What if anxiety is here to stay?
Is accepting anxiety the key to living free from anxiety?
For years I fought the anxiety I felt. If I felt anxious while out with friends, I hated it and judged the night as bad. If I was anxious in a work meeting, I felt I had failed. In my mind, I could only be really successful without anxiety.
In this fight I was always failing. Despite the fact that I loved my job, that I got more and more responsibilities, that I worked in the most remote places on the planet, that I got to work with some of the most awesome and interesting people, I felt that, because of my anxiety, something was not right.
In a way, I was not wrong… but in another way, I was very wrong.
I was not wrong because this ‘something is not right’ did allow me to take the step to open up to different ways of looking at and dealing with anxiety. And with that step, everything started to shift and actually did allow me to be free from anxiety.
I was wrong because nothing about me had ‘failed’ up to that point. I just did not know how to deal with anxiety (ironically, as I studied clinical psychology at university). I used my strength to fight it, and it got me very far. I just did not know that fighting it was not helping me overcome it, but was actually keeping me stuck in it.
What has helped me overcome anxiety is to accept it as part and parcel of being human, to stop fighting it, to open up to it and to not feed it.
Anxiety is human
Anxiety is a normal part of the human experience. We all get anxious. In fact, in 2020, 62% of people reported feeling anxious.
We all are familiar with worries about our health, life, being liked, doing things well, trying to control things so that we can influence the outcome… none of that is unfamiliar for anyone.
This does not mean that we are ‘mentally ill’. Of course, there are people who have disease of the brain that needs complex management and support. But this is relatively rare.
Most of us get ‘normal’ and anxiety. Even though anxiety dominated me for years, I would still not consider myself ‘mentally ill’. I finished 2 masters, worked in remote locations, managed large teams, travelled, went out… no, I was not ill. My anxiety reaction was out of whack, for sure, but it wasn’t an illness, it was a survival mechanism gone awry.
The human challenge we face is to deal with normal anxiety in a healthy way. Because if we do not deal with anxiety properly, it can easily spiral. Anxiety is such an important emotion for us as humans, that we will prioritize the emotion of anxiety above pretty much any other emotion.
This means that once we start worrying about something, it is hard to stop. It also means that once we have had a panic attack, it will be easier to have another (or worry about having another one). The more we feel anxious, the more we will feel anxious.
When anxiety spirals
This can mean that anxiety takes on proportions that hold us back in life. It can be that we feel a sense of worry and dread every day, that we experience panic when at a work function or that we meticulously plan our days to make sure everything ‘goes right’.
It can feel like anxiety is calling the shots. That our anxious thoughts and body sensations are always present and put their mark on everything that we do. This can make it hard to manage all the daily things that need to be managed. It also really influences how we feel about our day, and ultimately, our life.
When we are at this stage you have developed coping mechanisms that are probably keeping you stuck in anxiety. You might push through, fight anxiety off, ignore it, beat it down… whatever.
We can get quite far in life with this, like I did for many years, but it is not easy and also, not necessary.
Having anxiety be so dominant in your life is hard, but still, in my eyes, does not mean you are mentally ill.
What it does mean, is that it is time to re-assess our relationship with anxiety.
Changing our relationship with anxiety
We have to bring the relationship from a “I want you to go away” to a ‘I see you and I will allow you’ relationship.
This is not easy. By its very nature, anxiety is an emotion that elicits the response ‘I need this to go away’. What happens in our brain is: we perceive a threat, we want to feel safe, we must eliminate the threat.
In order to live a life where anxiety does not call shots, we have to go against our nature a little. Swim against the tide if you will. At least, in the beginning. When we do that, the tide will change and the swim will become easier.
This means a couple of things. Firstly, it means we have to stop wanting (or needing) anxiety to go away. We need to be able to recognise and acknowledge anxiety. It is here. That is ok. I might not like it, but it is ok.
Secondly, it means that we need to learn to be with the anxiety as it arises. Not get anxious by the anxiety. Feeling the body sensations when you are anxious for example. Watching it as it appears, stays around, and leaves your body. Using your breath and other grounding techniques to not get lost in the anxiety, but to safely allow yourself to feel it come and go.
Thirdly, it means that we need to make daily choices without letting anxiety call the shots. What you choose to do every single moment of every day matters so much. If all your actions (or non-actions) are driven by anxiety then you will not overcome anxiety.
I can imagine that you might think: what? How do I start?
The place to start is meditation. Sit with one of my guided meditations every day for 5 or 10 minutes. Just start with that.
If you want to go a bit faster and have more support I also provide group and 1:1 sessions to help you with this.