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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Anxiety: Stay in the Intersection!

Much of my past three years has been spent trying to understand various levels of debilitating anxiety. As soon as I thought it was conquered, it would arrive in some new form. The most palatable was driving. There is a long story to this, but one day I discovered I simply needed to stay in the car.

Staying in the car is a type of being in the moment. I had a hard time learning what on earth ‘being in the moment’ was since I was always living just outside of my life. It is hard to "be in the moment’" when you aren’t actually in your life.

Then, one day, I was driving across town and fighting the ever-present anxiety, when I suddenly realized my mind was in the middle of an intersection five miles away from me. It was a busy intersection and though it would be some time before I reached it, I was imagining every possible scenario I might meet. Then to my astonishment, I realized I was doing the same thing with several other intersections.

The problem was I had been in an accident—once. I got the sun in my eyes and ran a red light. Actually, I had dissociated in a PTSD flashback when the sun got in my eyes, but that is a story for another time. However the accident happened, my brain registered that intersections were a threat and this kicked in "on guard" defense strategies.

This scenario is best explained by hyper-vigilance. My abuse as a small child caused me to see danger around every corner and I trained myself to always be prepared for any possible scenario. A hyper-vigilant child cannot live in the moment. It isn’t safe. Every room I walked into was scanned for exits and escapes. Every man who showed interest in me was also a threat. I managed to compartmentalize all this in order to live my life, but my subconscious was always on guard.

In some ways this hyper-vigilance created an almost super-power ability to walk into a room and scan the landscape. This was a great skill when observing in classrooms. I never missed anything. I always knew there was some computer program in my brain collecting information most never noticed. If something was lost in our home, I had usually recorded its odd location in my "scan the world" program. It just didn’t work when I was the one doing the losing.

So, hyper-vigilance wasn’t always a bad thing—except when driving. Considering ten future intersections while trying to navigate the present one was completely overwhelming. My mind was continually pulling my accident forward into the present and preparing me for danger at every corner. I had to learn to stay in the car. It was actually my GPS that helped me understand all this.

I was headed to a new location in Denver so I set my GPS. Even though there was road construction in several places, I experienced very little anxiety. I thought that was odd since driving to my friend’s house where I had been numerous times was fraught with anxiety. Every time I got to a familiar area, the anxiety returned. I realized that the fact that I didn’t know where I was going and just depended on my GPS kept me from thinking about every intersection ahead of me. The voice of the GPS grounded me in the car.

Difficulty in staying present in the moment is common for all adults but for those who experienced abuse as children there is a constant need to pull the past into the present and project fears into the future. They also pull their past inability to protect themselves into the present. For anyone experiencing anxiety, it is essential to stay grounded in the present. I had to start telling myself, “I am 60+ years old and I know how to drive and make decisions when I get to an intersection. Since I am not in all future or past intersections, I only have to figure out the one I am presently driving through.” This actually applied to so many things in my life.

I spent months in therapy trying to understand what being ‘grounded’ meant. I couldn’t understand being grounded because I never felt grounded. I couldn’t stay in the moment because the past and the future were always calling me away. I never quite knew where my feet were on a flight of stairs and this sometimes had tragic results that made me cling to railings. I was a superhuman in scanning my landscape for danger but never quite sure if the ground was solidly under my feet.

It was an amazing day when I sat in my car in an intersection and realized it was the only place that mattered. I was perfectly capable of handling one intersection, one stair, one day, one moment at a time. I didn’t need to constantly scan for danger and in a hundred million ways, I slowly began to relax and enjoy the moments that did not require problem solving or survival. I was finally grounded. My past no longer invaded my present and my future was something I would be able to handle when it arrived. What a peaceful feeling and accomplishment to find myself grounded in the present moment!

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