The challenge and gift of anxiety

We all know the experience of anxiety:  increased heart rate, bodily tension, shallow breathing, racing thoughts.  These are the mind/body’s response to perceived threat and uncertainty, and can range in intensity from mild to extreme.  Anxiety is different from fear, which stems from an identifiable threat.  Fear typically energizes us to fight or flee: our perceptions are sharper and we take steps to overcome the danger.  With anxiety, we feel threatened without knowing what steps to take to meet the danger; we often feel trapped or overwhelmed.  Instead of becoming sharper, our perceptions seem fuzzy and vague:  we don’t know what to do.  In other words, fear is a threat to one side of the self; anxiety strikes at the very core of the self.

Chronic, high levels of anxiety often involve disturbances in attention, memory, a wide range of reasoning processes (e.g., interpretations, beliefs), rumination and worry, and behavior (especially avoidance and safety seeking).  Sometimes anxiety is the result of a specific area of threat, such as getting sick, social situations, or not being in control.  Other times, anxiety can be difficult to pin-point.  It can also be “inhibitory,” that is, a means of blocking a primary emotion such as anger, sadness (grief), fear, disgust, or joy.  We may block primary emotions to get along with others or because they overwhelm us. 

In early childhood, we learn which emotions are acceptable to our caregivers and which are not. If our emotions are met with non-responsiveness or disapproval, we may feel we need to suppress the emotion (i.e., it is not safe to express).  We may use inhibitory emotions such as anxiety, shame and guilt to put the brakes on further emotional expression.  This blocking of emotion requires a great deal of mental and physical energy.

The more we don’t allow ourselves to authentically feel, the more cut off we are from our goals, values, and sense of self … and the more empty, powerless and lost we feel.  We cannot withstand this emptiness for long; inevitably, we will work, keep busy, exercise, eat, shop, drink, use drugs, gamble, self-harm, etc. until our chosen activities become destructive as our efforts to block feeling become increasingly extreme.

We cannot eliminate anxiety; it is part of being human and signals to us when we are misaligned with our core self (values, goals, potential).  Our challenge is to learn to listen to our anxiety so it does not become extreme and high-jack our sense of self; in other words, we need learn to use our anxiety creatively and constructively.  This can be very challenging to do on one’s own.  Anxiety knocks the props out from our awareness of ourselves – we lose our sense of agency in the world, and our confidence is our perceptions of our reality.

A place to start:

  • Get to know your Anxiety.  It is not YOU but it is not an enemy…it is trying to protect you.  Often, anxiety urges us to think and behave in ways that make us feel more in control (in the short-term).
  • Breathe:  sit with your experience of anxiety and notice where it is located in your body.  How much space does it take up?  What are the qualities of the sensation?
  • Observe: shift your attention from your body to your thoughts; how does anxiety affect your thinking?  Just because you have a thought, does not mean it is true or that you have to attach significance to it.  Practice letting thoughts come and go.  How is anxiety distorting your perceptions (are you discounting positives, magnifying challenges, over-focused on the future)?  Come back to the present:  what do you see, hear, smell, taste, feel, sense around you?  Name things out loud.
  • Inquire:  What does the anxiety do for you?  What is its role?  What is it trying to communicate?  What part of you is it protecting?  What does it need from you?
  • Send gratitude:  Genuinely thank and appreciate your anxiety for trying to protect you. 
  • Practice tolerating uncertainty:  Uncertainty is part of life, and brings excitement and vitality; however, too much can feel chaotic and out of control.  We all need to find a balance between change and security.  What things can you control (eating well, self-care routines, work-life balance)?  What things are outside of your control (other people’s thoughts, feelings, behaviours; natural phenomenon)?

Managing anxiety is a practice we all need to devote time and energy toward, especially as chaos increases in the world around us.  Anxiety is essential to being human and, when harnessed, can sharpen our sensibilities and preserve a tension necessary for growth and achieving our potential as individuals and a society.