We have a complicated relationship with the lighting in our home. There always seems to be a light fixture that doesn’t work somewhere. I think if we called the electrician out to fix a light every time one broke, they would constantly be at our house. So, our strategy is to wait until we cannot stand it anymore and then call someone to come help. My husband Ben reached that breaking point recently after our garage light and the lights in both of our closets had been out for months. The electrician came, changed out the old fixtures, and voila, we had light. But I found myself going into the garage and still walking in the dark to the refrigerator where we keep our sodas. Instead of turning on the light, I automatically fell into the habit of fumbling my way to the fridge. The new light made the old patterns obsolete. But I was so accustomed to being in darkness, I didn’t take advantage of the new opportunity to light the path in front of me.
Sometimes, I do this to myself in life as well. I’ll make progress on a problem or situation that’s been bothering me, but instead of embracing the relief from anxiety, I continue to worry and obsess. I wander around in the darkness because it’s comfortable and familiar. It’s easy to fall back into the way things have been instead of fully plunging into the way things could be. Or my brain starts looking for another source of concern to replace the old darkness.
Recently, I read a book titled, “Relationship OCD” by Sheva Rajaee, MFT. She noted that anxiety does not just go away after we begin implementing recommended strategies that help us deal with anxiety. When we’ve become better at handling our regular sources of anxiety, “anxiety is left to search and scan, looking for something, anything at all, to rile them up, no matter how redundant or ridiculous it may be.” She named this the “lighthouse effect” for the “searching and endless seeking beneath the stories our anxiety tells us.”
When “lighthousing,” the brain spins and when it does not locate a familiar source of anxiety, we might have the “urge to attach a story, any story to the feeling of anxiety and the threat it produces.” It sounds backwards, and maybe it is, but the author stated as we become more conscious of this phenomenon, “you’ll begin to notice that not all anxiety has a reason to be there; not every feeling means there is an actual threat.” She also explained that as you learn to cope with anxiety, “you don’t need to demolish your lighthouse; you only need to recognize when its frantic searching captures your attention or tries on some new, shiny piece of content, and then gently disengage.”
When I feel my chest tighten – my body’s signal that anxiety is on the rise – I revert to old stories or find new sources to explain the anxiety I’m feeling. Instead of a lighthouse, for me, it’s like I’m out in the dark garage with a flashlight looking for the next subject to analyze and fixate on in order to explain my anxiety. Through therapy and medication and this latest book, I continue to make efforts to detach from my anxiety. Instead of staying in the dark garage where anxiety can grow and thrive, I can try my hardest to turn on the lights and live a little easier.