This is What Lives at the Very Heart of Anxiety

by | Jan 17, 2021 | Anxiety, Empty Nest, Intrusive Thoughts, Parenthood transitions | 43 comments

I was driving into town one evening last week and as I drove down our local highway I flashed on a time over twenty years ago when I drove from Los Angeles to San Diego. As my body sank into the somatic memory, a wave of nostalgia surged up that said, “I miss Los Angeles.”

My first habitual response to this thought/feeling was another thought: “Maybe we should move back.” But as I know that moving is one of my escape-hatch fantasies – the places we go to try to escape the messiness of life – I didn’t give it much credence. Instead, I became curious about both the initial feeling and my response to it and brought myself back into my here-and-now so I could give the feeling of nostalgia/longing some attention. In that moment, this looked like breathing into the feeling for a few full breath cycles without trying to escape it, figure out why or even clinging to it too tightly by needing to name exactly what the feeling was.

This entire sequence of mind-and-heart events lasted about ten seconds. This is what it looks like to slow down into one moment of emotion – to literally slow down time and elongate the seconds so I could backtrack to the original emotion and allow myself to be with it instead of trying to escape it.

How often do we clamp down by naming, fixing, or asking why the emotion is arising? These are all head-spaces and they’re an attempt to leave the uncomfortable realm of feelings because they’re messy. Because we’re wired to avoid pain and because we haven’t received the modeling and support required to navigate them well, we have to consciously work against these habits of escape.

Our emotions are our wellspring. They’re the source of our aliveness: our grief and joy and everything in between are what give life sparkle and sheen. They’re also one of the most potent antidotes for anxiety, for allowing ourselves to feel life fully instead of trying to control it, fix it, or escape it is one way to neutralize intrusive thoughts.

It sounds so simple, but that one moment only required one thing: full presence. The mind so desperately clings to “why” and “solutions”, but our greatest emotional task is to resist those temptations and instead trust that when we feel fully, the insight, if important, will come. And in fact the insights would arrive as a series of winged puzzle pieces delivered like clues by psyche over the next few days. Here are two of them:

• That night I had a series of anxious dreams, most of which centered around our older son and school. After a miserable first semester, he was starting at a new school in a few days and the transition was weighing heavily into both of us.

• Los Angeles is my home, my original womb, and as such, is both a locus of comfort and pain. That freeway heading down to San Diego contains a storehouse of memory: it’s both what led to some of my most cherished childhood memories and also where I had my first panic attack when I was twenty-one.

As I reflected back on the original feeling I knew that, like many of our potent emotions that surge and crest in a single moment, it contained more than what initially appeared, and that if I followed the escape-hatch mind-thread I would have missed what was actually needed. I thought about the brilliant sentence that my friend Sarah shared when I interviewed her for my motherhood course: “Birth is a magnification of every thing that you’ll experience as a mother in one bright shining neutron star of a day. If you uncoil the star, that’s motherhood.” This is how it is with the emotion-memories that both light us up and make us want to flee: there’s more than meets the eye.

And then, on the morning of his first day at a new school – knowing that he would bravely show up as the “new kid” halfway through an already challenging and disruptive year –  the insight of “why” dropped whole into consciousness, and tears filled my eyes. This is what I wrote:

“It’s 6:50 am and I just heard Everest’s alarm go off. It’s a threshold day for him, and as we share a nervous system, it’s also a threshold day for me. Embedded in the nostalgia is grief. Embedded in the freeway memory is my childhood and my initiation into anxiety. Embedded in Los Angeles is my longing for the comfort of mother to hold us through this transition.”

I went up into his room, his brother and dad still asleep, to find him making his bed. Just the two of us in crisp dawn hours, like it was in those early years when we would be up half the night and nursing the other half. How many dawns have I seen with this beautiful boy, the baby and toddler who stayed as close to me as possible for as long as possible, who is now sixteen and so eager to meet the world?

“Are you nervous?” I asked him.

“A little. Not too much.” And then, “Did you see the moon, Mom?”

Together, we peered out his south-facing window to see a tiny sliver of the fourth quarter crescent moon, and a little star to its left.

“That’s Venus,” he said.

“Wow. It’s so beautiful.”

And then I said, “Moon, Please take good care of Everest one day when he lands on your surface.”

Everest smiled, taking in my support of his dream to become an astronaut and explore the furtherest reaches of our solar system. Tears pricked my eyes: Tears of pride and grief and love and who knows what else, but I knew that that moment of nostalgia and longing for Los Angeles was mixed in there as well.

Had I jumped on the escape-hatch train that wanted to pull me into a fantasy of moving back to L.A. I may have tipped into the realm of anxiety, for anxiety is, on one level, an indicator that we’ve lost touch with an emotional piece, likely an abandoned grief that has resurfaced needing more attention. Instead, I brought my mind back to heart and hung out there for a while until the tears of endings and beginnings and the passage of time and places lost and the end of childhood, both mine and my son’s, orbited around the sun of my heart like tiny planets, touching me into that most holy realm of mystery.

With a full heart and tears in my eyes, I gave my son a hug, and we started the day.

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43 Comments

  1. All of this. And your response to your son? Stunning.

    Thank you for sharing this, Sheryl <3

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      • Helps me a lot reading you. These days I am having ugly intrusive thoughts. Is weird what I do. When I feel happy I bring an intrusive thought to scare myself so in that way I don’t allow my happiness. Any advice?

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      • I’ve also been longing for my hometown this week. I am now realising it was signalling a longing for my childhood and the utter safe feeling of being with my parents (who died years ago) Thank you Sheryl for using your gift with words to connect with and comfort others.

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        • An archetypal longing: for childhood safety. Thank you for naming it here.

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  2. I am so grateful to have read this today. I have the same exact feelings about NYC. I’m an American living in London, my mom and family are located in RI and I spent my early childhood and college years in NYC. I’ve always felt emotionally attached to the city and feelings of longing and nostalgia come to me very often. Before reading this, I wasn’t sure what to do with these feelings but have the urge to answer to them and this includes making plans to move back. There’s a lot to unpack with my story, but I’m deeply grateful for this wonderful share. So touching and brought tears to my eyes. Thank you

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    • I’m so glad it was helpful, Whitney. Thank you.

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  3. Beautiful xx

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      • Hi Sheryl,

        I couldn’t believe it when I read your blog this week. The same thing happened to me a few days ago. Something happened and I felt this powerful nostalgia for New Orleans, where I used to live. I started to feel short on the beautiful moments that seemed so easy to find when I was there and felt desperate to move back.

        We’re back in lockdown here in London and we have a baby now, so, although I love being a mummy, it hasn’t been the easiest time and I find myself struggling with some of my old issues.

        Would your office be able to help me get access to my old course and message boards?

        Thank you again. The blog was really helpful and made me feel much less alone.

        Reply
        • Yes, please contact Kathryn through the contact form above and she’ll be happy to help.

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  4. This was EXACTLY what I needed to hear today. Thank you for your authenticity.

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    • I’m so glad, Allison. Thank you.

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    • Thank you for this lovely, insightful piece. It never ceases to amaze me how much the events and early childhood attachments effect our current day emotional life. I’m 52 years old and still uncovering and naming memories of abuse and neglect that I had deeply buried and thought nothing of. I’m learning to lovingly breath into them, painful as they are, with the hope that they will lead me into a bigger, brighter space. As you so eloquently wrote, “ they are like winged puzzle pieces delivered like clues from psyche” to guide us.

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      • I, too, am in awe of the far-reaching effects of these early wounds, and the healing that occurs when we learn to continually move toward them with gently acceptance and loving breath.

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  5. I loved this piece. Thank you Sheryl for your sensitivity and courage and everything you do.

    I wrote in my diary after reading this, “anxiety is holding onto an image of self, instead of being a student of the moment.”

    It was a shifting read.

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    • What a beautiful response, Tamar. Thank you for sharing it with us here.

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    • What a great observation, love it.

      Wonderful article too, Sheryl. Thank you.

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  6. Thank you Sheryl. Tears of gratitude for sharing such a beautiful moment between you and your son. And that picture of you two at the top makes my heart burst. The love between you two is so apparent and it reminds me of my relationship with Sam and the conversations that he and I will have to navigate as he gets older. <3 <3 <3

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    • Thank you so much, dear Sarah. xoxo

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  7. Thank you for your words and work, Sheryl. I listened to a podcast of you speaking yesterday (with your niece) and it helped me so much on a particularly anxious day. I struggle with relationship anxiety… bouts that come and go, but when they come they can linger for months.

    Today I wrote “When I’m anxious I don’t have to deal with the fact that I love him deeply and that one day I’ll lose him.”

    It feels good to celebrate these moments of clarity. Thank you!

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  8. That was beautiful and so so human – I know how hard is to feel it all – as I struggle with it so hard these days. My anxiety paralyzes me and says that I will lose everything and everyone that matters. But I am trying to befriend this huge tight ball in my stomach and accept myself right in this panicked moment. Thank you!

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  9. Sheryl,
    I have just ordered your book “Wisdom of anxiety” and since I’m suffering terribly from relationship anxiety, will that book be helpful for me?
    The second thing is that I have thoughts just like “I DON’T WANT him anymore. I WANT to leave.” (A loving, caring partner, no red flags) Can those be also manifestations of RA?

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    • Hi Mag. I am currently reading the book and I have to say it has helped me understand my relationship anxiety much better. It is terrifying to have any type of negative thought about some that you care about. I love the Fear/eyes clears part……when you aren’t feeling anxious you see the wonderfulness of your partner but when the anxiety comes and your fear eyes are open you are suddenly confused and scared by the thoughts. Sheryl explains that the thoughts are not about your partner but more about you and the anxiety is simply trying to give you a message to protect you. It’s a great book. I’ve probably explained it all wrong but hopefully not! Enjoy the read.

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      • You got it, Lisa! Thank you for your response.

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      • Lisa,
        Thank you very much for your response! The book will come in 2 weeks, and I’m happy I can speak / read English (the book hasn’t been translated into my native language) 😉 can’t wait to start. All the best!

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  10. Thank you Sheryl for sharing this. I am crying as I read your words a and look at the picture of you and your precious son. I am the mom in the picture right now, with my youngest son who is 8 months old and is proudly standing on my lap.

    And I know all too well how fast it will go. I have had the hardest time adjusting to our new home in the suburbs where we moved 2,5 years ago. When our old apartment in city was on sale again a few months ago, a part of me wanted to buy it and move back there. The place where I became a mom, where my eldest son learnt how to walk 💕 I was fully aware that it was a fantasy but the pull was strong. Staying with the grief is the only remedy even though we resist it so much. Thank you for reminding us, again and again to drop into our body and get out of our head. It always works and it always.

    Reply
    • Brings a new level of healing.

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    • Hi Emma,
      I remember you from the forum.
      I loved your comment. Sheryls words also touched me in a similar way, because I am pregnant and have a 2 year old boy.
      I was just overwhelmed by the fact that I would never spend the whole night with my son again, the way we did when he was a baby. And that he will never own all of my heart again, because I will have two kids.
      I know this is natural and normal and even healthy. But wow the pain of it.
      I also feel like I never want to move out of our appartment, because it feels like a womb for the both of us.
      Thank you for sharing Emma – I wish you the best.

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    • “Staying with the grief is the only remedy even though we resist it so much. Thank you for reminding us, again and again to drop into our body and get out of our head.” That’s it. Always. Sending you so much love.

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  11. Sheryl, you have painted a beautiful picture with words about the sacredness of the ordinary. You didn’t miss the beauty in the moment. Thank you for your example of awareness. It is beautiful.

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  12. Every time I read your blog posts I’m invited into my own feelings (which I still struggle to tap into!). Your son’s struggle touched me, as someone who had lots of anxiety/feelings of unbelonging in secondary school. But it sounds like he’s a strong, brave kid, ready to take it on. “Did you see the moon, mom?” He seems like a beautiful soul. 🙂

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    • He really is, Anne Marie. A highly sensitive soul, just like all of you 🙂 xo

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  13. Hi Sheryl, this was just an amazing piece – I think one of your best. You are right in talking about it as the heart of anxiety, and it helped me so much to see that my emotions are really what sit at the middle of this knotted rope in my stomach! It is so hard to sit with them, good, bad, scary or indifferent. Thank you for sharing yourself with us so that we can better understand your meaning as we’re trying to learn. 🙂

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    • I’m so glad it was helpful, Julie. I do think we learn best by example and through stories.

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  14. Hello, Sheryl! This was amazing!!

    It was so beautiful when I read, “Moon, Please take good care of Everest one day when he lands on your surface.” Such pride and joy must have filled your heart at that moment, know your son will do such amazing things.

    Just wanted to say that xoxo

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  15. Thank you, as always, for sharing with such rawness. It made me cry.
    I’m really grieving my only son growing up at the moment and can’t find anything to help navigate these feelings of loss of purpose and emptiness. Is there anywhere I can do some more reading on this?
    Many thanks

    Reply
    • I recommend reading The Middle Passage by James Hollis. It doesn’t directly address the transition of kids growing up, but it does address the loss of purpose and emptiness that can arise in midlife.

      Reply
      • Thank you so much 🙏

        Reply

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