Danielle Aubin, LCSW
What Is Anxiety? It is a Dress Rehearsal
Why do we have anxiety? Most of the time, it doesn't seem to have any purpose beyond making us miserable and sucking the joy out of our short, precious lives. If we look deeper, we might be able to see what anxiety is trying to do. A lot of the time, anxiety is trying to prepare us. Anxiety tries to make us think about every horrible thing that can happen and fret and worry about it so that if it does happen, we have had some exposure to it and we might not fall completely apart. In many ways, anxiety is a dress rehearsal.
Anxiety wants us to think constantly about the negative, about something bad happening during pregnancy, birth, or during the newborn stage. Maybe if we constantly think about bad things happening, when they do, they won't be so bad. I would say most of the time, we are not conscious of the aim of anxiety. Anxiety is just there, poking at us with intrusive thoughts and ruminations about accidents, deaths, and the worst possible outcomes. Have you ever noticed that sometimes when the bad things we have been worrying about actually happen, we can feel something similar to relief? All that pent-up anxiety and tension is finally let go and we now facing the crisis in real-time, in the present moment.
Anxiety thinks it's protecting us and making life more tolerable. The problem is that anxiety is too prolific, too thorough and it can take over our lives. The real problem then becomes not being unprepared for disasters when they happen but missing out on life itself because we are so preoccupied by worrying about what *might* happen. All the worrying we experience actually doesn't make us more educated on how to act in an emergency. Acting in an emergency requires present-moment thinking and clarity. Anxiety involves a lot of speculation and future-tripping, most of the anxiety is based on things that aren't real but based on imagination.
Is it possible to make peace with anxiety despite its wish to take over our lives and force us to worry incessantly? Anxiety is always pushing us to focus on the future and imagine horrible scenarios and events. Mindfulness brings our attention to the here and now, nothing more, nothing less. What happens when we bring mindfulness to anxiety? Is there a way to strike a balance between the two? I would say yes but with regular practice. Regular practice can look like noticing anxiety "hey, there!" and acknowledging what anxiety is trying to do (e.g. get you to rehearse over and over again horrible scenarios so that you will be more prepared *if* they even happen). We can say "thank you, anxiety for caring so much about me and trying to get me to be aware of every possible bad thing that could happen. I am going to sit down and just focus on my breathing right now. I see that you are worried but life is only happening right now and I am goin gto notice it." Mindfulness brings you right back here, to where only one thing is happening which is the present moment. Prepared or not, we meet the present moment as it is.
Anxiety, prenatal anxiety, postpartum anxiety, are all ways that our bodies and minds are trying to help us. Unfortunately, they are short-sighted because we can miss the forest for the trees. If we are so worried about SIDS that we are not present for our baby, we will miss out on life as it is happening now. We love life so much that we are terrified about anything bad happening. It becomes a catch-22 because the more we worry, the more we actually are missing out on the life we are so worried about. Anxiety would have us ruminating on if we have thought of everything and are prepared enough. Mindfulness asks us "when you touch your baby's toes, do you feel the softness?"