How To Drop the Struggle with Anxiety
Anxiety and I have been well-acquainted for awhile. After years of struggling, learning, and training on how to treat anxiety, I still recognize it showing up in my life regularly. I personally struggle to this day with how much I dislike anxious, fearful or worried feelings.
Overwhelming physical symptoms
When anxiety rises up in powerful ways for me today, I often feel hot, sweaty and my muscles get tense. My mind is racing and it’s often hard to focus–usually when I need to focus the most, such as in public speaking or before an important event.
Early memories of anxiety
At a recent Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) training in Oakland, CA, I did an exercise with ACT co-founder Kelly Wilson where he had us visit our earliest memory of anxiety. My awareness drifted back to 3rd grade as one of my classmates asked me, “Hey, Chase, why are your armpits so sweaty?” I wasn’t perspiring because it was hot outside or because I had just finished exercising. I had no idea!
What I did know is that I felt uncomfortable. Especially as I noticed that other kids weren’t sweating like I was. As an adult, looking back at my 8-year-old self, I recognize that it was because I was really, really anxious, both in social settings and in general.
What is anxiety?
To define anxiety, we first need to understand why we have it and what we are supposed to do with it. The answers to these questions have consumed a lot of my personal and professional time. These questions became increasingly important as my personal anxiety symptoms worsened. While my answers have changed over time, so has anxiety’s impact and influence over my life.
Why do we have it?
Anxiety has always been part of the human condition. It is one of the most consistent ways we have to recognize something as dangerous or unusual. It helps us know whether to fight or run away in any given situation. This protection measure has kept us safe and away from signs of trouble, ultimately allowing us to become the dominant species. The problem is that, while the signals are automatic, they aren’t always useful.
The powerful signals from our brain that drive anxiety are doing their best to keep us alive. The problem lies in trying continually to fight against these feelings. The more we try to rid ourselves of anxiety, the harder our anxiety works to convince us there is danger around the corner.
Well… hello again
As we begin to understand more fully why anxiety, fear, and worry rise up within us, we can begin to change our relationship with how these feelings impact us. The answer to our anxiety is to no longer view it as the enemy. Instead, we become curious about what it has to tell us.
Let’s take the idea that anxiety is like quicksand. The more you struggle in quicksand, the faster you sink into it. The more you struggle to make the anxiety go away, by running, hiding or fighting with it, the worse it gets. To get out of quicksand, you have to lay back onto it, increasing your contact with the surface area, so that you can roll out of it.
Stop the struggle
As I have practiced sitting in the uncomfortable sensations of anxiety before a public speaking opportunity, for example, I have found that these difficult feelings are connected to the values of caring, connection and contribution. I value the work I do as a public speaker or teacher because it allows those I teach to walk away with meaningful and useful knowledge that will hopefully benefit their lives.
When emotions like anxiety become overwhelming and painful, we can create a space to become curious about these intense feelings. As we do this, we can begin to better understand the purpose of the pain and how it can help us live a deeper life. We will come to realize that the things we feel anxious about and the things we most deeply value are poured from the same vessel.
To stop struggling with anxiety, you actually learn to willingly practice feeling more anxiety. Doing this eventually redirects your energy from constantly fighting with anxiety to living a more values-congruent life — full of meaning, purpose and vitality.
To learn more about how to practice acceptance skills with anxiety, read part 2 of this series or request an appointment today.