For a long time my anxiety was something that kept me grounded. This is the story of how I learned to fight back, and travel with anxiety anyway.
By Grace Koelma | Dare List Mama
I have a somewhat unconventional strategy for dealing with my anxiety. Maybe it's the rebellious, competitive streak in me, but there were a few years where anxiety ruled my life, held me by the throat and jerked me around like a puppet. Not pretty. So recently, my anxiety and I sat down and had a little chat.
Anyone with anxiety will know that it's not something you just switch on and off. It's always there humming along in the background, until all of a sudden it rears its ugly head. You realise you've been going too hard for too long with very little time to just 'sit and be with yourself on the little bench', as Sarah Wilson puts it in her incredible, groundbreaking new book First We Make The Beast Beautiful - (lots!) more on that in a post to come.
My version of anxiety has followed me around for the better part of a decade.
At its worst, I was frenzied and fraught with panic attacks, rendered a useless ball of misery on the floor. At its mildest, I was spluttering along pathetically as I worried about nothing in particular.
Since my teenage years I had seen myself as a slave to the worry, all the while allowing it permission to remain my captor. Oh, the irony.
I have two incredibly annoying personality traits, defined by the comprehensive personality test, Instinctive Drives. There's this desire to see the bigger picture (that visionary, 'dreamer' quality that gets me creating things like this blog and Mulberry Magazine). But its simultaneously mixed with a compulsion to keep a firm grip on reality - for me, that's all the things that could go wrong.
Eric calls it pessimism, I call it being a 'realist'.
But I'm an odd kind of realist.
I tend to daydream about the future, what might be and the wonderful things that could happen, but then firmly remind myself that those things don't happen in reality - my reality anyhow - and I should lower my expectations. It's almost like my personality is split between a free-spirited, optimistic dreamer and a grumpy older sister who's 'seen more of life', who comes over to squash all hope and aspiration.
I know this is a strange combination, because Eric has the more typical pairing of being a visionary and optimist through and through. He has a relentlessly chipper "let's cross that bridge when we get to it" attitude and doesn't really understand WHY I need to rationalise everything in terms of 'the worst case scenario'.
"It's just not worth the energy," he'll say. But the crucial thing, is that Eric is calm, unflustered and practical during an emergency, and I am most certainly not.
The anxiety of the housewife
I recently discovered why my anxiety always found an easy foothold in the doomed prospects of domesticated, suburban reality...
"Missing the bus, the washing getting rained on, Leo slipping over when he gets out of the bath, Eric being in a car accident on his way home from work..."
To these places my mind would regularly race, in an effort to guess the worst before it happened. I had visions of bumping knives off the bench and see them spinning up into the air and injuring Leo. I was terrified of Eric climbing on the roof or up ladders, and kept imagining finding him lying on the ground with a broken back, and me not knowing proper first aid.
Because I'm a planner.
Contingency plans and back up supplies make life safe. I feel secure when I know what's coming. And if I've already planned it in my head, explored how it would feel, how I'd respond, and what actions would be called for, and then the incident (or a variation) happened, I would feel a sort of 'ah-ha' moment.
I knew this was going to happen. Once again, I'm proven right.
Living a suburban life was safe. Tame. Monotonous.
Not many disasters happened, so I'd constantly have thoughts ricocheting around in my head, ticking frantically through scenarios like old black and white slides on a projector.
I was living in constant fear that the axe was going to fall. Something had to give. And I was frozen waiting... living in fear of the unknown.
Around the time we decided to upend our lives, jobs and take the leap into full-time travel, naturally, my anxiety set in full force, delighted to have a bunch of real potential problems to navigate, like a bossy 11-year-old who's finally been given a real job at the school fête, instead of playing pretend shops with her dollies.
My anxiety went into overdrive.
What if Eric runs out of freelance work? Or we have an accident overseas? What if a family member at home gets sick or dies while we're gone? What if our plane crashes? What if there's a terrorist attack? What if we lose all our luggage? Or if Leo hates travelling? Or if I hate travelling? What if our credit card is stolen? Or what if we go broke and have no money to fly back? What if we have no friends when we get back? What if we never come back?
Then, from nowhere, my fierce, fighting nature rose up and did something out of character.
I gave my anxiety the middle(ish)* finger.
*Midde(ish) because occasionally I still slump into the what ifs. I'm only human! And motherhood makes you more anxious than most. You have a runaway toddler to keep alive, for goodness sake! Hyper-vigilance around small children breeds worry in the already anxiety-prone.
It didn't happen overnight, but there were a few intentional decisions I made in January 2017, though I didn't understand the gravity of them at the time. One was when I dared myself to stop saying the word stressed and through that experiment I discovered the life-changing power of words.
Then, soon after that, shit became real. I found myself flying in the face of all my worst anxieties. Our long-term travel plans took me away from domestic routine and predictability, and into the wide world of potential disaster.
But with this decision (fuelled by the simple action of daring ourselves to do it) came an amazing exhilaration. Taking the choice to leap away from financial security, our hometown, our comfortable home, and Leo's Grandparents living just a few minutes away, made it tough. But we trust it'll be worth it.
I got to enjoy the wonderful feeling of looking fear in the eye and, for once, not letting it rule me. The feeling of saying to myself: You're Scared, and That's Okay. Just Do It Anyway.
And then jumping out into the unknown, with my husband and baby by my side.
That moment was ridiculous, terrifying and awesome, all at the same time. And there have been a lot more moments like that since.
Just Do It Anyway was a game-changer
It's more than just a saying, and it continues to be a perspective-changing mindset for an anxiety-prone person like me. Why?
- It helps me come to terms with the person that I am at my core (of course there's more to my core personality than just being an over-planner!) and be kind to that person.
- It helps me know that it's OKAY to be a worrier and be married to an easy-going, even-tempered optimist.
- It helps me to love myself, for my strengths and even for my proclivity to anxiety.
- It helps me embody what authentic, raw bravery looks like for me, without bravado or pretending I've got it all together.
- And most importantly, it helps me see that my anxiety can exist and be very real, but it doesn't have to limit me.
As Brené Brown says, "Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen."
My kind of courage
My kind of courage started out purely as a competitive instinct to rebel against the anxious. They were mostly thoughts telling me that full-time travel with a toddler and starting two new businesses was impossible. It stemmed from the reactionary desire to 'prove them wrong' and 'stick it to the man' (the man being my anxiety, in this case).
But it turned into something much more, a completely new way of living an active life of travel, letting go and loving myself.
Who would have thought anxiety could do all that?
What are your strategies for coping when there's so much 'unknown' out there? I'd love to know, so feel free to pop a comment in the box below. 🙂
Grace is a writer, designer, digital nomad, mum (otherwise known as toddler chaser), slow traveller, wild things appreciator, culture immerser, coffee opportunist... She frequently uses big words (some of which are definitely made up), likes long walks and even longer books, and her focus on wellness in 2017 means she is learning to obey her FitBit. Except when she's glued to her computer!