Updated: May 22, 2021
Anxiety is one of the most common reasons clients seek out therapy.
I have heard anxiety described in many ways:
"A dark cloud that follows me around."
"A voice in my head that is constantly nagging."
"A never-ending stomach ache or lump in my throat."
"Feeling like the walls are constantly closing in on me."
"The desire to stay home and avoid going out in public."
"The feeling that I'm going to fail at everything I do."
"A looming feeling of doom and despair."
"Feeling like everyone is watching me."
"My heart pounding out of my chest."
I have experienced each of these references throughout my life; however, I now choose to define anxiety differently. So can you.
I explain to my clients that anxiety has one job. Anxiety exists to protect. Anxiety is the overly cautious presence that is always around to keep us safe. Anxiety is your personal body guard. Anxiety may be a bit dramatic at times, but it's important to remember that anxiety means well.
You might be reading this and thinking I sound a bit off. Why would anxiety ever be considered a positive thing?
When we reframe the influence that anxiety has over us, we realize that anxiety is simply our intuitive self kicking in to keep us safe. In doing so, we take back the power. We are able to acknowledge that those anxious thoughts are there due to our own instinctual nature. This means we can choose to turn anxiety off and on, right? Why can't it be as simple as turning the volume knob down on an old school stereo? Wouldn't that be convenient?
If you are shaking your head right now, I feel you. This is much easier said than done.
Let's start by thinking of a very common example: You are on a walk alone at night and you see a shortcut to your destination down a dark, winding alley. You feel a weird sensation in your stomach and chest and your hands begin to sweat. Your heart is racing as you near the alley entrance. You pause and wonder to yourself if the shortcut is worth it? There is a weird vibe about the alley. You ultimately decide to take the long way home along the well-lit street instead. Your body is then able to relax and your heart rate calms back down to it's normal speed.
What just happened? Your instincts kicked in! Anxiety worked. Anxiety took over to tell you that the alley didn't feel like a safe option. Despite the shortcut, it didn't feel worth it. There were unspoken energy vibes speaking to your inner conscience. You basically have a super power!
This is an example of anxiety serving you well. We can learn to trust our anxiety when it does things for us that we appreciate. You chose to listen to it in that situation and the outcome was positive.
Not all situations are so easy to figure out and we often realize anxiety is speaking loudly during moments we wish it was quieter. We also don't always notice anxiety in the moment and assume we are just wired a certain way. I'm here to remind you that you ARE in control. You get to choose. You can take the power back and enjoy your life again. You may never be anxiety-free (nobody is), but maybe you will learn to accept that having some anxiety isn't such a bad thing.
Here are three easy starting points for taking the power back with your own anxiety:
1. Name it.
By giving your anxiety a name, you are externalizing it from yourself. Instead of assuming anxiety is you and you are anxiety, naming it allows you to separate yourself from the anxious thoughts and behaviors. This is a reminder that anxiety isn't who you truly are at your core, but is simply an external being that shows up when it thinks it's needed.
Activity: Start drawing and see what you create. Maybe your anxiety looks like a person, an animal, a creature, or a blob. What color is it? How large is it on the paper? Can it change shape? Does it move around or is it stagnant? Now give it a name.
The next time your anxiety kicks in, be gentle and kind, and let it know you hear it but don't need it: "Dear Pineapple (insert name for the anxiety), I hear you trying to protect me. I see your intentions are good, but I can handle this on my own and I don't need you right now."
The breath is one of the most basic skills taught to those who struggle with anxiety, panic and overwhelm. Our breathing is our secret weapon. It is something we always have and can always work on. It can quickly regulate the nervous system.
Activity: Box breathing. This one is easy to remember as long as you can count to 4. Breathe in for 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 4.
3. Cognitive Work
Using therapeutic approaches related to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be very helpful when irrational thinking takes over.
Activity: Ask yourself: "What is the worst thing that could happen in this situation?" Once you answer this question, ask "What would I do if that happened?" and continue asking yourself these questions until you feel a sense of calm.
Example internal dialogue: If I stutter during the presentation, maybe everyone will laugh at me. If they laugh at me, I might cry. If I cry, I might want to run out of the classroom. If I run out of the classroom, I'd go cry in the bathroom until I calm down. My teacher is really nice and would probably come and check on me and help me to feel better. Or maybe my friend Tony will come check on me, too. The kids who laughed would likely feel bad once they saw me cry and apologize. I do have a lot of great friends in the class who I know care about me. They also know how nervous I get about my stutter. I'd get through it and I'd be okay. I guess I'm not the only one who gets nervous to give presentations...
I'd love to hear the names and images you come up with for your anxiety!
EMDR is also helpful for more extreme cases of anxiety, phobias and trauma. For information on the process of EMDR and how it might be helpful for you, learn more here.
Curious about high sensitivity? Learn more.