When I started my psychotherapy practice in 1990, I decided to specialize in Anxiety Disorders. I did this for a couple of reasons. One, the anxious person was usually a cooperative and willing client. They came on time, paid their bills, paid attention, were polite and respectful, made progress, rarely got angry. Often my job was to make them less cooperative and willing, not with me necessarily, but with the world in general. Anxious people are generally people pleasers and have a very tenuous relationship with the word “NO” and a repulsion toward anger and confrontation. In essence, they were the anti-narcissists, or as my therapist often called me, counter-narcissistic. The second reason, as you’ve probably surmised, was that I myself, was the victim of an anxious mind and suffered from panic attacks throughout my late 20’s and early 30’s. Anxiety was something I understood personally and intimately. I even invented a name for my anxious persona; Mildred. Mildred spent hours worrying about her health, the end of the world, whether or not people approved of her or if she had offended someone inadvertently. She rarely got dressed, preferring to stay in her bathrobe, never leaving the house. She smoked constantly and ate comfort food by the bag full. Of course, I didn’t act like Mildred, or look like her. No, I went about my highly functional life pretending to be absolutely OK. In fact, more than OK. And everyone bought it. Inside, however, I was miserable and terrified. I finally came out to the man I eventually married (who thought I was perfect) and risked losing him. But I couldn’t enter a relationship with such a terrible, shameful secret. Things turned out OK for me. I married the man, went into therapy and became a therapist myself. Now, 30 years later, I can only say, whew! and thank God for a good therapist and a loving boyfriend who never expected me to be perfect in the first place (my mistaken assumption). What I learned during my recovery process, was that the world, in fact, was scary. In those days, we had Star Wars (and I’m not talking the movie) the cold war, AIDS with no cure or even treatment, nuclear proliferation, Iran/Contra and a “greed is good” mentality. What I also learned was that fear of those things always harkened back to something in my personal life. My anxiety was existential, political, social and personal. More often than not, fear of what was going on in the world was just a symptom of what was going on inside of me. It wasn’t until I was able to manage my relationships, my emotions, my self-esteem and my behaviors that I could begin to manage the outside world and stop being afraid of it – at least to the point of utter distraction and panic.
There be dragons for sure, in today’s world and in my world as a young person. There have always been dragons. I think there always will be. Anxiety is a medical/clinical condition, but it is also a sociological one as well; a cultural condition that feeds on 24 news cycles, social media, the need to never be left out and the constant imperative to expose ourselves and to look good in that exposure. We are overscheduled and over stimulated. We are told that we are being overrun by marauding Mexicans and bomb wielding Muslims. The flames of fear are fanned by a new President who refers to our time as one of “American Carnage”. There is too much information coming at us constantly and that information is continuously updated. I just get used to my computer operating system when it updates itself, leaving me feeling like an inept idiot. I didn’t ask for this, but it just keeps coming. Things that are supposed to be helpful are not. Am I missing something? Do other people feel helped by the latest update or innovation or piece of news? To quote Kai Wright, the host of the podcast “The United States of Anxiety”, “We’ve been at war since 2003, we’ve seen two recessions. Just digital life alone has been a massive change. Work life has changed. Everything we consider to be normal has changed. And nobody seems to trust the people in charge to tell them where they fit into the future.” And to top it off, we have a maniac in North Korea who is testing nuclear warheads, and poor misguided souls who are willing to blow themselves up to harm innocents in public places for a cause few understand. The world seems to have gone crazy.
The good news is that even if the world seems crazy, we don’t have to feel crazy. Anxiety disorder is a treatable condition even in this dragon filled world. It takes time. It’s not a quick fix, but nobody has to suffer indefinitely from panic and anxiety. Changing our habits, our thoughts, our emotional mindset can all help. Understanding our personal histories is crucial to knowing what triggers us and why. Accepting, grieving and processing those personal traumas leads to healing. Dragons can be slayed.