Anxiety is a messenger, a symptom, and a gift. I know that statement flies in the face of everything we learn about anxiety in a culture that is pathologically obsessed with eradicating shadow at every turn and consequently attempts to “get rid of” the symptom of anxiety as quickly and cleanly as possible, but I carry a vastly different approach. Instead of immediately medicating anxiety and its cohort of symptoms away, I seek to understand the messages encoded in its underlayers. Instead of viewing anxiety as a sign of disorder or dysfunction, I see it as a normal, human response to this life that includes stress, fear, risk, and ultimately, death. Can anxiety spiral out of control and make our lives a living hell? Absolutely. I’m not trying to place anxiety on a throne or in a position of worship. Rather, I’m bringing it out of its role as the cast-out, unwanted step-sister and placing it with the other characters who populate the table of psyche. For only when we invite anxiety to the table can we begin to have a conversation with it until slowly, by listening with the poet’s ear and tending with the dreamer’s soul, we begin to decipher its code.
What does this conversation look like? I can’t tell you exactly because a conversation with your anxiety will look very different from a conversation with mine. One reason why people balk from doing this inner work is that there is no script to enact or formula to follow. The very action of turning inward and embarking on an adventure of dialogue with your cast-off, hidden parts is, by its very action, addressing one of the root causes of anxiety: the fear of the unknown and the need for certainly. When we dialogue with our shadow characters, most of whom are saturated in fear, we jump off the known cliff and into the unknown sea. Taking this action sends psyche the message that perhaps we can handle the unknown a bit more than we believe.
What I can tell you is that the dialogue is led by the headlight of Curiosity and cradled in the pillows of Compassion. We start with those two qualities or characters leading the way: Curiosity and Compassion. Imagine a warrior strapping on her protective gear and amulets: a shield, a headband with a gem in the middle, a spear. So we, as love-warriors delving into the uncertain inner realms, strap on the gear of our loving inner parent and sit beside the character who is crying out for attention.
In this case, the character is Anxiety. For those who have taken my courses, you know that I take a four-realms approach to interacting with anxiety (and most other symptoms emanating from psyche), which means I understand that Anxiety is alerting us to an imbalance or need or unexpressed pain that needs attention from one of the four realms of Self: physical, emotional, cognitive, spiritual. Body, heart, mind, soul.
When working with anxiety, I recommend starting at the beginning: the body. In the beginning, as preverbal babies, we expressed our needs, frustrations, and desires through our bodies. Our bodies alerted us to our needs and we expressed those needs through cries, grunts, and smiles. Our bodies are foundational to wellness and when anxiety pipes up it’s best to ask, “Is there a basic body need that needs my attention?” When my kids are off-kilter in any way, I always inquire about the physical realm first: “Did you get enough sleep last night? Have you eaten enough protein today? Do you need to run around the block a few times? Have you eaten too much sugar?” I apply the same line of questioning to myself, with the addition of a question centered around hormones. As a rule of thumb, there’s no point in trying to figure out what might be bothering you emotionally or spiritually if your blood sugar is dropping or if you only slept a few hours the night before.
Let’s talk a bit more about this topic of blood sugar. We need a consistent balance of protein, carbohydrates, fiber, and minerals to experience optimal health. We also need to limit our intake of stimulants, especially if you’re a highly sensitive person. By stimulants I mean sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and drugs. What this looks like on a daily basis is some version of the following:
- Eat a high-protein, low/no sugar meal with some carbohydrates within 30 minutes of waking up.
- Have a high-protein snack every two hours.
- Snack on vegetables as much as you want and some fruit.
- Eat a high-protein, low/no sugar meal with some carbohydrates three times a day.
- If you struggle with maintaining stable blood sugar levels you may need to eat a light snack before you go to sleep.
- When blood sugar drops, it takes until the next morning for your body to reset. That’s why it’s so important to keep your blood sugar stable throughout the day by eating shortly after waking up and eating regularly throughout the day.
Here’s the most important piece of this article. Symptoms of low blood sugar include (from everydayhealth.com):
- Anxiety: “When glucose levels fall too low, your body tells the adrenal glands to release the hormone ephinephrine (also called adrenaline), which signals the liver to make more sugar. The excess ephinephrine creates an “adrenaline rush,” which can make you feel anxious.”
- Restless nights: “Nocturnal hypoglycemia, which is very common, can cause a number of sleep disturbances. Symptoms include night sweats, nightmares, episodes of waking suddenly and crying out, and feelings of unrest and confusion upon waking. A snack before bed can reduce the frequency and severity of sleep disturbances.”
- Emotional instability: “Mood swings and sudden emotional episodes not typical of your normal behavior are among the neurological symptoms of hypoglycemia, including irrational outbursts, random or hysterical crying, uncontrollable anger, and a strong desire to be left alone. Mild mood changes that may not be as severe, such as general irritability or becoming easily annoyed, can also be a signal that your blood sugar may be dropping.” You may also notice that the feeling of nameless dread and intrusive thoughts become more pronounced when blood sugar drops.
Sound familiar? This is why when you’re anxious, start at the beginning: with your body. Trying to journal or meditate when your blood sugar has dropped is like trying to get a car to run by fixing the engine instead of checking the gas tank first. Your blood sugar is your gas tank, and if you’re on the anxious-sensitive-creative spectrum it would behoove you to keep it full. Of course, taking good physical care of yourself is the responsibility of your inner loving parent, and as many people struggle with accessing this character, we can understand why tending to the physical body could be a challenge. If this is the case, the work first involves strengthening the muscle of the inner character of your loving parent. More on that next week ;).