Although it is nowhere near Halloween I thought I’d tell you a scary story today. Well, not really scary, but a wanna-be scary story. I had an old ghost come visit me last night. He drops by every now and then, and every time he shows up I find myself irritated and grateful, all at the same time. I’ve known him since the middle of the 8th grade, and he used to scare the crap out of me. Now the best he can do is wake me up (sometimes), and occasionally startle me for a few moments.

The ghost I’m talking about is the memory of my days battling anxiety. It is probably more accurate to say it is a small handful of ghosts – a group of ghosts, if you will – that rise from memory when I’m tired, or not feeling well, or just out of sorts with the day and with my life at that moment.

At the heart of those ghosts of anxiety is old thinking, thinking that used to dominate my life and mess with my health and happiness. And as I said, those ghosts can both piss me off and make me glad they came by. Why make me glad?

Ghost Conversations

Ghost 1

We think a LOT of thoughts as we make our way through our day. We’re not conscious of a significant number of them, which seems weird, but is true. Some of those thoughts are no big deal – hey, it’s raining, I wonder what that dog is looking at, did I put the milk in the fridge? Nothing earth-shaking. Some thoughts make us laugh – memories of a conversation, reactions to a TV show, thinking about the Halloween costume you want to wear this year.

Some thoughts bring stronger reactions – remembering an argument with a co-worker, thinking on a friendship that took damage from both sides and that you miss, regret for a missed opportunity. And some of THOSE kinds of thoughts have the potential to make us anxious if they get us worrying about what might happen to us at some point in the future.

I’ve said a number of times in this blog that we don’t have to be conscious of our thinking for our thinking to impact us. And that’s exactly what happens in the dead of the night when I wake up and find my old ghost “friends” visiting me.

The ghosts have a pretty repetitive routine when they come to visit. They like to start with a general sense of unease and annoyance. I spent so many years being afraid to wake up in the middle of the night (for fear that I would feel anxious and not be able to go back to sleep) that just them dropping by is enough to, even now, start that first few thoughts of worry. What if I can’t go back to sleep? What if this goes on for a couple of nights in a row?

Ghost 2

99% of the time these days, I can shut that thinking down pretty quickly. (I’ll describe how a little later on in this post.) But some nights (maybe 4-5 in the last 10 years) the ghosts don’t give up so easily…

Memories of Fear

Because some nights the ghosts get a little more traction in my thinking. Maybe it’s a winter night (when I was most anxious, back in the day – hated the dark and the cold combined.) Maybe it’s after a long day and I’m a little stressed over a presentation or work the next day.

Whatever the reason my future worries get a little stronger. What if anxiety gets ahold of my life again? What if I can’t manage the physical reactions to Flight or Fight the way I have been, and I’m constantly twitching in response to those reactions (in my case, dizziness and numbness in my hands and fingers, and sometimes nausea in some form – hated that too, back in the day.)

Because I remember how it used to be, even though my last panic attack was in the summer of 1995, and my last real struggle of any duration with the fear of that stuff returning was the winter of 2001 – no panic, no chronic worry, just some sleepless nights and some tedious Flight or Fight harassment. When it is 3 in the morning the ghosts start that nonsense with me, and at 3 in the morning I’m sometimes vulnerable to their whispers…

Ghost 4

Why? Because in remembering how it used to be, at 3 in the morning, my shields are down, my brain isn’t working very well at that hour, and the old reflexes (trained by years, decades of anxiety) try to fire up once again.

And what tries to get lodged in my thinking (aided by the whispers of those ghostly memories) is that this won’t stop. The numbness, the sadness, the dizziness, the worry, will somehow go on forever. It won’t ever stop, my life will be miserable, won’t that be terrible…

You know the litany, don’t you?

In case you’re worried this ghost story has a scary ending, don’t worry – it doesn’t. I know how to get rid of ghosts.

Begone Old Ghosts!

Isn’t it interesting in all the ghost stories how ghosts are afraid of light? Something that is supposed to be so scary at 3 in the morning can be threatened by the coming of morning? It is the same with our fearful thinking and our fearful reactions to the Flight or Fight responses to that thinking. Those ghosts can be banished by the light of clear, useful thinking…

Fear only comes in the night when I start to think that something awful or terrible will happen to me. Anxiety starts to gain ground in my thinking when I start projecting this anxious moment into the future, imagining it going on and on, never getting better, always being like it feels right now.

Except of course it never did that – even back in the difficult, exhausting days of my chronic anxiety and panic attacks. Nothing lasts forever, and that’s good news in this conversation. Let me say it again: NOTHING lasts forever – including anxiety, fear and worry.

Ghost 5

It gets better: ALL that can sustain even recurring anxiety is our feeding our anxious thinking, constantly moving into the future, worrying about what could be, how bad things could turn out. If we are steadily, patiently working to get out of crisis thinking, if we practice refusing to live in the future (and it takes practice, practice and time) then it is impossible to sustain anxiety.

There’s a couple of things to keep in mind in this conversation about anxiety. The first is that we NEED to capacity to be anxious. That’s part of that Flight or Fight Mechanism that keeps us safe in the presence of actual, real danger. So the potential for regular, healthy anxiety is a tool that we actually want in our toolbelts.

In other words yes, anxiety is actually good for us – in the proper context. And, really, it isn’t anxiety in this case – it’s simple fear in the presence of real danger, along with the capacity to DEAL with that danger to the best of our ability when we’re confronted with real, physical, right-now danger.

The second thing to keep in mind is that sometimes anxiety (fear of the future) can trigger good, thoughtful, useful action in the face of things seeming overwhelming or too much in the moment we’re anxious. Yeah – sometimes anxiety is a stimulus to action, useful, needed action.

In a sense anxiety can be a guardian, a watcher on the walls, reminding us that we might need to do some preparing, or some thinking, or take some action in the near future. Both of these contexts are anxiety doing the job is supposed to do.

What WE, us chronic anxiety fighters, fight or have fought, is anxiety RULING our lives – because our what if thinking is ruling our lives. Not so useful. The ghosts of what if rattling chains and moaning at us about the terrible future are just that – ghosts, haunting thoughts. And ghosts are not very fond of the light. We are no more a prisoner of them than we are of any insubstantial thing – if we develop the skills of turning crisis in our thinking back into problems. Begone, old ghosts…

emotions 3

We don’t have to fear the Night

Or, really, any other time. The heart and soul of anxiety is fearful thinking about the future, thinking that’s been habituated and put on a loop in our brains. However scared we feel, however hard it seems, we are always able to start building and strengthening skills to take control of that thinking and, over time, diminish and finally shut it down.

And that’s when we start smiling at the ghosts – when we stop being afraid of them, and instead start shaking our heads at their chains and moaning.