I had another reminder last night about the value of telling the truth for healing anxiety. This year has been a pretty rough one for me, with all sorts of anxiety exacerbated by chronic fatigue bubbling up in different situations. I've had a few conversations with my sister about it, who invited me to a talk at The Resilience Centre on overcoming anxious thinking which she wanted to attend because several of her friends suffer from anxiety. It turns out to be a common problem.
Part of the talk used the analogy of a sailing ship with demons in the hold. When we sail towards the land representing our goals, sometimes the demons jump up on deck and start going crazy forcing us back out to sea. We often end up avoiding going after our goals to settle the demons back down; but we end up bored, restless and feeling unfulfilled. The key to reaching our goals when we're feeling anxious is to take it one step at a time and learn to deal with the demons that come up without being overwhelmed. Each time we successfully sail closer to the land, the demons get a little quieter.
The presenter had run social anxiety groups which had involved challenging participants to do increasingly challenging social activities in order to learn how to tame the demons in their heads, so they ended up feeling less anxious about social interactions. He seemed to know what he was talking about: he had the practical experience and had studied the research to back up what he was saying. Another point he mentioned was that research had shown that simply speaking about your anxiety in an anxious situation allows the limbic system (the brain structures responsible for the feelings of fear) to settle down. “Well that's interesting”, I thought. I wanted to know more.
But there was also something troubling me about the whole idea of speaking my anxiety. So I asked:
“My greatest fear is of what other people think. It's strongest around strangers, but it's going off most of the time in social situations. Underneath that, the deeper fear is of other people finding out how I am feeling. Yet your research suggests revealing this fear would allow me to get past feeling so anxious. Can I get away with just acknowledging it in my self-talk, or do I have to reveal it to other people out loud?”, I cringed.
“Great question; in the research they did it out loud”, he replied
“Oh great. Well that's a double-whammy for me. The last thing that I want to do is reveal to strangers that I'm basically shit-scared when meeting them.”
I had no idea how all this was going down with the other members of the audience. I figured they had all come because they either suffered from anxiety themselves, or had friends or family members who did; so they probably had a compassionate approach to people like me. Yet still I felt fear. I was particularly worried about what my sister would think of me now I'd revealed my inner vulnerability.
I can't honestly remember how the presenter replied at this point, as I was feeling rather overwhelmed with shame at what I had revealed in my question. If his research was accurate, the way out of that was to voice it too:
“And right now”, I said, “I'm feeling ashamed because I've just told all these people that I'm terrified, and now I'm feeling fearful about what they think of me”.
The woman sitting next to me, who I had met at the door and was the psychologist who ran the center turned to me and inquired kindly: “So... is it working? Are you feeling less fearful now you've said it?”
I paused for a moment and noticed that my heart wasn't racing quite so much.
“Yes, I can feel my limbic system settling down nicely”, I joked. But it wasn't really a joke. The truth was that I had spoken what was real for me in a room full of strangers, and now my anxiety was starting to settle down. I could even joke about it.
“Everyone is in the same boat”, the presenter pointed out, “We all feel some degree of anxiety when meeting new people. It's normal.” Everyone smiled and nodded in agreement. A lot. It turned out I was among friends, but I just didn't know it.
Later on I was talking the woman who ran the center about self-consciousness. “Throughout the talk, one of the demons in my head was telling me that everything that guy says is complete bullshit... even though it matches everything else I've ever read about anxiety.” Revealing the demons in our head to other people helps lessen their power over us.
After the meeting I headed back to the car with my sister. As we left the premises, a young woman from the talk came up to me and said something which completely blew me away:
“I just really want to thank you for what you said in there, it made a huge difference to me.”
“Oh, thank you” I said, a little taken aback.
“When you said what you said about being afraid of what people thought of you, I thought 'Wow, that's brave'... And then when you talked about not wanting them to know, I thought 'That's really noble'... But then when you talked about feeling ashamed of us all finding out, I just thought 'That's completely awesome'. You made such a difference to me, and the reason it was awesome was because you told the truth.”
That last bit really hit me: you told the truth. I'm tearing up now even just recalling her saying it, how positively it had impacted her, and how good that made me feel about myself. Rather than being judged, criticized and rejected from my vulnerability, I'd connected deeply with people I wasn't even aware of. I keep learning this lesson over and over, and each time I do it, the lesson sinks in a little deeper. It's the same, simple formula for curing neuroses that Brad Blanton points out in his excellent book Radical Honesty.
So that's how you cure anxiety: you tell the truth about it.