There's a certain moment on my way to work, about 20 minutes from home, where one freeway merges with another, when something inside me snaps like a giant rubber band. My heart beats faster. My chest grows tight. My skin feels electric.
Right there, in the middle of six lanes of traffic, I am certain something bad is going to happen, to me or to someone I love. Maybe it's a car accident. Maybe it's a plane crash. My body and my mind prepare for the worst. I want to jump off the freeway, go back the way I came.
This feeling is nothing new. I've had these thoughts my entire life. When I was a child, maybe 10 or 11, I would tell my mother that something bad was going to happen -- and she would say, "Oh, everybody feels that way." Now that I've grown up, moved away, found a smart therapist and started raising my own daughter, I understand that everyone doesn't feel that way. But people with anxiety do, and I happen to be one of those people.
There are about 40 million of us in the United States, with anxiety ranging from panic attacks to social phobias and post traumatic stress disorder. Such disorders develop from a variety of circumstances, including genetics, brain chemistry, and physical and emotional trauma.
For me, anxiety and panic attacks are rooted in fear, mainly the maternal fear that a catastrophe will strike when I'm away from my child and I won't be able to take care of her. An earthquake. A school shooter. A wildfire or a mudslide. She might get lost on a school field trip, and her teacher will leave without her. She could wander away from the playground and get kidnapped by a predator in waiting.
The list goes on and on, and every day I practice not dwelling on disaster. It's a conscious effort: I remind myself that I am safe and that everyone I love is safe. Everything is going to be okay because, in fact, it already is.
There are other things that help when I'm feeling panicky. Yoga. Watching cartoons under a soft blanket with my daughter. Chocolate. Don't forget chocolate. But this year I tried something new to chase away the anxiety, and it worked so well that I'm doing it again.
Every day, I found one moment of gratitude, one instant of bliss or grace. If I could, I photographed the object of my gratefulness, then sent the image out into the universe through social media.
On my drive home from work one day, I stopped at a park to read in the grass.
On a mid-morning walk, I found an old sign with good advice.
Sometimes it was as simple as the way morning sunlight hit the orange leaves on our walk to school. Another time, it was a matter of actual magnitude. When an earthquake hit northern California, I focused on the sweetness of fresh strawberries from the farmers market.
When the doctor thought I might have another kidney stone, I felt blessed to have health insurance so I could take care of myself right away, before getting sick.
My daughter caught a trout. A yellow daisy grew in the container garden on my front step. My favorite song came on the radio. A friend mailed me a postcard.
Most moments seemed to come in between times of crisis. Like the little round spots in one of my daughter's dot-to-dot puzzle books, they connected me to the bigger picture. Thinking about the things that go right during the course of a day helps take my mind off all the things that could go wrong. It's impossible to think about how scary life is when you're focusing on all the ways it is beautiful. It's like trying to keep your eyes open when you sneeze. You couldn't do it, even if you wanted to.
From one bright spot to the next, I got through a challenging semester of teaching, a defiant period from my 8-year-old, medical problems for friends and family, and a lot of nasty Los Angeles traffic.
That smart therapist of mine says I'll always have anxiety, to some extent. And I tend to believe her. If I can't make it go away completely, I can at least adjust my perspective. Gratitude helps me do that. Gratitude shines a light on hope, and hope drives away fear.
If you have a moment of gratitude you'd like to share, send it out into the world on Twitter with #100gratitudemoments.
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