When in the throes of my addiction, I was constantly chasing a fleeting sense of peace by trying to drink my anxiety away. This perpetuated a vicious cycle of temporary relief, followed by passing out, only to wake a couple of hours later in extreme panic, reaching for the bottle.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
All I could feel was a sense of injustice regarding the suffering, but I also knew that I needed to learn how to actually live, not just barely survive. However, I still believed that could only mean figuring out how to make the anxiety go away.
Once I quit drinking, the fog began to clear and I knew it was time to face my anxiety. Otherwise, I would never be able to stay sober.
Letting Go of Assumptions
Falsely believing that anxiety was a curse that no one else could possibly understand was not only ruining my chances to truly experience the joys of being alive—it was also extremely selfish. By taking the attitude that I was somehow unique in my suffering, I allowed self-pity to lead me into a state of moral decay that made me useless and unreachable to the ones who loved me and needed me, including myself.
I was under the impression that anxiety was an extraneous force that needed to be beaten down. This was a handy false notion to have because that meant I could remain in my miserable but familiar "comfort" zone.
Disclaimer: I believe that everyone's spiritual path is unique and can combine principles from any of the various world religions and spiritual practices, as mine does.
That being said, the way of life and teachings of St. Francis of Assisi on embracing suffering are what changed my thinking about the power of anxiety.
This seemingly counterintuitive approach to pain and suffering, in general, was the impetus it took for me to wrap my stubborn little head around this enlightening paradox: the only way to win over anxiety is to surrender to it. In other words, the only way to let it go is to embrace it.
I had no idea exactly how to practically apply this epiphany to my life, but I had a sneaking suspicion that I needed to begin with how I managed my thoughts.
In her book, The Four Gifts of Anxiety, Sherianna Boyle refers to anxiety as “a thinking disease [that] is characterized by overwhelming thoughts.” She adds, “Yet, your thoughts are not the problem—it is the attachment you have to trying to solve whatever comes up…[and] you are likely to trigger responses that are based on past rather than present experiences.”
Attachment to Thoughts
At the time, the thoughts that tripped me up the most were shame-based ruminations about my neglectful mothering during active addiction. I knew I could not live forever with the crippling sense of loss and regret that accompanied these thoughts, and Boyle’s words inspired me to approach these thoughts differently.
I began by reminding myself that I was being selfish by focusing on how I felt about my mistakes, rather than on whether or not my children were safe and happy. Now, when I have similar thoughts, I close my eyes and imagine each of them smiling from ear to ear with sunlight illuminating their faces.
By releasing my attachment to these thoughts as triggers for anxiety, I am able to, at the very least, move on to the next moment with serenity. This was the beginning of what is now a regular practice for all of my painful thoughts.
Letting Go of Anxiety
After I made this thought practice a part of my life, I began to dig more deeply into the source of my anxiety-inducing thoughts, and I came up with this: I will never know how things would have turned out if I had been a better mother, and I will never know exactly what the future holds.
This revelation ironically took a lot of pressure off. Instead of focusing on the details of how the past might have been different and how I want things to be in the future, I began to center my attention around what went well in the past and the excitement of anticipating the good things to come. In other words, the past wasn’t all bad, and neither will the future be.
One example of how I apply this is that every time I remember something fondly from the past, I jot it down to possibly expand on later, and I do the same for things that are relatively certain about the future. For instance, I will write, “I taught Cash how to jump over the tiny waves at the shore on his own, in order to get further into the ocean” or “I know I will hear Georgia’s voice today.”
Setting My Intention
My next application of letting go of anxiety by embracing it is actually my favorite ritual because it revolves around what I have decided is the biggest key to fulfillment: gratitude. Every morning, before I engage in any other activity, I light a candle and add to my gratitude list. I write down three things that I’m grateful for, and I never repeat an item on the list.
Then, I draw from my “Intention Well”—a bowl containing metal charms engraved with intentions, such as “serenity”, “courage”, and “passion”. Whichever one I pull from the bowl is where I focus my energy and thoughts for the day, and I am always surprised by the number of ways I find to apply it, not only for that day but from that day forward.
If you are struggling with anxiety in your life, it is my sincerest hope that you may find some relief by adding these practices to your life. Changing the way I looked at my thoughts was the beginning of accepting anxiety as something that will always be there to some degree, and I began to use it as an indicator of change.
It is an ever-evolving approach that I intend to nurture forever.