The headlines from this past week read like the promo to some blockbuster disaster movie: Queen Dies! Railroad Strike Narrowly Averted! MPox on the Rise! Fires! Floods! Climate Catastrophe! Stock Market Crash! You know there will be several sequels and maybe even a major franchise to follow.
I mention this because it took me several nights of restless sleep before I diagnosed myself with free-floating anxiety. Mind you, this is not an actual disorder; rather, it is a physiologic response to my inability to control things. My amygdala is on overload.
Like any well-trained and highly educated psychologist, I Googled “free-floating anxiety” to confirm what I already knew. And, just as I thought, I found utterly useless and contradictory bits of information that just made me feel more confused and unsettled.
That’s when I remembered my Inner Ant. “Inner Ant?”, you ask. Let me explain.
Ants as Role Models
There are over 12,000 species of ants, which suggests that, as a group, they have remarkable adaptive powers and have figured out some pretty nifty ways of dealing with an unpredictable and downright hostile world. They have staying power, having been around for over 140 million years.
They come in different colors (red, black, and brown) and different sizes. Some are strictly vegetarian (although I do not know whether they are gluten-free), and some are carnivores. As far as I know, they do not have any form of government, but they do follow social guidelines. It is hard to state with certainty, but I don’t believe they have any religious affiliation.
Ants are social beings. They have very specific roles they play within their colony. They go about their lives without a whole lot of neurotic mind games (at least as far as we know). They are born, they work, they eat, they make babies, they die. Day in and day out, in spite of changes in weather, climate, fashion trends or bitcoin trading; they do their ant thing.
Ant Therapy as Antidote to Amygdala Overload
You will not find ant therapy as a technique in any of the cognitive behavioral therapy books or websites. Jungian analysis does not mention ant therapy as an archetypal manifestation. It is not something that is practiced anywhere outside of my fertile imagination, but I have found it so useful, that I decided it was time to share it with a wider reading public.
I have watched in awe as ants complete impossible tasks of moving huge logs (well, to them they are huge) to one side so that the others in line can continue to bring food back to the Queen. I have admired how straight and well-paced their efforts are, never ceasing, just continually putting forth effort. Because of this, and other admirable traits I have come to appreciate in ants, I no longer kill them.
Ants as Role Models for Managing Free-Floating Anxiety
So how does that apply to free-floating anxiety? When an ant colony becomes disorganized due to external forces (weather, exterminators, shoes, or death of the Queen), they set about re-organizing and getting back to business. They pay attention to the task at hand. They take action. Translating that to my situation, I find that doing easily accomplished tasks like putting away dishes, folding laundry, or watering plants somehow anchors me in the now. From this place I can make better choices and calm myself.
It is not about compassion or understanding or sympathy or problem-solving. It is about “doing” as an act of faith. It is about defying my anxiety-riddled imagination and acting as if the next step had already been taken. When I set about “doing” and I join others who are engaged in similar pursuits, all of a sudden, my amygdala calms down and I regain my center.
Consulting My Inner Ant
In order to access her wisdom, I need to enter my Inner Ant’s world, join with the other ants and contribute to the task at hand. My contribution to the task at hand is totally based on my ability to set aside my own inner rumblings and pay attention to what is going on just in front of me. Not fifteen paces down the road, six months in the future or in the undefined land of “what if?”. It also requires that I not pay attention to what has happened in the past. I just need to follow the ant that is directly in front of me, and know that my job is to leave a trail sufficient for the ant behind me to follow. My Inner Ant will not interrupt her routine to listen to me share my feelings.
Turns out, this sort of activity is hardwired in humans as well as ants. Just look at how we stand in line to get our morning coffee or check out at the grocery store, but ignore anyone who is ranting. Of course, the trick is to find the right ant to follow.
That’s it – follow the ant ahead of me and leave a trail for the ant behind me.
Some Useful Precepts
Based on years of observing ants and on-going consultation with my Inner Ant, I have collected some useful precepts. I hope these may prove helpful should you be in need.
- Put your head down and do your work.
- Keep to the task, even when there are obstacles that get in your way.
- Follow well-known paths.
- Don’t go off on your own without leaving sufficient information for others to follow.
- Do your work not because you “have to” or because you “want to” but because the work is worthy of being done by you.
- Accept that life is a cycle.
Where Did My Free-Floating Anxiety Go?
After consulting with my Inner Ant, I decided not to spend any time worrying about my anxiety. I tidied up my house, petted my cats, went to a yoga class and am now getting ready for a nap. All the while I was doing these things the world kept on turning, the seasons kept on changing, and the ants kept on doing their ant thing. My free-floating anxiety, however, disappeared.
If you are experiencing panic attacks or anxiety that interferes with your ability to experience joy, it makes sense to seek help. This is so much more than free-floating anxiety. You would benefit from having a mental health professional guide you in how to manage your distress. Right now, qualified therapists are in short supply, and it will take time and effort to find someone who can support you. Know that you are worth the time and effort and keep trying (see precept #6 above).
4 responses to “Channeling My Inner Ant”
I have an underlying thread of anxiety which is only relieved in deep meditation…so….. The whole concept of enoughness is stabilizing for me and helps me to accessinner peace even for only moments. The precepts are excellent guides. Thank you, Mary
Love this analogy! Ants have been around longer than we have so they must be on to something! They are in the moment! Wise critters.
now my restless anxiety has a fancy name-amygdala overload. after my daily walks that set up my ant like daily actions i shall thank my psych friend for her knowledge as i truck onward
What anxiety? Left it on the log.