How to Make Friends with Your Anxiety

If coping techniques aren't working it might be time to get to the root cause.

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As a society, we’re doing an amazing job of managing our anxiety.

Aside from medication, there’s a glut of self-help techniques out there; you can try diet, exercise, breathing techniques, visualisation or even download apps on your phone to help calm your mind. These things are all important and I welcome them.

I also get a real sense of acceptance:

“This is the way I am.  I’m never going to cure my anxiety, so I need to learn how to manage it.”

And let’s face it, acceptance can be empowering.

It can feel great to be doing something about it, yet there is something about the level of activity that sounds…exhausting. We prop ourselves up with coping techniques, but the problem remains.

I often wonder if one of the barriers is the word ‘cure’. It feels pretty clinical to me, like the way we’d treat a cold or the measles. At some point, you expect to be completely free of it. Perhaps we’re setting ourselves up to fail.

The Mindset Shift

As a therapist, I see more and more clients searching for something else.  Anxiety management has become a challenge and they are fed up of worrying if the next thing will work. They feel as though they’re trying to fix something that they don’t understand.

This is the mindset shift I see. A move from thinking about anxiety as something separate from the person, like an alien attacking you, to rebalancing the power and really getting to know it.

It’s about making friends with your anxiety.

Anxiety isn’t abnormal

It makes sense to pay attention to anxiety. It is something that develops over time. A natural reaction to protect us, usually from big emotions that we are struggling to process. When something is too big to handle we inhibit it by feeling anxious instead.

It acts as a blocker and for a time it helps us to survive, to get through the day. But then the solution becomes the problem and getting through the day depends on how anxious we are. It is incredibly cruel!

Common anxiety-related experiences

Therapy can help us to make connections to our anxiety by understanding how our life experience and responses have contributed to it. Sometimes the connections are not immediately obvious. Here’s some examples:

1. Holding on to ‘truths’ you were told in childhood.

Perhaps growing up you were told that you were shy, disorganised, messy or bossy. You may even have got a sense that you were irritating or ‘hard work’.

You may have grown up believing that this is ‘just the way you are’.  Yet you increasingly find yourself feeling restricted by your labels as you go through life. If you were labelled as bossy, for example, you might begin to feel anxious when you’re in a leadership role at work.

2. Keeping your emotions hidden.

You may have grown up believing that some emotions are ‘bad’. Maybe you were scolded for showing something like anger, or maybe you witnessed it often and it was frightening. Your early experience with emotions can shape how you are today.

For example, if anger is difficult you might struggle to assert yourself or avoid rocking the boat. Or if sadness is difficult you might keep it hidden and pretend that everything is fine.

The problem is that the emotions stay inside us, simmering and bubbling away like a kettle. Eventually coming to the surface as anxiety.

3. Growing up with an adult who needed you to care for or worry about them.           

If an adult expected you to predict or tend to their emotions, you may have grown up to be someone who feels very responsible for others. You became hyper-aware of the effect you have on people and might struggle to tend to your own needs or ask for help.

How does it help?

This is all about knowing yourself.

It’s impossible to cover every scenario here, and each person has their own unique set of experiences and responses. I find that most clients intuitively know what to explore.

Knowing some of these connections can give you a sense of control over your reactions. You know where they come from so you can begin to challenge yourself.

When you understand your anxiety, you begin to realise that it is an entirely valid reaction to your life experience.

It helps you to become more compassionate with yourself and more curious about how you react to the world.  Anxiety can become the gateway to healing, rather than the enemy it is now.

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