In part 1, we learned how anxiety is like struggling in quicksand. The more we struggle with it, the more we are caught in its sinking trap.
My own personal struggle with anxiety consistently intensified from 3rd grade, when my classmates noticed my sweaty armpits, all the way into adulthood. I did whatever I could to avoid it. I would change my shirt several times a day and I asked my parents to buy dark clothing that would make my sweaty armpits easier to hide.
Trying and trying some more
As I got older, I did my best to stay busy and tried everything not to feel anxious. I tried to relax, pray, serve others, meditate, repeat mantras, call my sponsor, exercise, change my diet and stop drinking caffeine. Over the years, I followed the direction of religious leaders, teachers, therapists, friends—anyone who I thought could help me.
I bought lots and lots of books. I chose a degree in psychology in undergraduate school, in part to learn more about anxiety. I thought if I studied it, I could figure out how to rid myself of it. I took anti-anxiety medications. I used drugs and alcohol. I got sober from drugs and alcohol through 12-step fellowships. As Dr. Steven Hayes outlines, I did all of the normal, sensible, reasonable and pathological things that anxious people do.
After all of these socially acceptable and socially frowned-upon efforts, my anxiety was worse than ever. I would constantly ask myself, what am I supposed to do? In my quiet moments of honesty, I was terrified that something was deeply and profoundly wrong with me when it came to my anxiety.
A rigged game
Turns out, the game I was playing was rigged. The “rid yourself of anxiety” game tries to tell you that if you play long, hard, fast and smart enough, you’ll win. Once you step back from this game though, you start to see what it involves—that you must win and anxiety must lose. The reality is that this win/lose game is impossible as long as you have a functioning nervous system and brain. The only way to completely eliminate anxiety is to either no longer be alive or be so impaired from drugs and alcohol that you won’t be alive for long.
As a whole person with both thoughts and emotions, you can’t turn against part of yourself without losing in some way. When your thinking self and emotional self become hostile forces, you disconnect from what makes you who you are and what you most deeply value.
Sadly, recent studies show anxiety and depression are at historic levels. According to Kessler, large population surveys show that one-third of the population is affected by a form of anxiety disorder during their lifetime.
How can this be?
Part of the answer lies in the idea that the more we try not to be something, the more focused we are on that something. Take a moment right now to try something. I want you to think about a tree in springtime. Consider the contours of the trunk, the color of the blossoms and the height of its branches. Become so invested in the details of the tree that you can describe it in incredible detail to the point where even the backdrop of the tree starts to form in your mind.
Now, STOP thinking about it … What are you still thinking about?
Avoiding anxious thoughts and situations may seem like the coping strategy that works best for you. But research shows that pain avoidance can cause successful outcomes to decrease by 20-25%. According to Dr. Steven C. Hayes, “The research confirms the paradoxical idea that trying to change your unpleasant thoughts and feelings typically just makes them more entrenched.”
A pathway not an endpoint
When we stop trying to suppress anxious thoughts and feelings, we can begin to recognize the uncomfortable feeling as an avenue to deeper meaning and a better understanding of ourselves and our world. It is no longer an enemy to be conquered, but a pathway that, depending on the context, can lead us to safety or help us consider what is most important.
We can see anxiety for what it is instead of something to be suppressed or rationalized away. For myself, on the other side of don’t be anxious, say, in social settings, is the value and yearning for authentic connection.
Let me give you another example, my girlfriend recently interviewed for a promotion at work. She was understandably anxious and didn’t sleep well the night before the interview. I reminded her that her anxiety was most likely because she values competency and a commitment to development and growth. Despite potential rejection, she recognized the value of pursuing new things, even when they are challenging or scary.
What do you value?
The first step in trying to make anxiety go away is to stop playing the win/lose game. What I’ve learned on the other side of this struggle is that my anxiety and my humanity are inextricably linked. Each time I feel anxious and I drop the struggle with anxiety, it provides a queue that helps me reassess. When I do, I am better able to live into a life that is purposeful, authentic and honest.
For more information about how to stop playing a win/lose game with anxiety, schedule an appointment today. And watch for part 3 of this series in the coming weeks.
Hayes, S. C. (2007, September 01). Hello, Darkness. Retrieved from: https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/magazine/article/625/hello-darkness
Walters, K., Rait, G., Griffin, M., Buszewicz, M., & Nazareth, I. (2012, August 01). Recent trends in the incidence of anxiety diagnoses and symptoms in primary care. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3411689/