Honestly, I’ve been dealing with anxiety for most of my life. My guess is part of it has to do with being a pretty sensitive person. Part of it, I’m sure, has to do with the world we live in, where there are all kinds of demands on us and our time that weren’t there even twenty years ago. And then there’s part of it that is just me, letting my own negative thoughts get away from me.
But if you’ve dealt with anxiety, at any level, you know what I’m talking about.
Sometimes it’s as simple as just a fluttering feeling in your stomach that won’t seem to go away. It can show up as an oversensitivity to caffeine—one cup of regular coffee makes you feel like you’re going to jump out of your skin. Sometimes it manifests as stomach aches or headaches or other kinds of physical pain. Sore muscles, for example.
Sometimes my right shoulder will lock up. Especially if I go too long without dealing with my anxiety, I will hardly even be able to move it.
I’ve also dealt with crippling stomach pain, digestive issues and food allergies for years, that I only later discovered were strongly linked to my anxiety.
And then there are the panic attacks—which I haven’t experienced in a long time but I can still remember them like they were yesterday. The dizziness, the racing heart, the feeling like a stack of cinder blocks is sitting on your chest. I remember how they would come out of nowhere—when nothing remotely troublesome seemed to be happening.
Big or small, anxiety can be a huge impediment to our lives.
Even a very small amount of anxiety can keep us from doing what we love and from being ourselves, unless we know what to do with it.
You might find yourself avoiding certain things or certain people because they make you feel anxious. Maybe you catch yourself saying really weird things in social settings, things you wish you could reel back in—out of your anxiety. Anxiety can short-circuit our brain function. It can make us act out of character.
Often, anxiety gives us the opposite out come from what we want.
Years ago I was preparing to give a presentation in grad school. I was really nervous. First of all, public speaking terrified me. Second, my grade depended on this presentation and I wanted to leave a good impression my with professors and fellow-students. The problem was, each time I sat down to rehearse the presentation, I would feel anxious.
So for weeks, when I should have been preparing, I didn’t. I always had an excuse for why I “couldn’t” prepare right that moment—like I had something else on the calendar, or the dishes just had to be done, or I had to go pick up some groceries. They always felt like legitimate excuses, and in a way, they were.
But what happened was, it came to the night before the presentation and the anxiety had compounded. I was even more anxious than I had ever been and it was almost too much to handle.
I tried making up for loss time—staying up late, preparing content, rehearsing as many times as I could in the short time I had left—but even then, I was so anxious I could hardly focus or concentrate. I woke up the next morning to drive to the presentation, exhausted from staying up late and also from the physical strain of anxiety.
The presentation went okay but not nearly as well as I wanted it to and not nearly as good as it could have been if I was able to manage my own anxiety.
Anxiety gave me the opposite of what I wanted.
Even small amounts of anxiety can have this effect.
A few weeks ago I made plans to spend time with a close friend. At the beginning of the week, I started to see my calendar fill up and realized there was a good chance I wasn’t going to be able to make our coffee meeting work. I hated the thought of having to cancel. I worried it would make her feel like she wasn’t important to me, and I worried she’d be upset.
So, I didn’t call to cancel. Instead, I felt anxious about it all week and told myself I would find a way to squeeze everything in.
Maybe you can see where this is going. By the time our coffee meeting came around, I was being pulled in a dozen different directions, and no matter how much I wanted to make our meeting work, I couldn’t do it. I called her to give her the bad news and the first thing I said was, “I’m so sorry, I hope you aren’t hurt…”
Her response was very gracious, but she told me honestly, that the thing that hurt her most was I had waited until the day-of to call.
“I wish you would have told me sooner,” she said. “I could have made other plans.”
Again, I was so worried about hurting her feelings, I waited until the last minute to call her, and my last-minute call was what hurt her feelings the most. Are you starting to see the pattern here? If we don’t understand our anxiety and where it’s coming from, if we don’t find healthy ways to cope with it, it has the strong potential to hurt more than just us.
So what do we do with it?
First of all, kicking your anxiety to the curb and saying “goodbye” to it forever is probably not going to work. In fact, according to research, this is one of the most damaging ways of dealing with our anxiety. Anxiety is a natural, normal fear response and, when we try to say “goodbye” to that fear, we end up with one of two things
- A numbness or denial of our feelings
- Behavior that is dangerous to ourselves or others
I love the way Elizabeth Gilbert puts it in her latest book, Big Magic. She says: “If your goal in life is to become fearless, then I believe you’re already on the wrong path, because the only truly fearless people I’ve ever met were straight-up sociopaths and a few exceptionally reckless three-year-olds—and those aren’t good role models for anyone.”
She goes on to say:
The truth is, you need your fear, for obvious reasons of basic survival. Evolution did well to install a fear reflex within you, because if you didn’t have any fear, you would lead a short, crazy, stupid life. You would walk into traffic. You would drift off into the woods and be eaten by bears. You would jump into giant waves off the coast of Hawaii, despite being a poor swimmer. You would marry a guy who said on the first date, “I don’t necessarily believe people were designed by nature to be monogamous.
The question is: is there a way for me and my fear or anxiety to peacefully co-exist? Yes, it turns out there is, but it’s going to take some work.
First, it requires getting curious.
As long as we’re anxious about our anxiety, we won’t be able to make any progress with it—and this is what a “say goodbye to your anxiety!” approach so often does to us. It turns us against our anxiety, it asks us to treat it like an enemy, instead of doing the one thing that can help us make progress with it, which is: be curious.
A Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer designed a study specifically to highlight how curiosity could transform anxiety.
First, she gathered a group of willing volunteers to give public speeches. Each person in the group was randomly assigned to one of three smaller groups. The first group was told not to make mistakes at all because mistakes were “bad”. She told the second group that any mistakes they made would be forgiven.
And finally, she encouraged the third group to deliberately make mistakes and incorporate those mistakes into the speech itself. What happened next? The participants who were randomly selected to be in the third group were not only rated the most effective and intelligent of their peers, but they also declared themselves more comfortable and at ease than their counterparts.
What if this is what our anxiety needs from us?
Rather than saying to our anxiety, “you again? Get out of here you asshole!” What if it needs us to think, “Interesting… I wonder why I’m feeling afraid right now… What is this fear trying to tell me? I wonder where these sensations are coming from… I wonder what I am supposed to be learning…”
Remember, your anxiety is trying to tell you something.
Recently I was having a particularly good day hanging out with a friend of mine. We both had the whole day off and got to spend some quality time together. The day itself couldn’t have been more perfect—starting with a long, lingering breakfast, then a walk with our dogs to the park, then later a movie and a glass of wine. It was magical. I loved every minute of it.
But for some reason, I couldn’t kick this feeling of anxiety. It was just that subtle flight-or-flight, heart-fluttering thing.
It didn’t make any sense. There wasn’t anything there for me to feel anxious about. Maybe you can relate. One of the most frustrating things about anxiety is the way it can come out of nowhere, over seemingly nothing. And on top of feeling anxious, you feel mad at yourself for feeling anxious and totally ruining the moment.
Since she’s a good friend, though, I knew I could tell her about what was going on, so I filled her in. And when I did, she did exactly what I needed her to do in that moment. She helped me be curious.
She asked, “what do you think your fear saying to you? What is it about?”
I thought about it for a few minutes, and at first, I couldn’t think of anything. The day with her had been perfect. There was absolutely nothing to feel be nervous about. But as I allowed myself to be curious, something occurred to me: I realized something about having a really good day actually made me a little anxious.
“Tell me more about that…” she said.
I explained how, for some reason, when things were going well, it made me afraid that something bad was right around the corner. I also told her I thought I felt guilty for being able to rest and have a relaxing day like this, with luxuries other people in the world don’t get to enjoy. Movies. Wine. Expensive food.
Just like that, as I gained some perspective on my anxiety, it lifted. It’s amazing. When we finally hear what our anxiety has been saying, it can stop screaming so loud (TWEET THAT).
Just realizing where our anxiety is coming from doesn’t necessarily do the trick. In fact, what I noticed in the weeks and months after this conversation with my friend is that many times, when things were going really well, this feeling of anxiety would flare up again.
- Business would be going really well and i would feel anxious it was all going to fall apart.
- My relationship with my husband would be going great, and I would get this sinking feeling like this was too good to be true.
- I would get good news or be doing one of my favorite things and I would start to feel anxious, like I didn’t deserve it.
Here’s the truth: anxious thoughts are habits we’ve formed.
They’re patterns we’ve developed over the years. And like any habit we’re trying to change (exercising more, eating right, reading instead of watching TV) it’s going to take quite a bit of willpower, discipline, self-love and even commitment in order to change them. The same thing is true for our anxious thought patterns.
Habits don’t change on their own.
They change one at a time, as we work to replace bad habits with good ones.
So, in my case, I decided to replace my negative thoughts with positive ones. The negative thought which was causing my anxiety told me, “when things are good, something bad is about to happen,” and also, “you don’t deserve to be happy.” So the positive thoughts I decided to replace them with went like this:
- It’s okay to enjoy yourself
- It’s safe to be happy
- You deserve to prosper
Now, each time I feel these anxious thoughts come back to me, particularly when things are going well, I replace my old, negative thought patterns with these new ones. And slowly, my anxiety is actually working for me. Each time it reminds me of my old, bad habits, I have an opportunity to work on these new, better ones.
It’s important to remember there’s a difference between a small, manageable about of anxiety and the bigger, more consuming, life-altering amounts of anxiety classified by an anxiety disorder. If you feel you might be suffering from an anxiety disorder, I would highly encourage you to seek professional help.
But if what you’re suffering from years of bad mental habits, like I was, I want to urge you to take responsibility for your anxiety, make friends with it, get curious, work to change your negative habits and patterns with lots of compassion and self-love.
And take heart. A happier, more care-free existence is ahead.