Dealing with Anxiety - Journeying through The Medicine Wheel
Dr Martin Shaw, a World renowned Story Teller, whilst spending four years alone in the forest, discovered that the Earth speaks in the language of Myth. This hugely resonated with me. Not only because I love a good story, but because I had, over the past five years, been unearthing my own story. My own myth. And as I delicately brushed away the dust and dirt from my own private legend, I was able to create a small thread with which I could gently pull back the beautiful, innocent and positive creature that I was born. The creature, that really, we are all born. With all of the qualities that are not only ours to hold on to and shine out into the world, but the qualities that as individuals that are all part of the mystical web of life, are our birthright.
It is estimated that around 10% of the population of England suffer from Anxiety. I personally believe that it may be more than this, maybe much more. Because although I was battling my own personal fight, there were very few people, if any, that could have told you what I was going through. And that seems to be a common trait with both Anxiety and Depression.
Isolation. A brave face. A mask.
Firstly, I think it’s important to really break down what Anxiety is. The official medical description is this :
“Anxiety is a general term for several disorders that cause nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worrying. These disorders affect how we feel and behave and can cause physical symptoms.”
This is not wrong. But when reading this at age twenty two, when I really wasn’t enjoying life at all, I found little solace from this description. I found even less solace when sitting in front of my therapist as he recommended to me that we could keep talking or that he could refer me to a Psychiatrist who would allow me to choose from a wide array of pills to help me with these symptoms. He also, and I had to admire his honesty, explained that sometimes people are just anxious.
I have since spoken to many “traditionally” trained Psychotherapists and this view is anything but unique. Keep talking or get referred to a medical professional to be diagnosed with a terrifyingly named issue and offered medications that have equally, if not more, terrifying side effects. This is not to say that Psychotherapy doesn’t work, and that these medications don’t work. I know that for many, many people they are life changing and offer real happiness. But personally, the therapy wasn’t cutting it and I was too stubborn for pills. I also saw, and what scared me perhaps more than my Anxiety, was that many people who received a diagnosis went on to live the rest of their lives inside the mindset that they can’t do certain things - because they’re officially bi-polar, or officially chronically depressed, or officially have PTSD. This sort of mental incarceration is no good for healing. And is where a diagnoses can become a literal curse. Words are incredibly powerful, and when someone in a white coat with a clip board and all the relevant credentials tells you with a solemn look that you’re ill - it takes a very strong mind to re-write that story.
To get the the real root of an issue, I feel that you need to shift your mindset from looking at the symptoms, to looking at the underlying emotion behind them. Once again, using Mythology for this, you can look at Anxiety as the Nine Headed Hydra that Hercules had to face, in the lake of Lerna in the Argolid. The story goes that each time Hercules destroyed one of the vicious heads of the Hydra, another two or three would sprout from the same neck - multiplying the issues that our Hero had to face. It was only by destroying the main head, the immortal head, of the Hydra that all of the rest seized to exist. Applying this to our lives, and more intimately, my life, I could see that all of my anxious thoughts were heads of my own personal Hydra. And that each time I addressed one of these thoughts directly, it would just lead to more thoughts. I had to find the main head, the immortal head that had been with me since I could remember - the one which all of the other heads sprouted from. Easier said then done. As I had been dealing with this issue for so long, my Hydra’s heads were out of control. My symptoms, or my Hydra’s heads, were that I would constantly need to be reassured about everything I did. I would also be hyper vigilant and constantly in a state of fight-or-flight which was intensely exhausting. My mind would work overtime to find every single thing that could possibly harm or disappoint me and then amplify the chances and the repercussions of it happening, no matter how unlikely. It would also make the smallest things seem like life or death. From start to finish and at work, at parties and in relationships, I was was constantly mapping out every possible situation. And when I was able to address a thought to the point where the fear around it would disperse, another three or four would sprout out from it and the cycle would begin again. This was incredibly overwhelming and it would almost always end up in a panic attack. Which I had got so good at dealing with that I could have one in front of people and they would never know.
What I had to do is at the core of most, if not all, Myths and Legends. Like Hercules, I had to undertake my own Hero’s Journey, which is really the basis of all healing. To leave the “comfort” of my life to confront and slay the monsters and reclaim what I set out to rescue, which was my peace and ease with life, to finally arrive back home a new man - a healed man. And by the grace of many things that are far larger and more mysterious than I will ever understand, I was able to do this over the period of the next five years with Shamanism.
In Shamanic belief, every illness is Psychosomatic. Which is that it begins as a thought form, an energy, and eventually manifests itself in your body as what we call a disease. It is your bodies dis-ease at this foreign thought form or energy that creates a disease inside of you. The journey that this energy undertakes to transform into the end result of an illness is portrayed in what is known as a Medicine Wheel.
There are different variations on this Wheel from different cultures, but the idea is generally the same. This Wheel begins in the East, with The Fire. This will represent the original trauma, and this can be big or small. But it is something large enough to you at the time of this trauma that will cause a great enough shock for you to alter your perspective on life as you previously knew it. Let’s use the example that happened to me, which was the traumatic divorce of my parents when I was six. It is something that is incredibly common in our society, but nevertheless, when this happens, a child can suddenly have the safety mat of life pulled from under them, throwing everything they have ever known into total chaos. As children haven’t fully developed their senses of life enough to discern between the very nuanced situations that can lead to divorce, it is possible that they can see it purely as a representation of something that is inherently attached to an emotion. For example, “if this is Love, then Love hurts”. Even worse, they could include themselves in this equation - making it - “Love hurts anytime that I am involved”. This not only creates a Fear around an emotion that everybody craves (Love), but through blaming themselves, this further isolates them from the society that they’re part of - “I can’t Love like everyone else seems to be able to”.
The Medicine Wheel then churned into The South, which is represented by The Water, an emotional response formed around the original trauma that had happened in The East. For me, as I had experienced such pain out of nowhere, I equated that Love, as I knew it, was intensely unsafe. And that because my life up until that point had been filled with Love, then everything I knew was also unsafe. In fact, the only thing that made me feel something that resembled safe, was the feeling of being unsafe, because at least I was on guard to any potential pain and not just waiting for it. As I grew up, and my brain developed, I would become like a psychotic detective, angry at the world and exhausted from the misery of life. When something did slip through the net and I would end up getting hurt, as is life, it would only serve as further power to the original pain, which would drive me to become even more aware, even more fearful and even more anxious. My emotional response to my parents getting divorced when I was six then set me on a path for the rest of my life that was governed totally by Fear - Fear of love as I’d perceived it. Fear of the world. Fear of myself. Fear of family. Fear of potentially everything.
What then happened, when the Wheel moved into the West, the element of Air, was that I started to use my mind to begin to process what had happened. As happens when you’re young, your mind is constantly learning and finding out new things. But due to this shock, mine turned into a factory of ultra protective belief systems. I then used these belief systems as roads in which to travel down and these roads became my maps in which I could navigate my decisions from. As I was so overwhelmed by Fear, all of the belief systems that I created supported this view of the world, and because my Fear had stemmed directly from what I had experienced as Love, my belief systems became - “Love will only bring disappointment to me, and the stronger the Love, the stronger the disappointment” and even more tragically - “At some point, Life will bite me so hard it will break my heart again and it is totally out of my control”. But, no matter what your belief systems are, life goes on. And situations arise in everybody's lives constantly that contrast with and oppose these belief systems, which cause friction, and it is this friction where an emotional pain like Anxiety comes from. A big part of Anxiety is the attempt to control everything, and you can quite easily see the connection between the constant fear that life can spontaneously attack you, with the need to control everything around you.
The Wheel will eventually ground itself in The North - The Earth. Which will be when you act out these belief systems as truths and they become so engrained in your behaviour that you live your life this way. To me, how I perceived life was an absolute truth, and nobody could tell me otherwise. In my teenage years I became intensely aggressive. At the slightest hint of feeling attacked I would lash out either physically or verbally with ten times the force of whatever was coming at me. I wanted to be feared, so that people felt how I did, and that people didn’t come into my space or think that I was as vulnerable as I really was. As I got older and arrived at my twenties, this aggression burnt out, and I was left with fertile ashes in which a deep depression could flourish from. This was when the Anxiety really began to surface. Because of the anger, I never really felt that weak - but now, in it’s absence, I felt pathetic and worthless, and that if a situation that I was desperately trying to avoid did occur, it would completely crumble me. This drove the Anxiety on, and as it ramped up, the friction that would occur every time I was in a situation that triggered my Fear also began to increase and the energy got so high that it would take very little to set me off into a panic attack. I began to become a recluse and could only go out if I did a huge amount of drugs or was blind drunk. I hid behind many, many masks. I used to find it ironic that I was so shy and afraid yet at this time I was also working as an actor - but looking back there’s nothing ironic about it. It makes total sense that I hated who I was so I was getting paid to constantly become somebody else.
As mentioned prior, it is the Shamanic belief that the dis-ease that these energies cause in your body eventually manifest as an illness. It is my belief that because modern science is now so good at curing the symptoms of so many physical ailments, that these dis-eases have instead began to manifest as mental ailments. This is why without a modality of healing that can literally remove these intrusive energies, like Shamanism, we as a culture in the West simply have no answer to how we can stop developing or heal these intense mental conditions. Indigenous cultures seemingly have the answers, because in many of the Indigenous cultures I have spent time with - they don’t even have a word for mental health! Aside from the fact that they live much closer to Nature, live “simpler” lives and are much more community driven, another thing that many of these cultures have in common is that they are Shamanic in their beliefs. The also know what we have perhaps forgotten - that when Nature provides a poison, it will always provide the antidote. Emotionally, we tend to look externally for the answers to a problem, rather than where we lost the thing that we’re looking for in the first place. So, going by this logic, I looked again at the Medicine Wheel, and my healing followed the exact same pathway as my sickness.
It started back again in The East, with The Fire. Something will happen in your life that brings you back in touch with this original wound. For me, it was a Relationship turning very sour and realising that I was the cause of it. This was very painful. And it was here that I made the decision to open the door to healing. It was a chance not to run from this pain, but to dive headfirst into it. And for somebody who had chronic Anxiety, this had previously been too painful to even contemplate, because anytime that I would sit with these raw emotions I would have a panic attack. In order to even be able to sit in this fire, I first had to have the energetic charge that was related to my original trauma separated from the memory of it. This is where a Shaman came in. I had seen quite a few of them at this point, and had partaken in several medicine ceremonies with Ayahuasca with varying success. But eventually, I found a skilled enough practitioner who was able to enter my energy body and remove this charge so I could finally feel strong enough to confront these demons. However, this wasn’t complete healing. Complete healing is something that you must do yourself. But the Shaman removed the energy of what was not serving me and illuminated a path in which I could travel down to reclaim what I was desperately seeking. Thanks to the Shaman, for the first time I actually felt light enough to fly past my Anxiety, but it was me who had to learn how to use my new wings, and this was only the beginning.
This is where I began my Hero’s journey, picked up my sword and shield and took the first step into the unknown. I knew which way the road I was on was going - nowhere fun. But this road was mysterious, dangerous, and equally appealing and terrifying at the same time. Taking that step validated something inside of me that I had never truly believed - I was brave. For me, this was so healing in itself.
I arrived in The South - The Water, with my sword and my shield. This was an opportunity to change my emotional response to the original trauma. Instead of Anger, Grief, Resentment and Fear, I began to take some responsibility. Not for the reasons that it happened, but for the way that I let it make me feel. Life hurts. Suffering is a part of the life of every single thing on the planet. Death and Rebirth are both petals on the same mysterious and beautiful flower. I knew now that I had the choice to let that pain define me, or to use it for fuel to propel myself into bliss.
That pain had now become a gift - and there was nothing but my belief systems that were preventing me from incorporating this energetic gold into my life. This is where I moved back into The West - The Air. I was now beginning to see which of my belief systems were causing me to feel so depressed and anxious, because they were now almost constantly triggered by my new outlook on life. It’s amazing how these beliefs can seem so concrete, but they were the bricks and mortar of the emotional house that I had lived in since I was young - so young, that I really didn’t remember any other way of living. But, they only existed in my mind and I knew that I didn’t have to be a prisoner to them. I now understood that I could believe anything that I wanted to - we all can. I had to trust that I would achieve full healing, whatever the cost. After all, this is a Hero’s journey and no Hero ever came home without a few scars.
It is here that much of healing can also fail, as once you have realised your belief systems are yours to destroy, it may seem as though the healing is done. But it is not until you step into The North - The Earth, that you cement this new way of being and feeling into your life. This was by far the most challenging part of my entire journey. I had to shift my deeply engrained belief that life isn’t safe and that it could destroy me at any time, to “let’s just stop looking out for things and see what happens”. I had stepped out of a space of judging everything to judging nothing. To do this, I had to do something I had never done before, which was to allow myself to be vulnerable. To be open to be potentially attacked from every angle and naturally, this blasted my Anxiety into overdrive. It was clinging onto me desperately, begging me to act in accordance with it. I remember totally seizing up, and the voices in my head screaming at me to do something about the emotional daggers that were stabbing me in the chest. Before, I had ways of dispersing the energy that was caused by the Anxiety - I would seek answers for questions and ask for constant reassurance, or get out of my mind on drugs or alcohol, or have a panic attack which would very violently disperse the energy for me. To go against these voices was incredibly uncomfortable, and at times it felt like I was dying. I guess part of me was dying. I was almost willing myself to have a panic attack so that I could get some respite - but because the friction had been removed, it just wasn’t happening. I would bounce between this new way of being and acting like I had always acted - which brought me lots of shame and guilt. I would sit in my room, crying, thinking why have I just undone all of the healing by succumbing to this pain. I knew what I had to do, but much of the time I just wasn’t strong enough to do it, which brought up lots of the old feelings of being weak and pathetic. At this point, it took all of my strength to remember that healing is a spiral, not a straight line. You will at times be confronted with old behaviour and thought patterns that make you feel that you really haven’t changed at all, and I definitely was. But I had changed - I may have felt like I was back at the same point, but I was always several layers of the spiral higher. Don’t get disheartened. Healing is not about never falling down, it is about getting up, dusting yourself off and trying again. An amazing teacher of mine, a British Shaman named Jez Hughes, who showed me this medicine wheel, uses the analogy of turning a cargo ship. It will take some time, but little by little you will turn that ship around and see life from an entirely new perspective.
I think that it is important to also stress that Anxiety and Depression are not the evil, horned demons that they have been made out to be. For me, when I was finally able to confront my Anxiety for what it really was, it wasn’t actually scary at all. Quite the opposite. I saw a small boy, terrified and grief stricken, that looked up at me with tears in his small green eyes as he explained that all he was ever trying to do was protect me. From there I was able to take him into my arms as an adult, strong and learned enough to know that I didn’t need to be scared anymore, and with pure love and as a compassionate witness I was able dissolve him back into my being as something astonishingly dear to me. It was at that moment that I knew I had transformed my Anxiety into Love. And with the Hero’s journey complete, I was able to hang my sword and shield on the wall as reminders of the road I had travelled. Perhaps I will pick them up at a later date for another battle. But for now, at least, peace feels good.