What to know about anxiety and what to do about it
What are you worried about now? Anxiety can overwhelms us and the feeling is rampant today given all the uncertainty with the coronavirus in 2020 and recent social unrest. Financial insecurity, or at least the feeling of it, is a key trigger given the economic fallout of the disruptions. So is general uncertainty with so much of our lives upended due to the pandemic.
Anxiety is mentally distressing concern, fearfulness or undue worry about future events. Anxiety can be defined as an “emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns, often about situations outside of their control,” according to Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, in How to Hack Your Anxiety (Sourcebooks, 2018). Other symptoms of anxiety include feeling restless and irritable, difficulty concentrating, trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, among other symptoms, according to the Mental Health America (MHA) organization.
Generalized anxiety is the most common type of anxiety disorder, according to MHA. Those with a general form of anxiety may feel frightened, distressed or uneasy for no apparent reason or in ways that are not proportional to their circumstances. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are also considered anxiety disorders.
In followup from our prior blog on earlier blog on “How to Stop Feeling Anxious,” here are some new ways to think about anxiety and how to transform it:
What to know about anxiety
Distress, stress and anxiety is all tied to control
Just as the definition of anxiety suggests, anxiety often comes with nattering thoughts or worry about situations outside of our control. Experts suggest that we actually create or construct our feeling of stress and anxiety. Author Clark says by digging into our anxiety’s source, we can take control of it and can therefore transform its energy into something useful. Ultimately, anxiety is a signal or feeling which gives us information and the energy we need to change, suggests Clark.
Recognize that few things in life are under your complete control, as we note in our earlier blog. But the wisdom to recognize what’s not in your control, and even those feelings which aren’t your own, are gifts. The classic serenity prayer of “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” goes a long way in taming and transforming your anxiety.
Anxiety is often an amplifier of other unwanted but constructive emotions
When anxiety is embedded in other intense feelings like anger, loneliness or frustration, it can intensify those feelings, further increasing your negative thought loop. Clark notes when anxiety kicks in, you may think you can’t tolerate what’s happening, and keep your focus on those thoughts and concerns, becoming even more upset. That’s why the action step of examining your anxiety (see “Accept…go into your feelings,” below) is so crucial to work through your anxiety.
What to do about your anxiety
Accept that you are anxious and go into your feelings
Similar to Clark’s viewpoint, it’s okay to be anxious, suggests therapist and author Sheryl Paul. In a podcast entitled “Sheryl Paul: The Wisdom of Anxiety” with Sounds True’s Tami Simon, Paul explains why we should take our anxiety as a distress flare from the subconscious. Instead of beating up on yourself about your state of anxiety, when you are experiencing it, go into your curiosity and open the doorway and really listen to yourself. Ask the questions you need to explore your thoughts and underlying emotions.
Paul, author of The Wisdom of Anxiety: How Worry and Intrusive Thoughts are Gifts to Help You Heal (Sounds True, 2018), suggests the thought-loop of anxiety brings you out of your heart and your deeper-feeling self into the “safe chambers of the mind,” nothing anxiety can act as a defense mechanism to avoid feeling more raw feelings.
When you feel undue anxiety, a great starter question to ask yourself is: “What is this thought protecting me from feeling?” says Paul. What’s going on physically? How about spiritually? While some of the deeper answers to these questions takes time, and sometimes even outside help to explore, by not running from your feelings and thoughts, you may be able to get inside your anxiety, and loosen it at least a bit.
Talk to your inner child
One way to get to your deeper-feeling self in order to reduce your anxiety is to talk with or probe your inner child in a no-pressure conversation. The inner child is a subpersonality of sorts which can flare its needy self during times of unmet needs and anxiousness. The inner child is often associated with the part of you that is considered damaged or concealed (shadow side) by negative childhood experiences.
As Paul describes in the podcast, tsunamis happen in our little bodies as children when we experience trauma without a supportive adult around. Many of us did not have emotionally intelligent parents around to talk over and work through our feelings. The mind comes to the rescue as the ally, encouraging us to stay in our head and err toward the left-brain analytical side to provide the certainty we crave.
When experiencing anxiety, instead of beating up on yourself up over your particular concerns or worries, try to listen. Communicate with your inner child and you just might find a wise compassionate voice inside when you work through things. For more on accessing your inner child, see our blog, “Is Your Inner Child Holding You Back?”
The more sensitive you are, the more prone you may be to anxiety, so it’s easy for sensitivity to morph into anxiety. You may be an empath, a highly sensitive person, and you may be picking up on someone else’s anxiety. See “Recognize the anxiety you feel may not be your own” at our earlier blog on anxiety.
Paul views anxiety as a gift, a brilliant defense mechanism which can ultimately become a gift because it’s the doorway into ourselves and to growth. “If you don’t numb it, it will lead you in the direction of growth,” she said in the Sounds True podcast.
Loosen your grip on your thoughts
Letting go of the defeating, anxious thoughts isn’t easy but just by easing your grip on the thoughts you may find relief. As author and coach Martha Beck so astutely writes in an article entitled “Hang Loose,” in the Letting Go special edition of Oprah magazine (2018): “Relax your resistance to uncertainty.” It’s that loosening of our intense focus and tendency to cling, when we soften and loosen our attention, and go toward acceptance of what is happening—along its uncertain path—that we can feel better. You can then get the space and more relaxed state which is needed to coax out deeper feelings and wisdom so you can move through the situation.
Work on your faith and trust
Anxiety and trust are mutually exclusive. You need trust to move through anxiety. Paul tells Simon in the podcast: “We can rest in the awareness of something bigger holding us. Some place of knowing that we are okay, even if it doesn’t look okay, even if it doesn’t feel okay, we can rest in that deeper wellspring.” Name your anxiety and then redirect yourself to those deeper practices that will allow you to move through it, whether that’s returning to that meditation practice you started, a progressive body relaxation when you can’t sleep, going deeper into your feelings, talking to someone, journaling about your concerns and feelings, or even jotting down your to-dos that are troubling you at the time.
In summary, especially when you are experiencing extreme anxiety, don’t take your thoughts at face value. Probe a little deeper but don’t wrestle your thoughts and feelings to the ground in an all-for-nothing match. It’s a brave thing to seek relief by examining yourself and learning from the experience.
Unsplash photo by Fernando @cferdo on Instagram