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.

dealing-with-anxiety

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

  1. A numbness or denial of our feelings
  2. 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).

What next?

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.

37 comments on “One Thing People Forget When Dealing With Anxiety

  1. Allison…………..A great visual word description of the big “A”. Having to live with both A&D for so long. I try to cling more to words than meds as my barricade.
    To attempt to stall the always in the wings of the approaching gloom, I try to swallow swallow the capsule that contains ” you can have anything you want just not everything”… David Allen
    The phrase in itself seems so limiting, but within the peace of the truth of the boundaries it defines, I find comfort……….en theos……jas L

    • James—so sorry to hear you’ve been plagued with anxiety and depression. These two so often go hand in hand, and having also dealt with both, I can relate. Over the years I have learned what faithful teachers anxiety and depression can be, but how much help we need at times to get out from underneath their power.

      I hope my words were at least comforting to you, and even helpful. It’s worth it for me to share my struggles if it’s helpful to others.

      Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts! Appreciate you.

  2. I am so very glad I was introduced to you through Author Launch. Once again, your words speak straight to my heart. Thank you, Ally. Thank you so much for you vulnerability and authenticity. I always look forward to reading what you have to say.

    • Thank you Sarah! That’s encouraging for me to hear. Glad these words could be helpful for you. That’s what makes this whole thing worth it.

  3. Thank you for sharing another insightful post, Allison.

    I have struggled with anxiety since I was a child. It stems from years of growing up in abusive environments, and abandonment. I didn’t realize what it was until I got older.

    As I was reading through how you uncovered the root of your anxiety I could see myself in your situation — anxious because for once life is good. The lingering and insidious fear of the other shoe dropping haunted me for a long time.

    I also noticed my anxiety was triggered by people who displayed abusive and manipulative habits. My boss of my last job was a bully and every time he raised his voice I had panic attacks.

    This sounds overly spiritual but drawing closer to God has truly helped mitigate my panic attacks. Not in the way that simply sitting at the feet of Jesus healed me, but accepting His love. Being made whole by affirmation of what is true, pure, and noble. And also embracing the fear and working through it healthily helped a
    lot.

    K, I’m rambling.

    This was great!

    SH.

    • Shakira—thank you so much for taking time to sharing your thoughts and your story. I remember thinking, for years, that if life would just get better, if I could just find my footing, if I could just “catch a break” I wouldn’t have to feel anxious anymore. It took getting to a place where life was really, really good to realize the anxiety lived inside of me all along.

      And I agree with what you wrote about accepting and receiving love. This is such a huge piece of the puzzle when it comes to releasing our old, negative thoughts.

      Thank you, again, for taking the time to write here. It means so much.

      All the best to you.

  4. Allison,

    I recognized so much of myself in your post. I also struggle with anxiety, and have my entire life (I actually wrote a piece about it recently for Scary Mommy http://www.scarymommy.com/confessions-of-a-worrying-mother/).

    You mentioned the caffeine issue, which I only just discovered within the last year that I absolutely HAD to quit drinking because it was making me feel so much worse. And I completely identified with the attacks coming out of nowhere, especially when you’re having a really great day, which seems to make no sense. I loved what you had to say about it, though, about having to listen to what the fear/anxiety is telling you, and how it falls away once you do. I’m going to heed that advice!

    Have you read any material on being an HSP (highly sensitive person)? I’ve just started to read up on that within the last few months. I didn’t know that there was actually a classification for people like us, but I honestly felt so much better once I found out that there are a lot of us wired this way; where the world is at times overwhelming, or where we feel things so much more deeply, and even feel things that people near us are feeling.
    This article was one that I really liked http://themindunleashed.org/2015/01/highly-sensitive-person-need-know-science-personality-type.html.

    Thanks for another great post!

    • Jessica—I’m so glad this post was encouraging to you! I’d love to hear how it goes when you have a chance to listen to what your anxiety might be telling you. Feel free to send me a message after you practice with it once or twice.

      As for HSP stuff, I’ve read the main book (I can’t remember the name of the author right now… maybe Elaine Aron?) I’m definitely intrigued by her research and would probably classify myself as a highly sensitive person. I’m also really interested in how we, as HSPs, can live out our full potential in this world, not allowing our sensitivity to limit what we are able to do but to use it to our advantage. She does talk about this in the book—but I will check out that article you mentioned too.

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts here, and the link to your own article. I hope people can find comfort in knowing they aren’t the only ones who struggle.

    • Allison,

      I too just learned about being an HSP and have felt so much more at ease knowing it’s a “thing” and others deal with it. That was also what I thought about when reading this post. It’s always so hard to describe my mind and feelings to those that are the complete opposite of an HSP.

  5. Ally,
    Another great post – your self-awareness and problem solving are amazing. I haven’t commented in quite a while but I’m always reading what you write. This post speaks to me too with lots of good food for thought. One thing that plagues me is negative dreams which are made up of conflict with others; back in a previous job and under stress to perform; and feeling like I’m not measuring up, etc. Sometimes it makes me dread going to sleep and I wake up worn out. Any thoughts on how to tackle that?

    • John B—that’s the worst. I have struggled with really bad nightmares in the past, too. In fact, I didn’t know how bad they were until I got married and my husband would wake me up, telling me I was yelling in my sleep. What I’ve been told by therapists I’ve worked with is that more often than not, dreams are our subconscious trying to work something out while we sleep. Sometimes it’s able to take place over the course of a dream. But sometimes there is more there than we realize and our subconscious isn’t able to sort everything out by itself. In that case, I might recommend meeting with a counselor, even just a few times, to talk through what the dreams might be trying to tell you.

      I hope that helps! Sleep makes such a difference in our well-being and all around health.

  6. Allison,

    Thank you for this post. I just started a blog, and my first two posts were about anxiety. Your writing helped me to realize there is even more to the picture. We don’t need to view it as the enemy, or just as a weakness (like I often think), but a teacher in showing us some subconscious beliefs we may have about ourselves or life that we aren’t even aware of. Our anxiety can actually help us to change for the better, which is incredibly hopeful. Thank you for your insights!

    • Chelsea—nice! How fun that you started a blog and I’m glad this post could help you get a different perspective on your anxiety. I loved that you called anxiety a “teacher” because I really do believe that is the case. All the best to you as you learn to listen to what your anxiety is telling you, make friends with it, and find the courage to keep sharing your voice with the world. We need it!

      Thanks for reading and for sharing this comment. It means a lot.

  7. Great advice about considering what your anxiety is telling you – that had never occurred to me, but thinking about what’s made me anxious this week, I can see exactly what was causing my anxiety! I’ve recently been diagnosed with IBS and put on a special diet to see if it will help or if it’s being caused by stress I don’t notice – maybe this approach will help me figure that out too! Thanks Ali x

    • Fiona—thanks for reading and for your comment! I know all too well the pain of dealing with crippling stomach issues and it’s really challenging and awful at times. I’m sending lots of courage and love your way. Hope you can get everything resolved quickly and that you learn everything this process has to teach you.

      Much love.

  8. Great analysis of anxiety, but there’s one important point to add to this. Some people have panic disorder and/or general anxiety disorder. For us, anxiety just happens out of the clear blue, with no apparent trigger. That built-in “fight or flight” response fires up for no good reason. The adrenaline rushes, but it doesn’t power us up — it throws us down. The caffeine sensitivity you mentioned is one indication of that. Not being able to tolerate loud noises, including music you enjoy, is another.

    Sometimes, like it or not, it takes medical treatment with anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications to get to the point where some of your suggestions become helpful.

    There’s another aspect that I’m surprised you didn’t mention. I’ve heard the definition of “courage” or “bravery” isn’t being fearless. Rather, it’s doing what you need to do in spite of the fear. As you pointed out, sometimes it’s better to handle the thing you’re anxious about early, and get it over with. If it works out as bad as you expect, at least now you can start recovery sooner. If it works out better, hooray!

    • Joe—Thanks for sharing your thoughts. If you read all the way through the post, you’ll see that exact caveat mentioned at the bottom. If you’re dealing with unmanageable amounts of anxiety, there are certainly times when medication is a necessary part of the approach. My only addition to that would be that, as we are mental, emotional, spiritual and also physical beings, anytime we’re handing a problem we aren’t sure how to solve, I think it helps to look at the problem from all angles. Mental. Emotional. Spiritual. Physical.

      Also, see the comment above about Highly Sensitive People, because what you’re saying about sensitivity to caffeine and loud music sounds like it might have a connection there as well. There’s a great book called “The Highly Sensitive Person” and other resources out there as well. Just in case that helps.

      I have been in a place before where I needed medication just to function in my everyday life with the level of anxiety I had. I was on a fairly high dose of anxiety medication for nearly seven years. And today I’m medication-free and my anxiety is lifting more and more every day. So I know it is possible. I hope my story can bring some hope to others as well.

      Wishing you all the best in your continued journey.

  9. I appreciate where you mention making your anxiety work for you. I’m going to have to try that. thanks for sharing some helpful insights.

  10. Hey girl!

    Great article. Thank you for sharing your experience with canceling plans. I’m so guilty of that. Gosh it sucks to be that person! I really struggle with over committing. Have you ever heard of the term “upper limit”?

    Bri

  11. Anxiety has by far been my biggest struggle this year. It can be so overwhelming and hard to deal with (because either my worries are over legitimate things, OR even when I try to talk myself down with logic, the physical feeling of stress and anxiety doesn’t go away).

    I’ve never even considered this approach, but you have so many good points here. Thanks for sharing your perspective and advice—I needed it!

    • Brittany, I can totally relate. And I’ll just encourage you to keep unpacking those negative beliefs and replacing them with positive ones. The physical symptoms are often our body’s way of telling us what our mind can’t handle. So if you can give your mind little pieces at a time, the stress can eventually come out of your body.

      All the best to you! Hope this is helpful.

  12. Hey Allison! Thanks so much for this; I need it! I’ve been sitting at work for hours trying to get myself to calm down, totally doing the “Get out of here, you asshole!” line. I get so angry at myself when I try to get rid of my anxiety and I can’t. I thought I had gotten pretty good at managing my anxiety, but I got engaged two weeks ago and all of a sudden, it’s back and rearing its ugly head. It’s all about money and ‘how in the world will I pay for this?’ and my mind is always racing. I really WANT to enjoy this season and to focus on what ACTUALLY MATTERS, but it’s like my body and my mind won’t listen. It makes me feel broken. I’m sure I have this habit of being anxious about money that I’ve probably had forever and you are so right – habits do not change quickly or easily… but I’m never going to change it if I don’t make friends with it and give myself a whooooole lot more compassion than I have been… Anywayyyyyy, thank you for your words and for making me feel not as alone and crazy 😉

    • Abigail—thanks so much for your comment. Two things you said stuck out to me. First of all, you wrote, “it makes me feel broken” which is such a common feeling from people who suffer with anxiety. You’re not alone—and you’re NOT broken. Anxiety is just a sign we’ve lost our center and need to find a way back.

      Second, as far as your anxiety about money, one thing I realized that totally changed the way I approached my anxiety about money, is that even as my income has increased over the years, my anxiety for money has not decreased. In fact, if anything, my anxiety about money has gotten WORSE with an increase in my income. That was a wake-up call for me that my anxiety about money wasn’t going to be solved with getting more money, but only with addressing my negative thoughts and feelings toward money.

      I’ll write about this more soon, but for now, I hope that helps.

      Thank you for reading!

  13. Allison, thanks so much for sharing this post. I suffer from this same kind of anxiety…and I think it all boils down to fear. Only recently have I realized that just because I feel anxiety and fear does not mean that I have to let them rule my life. I love what you said about exploring them. I’ve also learned to listen to them. For me, fear is a pretty good indicator of what direction I need to go in life. If i’m scared, that’s a good thing! That means that I’m in the game, and doing something that really matters to me.
    I also love that you mentioned Big Magic. I just finished reading it, and was blown away by Liz Gilbert’s wisdom and advice about fear and creativity!

  14. you have no idea how much I needed to read this today… I too have been noticing lately that many of my anxious thoughts are fueled by habitual things that I tell myself when I experience a certain situation or feeling. You are so right. We really have to retrain our thoughts and how we experience life forever going to use our anxiety for our benefit. Thanks for this post ally!!

  15. Thank yoou very much for this post! I have been dealing with Anxiety and Depression in these last years.. and the sudden anxiety episodes, that apparently come out of nowhere, are confusing.. and bring a lot of fear with them “will I ever be able to live without fear of having a sudden anxierty attack”?

  16. Thank you very much for this post! I have been dealing with Anxiety and Depression in these last years.. and the sudden anxiety episodes, that apparently come out of nowhere, are confusing.. and bring a lot of fear with them “will I ever be able to live without fear of having a sudden anxierty attack”?

  17. This reminds me of mindfulness and a phrase in a meditation CD I heard about “detached curiosity. ” I’ve had some success when I remember to take a step back, emotionally, and say to myself, “Now, that’s an interesting feeling. What’s that about?” Sometimes I’ll even ask God, “What’s that about?” I don’t always get a straight answer, right away, but it decreases the anxiety a lot just to take that perspective. If I could just remember to do it more! Your post here helps!

  18. One of the first ways I was able to curb my own anxiety was curiosity. My anxiety comes into play around people, so I’ve always been nervous to go to public events alone. Once I finally did it though, I realized that I loved it. That curiosity was what drove me to try, and though you might not always be successful (it took me a couple of tries), you will find your balance. Thanks for sharing!

  19. Thank you for this post! I know it was written over a year ago but I believe there is a reason I came across it today. I have struggled for many years with crippling anxiety and depression. It is always good to know that others understand and can relate. I appreciate you being open and candid with your struggles and always love reading your posts! Thanks for sharing your heart!

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