The Escape Hatch from Anxiety

IMG_4048Life is uncomfortable; there is no escaping that reality. From the time we emerge from the perfect, symbiotic state of the womb and enter the world, we’re confronted with the fact that the external environment doesn’t always meet our needs and our internal state fluctuates from equilibrium to disequilibrium, often a dozen times or more in the course of a single day. I remember when my son was a baby and he was suffering from digestion difficulties. I tried everything in my power to ease his pain – including limiting my diet to three foods – but nothing helped. I clearly recall looking at him one day in his tiny four month old body and thinking, “It’s uncomfortable being in a body and there’s nothing I can do to change that.” It was my first of many motherhood lessons about letting go and realizing that part of our lot as humans is to learn to endure discomfort.

What I hear every day in my work with clients are the ways in which we habitually try to escape this discomfort. For most people who find me the escape hatch centers around one’s partner: “If I were with someone else I would be happier or wouldn’t be feeling anxious.” For others it center around being single: “If I had a partner I would be happy” and for others it’s about jobs or careers or money. So, for example, a client is feeling challenged in her marriage because of parenting tension or in-law struggles and the common thought is, “If I had married someone else I wouldn’t be going through this.”

To which I respond, “You’re right. You wouldn’t be going through this. But I guarantee you would be going through something else. Do you think there’s a partner in the world who wouldn’t stir up the black gunk that lives at the bottom of your pots?”

Or a house or town or job or career or friend or family… We bring ourselves wherever we go. And we bring our life wherever we go.

So we notice all of the ways that we try to escape the discomfort of being human. We notice the escape fantasies that offer a momentary respite from the discomfort of now. Discomfort can take many forms: loneliness, grief, vulnerability, hormonal disruptions, exhaustion, overwhelm, frustration, disappointment, jealously. The list is endless, really. And when we start to make friends with these uncomfortable states we realize that they’re here to teach us how to embrace this messy, imperfect human life while connecting to the perfect, whole place of love inside of us.

But how hard this lesson is to learn! And we learn it over and over and over again. At least I do. I recently came face-to-face with my own escape hatch fantasy. Just before last year’s flood here in Boulder, we had a particularly difficult summer with mosquitoes. The little buggers make camp in our backyard every summer, but some years are worse than others, and last year was bad. We could barely walk into our yard no matter the time of day without being swarmed. By summer’s end, I started to look online at other houses. I didn’t dare tell my family, all of whom are in love with our place despite the tiny bloodsuckers. I kept my little secret to myself, scrolling through dozens of online homes and imagining myself into another world where we could spend summer nights on our deck without swatting and swearing.

Then, last September, the Colorado flood hit. It hit hard and we were devastated on all levels: physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. My little escape fantasy went into overdrive in the months following the flood, for now I had two justifiable reasons to escape our home and seek the perfect next spot for us. Eventually I shared my thoughts with my husband and, given our devastation, he understood. We drove through other neighborhoods together and started to consider the possibility of moving. When I was alone, I would drive home through one particular neighborhood that I had my eye on and whisper to my husband upon walking in the door, “I’m having an affair with Niwot.” I didn’t want our boys – or our home – to hear.

But then we would stand in our yard on a crystalline winter’s day when the snowflakes fell like a miracle and created a quiet blanket of shimmering angels that took our breath away; and we would walk down to the creek who, even in the aftermath of destruction, still ran its glory and wisdom through our land; we would marvel at the 100-year old cottonwoods and tall, elegant Aspens who survived the eight-foot surges of water. We would breathe in the spaciousness and wildness and soulfullness of this land and remember why we had fallen in love.

And then, in a single moment, I would find my mind drifting back to Niwot and my fingers typing in the search parameters on the real estate websites. This pattern of falling in and out of love continued until about a month ago when I stood in the kitchen chopping vegetables and wondered, “What am I trying to escape?” And it came to me: the “much-ness” of this life. The bills, the taxes, the cooking, the grocery shopping, the limited alone time, the dishes, the cleaning up at the end of the day, the garden, the lawn, the flood repairs, the fitting it all in amidst the busyness and going and moving and intensity of life with young children. And I realized that there is no escape: there is not a house or town in the world that will offer respite from the “much-ness” of life as it is right now, and that if we move, we will take this exact life with us. It’s not the mosquitoes or threat of flood that I’m trying to escape; it’s the list. And, of course, I will bring the list with us wherever we go.

I breathed a deep sigh of relief when I finally articulated my inner experience and named what what was happening. In naming it, I could breathe again. And I could connect back into my truth: I don’t want to leave this house. And I don’t want to escape this life. On the other side of the much-ness is the indescribable richness and endless blessings of the fullness. I can easily imagine myself into a time when our boys are launched into the world and it’s just my husband and I living here, wondering how the house got so quiet and how the days became so long. While time is a precious commodity right now, there will come a day – and it will be here before we know it – that time spreads out like an endless field, a place for us to lie down among the grasses as we please. There will be plenty of time for the lists and the dishes, and then there will be other discomforts to breathe into and endure.

There are so many ways to escape. The internet provides a fantastically endless escape hatch. With the click of a button we can dream ourselves into other people’s lives, troll the celebrity world, or research our next vacation or supposed “perfect” home. And the creative mind can easily imagine itself into a thousand unhealthy scenarios by hitching a free ride on the “what-if” train. As anxiety is often sensitivity gone awry, the ungrounded and unguided sensitive soul veers off into negative what-if land as a way to try to manage the onslaught of uncomfortable sensations which reach the nervous system with greater intensity than the average person.

So we must remind ourselves again and again: there is no escape from discomfort. There is no perfect life, no perfect partner, no perfect job, no perfect children, and yes, self, no perfect house. Sure, we might be able to escape mosquitoes or flood risk, but I guarantee there would be other imperfections: perhaps difficult neighbors or a dog next door who never stops barking. And in gaining a mosquito-free environment, we would invariably lose a hundred blessings that surround us now.

The repair path for intrusive thoughts or images is simple to understand and difficult to implement, as I wrote about here. The first step is to recognize that the thought or image is a messenger, coming to deliver information that something in your inner world needs attention. The most difficult piece to grasp is that, after you address the real need for accurate information that the thought may be signaling, if you give the thought or image itself any attention after that it will continue to grow. This means that as soon as you become conscious that your mind has drifted to the escape hatch, you resist the impulse to Google it, journal about it, research it or seek reassurance about it in any way. Any attention you give it will fuel its fire.

1. Acknowledge that the thought or image has entered your mind. Say, “Hello, thought or image!” Bringing a little lightness to anxiety is always helpful.

2. Resist the urge to seek reassurance in any way.

3. Remind yourself that there is no permanent escape hatch for discomfort.

4. Breathe into the discomfort that lives underneath the thought/image. A practice of Tonglen is very helpful in these moments: Breathe into the pain (an umbrella term for anything uncomfortable) and breathe out what’s needed. Practice this for one breath cycle or as long as you can until you feel softness and spaciousness replacing the discomfort.

5. Connect to gratitude. Gratitude and love are powerful antidotes to the discomfort of life.

In the end, there is no permanent antidotes for discomfort. There is only making more and more room for it, increasing our tolerance by remembering that pain isn’t a disorder to diagnose and fix; it’s an inextricable part of life. There is no cure for being human. But there is the lifeline of remembering that the more fully we allow ourselves to feel our pain in all of its manifestations, the wider our capacity for joy becomes. And this is what it means to be fully human: we feel all of life as deeply as we can – the pain, the joy, the overwhelm, the uncertainty, and everything in between.

33 comments to The Escape Hatch from Anxiety

  • Rpeli

    Sometimes, I feel like the ultimate escape artist. Before learning that the truth about happiness was that the pursuit of it was ‘the key to all unhappiness’, I jumped from one experience to another, hoping this time it would be different, or I would be changed. Then, as my relationship became steady/challenging/real, I started to tell myself: ‘I wouldn’t feel like this with someone taller/more handsome/older/wiser.’ The ultimate, for me, has been the story: ‘I need to travel to find myself,’ or ‘if I had travelled more on my own, I would be more confident/feel better about myself/be able to face this latest challenge.’
    And the in-law experience; how many times have I believed the lines ‘If id married someone with different parents/parents closer in culture to mine, Id be happier.’ And each time, as you say so wisely Sheryl- its about my escaping my discomfort. Im still learning to sit with it, but the more time that goes past, the longer I find myself being able to sit with things that do needle away at me.

    • It’s amazing how many stories we can concoct, isn’t it? And they feel so convincing at the time! The fascinating aspect of depth work is what we learn when we have the courage to dive into the dark undercurrents and ask, with true curiosity, what’s living there.

  • Tina

    “But, but, but…what if I’m missing out? What if I’m settling?” Yeah, this escaping discomfort thing is a big hairy monster. So intent on keeping me running, dread nipping at my heels. If only I could live 400 years, then I could really relax. I kid and kinda not-kid. Sigh.

    • Yes, FOMO (fear of missing out): the modern dis-ease that keeps so many people stretched between different realities without ever planting fully here and NOW. You’re not alone with that one!

  • Canuck64

    This has been an on going lesson for me. I’ve gotten so much better at not attaching to the thoughts (at least not for long). My parents taught me to seek happiness, to escape pain, and if I achieved my dreams nothing will “hurt” me. Oh how I wish I learned that pain comes with every blessing. Only now am I slowly learning to ride the wave. If I am open and accepting every pain hurts so much less.

    • It’s so good to hear from you, Canuck, and I’m pleased to hear that you’re becoming more fluid with learning how to ride the wave. This work isn’t fast or easy, but it always pays off when you stay with it.

  • Cait

    Sheryl and friends,

    I feel each article is getting more and more eye opening. Currently, I am with my boyfriend and we have been dating for a year and a half. As someone who has struggled with anxiety for as long as I can remember, I too become engulfed in the fantasy that someone else is out there who can take all these troubles away, “the right person”, “the one(and I won’t dare to even capitalize that O)”.

    Reading these articles gives me that comfort as it makes me sit with myself. In my mind it used to feel like an interrogation scene, only it would just be me, put on the spotlight, and the blackness portrayed as the interrogating, fear based consciousness. It would say things like, “really, you’re such a mean person to, D”, “you actually fight all the time, one of you is blind to this and not facing reality”, “you know you’re just going to have dysfunctional relationship after dysfunctional relationship”. As I write this I feel this sense of clarity that, indeed, I may just be scared of having another dysfunctional relationship. But when I look at D, I get sad that I can’t BELIEVE his good qualities: smart, caring, nurturing, supportive, understanding, PATIENT(my god is he this one to a T), and so much more. I can acknowledge these things but it is so hard to accept them. Once your label attaches that all men are the same it becomes so dangerous. Though I still interrogate myself, more often than I should, I do have a lot of moments where clarity shines through. It really silences those fear based thoughts. I tried describing it to D, when clarity comes in. I picture it as fear being pitch black, murky water, and when it tries to rise up, the clarity is the top layer and acts as ice to not let it pass through up as an a convincing thought. The two don’t battle it out but the Voice of Clarity is very strong and dominant, it even stops the thought process to filter in positive/real situation/present thoughts.
    (Just thought I’d put these two things in there for you guys.)

    Lastly, I enjoyed this article because of the content and that you mentioned “in-laws”. I really feel a detachment from D’s mom because she has her own anxieties she’s dealing with. It’s uncomfortable to be around her and find that empathy that I lost because I am putting a wall between us. I am always respectful to her and I do want to let her into my world. I just fear she won’t like what she sees.

    I have so much to improve on and my fear is that I will apply these to my “next” relationship when all I want to do is apply them to my current, and hopefully, my future with D. Sheryl, your last article, “What if I learn to Trust Myself and Then…?” was so comforting. I will address my thoughts in that article soon :)

    Stay well everyone and have a great week :)

  • Nicole

    Hello Sheryl and everyone ! I have read almost every single blog so far and am really looking to buy the main course asap ! My story is very similar to a lot of people on here ! I never had the best father figure growing up and I always dated dominant “cool” men. The popular guys the know it alls. They all tended to be controlling but always gave me the butterflies. I am also diagnosed with anxiety since 2008 but I def had anxiety my whole life ! Anyway i met a great guy 3 years ago. I never had that initial spark but I was and still am attracted to him. Some days more than others lol. We started dating and his great qualities really won me over. I accidently became pregnant and now have a gorgeous 10 month old baby. My bf really stood up and has been providing for us and is the most amazing father in the world. He treats me very well. Only issue I have is he’s not really romantic and sometimes I don’t feel like I get enough attention but he’s also stressed out. I just have been battling now for 5 months thinking I’m not in love with him. My questions in my head are “what if he’s not the one ” “how come I never got serious butterflies” “what if I’m settling” sometimes he irritates me and I say “if I was in love he wouldn’t annoy me ” I sometimes fantaSize about being in a relationship with someone I’m “head over heels for “. The thing is I WANT to be with him. I WANT to love him which I love him so much but sometimes I don’t feel so IN LOVE. we are both stressed bc of the baby and we didn’t have a long dating period bc I became pregnant. Everyone loves him and sees him to be a great match for me. I also believe he is great for me. He let’s me be the person I am doesn’t control me accepts me totally. I just don’t know why my anxiety does this. Or maybe I am not meant for him. I google a lot and it makes my anxiety really bad. A lot of days my stomach is in a knot bc my mind doesn’t shut off with all of these things. I’m constantly checking in to see if I “love” him. Sometimes I say “kiss me” to see if I feel anything. Some days it’s so clear he’s my love. Other days I want to end it and run. Someone please give me some hope. Also I am not happy with myself right now bc of baby weight etc. I have ruined other relationships with friends and 1 other bf bc they were so nice to me. I’m very respectful towards strong dominating people but not nice people it’s very scary. I hope I make sense ! I just want to be a nice person and accept a nice solid love from my bf. my therapist said that I like drama bc of my childhood. Bc in my home there was always drama so when it’s quiet and nice i like to stir things up. It’s just that the feeling I may not be in love with him scares me and creates a cycle of severe anxiety. But I don’t want to be without him I get very sad thinking about it. Can anyone relate ?

    • Rachel

      I can relate to this entirely! I’m sure most others can too. I wake up most mornings feeling this horrible panic. It feels like i’m in h%ll at times. My guess, however, is that past traumas will not allow me to ever fall for a guy. i’m 30 years old and i’ve never had that ‘in love’ feeling with anyone.

  • lynne

    anutha fabulous blog sheryl ….. im so glad i found you. iv always had doubts about my feelings for my partner and think i use him as my escape hatch. i used to suppress my thoughts cos they made me feel like a bad person and this made me ill. now i let all thoughts come n go like clouds in the sky and realise im not bad nor do i av to take any notice of them or any action. my problems are my own and would still be the same with another partner. im so lucky he has stood by me throughout my problems.

  • Hi Sheryl,
    Thank you so much for this wonderful, honest and reassuring post. I have been feeling extremely anxious since having finished your mother’s fabulous IB “Learn to Love Yourself” course. It’s that whole thing of having to find your own feet and learn to trust that you CAN continue the work as your own, best teacher. But this post helped remind me that first, I must allow myself this discomfort by fully hearing out the lines from my ego/wounded self, allowing myself to cry out the fear of self-doubt so that I can truly believe in the words from Rachel Naomi Remen that you shared on the OYH course:
    “We usually look outside of ourselves for heroes and teachers. It has not occurred to most people that they may already be the role model they seek. The wholeness they are looking for may be trapped within themselves by beliefs, attitudes and self-doubt. But our wholeness exists in us now. Trapped though it may be, it can be called upon for guidance, direction, and most fundamentally, comfort. It can be remembered. Eventually we may come to live by it.”
    Aw, exquisite! Thanks for this – and for your post today.
    Lots of love,
    xxx

  • Jaimie

    Can anxiety give ou the feeling like maybe you don’t want to be in a relation ship . Could it be just be another tactic to make us scared and run away to close off are hearts even. More

  • lisa

    Hi Sheryl,

    Any tips on how to find out what the message is that the anxiety is brining? I find this very difficult…

    • It’s about your intention: are you ready to look inside and take full responsibility for your feelings, thoughts, and actions? When you’re ready to gather up your courage and dive inside then begin a journaling practice where you ask yourself every day what’s happening internally.

  • Sarah

    Nicole, i was in exact same situation . Constant panic attacks etc … Is he the one , no initial spark etc etc . Even after I got married I freaked out … And now ? I’m more happy and content than I’ve ever been . Through realising that the grass is not greener and also having hypnotherapy to calm my anxiety and also a mild dose of anti deps really helped me . If you want to talk some more if you give me your email address I can get in touch …. Things WILL be fine xx

  • Myjanne

    Wow again your timing Sheryl is impeccable- I’m feeling a bit anxious at the moment and have a lot of what ifs going through my mind, but reading your post has calmed me again (they always seem to have an uncanny relevance to whatever is going on in my life, so crazy, but awesome!). I think it’s so true what you said about not feeding the monster and starting to Google how you’re feeling or to entertain the old thought patterns. I can feel I’m slowly gaining strength when it comes to acknowledging my anxiety but not letting it take over, I’ve just got to learn how to figure out what the source is- I.e I think it’s incredible you are so self aware that you understand that it was a much-ness leading to your escape hatch thinking. I have a feeling that is part of my dilemma at the moment having just moved into our “dream” home and having everything we need but feeling overwhelmed with work, my daughter, etc. Here’s hoping the anxiety passes soon :) Thanks Sheryl!

    • You’re welcome, Myjanne. Glad it came at the right time. Self-awareness comes from years of turning inward and taking time to reflect every day on my inner world. You have it, too!

  • Joy

    This all sounds so familiar to my recurring pattern of the ‘grass being greener’ elsewhere when I know it isn’t.
    I am coming through the latest questioning bout (only after worrying some precious people to me- so that cause me more anxiety which I am trying to reconcile with!). So now I have vowed not to talk to anyone else about my concerns except my partner. He is the one who is here for me so I need to learn to trust him.
    Thank you very much.

  • talespinner

    Sheryl,

    I swear even after the program I am still accessing your information to help give me support on my off days. This post has so struck a nerve to my core and I sobbed when I read it. I have spent my life running each time the discomfort arose, your program and the wonderful ladies in that have inspired me over and over to stay and endure and expand my ability to feel and love. And for the first time in my life over the last few months I have experienced JOY! real joy. It was only for a short time, but it came and visited me and it was wondrous.

    I am going through the anxiety once again, but now I am able to look more clearly at the expansion needed within to endure the day to day. For a fantasy addict, reality is a hard place to dwell. Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you and keep them coming.

    Much love,

    Talespinner

  • Nyaa

    Hi Sheryl,

    Last night I had a dream that I met my perfect man. He was good looking but not exceptionally so, he worked in my profession, and when we spoke he understood everything I said, he just got me, we had the most amazing conversation, he had everything that my brain tells me my real partner lacks, he made my heart flutter the way it “should” when you’re in love. And through the whole dream I was fighting with myself because I couldn’t bring myself to tell him I already have a boyfriend, I was in love with this imaginary man in a way that I have never been with my lovely boyfriend.

    I woke up feeling so guilty because that man is not real and I will never meet him, and my boyfriend isn’t him, and I don’t love him the way I loved the dream man. And I woke up terrified that if I ever do meet someone like this that I might find myself cheating on my boyfriend.

    That dream man is my escape fantasy and I hate myself for wanting him, and I hate the guilt that the idea of him brings, because I love my boyfriend but not in the way I feel I should love him.

    I’ve been in a funk all day and I’m trying to dig myself out. This blog post has helped, because I know that I would be the same person no matter who I am with so the problem is with me and the dissatisfaction I feel with who I am, and I need to make peace with these feelings and love and accept myself again.

    Thank you Sheryl for your inspiring words.

    • Rachel

      Hello – i just stumbled across your post. How are you feeling now? Really hope you’re feeling better, I can very much identify with this, and it’s the worst but we have to keep positive.

  • Nicole

    Sarah thank you ! My email is envy32512@yahoo.com yes I would love to hear your story !! Thanks for replying !

  • Jen

    I always find I am like this, it is like my worry is misdirected, I’ll be so overwhelmed with having two young sons- one just starting kindergarden and so anxious and nervous about all the different changes that happen along the way. I’ll find myself thinking am I really happy, do I really love my husband enough but it’s just a place for my wounded self to retreat into the false sense of control I get from continuously analyzing, as if I can control much of what happens. It’s true that continuously reminding yourself that life is hard at times and just accepting the overwhelming feelings as being human would be a great help.
    Ever since all of this anxiety and fear iv lost a part of who I am bit iv gained a deeper understanding of myself along the way, I feel with this awareness I almost feel more vunerable before I was just oblivious to myself in ways, I had a false confidence now my true confidence is building itself, I’m always worried has my husband lost the respect he had for me when I was the confident 20 year old he met, his since seen me go through depression and anxiety and sometimes in conversations he might disagree with me in front of an inlaw or give me a look and I’ll get totally annoyed and feel he doesn’t respect me anymore, again I know this is a fear I have and it’s me fulfilling me own prophecy by reacting like this, it all comes back to me again and again..

  • Hailey

    I find myself worried about all sorts of things… I even remember asking my boyfriend one time if he would ever kill anyone because we were watching a movie and someone bad was shot and he laughed. And then I asked if I ever killed someone would he stay with me and he said probably and it worried me, and then if he would bail me out and all of this RIDICULOUS stuff! I also worry that I will be hit or raped (by anyone who I’m with not because he exhibits ANY violent behaviors towards anyone especially me!!) and that I will be left to do all the house work by myself and that I won’t have the life I want because I don’t want to be just a little “wife”

  • Cath

    Hello Sheryl,
    my escape hatch when I am ridden with anxiety is reading your site :)
    However, I think I need a clarification. Don’t you think a good partner makes someone happier? I certainly feel that for myself-it is actually one of the reasons that I know my partner is good for me (despite all my anxieties, doubts, fears etc. that I had, especially in the beginning of the relationship). I feel more centered, secure, taken care of by him (something I always missed in my family) and it makes me consequently happier and more focused at work. So isn’t it true that when women feel they would be happier if not single that they are right and it is not just an escape hatch?

    • It’s a good question. It’s not that a partner or a different job or city might not make us happier. But when we find ourselves perseverating on one thought or image over and over again it’s usually a sign that we’re using it as an escape hatch from something uncomfortable in our life right now.

  • Marissa

    Thank you for this.

  • Rachel

    Seriously, thank goodness for this website! Gd bless you Sheryl!