Anxiety is a big reason that Thighs of Steel managed support 95 cyclists over 5,408km from Glasgow to Athens and raise over £110,000 for grassroots refugee projects.
All thanks to good old anxiety.
I don’t mean that metaphorically, mystically or even mythically. I mean that in a very concrete way.
One tiny example
Two weeks before the ride set off, I was up late, worrying. As you do.
With 50 cycling days across 9 arduous weeks, Thighs of Steel is built on a rigid schedule: there is scarcely any wiggle room for disasters that take time out of the day.
Restlessly I mind-scrolled through each of the weeks, trying to imagine how they would all go horribly wrong, in as much catastrophising detail as my stress-addled brain would allow.
Week 2 of the ride, from Bristol to Paris, involved 529km of beautiful cycling through the cathedral towns, rolling countryside and luscious woodlands of southern England, into croissant-nibbling, cheese-munching, chateau-spotting France.
We would cycle, we would camp, we would cycle, we would camp, we would cycle, we would camp, we would catch a ferry, we would cyc —
Shit — I haven’t booked the ferry!
Heart pounding, blood rising, I leapt out of bed and dashed to the computer, praying to the four goddesses of St Christopher’s lucky rabbit foot that the ferry we had to be on would have last-minute space for 17 cyclists and a massive van.
We could neither afford the re-route to another port a hundred kilometres away, nor the five hour delay to wait for a later ferry.
Of course, the four goddesses were smiling upon me that night. But the real reason that disaster was averted was thanks to — yep — good old anxiety.
Good Old Anxiety
Like I said, that’s just one tiny example.
The disaster-spotting and problem-solving energy of anxiety came to our rescue thousands of times before we ever left home and on a near minute-by-minute basis during the ride.
The towering success of the ride was founded on anxiety.
The problem is that, if you have my sort of interpretation of anxiety, then that last sentence sounds AWFUL.
Who wants to feel anxious the whole time? Anxiety is a horrible feeling! (says I).
But this is only one interpretation of anxiety.
There is another sort of interpretation, one that acknowledges the energy and power that anxiety gives us.
Imagine the opposite. Imagine we never felt anxious. Imagine we went around in a semi-tranquillised state all the time. Nothing would happen!
Sure, we’d be mellow as fuck, but there’d be no adventures, no laughter, no stories to tell our grand kids.
Heart Pounding, Blood Rising
Ultimately, anxiety is a physiological response to a situation: heart pounding in my chest, blood rising to my neck.
However, the fact that I have interpreted anxiety as ‘a horrible feeling’ is wholly psychological.
For some reason, ‘horrible’ has become my default interpretation of that physiological response — at least in some circumstances.
Heart pounding, blood rising is actually my physiological response to quite a few things, many of which I interpret as ‘right good fun’.
But when it comes to what I call ‘work’, I default to an interpretation that makes me feel shitty about the energy that I call ‘anxiety’.
Incidentally, this seems to be getting worse as I get older, and as more and more of my day-to-day activities are labelled as ‘work’ and therefore potentially labelled as anxiety-inducing.
And that’s not all…
Shitty Interpretation = Shitty Thoughts
My shitty interpretation of anxiety leads to a cascade of shitty thoughts.
Firstly, I feel shitty for feeling shitty. I beat myself up for feeling anxious instead of some other emotion that I’ve labelled as ‘non-shitty’.
Secondly, I’m more likely for my shittiness to take over and colour the rest of my world experience.
For example: if there are other people around, then I’m likely to try and pin the blame on them for some aspect of the situation.
Why didn’t anyone else book the ferry? Why did it have to be me up at night worrying? How crap am I going feel tomorrow after losing so much sleep?
Then, thirdly, I feel shitty about myself for being shitty about other people.
Not One, But TWO Vicious Cycles — Yay!
So that’s shitty thought cascade is vicious cycle number one:
Anxiety ➡️ Being Shitty About Others ➡️ Ugh, I’m Shitty ➡️ Anxiety Rebound
But until now my only management technique for anxiety has been to try to push the anxiety further away: I shouldn’t be feeling like this. I should be feeling tra-la-la, la-di-dee instead.
Unfortunately, something you probably know about human anatomy is that our feelings are held in place (with cartilage to the spleen, I’m told) by a very powerful spring: push them away and they come back twice as hard to smack you in the face.
And, boom, that’s vicious cycle number two:
Anxiety ➡️ Push Anxiety Away ➡️ Anxiety Rebound
So the alternative interpretation of anxiety cannot be the false YAY I’M SO HAPPY LOOK AT ME I’M HAPPY.
The alternative interpretation is (drum roll and pull quote please):
I’m anxious — GREAT. My body is priming me to get shit done. So let’s do it.
Don’t ignore the anxiety or push it away. Don’t pretend that anxiety is always a lovely buzzy feeling of excitement (but remember that sometimes it is).
Instead, acknowledge that anxiety gets shit done. Respect the energy it generates.
All those physiological changes in our bodies make us perform better. Anxiety is not hindering, but empowering us.
That shot of adrenalin, the pounding heart and the rising blood give us the physiological boost we need to spot and solve difficult problems and work through disasters without anyone dying (hopefully).
Anxiety is not enjoyable, but it is useful.
So this story is a shout out to anxiety. I want to remember all the millions of times in the past that this uncomfortable emotion has saved all our asses.
Then, next time Sinjoro Maltrankvilo (as they say in Esperanto) comes galloping along, maybe I can tip my hat, grit my teeth and welcome him with a stern handshake and a whiskey.
My pardner’s back in town. What’s the job?
Thanks to Ben from Align Mind Body for a good chat that clarified how I’d tackle this topic today. As a meditation teacher, Ben knows all about observing emotions and finding that space between observation and interpretation. And — oh look! — he’s running an Intensive Meditation Foundation Course, starting on 24 October.