Having struggled with anxiety most of my life, I thought I had the answer nailed a few years ago. The antidote to anxiety? Getting present. It worked for me; if I was off in worry about the past or future, I could bring myself back to the present moment and let go of the fear. I’d remind myself to do the next practical thing – wash the dishes, prepare lunch for the next day, make a call, do another task on my list. I would focus on getting my head back to where my feet were.
While this often worked to bring me back to a neutral place, it was lacking. With neutrality, I was merely keeping anxiety at bay, knowing it lurked just outside the door. I have recently realized I need to push myself beyond neutral into the positive to truly banish anxiety.
Although I don’t enjoy worry, it’s been a known quantity in my life. There’s something comforting about ending the day mulling over the mistakes I’ve made and the things that bothered me and strategizing what I can do to “fix” the situations. I don’t know if I’m ready to change, but I’m moving forward anyway with a two-fold approach:
- Focus on what brings me joy
- Look at my resistance to letting go of anxiety
Surprisingly, the first part has been easier than the second. Here are just a few of the ways I’m putting joy into practice:
- Make a list of things that bring me joy, things I enjoy, and put copies of the list in different places I’ll see during the day
- Create a joy journal in which to write, draw, collage, scrapbook, and otherwise add visual reminders of things that bring me joy
- Go through old photos of myself for situations in which I am happy and having fun
- During the day, when negative thoughts come up, replace the thoughts with happier ones
- Practice smiling for the physiological effect of feeling better
- Be kind to others, even strangers, no matter how unpleasant they might seem
You might ask why I’m going for joy, when happiness might suffice? Happiness is not far enough along the feeling continuum – I need an extreme effort to jolt me out of my complacency. Feeling negative is unacceptable any more, and neutrality isn’t enough either. I want the pure unadulterated good feeling that I know is possible.
I know because I see others in my life experiencing happiness, humor, and even euphoria on a daily basis. It sounds unlikely and unusual, and it is, but I live with some of the happiest people I’ve ever known. And it’s infuriating sometimes! How do they do it? Why is it so difficult for me?
Which brings me to the second approach – looking at the obstacles to allowing more joy in my life. Am I really ready to change the way I respond to life? I’m not sure, but I do want to test it out. And so, true to my cautious risk-taker nature, I take incremental, baby steps.
Obstacles seem to include:
- I’m really comfortable being uncomfortable
- I’m not comfortable feeling good
- I don’t trust feeling good
- I fear something bad will follow the good feeling
- I don’t think feeling good is as rich an experience as worry and obsession
- Being serious is more important than having fun
- It’s not responsible to have fun or be happy
- You can’t be a good person, or have any depth, if you’re happy all the time
Yes, I am aware that this sounds somewhat insane. It is the voice of social conditioning. And since conditioning takes many years of repetition to become habit, the same kind of effort must be invested in changing the pattern.
Which circles back to the idea of practicing joy. A needle wears a groove in a record if left too long in one spot. The needle in my head runs along the rut of anxiety. By practicing joyful activities, I nudge that needle onto a new track. It may keep jumping back to the wider, deeper groove, so I just have to keep pushing it out, until a new path is worn.
Like changing any habit, it takes time, effort, and discipline. Sounds pretty serious, and also familiar. I take a steady, persistent, and determined approach to self-growth. But this has to be different; if I’m going to work at joy, it’s got to be fun! I’m pulling out silly stickers, digging through old photos, and writing this post. And it can’t stop there. I want to hear others’ experiences in cultivating joy – so please share yours here.
How about you? What makes fun fun? What makes you happy? What brings you joy? How do you practice? Do you have to give yourself permission to feel good? Can’t wait to hear more ideas.