The role anxiety plays in our lives and how to show it in your book

I don’t want to eat sauerkraut for breakfast.

There, I said it. 

Those words look as strange on the page as they sound in my head. Yet my sauerkraut angst doesn’t live in a vacuum. It exists in the very real world of people living with chronic illness.

Back in 2012, I went on a Lyme/Mold/Epstein Barr/Crud of the Universe adventure that resulted in a dramatic personal transformation. While that journey ultimately led to the life I now lead, getting here involved a murky four-year period of radical changes, including leaving a career, moving from a house, restricting my diet, and learning to radically love myself.

My health is now much better, though regular tune-ups and shifts in my treatment protocols still happen—especially when I change doctors, which recently happened. Hence, my anxiety about sauerkraut.

In her new book, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, Brené Brown says her anxiety feels like the “Willy Wonka Shit Tunnel” from Gene Wilder classic, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. She’s referring to that delightful trip down the chocolate river that suddenly enters a tunnel filled with frightening and bizarre images, like a millipede crawling across someone’s face and a chicken getting its head cut off. (Seriously, it’s in there). 

I adore Brené’s description, but if I were to come up with my own, I’d say my worst anxiety feels like hungering for air while being trapped underwater.

Atlas of the Heart contains Brené’s unifying theory of emotions. Its purpose is to broaden our ability to feel emotions by increasing our vocabulary around them. This book is an essential primer for every human and every writer.

Given my sauerkraut jitters, and my recent blog post on leading from your ambition, not your anxiety, I wanted to explore this wobbliest of emotions.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), anxiety is “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increases in blood pressure.”  

There are two ways we cope with anxiety—worry and avoidance.

Worry is “the chain of negative thoughts about bad things that might happen in the future.” It’s the thinking part of anxiety that happens in your (and your character’s) head. Sadly, worry doesn’t fix a damn thing, even though many people—and characters—use it to control their circumstances. 

Brené suggests we learn how to control our worries and encourages us to stop suppressing them, and instead, “dig into and address the emotions driving our thinking.”

While worry keeps problems mentally near, avoidance is how we behaviorally distance ourselves from them. “It looks like not showing up, and… zigzagging around and away from the thing that already feels like it’s consuming us.” Brené ends her section on avoidance with a gut-punch-of-a-quote by Dr. Harriet Learner, author of The Dance of Fear: “It’s not fear that stops you from doing the brave and true thing in your daily life. Rather, the problem is avoidance.” 

Instead of being a solution, avoidance shackles us to our problem’s merry-go-round, where we spin until we puke, and then we ride some more.

While we don’t want anxiety to rule our lives, we must respect it. Evolutionarily, anxiety has helped us survive, largely by making us wary. To respect our anxieties, we must take time to identify, study, and understand them. Then we must learn the skills that will keep our anxieties in check, like mindfulness, journaling, physical activity, and progressive relaxation. 

As a writer, you can use what you learn about yourself and the facets of anxiety to create stronger, more compelling characters. At a technical level, that means revealing the internal, external, and interpersonal aspects of your character’s experiencesTo do this, you’ll need to include some internal monologue about their worries and reveal the ways anxiety physically shapes their experience, though I challenge you to trade the pounding hearts, sour stomachs, and clenched jaws writers frequently default to with gestures involving your character’s hands, feet, eyebrows, neck, tongue, or something else.

So, what did I learn about my sauerkraut anxieties? 

They were largely unfounded. At a future meeting, my new doctor will likely encourage me to eat fermented foods so I can strengthen my gut health, but I can do this without tainting my beloved breakfast. But fears about doctor prescriptions live on the surface of my life. So I looked a little deeper. 

I’ve always seen breakfast as the happiest meal of the day. While I generally don’t have strong emotional attachments to foods, eating my kind of breakfast, which never involves sauerkraut, makes me happy. At an unconscious level, a sauerkraut recommendation felt like a direct assault to my happiness.

Fortunately, my Lyme journey taught me that happiness is, and always will be, an inside job. So even if a doctor encourages me to replace my nutrition-packed overnight oats with sauerkraut, he could only steal my happiness if I let him. And if a little sauerkraut strengthens my gut and makes me even healthier, what am I really holding on to?

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