Our brains and bodies are wired to protect us against threats. But what about when we perceive threats that aren’t really there? Is there a way that we can shift our thoughts to a more loving place, in order to move forward instead of getting stuck in our fear?
When I was younger, I took swim lessons at the township pool. On summer mornings before the rest of the clear blue water filled up with families, a lifeguard took me and my peers through basic strokes and breathing exercises. The hardest part of the summer was the day he taught us to tread water in the deep end. We moved under the rope to the 6-foot section of the pool, my lungs tight with worry. My muscles seemed to spasm instead of gently moving through the water to keep me afloat. I was so scared of drowning, even with the lifeguard in the water right next to me. He kept telling me to imagine my arms as spaghetti, fluid and gentle, but I instead I chopped at the water like a karate kid, and my head bobbed up and down as my legs kicked hard under the water. I couldn’t keep my head above water, and I grew exhausted quickly, tapping out of the exercise. I cried when I got out of the pool, embarrassed that my fear overtook my desire to pass the class.
I took my son to the Y this weekend for his first swim lesson (he did great), and I was reminded of myself as I watched a little girl across the pool. She entered the chlorine-filled room with a huge smile on her face and a swim cap covering her head. She seemed eager and excited, until it was her turn to jump into the pool. The rest of her class jumped in one by one, to the safety of the teacher’s reassuring words and extended arms. But the little girl’s smile turned into a whimper, and she spent the whole class period overtaken by fear.
I’ve been learning to show love to my anxiety lately.
Last week I had an insightful conversation with someone about my anxiety, and she encouraged me with some interesting facts on neurobiology and redirecting my thoughts.
When my brain cycles through anxious thoughts, I can choose to keep surrendering to that fear, or I can pause and choose to surrender my anxiety to love. I imagine that sounds a little woo-woo, but something about this concept is so comforting to me. She asked what it would look like for me to engage with my anxiety, almost as a friend that I would show compassion to instead of judging so harshly for getting to that anxious place. When we talked about surrendering my anxiety to love, I imagined surrendering it to a God who loves me and is always with me; to my community and my people who love me well, no matter what I’m facing; to a narrative of self-compassion instead of judgment and shame (which feed my anxiety).
I am learning to look at my anxiety with love and say, “What are you trying to show me? What are you trying to protect me against right now? Can we step out of this fear place together, and move towards love?”
I pray that this new way of thinking will help me jump in with both feet and stick with the hard stuff. Here’s to more joy, connection, and love over fear.