Part 2: The Context of Anxiety & What To Do About It
Somewhere along the way we have been taught to believe that we are not supposed to feel anxious. We may even be convinced that there is something wrong with us or our lives if anxiety is present. That notion itself creates stress and anxiety
Anxiety is one of the most common reasons people seek out therapy. In the U.S. alone, approximately 40 million adults suffer from an anxiety disorder. Such disorders include general anxiety disorder, social anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and panic attacks.
Because anxiety feels awful and interferes with their lives, many clients come to therapy with the goal to get rid of it. This makes logical sense. Who wants to feel uncomfortable?
Yet, the reality is that getting rid of anxiety would be a problem, as it is part of our built-in fear response system and is essential to basic survival. Our minds are designed to be on the lookout for danger or what can physically hurt us. This is known as the fear response. When that fear response is self-regulated, you may respond with anxiety in a situation, then back down and find calm once the perceived threat is removed or understood. Without self-regulation, there can be an ongoing negative impact on day-to-day living, the overall life experience, as well as overall health and well-being.
“Our bodies and minds are not designed to stay in an ‘alert’ mode for an extended period of time.” The experience of being “on guard” for long periods of time because of past trauma or resistance to feeling life’s emotional and social discomfort can lead to chronic anxiety. Being on alert much of the day and over a lifetime can leave many people feeling exhausted. This could be you.
The built-in threat response system is the same one that our primitive ancestors had when being chased by saber tooth tigers or surviving in the wild. Right. I know what you are thinking. Since we are not being chased by wild animals in our modern day, what feels so dangerous or threatening that keeps us on high alert? Why are we experiencing so much anxiety today?
Social rejection is one piece. A sense of belonging is an essential human need. As we have evolved, we have become more and more pro social and reliant on other people for our survival. So, if social rejection is the source of danger, it makes sense that your mind would be alert for ways you might be left out, abandoned, or rejected.
Your mind is not trying to make you feel bad or beat you up. It’s doing its long-established job of scanning, evaluating, judging, and comparing to keep you safe. And part of that sense of safety comes from feeling connected physically, emotionally, socially, and mentally. And of course, there are other sources of persistent anxiety.
So, what to do when anxiety is taking its job too seriously? That’s at the heart of questions clients ask me when coming into a session: What do I do with this feeling of anxiety? How can I live like this? How will you help me?
For some, if the anxiety is so intense, making it difficult to go to work, accomplish daily tasks, or maintain healthy relationships, medication may be an option. In that case, talking to a physician or a psychiatrist about medication would be an important step.
However, with the right therapist —and with willingness and effort — more moderate anxiety is workable, something that can be managed over time and maybe even befriended and appreciated.
The work starts with slowing down, investigating with care your moment-to-moment experience. This may include coming to terms with past trauma or hurt and exploring what keeps you stuck in fight or flight, or freeze, away from what you really want or need in life.
The work also includes developing a different way of relating to your particular anxiety, a relationship that is not about reaction, but rather curiosity and non-judgment and compassion about your anxiety.
This work begins to create a gap between stimulus and response, so you have more choice in your behavior and life. Once the fight against anxiety lessens, you begin to find a “friendliness” toward it; it does not so define you as much and instead becomes more recognized and managed in everyday life.
Read more here about how anxiety presents itself and to see if it fits your experience. In my work with clients, we take it one step at a time to learn the tools and skills to living life to the fullest, even in the presence of anxiety. For a free 15-minute consultation, or to schedule a counseling session, please contact me here.
In my next blog about anxiety, I will go more in-depth about how it acts on our brains and bodies, and what we can draw upon in ourselves to better manage anxiety.
*Victor Frankl is a celebrated Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who is best-known for his indispensable 1946 psychological memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”