I didn’t think I’d see myself writing another post about anxiety – at least not in the context of my current experience. I wrote one particular post a while ago going in depth about my experiences with diagnosed anxiety and agoraphobia; and how receiving cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) dramatically improved my symptoms.
Something I’ve been mulling over a bit lately – like, even just the past three weeks – is the idea that I deal with a kind of covert anxiety all the time. What I mean by “covert” is: insidious, not obvious, not necessarily heart-pounding, high-octane fight or flight – but a subtle, less conspicuous anxiety manifesting in fidgeting, skin-picking, physical tension and various other defenses.
When I had mild agoraphobia, my anxiety was pretty fucking obvious. I could barely take public transport or walk through a hall of people without feeling like I wanted to rip my skin off or hide from the sheer embarrassment. I was fairly conscious of the things that made me anxious and I could identify the physiological symptoms associated with them. When I got the CBT and started to understand that all of this stemmed from severely low self-esteem, and I started to address that, I could eventually get on a bus again without feeling like my heart was beating out of my chest.
So for all intents and purposes, anxiety as it’s pathologised was no longer an issue for me.
Something I realised once I completed my week-long buddhist retreat last September is that I fidget all the time. I tap my fingers or toes to whatever rhythm happens to be in my head, I dig my nails into my fingertips, I pick at the skin on my face or lips, I run my fingers over my lips, I click whatever bones I can click, I fidget with the rings on my fingers, I routinely tense muscles in my body starting at my feet working upwards (this is something I’ve done since I was very young); the list goes on.
When I brought it up with my therapist after the retreat, I said, laughing: “I’m not sure why I started doing it (routinely tensing my muscles) as a kid, I guess it was a coping-mechanism for some reason.”
“You’ve just named it,” he said gently. “It’s a coping mechanism.”
It made me feel slightly sad for the kid in me that started doing these things because I must’ve been dysregulated and anxious and it was probably an attempt to make me feel more in control and safe.
My childhood is very blurry for me – it’s difficult for me to think about it with much coherence. But I know that both my parents suffered with addiction, mental illness and mood swings. I must’ve felt quite on edge and the environment at home must’ve been quite unpredictable. It would make sense that I’d develop these neurotic coping mechanisms to regulate myself when my parents could barely regulate themselves or me with any consistency.
Going a little deeper with this, the anxiety that caused me to fidget was an inhibitory emotion. That is, an emotion thats purpose serves to block off a core emotion that would’ve been too overwhelming for me at the time. This theory is called the change triangle.
It looks a bit complicated but basically when a core emotion arises that is too overwhelming, we move up the change triangle to anxiety, shame or guilt. When the anxiety, shame or guilt is too overwhelming, we move up to a defense. I’ve been learning about this in the book “It’s Not Always Depression” by Hilary Jacobs Hendel.
Yeah, I saw the title initially and was like:
Okay, then what is it???! 🙂
But in all honesty, I think it’s a clickbait title to lure people into the pure gold contained within the book. I’ll allow it. I lean towards the nurture over nature side of the argument when it comes to genetic predisposition, so the idea that there could be more to depressive symptoms than a concrete diagnosis intrigued me.
And the idea that depression in itself could be a defence against feeling inhibitory and core emotions fascinates me. I heavily identify with the inhibitory emotions of guilt and shame and I was actually surprised to learn that according to this theory these are not core emotions in themselves. I’m really curious to learn what lurks underneath these inhibitory emotions because they plague me fairly regularly.
I just need to learn to become more conscious of my defenses and when I’m feeling anxious because I kinda thought all that was past me now. I know that meditating is a brilliant way to slow down and become more conscious of my mental and physical state but I’ve been completely letting myself off the hook with that lately because of my depressive symptoms. I’ve just accepted that it’s not part of my reality at the moment and loving myself all the same.
But the book does lay out some simple grounding techniques which feel more accessible and practical to me and which are, in themselves, a different form of meditation I suppose.
I think what’s been most surprising to me about starting this book is I’m becoming aware of the extent to which people utilise defenses as a way to bypass emotions and how so many of us live perpetually on the defense; disconnected from the gold of our openhearted potential. Some other defenses included as examples in the books are: ruminating, tiredness, spacing out, obsessing, procrastination(!), irritability, vagueness, sarcasm and perfectionism.
“When energy from emotions is diverted to defenses, there are many costs to our wellbeing. Defenses require energy; they deaden us by using up vital energy that could be used for relationships, work and outside interests. Defenses keep our true, authentic Selves hidden and tempered. Most people don’t feel good in the long run when they stay hidden. Defenses also make us more rigid, causing us to lose flexibility in thought and action.” – Hilary Jacobs Hendel
I think it’s pretty easy to see here how depression could certainly be a defense. That’s not to minimise it (trust me, I know how awful it is) but thinking of it in this way makes it seem more manageable and surmountable for me. And it also allows me to see it as an opportunity to become more intimate with my emotional landscape and the forces that drive literally all of the self-destructive habits in my life (hi phone addiction, food addiction + sleep deprivation 🙃).
I have a tendency to really cling onto any new information or healing modality that I learn about as I believe that it’ll finally “cure” me of my issues with mental health. And then I get disappointed when I find myself on the well-beaten path of mental illness again. Something I read in “After The Ecstasy, The Laundry” by Jack Kornfield is that some of the most revered meditation masters and monks tend to be quick to admit that they don’t have it all figured out. They regularly say “I don’t know” or “I’m still learning”. And when they learn something new, they don’t say “I’ve found the truth”, they say: “I’ve found a truth”.
So that’s where I’m at. I’ve found a truth.
Thanks for reading.
Please let me know if any of the defenses resonated with you and which inhibitory emotions you tend to struggle with the most! Would be great to have a dialogue about it. 🙂
– SMUT. ❤ xxxx