Anxiety often suffers a bad reputation at the hands of misunderstandings. It’s crucial to recognise that anxiety is not your enemy; it is quite the opposite – it is your friend, perhaps your closest, most caring, but sometimes overprotective, friend.
Anxiety is an emotion. It exists to warn you of possible physical and mental dangers. These dangers can be something trivial or something serious. Anxiety only becomes a problem when it is unreasonably amplified and gets out of control – this develops into a disorder and can lead to a severe disruption in the quality of your life.
In my early thirties, I was travelling back from an event with two friends. It was a long but enjoyable drive on the motorway. I was exhausted and relieved not to be driving. We were blissfully talking about how much we enjoyed the experience, sharing what we considered to be the best parts, when a lorry to the left of us, without warning, pulled into our lane. The lorry hit the back of our car and sent us spinning off the motorway. I could hear screeching tyres, and a nauseating smell of burning rubber and petrol emerged. Everything happened so fast that I could hardly make sense of it. Shards of shattered glass sprayed around the car. I felt the impact in my back and neck as we crashed into the bollards before the vehicle came to an abrupt halt.
My head spun in confusion. The loud ringing in my ears made it challenging to understand what my friend was saying. He leaned into the back of the car and asked me if I was OK, I nodded, but I was far from OK. Physically, I was almost unharmed; mentally, I felt as if I was clinically dead. I was in shock. After I caught my breath, I got out of what remained of the car, and I froze in disbelief. The car was obliterated. It had transformed from a gleaming model of fine engineering to an unidentifiable scrap of metal. It was nothing short of a miracle that any of us were still alive.
After going to the hospital, the doctor confirmed my suspicions that I was completely fine, aside from a sprained wrist and experiencing the unpleasant effects of whiplash. A couple of days later, I saw my friends, and we discussed how relieved we were to have cheated death, metaphorically speaking.
At first glance, everything seemed fine – it was better than fine. The accident, horrific as it was, made me appreciate life a little more. I became a little more grateful for every breath I took. Because I was alive, and I could have been dead – and being alive was far better than being dead. But as time progressed, the thought of death became more prominent. It became so apparent that I thought about it every time I was on the motorway, and soon it was all I thought about when I was on the motorway. Every other car could potentially pull out into my lane without signalling and looking. They could hit my car just the way the lorry did, and this time I might not be so fortunate. I then imagined other more creative ways to have accidents on the motorway. My car’s tyre could burst while driving at seventy miles per hour. The engine could spontaneously combust. It got to the point that I was convinced that something disastrous would happen.
I become increasingly paranoid. I checked the tyre pressure three or four times and inspected the car obsessively for defects before every journey.
An uneasy feeling overcame me at the thought of any journey that involved the motorway, so much so that I hardly travelled. And when I did, I held tightly to the steering wheel for dear life.
Then things got even worse; after ensuring that my car was not going to be the cause of my demise and hoping other drivers would remain cautious and vigilant, I started worrying about the tyres and roadworthiness of their cars. What if the car next to me had a defective tyre and it burst and then crashed into me? I was almost at the point where travelling was no longer an option.
My brain’s response to the accident and my lack of control was to crank up my anxiety. Normal anxiety levels warn you to be cautious – high levels of anxiety can pretty much convince you that you are about to die. And we usually trust our anxiety as it has kept us alive thus far.
Although I found it almost impossible to control, I was intelligent enough to know that this was an irrational fear. Of course, the scenarios that played out in my mind in a miserable and infinite loop could happen, but that does not mean they would.
The one thing I was certain about was that this was no way to live. I pondered over my thought patterns when I was enduring the worst parts of my anxiety and realised that I wasn’t as afraid of getting hit by another vehicle on the motorway as much as I was afraid of not being in control of the situation. The most frightening part of the accident was being unable to control or prevent the lorry from hitting us. This also meant I couldn’t control or prevent any other vehicle from hitting me whenever I was on the motorway. But, I could control not going on the motorway. So my brain convinced me that the only way I could survive was to avoid situations where I was not in control.
This unreasonable thought pattern did not restrict itself to motorways – it eventually slithered its way into other aspects of my life. For instance, I started feeling the same anxiety on planes – my mind had convinced me that we were going to crash and that, ludicrously, we would have a better chance of survival if I flew the plane as opposed to a qualified and experienced pilot.
My lack of control in one traumatic event forced me to try to control every setting – and everything became a matter of life and death.
This negatively impacted the quality of my life, and I was sure that if I didn’t intervene, it would take its toll on my physical health. However, one of the great advantages of being human is our ability to reflect on our thoughts.
They say that talking to yourself is the first sign of madness, but I believe that not talking to yourself is sheer madness. It was only by talking to myself, questioning myself and challenging my thoughts that I managed to identify my pain points and explore methods to deal with them.
I needed to analyse my fears and apprehensions, like my approach to overcoming my childhood trauma of being locked in a toy chest (long story. Read more about that here). I reminded myself that not every lorry, or any other vehicle for that matter, is going to pull out without looking, and just because they can, doesn’t mean they will. I also reminded myself that the likelihood of this happening is considerably less as cars are getting more efficient and driving tests are more exhaustive. But most of all, I reminded myself that other people on the road probably don’t want to die either.
I then had to tackle the more complex notion of control. This was far more challenging. I was not in control while locked in the toy chest, and I was not in control of the lorry that hit us. In the same light, I am not in control of many things around me. I can’t control a loose tile falling from a roof and hitting me on the head. I cannot control getting struck by lightning. I cannot even control my organs if they suddenly decide to fail.
I had to force myself to understand that I can be cautious (I’m never climbing into a toy chest at the request of a psychopathic child ever again). I can ensure that my car is safe to be on the road, and I can live a healthy and balanced life, giving my organs good reason not to fail, but the rest is not in my control, and I need to be OK with that, not because it is OK, I mean who the hell wants to get hit on the head with a roof tile? But because what’s the alternative? Heightened anxiety, irrational fears, more mental and physical problems.
That’s no way to live.
Anxiety, just like guilt and anger, is stimulated and empowered by what you give it, so don’t fuel it – challenge it with reason and will soon learn to behave.