The Common Good

What Anxiety Feels Like (For Me and Maybe for You. With Cartoons.)

Illustration courtesy Rachel Marie Stone
Illustration courtesy Rachel Marie Stone

I often think that anxiety probably has some helpful prehistoric function, like sensing that a large, hungry carnivore is on the prowl and being the one to let the rest of the group know.

But in the absence of large, hungry carnivores (or other clearly perilous situations) anxiety sometimes feels as useful as the appendix, though it flares up even more often, and can’t be easily removed.

For me, anxiety can run in circles, like a sad, neurotic dog in a too-small pen, or a hamster on a little exercise wheel. And there are different paces–different circles, different wheels–that my anxiety puts me through. Because my dad is awesome, he illustrated it for me thus (left).

Sometimes, as the illustration above shows, the hamster is such a wreck that it can’t even decide which wheel of anxiety to run on. It hops on one wheel and then remembers that there are a few other wheels that need to be run upon. And then the person in whom the hamster dwells (me, or, maybe, you) tired and distracted, and things like this happen:

And things like this:

And at the end of the day, after all that hamster-wheel-whirring, the person with anxiety sometimes feels like this:

Praying can help. Cooking can help. Knitting can help. So can walking, stretching, and talking to other people. All of these things, and others, can be very, very helpful in directing all that hamster-energy more fruitfully and less tiresomely.

But for me it has been helpful simply to notice the pattern of anxiety and liken it to an exercise-addicted hamster. Hamsters are so cute, for one thing, so I feel like I want to be kind to the poor little thing, and, therefore, to myself. By giving the anxiety a little Life of Pi type identity, I can better recognize what’s happening and choose to step off the wheel, whispering a kind little ‘farewell for now‘ to the hamster, who then nods gratefully and curls up to take a nap.

Rachel Marie Stone is the author of Eat with Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food (InterVarsity Press, March 2013) and a regular contributor to Christianity Today's her.meneutics blog. She has contributed toChristianity TodayThe Christian CenturyBooks & Culture, Flourish, and The Huffington Post, among other publications. She blogs at RachelMarieStone.com and lives in Malawi, Africa, where she teaches English at Zomba Theological College.

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