Befriending Our Anxiety
So many of us in modern society struggle with anxiety and the question of how to make our feelings of anxiety go away. However, the often surprising paradox is that by trying to make our anxiety go away, many of us are feeding it and making it stronger.
This might sound like a strange thing to say, but I really think that we have a problem with the demonisation of anxiety in our society. In fact, I think that we need to learn to be kinder to it.
You might well be wondering what on earth I'm talking about. You might be thinking, "that's easy for you to say as a counsellor, but anxiety is ruining my life right now. It deserves to be demonised." If so, I totally understand this point of view. But hear me out...
I also struggled with generalised anxiety quite badly for a couple of years before I became a therapist. For a while, when I was working as a teacher and experiencing burnout, it made my life a living hell on a regular basis. I was holding down a full-time teaching job, teaching outstanding lessons, juggling my marking and paperwork, assessing progress and doing 'really well' professionally...but crying at home because I was crushed by feelings of intense anxiety that I was keeping hidden away because I thought that if I just kept functioning well at work then that was proof that I was 'coping'. I'm talking about befriending our anxiety but trust me, at this point, anxiety was not my friend.
I didn't want to be its friend. It was a bully. It made me want to sob and shut off from my partner on a regular basis. It filled me with doubts and made me see potential danger in every possible scenario. It manifested in many unpleasant physical symptoms - a choking feeling of pressure and pain in my throat, tension headaches, digestive problems, sleep problems, exhaustion, constantly painful shoulders, a feeling of pressure in my chest - at one point I even genuinely convinced myself that I might be having a heart attack. Convincing myself that I was ill via hours spent with Dr Google was also a common occurrence. It made me insular, snappy and unable to rest or relax. I wanted it far, far away from me. I wanted to feel relaxed, carefree, optimistic and hopeful again. I did not want to be its friend. It had no space in my life. I wanted it gone.
So I set about getting rid of it. In an effort to create a sense of long-forgotten safety, I anticipated all of the things that could go wrong and I put safety plans in place in my mind, just in case. I did yoga. I tried meditating. I used CBD oil. I worked hard to be the perfect employee (nobody had yet told me that perfectionism can be a symptom and a cause of anxiety). I tried thinking positively, telling myself how lucky I was, looking on the 'bright side.' I kept on trying to be a 'functional adult.' I busied myself more - Brene Brown phrases it beautifully when she says,
"What a lot of us do is that we stay so busy, and so out in front of our life, that the truth of how we're feeling and what we really need doesn't really catch up with us."
It didn't work.
I see so many people doing the same thing as I did - seeing anxiety as a problem to get rid of, rather than what it actually is - a normal, healthy, coping mechanism and an emotion that needs our attention and compassion.
Anxiety is our mind and nervous system's wonderful way of letting us know that it senses a threat. There's nothing wrong with experiencing anxiety - in the right circumstances (e.g. our anxiety convincing us not to walk down a dark, isolated alleyway at night) it can keep us safe. Part of our brain, our amygdala, is letting us know that it thinks that something potentially dangerous might be round the corner. The difficulty is, that in our modern world, sometimes our amygdala goes into overdrive and senses disproportionate levels of threat, causing high levels of anxiety in our daily life. We live in a very fast-paced world with lots of pressures and sensory stimuli but often not enough opportunities to stop, process and discharge nervous energy or stress. People who have suffered trauma also often, understandably, find that they have more heightened levels of anxiety afterwards.
Often, anxiety sufferers berate themselves for feeling the way that they do, with internal monologues such as, "What is wrong with me? Why can't I just be like everyone else? I'm such a loser. Everyone else can cope, why not me?" They push it under the carpet, ignore it, avoid facing whatever is making them feel anxious, distract themselves and shun those anxious parts of themselves as 'flawed' or 'broken.'
The problem is, if we were walking down the street with a friend who tried to warn us about something dangerous, and we ignored them and told them to 'shut up', they'd just shout louder. They'd be terrified of our response. They'd want to save us from the danger because they care about us. If we ignored them, they'd find a way to make themselves heard. Our amygdala is the same. If we ignore those warning signs, then it ramps up our anxious feelings to shout louder until we pay attention.
On the other side of the coin, if we joined in with our friend looking for every potential threat on our walk, we might not get very far and we'd both feel horrendous - this is what happens when we're anxious and try to plan for every possible scenario or catastrophe - our amygdala thinks that it's doing a great job but we're actually fuelling the fire, feeling awful and not getting a lot done.
If however, we stopped, calmly turned to face our friend and said, 'hey - thanks for warning me. It looks like you're really stressed about something but I can't see the threat. Thanks for looking out for me though - can we work together to try to work this out?' then you'd be able to take stock and ascertain if there really is anything to be worried about. And after all this, you wouldn't shame your friend for trying to protect you if it turned out that they'd misjudged the situation - you'd probably thank them for having your back and give them a hug.
Learning to do this with my anxiety was the turning point for me - every time I felt anxious I'd make some time to imagine myself thanking my anxiety. I'd even picture it as a little child who was terrified and needed reassurance, and say in my mind, 'It's ok - I know you're scared, thanks for warning me but I've got this now." I'd make a conscious effort to talk to myself like I would talk to a friend. If I needed to cry, I'd make some time to cry. I realised that my perfectionism was feeding my anxiety and I slowly started learning to give myself permission to be imperfect (i.e. human). I saw my anxiety as a messenger (a bit of an over-zealous and an overprotective one, but one that needed to be heard and validated nonetheless) and it honestly changed my life.
It would be a lie if I said that this was the only thing that helped me to turn a corner with my anxiety. I also went to therapy, started exercising more (a great way to discharge the fight/flight energy in our nervous systems when we're anxious), learnt about polyvagal theory (there will definitely be some future blogs on this), journalled a lot, tried a bit of breathwork and learnt about trauma-informed mindfulness techniques (which I'll write about soon) but self-compassion and compassion for how my anxiety was trying to protect me was definitely the game-changer.
Even now, as a mental health and wellbeing professional, anxiety sneaks up on me unexpectedly. But the difference is that now, I welcome it in as part of the human experience and sit with it for a little bit with compassion, reassurance and curiosity. Now that it feels heard, it knows that it doesn't need to shout as loudly to get my attention.