Anxiety is something that I have dealt with a lot in my life. In fact,I have reached a place where I realize that anxiety is a part of who I am, and I have to accept that I was created in this specific way. What I’ve come to understand is that anxiety can actually be seen as a gift. Anxiety is a messenger.
When we are unable or unwilling to hear the message, anxiety becomes displaced. We will begin to have social anxiety, panic attacks while standing in lines, or feel nauseous driving away from home. The symptoms broaden out and suddenly our whole lives feel like a mess. One solution is to trace the anxiety flare-up back to a point of origin, and find the life trap.
I first heard about the concept of a life trap from the book, Freedom from Agoraphobia by Mike Eisenstadt. In it, the author suggests that by looking back in your life, during times when anxiety symptoms were at their worst, you may begin to notice a life trap going on at that same time. A life trap is an “I must but I can’t” situation. It’s a situation where you feel stuck, helpless and trapped. It can also be a situation where a boundary is being crossed, but you feel unable to speak up about it.
Here is an example of a life trap that I experienced; probably the first one I can recall encountering. I was a senior in high school and had a reputation as a very good student. I was a good writer and enjoyed all of my English classes. All of the people in my life who were important to me (my parents, my friends, my teachers) assumed that I would be going to college, naturally. Instead of asking what I wanted to do, they asked where I wanted to go. However, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go to college. I felt like I wanted to take a break, to figure myself out and decide on my next direction from there. I felt like I would be disappointing all of these important people if I shared this.
My inner anxiety levels began to build up and my digestion suffered. But I could not speak up about what I needed or wanted. So I choose a college, received a generous scholarship, and went. I remember I wasn’t excited about it. I packed up my things mechanically and let my parents drive me two states away to my new school. I think I brought a week’s worth of clothes and some scholarly materials in a milk crate. No matter what I pretended, I had no real intention of being there. I stayed for three days, anxious and sad ( I don’t think I slept the whole time I was there) and then I met with their guidance counselor and left. I went home. Half of my stuff had never even been unpacked in the dorm. I felt like a huge failure.
A well-meaning family friend came by and talked me into taking classes at a local community college instead, because again, no one could fathom that I wouldn’t automatically be going to college. I signed up for two classes and sincerely enjoyed them, but that wasn’t the problem. I wasn’t listening to myself. I was in a “I have to because everyone expects it but I don’t want to because my heart is not in it” situation. I had my very first panic attack in psychology class. The irony!
If you are in a place of intense anxiety, look at what is happening in your life, or what was happening when the anxiety began to intensify. You may find a life trap, a place where you feel stuck and unable to move. However, you always have choices. It is possible to say “no”. It is possible risk disappointing others in order to be true to yourself. It is possible to set a boundary for yourself and protect it. Those people in your life who truly love you will love you regardless of the choices you make, and certainly will love you when you set your own boundaries. Let everyone else go. The most important person to love is your own self, because “the face you see in the mirror is the only one who is going all the way with you”.