Anxiety sucks. It can make even a slow, chill weekend miserable with stressful worries about the future and all the tension that goes with it.
Even worse, if anxiety is nothing new for you, it can call in its close cousin — shame. Shame and anxiety can then start to bully with thoughts like: Why can’t you just relax? How come everyone is more laid back than you? You’re such a [fill in the blank with your mind’s favorite name it calls you to make you feel bad about yourself].
Trying to stop or avoid this pattern is what most people do, only to feel frustrated and self-critical that they can’t conquer or resolve their anxiety. The pattern is bound to repeat, accumulating more and more frustration and a lessening of confidence of being able to work through anxiety.
If anxiety is seen as the enemy, as something to get rid of or something to overcome, then this will only produce more of it. The more you don’t want anxiety, the more you have it. Fighting it only binds you to it.
If you can relate to this then I invite you to consider a different way of looking at anxiety.
Anxiety is not a problem to be solved. Anxiety IS the attempt to problem solve.
Anxiety is, in part, the natural and useful ability to scan for threat and forecast an imagined future taken to an extreme. These two abilities (scanning and forecasting) are an attempt to address problems now or in the near future and are very handy skills. However, things can start to become stuck when the looking for problems becomes the problem itself. Like the old adage says, if you’re a hammer then everything’s a nail. Anxiety will always find issues with now and the near future to label as a problem, it’s just its nature.
It’s unskillful to stop a child from yelling by yelling at them. It’s unskillful to stop someone from criticizing you by criticizing them. Examples like these show that it will just cause more of it to happen sooner or later in response. It’s unskillful to try to stop problem solving by seeing it as a problem to be fixed.
Anxiety is not something to be controlled. Anxiety IS the attempt to control.
Anxiety scans and imagines the future in the attempt to control it. Whenever you find yourself imaging what you’ll say to X when they Y is your mind doing its best to try to keep you safe. Our minds think that we always need to be more prepared, fully anticipating potential negative future scenarios along with their outcomes. The mind loves to control, it’s also just part of its nature.
It would be expected for someone to feel uneasy, if they perceive their boss is annoyed with them for taking too much time off. They may start to be concerned that maybe they’ll get a negative performance review in the future. This might guide them to take the action of talking to the boss to clear things up or talking to the boss before taking more time off. The uneasiness or concern might have led to a useful response.
However, in this same scenario the same uneasiness can take a dark turn if control enters the picture. Worry thoughts about the boss’s opinion of them can start to loop and loop, becoming obsessive and causing more and more anxiety. Soon the worry thoughts turn into catastrophic thoughts that they’re going to get fired. The replaying and replaying of these future-based thoughts and scenarios are all based on trying to prevent something negative happening in the future. Unfortunately, obsessive worrying often does little to help someone in the future and just leads to exhaustion and a degrading of self-confidence.
A major difference between someone that excessively worries in this situation and someone who doesn’t is their relationship with uncertainty.
Neither person knows for sure what the boss thinks or will do. Neither has any control over that. The person who has the skill to make space for uncertainty does not need worry to try and control what is not able to be controlled. By contrast, someone without the skill of knowing how to work with uncertainty will be forced into the only strategy they know — trying to control that uncertain situation using anxiety, even if it doesn’t work and it makes them miserable.
Going to the Root
A weed in a garden can be pruned or it can be addressed at the root. Pruning anxiety is trying to fix or control the symptoms of anxiety. It will inevitable come back, perhaps with more strength later.
Behind all worries there is a felt sense that drives it. The worries of today will be similar to the worries of tomorrow by a different name or mask. They will all have the same root. Until someone can peel back the protections, defenses, and controls around it, it will continue to sprout and interfere.
The good news is anxiety is workable. When you go to the root you can begin to form a relationship with the source of all this suffering. You can learn to live better, develop skills and build resiliency so that anxiety has less and less influence over you. Heck, people often tend to learn a lot about themselves and experience large amounts of personal growth when they take a break on fighting anxiety and start to learn to work with it.