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Mindful : April 2019
It’s there when I wake up. Something’s wrong. I haven’t opened my eyes yet. A minute ago I was sleeping. But now I’m awake and it’s there, lurking: Some- thing’s wrong. My breathing tightens. I stretch my legs beneath the sheets. I feel my heart beating. The sense of creeping fear is diffuse, elusive, hard to pin down. It’s like catching sight of something from the corner of my eye. Something’s wrong. Only nothing is wrong. I know that. I’ve experienced these bouts of dread for as long as I can remember. It’s familiar, which does not help me hate it any less. Explaining chronic anxiety to someone who doesn’t experience it is like trying to describe a color they’ve never seen. I have friends who are surprised I suffer from anxiety. After a lifetime of learning to compensate, to push myself beyond my six-year-old fear of joining the Girl Scouts, I do not come across as a nervous Nellie. I am outgo- ing, talkative, adventurous. Last spring, I planned a Class IV whitewater rafting trip with my husband for three days in the summer. TO UNDERSTAND ANXIETY, YOU’VE GOT TO START WITH FEAR, BECAUSE ANXIETY IS LIKE FEAR RUN AMOK. I started dreading it the minute after I booked it. I go for long periods when anxiety leaves me alone, and I forget the tightness of its grip. But when it comes back, trig- gered by stress or worry about an upcoming chal- lenge, it sticks around, greeting me every morning like some noxious troll who won’t shut up. Something’s wrong, it insists, or more accurately, something is about to go terribly wrong. I know this thought is irrational, but that doesn’t stop the spiral of anxiety that ensues. Nerves twitch under my skin. I scroll my list of things to do and feel uneasy, even about the tasks I’m (supposedly) look- ing forward to. When days begin like this, happiness is not on my agenda. Too Much of a Good Thing All animals react when confronted with danger, and that’s a good thing. The so-called fight-or-flight response, also known as the stress response, helps ani- mals either move away from a threat or fend it off. Anx- iety—the ability to antici- pate danger—is even more of a good thing. Anxious humans who avoided areas rife with predators or saved food in anticipation of crop failure had a better chance of staying alive to pass on their genes. And make no mistake, that’s all evolution cares about. It doesn’t care that we exqui- sitely a nxious humans might survive but be miserable alotofthe time, massag- ing our worry beads down to nubs. Let’s face it, in the modern world, with far fewer real threats in our environment, many of us are suffering from too much of a good thing. Too much anxiety robs you of your capacity for joy. When everyday worry becomes chronic, it can flip over into one of sev- eral flavors of debilitating emotional disorders. Some sufferers develop specific PHOTOGRAPHBYHANSNELEMAN/GETTYIMAGES 52 mindful April 2019 neuroscience