Noble Anxiety: Feeling Your Feelings When You’re Not Numbing Them With Alcohol

Learning an important life lesson from Janice Dickinson was not on my 2023 Bingo Card, but here we are.

It’s 11:31 PM and I can’t sleep because I had the brilliant idea to have a cup of coffee at 4:30 PM. (There is not a single problem that a late afternoon coffee can solve for you, just trust me on that). So, I’m doing one of the most relatable things a human being can do at 11:31 PM on a Thursday: watching garbage reality TV on Netflix. Specifically, the show Botched.

I came across an episode where Janice Dickinson, the world’s first supermodel, was having a botched breast augmentation corrected. In her interview with the doctors, she mentioned that she is sober, having overcome some significant addictions to narcotics. She raised concerns about how she would navigate the painful recovery from the surgery without compromising her sobriety. It was a very vulnerable moment from a woman who isn’t known for her vulnerability.

Later in the episode, as she prepared for surgery, the cameras caught a moment between Janice and her fiancé. She said, ‘I’m having so much anxiety about the surgery. I don’t know how I’m going to manage the pain without the narcotics I know I have to stay away from” (my paraphrase). Her fiancé hugged her and said, “I’m proud of you. You’re feeling your feelings because you’re not numbing them. It’s noble anxiety.”

I can’t get those last two words out of my head. Noble anxiety.

Over the years, especially since becoming a mom, I have bought into the narrative that #momlife is hard and the best way to survive it is with wine. (I highly recommend reading It’s Not About the Wine: The Loaded Truth Behind Mommy Wine Culture if you’ve bought into that narrative, too). I decided that a glass of wine to relax and unwind after a long day was just what the doctor ordered—what I deserved for holding children, a job, a household, and myself together all day long. It was the fruit of my labor, so to speak. How I bravely did battle against the challenges of motherhood.

It never occurred to me that maybe that lifestyle was cowardly.

That’s not to say that anyone who has a glass of wine or two after a hard day is a coward. Your journey is your journey, and if you are approaching alcohol with a healthy mindset, that is great. What I had to address, for the first time since becoming a mom, was that perhaps my mindset wasn’t healthy. At least not as healthy as I thought it was. I was using alcohol to run away from my feelings, my problems. I wasn’t the brave warrior coming home from battle at the end of the day and washing away the trauma with a pint of mead. I was a middle-class white woman living the American dream in suburbia.

My struggles, of course, still mattered. Motherhood is hard. Many of us are exhausted, depressed, touched out, and overwhelmed. So, this isn’t to belittle what we go through by any means. All I’m saying is that maybe numbing our feelings about the very hard stuff of motherhood isn’t exactly brave or noble. (Again, these concepts are beautifully addressed in It’s Not About The Wine, which is what led me to begin thinking about these things in the first place).

All this is why the phrase noble anxiety really affected me. It is noble to feel our feelings. It is brave to refuse to numb ourselves out. It is courageous to allow ourselves to sit with our big and powerful feelings and say I can cope with this without alcohol. I can feel my feelings and still be okay.

For a lot of us, that is scary. We would rather not test whether we have what it takes to handle our feelings because what happens if we don’t? But I think that, for most of us, the truth is that we do have what it takes. We’ve just forgotten. It’s become so socially acceptable—so socially reinforced— that we don’t really remember how we coped with our feelings before.

I am grateful for this journey of re-evaluating my relationship with alcohol. I am learning so much about myself, both the good and the bad. I’ve discovered that my relationship with alcohol was probably less healthy or typical than I thought it was. But I’m also learning that, no matter how much of a habit or coping mechanism it has become, I’m still driving the car. I do still have the courage and the coping skills to handle my big feelings. I do know how to regulate my nervous system without alcohol.

I’m also learning the crucial lesson that alcohol does not help me sleep. In fact, it makes my sleep worse. Part of the allure of having a glass or two of wine after a challenging day was that I thought it would help me sleep. It was easy to gaslight myself into thinking that because I would tend to fall asleep quickly after having a drink. What I hadn’t realized was that such a violent plunge into sleep had a way of drawing me into wakefulness in the middle of the night, and often prodded me to stay awake after that. After a long and stressful day, falling asleep without a glass of wine is more gentle, less immediate. It takes me longer to finally fall asleep. But once I am sleeping, it is a deep, restful sleep. If I wake up at night, my brain and body gently tug me back to sleep instead of keeping me awake. I wake up the next morning refreshed, ready to put yesterday’s nonsense behind me. And that’s not a feeling I’ve felt in a while.

So, I’m going to embrace the noble anxiety. The noble sadness, the noble exhaustion, the noble anger. It is noble to feel our feelings rather than numb them.

And I am noble and brave.


Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

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