Living With Anxiety: An Interview with Leigh Medeiros

Living with Anxiety

This week on the podcast I’m shining a spotlight on living with anxiety, which was already a go-to emotional state for a lot of us before the pandemic, and now it’s something that’s moved on in and made itself at home. And it’s tough to come from an open-hearted place when you’re in an anxiety swirl. So this week and next, let’s see what we can do to at least find some ease around the edges.

To help with that end, today I’m interviewing the fabulous Leigh Medeiros. Leigh is the author of The 1-Minute Writer, a developmental editor, and a creativity coach. All these cool and amazing accomplishments are not why I’ve asked her here today. I reached out to Leigh because she’s always been very open on social media about her experiences of living with anxiety, specifically panic disorder with agoraphobia (basically, a fear of being helpless in a situation where you’re unable to escape.)

In fact, she’s currently working on a memoir and a book of essays about living with, learning to accept, and healing from anxiety. And I hoped that she could share some of her hard-won wisdom on living with anxiety with us today.

Listen To The Podcast Here

Leigh, welcome! How did you come to be writing a memoir about living with anxiety?

Good question. I really love personal storytelling. And I finally got to the age where I feel like I had enough accumulated experience to sort of talk about something particular. You know, a memoir can be very daunting. It’s a big project, at least for someone like me. My projects have been screenplays and sort of non-fiction how to books.

So a large-form narrative was kind of daunting for me. But I kind of got to this point where I felt like, okay, I’ve had nearly 30 years of living with anxiety. I’ve had a number of personal challenges that are sort of unique and yet universally relatable. And so what happened is a few years back my husband and best friend, you know this, they both get diagnosed with cancer. And I supported them both in different ways. My husband, more specifically through a year of pretty grueling treatment.

And after he came out of that, he had a condition that prevented him from going back to his regular gig, which was carpentry. And he got this opportunity to become a caretaker of a historic mansion/museum. So we moved into the wing of this big old house. And it happened to be the same month that my best friend was dying in hospice. So after this four years of sort of care-taking them and the other personal challenges, you know, I moved into this place right at a time when I wanted nothing more than to hide in a cave.

And I found myself in this very public place and we’ve got educational tours and weddings and concerts and art camps, not to mention, uh, painters and gutter guys. It was somewhat tragic comical, you know, this, this feeling of like really wanting to escape the world, but finding myself here. And so the book, it’s years of accumulated experience. But really contained to this year of living in a public space and how I was trying to navigate, you know, grief as well as agoraphobia and things like that. And so it was really about a fish out of water, a fish out of water who was trying to heal herself.

I love that you said fish out of water because when you were saying you wanted to move into a cave and you ended up in this public space, I was thinking, Oh, it kind of sounds like you ended up in a fishbowl.

Yeah. That’s exactly how it felt. It’s very, it’s wonderful. It’s absolutely beautiful here. But there is not one window that I can be near or stand by without seeing humans. Seeing buildings, seeing something happening, you know. And I just, I very much felt like I was in a fishbowl.

You mentioned that you’ve felt like you’ve lived with anxiety for 30 years. And then you went through this very intense period of four years. And I’m curious in your experience, is anxiety something that’s hardwired? Or is it the natural result of circumstances, or is it some sort of interplay of the two?

In my case, I would say it’s a result of both. My parents and some of my extended family have, or have had in the past, clinical anxiety. So genetically I was predisposed. My family is very wonderful, but I will say they modeled certain behaviors that contributed to my anxiety. Things like learning that you don’t rock the boat. Learning that you have to “let things go” that bother you. Don’t say anything that would make anybody feel bad. You know?

So all of those things contributed to this idea that other people’s behaviors, experiences, feelings were more important than my own. And it took me a long time, probably into my thirties before I could really hold boundaries. It was this long practice of being in a lot of uncomfortable situations where I was, I felt taken advantage of.

And just slowly, little by little having to say, no, that’s not okay. And navigating a fear of conflict, plus my fear of being taken advantage of.  So over time, the boundaries get stronger and stronger. And that’s huge because when you don’t have boundaries, you’re affected by other people’s energy and behaviors. So for me personally, I would say that anxiety was both, you know, something hardwired and sort of upbringing/circumstance. But I think, it’s one of those things it depends on the person. There’s so many ways that anxiety can manifest. But I suspect for many people, it would be a combo of both things.

You’re a really creative person. And I think a lot of times anxiety can keep us from doing the things that require creativity. You know, it tries to tell you to just stick with the plan and stay safe. How do you see the relationship between anxiety and creativity?

Hmm. That’s such a great question. That’s a hard one for me, because I think creativity and anxiety are words that we use to describe these broad umbrella concepts. And there are so many facets to both of them. Which means that any individual person is going to have vastly different experiences of both of those things. But that being said, broadly speaking, I think about the fact that there’s kind of two parts to creativity.

There’s the act of doing it when you’re literally bringing something into form. You’re taking nothing, you’re making something. And then there’s the practice, the behaviors, the habits that surround the doing of it. So if we’re just talking about the act of being creative and how that relates to anxiety, I think most people would feel that that’s a beneficial relationship. In the sense that creativity is known to lower cortisol levels and bring more calm.

But if we’re talking about the rest of it, kind of what surrounds the act, then I think you’re talking about, you know, trying to figure out the circumstances that help creativity to blossom. And to be frank, that can be really hard because a lot of us have time management issues or issues with procrastination. And of course there’s also things like poverty or lack of access, you know? So I think you’re right in the sense that anxiety can keep us from being creative. Me personally, I’m a big fan of being creative in small doses. So literally one minute at a time, you know. I think spare time is such a privilege for so many people. I think a lot of people are tired, especially right now. A lot of people are overwhelmed.

So if you can set a very small goal, whether it’s a minute, 5 minutes, 10. Like really break it down into tiny, tiny bits and try to just do the tiniest amount you can do every day, it builds a muscle. And it gets easier and easier to kind of slip in and out of creative practice. So I hope that answered it to an extent. You know, I think they’re very closely linked anxiety and creativity, and it’s just, it’s so nuanced for so many people.

Definitely. I feel like, unfortunately I almost have to get a little bit anxious in order to actually sit down and do something creative.

In a sense that you feel anxious so that you’re using anxiety as fuel?

Yeah, I need to feel like, “Oh my God, if I don’t get this done, I’m not going to turn it in and it’s going to be embarrassing and I better sit down.”

Yeah, I think that’s a great way to use anxiety. I have always been sort of a procrastinator if I don’t have that outside accountability of, Oh my God, the deadline. Or, Oh my God I said I’d give it to this person. Or I paid for this consult and I’ve got to get it to them by this date. And so there is that little bit of fear that drives the creativity forward. And it sounds like, you know, I mean, this is something that we can talk more about later. But it does sound like you’re using anxiety in a positive way to further the goals that you have in your creative goals.

That is something I wanted to ask you about. Let’s pivot there. Do you think there is an upside to living with anxiety on a personal level?

Yes I’ve got to tell you what, I’ve never felt so equipped to handle the circumstances of 2020. I have joked with friends that this year is like an anxious person’s time to shine.  We’re fear experts. We’ve got this, you know? So for me as a person who’s dealt with anxiety for, like I said, nearly 30 years. I didn’t have to go from feeling totally calm, totally la de da, and then panic, when the pandemic hit, right? In a lot of ways, I was already kind of there. I had this sort of under current of uncomfortability. And so I could really roll with it. You know, I just remember thinking God, like I was kind of made for this, you know?

So all of that is to say, I think when you have anxiety, your natural first reaction is to try to get rid of it. Cause it feels so bad. But like we were just talking about, there is a place for it. And it’s not actually for me, this is obviously a big conversation, but it’s not a thing I think that we can get rid of. It’s a thing that we live with. It’s a thing we can reduce. We can, yes, avoid it if we want to avoid certain triggers, but really we can work with it when it arises. It can be an incredible guide.

You know, when we feel anxiety, it’s part of how our system is responding to something that feels unsafe to us. And whether or not that thing is actually unsafe is a different story. But that’s what our body is trying to tell us. It’s like, I feel unsafe right now. So if we can use the process for me, I think the process of self inquiry, to get under the surface of what’s making us afraid that can really lead to profound shifts and massive personal growth.

So as far as the upside to anxiety that, to me, not only is it one of those things where if you’re feeling anxiety, you can be well prepped for something that’s difficult. Because you’re sort of in, if you to consider it practice, you’re kind of in practice for the anxiety. But more so you can also use that to create growth in your life. You know, you can make it work for you.

What about on a collective level? Do you think there’s some upside to anxiety, which feels like it’s becoming more and more pervasive? Maybe in the past we tended more towards depression as a society–you know, the era of listening to Prozac and all that. And now it’s like we’ve evolved into more of an anxiety fueled culture. I’m just curious, do you feel like, is it a response to something? Or could it be serving some higher purpose that we could latch on to?

Well, first of all, I love your take on that. As how we, as a society had more of a trend, maybe if you want to use that word, toward depression. And now we’re trending toward anxiety. And I think that’s really interesting. Actually I do think that it is a response. You know, I think personally,  again, I don’t want to keep saying this. But over the course of 30 years, things have changed culturally around how we view mental illness.

And in the beginning, I really gravitated toward the wellness industry for a very long time. Because I didn’t want to feel afraid. I didn’t want to feel what I was feeling. I wanted the tools and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I do think that we are right now collectively, we’re facing the climate crisis, we’re in a global pandemic. We have rampant, systemic racism, poverty. And to me, fear is the appropriate response to those things.

I don’t think it’s appropriate right now to tell people to stop being afraid in a way. And so I really changed my self-messaging around not learning to live without fear. But learning to live with fear. To use fear as we talked about earlier to one’s benefit. But collectively speaking, I think this anxiety is kind of like a canary in the coal mine. Because honestly, we kind of should be scared right now. There are things that are scary and this is the natural response. So I think the anxiety is kind of a precursor and a response to all of these things that are happening. And it basically lets us know individually and collectively that things need to change.

Right. Hopefully it can get us into action.

Exactly. You know, feeling anxious, if you can get beyond the debilitating part of it is an excellent way to catalyze you into action.

Is there a takeaway you can share, something listeners can go and do the next time they feel anxious?

Definitely. I have a hard time boiling down to one thing. But I’ll mention a couple of things if that’s okay with you. I think do the opposite of what anxiety tells you to do, which is to speed up. So when you feel anxious, you know,  often it could be your heart’s racing, your mind’s racing. And that then tells your body to hurry up. Do the thing faster, drive the car faster. You know, walk faster, call someone, run around to grab things.

So if you can recognize that you’re in the anxious state and you can fight your natural instinct to speed up, instead drop your shoulders. Stop your body. Put your hand on your heart. Take a deep breath and just try to slow yourself down. I think that can be really helpful. Sometimes depending on, this goes into more of nervous system stuff. There’s, science around it. Sometimes if you’re in a different state, it might actually help you to speed up like going for a run, we don’t have time to get into all of that. But if you can be aware of the type of anxiety you’re feeling and the types of ways that you can move it out of your body, I think that’s a really good thing.

And then another thing I would say for folks is to plan ahead and to keep tools. Whether they’re in your pocket, in your purse or wallet. Just, you know, some of the things that I have are kind of an emergency stash of medication. I have sheet of affirmations; things that I can sort of pull out and read that are reminders when I’m just losing my mind about something so that I can refocus. Oh yeah, this is true. This is a true thing. I have things that are like stones. I can just hold in my hand and squeeze really hard. And so sometimes having an anxiety toolkit on you before you get into that state prepping ahead of time. It can really help you. Because once you’re in anxiety, it’s hard to do that stuff.

And then the last thing I would say is to just work on self-talk, you know, I catch myself saying all the time you’re okay. You’re okay. And what I recognize is that there are parts of me that are more mature or more wise than other parts. Often the anxious parts of me are younger parts or less developed parts. And that me saying to myself, you’re okay, is kind of tapping into that wiser, more mature part of myself to oversee the other part and just remember, like, I’ve got you. You’re okay. You’re okay. And it really does help to kind of talk to yourself in that way. And it just brings a wider perspective than that one moment that you’re so focused on.

Leigh, you’re so smart. And I just think you’re so great. Where can people who’d like to connect with you?

Well, I’d absolutely love to connect to folks. And if they want, they can go to my website, which is my name:  Leighmedeiros.com. And there’s a contact page. They’re welcome to email me and say hi, if they’d like. And then, I’m on Instagram @Leigh_Medeiros and I’m on Twitter @Leigh_Medeiros_.

So, um, yeah, I can’t promise great content. I I post a lot of like, you know, as you may know, I am a budding naturalist. So I post a lot of like dead things and beach finds and sea glass. But I do tell stories and I do talk about the writing piece from time to time. But yeah, I’d love to connect with your folks. I absolutely love this podcast and what you’re doing, and I’m really grateful to be here. And I hope that something I’ve said today was helpful.

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