Sam Gimbel

Tech, Beer, and Strange Thoughts.

From Monster To Muse

It's hard to overstate just how ingrained my anxiety is. I wake up every morning with the same tightness in my chest, even on those mornings when I anticipate a great day ahead. The weight of this frustrating animal spurs me to the bathroom for a shower to clear my head and get moving. It keeps me focused. It reinforces my routine. And it drives me insane.

I've dealt with this monster since I was a little kid, but only developed the awareness to separate it from my conscious intention around the age of 22, when the severity of my panic episodes led me to seek therapy and the help of my good friends, SSRIs. The outcome of all this work was a more complete understanding of how I'm affected by my anxiety, as well as a strong mindfulness regarding its interaction with the rest of my personality.

Years of practice led to dozens of techniques for managing my anxiety. Frustratingly, "managing" is the correct word. I have not suddenly become less anxious, even under the effects of medication (or after coming off meds, for that matter). After many years, the same stimuli still result in agitation, shortness of breath, anger, hopelessness, and frustration. A lot of these stimuli require no reaction. Many others do, and I've often struggled to react appropriately in situations that truly deserve an agitated response. So I developed restraint, self-reflective exercises, and learned to act rational when feeling rather insane.

One technique has been especially helpful: recognizing that I live with anxiety, I acknowledge its presence and speak to it as if it were a person living in my brain. I do this upon waking and looking into the mirror, and I let my anxiety tell me what it's worried about. It wants to continue forever, looping on itself and creating sparks of unresolved tension for me to deal with for the rest of the day. The trick is to deny it this privilege and cut it off after no more than 10 minutes. Attend to your anxiety, but don't let it rule you. This almost never leads to an anxiety-free day. Like I said, that's a pipe dream that I will simply never realize. But listening to the voice that tells you everything is wrong makes it easier to recognize that it, not you, is out of touch with reality.

Maybe that's counter-intuitive. Perhaps you've been raised to shove problems down into the basement of your brain to lead a relatively stress-free existence. If that's working for you, you're in the minority. Or maybe you've been taught to ruminate on your issues every minute of every day, approaching cognitively an issue with a strong emotional component. The emotional distance you create from that issue keeps you from seeing the forest for the trees. It makes it difficult for you to own the contents of your own brain. And if you don't own your anxiety, it will soon own you.

My anxiety leads me to think very little of myself. Like most people suffering from it, I don't receive many of the emotional rewards that typically stem from success, so I have a hard time knowing when I've done something great. It's easy to feel sorry for myself, but I've taught myself to see past that, too. The current moment may be an anxious one, by default, but the moments that surround it hold valuable context about how I should evaluate myself. Smiles on people's faces, graphs that go up and to the right, an intuitive recognition that the task is done. These are events outside myself, and these external rewards quickly overwhelm the internal handicap of strong anxiety.

In the case of struggle or crisis, however, anxiety has turned me into a superhero. Recently, a friend's dog had a seizure in my house. In a group of 6, I was the first to problem solve and somehow ended up leading the effort to help the poor pup (he's fine). The same is true in work situations. Rather than view crisis or failure with a negative lens, I prefer to see them through the lens of anxiety. Treat the crisis as an opportunity that needs attention, but ultimately as something that cannot control your full attention forever. The omnipresent negative evaluation lent by my anxiety prepares me for most situations before they enter my consciousness as needing a solution. Part of me always senses that something is wrong, so solutions become tucked right below the surface. I respond calmly by tapping into the mindfulness I've cultivated for dealing with other human beings. Time slows down, I have more time to consider potential solutions, and then I shut down the pity party to make that solution a reality. Crisis is a familiar sensation for me, even though true crisis is rare in my life, and the daily practice I give to attending to it is essential when real tragedy strikes.

I used to view my anxiety as a curse, a barrier between myself and any sort of lasting happiness. And while it's true that my continued happiness is hampered by this reality, I've accepted anxiety as a part of me. By owning it and learning to keep it in context, I've started to experience anxiety as a muse, not a monster. And so it came to pass, in the 29th year of my life, that I stumbled upon the strongest hope for the future of my mental health I have ever felt. It was as simple as recognizing who I am, what I am capable of, and where my strengths lie. I have weaknesses, sure. Many of them will never be helpful. But if you're also plagued by a part of yourself that simply won't go away, consider inviting it in and setting boundaries. You'll feel at home in your own skin, and it only gets better from there.