When gripped by an anxiety disorder, much of life is dictated and driven by fear. We make our choices and our decisions based on what we fear in an effort to avoid feeling the things we do not want to feel. When we work to build a new relationship with our anxiety, and we learn to no longer fear it, our lives become less about fear and more about what we truly value. The process of recovery is in many ways a march from a fear-driven life to a value-driven life.
What is a value-driven life? Living a value-driven life is all about making choices. Sometimes those are big choices and decisions on a very large scale. Sometimes they’re minute-by-minute choices. Living a value-driven life means making your choices and your decisions based on the things that are important to you. What matters to you? What defines who you are, or who you hope to be? What do you feel in your bones to be right or wrong? What brings you fulfillment or happiness? A value-driven life is built with decisions based whenever possible on these things.
While in the grips of an anxiety disorder, many of the decisions you make from the largest decisions in your life, right down to minute-by-minute decisions are based on fear. You fear your own body and mind and you are generally guided by the desire and need to avoid feeling things that you do not want to feel and to avoid experiences that you fear will trigger those scary sensations and thoughts. Many of your decisions are made solely in an effort to stay calm or to avoid anxiety and discomfort. You are predominantly living a fear-driven life.
In this situation, you want to go shopping, but you choose not to because you fear how you feel when you do that. You will avoid family gatherings or social events because they will be “too much” and you won’t be able to handle the anxiety. You engage in compulsions that you hate because they bring you temporary relief from fear and discomfort. You make choices designed to keep you safe and get you around the uncomfortable feelings and thoughts. Those are fear-based decisions.
When you make these choices, you know that you are going against what you truly want. You know that you are missing out on the things you really enjoy and value because you are afraid. You want to make different choices – to live the life you want – but you find that difficult or near impossible. When anxiety is in the driver’s seat, your values tell you to do one thing, your anxiety tells you to do another. In most cases, you wind up following the anxiety, not your values.
When you set out on the recovery path, you are working toward reversing this. You are working on taking the anxiety out of the control position so that your values can take the wheel and guide you. Most times we have no idea that this is what we are doing. Your first steps toward recovery are your first steps away from fear and toward your values, but you likely have not really looked at it this way.
When you go through the recovery process and we learn that you do not have to be afraid of your own body and mind, the fear begins to lose its grip. You gradually stop making decisions based on that fear. Slowly but surely, that means you’re free to do what you truly want to do. The value-driven life begins to emerge.
Sometimes, this creates a bit of a crisis. You are increasingly free to follow what you value rather than what you fear, but you may have lost touch with your values and what you want in life. Do not despair. This is quite common. If you’ve been fear-based for any length of time, it is not unusual to. being to lose touch with who you are and what really matters to you. As you emerge from the state of constant fear and avoidance, you may feel an uneasy emptiness that you’re not sure how to fill. This may even make you anxious! That can happen, but that’s OK.
One way to address this is to simply start trying things. Try to re-engage with the things you used to enjoy. Go back to old hobbies and interests. Give them a try again. You may find that you still value and enjoy them, or you may find that you do not. This is also OK. We change in life. What matters to us at 19 often does not matter anymore at 33 or 53. You may have to start trying brand new things. This may feel scary, and you may be full of uncertainty about it, but this is also OK. Everything is OK! You can handle it all.
Another way to address this issue would be to fall back on the values that have remained intact. Family. Career. Faith. Long-term relationships with friends and romantic partners. When you have aspects of your life that are still clearly important to you from a values standpoint, go back toward them with renewed energy. They can be the foundation upon which you stand while you figure the rest out.
Finally, let’s look at what this process really looks like in motion.
- In the early stages of your recovery, you are making what feel like forced, artificial choices just because you know you have to. Your choices may be largely dictated by your recovery plan, so you may just be following instructions.
- As you begin to pick up steam, you don’t necessarily have to follow instructions, but you will understand that you must make almost automatic choices based simply on doing the opposite of what anxiety tells you to do. You’re still not making value-based decisions very often. You’re just going against the anxiety and the fear.
- As you reach more advanced stages of recovery, you will find yourself with enough space between you and automatic, overpowering fear that you are able to make new decisions. These will be the decisions that start to reflect your values. You will deliberate, but you will do that productively now, weighing options with your morals, ethics, and core values in the mix.
In chapter 5 of “The Anxious Truth”, I wrote that that recovery is life and life is recovery. Sooner or later, they begin to merge. That’s what this is all about. In the beginning, recovery is life. But when a value-driven life becomes the new default way, then life has become recovery.
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