My anxiety is an old suit of plate armor, one that has gone unused for years, standing in a dusty museum or a forgotten corner of the armory. Some of the armor’s hinges move reluctantly. Some are rusted shut. It wasn’t made for me, and being inside it locks my body in unnatural shapes. There isn’t much air to breathe inside it. It’s very cold. I’m afraid to move, lest some piece of it comes off and falls to the floor with a deafening crash, giving me away. All I can do is stay there, motionless, peering at the world through the grimy openings in the visor.
How’s that for a mental image?
Over the past week or two, I’ve been working my way back into a certain creative project, one which is fraught with quite a bit of anxiety. Today, I was doing some unrelated reading and came across some shares from a therapy group, where people gave their anxiety visual shapes: some as a bowl of water with a dirty oily film, some in form of an orange bristling with spikes. I paused and asked myself: so what’s my anxiety like? The image of a rusty plate mail sprung to my mind almost instantly.
Think of that armor again. It’s cold and rigid, and the longer you stay in it, the colder you are, the less able to move. Fight, flight, or freeze? Do item three on this list for long enough, and you won’t be capable of either of the first two.
Both temperature extremes can provoke an emotional response from me. Being too hot can make me feel uncomfortable in my body and result in a body-shame spiral (where “hot and sweaty” equals “useless fatty”; as an aside, I spent years avoiding any exercise outside of water, because I didn’t want anyone to see me sweating, convinced that only fat and unfit people do that). Cold, however, immediately translates to fear.
When I’m scared, my hands turn to ice, and my feet are often to follow. This connection is entrenched in my brain deeply enough that it can easily reverse the cause and effect. If fear equals cold, then cold equals fear. My hands may have gone cold for objective temperature reasons, but a part of my head will start wondering what it is we could be nervous about. If unchecked, it will easily find a dozen outlets to channel the fake anxiety into until it becomes real.
Going back to the suit of armor. I find it fascinating that when casting for a mental image of my anxiety, my brain didn’t go for things like a straightjacket (immobility), chains (immobility and cold), or even a plain block of ice (even more immobility and cold). Of all the possible images, it opted for armor: something that can (and is meant to) protect you, but, BUT only if properly taken care of. If neglected, it stops being protection and becomes a trap.
Armor is also something that can cater to the “fight” and “freeze” options of the adrenaline triad. Not so much the “flight” option. That’s pretty in-character for me, because I’m terrible at fleeing from fear-inducing situations. Not holding myself up as a lionheart here: the inability to flee means I’m rubbish at stepping away from emotional situations and am more likely to make decisions in a hurry, discarding potentially more reasonable choices in favor of getting the situation over with.
Still, there’s something to be said for the fact that the image my brain chose to represent anxiety isn’t something inherently bad or damaging: rather, something that has been poorly maintained. I’m sure someone well-versed in psychoanalysis could have a ball exploring all the aspects of this imagery as juxtaposed with my history and personality. Myself, I can name two obvious truths. One, I am much more prone to get anxious when I haven’t been taking proper care of myself. Two, the brain itself is our greatest protector or trap, depending on its state and our circumstances.
So what’s your anxiety like? Tell me while I shuffle around in this rusty thing and try to oil some of those stubborn hinges.
Photo by Martin Fisch