There was this Facebook meme going around recently, a quote splayed over the image of a lotus blossom or something similar. It read: “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” – Lao Tzu.
After doing some digging I found this is not a real quote attributed to Lao Tzu (ancient master) nor is it in the Tao Te Ching, although possibly a sentiment close to it exists. But despite its misleading and cheesy source, I do like its message. Because anxiety is my cross to bear in this life and I find that my mind goes 80 percent faster than my day.
Let me first describe what my anxiety feels like. It’s as if someone has taken my throat and performed an operation, making it so I can only use half of it to swallow. As if somehow a shelf were built between my heart and my stomach and all of my thoughts and worry and sorrows sit there, preventing the transfer of breath or blood or reason.
When I mention fear of the unknown, I don’t just mean existential angst like, “Is there a God?” or “Will I die alone?” What I mean is: “Will my car shut down in a busy intersection? Will there be a terrorist attack? What if I need a root canal again someday? (I will.) Will he call? What did that text mean? Is my dog okay? What if my dog walker forgets to come while I’m temping? What if someone runs a red light? Did I say the right thing at the party? Am I shrill? What’s my blood pressure?”
Are you exhausted yet? Imagine big and small questions like this running continuously on a loop through the grey matter of my brain, dipping in and out of the logic in my frontal lobe and then click, click, clicking as it gets snagged on a jagged edge and repeats, again and again and again.
It’s not really OCD because there’s no doorknob I can touch five times or chant I can say to help quell these thoughts. They’re just there. Always there. If my head had feet, they’d always be about three steps ahead of the rest of my body, cautiously peering around every corner, on the ready for danger and disappointment.
When I go to movies, specifically action, horror or suspense films, I have to plug my ears nearly the entire time to avoid being startled. (And mind you, I’m a film critic so there are a lot of greasy popcorn-covered fingers digging into my poor ears.) It’s not the sounds that bother me, but the anticipation of that sound. I can see it; I just don’t want to hear it.
The good news is that if this Facebook meme is true, I shouldn’t be depressed, as my past is a bit hazy. I remember my life in little snippets of mostly joy. Walking on stage at the Improv comedy club for the first time. Parasailing in Turkey. Riding on the back of a German stranger’s motorcycle in Greece. A kiss on an icy day in London (on my birthday!) Picking a bluebonnet in Texas. Riding a camel up Mt. Sinai in Egypt. And of course some snippets are not so joyful: Falling to the floor after a breakup. A car crash. A rude girl named Heather in junior high. Just little seconds of these things and I believe the reason I can’t remember them fully is because I was never really there. I mean, I was there because there are pictures. But even then (although less so than now) I was walking ahead of the moment. If you’re never really present, how can you keep tabs on what’s around you? So while Facebook says I shouldn’t be unhappy, the anxiety says otherwise.
But I know I’m not alone. So many of you reading this might relate on some level and so I’ve put together a few tips to help us get through. Here we go:
1. Have gratitude
I saw a movie called About Time a few years ago. It was written by Richard Curtis, who has a propensity to get sappy. But this quote is bloody beautiful: “I just try to live every day as if I’ve deliberately come back to this one day to enjoy it, as if it was the full final day of my extraordinary, ordinary life.”
I simply love the idea of pretending that we’ve time traveled to every single moment of our lives on purpose. And this especially helps the anxious-prone because if it’s true that we’re always tooling around in an unpredictable future rather than sitting where time wants us to be, it makes sense that we were there and have come back to a moment to show it respect. To view every day and every thought as a gift instead of a fear. Now that is something.
This one might be more personal, and it’s super hard to do. But try turning your cell phone off for at least three hours during the day. Some can do longer, some less due to work. But my obsessive search for validation or excitement via a text has become jarring, even to me. And so when I can, I just turn that thing off and put it away.
I’m sure you’ve heard about the benefits of meditation. They are real. I have seen the practice of minding your breath and sitting still make huge differences in those close to me. I have not been able to make meditation a part of my daily routine, but that doesn’t mean I can’t strive to. (Try, try again.) I do partake in yoga and I find it helps slow my mind down considerably.
4. Know that you are not your thoughts
Our amygdala (the part of the brain that, among other roles, elicits our response to threats, real or perceived) can play nasty tricks on us. We are not the sum total of every thought we’ve ever had. On the contrary, I believe that we are what we do, not what we think. Our anxiety (or depression) doesn’t have to define us, especially when we know we’re responding to many threats that don’t even exist. We can be of service to others instead. Volunteer when possible or simply be kind to those around you every day. That is what makes us who we are. Personally, that idea soothes me.
I’ve reread this post about 50 times, changing the title, worried about all the words. But I am not my worry. I am not this blog. I am not defined by the texts I get. I’m just my breath and so I’ll just keep trying to just breathe…