If you struggle with anxiety, you might start to see your anxiety as an adversary. After all, anxiety stops you from doing things you need to do and things that you enjoy. Anxiety keeps you in the house and keeps you from pursuing your dreams.
You might even feel like anxiety stops you from being the person you know you can be, according to Lea Seigen Shinraku, MFT, a therapist in private practice in San Francisco.
Anxiety feels unpleasant and uncomfortable. For some of us, it’s terrifying. You might feel like you’re at the mercy of this big, monstrous thing. You also might feel ashamed about your anxiety. Shinraku’s clients often tell themselves: “What’s wrong with me? I’m not supposed to feel this way.”
“So it’s totally understandable that we would see [anxiety] as an enemy and try to push it away,” said Ali Miller, MFT, a therapist in private practice in Berkeley and San Francisco, Calif.
In fact, you might desperately want to eliminate your anxiety, as though it were an infectious disease. But seeing anxiety as enemy No. 1 only hurts us. For starters, it creates conflict. “When the enemy is an internal experience, then it’s an internal conflict. Conflict takes a lot of energy, and often involves a lot of suffering,” Miller said.
This also is a form of resistance. It’s natural for people to resist the things they see as challenging, Shinraku said. However, “What resists, persists.” “The more you view anxiety as an adversary [or feel ashamed], the more likely it is to escalate.”
Specifically, when you feel anxious, your threat response system has been activated (i.e., your flight, fight or freeze response), she said. This is when you “literally can’t think straight. Your prefrontal cortex goes offline, and your amygdala gets triggered — your ‘reptilian’ brain is calling the shots.”
Both Miller and Shinraku help their clients take a more compassionate approach to their anxiety. Many of Miller’s clients don’t realize that this is even an option. When she’s working with someone struggling with anxiety, she makes anxiety tangible. She asks her clients to imagine that one of the pillows on her couch is anxiety. And she tells them that they have options for how they’d like to relate to that pillow:
“Do they want to throw it out the window, or across the room? Do they want to place it on the floor near the couch, or try placing it on the couch? How would it be to put the pillow right beside you, or even on your lap? How about if you held the pillow like you would a baby, with loads of love and compassion?”
Sometimes, clients want to throw the pillow – and Miller is totally OK with that. She simply wants her clients to know that they have options.
Taking a compassionate approach helps you soothe yourself, thereby decreasing your anxiety and letting you think more clearly and be more present in your life, Shinraku said.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Below are two tips that can help.
Change the story of your anxiety.
Shinraku stressed the importance of experimenting. “You want to be a kind of scientist or explorer of your own experience.” With her clients Shinraku uses the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books as a metaphor for relating to their anxiety. (These books are interactive and give readers choices that result in different endings. For instance, if you decide to take the bridge, go to page 5. If you decide to walk through the forest, go to page 10.)
“We don’t have a choice about the feelings that arise in us. But we do have a choice in how we respond to them, or what stories we tell about them,” she said.
Shinraku gave this example of a typical narrative: “I feel anxious –> I shouldn’t feel this way –> something’s wrong with me –> how do I make the anxiety go away so I can feel OK or normal? –> The anxiety is getting worse; I have to make it go away now!”
However, you can try a new story, such as this one, she said: “I feel anxious –> I might feel better if I focus my attention on the present moment –> how do I do that? –> I’ll try focusing on my breath –> That doesn’t help. –> I’ll try focusing on the feeling of the soles of my feet on the floor –> Hmm, I feel a little better.”
Or you can try this narrative, she said: “I feel anxious –> What’s wrong with me? –> Wait, if one of my friends felt anxious in this situation, I wouldn’t think anything was wrong with them. –> It’s actually totally natural to feel anxious in this situation –> Anxiety is part of being human –> I bet there are a lot of other people who would feel anxious in this situation, too –> Maybe I’m not alone in feeling this.”
View your anxiety as a messenger.
Because anxiety is so upsetting, we rarely think that it could be valuable in any way. But your anxiety might be trying to tell you something. For instance, anxiety about work might reveal that you feel like a phony and have a hard time valuing yourself, Shinraku said. “In this way, it is pointing you toward some deeper understanding of yourself and the ways that you might need to heal some old wounds.”
Being anxious about a new job might reveal that you don’t have a good feeling about your new boss, your commute is going to be brutal or you’re unsure about the company culture, she said. “And maybe there is truth to these concerns; there might be wisdom in your doubts and your anxiety is bringing your attention to it.”
According to Miller, anxiety “is a messenger trying to deliver you a message about what’s important to you.” It’s trying to communicate your needs so you can meet them. For instance, she said, your anxiety might be telling you to focus more on self-care; that you’re scared and need some support; or you like the feeling of fitting in.
“Once we get the message, we are in a better position to take action on behalf of what’s important to us.”
It’s hard not to see your anxiety as an opponent you want to vanquish. It helps to remind yourself that this type of approach only amplifies anxiety and creates conflict. And it helps to remind yourself that while you can’t always change the beginning of the story (i.e., the first signs of anxiety), you can revise the next sentence.
Stay tuned for a piece on ways to be kind to yourself when you’re struggling with anxiety.
Pillow photo available from Shutterstock