Everyone has gone through some form of anxiety in their life, sometimes a short period and often the time frame is longer term and pervasive. The first step is to understanding how anxiety and worry is created and then we will look at what to do to heal it.
Anxiety can be situational with something that is new or vulnerable, such as a new relationship or giving a speech. What is more common for people is a general anxiety that happens over many things in your life and you just can’t get yourself to feel settled. This anxiety is more common and most therapies just focus on calming it in the moment and never get to the root of it. My favorite quote from a client regarding her anxiety was, “Anxiety is like a little bird flitting about, just looking for a place to land.” That captures the essence of the truth, which is, it doesn’t matter what you worry about in your daily life, it is just a symptom of something bigger. Often when we have a lot of anxiety or worry, it is because one or both of our parents had it. As a child, we became common place and we were not in touch with how scary it can be to have a parent that is anxious. If the people in charge are scared, our psyche thinks, “What chance do I have at keeping safe?” A good metaphor for this is when you are on a plane and see that the flight attendants are calm, then you know that you are safe despite the turbulence. So the fear hormones run in our body and we become acclimated and comfortable with them. Behaviorally, we learn that this is the way we should deal with trouble. If we realized we were ok, then we would probably get mad at our parents or have to comfort them, which aren’t great options for children as we just want to love them and be loved.
Another aspect of this ongoing pattern is that no one has taught us what to do with our real feelings. We don’t know how to deal with real fear, sadness, or even joy. We become scared of them because they seem overwhelming and we have no model for something productive that would help or be comforting. So the anxiety becomes like an addiction for some, it is the thing we do to ignore the feelings below. If we feel sad, we just take a drink of anxiety which allows us to focus on some peripheral problem, like money. Worry also allows us to not act or fix the problem. You might wonder, why would I not want to fix the problem? Well we don’t often fix it because sometimes the solution is scary in itself. What if you need to speak up to someone to deal with the feeling? What if you need to quit a job or leave a relationship? What if you need to change something that feels too hard to change? If you stay anxious, then you never have to see the feeling and make the change needed. Sometimes the change needed is just paying attention to your feelings more. Most people think that they don’t have time for that, so even that change can be too challenging. We unknowingly decide to sit in the addiction of anxiety and feel helpless which, allows it to grow and grow.
All right, how about some solutions!
Learning to use mindfulness is the main key to healing anxiety at a deeper level. It is what sets apart talk therapy from body-centered psychotherapy. When you practice being present in the moment, you can then face the worry and find a solution. When I guide my clients through mindfulness to actually sit with the anxiety, it is very common that it dissipates after just a few minutes. It does this because you don’t have to be scared when someone is actually paying attention. This is a corrective experience from childhood, where there were times that our parents were distracted, worried, or just not there. Also, facing the feelings of anxiety, reduces the resistance in you and the resistance is the fuel for the pattern. Pain x Resistance = Suffering. If you just have pain, you can look at it and take care of what it needs. If you resist it, it then grows and grows until it gets so big that you are forced to face it. Sometimes in mindfulness it won’t dissipate right away, which is an opportunity to sit with it longer to see what feeling is below it. When you find what is under it, then you can do the action that will help fix it. In individual sessions, it is an opportunity to learn how to communicate with yourself and to feel the deeper feelings in a safe environment. There are also advanced methods to help you to nurture and comfort yourself that would be very specific to you and your history.
Like an addiction to alcohol, you also need to learn to just say no to the anxiety. A quote from the Dalai Lahma is “If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it's not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.” There is no point to letting your mind travel there. Sometimes you just have to say no over and over and focus on something else instead. Good options are deep breaths, practicing mindfulness, or just doing an action to solve the problem. It takes patience to practice this and you can’t let yourself get discouraged. You don’t take a vitamin once a year to keep healthy, you have to take it every day.
At the end of the day, you will need to get to the root of what is causing it, which requires help from a professional that can guide you more deeply in the process. When you start caring for yourself in this deeper way, you will have more room for happiness, peacefulness, and connection to others. Don’t be afraid of your fear, turn and face it, so that you can live a richer life.