Eight Years …

Eight years. That’s how long it had been since Kate could remember waking up in the morning and not vomiting from anxiety. Three years longer than her daughter had been alive, more than two thirds of the entirety of her marriage, and likely just as long since she’d enjoyed a decent night’s sleep.

Eight years of believing that something was inherently defective in her biological make up. Eight years of believing that doctors were missing a diagnosis that could explain her suffering, and eight years of losing faith in psychologists because no one had been able to show her “… how to just get rid of it.”

Eight years of fear dousing her dreams and inner turmoil so distressing that she had lost touch with her sense of meaning, and mostly, lost touch with herself.

 

Life in the Struggle

Kate was hurting. And yet, here she was, sitting across from me casually telling me that she owned and managed not one but three businesses (in different industries, mind you), made sure she was available for her daughter’s school run daily, supported her husband in his endeavours, all while ensuring they ate only whole foods. It’s just that these things were done in the trembling fog of panic and worry and all Kate wanted to do was curl up in a ball and let the anxiety swallow her up.

She was remarkable for her resilience. But she was the last person to realise it.

The anxiety had gone on for so long by the time we met that all Kate focused on was the daily struggle and how she was going to get rid of it. She didn’t really believe that seeing another psychologist would make a difference, but she was fast losing the strength to hold onto hope by herself.

Kate wasn’t even sure of what she was fighting for anymore. Her relationship with the fear had become such a tug of war that conquering it was the only goal she had. Get rid of it or hide away from life permanently.

Suffering has that effect. The more we struggle with it, the more our options appear to shrink and narrow, blinding us from seeing possibilities outside of the shadows. Yours may not be eight years of vomit-inducing anxiety. Perhaps it’s a decade of not feeling good enough. Or six months of perfectionism-seeking paralysis (okay, who am I kidding? Perfectionism hangs around for l-i-f-e-t-i-m-e-s!).

 

Put Your Dreams Aside for the Fight

Whatever yours looks like, I’m betting that you’ve experienced the curtain that drops between your emotional discomfort in the present moment and the dreams you wish upon for the future. It’s this curtain that stops us from seeing beyond the discomfort and keeps us focused on the struggle at hand: Get rid of the pain … and then you can go back to living.

When discomfort shows up, our lives can be put on hold. If we struggle for long enough, our dreams may disappear. We become fixated on finding relief from the knee-shaking, throat-grabbing dis-ease.

It was in the midst of Kate and I discussing how fear had shrunk her life that I asked her to tell me what this struggle had cost her. She started to cry and told me that she was devastated that she was not the role model for her daughter that she’d dreamed of being. She wanted her daughter to see her embracing life and to believe she could do anything, but in Kate’s eyes, her daughter only saw her somewhere between the threshold of existing and white-knuckled coping. Sure, she met her obligations, but she was “only just holding her head above water most of the time.”

 

When Does the War End?

It was around the second session in our time together that I asked Kate what she would do if her fear was quiet for a while. I asked her to consider what life would be like if she was no longer caught up in being anxious about being anxious. I asked her to consider what would happen if she just let the anxiety be there.

She looked at me incredulously, smiled, and then said she’d “like to know the answer to that because I can’t imagine it right now.”

Part of Kate’s incredible strength and resilience was her willingness to heal, even when she had difficulty and frustration around what her healing would like based on what hadn’t worked previously (and she had seen many professionals and tried many strategies).

Even with her willingness, this next part took a little convincing because it was not only counterintuitive, but it was exactly the opposite of what Kate was asking from me.

Kate wanted to rid herself of anxiety for good. But her war was not working. So, I proposed a change in approach by …

 

Getting Unstuck from the Struggle

I’ll admit Kate didn’t like it at first. In fact, for the first six sessions we shared, I spent at least half of each session explaining the logic behind giving up the struggle with anxiety. And while I won’t overwhelm you with the details of all of those sessions here, my point was this:

If you continue to spend your time, energy, and emotional resources on waging a war with discomfort, then you (unintentionally) fuel that discomfort to rage even more. And what energy will you have left over to devote to things that matter to your heart and soul?

While ever you engage in the fight, then there is a fight to be continued. Imagine you’re back in Grade 3 playing tug-of-war at recess. If you and your cute little opponent are pulling as hard as your little arms will let you, and you suddenly drop the rope, what happens to the war? Your friend likely ends up on the ground and even if they beg you to pay attention to them, to start the game again, even if they resort to calling you names and getting a little loud, as long as you don’t pick that rope back up, the war is over. If you step back from the struggle, the discomfort may not disappear, but it does lose the capacity to feed off of the energy you have previously been giving it.

We spoke at length about the fact that discomfort is part of the human condition. Intellectually, Kate understood this, but she had difficulty with the counterintuitive nature of acceptance (as most of us do, to begin with). It makes perfect sense to push pain away. It was only that Kate realised what she had been doing for eight years hasn’t worked that meant she had a little bit of willingness left over to try the opposite.

I explained to Kate that I wanted her to be able to harness everything that she had thrown at anxiety over the years to devote to the things that warmed her heart and inspired her soul the most. But to do that, she’d have to get unstuck from the struggle with discomfort.

 

Step by Step

With these steps, Kate practised and practised. She didn’t love it. And the anxiety didn’t disappear. But she kept practising:

  1. Acknowledge the discomfort.
  2. Drop the rope.
  3. Make room for the discomfort to be there in whatever way it shows up.
  4. Readjust your focus to what’s important deep down in that moment.
  5. Take meaningful action that will help you move forward rather than stay stuck.

 

Tiny Steps, Total Transformation

Around about session 7, Kate arrived at our weekly appointment. Before I could speak, she blurted out, “Guess what?!” I only had time to raise my eyebrows before she said that she hadn’t vomited once that week and that her experience of anxiety was only intense following a conflict that she had to attend to between two of her staff members. While I was doing a little happy dance in my chair, Kate then said, “But wait there’s more!” (This is not an ad, they were literally the words she used. I was so excited that I remember them clearly to this day.) Kate went on to tell me that because she wasn’t spending all her energy on coping with the anxiety, she’d had some time to sit down and reflect on what was missing in her life. In her reflection she acknowledged that joy had been missing for a long time. To cut a long story short, at the age of 40, Kate joined a local cheerleading and gymnastics group for local mums (a sport that she’d loved as a teenager).  By the end of her treatment, Kate was able to accept anxiety enough to compete on stage at an interstate gymnastics competition, something she hadn’t done since she was 14, and something she’d never dreamed of doing when it was all she could do to get herself to work without pulling over in a panic.

Kate’s story is remarkable for many reasons, but what has stayed with me most is her commitment to her healing. Her progress when accepting discomfort using these steps was not fast. It was seven weeks until the vomiting stopped, and she still saw me once every 3 months or so for a couple of years for residual anxiety that cropped up every now and then. It never disappeared completely, but Kate got her life back, reconnected with her dreams and goals, and stepped into the mother she wanted to be for her daughter.

And it’s all because she got unstuck from the struggle.