Racing heart. Shortness of breath. Muscle tension. Insomnia. Lost appetite. A head full of worries and worst case scenarios.
Unpopular opinion #1: Anxiety is not a bad thing
If you’re a conscious being, your anxiety makes sense. We are living in a highly uncertain world with too much information at our fingertips all of the time. The physical sensations we call “anxiety” are there to alert us of threat. Your nervous system is literally doing what it’s supposed to do, so good job!
Back in the caveman days, that threat might have been a bear running toward us. Today, it can feel more vague and shapeless but just as terrifying. We might be kept up at night by worries about climate change, or never finding a life partner, or humiliating ourselves during a work presentation.
Anxiety itself is not bad. When it becomes problematic, or something we might call a “disorder” is when it starts to interfere with our lives, holding us back from the people and places we love or long for. This often happens because of the tricky relationship we have with it, which leads us to:
Unpopular opinion #2: Taming your anxiety is not the same as getting rid of it.
Here’s the thing: the more we try to make it go away or even to reduce it to a level we believe is “acceptable,” the more it tends to ramp up (kind of like pushing one of those inflatable beach balls under water – the harder the push, the stronger the bounce back).
We often have a very contentious relationship with our anxious thoughts and feelings. We want to push them away or get rid of them. We may look to strategies for doing this, such as changing our thoughts, or taking deep breaths. These things can be very helpful! But anxiety is sneaky. If it senses you’re doing these things to banish it, it’s not going to be happy (because who likes to be banished?!)
So am I suggesting that we just accept our anxiety? Wouldn’t that mean that we’ve let it win?
Not quite. But I am suggesting that we radically shift our relationship to it. This isn’t something that happens overnight, but rather something that takes consistent practice, intention and a sense of humor.
How do I know? Because I’ve been there. I’ve dealt with several episodes of the kind of anxiety that warrant a diagnosis, and I’ve learned that the most powerful approach comes from shifting from an attitude of contention to one of befriending. This is also work I’m passionate about sharing with my clients, and have seen many folks find greater peace, confidence and courage in the face of what formally felt like unmanageable anxiety.
I know, easier said than done. It also means working with and shifting our relationship with the parts of us that want it gone (because hey, they’re valid too!).
Here are a few ways I (and many of my clients) tame anxiety:
Create some space
Befriending anxiety does not mean becoming it. Often, when we feel overwhelmed or out of control, it’s because anxiety has taken the steering wheel of our life and we’re seeing and experiencing everything as if we were it.
One simple way of beginning to create space is to name it. Rather than saying “I’m anxious,” try saying “I notice I’m experiencing anxiety.” I also like to use visualization. What does the anxious part of you look like? Does it have a shape, a color, a size? The more we bring the formless into form, the less power it has over us.
Once you’ve found a little space from the part of you holding the anxiety, see if you can adopt an attitude of curiosity, rather than judgment, toward it. If you find this to be challenging, know that you’re not alone. It’s normal to have a lot of conflicting feelings and thoughts toward the anxiety, and just because you intend to befriend doesn’t mean that those parts of you that want it gone are going to automatically pipe down.
Try to embrace it all. The anxiety as well as the parts of you that rear against it. If the “rearing against” feels strongest, get curious about that. What’s that part of you afraid would happen if it didn’t work so hard to banish the anxiety? When we can understand the positive intentions behind all our responses to anxiety, it helps us soften and relax.
A common source of anxiety, and a way that we try to defend against it, is by seeking certainty. In the short term, finding a sense of certainty can help anxiety pipe down, and I’m not saying that we shouldn’t seek to control the things that we can. It absolutely can be helpful to get clear on what we can control/fix/tend to, and take action.
That being said, there is so much that is out of our control, whether or not we want to admit it. Facing this reality takes a certain amount of courage, confidence and trust in ourselves that we actually can handle whatever may come our way. If that feels impossible, you may want to get curious about the parts of yourself holding the stories around not being able to handle it. A qualified guide, such as a therapist, can help you with this task.
Give your nervous system some love
To be clear, anxiety does not feel good. It is full of uncomfortable feelings, sensations and sticky, hot thoughts. We live in a culture that encourages us to move away from, rather toward, discomfort (this in of itself is problematic, but a conversation for another time).
As much as we intend to befriend, create space, and normalize uncertainty, our nervous system does take a beating from high anxiety, and it’s good to send it some soothing from a place of care and compassion (an important difference from frantically trying to breathe deeper so it will go away).
This is where practices such as yoga, meditation, breathwork, and other forms of grounding/re-centering/calming techniques come in handy. We can approach calming our nervous system from a place of love and kindness, rather than frustration and force.
Curious to learn more or to work with a qualified guide who has done this work (and continues to practice it daily)? Book a free consultation with me today!