Anxiety, Stories, and Escape Rooms

I’ve been thinking a lot about anxiety lately, and how it often feels all encompassing, like a big, dark Box with no doors or windows from which to escape. You might be able to hear and sense the outside world from inside the Box, enough to know there is something better out there, but you feel utterly isolated from it and unable to access it, even if people from the outside are giving you instructions about how to get out of it. Your reality and perspective are rooted inside the Box because that’s where you are in the moment! The people on the outside giving you exit strategies mean well, and may even be giving you really practical, realistic ideas, but nothing they’re suggesting seems to be working, causing you to feel even more trapped and raising the level of panic.

When you’re inside the Box of Anxiety and being told an exit strategy, especially one that seems perfectly logical (like taking deep breaths, praying, meditating, exercising, etc), why is it so hard to use that strategy? Or more importantly, why doesn’t it seem to work?

Through my own personal experiences inside the Box, and in my years of speaking with others about their experiences inside the Box, I’ve come to observe that anxiety tells us stories while we’re inside the Box. Stories that come to feel more true and believable because they apply to what we’re experiencing in the present moment, and life beyond the Box seems unreachable. The Bad Guys of the narrative can tell us any variety of messages (“if we do/don’t do x, then y will/will not happen”; “if we are/are not x, then we are/are not y”; “we are responsible for x,” just to name a few), and a lot of times, spark an internal debate as we try to escape the Box by refuting these Bad Guys with evidence to the contrary. Sometimes, we win the internal debate with the Bad Guys and escape the Box. Sometimes, the Bad Guys persist, keeping us in the Box, causing us to question if they’re right or not. Especially when some of what they’re saying is based in truth, like if we’ve experienced trauma, carry shame from our past, or if the voices of the Bad Guys sound an awful lot like someone close to us.

A few months ago, my husband and his co-workers engaged in a team building exercise by going to one of those Escape Rooms that seem to be all the rage now. I have never been to one, and was curious to hear about their experience, considering I’ve honestly never really seen the appeal of purposely being locked inside a room and having to figure my way out of it (maybe because of my own experiences inside the Box?!).

He described going into the Escape Room with his colleagues and having to assess their surroundings to pick up on clues that would direct them to their way out of the room. Whenever they veered off track, an Escape Room employee would send the group a clue by text over a screen inside the room to give them a bit of guidance regarding their course. The group had a time limit in which they were to find the exit, and if they did not find the exit within the time limit, they would be let out of the Escape Room. My husband’s team triumphantly found their way out before time ran out and they celebrated their success over cocktails afterwards!

What if we view anxiety as an Escape Room, rather than a Box? My husband and his co-workers were very aware that they were locked in a room and they fully expected to find their way out of it. While we may not choose to be locked in the Box of anxiety (unlike an Escape Room, for fun), we can accept when that is where we are and what is going on, and expect that we will find our way out at some point or another. The practice of mindfulness comes in handy here (to be explored in a later blog post), as we accept where we are in the moment without criticizing or blaming ourselves. Accepting where we’re at may be scary and may not (probably won’t) take the difficult feelings away, but it can help us focus and look for clues as to what will help us “escape” the Room. And while it’s probably not helpful or realistic for us to give ourselves a time limit to escape the Room of Anxiety like in an actual Escape Room, we can remind ourselves of times in the past when we’ve not been in the Room, escaped the Room, or when we’ve silenced the Bad Guys of our stories. We can persevere in hope for the future through the comfort that, eventually, the time in our Room of Anxiety will run out and we’ll experience freedom again.

I emailed this blog to someone close to me before posting it, and she offered her profound observation of living with anxiety: “Life for people with anxiety is full of escape rooms. They never truly go away, but to be aware of them…and to be aware of when you are in one, is the first step to finding peace and accepting the space from which you work and from which you work out of on a daily, weekly, monthly, basis.”

One final note: remember the employee who would send my husband’s group clues when they were off course? A friend, pastor, mentor, counselor, etc. who understands the Escape Room of Anxiety can be helpful in providing support, as you come to terms with where you are, look for helpful clues to deal with the present, and persevere in hope for the future.

If you are looking for a counselor to help you Escape the Room (or Rooms, as it may be), give Abundant Life a call at 314-392-2895 or email us at abundantlifecounselingstl@gmail.com.

About Abundant Life Counseling St. Louis

Julie Williamson is the Founder and Therapist of Abundant Life Counseling St. Louis LLC. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor, National Certified Counselor, and Registered Play Therapist. She enjoys working with adults and adolescents facing the challenges of depression, anxiety, relationships, spiritual struggles, and life transitions.