The Spider of Anxiety

As I spiral deeper and deeper into the layers of the field of transition,  I realize with greater clarity that at the core of the anxiety that rears its ugly head during these tumultuous breaking and renewal points in our lives is the feeling of being out of control. We kick and scream and fight against this feeling because, in a phrase, it makes us feel like we’re going to die. Someone from another site posted a comment on one of my articles and said that she feels like she’s free-falling, and not a fun way. The problem isn’t the falling; it’s that we’ve never been taught how to fall without digging our nails in to anything in sight as a way to try to feel like we’re in control. We don’t know how to breathe into the falling. We don’t know how to surrender to it. If we could surrender and give up the resistance, we would find that the coal of control encases an exhale of spaciousness.

We each have our own ingeniously wounded ways of trying to manage the feeling of being out of control. Some people focus on the external or practical elements of a transition: For those in the wedding transition, it’s the dress, cake, flowers, and hundreds of other details that can distract the mind from sitting with the elusive unknown. For those that are trying to conceive, it’s the focus on ovulation sticks and pregnancy tests. For those that are moving, it’s the exclusive focus on packing without recognizing the profound opportunity for emotional cleansing of the past that moving offers.

When I was trying to conceive my first son almost eight years ago I was stunned that the majority of the conversations on the message boards were about sticks and tests. And yet I cannot forget the fact that on our first month of trying I overrode my innate and long-standing knowledge about when my body was fertile and instead put my faith in an ovulation stick! I’m not sure what I was thinking, other than the fact that I was scared out of my mind about the prospect of becoming a mother and focusing on the stick made me feel like I was in control of the process – even if only for a few minutes. But when I placed my trust in something outside my internal wisdom, the anxiety actually increased tenfold. (There’s a great irony in this story, which I tell in detail in my upcoming eCourse, Birthing a New Mother.)

For those that don’t focus on the externals, the mind tends to perseverate on “what-if” thoughts and other anxiety based thinking. The anxious mind believes that by attaching onto these thoughts, we can control the future and establish a foothold on the out of control quicksand that a transition initiates. I’ve had two women who were entrenched in the pain and fear of trying to conceive say to me, “I’ve just always had this sense that I wouldn’t be able to have a baby.” Both women now have children. The anxiously engaged mind says, “What if I don’t really love him? What if I’m making a mistake? What if this isn’t the right choice?” as a way to try to control the unsettling reality that there are no mistakes or right answers; there’s only an uncertain future where the possibility of loss and heartbreak exists. The anxious new mother obsesses on the thought of, “What if my baby dies?” as a way to try to control the future and avoid the almost unbearable love that sears through her body with such intensity that it feels like it’s going to shatter her open. As Michelle articulates in the Becoming a New Mother eCourse,

Some nights I’m in bed and I just start bawling because I think about all the terrible things that could happen to Henry. I keep thinking about the title “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” because at times it’s unbearable to love someone this much, to risk this much loss. I’m grieving my old warped sense of control because I don’t have it anymore and I know it. It hits me too hard sometimes when I think about Henry and all the things that could happen.

Last night, as I was putting my two year old to bed, the thought came into my head: I can’t envision him as an adult. Something tragic is going to happen. For a few minutes I latched onto the thought and I could feel the tendrils of panic begin to rise up in me. When anxiety takes hold, it’s like an eight-legged spider has sat on my brain and pressed its furry legs into my thoughts. In order to extricate its hold, I had to say to myself, There is no value in believing this thought. Even if it’s true, even if by some far-reaching chance I’m sensing into the future, there is no value in giving one more second to this thought. And then I opened my eyes and looked at the beauty and miracle of my son. And I thought, It’s because he’s so precious that I’m terrified of losing him. The thought is a way to try to control the future and protect myself from the vulnerability of loving him so much.

And then I remembered an older cousin saying to me years ago when my firstborn was a few months old, “When my daughter was a baby, I was so terrified of losing her that I almost wanted something terrible to happen. I couldn’t say that to many people because they would never understand what I meant, but I have a feeling you understand.” I did understand. It’s the part of us that’s so uncomfortable with the unknown future that we long for the worst to happen because then the unknown would become a known, quantifiable event. We simply can’t stand living with the unknown, and the what-ifs are a deluded way to create an illusion of control. We think, “If I can predict it, it will somehow make it easier if the worst happens. Or I can leave this situation (not get married, avoid motherhood) as a way to avoid the possibility of a future loss.”

For me, one of the antidotes to anxiety is connecting to gratitude. As my little one fell asleep on top of my chest, as I breathed in his warm sweaty scent and pressed my nose into his brown silk hair, my simple prayer of gratitude shimmered through me like an effervescent bath: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. And the anxiety dissolved as it always does when gratitude moves in, because here’s what I know for sure: gratitude is stronger than anxiety. Joy is stronger than anxiety. And love is stronger than anxiety. Anxiety is really a mutated and often demented form of fear, and fear simply cannot withstand the power of love. When we actively connect to love or any of its incarnations, it will becomes the guiding force.

5 comments to The Spider of Anxiety

  • GmJersey

    Sheryl great post. I was just telling myself why do you always try to think of the worst possible scenerio and its just like you said, because if i think it and it happens in a sick way i knew it was going to and it will be easier. I did this in the peak of my engagement anxiety( still do it now and then) and now i do it while in my first trimester, what if something is wrong with the baby, what if i fall and have a miscarraige? what if i eat something that makes me ill, what if my body can’t sustain a baby? it gets so bad sometimes that every time i go to the bathroom i check for blood. i Hate that i do it and i can tell myself, “stop thinking crazy thoughts” but they still come into my head. I know there is no way to control the thoughts and only to manage how I react to them but man i wish i could just not have them at all.

  • Yes, you can’t stop the thoughts but you can learn not to react to them. I do find that when there’s a strong impulse of creativity, love, laughter, or any other positive energy, the thoughts come with less frequency. It’s like there’s no place for them to land so they don’t even bother trying. Make sure to download my new free report. It’s about preconception but everything in it applies to pregnancy as well.

  • Gabrielle

    wow, what a timely post to read as I wait to go to my first ultrasound appointment today. I could barely sleep last night, worrying about all the things that I might learn from this first appointment. I have so many irrational fears that I struggle to manage. I try to remind myself of all the times I feared things that didn’t come true, but it’s still hard not to listen to that voice of fear. Thanks for this post.

  • Mary

    Having had my “baby” over 23 years ago, sometimes it seems pregnancy/childbirth has become even more complicated. Every day women and couples are bombarded with reports and studies and all kinds of scenarios of what could go wrong. It must be so much harder to keep those thoughts at bay.

    This article is so timely, one of the main issues I deal with. If I can borrow the sentence from above and add how it popped in to my head this weekend when I was having one of my “awfulizing moments” <> of not knowing. That’s the part that added this weekend, when I found myself depressed with the thoughts of what if this happens, what if that happens. I realized for me it felt like a control issue. I cannot predict/make someone feel/act the way I want and “hoping” for something in the future or worrying relentlessly about it only makes the moment I’m in miserable. When I made the connection between all these negative thoughts being my mind trying to control the future I could step back and detach and try to picture them floating by in a stream as Sheryl has suggested.

    Good luck to you, if there is any way to find a strategy that works, keep trying, something will click for you to manage the worries that come. Acknowledge but let them go too.

  • MB

    Spot on…

    I, like many new Moms, have also had these very moments–
    But I remind myself of the gratitude part, that I vaguely recall from when I had time to do a regular yoga practice!!
    Which reminds me of how helpful a yoga practice can be in this anxiety/letting go arena… add to to do list: get back to the mat!

    I also really find the statement ‘there is no value in believing this thought or giving this thought one more second’.
    Someone once told me ‘our anxiety is doing something for us’–so true.
    So often maladaptive, but it may be protecting us from loving too intensely, shielding us from potential pain of possible loss–just as your post mentions.
    I have had a fair amount of loss and I think anyone who has, often these anxieties and intrusive thoughts are that much more of a shield.
    But I am committed to pushing through this though–by knowing this fact about anxiety and letting that knowledge deflate it.
    I can let it come in like a wave, but go back the same way so I can let myself feel those deeper emotions. My heart literally hurts sometimes with how strong the love emotions feel toward my daughter, but I remind myself this is what life is supposed to be–it’s meant to be a roller coaster–and there are days when the ride feels voluntary, fun and freeing, can’t get enough, and days where it feels like I’ve been strapped in against my will, scary and all too much. But it’s all good–all part of what it’s supposed to be.