I was two miles away from shore with two and a half more to swim before I reached the other side. I stopped for a second, treaded water and said to myself, “I’m going to die. And I’m NEVER doing this again.” I was just one of 569 other swimmers participating in a 4.4 mile charity swim beneath the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Two and half hours later I landed on a small beach on Kent Island with a feeling of exhilaration that I’ll never forget, and I said to myself, “I’m definitely doing this again.”
I’m guilty of classifying all anxiety as negative, and wanting to rid myself of it as soon as my breath grows shallow, or my heart rate speeds up. “Oh no. Here it comes again. Make it go away!” I resist challenging myself because I know how easily anxiety can seep into every aspect of my life and disable me. It’s safer to sit back and make fun of folks with the 26.2 stickers on their cars, to call them annoying overachievers or egomaniacs. But ironically, when I intentionally step into the anxiety – with toe shoes — I come away feeling more resilient, more confident in my abilities to beat anything – even the demon itself. I tackle the next obstacle knowing that I am a person of strength who has just crossed the Chesapeake courtesy of my two arms and two legs.
In his book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes events like the Bay Swim as moments of optimal experience, where we feel we are masters of our own fate. A sense of exhilaration becomes a landmark in memory for going forward with strength and confidence. The goal, then, isn’t to run from anxiety, it is to use anxiety toward achieving and maintaining good mental health, to use voluntary physical or mental challenges to become persons of resiliency, passion, and confidence. He writes:
Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we MAKE happen….Getting control of life is never easy, and sometimes it can be definitely painful. But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery—or perhaps better, a sense of PARTICIPATION in determining the content of life—that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.
This explains why, although the process of writing is so grueling at times, I come away from the keyboard with stronger insides than I do sitting passively in a meeting with co-workers even though the latter is easier and pays better. “Every writer I know has trouble writing,” said Joseph Heller, and yet true writers don’t stop writing because it’s difficult. They move through the painful process to get to the other side with a masterpiece – or maybe just some product review or meeting minutes – in hand and can breathe a sigh of relief.
“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom,” said Soren Kierkegaard. And a pathway to freedom, as well, I would add.
Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.