Anxiety and fear; what a strange signal right? Notice how I said “signal”? Because that is what it is. In fact, all of our emotions are signals. Which means they are calling to us, beckoning us to listen. For there are messages within them, and if we keeping finding ways to turn these signals off, we miss that nagging presence that is telling us something…that something’s off. Or something’s on, working, satisfying, delightful, pleasing, etc. But we must pay attention, for these messages are leading us somewhere.
My childhood was saturated with anxiety and fear! And my adolescent years! And my early adult years! Unrelenting emotions. Spectral bullies. The inner torment. To feel this more days than not, always unsettled, restless, and terrified was unbearable. I would ruminate all day, waiting for punishment, for someone to leave, to be ridiculed, teased, to lose love and connection, terrified of making mistakes.
I couldn’t escape them. But I certainly tried. Focusing on the good, altering my thoughts, ritualistic behaviors to calm my soul, obsessively fixating on the scenarios in the hopes that I would find solace. Throwing myself on the ground, prostrate, begging one of my parents to come back to me. Avoiding any scenario that would put me in the scope of wrath from them. Beating myself up with words and emotion in order to escape relational harm. Oh, and I would pray too, anxiously and obsessively working out the right combination of words to God, hoping the Divine would dissolve these feelings if I nailed that line just right.
But it wouldn’t leave. Every time anxiety would return, poking, prodding, nagging, teasing, obfuscating me from living. When I was in the swarms of anxiety, that became my focus, trying to get rid of it and yet imagining what would happen later on. I was imprisoned by my own emotions and desperately trying to escape them.
Where it All Began
So, here’s how my anxiety/fear manifested. This gets interesting. First it began with fear one of my parent’s responses to me, their anger and the pulling away and shutting down, refusing to acknowledge my presence. It also had to do with the tension between parents, often fighting, with things left unresolved. Storming out of the house, the slamming of the door like the bellowing of a trumpet blowing out the loudest, ear-piercing notes to communicate hurt.
Then there were other moments of dismissing emotion, condescension amidst my parents, sarcasm, and other hurtful responses that perpetuated the sting within the relationship. And then I would be the confidante to one of my parents, listening to the cries of hurt and anger towards the other parent. The unfinished repair between them poured out to me. I was the emotional bandage. My body writhed in discomfort, but I felt trapped, because to say anything would threaten distance in the relationship.
In addition to all of this, I was terrified of making any “mistakes” for it would be met with some of the most intense, vitriolic, volcanic eruption of anger, of which I was the vessel. And through the anger were the cries of a history of relational pain, the deepest wounds of hurt from past relationships, all projected onto me as a child. And I could feel myself freeze and internally collapse, being sucked into the black hole of shame. My impulse was to hide, to find the farthest, darkest corner to bury myself into, but the threat of losing this person was inconceivable, so I remained in this frozen state, stuffing down my own anger and rage.
I think it is fair to say that these experiences contributed to not feeling safe and secure in my family. And when we lack that safety and security in our relationships in any way…well, we are going to have some emotions about that. And more often than not, these emotions manifest in fear, which can present itself in many ways.
And thus the weird part. Aside from toiling in anxiety, and my stomach suffering the blows of terror, were peculiar behaviors. Some of my behaviors were typical. Fixating on what would happen when one parent finds out that I landed into “trouble”, attempting to do “better” to appease them, and trying to find the silver lining to calm myself were common for me.
However, it didn’t stop there.
I eventually developed this fixation over potential ailments, physical conditions and diseases within my body. I can recall the cold jolt of fear taking over my body as I heard about a cancer someone had or a painful procedure they had to endure to address some physical issue. Obsessively, I would feel around my body, the fabrication of disease becoming real and tangible in my mind.
And then I would panic over the words I would use, terrified I said something profane or that I flipped off someone, when I never did. Literally, I would pay attention to my hands and fingers, vigilantly arranging my extremities to avoid the potential to do something vulgar. Whenever I would talk, I was convinced I had slipped profanity into my sentence, combing over it again and again, panic intensifying and enveloping me as I neurotically studied my words.
And then I thought my mom was a lesbian (which she was not), because of how close she was with her friends.
And then I obsessed over my sexuality for years (which is another conversation).
Oh, also I had behavioral and vocal tics, and other idiosyncratic movements.
And I also pulled out my hair, visible gaps in my eyebrows and eyelashes, giving evidence of my troubled and unsettled internal world.
Oh, and you know what I would do to calm these crazy, all-consuming storms?
Share them with my parents. All the time. To the point where one parent would snap in frustration.
When I would share them, I stumbled over my words, nervously circumventing what I really wanted to say. I would do this over and over again, feverishly looking for relief…no, peace. Whenever this particular thought or feeling came up, I would spend hours focusing on it, working up the courage to share with my parents what was coming up.
They would often say I was fine, that I will be okay. My entire soul would settle in relief, feeling grounded again with life, and an excitement would return to explore and connect with the world around me. But in the background, they had worried conversations about me.
I was tormented by all of this for years and years. It seemed like there was no escape. Eventually I went to therapy, which had helped in some ways, and as I got older the strange obsessions began to subside, especially as I sought help and then went off to college, away from family.
Which is interesting isn’t it, that when I connected outside the family, getting help and then moving away, these obsessions did not have as much power as they once did.
That Emotional Neighbor that Won’t Leave You Alone
As I entered into my thirties, my awareness and understanding of myself, especially the emotional layer, began to deepen and sharpen.
I began to realize that my emotions were communicating something, unrelentingly poking at me until I listened.
And when you begin to turn towards your feelings, you will find they lead you somewhere into the truth of your situation and relational connection.
That is why I have found anything that creates a distraction from my emotional realm, prevents me from feeling and knowing myself even more. Any attempt to get me away from my feelings is a blockage from growing and evolving into my True Self. Whether it is changing my thinking, trying to distract myself, only looking at the positive, “praying” for the other when I hate them or am deeply hurt or that these feelings will leave, or even attempting to alter my behavior are routes that lead me away.
What I believe is necessary and essential is that we return to our self, which includes feeling through our emotion and developing awareness of they are saying.
So, this is why my anxiety manifested in those ways and what my anxiety means when I feel it today…
First, Anxiety is another way of saying unsettled and restless. You can feel it, your body tightens, your lungs constrict and your breathing shallows. And that is what I was feeling as a young boy, unsettled about the unhealthy relational dynamics in my family. However, I had no idea what this feeling was and what is trying to tell me. I had stuffed so many things down because I had to, especially anger.
My lack of emotional understanding was due to the lack of loved ones helping me and teaching me about my inner world. I lived in this “fight or flight” state, which usually presented itself in the form of paralysis.
But my anxiety, tics, and OCD behaviors were the expression of relational dissonance, a mom that I feared and was terrified I would lose her love, the unresolved tension and fights between my parents, and my father who avoided vulnerability and working through the troubles in himself and his marriage.
In other words, my early experiences were built on rocky ground; my own sense, awareness and connection to myself blurred by the often-felt unsettledness in my family.
And you know what I did with anxiety in order to deal with it? Shared it with my parents.
To end the tension and build connection; to curb the intense fear within; to bring my parents together, to be seen and heard, and to get love and soften my parents. That is how I dealt with my anxiety, ritualistically talking it out in the hopes that my family would return to relational harmony and unity.
I was clearly communicating that something was not right within our family and how I was being treated was damaging.
Strange huh? But it actually makes sense that at times what we project our fears onto, is not really the actual object. It is safer to fixate on something unrelated than to say, I am scared of “You” and I hate “You” and I am hurt by “You”. And when we don’t have that language and understanding it starts to surface in unique behaviors.
OCD and anxiety behaviors usually manifest in ritualistic actions that help the individual feel secure and at peace. The desire is to feel whole and content, but when there is relational wounding, schism or we feel unsafe in our world due to the pains we have felt in our human connections, we develop ways to never try to feel that pain again.
But the only solution is that we must go towards the hurt.
Acknowledging What You Don’t Want to: What Anxiety Might Be Telling You
I believe that the feeling and manifestation of anxiety speaks to something being off in relational connection and when I pull away from myself.
Anxiety is the signal that there is disharmony, pain, hurt, and unhealthy relational dynamics. Our own intuitive self knows that there is dissonance in the connection, the way we are being treated or watching the treatment of others.
The surfacing of anxiety is not just relational, obviously. It happens when we have had a terrifying experience non-relationally, like getting bit by a dog or having a traumatic moment when flying. But the anxiety comes in the anticipation of facing what we fear stepping into and when we avoid going into those uncomfortable situations.
Or anxiety kicks in when we feel overwhelmed, attempting to take too much on in our life or the present situation is currently unbearable.
But the point in all of this regardless of what you feel anxious towards, has to do with something being avoided that needs to be attended to.
Anxiety is a big flashing sign saying “Look within! Pay attention!”
When we turn away or pull away or when something is just below the surface that we have yet to face, this emotion tells us this.
I will end on this. A couple months ago I felt disappointed over a situation involving a woman I was attracted to. It did not work out and after a phone call, I felt disappointed, but I noticed that paired with the disappointment was this strong presence of anxiety.
But because I learned that this emotion is drawing me to something else, I explored further, to which I discovered that I felt rage over the situation. Immediately I knew that I needed to express the rage, seeing that the best option was to get in my car and yell until it was no longer there. Eventually I felt settled and the anxiety went away.
In another situation, I had a conflict with one of parents. I felt unsettled over the lack of repair between us. I knew deep within me that I had to return and share what was stirring inside. The more I stayed away (believe me, I fought coming back to the situation), the more anxious and restless I felt.
It was a calling to face what I often fear in relationships, to step into the uncertainty of conflict, and move in more vulnerable and intimate ways. I tried to avoid it, but the unsettled feeling intensified.
As much as anxiety can be a nuisance, it shows itself for a significant reason; that when things are avoided both in yourself and in relationships, or you feel overwhelmed or there is hurt, pain and anger that needs to be felt, it lets you know. And I believe it is beyond just mere relief, but to move towards wholeness and freedom.