Listening — really, truly listening — is a skill that takes practice. Our instinct is to listen only as closely as we need to, with one ear active and the other focused on a million other things rolling around in our head.
Active listening, with our full, undivided attention, requires such focus that it’s no wonder most people find it difficult. It’s much easier to let our subconscious mind filter out the noise into things we should pay attention to and things we shouldn’t.
Our mind often puts anxiety into the latter category: things we shouldn’t listen to. We treat it like a whack-a-mole. When it pops up its head, we grab whatever we can — a bottle of beer, a glass of wine, a Netflix show — and smack it down, hoping that will be the last of it. We suspect it might pop up again. So we keep our hammer ready.
I spent years pretending my chronic anxiety wasn’t real. Like it was a ghost following me around, occasionally making its presence known. I did everything I could think of not to think about it: playing piano, reading novels, binge-watching Netflix while drinking countless IPAs.
This became my go-to self-treatment for anxiety, and its more subtle, silent partner, depression. Piano and IPA. Netflix and IPA. Piano and Netflix and IPA. Anything it takes to make it disappear, at least for the moment.
What I eventually realized was that my self-treatment plan wasn’t working. My anxiety only seemed to get stronger over time, with more intense and prolonged bouts. Bouts that would freeze me in my tracks. Bouts that left me crushed with self-doubt. Bouts that started manifesting with physical symptoms, like a sharp pain in the left side of my chest for days on end. A sharp, stabbing pain that wouldn’t go away.
Finally, after years of this, I broke down. The weight became too heavy to ignore. I could no longer drown it out with music and beer and detective shows, or even things that seemed like constructive coping mechanisms, like taking a run by the lake.
No matter how fast I ran, I couldn’t outrun it. As I sped up, it ran faster. As I threw obstacles in its way, it dashed and leaped over them, gaining on me with every step.
So I decided to stop running away from it.
In a very intentional way, I decided to face it, to start listening to it, to begin to understand it as a signal from my body, a warning siren sounding out from my subconscious telling me there’s something wrong, something you need to listen to deep within yourself.
This was a major shift in mentality, the first step forward in a long journey to try to understand my chronic anxiety in hopes of finding a way to heal.
It’s worth repeating that my first step toward treating anxiety wasn’t meditation, yoga, or medication. Or even therapy, which has become a crucial part of my treatment today.
It was a decision to start listening to the message my body kept sending me. A message I had spent years trying to ignore with every activity I could imagine.
For me, this was a very difficult shift in mindset. It left me feeling incredibly vulnerable. Because to make that shift from viewing anxiety as a disturbing inconvenience to viewing it as an important signal was to acknowledge that I wasn’t well, that something was truly wrong, and that I had no idea what it was.
This was both terrifying and liberating, but a critical step in my healing journey. It’s a step I feel is often overlooked in the discussion about anxiety.
That’s why I’m opening up about the hard times I’ve been through. I want to fill in some gaps in the conversation.
So often these days, we’re offered quick fixes for our problems. A few deep breaths here, a yoga session there, and you’re good to go. Jump right into the treatment, the narrative says, and you’ll make quick progress.
That simply hasn’t worked for me. It’s been a long, strenuous journey toward healing. A journey into places within myself I never wanted to go. But the only way I really started to heal was to turn around and face my anxiety.
Before you start looking for treatments for anxiety, take a moment to pause. Just sit with it. Give yourself time to reflect on what issues might be floating around in your subconscious, issues you may have been ignoring but that might be connected to that uncomfortable feeling flowing through your body.
Think of anxiety as a string attached to a ball of yarn. A big, messy, knotted ball of yarn. Tug at it a bit. See what happens. You might be surprised by what you learn.
And give yourself credit for being courageous. It takes courage to face things within yourself that you don’t understand. It takes courage to begin a journey without knowing where it ends.
The good news is there are guides who can help you along the way. When I decided to start seeing a therapist, all of these swirling, confusing thoughts slowly came into focus.
I started to understand anxiety as a symptom of deeper issues within myself — not a disembodied ghost following me around, jumping out to scare me from time to time, or a whack-a-mole to smash back into its hole.
I began to realize my anxiety was connected, in part, to big changes in my life I had downplayed or tried to put out of my mind. Like the death of my father a few years ago, which I’d coped with by focusing on getting all of the paperwork done (“That’s what he would have wanted” became my mantra). Like slowly sinking into isolation from friends and family and former sources of community.
Anxiety doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s tempting to think of it that way, because it allows you to distance yourself from it. To Other it. But it’s simply not true. It’s a message from your body, telling you there’s something important going on, something you’re neglecting.
Anxiety is a siren. Listen to it.
Steve Barry is a writer, editor, and musician based in Portland, Oregon. He’s passionate about destigmatizing mental health and educating others about the realities of living with chronic anxiety and depression. In his spare time, he’s an aspiring songwriter and producer. He currently works as a senior copy editor at Healthline. Follow him on Instagram.