Doubt, dismissal — those things spark anxiety — we begin disbelieving ourselves or worrying about the consequences of honesty rather than believing our own experiences.
At the start of last year, I was leading a group coaching class called Somatic Mindfulness. My pitch was to present an alternative approach to living with chronic illness — one where we listen to the feedback our bodies give us and where we practice taking a more active role in reaching the kind of body-life balance we want.
We talked a lot about anxiety. Like many of the participants in my class, my own experience with chronic illness was precipitated by severe panic attacks — unclear shouts of my body trying to alert me that something was wrong. Even after diagnosis, the anxiety persisted. After all, living with chronic illness requires awareness of an always shifting life economics of triggers, capacity, progression, and sheer chance.
My idea for the class grew from a new strategy for managing that kind of anxiety — accepting it. I started treating my anxiety like a warrior whose sole job was to protect me. Whenever there were threats on the horizon, whenever my internal dynamics were unexpectedly shifting — anxiety warned me. Our class explored that approach. What are our bodies saying to us? In what ways do they speak to us?
In retrospect, I wish I’d shifted the language we used. Another year into my own practice of this work and I can see that anxiety is the name we give to intuition’s shadow. The anxiety we were talking about is pathologized and traumatized intuition.
At some point in our lives, our wires got fused. We talked a lot in class about doctors and other medical professionals who disregarded symptoms and side effects, withheld information, and in general made us feel hysterical or psychotic simply for trying to manage life with a chronic condition. I think that kind of culture is part of what sparks anxiety — we begin disbelieving ourselves or worrying about the consequences of honesty rather than believing our own experiences. Anxiety responds with more forceful messaging until we have to take notice.
Once we recognize that pattern, my experience is that we can disrupt it. We can choose to let our intuition be heard. Depending on what your anxiety is like, this can be a terrifying idea. It was a mess at first for me too. I felt defensive — I realized later this was because I subconsciously understood anxiety as a protective force, even if it also felt like unstoppable episodes of sheer terror. I was defensive about any sort of rationalizing that might unhinge that protection and leave me more vulnerable (this is the same reason that applying logic is a roadblock to listening).
Acknowledging anxiety as a protector helped me open the door though. If my anxiety is here to help, then what is it trying to tell me? What danger does it detect and what information determined the situation to be dangerous?
More often than not, I have experienced my anxiety not as an irrational hysteria, but rather as a somewhat predictable, albeit warped translation of some past let-down into a present situation. Shifts in body chemistry that mimic the extremes that landed me in the hospital feel like a bulldozer of death burying me deep inside — warped, yes, but not irrational, rather, based instead in measurable dynamics of my body.
These days my anxiety is becoming intuition.
And there are so many little moments where I am proven right in listening to it, and I wish that I had started doing so earlier. I wish I had started trusting myself sooner. I don’t think intuition’s message is always to be small or to flee — but maybe we interpret it that way. I think sometimes it is actually trying to excite us because we know how to defeat the challenge before us. Because we’ve done it before. We have new tools now. We have our past successes to draw on for inspiration. We’re bigger, stronger, and more prepared than we were last time.
Of course, when I challenge you to let your intuition be heard as well, I’m not saying that it’s always accurate. I’m not saying that everything your anxiety tells you is true or helpful. I’m saying that sometimes it’s worth hearing these messages out, exploring where they come from and what they mean to tell us. Sometimes that little unconscious tug we call intuition is showing us a strength we haven’t discovered yet.
Sometimes anxiety is a protector, a strategist, a superpower we are still learning to use. What could we learn about ourselves if we sat still and silent enough to listen?