Trigger warning: this piece discusses themes of anxiety, compulsions and OCD.
After struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) as a child and adolescent, anxiety isn’t welcome in my adult life. Not allowed. No entry. Not on the guest list. Unfortunately, there’s no list or steep cover fee that could keep anxiety out of my head for good, as much as I’ve tried. She finds a back door or pretends to be someone’s plus one; how rude.
Like any sneaky party-goer, my anxiety looks for an opportunity. She found a great one this last time; I was moving across the country, working full time, coming off the back end of a health issue, and lost a family member the day before my flight. She knew this was her time to weasel her way back in, and she came back with a vengeance I hadn’t felt in years.
Physically, I was a mess. My stomach was in one of those tight, complicated knots they use on sailboats. I would wake up each morning and immediately burst into tears because I couldn’t stomach another day of anxiety. My pounding headache, shaking, and sweating were equally as fun. But the cognitive anxiety hit the hardest - my OCD loved numbers. Or hated them, I’m not quite sure. Particularly, my anxiety likes to latch onto the number in my bank account.
Moving across the country is expensive, good news for my anxiety, but bad news for me. There’s no way to avoid spending significant chunks of money (my brain’s nightmare). I’d mentally prepared myself for some of the big expenses: a hotel stay, travel expenses, and paying for my new place. Even so, thinking about them and paying for them threw me into a state of panic. My anxiety was further heightened by perfectly natural yet less expected expenses: a flat tire, expensive meals, buying appliances, and furnishing an apartment. I couldn’t rigidly control my spending as a compulsion to mitigate my anxiety as I had in the past. This ever-present physical and cognitive anxiety put me on edge and made me feel unsafe. So did the fear it would never go away. Anxiety about anxiety; that I’d be thrust back into the debilitating OCD of my childhood and be stuck there again forever.
As I was biking down the sidewalk of my new home, Los Angeles, with anxiety screaming in my ear, my boyfriend said from in front of me, “Hey, let’s bike on the street; it’ll be faster!”
I’m not one to bike on the street. Especially if I’m in the middle of LA. At rush hour. With no idea where I’m going. Nevertheless, I lurched my bike off of the sidewalk and into the bike lane, which, might I add, was between the car lanes, not tucked next to the curb.
My heart pounded, I started to sweat, but my brain went quiet. Quiet. For the first time in weeks. The recurring thoughts about numbers and feelings of not being safe that sat front and centre for every waking moment stopped for those 2 hours of biking through LA Traffic.
I’m not exactly sure, scientifically speaking, why this high-stress activity calmed my anxious brain, but there’s certainly something to it. Literature supports several hypotheses on the power of doing something stressful to actually bring anxiety down. Emily Nagoski, a leading burnout researcher, highlights the importance of completing the body’s stress cycle to relieve stress and anxiety. By increasing our mental engagement and physical arousal, through engaging in an involved task (such as listening to/reading/watching a story that draws us in, journaling expressively, or vigorous exercise), we allow our brains and bodies to release themselves from a state of heightened activation. Other studies offer potential mechanisms by which this happens including the HPA axis and monoamine systems in the brain or psychological mechanisms of exposure and distraction.
So, the next time anxiety so rudely enters your mind without an invitation, consider leaning in. While my first instinct with anxiety is to hide and do nothing that would make me feel more activated, it can be incredibly helpful for our brains and bodies to go the other way and push to do something engaging, activating, or challenging. Anxiety might not leave completely, but maybe she’ll go sit in a corner for a bit and give you a break from her antics.
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