All Anxiety, All the Time? It Need Not Be So

man lying on deckAnxiety can be viewed in many ways. Psychologically, it is a state of nonproductive worry, fear, stress, and/or panic. Physically, we experience tension, headaches, sleeplessness, restlessness, racing heartbeat, distraction, and difficulty thinking clearly. Neurobiologically, stress chemicals and hormones flood our system in a dysregulated manner; for various reasons, our bodies are not able to process them normally. The nervous system is out of balance, and neural pathways are developing into “grooves” that reinforce our anxious state rather than a state of equilibrium. Anxiety becomes our “new normal” after a while.

Spiritually speaking, we could say that anxiety arises from unfulfilled needs, and becomes the manner in which needs are met. Anxiety becomes a substitute for the actual nourishment and attention that we require in order to thrive. If we practice self-care and coping strategies, we gradually tip back toward our capacity to receive what truly feeds our souls, allowing us to release our chronically anxious state.

It can be challenging to move from an anxious experience to a state of calm, relaxation, or active engagement, but everything is workable. Myriad strategies for working with an anxious state are available. Practicing daily builds confidence and competence in unraveling anxiety and replacing it with (you fill in the blank).

Moments of relief are always available to us. No feeling is as solid and permanent as we think. If we tried to be only anxious for a solid hour, we would fail. It can’t be done. (If it could be done, then meditation would be a snap.) There are always gaps in our experience of anxiety or any other pain. When we focus only on the anxiety, we reinforce our experience that anxiety is solid. When we look for the gaps, we find moments of space, of relief, of other-than-pain. If we pay attention to those gaps, we can begin to enlarge them and string them together, integrating them into our awareness.

Being specific about what we are actually experiencing helps. If we say, “Oh, I’m anxious,” then we go straight into our response/reaction state. If we take it apart and say, “Oh, I am feeling tension in my neck and my stomach,” or, “Oh, my heart is beating fast and I am very aware of it,” or, “Oh, I am having many thoughts in rapid succession,” or, “Oh, I am really wishing this was not happening,” we begin to break it down into manageable chunks. We start to become realistic. (Anxiety is all about the unrealistic masquerading as the most important reality ever.) If we notice that we are “horriblizing,” we can bring curiosity to the moment rather than buying into the content of our thoughts. What is actually happening here and now? We are less likely to get trapped in anxiety this way.

My favorite bumper sticker says, “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”. It is completely natural for humans to constantly create stories in order to make sense of their experience. Trouble arises when we don’t recognize our stories as stories, and start to buy into what we think. When we feel anxious, we are even more likely to cling to stories as a way of comforting ourselves.

We are not accurate in our stories, so why behave as if we are? We cannot read minds. We do not know what other people think about us, or whether they think about us at all. We are not willing to check out our assumptions—“Excuse me, but are you judging me based on my appearance?”—because we are more attached to our fictions than to finding out the truth. This is the power of anxiety: its reliance on falsehoods. Noticing and acknowledging to ourselves that we are making stuff up helps to siphon off anxiety’s power. Present-moment awareness helps us recognize and detach from our stories.

Even when our coping strategies don’t seem to be working, they add up over time. Anxiety is like a 10-pound rock on one side of the scale, and our coping strategies are like one-ounce pebbles. We have to keep adding pebbles, even if the rock doesn’t budge. At some point, the balance will shift. And sometimes the pebbles slide off a bit and we have to catch them and pile them back on. We can do this. Small, steady pebble piling works best. Big, sudden moves are anxiety-producing, and discouraging when they don’t work out. Gently, my dears.

Pebbles for working with anxiety include: breathing practices (in for four counts, hold for four, out for four, hold for four), moving our bodies (even a few jumping jacks help regulate our systems), reality checking (“What is actually happening in this moment, in my body, in my mind, in my surroundings?”), meditation, talking to friends, playing music, and writing in a journal (relieves the mind of the need to ruminate). You know others. Experiment. See what helps. Use at least one a day.

Beating yourself up for feeling anxious is not allowed. How would you talk to a friend or child who felt anxious, uncertain, or scared? Speak to yourself in that manner. If we can’t have the compassion for ourselves that we have for others, how can we live?

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ker Cleary, LPC, therapist in Eugene, Oregon

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • carlos

    carlos

    June 24th, 2014 at 3:07 PM

    I recently read somewhere that we should talk to ourselves the way that we would a good close friend.
    How many of us practice that on a daily basis?
    Not me that’s for sure, but why not? Why shouldn’t I deserve that same kindness and loyalty that I am so prone to give to others but never to myself?

  • Levi

    Levi

    June 25th, 2014 at 4:17 AM

    There are those who have felt this sort of anxiety for so long that seeking help and beginning to find some relief oin that help can be very dauting for them too. They are totally changing how they have felt and looked at the world for likely years, and this new perspective, while generally more positive has to change their entire way of life and the things that they think about and obsess over. I know that it is always good to try to move forward and to better yourself, but we have to understand the fear that this must cause in those who have lived with thsi much pain and anxiety for so long. We have to give them the space and the time that they truly need to grow and prosper.

  • Norma S

    Norma S

    June 25th, 2014 at 2:41 PM

    This shouldn’t sound like such a great thing but it became so helpful to me when I was finally able to pinpoint ecatly what was causing so much of my anxiety. Until I really knew what it was I felt that way all the time and it got to where it just felt like I was struggling to make it through every day. It felt like anything would set me off and then it would snowball. When I started writing down my feelings and sort of tracking my actions though things became so much clearer to me and duh! Once I could see the pattern I had a better idea for how to keep it under control. This might not work for everyone but for me it really has been a lifesaver.

  • Ker Cleary

    Ker Cleary

    June 26th, 2014 at 8:36 AM

    Carlos – I think there are many factors that keep us from this simple, vital practice of extending kindness to ourselves. Sometimes misunderstandings of parental rules when we are young, or fear of being seen as selfish, or cultural/societal norms of being hard on ourselves can conspire to make it difficult or awkward. But you are correct, we all deserve the kindness we would show a friend, or a child, or an animal. I have seen amazing growth and resolution of anxiety (and pretty much every issue benefits) when my clients begin to be truly kind to themselves.

  • Ker Cleary

    Ker Cleary

    June 26th, 2014 at 8:38 AM

    Levi, I couldn’t agree more. With most change, but particularly with anxiety (because change is so anxiety-provoking anyway), we need to go slow, take small, small steps, and give ourselves and each other time and space to adjust. Even long-standing, deep-rooted anxiety can begin to shift with a gentle, patient approach.

  • Ker Cleary

    Ker Cleary

    June 26th, 2014 at 8:44 AM

    Norma – Sometimes the things that sound small and too simple to do much are the most powerful, partly because of the need to go slow and take small steps. By tracking your own mind with close attention (and, I imagine, some kindness toward yourself), you found your way to clarity and the ability to shift your experience. I find that developing awareness of what exactly is going on, coupled with friendliness towards oneself, is a great combination for getting to the bottom of things. Congratulations, and thank you for sharing.

  • Flo

    Flo

    June 27th, 2014 at 12:42 PM

    I want to have someone to talk to about what I feel but then I never quite feel that I can express it in a way that will make others understand just what it is that I am experiencing.

    It’s so hard to make them understand if they have never felt that way before themselves. Not that I would necessarily wish that on anyone but there has to be some understanding in the listening you know.

  • Frannie

    Frannie

    June 28th, 2014 at 12:18 PM

    Anxiety is not the kind of nourishment that we need. Even if we feel that we are getting some kind of attention as a result of that anxiety, is this really the kind of attention that you wish to attract? I get it that for many this is a persistent and chronic feeling that you have maintained for a very long time. But if you ever want to come to your full fruition and be the person that you were meant to be then you have to strive and work hard to let go of that anxiety which rather than nourishes you actually sucks the very life from you instead.

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