When people first come to see me for anxiety treatment, they tend to think of the anxiety as their enemy. They feel hatred toward this force that has been causing distress for months or even years. The words they use to describe it tend toward combat metaphors: “I fight against it, but it attacks,” “I’ve been battling this since childhood,” “It’s really pummeling me this week.”
Naturally, they’re surprised when I suggest an unconventional solution: Instead of hating it, embrace it.
The idea is that the best way to control your anxiety is to be kind to it. And the best way I’ve found to illustrate this concept is by imagining anxiety as an attack dog. (In my office, we visualize a vicious, feral pit bull.)
If you walked into your living room and found a growling, pacing dog, what would you do? Yelling at it might make it angrier. Showing your fear might make the dog feel stronger and more dominant. And ignoring it—or pretending it isn’t there—leaves you vulnerable, so it can catch you off guard and strike.
And yet those three options are the ones many of us choose for dealing with anxiety. “Yelling at the dog” is what we do when we get frustrated at our anxiety and try frantically to get rid of it. Sometimes the people I work with in therapy yell at themselves internally, calling themselves idiots or weak or damaged for feeling so worried. Other times, they rush into distracting habits, such as drinking or self-harm, which are often more damaging than whatever they’re worried about. And sometimes they just think and think compulsively about the issue, letting their spinning thoughts give them the illusion they’re coming up with a solution.
“Showing the dog your fear” looks like getting overwhelmed by the anxiety, giving in to it, and crawling back into bed. This allows the anxious thoughts to dominate us.
Finally, “ignoring the dog” happens when we pretend the anxiety doesn’t exist by shoving it down without treating it. We call ourselves “overachievers” or “perfectionists,” but really we’re repressing and denying our anxiety. Many people who do this eventually experience depression or panic attacks—it turns out the feelings don’t disappear, they just come bursting out when we least expect them.
If the anxiety were in fact a guard dog, the way to manage it would be obvious: be calm, acknowledge it, and be careful of it but speak gently to it. When you’re more in control than it is, it will calm down, feel less in danger, and maybe even be soothed. When we can’t get away from a wild force, we try to tame it.
Taming anxiety—sitting calmly in the face of great unease—is not only difficult, it feels downright contradictory. But that’s what is necessary. We do this through the practice of mindfulness, which helps us accept and tolerate painful feelings of worry; by breathing exercises and meditating, which helps us learn to control the physical sensations of the fight-or flight mechanism such as racing heartbeat, numbness, or shaking; through cognitive therapy, which helps change our thoughts from repetitive negative statements to more reasonable, soothing beliefs; and by getting support and connection from a therapist or friend. By embracing the feelings, we master them.
Like a dog trained to be vicious, your anxiety may not ever be fully tamed. Reactivity has been bred into it. It is easily frightened and startled. But just as it takes years of training to make a dog savage, years of training in being calm can have a positive effect.
What we nurture blossoms. When we feed into being nervous, we grow more nervous. When we work on being calm, we become calm.
Being anti-anxious doesn’t mean pushing the emotions away or ignoring them. The best scenario is one where we recognize our anxiety, understand it well, and then just let it be. The less we worry about worry, the more quickly it will fade.
Think about that dog analogy again. Whenever you start to worry about something like an upcoming project, a flight, or an argument with your partner, the dog comes roaring into the room, frothing at the mouth. It thinks it’s in danger, thinks it must protect itself. At that moment, when you most want to run away, tell yourself to approach with confidence and caution. Let the dog know there’s no emergency, that you are kind, that you’re the one in control. Maybe even see yourself petting it, soothing its fears, comforting it.
Of course, you’re really soothing yourself. You’re telling yourself everything is okay, it’s not as bad as it seems, and to pause and stay calm. You’re practicing a visualization designed to quiet your central nervous system and help you feel more in control. You’re staying with some challenging emotions instead of doing whatever you usually do to avoid them.
Like a dog trained to be vicious, your anxiety may not ever be fully tamed. Reactivity has been bred into it. It is easily frightened and startled. But just as it takes years of training to make a dog savage, years of training in being calm can have a positive effect. Practicing the tools of self-soothing (mindfulness, pleasant activities, breathing techniques, etc.) retrains the anxiety dog to be less sensitive, to pause and assess a situation before getting overwhelmed by it, and to assume the people around it have good intentions.
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