A few weeks ago, I read a post on Instagram posted by a pastor who used to speak at the church camp I grew up attending. She posted about how, for years, she had mislabeled “fear” as “stress.” When her shoulders were tense, when her jaw was clenched, she attributed that to the stress of her job or the impact of a recent workout, rather than naming the fear she was manifesting into her body.
This post immediately resonated with me, instantly identifying with the misunderstanding that what I’d been feeling as stress was really anxiety, and underneath that anxiety was plain old fear. My chest tightens when I’m anxious, which I now recognize as “afraid.” On most days, even a gentle touch on my sternum reveals an incredible amount of tension and pain, protecting my heart from whatever threatens it.
In the weeks since I began to relabel stress as fear, I’ve asked myself the moment I sense that familiar tightening, “What are you afraid of?” in place of asking myself, “What’s triggering your anxiety?” It’s a small but mighty tweak, attacking the problem instead of the symptom.
For example, when I sense I can’t complete a task on time and I feel my jaw clench and my chest tighten, if I only acknowledge the trigger, I can only address that symptom. The limited time constraint to complete the task is the obvious trigger, and the solution is either adjusting the task or the time allotted. But that does nothing to address what I’m afraid of, the trigger for the trigger: that I won’t be as valued or loved if I disappoint someone.
Is what I’m believing, what I’m afraid of, actually true? If my daughter or a dear friend was experiencing this fear, what’s the truth I would speak to them? What happened in my past that made me believe this lie? Why am I still allowing myself to believe it?
As more people open up about their mental health struggles, the open conversation about mental health disorders and treatment options has become far more normal among friends and colleagues. Yet, I have found myself and others I love often swimming in circles with our mental health, naming our anxiety as anxiety and accepting the constant struggle as a lifelong battle.
With this small perspective shift, I’m beginning to find freedom from the reign of anxiety in my life, by naming my fears that contribute to my anxiety, addressing their false beliefs and rewriting them with truth. While this is far from the only thing I’m doing to improve my mental health, it’s making a tremendous difference.
As the fog lifts, I’m recognizing just how many things my anxiety has spoiled for me over the years: the bad days because we’re running late in the morning, the events I’ve too eagerly anticipated, time with friends and family, busy work weeks among many other days.
The process of freeing myself from anxiety is giving me space to be more available to others as well. I’m more engaged with my children, my husband, my family and my work colleagues. I’m happier, and I’m enjoying the good stuff more. I’m less stressed about problems, more equipped to help others.
By beginning to untangle the web of anxiety we struggle with, we can begin to live the life we’re meant to, unencumbered by the fears and false beliefs we’ve carried around for too long, and we’re far more equipped to help those around us break free as well.