On Believing in Resolutions in the Face of Anxiety
Everyone who likes to be edgy says they don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I believed for years that they’re stupid and pointless. I thought there was a superiority to my cynicism, to my belief that a new year wasn’t a new start and that people were doomed to forever stay the same.
Learning to be mindful over the past year, I’ve learned that that was quite obviously wrong. Cynicism may present itself as realism, but it is in fact a protective barrier. It’s a way of coping with your own vulnerability in the face of the world. It can protect, and that’s fine. For years I lived with the belief that “if you expect the worst, then you can be pleasantly surprised!” rather than unavoidably disappointed. It turns out, however, that that was my anxiety acting up (backed by my fair share of trauma). Constantly expecting the worst can keep your disappointment at bay, but it can drive you slowly mad, so that when good things come your way, you doubt their authenticity.
Living with anxiety, you constantly doubt and constantly worry “what if?” You build up the negative, and you constantly expect not only the worst but different versions of the worst. “What if” stops having positive connotations about all the great things that could happen if you only try, but instead represents everything that could possibly go wrong. You constantly make small things bigger by weighing the possibilities of consequence behind them. You agonize, and you know very little peace.
Convincing yourself that positivity is a weakness is a natural but poisonous step forward for someone who struggles with anxiety. If positivity is weakness, then what’s the point of trying to stop saying “what if?” to every slightly negative thing that comes your way? Rather than a protective barrier, cynicism becomes a death sentence for any hope of peacefulness. For any sense of hope.
Consequently, going into 2019, I’ve decided that, as I attempt to quell the anxious thoughts in my mind, this is the year I actively try to change the way that I think, to keep the cynicism at bay. “Fake it ‘til you make it” can take you far in life – it (slowly!) brought me out of my teen depression by forcing me through the motions, it allowed me to develop my sense of fashion by forcing myself to believe in my choices, it taught me how to socialize, etc. and now, I hope that it can teach me to think positively. This year, I’m going to believe that believing in things rather than denying their very possibility can lead to change rather guaranteeing stasis.
This year, I’m going to believe in resolutions.
I’m going to believe that taking ten minutes at the beginning and at the end of every day to focus on good things that have happened will help me embrace positivity. I’m going to believe that taking the time to listen to my body will allow me to better understand its needs and allow me to live with less chronic pain. I’m going to believe that taking time to be mindful will give me more peace. I’m going to believe that making little changes will lead to big ones.
I know, of course, that anxiety has a mind of its own, that it can take off no matter how positive you try to be. I am not a believer of mind over matter as a simple solution. I think that risks dismissing the reality of anxiety as a mental illness and belittles the struggles its sufferers go through. I am absolutely a believer in therapy and treatment. This year though, I believe that with continued therapy and treatment and a bit of positivity, I can at least try to overpower my anxiety-driven cynicism.
This year, I’m going to believe in a fresh start by doing the following things:
Being More Mindful. Mindfulness, very simply, consists of focusing your mind on the present moment. As an anxious person, this is a good way to anchor my thoughts and focus on the now rather than on the future. For me, this means focusing on my breathing, checking in with my surroundings, and finding reassurance in the fact that everything is in fact okay. In 2019, I hope to take this further by also thinking about the positive of the present moment rather than not just on the fact that the world is not crumbling around me.
Listening to My Body. For a long time, I treated my body as a vessel that would allow me to do the things that I wanted and needed to do. I never clinically disassociated or even failed to find enjoyment in my body, but I never listened to it. I ignored every ache and every pain and I ignored its need for sleep. Last year, I developed a phantom ulcer. A couple of months ago, the aches and pains in my muscles (in my case, caused by my anxiety) got so bad that I needed to seek specific treatment. This year, I want to check in with my body on a regular basis, before it brings me to a crisis point. I will sleep when I need to. I will pamper it when I need to. I will say no to taking on too much. I will say yes to stretching and to more and more walks. I will learn to body scan. I will think about taking up yoga.
Ignoring Time as Much as Possible. We are, from a young age, instilled with the idea that we’re constantly racing against an invisible clock – every one of us the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, late! late! late! We’re late with our to-do lists, late to catch the bus, late to finish our degrees, late to find our life partners, late to reproduce, late for every single thing we have ever done. This year, I want that to stop. It’s something I’ve been working on for years as I’ve learned to prioritize my health over my academic timeline, but this is the year that I want to stop feeling guilt over the fact. Social time is a social construct. (Though we may still be late for the bus.)
Taking Time with the Little Things. Part of my therapy has, for a long time, consisted of finding joy in the little things – in my cup of coffee, in the sweater I’m wearing, in the architectural detailing on the door I’m walking past – as a way of anchoring myself in the present. In 2019, I want to take that enjoyment and allow it to seep into detail rituals that I otherwise feel the need to rush through. I want to treat washing my face and going through my skincare routine as a time to check in with the moment and relax. I want to greet the time I spend waiting for a slice of bread to pop out of the toaster not with impatience but as an opportunity to think about the joy bread brings to my life. I want to be more present but also to find comfort and calm in that moment.
Being Appreciative Rather than Apologetic. Reading Almila Kakinc-Dodd’s book on wellness, The Thirlby, last month, I was struck by many things, but I was absolutely shaken to the core by her suggestion that we should begin to thank people for their patience rather than apologize for our shortcomings. As an anxious and extremely critical person, I’ve always been hypercritical of myself and, consequently, effusively apologetic. I apologize for everything, from running five minutes late (a reasonable thing!) to saying something in the wrong tone. (Thankfully, I’m not as bad as our Rory who once, while we were staying at a holiday flat in Rome, woke me up by tripping on a suitcase on her way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and then proceeded to apologize to the suitcase.) Recognizing what others do for you is a much better way to show appreciation towards them without tearing yourself down and risking guilting them into being sympathetic along the way.
Seeking Help When Needed. 2018 was the year I took action when it came to seeking help when I felt I needed it. I reached out for help from my GP when I first realized I had an actual anxiety disorder and wasn’t just a normally stressed individual, but 2018 was the year that I actually started seeing a psychiatrist. It was also the year I started seeing a physical therapist to help with all the physical consequences of my anxiety. (Anxiety has very real physical effects!!) Both have immeasurably improved my quality of life and have allowed me to become a much, much more mentally peaceful person. As I continue to learn new tactics to deal with my anxiety, I want to remember that it is always a good idea to reach out for help when you feel that you need it.
Taking Time to Reflect on the Positive. So often, I end my day frustrated and angry with myself that I didn’t manage to do all I wanted to do in the day. This, far more often than not, leads to spirals of imagined consequences of my supposed failure that can go late into the night. I’ve talked about tactics for improved sleep before, but a newer practice I’m trying to adopt is to take a few minutes at the end of the day and acknowledge everything good that’s happened in the day. What did I do, and more importantly what did I enjoy? what made me happy? This, especially if I speak it out loud, helps me end my day on a positive note, helps cement happy memories, and immediately lifts my mood.
These are supposedly small resolutions, but they’re ones that I hope can have a monumental impact on the way that I experience the world as an anxious and once extremely cynical person. Hope leads to change, and I hope this change will lead to a more peaceful mind.