Riding the Wave: The Single Biggest Thing I've Learned About Anxiety

the wave

In July, 2015, I found out I had anxiety. It was like being handed the keys to my brain. Before that, I felt different than others, but wasn't sure why.

In the past year and a half, I've done a lot of digging and connecting. I've talked to others with anxiety. I've researched and talked to doctors. I've read many books. 

The single-most important thing I've learned: anxiety is a physiological response involving hormones released in the body.

Those hormones hit the system in a surge and draw back in time. They can come in one big cresting wave, or many mini waves, but they hit the body the same way a wave hits the beach.

This information has affected me deeply. When the hormones hit, I now ask myself: Can the beach fight the wave?

I know the answer: No.

I've also learned the shaky feeling many people experience after a stress response or panic attack is a sign of the hormone wave receding. It's actually a good thing! We often fear the strange shaky feeling. We should be looking forward its arrival. If we understand what the shakiness means, we can enjoy that another wave is over and our strength remains from our place on the beach.

Accepting the hormone releasenavigating the triggers that set it in motionis how I think of riding The Beautiful Voyager.

I'm not the only one to describe the wave. Barry McDonagh describes it this way in DARE:

Anxiety is nothing more than nervous energy in your body. This energy rises and falls just like waves on the ocean. Think of it as if you're bobbing around in the ocean and every now and then a wave rises up in front of you. When you resist the wave, it tosses you around and scares you, but when you move with it, you ride up and over it and eventually lose your fear of waves...Where you once resisted each and every sensation because your anxious mind thought it was the right thing to do, now you're learning to sit in friendly curiosity, allowing it to be without any desire to stop or control it. So every time you feel a wave of nervous energy, you can bob up and down with it as it rises and falls. 

Here's an incredible example from Dani Shapiro. She's writing about writing. Listen to the similarities: 

During the time devote to your writing, think of the surges of energy coursing through your body as waves. They will come, they will crash over you, and then they will go. You'll still be sitting there. Nothing terrible will have happened. Try not to run from the wave. If, at one moment, you are sitting quietly at your desk and then--fugue state alert--you are suddenly on your knees planting tulips, or perusing your favorite online shopping site, and you don't know how you got there, then the wave has won. We don't want the wave to win. We want to learn to recognize it, accept its power, and even learn to ride it. We want to learn to withstand those wild surges, because everything we need to know, everything valuable, is contained within them.

Responding to the hormone wave with curiosity, openness, and even excitement for the shakes has been my biggest learning to date.

I work so hard on this project. Sometimes I ask myself, "Why are you doing this?"

My answer: "This is how I learned about the wave. It's not how everyone does, but it's how I did. It's worth it."

the wave

Originally published Feb 08, 2016. Updated November 25, 2017.