Does it change things when you stop fighting against your anxiety… or chronic illness… or even cancer? You bet it does. In ways that will really surprise you.
The year after I graduated from college, I was in the early throes of navigating a chronic illness that lasted another 8 years and completely altered the life that I’d known up to that point.
My body ached all the time. I had daily migraines and low-grade fevers. Nausea frequently owned me. My legs felt like lead. I lost 30 pounds in one year and had already started out slender. My energy was so low that I’d fall asleep on the kitchen table without meaning to. In truth, all I wanted to do was sleep.
But I pushed on, working on my masters in social work, barking at my body to keep going and to stop with the symptoms because I didn’t have time for them! There was no way I was going to give in to a body that was betraying me. I assumed that was the only way.
I was at war with my body. And I bet many of you know what that experience is like, whether it’s with your physical health or with something like anxiety.
You feel desperate to understand. You search for the medical fixes. Maybe you try therapy. And when that doesn’t work, you expand your circle of possibilities and start exploring other alternative solutions that you’d once have brushed off in a second flat.
You read books that offer endless theories about what’s driving your condition. Maybe you find a book that says you need to reduce your stress. So you increase your self-care tools even more.
Or maybe another book says you need to let go of your resentments in order to heal. So you start making long lists of all those you resent and one-by-one you try to release those resentments.
And maybe it helps. A little. For a time.
But then some of your symptoms return. And you feel deflated. Helpless. Hopeless. And PISSED that your body isn’t responding. And the war resumes.
This was an experience I lived for many years of my 20’s. And then my health improved and life went on.
But in my 40’s, something changed. (Ha! It’s funny to write that and realize that I’ll be 51 in a couple of weeks because my inside age is still 39!).
My relationship with anxiety transformed during those years. And I had no idea how dramatically that would go on to impact my experience with health.
I discovered that anxiety wasn’t my enemy. In fact, it’s turned out to be my friend as I’ve found it to be a messenger.
Instead of berating myself or my anxiety when it was present, I began to talk to it with more kindness. And I’ll be honest. It felt AWKWARD in the beginning!
But even with the awkwardness, I noticed some little part of me relaxed each time I whispered to my anxiety, saying something like, “Oh, honey, I can feel how anxious you are right now. It’s ok. I’m here with you while you’re feeling this way.”
It was like my anxiety had a sigh of relief because it felt allowed rather than fought against. And suddenly it didn’t need to scream so loudly to get my attention.
This wasn’t a process that happened overnight, just as any friendship takes time to grow. But grow it did until my experience with anxiety changed.
Now, my default mode still kicks in sometimes so that I initially try to fight against anxiety when it shows up. But it doesn’t take long for me to recognize this and shift my approach.
And suddenly I’m chatting lovingly to my anxiety, making room for it to be ok that it’s present. And I become curious about the message it’s guiding me to each time.
The truth is that anxiety is part of our human experience. And so are times when we may have messy health. Or messy anything, right? There’s a guaranteed imperfectness to this human ride.
But what if it’s possible to experience the harder, imperfect parts with more ease. What if the harder rides don’t have to be quite so bumpy as we navigate them? Learning how to turn towards those experiences rather than making them wrong and fighting against them changes everything.
That’s what my updated relationship with anxiety taught me as I navigated cancer a couple of years ago. I once again found myself in the middle of a complicated health situation, but my experience with it was vastly different from the one in my 20’s
Instead of being pissed with my body for betraying me, I was unexpectedly filled with love for my thyroid and all she’d been doing on my behalf all my life. As some of you know, I even ended up throwing her a Thywell party to celebrate her before she headed on to other adventures!.
I also came to realize that there were billions of things working so well in my body at the very same time that cancer was present. I certainly didn’t expect to experience any of this during cancer!
But I came to understand that it happened because I’d learned how to appreciate and love my anxiety for being the messenger that she is.
Practicing this with my anxiety over the years enabled new neural pathways to form in my brain that created NEW responses to stressors. And I’ve certainly felt the benefit of these updated responses over the last 11 years! But it wasn’t until I experienced cancer that I realized just how life-changing this has been.
I regularly teach my clients how to talk with their anxiety, their organs, their bodies. Often they HAVE been talking with their bodies for years, but the conversations have gone something like this, “Ok, anxiety/ dizziness/ stomach/ heart, etc. Knock it off. We don’t have time for this, ok? Enough!”.
Yet the symptoms persist.
But guess what happens when they begin practicing a new, more compassionate version of this? At the very least, despite the initial awkwardness, they feel something inside them relax a little. But more often than not, they find their symptoms begin to ease.
Just yesterday a client mentioned that when she began practicing this, her cardiac symptoms that had been present for a while suddenly reduced significantly and almost immediately.
Because guess what? Just like my anxiety, my cancer was a messenger for me. And what these messages are is a very personal experience for each of us. It is something that others can’t know for us.
What if it turns out that your anxiety…or chronic illness…or even cancer is actually a messenger for you. One that is not against you, but on your side, leading you inward to connect with your inner compass, where wisdom patiently waits, ready and eager to help you.
What if connecting with these messengers rather than fighting against them actually makes it possible for you to navigate the hard experiences in life with smaller bumps and more ease?
I know this to be true. And I see it in my practice with clients every day.
If this is something you want to discover for yourself, I’d love to help you. Shoot me a DM and tell me a little bit about what you’re currently navigating and we’ll go from there. ❤️
P.S. If you’ve been enjoying my weekly blogs and are itching for more daily inspiration, friend me on Facebook (Emily Colwell) or follow me on Instagram (dr.emily_colwell). I post frequently and humor leaks into most of my posts!
Emily Colwell, MSSW, ND
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