If you were walking through the woods and noticed a bear walking towards you, you would probably either run for your life or be so scared that you freeze. On the other hand, if your friends told you to watch out for a person dressed as a bear scaring people in the woods, you might initially get startled but would otherwise remember it was just a person. This heads up would make all the difference in your reaction.
Life is like a walk through the woods. We know that anxiety is going to manifest itself because it is a part of life. At one time or another, all of us will experience mild or severe anxiety. But what happens when anxiety shows up? Many individuals report that they hate it. They wish they could send anxiety to another galaxy. They try many strategies to get rid of it, or to at least manage it.
Yet, no matter what they do, anxiety keeps appearing and surprising them. Why won’t it simply go away? Here are some answers.
Remember your natural body response to danger. If you encountered a bear while walking through the woods, your safety alarm in your limbic system would quickly prepare you to fight, flee, or freeze so you could come out of it alive. During the bear event, you would not complain about the pit in your stomach, the rapid heart palpitations, wobbly knees, sweaty hands, or other sensations manifested in your body. You would feel grateful for your body’s built-in defense mechanism that helped you survive.
Your mind’s strengths are your demise. We humans have an amazing mind that allows us to do what other species cannot. Despite continued efforts to get some creatures to “think” like humans, none can use language and relationships like we can. Humanity is an advanced society because of our ability to problem-solve. However, when it comes to internal events such as anxiety, this ability backfires.
For example, when an important presentation, event, date, test, or interview is scheduled for the near future, anxiety may turn up. Your mind may say, “This is so important. You should not feel anxious!” You believe your mind and begin fighting the sensations in your body. You are not grateful for the pit in your stomach, rapid heart palpitations, and sweat all over your body like you were when you saw a bear. Yet, the mind insists, “You are not supposed to feel this way!”
What you resist persists. Your mind wants to protect you from unpleasant feelings. Reality is that when you resist an internal experience like anxiety, the more it comes to the surface. It is similar to a beach ball when you try to submerge it in the water. It can bounce up and hit you right in the face. Have you ever noticed that?
Your expectations may be causing the suffering. Your mind sets up rules and expectations. When anxiety is present, your mind may say, “This is bad timing.” The moment you wish for something other than what is happening, that’s the moment your suffering begins.
You may fantasize about a magic pill that could exterminate your unpleasant feelings for the rest of your life. However, your mind has picked up some mental habits, beliefs, opinions, judgments, and stories along your life’s journey. The good news is that you can acquire skills that can teach you to look at anxiety differently.
For now, consider The Unwelcome Party Guest* metaphor:
If you were to hold a party with your friends and someone that you didn’t invite showed up, how would you respond? This unwelcome guest is annoying, smelly, obnoxious, and you simply don’t want him at your party! You ask him to leave. When he finally leaves, you go back to enjoying the party. A few minutes later he is back. You really don’t want him around, so you finally kick him out. To ensure he won’t come in, you stay by the door. The problem is that you are missing out on your own party! Your mental, physical, and emotional energy is now being spent trying to keep the unwelcome guest out of your house.
Does this sound familiar? Is this happening in your life party? Anxiety may be an unwelcome guest, but are you missing out on living a meaningful and value-focused life? Are you drained from trying everything you can to keep it away from your life? Could you let that unwelcome life guest do its thing as you focus on what matters most?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) skills can help you learn how to let go of the fight with anxiety. You can learn to make room for it. Because realistically, it will continue to show up in your life. You can learn how to become more flexible with your thinking. It is a process, and it is possible!