The Strange Emptiness Of Calm

Photo: Michelle Mieklejohn

Last week I was talking to my new friend Priscilla Warner, the author of LEARNING TO BREATHE: My Yearlong Quest To Bring Calm To My Life. After struggling with anxiety for forty years, Priscilla decided to do something about it – and she did. She’s now anxiety-free. Even in stressful situations she remains a pretty cool customer.

Having struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for over twenty-five years myself, I know a bit about anxiety, too. Like how it feels to wake up first thing in the morning and immediately begin expecting the next bad thing. Like being up most of the night because you just can’t turn off your brain and all of its what ifs. Like feeling your blood move through your veins at about 90mph – when you’re simply sitting still. Six years ago I decided to take a year to do something about the PTSD – and I did. I’m now 100% PTSD-free.

So picture the two of us, Priscilla and I, talking about how weird it feels to be calm.

“Without that anxiety,” I said, “There’s an emptiness.”

“Yes, I know exactly what you mean,” Priscilla answered.

We have different histories, different recoveries, and yet, we experienced that same strangeness. It feels almost as if something is missing. Or, as if something is wrong. Without that hovering presence of anxiousness it’s almost as if something important has been removed.

“I accomplished so much with the energy of anxiety!” Priscilla mused.

I did, too. Many trauma survivors do. It’s very easy (and I think even at times a healthy coping mechanism) to channel all of that anxiety into doing and achieving things. It’s almost as if all of that doing and achieving is ballast for our ship that’s being tossed on the chaotic waves of anxiety.

So what happens when the feeling that most defined our days suddenly is gone? Without that rush of anxiety, that adrenalin that infused every waking moment, Priscilla and I have both had to adjust to moving through each day at a slower internal pace. It’s not easy. Years ago, the first week my anxiety was gone I didn’t know what to do with myself. I sort of floated through the days in what I call in my post-trauma recovery memoir ‘a weird state of bliss’. It was hard to focus, accomplish or achieve anything. The driver for all of my behavior was gone; I had to figure out what to put in that empty space.

The fun fact about the brain and mind is how malleable all that grey matter is. In fact, recent advances in neuroplasticity have proven that the brain is hard wired to change. New neural connections lead to new synapses that lead to new thoughts, feelings and experiences. These changes can happen in an instant. The mind, I think, however, lags a little behind. The physiology of the brain changes and the mind, the part of us that interprets changes and makes meaning, has to figure out what these changes imply and how to respond.

The mind seeks patterns; it likes familiarity. If, for a long time, there’s been a part of the mind filled by anxiety it’s understandable that the mind will need to adjust to the sudden lack. When there’s an open space the mind seeks to fill it. What do you put in the space anxiety leaves? This is where it all breaks down. The mind will seek to fill the open space with what was familiarly already in that space. In my and Priscilla’s case, that would be the familiar feeling of stress, pressure and anxiety. This, I admit, is exactly what I did. (Priscilla, in her more mature wisdom, did not.)

The empty feeling of calm so unnerved me that I created a new source for that driving anxiety that made me feel like everything was normal. Back came the adrenalin rush, the compelling need to move too fast, internal motivator to get 1,000 things done. I was no longer anxious in a fearful way, I was anxious in a I-have-to-get-so-much-important-stuff-done way. And here’s the ridiculous part: I didn’t even notice that I did this! I was so used to feeling that moving-at-warped speed way that I didn’t even question it when it returned. Since I wasn’t feeling the fear I associated with anxiety I didn’t notice that I was creating a new, albeit more positively driven, anxiety. A lot of that has to do with the fact that it was a relief to go back to feeling ‘normal’.

It took me a long time to recognize the trick my mind played on me. It’s taken a real effort at slowing down, reassessing, making choices and taking actions to get myself to release the need for that speed feeling and to trust the emptiness of calm. Priscilla has that part all mastered. I’ll have to ask her for some tips.

In the meantime, I’ve had to practice filling that calm emptiness with a sense of satisfied peace. I went back to meditating every day, factoring in time for simply sitting on the beach at the end of a walk, blocking out time to purposely relax, read a book and bask in the glory of accomplishing absolutely zero. Now, that’s the kind of emptiness that can really fill you up.

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