Your life supposedly flashes before your eyes just before you die. I have no idea if that’s true, but we’ve seen it depicted in movies and fiction so often that it feels true. My experience of anxiety is like this, only backwards.
What I mean is that anxiety, as I experience it, is the future flashing before my eyes as I try to live.
I feel like an astronaut who has been cut free from the spaceship. I’m floating through time and space and as I float and fall the thousands of possibilities that could be swirl around me.
I think people imagine anxiety as catastrophizing. I do that sometimes, too. I imagine the very worst outcome and get stuck in that possibility. If I don’t mop the floor right now then the house will never be clean and, ultimately, we’ll never be able to sell it.
However, seeing anxiety as catastrophizing trivializes the experience for me. My anxiety is not irrational. It’s just the opposite. It’s hyperrational.
It’s a disease of cause and effect that spirals out of control and pushes me into the future. It’s a temporal disorder, an inability to live life as it’s happening and instead trying to live life before it happens.
As I become untethered from the spaceship, the trigger for my anxiety—in this case upcoming scans—sets loose a series of possibilities. These possibilities are not linear because cause and effect is a complex system. It’s chaos theory.
I don’t imagine irrational things. I imagine the actual possibilities. Every single one, in every single permutation. As I fall through space the dominoes start falling and then another set start falling and then another set.
I feel helpless, untethered from the now and from actual life. My brain won’t stop putting together causes and effects.
This is one reason why I gather knowledge and information. The facts, the science, the statistics at least keep some sort of boundary on the possibilities. Somehow I feel that if I know enough, I can predict the future and control it.
Anxiety tries to help me cope with bad outcomes and remember good outcomes. If I can experience bad news before it comes, then it won’t hurt as badly. That’s the lie my brain tells me.
Instead I experience bad outcomes over and over again as I fall through time and space, each outcome chipping away from the present moment.
And, this is why mindfulness has saved my life. It requires me to be in the moment. The right now. Exactly as I am. I don’t have to be calmer or more hopeful. I don’t have to be grateful and optimistic. I just have to be. I have to breathe. I have to see what’s actually in front of me, hear as much as I can hear.
Mindfulness tethers me back to the mother ship. Even if in this moment I am afraid, I can explore what that fear feels like, how it makes my breathing more shallow, how my mind is noisy, how my muscles are tight.
On good days, mindfulness embraces me. I hear every word of the song I’m listening to. I wash the glass and give it my full attention. I breathe and feel the inhale and exhale.
On not so good days, I try to stop and breathe. I try to imagine the tether reaching back to the spaceship. I see it take hold. I fall back into the universe and just float. I feel the pain and the worry, and I try to let it be.
The present moment doesn’t have to be a good moment, but the present moment is almost always better than trying to live in the future.
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