My wife, Jean, and I were reading in our living room when she shrieked.
“Calm down,” I thought, then looked up where she was pointing. A dark, leathery shape was flapping in erratic circles around the light fixture. It swooped past my head, then I shrieked, “It’s a bat!” We pulled our feet up under our bodies and put our books over our heads.
“Do something!” she shouted.
Well, anyone could plainly see that I was doing something; that book wasn’t staying on my head by itself. But I gathered myself and left the room in a crouching run. Jean was stranded on the couch underneath a two-second cycle of bat orbit. Yet I returned with a tennis racket. After twenty attempts, a backhand smash brought the demonic creature down.
It hit the floor and rolled into a crumbled ball. I was flush with testosteronic victory.
Jean, staring at the quivering mass, said, “Do something!”
I began explaining about the backhand and all, when it chirped (or bat equivalent) and I realized that I still had to get it out of the house. Several minutes later, we began to read again, when Jean raised a totally unnecessary question: “What if there are more?”
“Nah,” I said, shifting in my seat, “just the one.”
But her question didn’t go away. And so a few days later, I was prepping for an exploratory excursion into the attic of our 100 year-old house. I assembled my equipment; flashlight, thick jacket with hood, gloves, safety goggles, and, of course, my tennis racket.
“I’ll just pop up there and confirm that it was just the one aberrant bat. You’ll see,” I told her. She looked at all my gear, raising her eyebrow. She and the kids gathered in vigil, as I disappeared through the ceiling and into our A-frame attic.
There are no lights and no flooring, so I had to watch my feet while simultaneously scanning for bats hanging upside-down near my head. I quickly realized that my flashlight was inadequate (too dim and one-directional). I really needed a lantern. As it was, I tried to see ahead and behind in quick succession, all the while my face getting lost in the oversized hood. My flashlight beam cut wild arcs as I pivoted while balancing on two-inch attic joists. I looked like a spastic Jedi having a panic attack.
Well, I was no Jedi, but I was panicked. In this case, there were real bats and I felt real danger. But I’ve felt this kind of anxiety before, even when the bats aren’t so tangible. The whole scenario mimics what happens when we get caught in an anxiety cycle. I’ll describe the sequence.
It all starts when something swoops into my living area and threatens me. Let’s say I need to confront someone (and I don’t like confrontation). What begins to happen?
I pull my body in tight. I begin to sweat, my breath quickens, and my heart pounds. I tense up. Feelings of emergency bubble up my nervous system.
When these signals reach my awareness, what’s the next thing I do? I crawl up into my head to find a reason for all these sensations. All the dread feelings must have a cause somewhere. But I don’t just crawl up to just anyplace in my head; I crawl up into the darkest space, the section where I store all my fears. They hang there, upside down and folded until I stir them up.
When I get all these dire signals, it’s like some part of me has to go looking for a reason to make sense of the anxiety. I search for all the things that could be wrong in order to justify my panic. I almost always succeed—via my rotating mental search beacon—in finding more things to fear. The dark shapes begin to stir. They take flight, looping in desperate circles in my mind. The inside of my head becomes a dark swirl of flapping fears.
They shriek, “You know this won’t go well!”
“That person will just get more angry!”
“You won’t say it right!”
“This is just a big mess!”
“Remember the last time you tried to say something?!”
I flail at them hoping to bring some order, some control. I came up here because my body was shouting, “Do something!” But most of my swings miss badly and things seem to be getting worse. All my fears are swarming, not just my fear of confrontation. Other older fears join in:
“You are a weakling.”
“People will leave you, on account of this.”
“Oh, this will never end.”
And I get overwhelmed.
Of course, my swirling head just adds to the panic that my body is feeling. And round and round the anxiety cycle goes. The bat isn’t the only one making a vicious loop.
This is what an anxiety cycle looks like, and this desperate loop can happen within seconds of finding out that you might have to confront someone (or facing whatever triggering fear). You want to think it through, but how to think when your thoughts are part of the problem? How do you even try to explain it to someone, when your emotions are such a changing mass? You feel alone. You feel a little crazy.
But you aren’t crazy. You are stuck in an anxiety loop.
It takes time to learn to deal with the anxiety loop. A development of maturity and trust can help you navigate through. But if you are just getting started, I have a suggestion. This suggestion won’t sound like a spiritual solution, but it will help you get there. Yes, you have many fears stored in your head, but you also have a bank of maturity and truth stored in your heart. This suggestion will help you access them:
Start on the body side of the loop before you tackle the thoughts and emotions.
That suggestion doesn’t sound very profound I know, but it is wisdom. It will help you get to the deeper places. Be humble enough to take the wisdom. The alternative is to be a spastic Jedi.
Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. He works with both with individuals and couples, helping people confess their need and embrace their available choices to lead healthier lives. Roger also teaches and leads discussion groups and retreats applying the Gospel to everyday life. He is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana and earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is married to Jean and they have seven children and nine grandchildren.
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