It’s 3:30 a.m. and my beloved greyhound Gee is having a grand mal seizure on the couch. I can feel adrenaline—in the form of full alertness—course through my body. I watch over her, her paddling legs and foaming mouth, to make sure she will not injure herself. There is not much more I can do. I pay attention to how long the seizure lasts. I keep Pixie, my other greyhound back. In these minutes am focused and effective. This I recognize as fear in its useful guise. It allows me to handle a potentially dangerous currentsituation. It also keeps me wide awake to resting watchfully through the long four hours of post-seizure recovery, making sure she returns to herself and settles down to sleep it off. Anxiety helpfully rouses me to call the neurologist promptly at 8 am, when the clinic opens, to make sure we are doing the right things—change her meds or watch and wait?
Sometimes it’s easy to see how this kind of fear can be adaptive. But what about anxiety? Fear is present tense, in the moment. It causes alertness and swift action when necessary. Anxiety, on the other hand, is future focused: The next day I am worried she mighthave another seizure, and what would this mean? How useful could these thoughts be?
I have always thought this dichotomy between fear and anxiety explained why fear was useful to keep ourselves and loved ones safe, such as getting out of a fiery building. Anxiety, on the other hand, such as the hyperalert longer term worry that the house might catch fire, I thought was maladaptive, by definition. How could worry about the future ever have a place? Shouldn’t I try to get rid of it?
And yet, in retrospect, the watchfulness of anxiety in this case turned out to be practical. The next night I was wakeful (hypervigilance) and one bark from Pixie caused me to leap out of bed. I knew that distressed sound and in seconds was in the other room to again watch over another grand mal seizure. My hyperalert anxiety brain meant no fog to conquer or question of what to do. Future worry—that she might have another seizure—meant I was prepared.
I am warming to a radical idea: stop trying to get rid of anxiety. Throw away all my anxiety conquering books and quit the struggles intended to prevent anxiety. Work on letting go of my anxiety avoidance habits. Recognize that anxiety is not the enemy. Call a ceasefire in my war against anxiety. Instead, accept my anxiety in order to live my fullest life.
Those are the foundational concepts in Forsyth and Eifert’s, The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety. The idea is that the fight against anxiety is what feeds that anxiety to intolerable levels and keeps one from living a full life.
Try this: for the next five minutes, don’t think about a pink elephant.
Successful? No one is. The attempted repression of a thought only makes it more likely to pop up. Even when you momentarily stop thinking of the pink elephant, you must ask yourself if you’re thinking of the pink elephant—meaning the pink elephant has snuck into your thoughts. Inevitably.
Anxiety, Forsyth and Eifert say, is similar. The more you try to repress it, the stronger it becomes. Only through accepting its presence in our lives can we truly escape the negative effects.
The first time I began the workbook I had a hard time being open to the idea that anxiety might be okay. Sure, I believed in the power of mindfulness and acceptance, but only in the service of getting rid of anxiety. How could I truly accept anxiety when it kept me from driving on the highway or feeling calm or getting a good night’s sleep? Anxiety was constant companion, but not a friend. I quit after a few chapters.
My second go at this workbook is different. I can finally acknowledge that all my attempted techniques for getting rid of anxiety have at best been short term, partial solutions. At worst, they have backfired. It’s time for a radically new approach.
Right now? I am breathing with the anxiety about Gee’s condition, with an uncomfortable tightness in my chest. Yet I am open to the possibility that I can accept my anxiety. I am open to the idea that I might make friends with anxiety, whether objectively helpful or useless. It brings me hope that as I quit fighting anxiety, I will find a more peaceful way through the world.