Years ago, when I was new to the anxiety scene, I had absolutely no idea what was going on inside my head. I understood vaguely that I had some kind of mental issue, but, back then, Panic Disorder as a diagnosis didn’t really explain much.
Here’s what I did know: I was having lots of dizziness and chest pressure and my stomach was in knots all the time. Sleeping was a nightmare (literally)—or at least, falling asleep was. My thoughts would race around a phantom track at breakneck speed, leaving me shaking and in tears. And it seemed that I could NEVER catch my breath.
Clearly, this “Panic Disorder” was fatal.
The first highly recommended psychiatrist I waited a month to see was very smart but cold and inaccessible. She rolled her eyes when I asked her to explain things in a “not too scary way” (you know what I’m talking about—when you are in the midst of constant acute anxiety, anything can trigger it) and told me to drink these expensive yellow shakes (I threw up in my mouth a little just now, remembering their chalky, granular bitterness).
My next psychiatrist was maybe not quite as smart, but very warm and accessible. When I asked him to be delicate with me, he said, “I promise to make soft clucking noises whenever you seem anxious.” I really liked that guy. Tom was his name.
During one session, Tom asked me what my anxiety looked like. “You mean what symptoms do I get?” I asked. “No. I mean describe what your anxiety looks like. Is it big or small? Thin or fat? Does it have teeth or claws? What color is it? Human or animal?”
I didn’t think he was serious, but Tom went on to explain that visualizing my anxiety would actually be quite helpful in my quest to manage it. “It’s a technique I use a lot with kids, but you strike me as the imaginative type. Give it a try.”
So I did. I went home and spent hours trying to conjure an image of my anxiety. Here’s what I came up with:
My anxiety is a group of three palm-sized “monsters” named Worry, Panic and Fear. They don’t appear to have coloring, aren’t particularly thin or fat, and definitely don’t have teeth or claws.
“Question for you,” said Tom. “If they don’t bite or scratch, how are they monsters?”
“They’re monsters because they take over my mind and cause all these awful symptoms.”
“How can they do that without teeth or claws?” Tom asked pointedly.
And that, very honestly, was the beginning of a very very long healing journey (still in progress, by the way). I began to realize, with my visual aids, that Worry, Panic and Fear, in and of themselves, weren’t so scary or dangerous. If I let them get control over me, they were more destructive than a houseful of unsupervised toddlers. But—and this was a big but—if I could harness them somehow, then they lost their power.
“I encourage you to talk to them when they get out of hand,” Tom advised.
And I did.
So much so, that, years later, when Mags and I started writing our first Anxiety Sisters book, I had our cartoonist draw my mind monsters for me:
One Anxiety Sister I was chatting with the other day referred to her panic as “Ruby.”
“I call her that so I can be very direct when I tell her to get lost!”
“Can you see what she looks like?” I inquired.
“Absolutely! She’s deep red and very loud.”
Another told me she actually says aloud “You’re not the boss of me!” during a panic attack.
If we treat our anxiety as a living thing, if we can yell at it or send it to its room, we take away its power—we regain control.
What does your anxiety look like?