For as long as I can remember, anxiety has been a feature of my life. It has been an almost constant companion on my journey and not always a welcome one. In fact, I spent many years wrestling with it, feeling ashamed of it and weakened by it. Here’s what I have learned.
Fighting anxiety makes the problem worse
When difficult thoughts and feelings arise it is natural to want them to go away. My instinctive reaction was to resist the feelings. In fact, I have discovered that we can have a tendency to do one of two things or a combination of both of them when anxiety becomes problematic. The first is rumination – chewing things over. I call this fix-it mode. I literally run the same thoughts around and around my head (or in conversations with people) trying to apply logic, to get people to share my alarm and do something about it or I just analyse it to death. Often there was no game plan – I would just churn the same thoughts over and over like a broken record. One of the most problematic rumination patterns I suffered was relentless self-criticism – literally attacking myself with the judgmental voice in my head. I later learned that our brains do not distinguish between someone else doing this to us or us doing it to ourselves. The result is the same – our brain perceives that we are under attack, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle. I needed to comfort myself for the self-inflicted damage!
The other response to anxiety is avoidance. For me, this might be isolating myself to avoid feelings of social anxiety. This made my world quite small and cut me off from many possible sources of help and support. Alternatively I would try to avoid the feelings by numbing with comfort eating or retail therapy, which over time turned into problem compulsive behaviours. It shut me off from feeling and dealing with emotions and added the consequences of overeating or overspending to the list of burdens.
Mindfulness and Acceptance Can Help
Through mindfulness meditation I learned to recognise the thoughts and behaviours that were occurring instead of jumping straight into habitual reactive patterns to deal with them. I also learned that if I accepted the anxious feelings and became curious about them – noticing things like the sensations in my body and the thoughts and reactions – the experience was not so intensely difficult and I could choose to respond more skillfully. I found it helpful to ask myself whether I was actually OK and coping in this moment. I found that I might be worrying about how bad things might get or whether I would be able to cope if they got worse. However, if I focused on the present moment, actually I realised I was safe and well. Often the best course of action I could take was to be present for myself or the person I was worrying about, offering compassion rather than being taken off into anxious thoughts. A cautionary note here – it is possible to “abuse” mindfulness. What I mean by this is using mindfulness to recognise the feelings and then attempt to use shifting focus to avoid acknowledging our difficult experiences and not recognising that acceptance is not about leaving ourselves in a situation where we might need help or to maybe make some changes to our circumstances. The key word here is “compassion.” For particularly difficult feelings, it is important to work with a trained therapist to guide you through using mindfulness in this context.
It’s Nothing Personal
It helped me a lot to stop talking in terms of “my anxiety” and saying “I am anxious.” Instead I used phrases such as “there is anxiety here” or “I am noticing anxious feelings.” This may seem quite clunky and impersonal, but it makes a powerful difference. When I was identifying as an anxious person or that they were “my” feelings, it became easy to criticise myself for it. When I noticed that the thoughts and feelings were just something happening to me, it became a lot easier to be kind to myself and to recognise that these things happen to other people too.
Anxiety is Telling Us Something
I treated my feelings of anxiety as a sign that I was broken. However I learned that anxiety is a natural state that indicates something that needs my attention. It only becomes a problem when it is prolonged or not appropriate for a given situation. So the anxiety I felt about my children’s health is a natural response and is accompanied by a desire to do something for them to help them recover. One of the biggest things I can do as a parent (apart from getting appropriate medical help) is to be there for them and to be compassionate. I even noticed that the anxiety triggered the flight response and that there was a strong urge towards avoidance, but there was an even more powerful urge to care for and protect my children. Recognising that it takes courage to stand in the face of this and being compassionate towards yourself can be helpful here. Problematic anxiety might be worrying about the possibility that my children might become unwell when all the signs are that they are perfectly well. I realised that these thoughts were taking me away from spending enjoyable, quality time with my family and draining my energy. They had the potential to teach my children to be afraid.
Sometimes, the lessons are life lessons – such as learning to trust others or to recognise where we tend to get our information from and whether it is giving a realistic picture. News media is pretty terrible for presenting the world as an unsafe place, for example. Using the lessons from my journey with anxiety has really helped me. It has made me want to turn those experiences into something that might help others and it has taught me a great deal about myself. Enduring any mental illness can be tiring and isolating.
When I felt anxiety over safety issues, it spurred me to speak up until things were put right. I initially anguished over whether I was being “silly,” or that my threshold for safety concerns was lower than other people’s. However, I came to realise that these feelings were telling me to persist until the problem was rectified. Determining whether the worries are justified or if they were excessive was somewhat tricky. Often I needed an outside perspective. At times it felt very lonely when other people did not share my concerns or understand the issue I was trying to highlight. This is a part of the experience of anxiety and another chance for self-compassion (and to accept support from others. People may not understand the exact source of the anxiety, but they can relate to the feelings). I also found I still needed to use the mindfulness and acceptance tools and to be aware of getting caught up in rumination – to recognise where the boundaries were between thoughts as a useful tool and where they stopped being helpful.
Anxiety as a Superpower
Going through tough times is an opportunity to explore and live by our values. I have a mantra/question I like to use: “As a person going through this difficult situation, who do I want to be?” Then I can choose which of my values I want to embody. Dealing with difficult feelings is not a weakness. We go through these things and we grow. I have been able to stand in the face of intense anxiety and recognise that I needed to harness it to speak out and to keep speaking out until the people I care about are protected. I have learned skills I would never have learned without this journey and now I get to help others to learn these skills for themselves. Is anxiety a superpower? I will let you decide.
Don’t be Afraid to Get Help
As a final word, I learned mindfulness at a time when I was not experiencing particularly intense feelings. It can be seriously uncomfortable sitting with intense feelings, especially without practising on milder ones first. One of the powerful lessons I have learned is that accepting help is not weakness. People who run successful businesses (or countries) are very skilled in accepting help and knowing that they cannot do everything – they call on experts for help and advice and they delegate tasks.
If you have difficult feelings that are impairing the quality of your life, help is available. I found this help really invaluable. There are therapists who offer mindfulness and similar practices as part of their sessions. There are also a whole host of other possible resources. In the UK the NHS website has information and suggestions. Also Mind in the UK. Worldwide resources can be found here. This is just my story about how, with this kind of help, I learned to tame the dragon of anxiety. Together we can help one another transform experiences of suffering into lives of purpose and meaning.