Anxiety and Fires of the Mind


I recently had a conversation with a good friend about sobriety. I’ve been sober for six years now, but my friend has had some struggles staying sober for longer than a year or so at a time.  It seems like every time they start getting some momentum towards a life without alcohol, something really stressful would happen that would push them into drinking again.

This led us into a great discussion about what we both considered the main catalyst in our problems with alcohol–anxiety.

I remember so vividly when I started drinking for real.  It was 2002 and I was on my first real tour with Atmosphere; traveling the United States for 63 shows in 71 days.  Those crowds were the largest crowds I had ever seen.  I was having the time of my life and, for the most part, I felt right at home during the transition from Systems Analyst to independent artist. But there were other times when the newness of the experience and sheer size of the crowd was overwhelming.

I had started to feel a bit of anxiety about performing and didn’t know what to do about it at first; at least until I realized how much free alcohol was backstage. We were in Los Angeles and Murs passed me the tequila.  I said fuck it and had a couple shots before I went on stage.  The rest was history.  With the anxiety gone, I no longer obsessed about performing badly.  Hell, there were some nights when I barely cared about performing at all. But at least I didn’t have to deal with the anxiety anymore. That’s how it all started for me.

My friend told me a similar story about how they often felt like things around them were getting beyond their control; usually serious issues with family or work.  It didn’t happen very often, but when it did they would stress out and end up at a bar, drinking until they blacked-out. And once they got into that space there was no telling what was going to happen next, but most of the outcomes were bad. Their entire year of sobriety would be thrown away, all because of anxiety. There were a lot of parallels between our experiences.

I told my friend that we experience what we did because we lacked the tools to deal with anxiety properly and they agreed.

It’s very similar to a firefighter and a regular citizen.  The firefighter has been trained for years on what to do when there is a fire, but the regular citizen has not.  While the firefighter has tools and training to deal with that fire, the regular citizen does not.  As a result, the firefighter will be very calm in the midst of a fire, even though they may be in a very dangerous situation. Meanwhile the regular citizen, without training or tools to handle a fire, will either panic or do something to put themselves in even more danger.

For people who have had a problem with alcohol or substance abuse, anxiety is a fire of the mind.  It is an emotional fire that, if not handled properly, will cause turmoil inside of us.  But just as a firefighter has the training and tools necessary to put out a house fire, we must ensure that we have the training and tools necessary to put out fires of the mind.

Many people make the mistake of trying to change their lives in a way that eliminates anxiety altogether. Usually this involves social withdrawal and never taking chances. That is the wrong approach.  Just as there will never be a time when fires don’t exist, there will never be a time when anxiety doesn’t exist. Anxiety is a natural feeling, perfectly within the range of human behavior. For tens of thousands of years, our anxiety has protected us from harm and guided our ancestors through dangerous situations. Therefore, it is pointless to attempt to totally eliminate any feeling of anxiety.  A more plausible strategy is to accept that anxiety is a natural occurrence, but make sure you have the tools and training to handle it, just as the firefighter has the tools and training to handle a fire.

My friend pointed out that everything they learned about handling stress and anxiety was learned from watching their parents, who handled it in a destructive manner. This is a very important observation.  If we are to ever learn how to handle fires of the mind properly, we may have to unlearn what we have been taught by those around us. We may have to ask ourselves where did we get the tools and training we now use?  Who did we grow up watching and how did they handle stress?  It is highly likely that we are mirroring the behaviors of those we were raised by.   If this behavior is not serving us well, then we must challenge it and replace it.  Otherwise will be doomed to make the same mistakes as those we grew up around.

Please understand, none of us are immune anxiety and the fires of the mind they cause. The only difference is that some people have productive ways of fighting these fires and others have destructive ways of fighting these fires. Therefore, developing a set of productive tools is of the highest importance. Take a minute to evaluate your inner-dialog, social circle, diet, exercise, education, and spiritual tools. What are your words, thoughts, and actions when you feel anxiety?  Do they fan the flames or do they allow you to put these fires out?

Please share your experiences in the comment section.

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