Transforming Anxiety into Joy

June 6, 2016 ~ Demetra Szatkowski
moab, utah

moab, utah

I never would have picked up Brene Brown's book, "The Gifts of Imperfection," had it not been for a recommendation.

The book isn't very big, and it looks like a guidebook for self-help, divided conveniently into little sections. I love Brene's work, but I would have gone for one of her larger books, had it been my choosing.

But the other day I posted a status on Facebook. I was having a difficult time with my anxiety, and I was wondering why it is that I cannot bring myself to fully feel joy anymore. My brother was in a car accident almost 5 years ago and has a brain injury. My parents divorced, and my grandfather died. With all of these losses, it has been rare for me to feel totally joyful.

This is different to me than being happy. I've been happy a lot. I've done really awesome things, and have felt really content. 

But I haven't felt joy, the joy that I remember, before I knew pain and loss. The joy that is so totally overwhelming that there is no room there for any darkness, at least for the time being. The joy that's like a floodlight. 

I know we can't have joy all the time, and I don't want it all the time. But I've become too comfortable in the darkness. And now, as soon as I get to the borderline of joy, I feel "what if." 

I feel how much I love people and then I immediately picture them dying, crashing, being taken away from me. I picture being so content at school in the fall and then I think it's too good to be true and that something bad will happen in my life before then, maybe I'll die on one of my trips before then. I can push these thoughts to the side, sometimes, but I can't stop them from happening. I haven't been able to figure out how. And it prevents me from feeling joyful during moments when I could. 

I knew I wasn't the only person in the world that felt this way. And I knew that there had to be some psychological reason behind it; a scientific, studied explanation behind it. I have read way too many positive-thought books. And when I posed that question in my status, a lot of responses I got from people were just that. Ideas that we need to just accept things, sit with our feelings, be present and have faith. Those things are valid, good things to do... But I know them already. And they just don't work for me, not all the time, not when I need them to. And what that told me is that a lot of people do struggle with this, but don't know how to fix it.

So when someone commented the recommendation for Brene's book (thank you, you are an angel, I love you), I figured I might as well read it. And I finished the book in the span of a few hours a couple days ago, so the ideas are not fully absorbed just yet, but I wanted to write anyway because I realized something, and it's this:

I think I have a problem with gratitude.

I would have never admitted that to myself, or anyone. I never really thought about it. I see people posting what they're grateful for, but it feels fake to me. Making gratitude lists always seemed silly. I know what I'm grateful for, I would think. I'm happy and grateful for my life. 

But there was something preventing me from fully going there. From fully feeling that way. And I never knew it until I read these parts of Brene's book, which totally stopped me in my tracks. 

"I'm not going to allow myself to feel this joy because I know it won't last."

"Acknowledging how grateful I am is an invitation for disaster."

"I'd rather not be joyful than have to wait for the other shoe to drop."

It was that second one that hit me the most. "Acknowledging how grateful I am is an invitation for disaster." 

This is how I feel inside, all the time. This put into words why I have such a problem with gratitude, a problem with joy. In my head, in my body, these things feel too loud. It feels as if, if I am too loud with my feelings, something will notice them and come and take them away. It feels like if I keep quiet and don't let the universe see that I am totally happy then the universe will not kill people and hurt them and take them away from me. It will keep us all safe. If I am quiet, moderately happy, then I can still be learning my life lessons without having to go through any more trauma and tragedy.

These are not conscious thoughts. I never put them into words before, in the right way. I never had something hit me in the way this did. Because this proves to me that me feeling scared is not my intuition - it's scientific in a way, it's a normal response to anxiety and tragedy. 

Brene writes, "We are afraid to lose what we love the most, and we hate that there are no guarantees. We think not being grateful and not feeling joy will make it hurt less. We think if we can beat vulnerability to the punch by imagining loss, we'll suffer less."

If I can just imagine the loss already, I won't be surprised by it, won't be caught off guard. I won't have gotten my hopes up for nothing.

The problem with this is that our times of joy are actually what allow us to move through tragedy. They sustain us. So if we don't experience them, when tragedy hits, we are hit harder than we would be otherwise.

So how does this relate to gratitude?

Well, Brene says that gratitude is the stepping stone to joy. She studied thousands and thousands of people who live truly joyful lives. She concluded that the one thing they all have in common is... a gratitude practice.

This does not mean aimlessly wandering about the day, once in a while thinking, yep, I'm grateful.

This means an actual practice. A tangible practice.  One where we sit down and write out what we're grateful for, every day. One where we paint what we're grateful for, create around what we're grateful for. Making time and space for it. A practice where we worship how grateful we feel every day for anything at all.

This can and will look so different depending on the person. But it must happen.

I have such resistance to starting a gratitude practice, I will be totally honest with you. It feels stupid and it feels annoying. I feel annoyance toward people who are "so grateful" all the time. And mostly, it feels really vulnerable and really scary to me.

But. I want to feel joy again. And it seems like gratitude - an active practice of it - could be the key to unlocking that for me.

So I'm going to try it. I will keep you updated on how it goes. 

Please let me know if you struggle with this and if you want to try it too. Wondering if we can start a 30-day challenge or something similar. ;-)