Anxiety can feel like being a deer in the headlights of oncoming traffic in the middle of a congested highway.
The headlights are bright and expand in your vision, blossoming out to make big blurry stars. The constant flow of movement leaves you frozen and simultaneously shaking on the inside.
Four lanes to your left, an array of colors and lights chase after another, cars and trucks and things with loud screeching tires going way too fast and too close.
Up ahead are four lanes with eight sets of glowing eyes staring at you, waiting — grills like teeth snarling in time with your thrumming heartbeat. You can't seem to get your legs to move, your breaths come in shallow, and all your senses are on high alert.
The longer you stand there, inches from the giant metal boxes, the more of them line up, clustering forward and revving up to make the weight on your chest nearly unbearable. It's all too much. The flashing blurred lights, the sounds attached to steady, unrhythmic movement, leaves you paralyzed and overwhelmed wondering how you even got here- you're a deer for Pete's sake.
And that's how the deer dies.
I don't write this to you as a medical know-it-all who's conquered life's struggles and is living her perfect life with her boyfriend Collin in Barbados.
Nope, I come to you as someone who's afraid of heavy traffic, busy stores, one lane roads in the city, and sometimes, I'm too anxious to leave my house. I'd blame it on my being a writer, but I'm a pretty lousy writer to begin with, so that's out the window.
Anxiety can also make you feel like a psychopath. I know I'm not the only one who straightens my bathroom soap and lotions to stand in a perfect row.
I'm not the only one who washes their hands repeatedly and cringes at the thought of door knobs. There are others just like me, who would rather go the long way down the road than try the shorter route because of their anxiety.
All of us are bound up balls of energy, shaking and quaking and wishing we could be free. We build safe spots in our lives; places we go and hide from the world in, like a deer in a thicket bush.
If you asked a deer why it was scared, it couldn't say a word about it, or anything for that matter, and people with anxiety often are no different. We don't know why. We're just suddenly standing in the middle of eight lanes of traffic and freaking out, and just like the deer, we usually look perfectly still on the outside. The only thing that gives us away is the frantic tick of our eyes, black and darting.
The general sense of being overwhelmed makes you want to be in control of the things in your life that you CAN handle, and so you do handle them. You might even handle them a little too well, organizing your canned food alphabetically or buying six months of fabric softener because you don't want to run out.
Your anxiety might even turn into a form of OCD, spending all your time overthinking the time delay on the red lights or counting how many people are wearing watches on the bus. (Who wears watches anymore?)
You may become so twitchy you start configuring how many hands have touched a door handle vs. how often it's cleaned, what the likelihood is of it being cleaned recently vs. the probability of infectious germs and bacteria being on the 3-inch grip handle.
Quite frankly, having anxiety is also exhausting. Always being "on" like a deer in the headlights does take its toll on you. Maybe that's why it's so easy to slip into depression when we let every car on the highway hit us instead of just changing our focus and moving.
After a while, one set of headlights mid-as-well be 8, one trip out mid-as-well be a world-shaking undertaking, and of course, all that requires copious amounts of planning and preparing. The OCD says PREPARE PREPARE PREPARE! Get the map, get the disinfectant. The Anxiety says MOVE, NO DON'T MOVE. GO! STAY STILL!
The depression says, "Why go anywhere at all?"
You can waste all your time preparing until you're too exhausted to do that which you need to do. You can be utterly undecided until you can't do that which you want to do. You can even give up entirely and decide you can't do any or neither or all- so you do nothing and inwardly despise yourself for it.
This is anxiety. It can be a day by day or minute by minute battle. Perpetually staring at and cowering to the oncoming traffic in your life- so I'd like to do a little exercise together- just me and you- here and now, while we're together.
Are You Ready?
I want you to re-imagine that congested eight-lane highway, really see the winding highway and sky above. Picture all those cars lined up in front of you honking and waiting.
Now I want you to focus on just one vehicle, the vehicle directly in front of you. Is it a car, truck, or SUV? What color is it? Are the headlights foggy or brightly shining in your eyes? Is a man or a woman driving it? Are the tires new or worn away? Are you wearing sneakers or boots?
Did you see what we did there? We zoomed in, didn't we? We went from focusing on the hammering traffic to the smaller details, and when we did so, I'd venture that your stress levels dropped too.
This same simple method works in crowded places or overwhelming situations for people with anxiety, and it works for me too- remember, I'm not living my perfect life in Barbados.
Anxiety feeds on "too muchness" (a serious medical term), so the more you focus on the 28 cars in front of you, the more your anxiety grows. But you can turn that on its head by going to back to the basics and focusing on the simplicity of one thing instead of everything, just like we did in our exercise together.
As a general rule of thumb, I tend to oversleep, yell at myself in the shower and make promises in the mirror before breakfast even starts. After that, I can be found staring out a window thinking about the horrendous piles of work I have to do. Usually, I feel very pressured as if I have to do all of it right now or the house will burn down, and I can totally spiral downward into a nervous panic that turns into laying stone still on my bed with blankets up to my chin.
To avoid this complete insanity, I've learned to put my anxiety to good use and started talking to myself, sort of.
Make A List
So your brain tells you that you have 28 things to do immediately, and by the time you're done reading this sentence, you'll be late.
Since I've already stepped in front of traffic, since I'm already completely crazy, I mid -as-well take it all the way and have a little talk with myself.
"Oh, ya, you say I have a ton to do, and I'm already late doing it?"
"Absolutely, remember that thing you were supposed to do yesterday and didn't? Now you're late. You suck. Plus, you were supposed to call whatsits this morning, and half your day is already wasted. Don't you feel terrible? How do you even live with yourse-"
"Okay anxiety, I hear ya. So here's what I'm gonna do...." and I whip out a paper and pencil and poke it into anxiety's face. "Hit me. What do I need to do?"
I allow anxiety to raddle off everything I need to do, want to do, forgot to do, might do, and am thinking about doing. And I write it all down- and this is where the magic happens. I may realize I only have two things that are time-sensitive, that I only have ten things to do today, and that ultimately, I was freaking out about nothing.
I get the chance to use my OCD skills in list making. I have the opportunity to realize much of my anxiety was self-produced. Best of all, I get to apply all my worry to one task at a time. Anxiety never has a thing to say after we get into the details and focus on just one task at a time.
Writing a list of what I need to do helps me realize it's not as bad as it feels and it helps me accomplish more by focusing on just one item at a time. Why multitask when you can put all your energy into one project? You don't have to stretch yourself thin, did you know that? You actually don't have to do everything, shocking, I know.
Listing out your tasks, whatever they are, and checking them off as you complete them will also give you a feeling of gratification and achievement.
Personally, I recommend a highlighter. There's nothing more satisfying that swiping gold across the page when you've finished a task. I'm still working on the stress of uneven highlight marks, but that's another article. It's not about the line of the gold; it's about what it holds- at least that's my mantra.
The goal ISNT to check off everything on your list. That's impossible, and you don't have a time turner, unless you DO, in which case, can you time turn me back to 1996 when I wore a NIN t-shirt on my first date?
The real goal is to get all the worries out of your head, onto paper and a place where you can visually SEE what you have in front of you vs. what you're afraid is in front of you.
That mountain from far away could just be a molehill when you get up close. Instead of thinking about the infinite amount of things you have to do, you can be practical and work on one at a time like a sane person. Shocking, I know.
The day that list is empty should be the day you die. It's an ongoing diary of your day, of your life; a confirmation of what you've done and hope to still do- and it gets the traffic jam out of your head.
You'll be able to see the pasture on your right and jump back onto the grass and away from the 38 vehicles now zooming on, one car at a time. You'll see it's not one whole movement screaming around you- it's many small ones, all on their own routes, but most of it's just noise. Some of it you need to deal with, some you can let pass.
But you don't have to be overwhelmed by the weight of the world. The world will still be here tomorrow, and so will your list.
And that's how the deer lives.
Please leave a comment below, I'd love your feedback!
Linda Lavender writes articles to help folks with Auto Immune Disease, Depression, Anxiety and other health related illnesses.