Anxiety: What to do? Grin and bear it, bury it or befriend it?
Often times, clients come to me wanting to make their anxiety go away. And I say, “of course you want it to go away, it’s felt like a burden!” It is an experience that can be so incredibly uncomfortable. Having had my own complex relationship with anxiety throughout my life, I can relate. Maybe there is a part of you that wants to cut anxiety out of your life, shove it in a closet, bury it in a graveyard or simply forget it ever existed. It has caused you pain and suffering, and you feel it’s finally time for a breakup. Maybe you’ve thought “2021 is going to be my year to get rid of my anxiety!”
Maybe you’ve been told to “muscle through,” “think positively” or just plain “get over it.” But I don’t believe the key to shifting anxiety lies in trying to forget about it, control it or grin and bear it. Let me know if you’ve tried those things and they’ve worked out, as I haven’t seen it work thus far. What if I were to tell you that the anxiety you experience is actually part of your unique aliveness, and part of what makes you the incredible human being that you are? Now, that might sound ridiculous to you right now, but let me continue. From a neuroscience perspective, the experience of anxiety is an excess of energy in your nervous system. And, if we don’t know how to work with that excess energy, or ways to withstand it, it can manifest in a whole lot of discomfort in our body sensations, thoughts, and emotions. And of course we don’t know how to work with this energy! We were probably never taught. We are often taught instead that anxiety is a sign of weakness.
Most of us don’t just have the raw experience of anxiety; it is so often coupled with negative voices (conscious or unconscious) that can compound our suffering. It might be a voice saying “oh great, you’re doing that anxiety thing again,” or something like “you’re such a bad partner when you’re anxious, stop being anxious!” Or maybe your personal flavor is more on the perfectionist side with voices like “you can do better than that” or “I can’t believe you said that!!” These are often internalized voices we heard as young people from our caretakers or from tv/movies/the greater culture that have become like background noise that we take as “The Truth.” And, in reality, as we grow up with these voices running the show, they can become like added layers that create a crust of self loathing and shame around our already challenging experience of intense energy inside our bodies (that excess energy I was talking about). These negative voices seem to be like the glue that can lock all that suffering in place, until we come as curious adults and begin to bring awareness to our full experience. This helps in loosening the layers of crusty shame and blame, and allows us to reach the actual raw experience of anxiety underneath all of that. Why would we want to reach the raw experience of anxiety, you may ask? Because that, my dear friends, is where the juicy wisdom lies. That is YOUR alive energy that you have been taught to ignore, cut off, stuff away or pretend isn’t there. And it’s been just waiting for you to connect with it. We can tune into the wisdom of our body and ask ourselves with the same kindness you’d ask a hurt child, “what do you need right now?” You might be astonished at what happens when you give the thing you’ve been trying to get rid of a little TLC.
What I have learned through my studies and focus on Anxiety and Mindfulness in my graduate program, and in my work as a therapist is this: Anxiety is a sign that you are prone to more energy in your system, which means you….are ALIVE. But what to do with all that buzzing aliveness that keeps you up at night and biting your hangnails through the day? In therapy we learn how to work with the energy through what we call regulation, as well as to sit with the discomfort and tune in to what it has to tell us. I’ve seen that turning toward the discomfort of anxiety with a friendly attitude is an incredible tool for having a different relationship with ourselves and the experience we have learned is no good, weak and wrong. We get to become the wholly present, caring parent for ourselves, and give that particular brand of love that only we know how to give to ourselves. This is part of what we call “Re-parenting” in therapy. This is where we get to heal old wounds through the power of our own loving attention, in the presence of a supportive, accepting safe person.
If a child is having a hard time, admonishing them for having a hard time is not likely to yield positive results. And it doesn’t work for our internal landscape as adults either. I have found that over time, with kindness and care, we can learn to unfold this experience we have come to call anxiety. We find that it is richly textured with many layers. We learn to sit longer with the discomfort, and shift our relationship to anxiety all together to have less suffering in our lives. I work with clients to support them through each step of this process, letting it unfurl naturally. It takes varying lengths of time, depending on multiple different factors, but I have watched many clients transform their relationship to anxiety from one of fear and loathing to one of curiosity and openness. Instead of saying “I want my anxiety to go away” my clients are eventually able to meet the moment with resilience, an attitude of deep kindness and a sense of possibility. It is not perfect, but with time, that becomes okay too.