Appreciating Anxiety

I think that a lot of life experiences can find their metaphorical analog in board games.

Getting out of a messy break up is like a game of Operation – a process of careful extraction. Twister is reminiscent of navigating tricky family dynamics at Thanksgiving.

And managing anxiety is much like a game of Jenga.

In an anxiety-free existence, the pieces of our lives would be neatly organized like wooden blocks, creating a stable base. There would be no danger of toppling or swaying. But such a stable life would offer no excitement – no what-ifs to anticipate or obstacles to overcome. After all, it’s natural for pieces of our lives to be nudged out of place, forcing us to re-calibrate our balance.

We all have different thresholds for what we can tolerate before our equilibrium gets disrupted. Different temperaments, if you will. And different events will affect us differently. My friend got laid off and was barely miffed. She picked up freelance work and applied for new jobs the next day. For her, a top layer Jenga block was barely nudged. For me, that event would be like pulling away a foundational block.

And sometimes, it doesn’t necessarily take a single event to destabilize you. It can be a series of seemingly small events that pile up. A lost wallet. Being slighted by a friend. Missing the mark at work. Getting into a fender bender. All these things sneak out one Jenga block here, then there. And suddenly, you feel shaky.

It’s hard to be in this state. When I feel strong and stable, drinks with a bunch of friends is fun. But when I feel more delicate, the prospect intimidates me. Keeping up with a volley of quippy conversation seems exhausting, not rejuvenating.

It makes it hard to enjoy the activities I normally thrive in. I lose my rhythm.

When I do the things I enjoy, I experience feelings of happiness. And those feelings motivate me on to do more things that bring me joy. It becomes a feedback loop.

But when I’m anxious, it’s as if I’m a turtle without a shell. What I normally enjoy seems threatening, not fun. A snarky joke that I could usually shrug off pierces a tender nerve. And so I become more closed off, which magnifies feelings of anxiety.

It takes time, but I eventually rebuild myself to get out of this cycle. I do what feels nurturing. I read books, exercise, organize. I write and plan out recipes. Slowly, the blocks of my Jenga tower move back into place.

I used to resent these emotional seasons. It seemed like everyone around me was happy all the time, enjoying a perennially sunny state of mind. (I live in LA.) But as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that this isn’t always the case. We all have emotional fluctuations, and many of us have developed ways of concealing them. But those fluctuations are natural. They’re part of being human. And in their own way, they are beautiful.

 

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