I’ll never forget the first time I went paintballing, not because it was fun but because I was on the brink of what felt like a nervous breakdown in my life at the time. Just a helpful piece of advice, going into an activity that mimics war is probably not the best activity for someone that is struggling with daily panic attacks.
As we were gearing up and getting ready to start the game, I felt a significant amount of apprehension and anticipation. Looking back, I really don’t think it was that strange to feel nervous, I was about to be shot with paintballs. Although not fatal, I knew there would be a certain degree of pain in the game. In an attempt to help ease my anxious anticipation, my husband decided to shoot me, at point blank, in my back. Surprise surprise, it did NOT help ease my anxiety levels, and took every ounce of self-control I had not to turn around and shoot him back in the face.
This story is a spot-on example of how I, and my husband, approached anxiety when I first started suffering from it. We had a “man-up” approach; a belief that will power alone could resolve the issue. It was to both our surprise that trying to will my way through anxiety only made it worse. It left us baffled and unsure of how to move forward. I can tell you what I learned about why “willing” through anxiety just doesn’t work. Willing, pushing through, resisting, fighting – what do all those words have in common? They are all very active actions; they take quite a bit of energy. And what is anxiety? Pretty much pure energy, the stress response is what allows us to run twice as fast as we ever dreamed when a swarm of bees starts chasing us. So, why would adding energy to more energy create calm? Well, it wouldn’t, it’d be like trying to put out fire with more fire. In an anxious moment we need a much more passive approach, no fighting, manning-up or using will power to push through. So, if we’re not fighting then what do we do instead? The short answer is nothing. That’s the thing; anxiety is one big (but very convincing) illusion that tricks us into taking some sort of action, tricks us into thinking there is an actual problem or threat. It’s the action we take that perpetuates this anxiety cycle, when we act like there’s a threat our brain assumes there is and responds accordingly. So next time you feel a wave of anxiousness, just lean into it a little bit, even if it’s only for 30 seconds, rather than trying to get away from it right away.