The critical thing I’ve learned about my mental health in the past year or two is that my main problem isn’t depression; that’s just an added bonus. No, my real issue is anxiety, just like about one-quarter of the world (or probably more, here in the world of Covid). The work I’m doing now is to determine how anxiety works out in my life and how I can counter it with mindfulness.
One of the indicators that my mindfulness practice is working is that I can read the statistics on how common anxiety is, recognize being pissed that so many other people share “my” affliction, and accept that my brain is having this thought and the concomitant emotions. Instead of feeling “poor me, I’m anxious and commonplace” I can think “poor you, suffering all these years through no fault of your own”.
Because the bottom line isn’t the plentitude of anxiety but the fact that my life circumstances made me anxious in my own special way – and that’s more than enough for anyone. Who the hell needs to feel special about a lifetime lost to mental unhealthiness? I don’t recall my dad or brother walking around high-fiving people because they both got a type of leukemia that affects only 800 or so people a year.
What’s to celebrate?
This is another added bonus of anxiety: there’s a myriad of rabbit holes to dive down rather than address whatever the real issue is. For me, I have the challenge of anxiety that began when I was a little kid, probably in early grade school. So I had over fifty years of anxiety running amuck in my life before I even knew it was there.
You know how you read about these people who’ve had a tapeworm in their gut so long that by the time they get to the doctor, it’s several yards long?
I’m never going to dig up the roots of my anxiety. My parents are both dead – and probably to blame, given how unskilled they were at parenting and the baggage they carried – and my siblings would have no idea. I speculate a lot, but not in the hope that I’ll have an a ha! moment that lays everything bare. I believe my anxiety grew out of many little causes. (And while this is just speculation to this point, I think there’s a good chance that this resulted in a type of trauma that plays a significant role in my mental health. Serious trauma can build up slowly over time.)
I’m not concerned with why I got like this. Now and then, reading a book or listening to a speaker or from some other source, I’ll feel a connection with what is being shared. I’ll feel that connection, and something akin to the echo of a memory will come to me. The point then isn’t to dig deep and unearth an event from my childhood; it’s to recognize that something seems to have happened that causes me to react in this way.
From there, I can use mindfulness to observe how my mind and body respond, what emotions arise, and so forth. As I do this, I can apply what I have learned: the past isn’t real, the emotions are transient, and I am here now simply observing and breathing. I may feel something, but I do not have to engage with it. I can observe it, label it (grief; pain; fear; loss), and allow it to pass by as clouds in the sky or the waters of a river.
What my current mindfulness work is addressing is the fact that I have lot of stuff hidden away in my mind and body. As I grow more aware of myself – the way my body responds to situations, the emotions that can pop up – more stuff gets dredged up. It’s almost never anything that is easily recognizable; all I tend to see is how my body reactions and the emotions inflicted on me.
Which I’m fine with. I’m learning to recognize these things before that knock me down and stomp me into depression. Sometimes it takes a while and I’m sinking into a funk, but I can now tell myself “This is a transient set of emotions that are not real or permanent” – and I actually believe it! I’ll stop and breathe for a bit, or I’ll just decide to ignore what I’m feeling and doing something I want to do.
Sitting around feeling shitty is never what I want to do.