books or watched a movie. Something to completely take me out of the world with Anxiety in it. I played games, or found places of deep calm within myself.
DJ: That’s great! Even in your most distressed times when Anxiety felt strongest, you were able to take care of yourself.
Me: Yeah, but not always. Sometimes I would try to get into another world, but I would always know Anxiety was watching me. It was like trying to watch a movie, and glancing over my shoulder every now and then to see him just standing there, waiting.
DJ: Right. What about days when you haven’t felt Anxiety’s presence at all?
Me: There are actually quite a few of those.
DJ: What makes those days different from days when Anxiety is with you?
Me: I guess I just don’t notice him. I mean, I’m busy with my own stuff. I’ve got things to do, study and work and stuff and I don’t really think about Anxiety.
DJ: Right! Where do you think Anxiety is on those days if he’s not hanging around you?
Me: I dunno… I guess he must get bored and goes to find someone else to bother. It’s like I just don’t see him at all, and that’s different from ignoring him. If I were to ignore him I’d say “I know you’re there, but I’m not going to pay you any attention”. If I didn’t see him, then I wouldn’t even turn to talk to him. It’d be like he’s a little kid inside a house wanting to find someone to play with, but I’m outside playing my own games and I don’t even notice he’s inside the house.
DJ: That’s really great. *pause*… Is Anxiety here now?
Me: *looks around* Yeah. Yeah, he is. His hand is on my shoulder, just in the background letting me know he’s there.
DJ: Is there anything you want to say to him?
Me: *quietly* Anxiety, I’m not going to let you push me around anymore.
Me: *louder and more confidently* Anxiety, I’m not going to let you push me around anymore! I am the master of my own life and my own feelings, and you are not welcome in my heart if you’re just going to hurt me. I only harbour love and good things in my heart, and if you want to be part of that, you’re going to need to learn to be loving and good too. I don’t want to just push you away because I think we could be friends, but I’m not going to let you control and manipulate how I feel any more. I’m not going to let you keep hurting me and stressing me out and taking over my life. I have my own life to live. I’ve got things to do, and until you’re willing to play nice, I’m not going to pay you any attention.
*gentler* But that’s not to say we’re never going to get along. I just can’t keep letting you hurt me anymore.
DJ: What’s Anxiety doing now?
Me: He’s left. I don’t know if he’s going to think about what I said, or if he’s never going to change and just keep on trying to bug people, but that’s up to him.
DJ: That’s really good.
Me: Thank you Dr John. I really appreciate this conversation.
DJ: Any time John. I’ll always be here if you’d like to talk again. Please remember that.
And that’s how I got to work. It was kinda awkward after that because even though Dr John dissolved, Anxiety didn’t, and he looked at me as if to say ‘How are we going to get on now?’ I gave him a determined stare and said, “I’m not going to pay you any attention. I’m going to live my own life now.” And then I turned on the radio and just sat there. I was ignoring him which wasn’t entirely effective, but once I got to work and got busy talking to people and doing things, I forgot all about him. I guess the trick is to keep the mind occupied, but not in a panicked, “He’s watching over my shoulder kinda way”. In a genuine “I’ve got better things to do than let you make me feel anxious” way. It’s still something I’m working on, but I hope over time it makes it easier. And I know I’m going to have bad days. But I’m not going to lay down and take them- he’s going to have to fight for them if he wants me to spend a whole day stressed out and doing nothing. Because I’m in control of my life, and my feelings only have as much power as I give them. And that’s how I’m going to roll right now.
Thanks for reading. I hope maybe you got something out of it too, and that you have the best day ever.