by Kevie Simon on Wednesday, June 8th, 2016
Do you remember the original Peter Pan movie? Picture it with me for a moment. Peter Pan enters into the movie chasing his unruly shadow that somehow separated itself from him. The shadow bounces around the room of our heroine Wendy, causing all kinds of havoc, before Peter Pan finally catches it. Wendy then helps Peter sew his shadow back onto his foot where it follows him willingly from that point. This image was curious to me as a child – why would his shadow want to escape Peter? But as I get older, the metaphor of the shadow has become a fascinating image.
In my life, my anxiety has been my shadow nearly every single day. There are many days when my anxiety seems to get away from me, and I spend the entire day trying to reign it back in. Other days, I feel like we are nicely sewed together and my shadow of anxiety is in check. Growing up, I had no idea that I had a struggle with anxiety. I thought that worry was normal for most people. And the truth is, it is. Anxiety is actually a normal part of human existence. It helps us know when something is not quite right in our lives. It’s the instinct that teaches us when its time to fight and when its better to flee. But how do you know when your worrying is out of control? When do you need to seek help? These are valid questions that I hope to offer some guidance.
As I said earlier, anxiety can be a healthy warning signal from your brain that something is not right in your world. There is something external or internal that has your brain working overtime to manage. Anxiety is your brain alerting you to this issue. In many contexts, this is a very good thing! When anxiety becomes a detriment is when these worries become disproportionately large in comparison to the actual problem. For example, let’s say you begin your morning getting into your car spilling coffee all over your passenger seat. A normal anxious response might be, “Oh no! I hope this doesn’t stain my seat!” And then you clean it up and move on with a normal day. A disproportionate anxious response could be, “I am a total failure. I can’t even seem to get one thing right.” The thought of spilling the coffee in your car stays with you all day and you question every decision you make. For someone who struggles with overwhelming anxiety, this second response is a normal occurrence.
The root of overwhelming anxiety can come from a variety of places. Anxiety can be caused by physical factors such as genetics, physical injuries or abnormalities, and the effects of medication. On top of this, our environments play a huge role in how our anxiety plays out in our every day lives. The messages that we were given throughout our lives can easily become what I like to refer to as the “tape recorder” in our brains. These messages play over and over again in our minds and can dictate how we live our lives. If the messages given to you in your younger years where ones of insecurity, inability, and lack of control, your view of the world as an adult could be one riddled with incapacitating anxiety. This tape recorder in your mind is saying you can’t trust anything so beware of every person, situation, and even yourself
I would argue that anxiety is not a feeling we want to remove from our lives. It can be an extremely helpful tool. It becomes unhealthy when it hold us back from participating in every day life. I am a more anxious person by nature. My constant shadow is anxiety. This “shadow” metaphor has the implication that I will never actually lose my anxiety. My process is learning how to live with anxiety without letting it rule my every move and discovering how to use it for my benefit. It is not an easy battle, but this pain can be used for mighty purpose in my journey if I choose to learn from it. If you are wondering if anxiety is something you should seek help for, look back on your anxious responses. How often do they happen? When you think through your mental responses, do they seem proportionate to the provoking event? I would ask those close to you how they see anxiety in your life. Exploring these questions can help you learn more about yourself and your beliefs about anxiety.