Tuesday, February 18, 2014

I Have A Choice

I am learning something very important - at least for me - but I expect it is for many others too.

I have a choice when it comes to the way I feel emotionally, and when it comes to what I entertain in my mind.

This is a huge breakthrough, especially for someone who has battled (and still battles) an anxiety disorder as well as depression.

It is true that when we are children, we are too immature, we don't yet have the knowledge or experience to realize that we have choice, and that we have power. So when we encounter something that makes us feel fearful or anxious - especially when the "something" is repeated over and over again, it may impact us for years to come, even into our adulthood. Maybe it was a condescending teacher, or a physically abusive bully on the playground. Maybe it was a friend who we considered to be close or a relative who made us very tense. Or perhaps it's none of the above; we simply don't know why our stomach is in knots or why we're having an anxiety attack for no apparent reason. Anxiety can be complicated, with environmental, social, hereditary, and chemical factors to be taken into consideration.

But I am not a child anymore. For many years I have sought and been involved in both individual and group counseling. I've probably been a "client" of a dozen counselors, whether they've been qualified/trained or not (I strongly suggest the former! That and I don't like being called a client, as if I were doing business at my local TD branch; I'm a sick patient, let's call it for what it is!)

Making the decision to get help is the first step. Choosing to stay on the path to health is another step. Sitting ad nauseam in the therapy sessions and having the helpful information pounded into you over and over again even though "I've heard all this before" is perhaps even more difficult. What I've learned, though, is that getting control over my emotions and thought-patterns isn't a matter of denying the existence of anxiety or depression, or even of following a 10 or 12 step program to a tee - though the latter may work for some.

What I am learning is that any therapy I receive, any group I'm part of, or any medications I may be taking (and there's NO shame in that!) is leading me to an incredibly freeing personal truth:

I have a choice, and I can actually make decisions about how I feel, and what I let my mind ruminate about.

I feel like I want to repeat that:

I have a choice, and I can actually make decisions about how I feel, and what I let my mind ruminate about.

This does not mean becoming stoic, or god forbid putting blinders on and pretending that we will never feel scared or depressed ever again. Not. At. All. Because I know that life situations, large or small, will present me with many opportunities to feel scared or depressed. I say, "Go ahead and feel them! Of course it's natural that these emotions may be our response. But after allowing yourself to feel those things, whether it's 5 minutes of panic, or 2 days of laying on the couch eating Pringles and Chocolate Xtreme Blizzards, you, we, DO have a choice. We DO have power. We can choose to remain in anxiety for the whole day (and boy have I ever done that so many times in my life), or we can choose to be full of peace instead. I can feel hopeless about a situation and slide into a major depression, or I can go for a walk, call a friend, or simply start to think of the things I am grateful for instead of all that has gone wrong. I personally find that learning to be present, taking 10 minutes to be in silence (turning off my phone or TV), is key.

This is no easy stuff, friends; believe me, I know. I have seen MANY periods of extreme emotional turmoil and debilitating darkness. There were many times when I didn't know if I would make it through. But finally I can honestly say, with gratitude and much relief, that I can see more light than I have in a very long time. It is because I am learning that I have choice, that I do have power. I am learning this after years and years of therapy and spiritual seeking. If you haven't started one or both of these yet, I encourage you to. If you've long since given up hope after feeling like you've failed, I encourage you to try again.

After all, we do have this wonderful thing called choice.

Mark Andrew Nouwen