Written by therapist Danielle Braun-Kauffman of RePose Therapy
Anxiety can be gripping, debilitating, consuming, overbearing, frustrating, in charge, life-altering and limiting. There are so many more adjectives that can be used to describe anxiety, these are just a few. Those who experience persistent anxiety and identify as chronically anxious are no strangers to suffering. It’s incredibly difficult to live in a way where anxiety has woven its way through every corner of your life. I suffered from chronic debilitating anxiety most of my life; I know the suffering intimately. When I see clients who suffer from anxiety, I understand that it’s not just that they are kinda scared of irrational things sometimes but rather, anxiety is an unpredictable force that feels like it rules them. Suffering from anxiety is all-consuming. It’s all-consuming because you never know when the big scary beast of anxiety is going to show up – it’s often unpredictable. And when we feel like our world on the inside is unpredictable, then we feel a sense of being unsafe and a lack of choice in how we experience our life. Living with anxiety is no small easy thing to manage, and so there are no magic cures or perfectly equated step by step formulas to overcome it, but there is hope. The hope lies in something that is counter-intuitive when anxiety is visiting. It is the opposite response of what everyone wants to do when a wave of anxiety washes over them.
Let’s for a minute look at what most of us do when anxiety comes knocking at our door. Most of us get mad that it’s there, or we ignore it, or we try to cut it out of our life. We shame ourselves for ‘still being so anxious about something that isn’t even a big deal.’ We minimize our experience of anxiety and what it represents in order to get rid of it. When I see clients start to name the ways in which they have tried to get rid of their anxiety, I always ask “Is this working for you?” And the answer is always a defeated “no”. It doesn’t work to feel free from anxiety. It didn’t work for me either. It’s human nature that when something is hard or uncomfortable, that we want to just get rid of it and free ourselves from the pain.
So, what I would like to propose as an alternative, that has worked for me over time both personally and professionally is: to create a relationship with your anxiety. A relationship where you understand that even though there isn’t a threat, you start to be curious about why anxiety is showing up without judgement. A relationship where there is a listening to the messages that anxiety brings, and compassion for this part of you that has been scared for so long. As I said before, there is no formula for this, but I would like to lay out seven ideas that may help you to find a new relationship with anxiety.
1. Anxiety is the feeling we have when we don’t know how to have the feeling we are having. This idea has been revolutionary for me and for many of my clients. I think what often happens is that we get so afraid of what we are feeling that when any emotion shows up anxiety is quick on its heels. It’s almost like the emotion itself has become the threat. Therefore, becoming curious about what other emotion you might be feeling can lead to relief from the anxiety. The work then becomes learning how to feel the grief, anger, fear, helplessness, etc. that may be underneath.
2. To build on this last idea – usually, the suffering we are experiencing is the feeling about the feeling, not the feeling itself. An example of this is we feel helpless about something, but instead of feeling helpless we feel anxious about feeling helpless. Or when we feel anxious we are mad about the fact that we are anxious. Our feelings about our feelings can keep us from what is really going on. When we discover that there are other underlying feelings we are having, the best thing we can do is get really curious about what it might be connected to for us. It’s helpful when we understand that every emotion that visits us is trying to tell us something about what we need. When we can feel what we are feeling without judgement, we can then be curious about how it’s trying to get us in touch with a need.
3. Remembering that we learn how to feel through relationships, not in isolation. Anxiety does not develop in isolation but rather through a web of relationships and experiences, that are often connected to childhood. Understanding this can serve to create an atmosphere of non-judgement. A helpful question can be; “What were my family rules or expectations around emotion? How do these keep me from being allowed to have the feeling I’m having?”
4. Anxiety quiets down when we pay attention to what it needs. Anxiety can feel like a little kid begging for your attention. When we ignore the child, they pull harder and get louder, and sometimes become more annoying. When we attend to them, look them in the eyes, get on their level, we can acknowledge their feelings and hear what it is they need in order to feel ok again.
5. If you can find a way to externalize anxiety. If anxiety is externalized as something outside of you rather than BEING you than it’s not that you ARE an anxious person, it’s that anxiety is something that visits you sometimes. This shift can create space from shame and expectations about how you should be or feel. It can be helpful to allow your imagination to create a picture of anxiety, whether it’s a character in a book, or an animal, something that can represent anxiety as outside of you. Once you have that picture see if you can become really curious about it. Sometimes having a journal where you allow “Anxiety” to have a voice and you allow yourself to respond can be helpful. Something like:
a) Anxiety – I’m so scared of that event tonight, don’t go it’s going to be horrible, no one likes you!
b) You – Wow I hear how scared you are, you’re fear is so so big you’re trying to scare me into not going to keep me safe. Thank you for wanting me to be safe, I want that too. What do you need in order for us to be safe tonight?
a) Anxiety – I need to know I can go hide in the bathroom if I get scared. I need to know who my people are. I need to tell someone that I’m scared to go.
b) You – Thank you for telling me what you need. It’s totally okay if we need to hide in the bathroom if it gets to be too much. I won’t be mad at you if that’s what you need. Let’s go tell our best friend what’s going on inside so that we don’t have to feel it alone.
6. Breath. Trying to breathe through anxiety before you’ve attended to it, usually creates more anxiety. We often hear how helpful it is to breathe when you are scared or anxious, and while it is true that breath can be a huge resource to us, it can also create more anxiety when we’re using our breath to just get rid of it. Generally, this doesn’t work it makes things worse. Breath works well when we’ve been able to observe, the anxiety and be curious about why it is visiting us and think about how to meet the need it is trying to point us towards. This softening creates space for breath which then deepens a sense of calm and new possibility.
7. Move your body. I don’t mean this in the way we usually hear it. I don’t mean ‘just go exercise!’. While there is nothing wrong with exercise, what I am suggesting is much more intentional and mindful and doesn’t need to involve a sweat. The truth is that for every one message that goes from our brain to our body, 9 messages go from our body to our brain. Yet we often try to change our brain in order to calm the nervous systems state of anxiety. Sometimes when we can recognize that buzz inside of us and consciously walk with it, or do yoga, or even just stretch this can remind the body that it is safe and the anxiety can ease. Creating a new experience in your body creates a new experience in your brain.
Where ever you may be in your journey with anxiety know you are not alone and there are possibilities for change and healing. While I do not recommend medication as the first option, sometimes being on meds can help create space in your brain to do this other work of creating a new relationship with anxiety. Even if it’s only for a time to help your brain learn that it is safe now and it doesn’t have to be so scared anymore. Anxiety is complicated and it is not a one size fits all solution, but there is hope.
If you are looking to connect with a therapist, RePose is there for you. Be sure to check out their website and get connected.