Medusa and anxiety

Medusa and Anxiety: How Our Fears Turn Us to Stone

Originally published on July 26, 2021

Linking Medusa and Anxiety

I’ve been on a bit of a mythological kick with the blog as of late, so I figure I might as well keep it going. Today, I want to take a look at an infamous, fear-inducing Greek monster: Medusa.

If you haven’t heard of her before, not to worry. We’ll do a quick recap just to get everyone on the same page here.

In a nutshell, Medusa was a vicious, winged colossus capable of destroying just about anyone who ventured on her path. Except for Perseus, of course. But we’ll get to him in a minute.

Now, the two things Medusa was best known for were her hair and her stare. In terms of the former, she had one of the scariest scalps in all the land. Instead of beautiful locks upon her head, she had formidable, venomous snakes. And while those serpents were undoubtedly horrifying, somehow, they weren’t even her worst feature. No, that title went to her eyes.

Specifically, Medusa’s stare was so vicious that anyone who looked into her pupils immediately turned to stone. And I don’t mean that metaphorically — such folks would literally turn into statues. Terrifying, I know.

What Does This Snake-Headed Monster Compare to in Our Lives?

One of the best things about mythological tales is the lessons they provide and the application those lessons can have to our personal journeys. And while we obviously won’t come across any snake-headed, death-staring monstrosities in our own lives, we do face many things that scare us regularly — sometimes so much so that they figuratively turn us into stone.

So, just what are these statue-forming subjects?

They’re the thoughts, possibilities, and upcoming events that jumpstart our anxiety the most — our dream-job interviews, make-or-break dates with potential companions, public speeches, and so on.

When we worry about them prior to their arrival, we metaphorically look into their destructive eyes. And when we do that, they debilitate and panic us, making it hard for us to think, breathe, or even move — just like Medusa once did to all those who confronted her.

One of the problems with anticipating these kinds of events has to do with the fact that they trigger our fight-or-flight response. When this system initiates, it tells us there’s a potential danger in front of us we need to address. However, with such events, and despite these messages, it’s rare such an actual, immediate threat exists.

This discrepancy between perception and reality causes us a great deal of mental trouble. So often, it pushes us into our heads and forces us to worry about these incidents hours, days, or weeks before they come to pass.

That kind of thinking puts us in anxious states for far longer than necessary and brings about all sorts of adverse side effects, such as a loss of interest in doing things we care about, an inability to focus, and feelings of gloom and overwhelm. These side effects are the modern-day ills of figuratively locking eyes with Medusa.

Now, as scary as it is to get caught in the gaze of the things that worry us most, there is a somewhat reliable way to deal with them. That strategy comes from the warrior who took down Medusa long ago: Perseus.

How Do We Behead the Medusa-like Monster That Is Anxiety?

To defeat Medusa, Perseus employed a very clever and novel game plan. Knowing he couldn’t look into her eyes directly, he flipped his shiny shield toward his face and used it as a mirror to guide himself toward his snake-headed opponent. Then, he quietly and carefully edged closer to her until he felt he was in striking distance. From there, he used his shield to line up his attack, drew his sword, and beheaded her in a single slash.

Now, while I definitely don’t want to romanticize our battles with anxiety too much via this comparison, there’s certainly something we can learn from our Greek hero in terms of dealing with our fears. That is, instead of continually looking into their eyes and ruminating or trying to mentally “prepare” for them, we can let them draw closer without paying much mind. Then, we can move within striking distance and take action before they catch our eyes, startle us, and metaphorically turn us to stone.

To make more sense of what I’m talking about here, let’s look at a hypothetical example. Specifically, let’s say we have a career-defining athletic competition on the horizon that’s causing us a great deal of anxiety.

In this situation, acting as Perseus would take the form of continually distracting ourselves ahead of the competition so we can get as close to it as possible without overwhelming and debilitating ourselves. Luckily, there are countless ways by which we could achieve such a feat. For example, we could engage in our favorite pastimes, hang out with our friends, or meditate. The list is practically endless.

Then, once we arrive at the event, we can finish our Perseus-like mission by keeping our eyes away from the scary task at hand. That way, our worries surrounding it won’t turn us to stone, prevent us from using our swords with full force, or hinder our performance all that much.

And while none of this is necessarily easy to do, two things help make carrying it out a bit more feasible. The first is our realization that looking into the eyes of Medusa — the physical or conceptual representations of our fears — only freezes us and holds us back.

The second is the understanding that once we’ve adequately trained, practiced, or studied for the event in front of us — assuming that’s even necessary — no amount of worrying will make us any more prepared for it. In fact, it will likely only do the opposite.

In the case of our current example, this lesson tells us that, since we’ve already put in the required physical training for our competition, we have permission to put down our worries surrounding it. What a relief that grants us.

And though it’s always tempting to jump back into our heads and try to visualize ourselves taking home first place, we should remember that such a strategy is rarely helpful for us anxious folks. In fact, all it ever really does is put us back in front of Medusa’s gaze. That’s a terrifying place to be.

So, the next time you find yourself preparing to do something that makes you nervous, remember the lessons our monster-beheading hero and the link between Medusa and anxiety provide. Moreover, and most importantly, do your best to avert your eyes from your worries and keep yourself in a positive mental state. It will come in handy not only as you approach your fear-provoking event but also as soon as you need to lift your figurative sword and take your best cut.

Thanks for Reading. Want Some More Mental Health Insights?

Then check out my book on overcoming anxiety or some of my other recent articles. Here are a few I recommend:

What Is Toxic Positivity and Just What’s So Toxic About It?

Chewing Gum and Mental Health: A Novel Way to Regulate and Reduce Stress

**Image designed and owned by Brian Sachetta ©2021

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