Waiting for a train, someone once asked me how, as a therapist, I deal with emotional disturbance in my own life. I replied that I generally have a good idea about what I need to do, but that it doesn’t necessarily mean I do it. When the human and the professional collide there is usually only one winner.
Driving home from football a few months ago I started to experience the most awful palpitations. As I traveled along the motorway my mind turned to the catastrophic consequence of having a heart attack in the midst of the traffic. It was extremely frightening, and the more I tried to calm myself down the worse it became.
One thing I always tell anxiety sufferers. Never push your anxiety away, but when the human and the professional collide, there is only one winner.
In the weeks which followed, as the thumping in my chest remained resolute, I visited doctors, had rafts of blood tests and was variously wired up to bits of machinery to try and ascertain what was going on. Sitting watching TV or reading a book there would be a sudden thud after a period of quiet and I would convince myself in an instant that something was seriously wrong.
The longer it went on the less able I was to work out what was a physical symptom brought on by whatever was happening to my body, and what was my body responding to the disaster I was imagining in my head. I thought back to that conversation I’d had on a train platform, as I so often do. When I feel as if I’m unraveling a little I become acutely aware of the need to take my own advice.
Standing back for a moment and taking a look at how I am thinking I can often understand what I’m doing wrong and what’s unhelpful. Mostly I am living in the future. I am imagining what hasn’t happened and my imagined future is disturbing my real present. It rarely makes everything feel comfortable, but somehow the discomfort is easier to tolerate when I can see that I’m doing it to myself.
Later, a client arrives. She sits and delivers in sparse words her own shocking, crushing news and, through the grief, anxiety is exposed as the fraud she is.
Nothing tangible or real is held in her hands, only promises of disasters yet to befall us. What anxiety cruelly obscures is our own ability to navigate and deal with the crisis she predicts will destroy us. Until we meet it head on we cannot know even a shred of our own incredible resilience.
Returning to football this week I momentarily wonder if my body can cope. I think again about the conversation at the railway station, and about my client, in the middle of a disaster she had feared would floor her but never will. I also think about how anxiety wants to make our lives smaller and how we must never allow that to happen.
The future will be what it is, and that’s the only reason we’ll ever need to give ourselves fully to life every day.