I often carry lizards in my pocket at work.

They aren’t alive, but a nice variety pack of assorted colored, striped, spotted, plastic reptiles. I give them out to patients who are suffering from their experience of anxiety.

When Anxiety Becomes Too Much

Anxiety comes in many flavors: social anxiety, generalized anxiety, and panic attacks. It is a universal human phenomenon and can work to help us appropriately avoid situations or plan for certain outcomes. We all experience anxiety, it’s only when the anxiety begins to intrude on life that it becomes problematic.

You’re not going to get a lizard from me if your anxiety is garden variety, run of the mill.


Staying in Overdrive

Our old reptilian brain is always looking for danger in the environment to keep us safe. Usually, it is looking for lack and attack threats. Once perceived, it readies us for action in the form of fight or flight (sometimes to ‘freeze’). If our lizard brain is over-wrought or stuck ON, keeping the sympathetic nervous system on overdrive, anxiety may be playing a larger-than-necessary role in our lives.

Living in a mostly constant state of anxiety is exhausting.

Accepting Anxiety

People ‘handle’ their anxious thoughts and feelings differently, but often it’s a combination of learning techniques like breathing or meditation, creating rigid rules or rituals around their eating and other behaviors, worrying, avoiding social situations, or using opioids, benzos, pot or alcohol to instantly relieve the uncomfortable sensations.

Of course, many of our patients who started out using substances to help deal with their overwhelming anxiety have found they cannot stop using without going into withdrawal. It is a very common reason people come to us for a medically assisted withdrawal.

Some of the newest research suggests that instead of learning to ‘manage’ anxiety, it may be more helpful to practice acceptance of the anxiety. In a way, trying to ‘fix the anxiety ‘problem’ suggests there is something wrong. Even that is a judgment that creates resistance.

Recognizing the Lizard Tune

What if, when anxiety—with all of its uncomfortable feelings, sensations, memories, thoughts…showed up, a person could learn to be present with all of that until it passed. Which it will, by the way. What if a person allowed himself to feel the discomfort for a few moments, and continued to do the things in their life that they value, despite the discomfort?

What if, when anxiety showed up, a person could learn to recognize it is one of their Lizard Tunes, and say to their lizard, “Ah, thank you. I know you think you are keeping me safe from harm. But, lizard, here I am; the sun is shining, the ground is holding me up, I am breathing. It’s ok.”

That’s the conversation that will bring forth a lizard from my pocket.

Joan Shepherd, FNP