The weather of anxiety

There’s a lot to do this week and I can feel my anxiety rising — something I've struggled with for a long time. Deadlines, punch lists, problems pile up. Plans are made, then they change in a moment. The unexpected makes it worse. There’s never enough time.

Last night I dreamed that I was living in some kind of warehouse/loft space (in downtown Baltimore by the looks of it) with a half-dozen other people. We were renovating it together. Tools and building supplies and half-finished construction work littered the space. There was a lingering smell of mostly old wood, sawdust, and metal. I recognized the other people as close friends — my roommates.

It was late and we were finishing up for the day. Everyone was getting ready for bed, but I couldn’t seem to find all my things. I was running around looking for my toothbrush, my clothes, my sleeping bag. I couldn’t seem to remember where I would be sleeping, or if there was a space for me. I was exhausted and wanted to rest but I couldn’t until I’d sorted myself out. The more desperately I searched and fumbled, the fewer people seemed to be around. No one could help, and I found myself alone, scuttling around a dark warehouse in the dead of night.

No one could help me and I found myself alone, scuttling around a dark warehouse in the dead of night.

I have a lot of dreams like this. They’re as familiar as genre fiction by this point; I can recognize the tropes. A recurring theme is “Jay tries to solve a puzzle with dwindling time and energy”. These dreams are not “scary,” exactly — no monsters or falling off cliffs — but they’re nightmares all the same. They disturb me, I think, because I don’t want my life to be like this. I don’t want to feel like I do in my dreams, rushing from one thing to another, trying to finish an un-winnable race.

In fact in the past few years I’ve realized that a slower, quieter, simpler life is something I want. I worked so much in my twenties and thirties that big chunks of those time periods are sleep-deprived blurs in my memory. I’m 41 now, and I’m more conscious of the fact that my best memories do not include projects I’ve finished or things I’ve made. I’m pretty sure that what I’ll remember in another 20 years is not the work that feels so urgent right now. Instead I’ll probably remember idle little moments: my daughter hunting salamanders in the creek; dinner on a date night with my wife; a good conversation with a friend. Those are the things I want to focus on these days.

The anxiety is all the stronger because I'm afraid of feeling anxious.

But we don’t always get to choose what happens in our lives. As a wise person once said, “All we have to decide is what to do with the times we are given.” (Note: A quote from Gandalf in “Lord of the Rings.” Although, being fictional, Gandalf didn’t actually say anything except what J.R.R. Tolkien wrote for him. So this is really a quote from Tolkien himself, who was also wise, despite his lack of beard and pointy hat. ) Half the battle, in that sense, is not getting myself worked up about the circumstances. The anxiety is all the stronger because I’m afraid of feeling anxious. But feeling is never the problem. It’s okay to feel anything. The feeling itself is neither good nor bad but just a state of being. It’s temporary, as fleeting as the clouds in the sky. Internal weather. The trick is to find ways to manage the feeling until the storm passes.

There’s a concept shared by Hinduism and Buddhism called “detachment” that I find helpful. The idea is that, with practice, we can learn to “watch” our feelings and thoughts as they pass by, without reacting to them. They simply come and go: clouds forming, dissipating, and drifting by in the sky. The feelings are not who you really are, as the sky is not its weather. This is sometimes called “witness consciousness.”

So what helps me “witness” my anxiety? Easier said than done, Lord knows. I still have a lot to learn. Exercise and movement help. A bike ride, a run, or a hike burns off some of the nervous energy and forces me to breathe more deeply, which calms my mind. Just being outside helps, too. Seeing the trees and clouds and birds and people, growing and changing and striving, is a nice reminder that there’s a bigger picture (literally) than what’s on my screens. This week I have to make sure I take time to get outside.

And, finally, when I feel worried about the week ahead, it’s often helpful to try to look beyond it. I think ahead to the next month, the next year, the next decade. That helps me remember that present circumstances, whatever they are, will pass.

Here goes. Deep breath. May your week be full of clear skies.