Anxiety invades the Netherworld: Dealing with a trench elephant

You know, no one ever tells you that when you have started to chase a dream, I mean really going for it and not just thinking about it or planning it, that it means you’re going to have to deal with anxiety.

A lot of anxiety.

For me, that currently-living-it dream is having my own “itty biz.” Lots of books and articles exist that explain the nuts & bolts of a business, and there are a lot of great blogs about how to deal with the mental blocks that every solopreneur has to get around or go over or smash or otherwise process. But I’ve not found much that talks about the fact that anxiety will become a permanent resident inside your head, and that you need to figure out how to deal with it, or else.

I’ve never been an anxious person, and never had any issue with anxiety until I started really “getting” the fact that having my own little cottage business means that income isn’t stable or dependable, there is a huge list of needed expenses to be met before I can ever again think of buying anything on my want list (and the money usually runs out before I get even halfway down the needed list), and there is a constant, looming threat of “If this doesn’t work, then ____” (filled in by a litany of nightmare scenarios such as “I will be a pathetic failure” or “I’ll have to find a job I loathe” or “I could not find a job for ages so if this fails I will still not find one and I will end up living under overpasses and begging for food”).

Welcome to Dream Chasing 101: I’m in the trenches now, baby.

Back in hellworld grad school, most of us paid our way through by teaching first year composition. It was not a fun job. There were departmental politics to wade through (with your future career always on the line), enough horrible students to overshadow even the best ones (and the best ones were amazing), and a workload that, when you crunched the numbers, made your hourly pay below minimum wage. To add insult to injury, I had a professor who loved nothing more than to tells us first-year comp instructors that we were “in the trenches.” He said it often, and with this bizarre smile on his face that clearly said, “HAHAHA but I’m not in the trenches! Sucks to be you, suckers!” He said it so often that it became a joke among all of us. We’d laugh it off, saying, oh yeah, we’re in the trenches! Ha ha!

But we were, and it sucked. Sucked so badly that I could not wait to get out.

Looking back, I now understand that spending time in that trench is a sort of right-of-passage for future professors, especially for future grinning-at-those-in-the-trenches professors. It’s a way to see the worst of it, in a sense, so that you more fully appreciate moving forward in your career. It is also a test; if you can survive the trenches, you can survive the rest of it.

I technically survived, but I refused to move on. No interest whatsoever in the rest of it. Not for me, uh-uh, no thanks, no way.

But these new trenches? The ones surrounding my seedling itty biz? These anxiety-laden trenches? They suck too, but in a different way. In a I’ll-get-though-this kind of way. The fact that I’m willing to slog on, and am not looking for an escape route, is how I know I’m on the right track. These trenches are worth it.

Is that another elephant I see?

No matter how much I consider these trenches worth it, the anxiety really is a b*tch. And it has this sneaky way of worming itself into surprising places of one’s psyche. For me, that’s my Netherworld.

The “Netherworld” is what I call that nebulous place between dreaming and waking that I sometimes come into in the morning. It’s when I start to come out of dreams and realize that they were dreams, but if they were good dreams, I can hang on to the feeling of them, and recall all the details, and still enjoy them while knowing they were dreams. It’s that limbo state. A place to snuggle back into the covers with, and let my mind wander. I don’t always come awake in it, but when I do, I often get inspiration and ideas or just enjoy being in that space.

But now anxiety has invaded the Netherworld.

For the past few months, if I come awake in the Netherworld, I get a blast of anxious thoughts that ramp up the ole’ fight or flight system by sending adrenaline streaming along my veins. Of course, I then think about how bad a shot of adrenaline is for your body when you aren’t ready for fighting or flying away, which brings more anxiety, and the anxiety is off and running. Or rather, stacking; more fearful thoughts start popping up and standing on each other for attention.

And that anxiety stack grows, and gets larger, and…this morning, I wondered if it was actually taking on a very specific shape. An elephant-like shape.

Ooooh no. Not another one.

Have I created another elephant? I suspect I have.

I hate waking up to those thoughts. I hate waking to that feeling of dread. But every time I do, it feels like a bigger ball of yuck, and I deal with it by pushing it away and waking up fully and trying not to think about it.

Wrong strategy. I’m growing another elephant.

Coping with the elephant in the trenches

Erma with her new buddy, Esther.
Erma with her new buddy, Esther.

So this morning, when the anxiety hit, I literally rolled over and said “Stop it. I’m sick of this!” And decided to come up with some coping strategies. And to share them here. And just thinking about coping helped ease the anxiety.

So here’s what I’m going to try to take back my Netherworld. Consider this my version of “sticking a flag in it” * – i.e. re-claiming ownership of my own psyche:

  1. Acknowledge the anxiety exists as a part of you. Name it if you need to. As Debbie Ford said recently on Twitter, “If our shadow could talk, it would tell us that our brightest light can shine only when we’ve accepted our darkness.” I suspect that the anxiety has invaded the Netherworld because I’ve been refusing to accept it during the day, pushing it down and away as if doing so will reduce it. HA! It’s merely been growing, out of sight (maybe Erma wanted a sister?), and figuring out how to get my attention. Well, it has it now. It exists, and it’s name will henceforth be Esther. Why Esther? Because it’s a vintage-y name, I love vintage-y things, and it’s a grandmotherly name to me. It makes this elephant seem less threatening, more caring.
  2. Talk to the anxiety & dress it up in fun colors. I am going to try seeing Esther as a sparkly pink elephant who wears hats and blows rainbows out of her trunk and talks to unicorns. (Just writing that made me smile, and helps ease the anxiety a bit.) I’m going to ask her what she needs, ask her where she comes from. Acknowledge her as a part of this journey that needs to exist. Seriously…this is key. No anxiety, no dream, is what I’ve come to realize. I’ll talk to her in soothing tones and tell her that everything will be ok (especially when blowing pretty rainbows).
  3. More moving. As the forever-wonderful Goddess Leonie explains, a sure-fire way to banish anxiety is to move. Because anxiety sends adrenaline coursing through us, the only way to get rid of it is to burn it off through moving. Dance, jump up & down, do some squats, life heavy things, whatever. Of course, when I’m just waking up I’m not going to jump out of bed and start dancing—although that would be quite a scene—but I will try this: when anxiety blasts into the Netherworld, I’ll stretch or turn over or lift legs and arms or otherwise find ways to move. An added benefit is that moving will help take my mind off of the fearful thoughts, at least momentarily. And then during the day, I will work on moving more.
  4. More EFT, or “tapping.” EFT has been described as “acupuncture without needles.” It is also called “meridian tapping,” because you “tap” on acupuncture/meridian points to release emotional stress & triggers. Check out this site or this one for more info & instructions on how to do it. I have found EFT to be a wonderful tool for acknowledging and assuaging anxiety, and I’ve started using it as soon as I feel an anxiety-stampede happen (oh goodness, the term “anxiety stampede” is so apt now…it means Esther is on the loose!).

So there we go. Some solid ideas to try. A new elephant to chat with.

* “Sticking a flag in it” is a reference a hilarious bit from Eddie Izzard‘s standup show Dress To Kill: “We stole countries with the cunning use of flags. Just sail around the world and stick a flag in!” You can see the clip here (it’s the first bit).

To slogging through the trenches,
Sara (and Esther)

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