"Does this ever end?" I asked my therapist during one of our weekly sessions. She peered through the Zoom screen, as if the digital distance did not fully encapsulate my question.
She paused before responding, "What do you mean?" I took a deep breath reminding myself that it was okay to be entirely vulnerable, therapy was nothing if not for vulnerability, "This gnawing anxiety that's been part of my life since I could remember."
Her eyes lit up as if finally understanding what I was asking, she smiled before launching into a more descriptive explanation of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the type of therapy I've been doing for nearly a year. I told her I appreciated her especially because I know she's explained this to me before but somehow it didn't click until that Thursday. Instead of working on a new tool together which we often do, we instead process the journey of my thoughts as I like to call it.
My question about anxiety was followed by her explanation which can be summed up (in my understanding at least), as rewiring old ways of thinking so we can challenge destructive thoughts that lead to disruptive coping mechanisms. So far we've dealt with areas of self-esteem and positive communication (ah, one that I am learning in my 30s) and it coincides with my other practices including meditation and mindfulness. I've long understood that my sessions with her were only effective if I learned to take it with me and practice it daily.
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Which is why even after our session, the question about anxiety and overwhelming emotions gnawed at me. Does it ever end? Can I still take the magnitude of emotions from different areas of my life? I fully intended to take these questions with me to my next session but a semi-answer came in the form of a newsletter from Dan Harris' Ten Percent Happier newsletter.
Emily Horn, a certified mindfulness and meditation teacher, asked the same question and wondered if she can still take it. Her mentor advised with a few words but a lot of wisdom, "Relax and you will know." Emily took these words to heart and explained further, "What I saw was that even difficult feelings arise and pass. They're not wrong or bad; they're just forms of clinging: needing, wanting, a feeling of unworthiness, anxiety, fear, greed, anger. And that clinging arises and passes. If I try to get out of it, it gets worse. But if I can just be with the intensity of a feeling, without adding anything extra onto it, without spinning out into a bunch of stories that most of the time are only partially true—it might still be painful, but it's not overwhelming. And eventually it passes. This is a fundamental feature of our reality: impermanence."
To some this may not be the answer they were looking for but to me, it was what I needed. Relax and it will come. Sit still, stop asking questions, and the answers you need will come. If not, simply sit still, embrace each thread of emotion: joyous, sad, disheartened, and frustrated. Embrace it and it will pass. Don't add judgment to it - reframe your mind, reframe how you welcome each situation, and it will fall away. Both answers were shared differently but the essence was the same - how do I train my mind to look at things in a different light? Maybe that could be the answer to my constant question about anxiety.
The next discussion we had was about faith. I grew up in a religious setting thanks to grandparents who were both pastors and I loved it. But just like most of you, I have become desensitized by my own personal experiences and specific news cycles. I was so conflicted because my faith has always been such a huge part of me and has helped me cope through the hardest of seasons. My therapist told me that I was once again viewing faith in terms of black and white instead of appreciating the gray spaces. The gray space, she says, is where true freedom lies. It's where we find formulas that work for us and that help us cope best. That brought me comfort - there are many things that I don't understand and probably never will but in the gray space, I can be comfortable in my faith again.
Healing, as I alluded to at the beginning of this article, is never linear. The black and white analogies kept us safe but it also kept us imprisoned. Finding the gray works and going beyond my own limited perspective expands the positive in a way that quiets the loud voices of my anxiety. It allows my mind to shift and see that there are many ways to see things and also many ways to accept the gray when they don't neatly fit into my black and white boxes. And while it's difficult to dismantle old narratives in my head, discovering new stories is always worth it and I have my therapist to thank for that.
And I am okay for now but I know I'd have more to discover next Thursday and all the Thursdays after that.