Many people reach out to me for help with anxiety. Most have tried various ways of coping with their anxiety with minimal success. A quick google search on how to cope with anxiety indicates that one should keep physically active, have a ‘growth’ mindset, take deep breaths, talk yourself through anxious thoughts, and face the situation that is making you anxious. As many of us who have suffered with anxiety know, these techniques do not always suffice to alleviate the suffering that anxiety brings. Furthermore, the relief these techniques may bring in the moment disappear once attention is moved elsewhere. For example, taking a few slow and deep breaths may bring about a sense of calm for a moment. However, when we stop paying attention to our breath, anxiety reappears. This highlights the difference between coping with anxiety versus curing it. Coping techniques can help to temporarily reduce the symptoms of anxiety but they do not resolve the underlying issues that are causing the anxiety. When coping techniques aren’t enough to manage the symptoms of anxiety, it could be time to consider an approach that works to resolve the underlying issue that is driving the anxiety.
To understand what it might be like to cure anxiety, we can start by first understanding what anxiety is. Anxiety is commonly understood to be worried thinking, but that definition is limited to one aspect of anxiety. Other symptoms of anxiety include tension in the body, dry mouth, increased urination, restlessness, rapid heart rate, difficulty sleeping, and shallow breathing. As anxiety increases, additional symptoms can include nausea and digestive issues, feeling faint or dizzy, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, headaches and migraines, ringing in the ears, and blurred vision. Given the variety of physical symptoms caused by anxiety, we can start to understand why techniques that focus on modifying our behavior or changing our thoughts do not bring about lasting relief. In fact, anxiety appears in our body first before it moves to our mind. So, the question becomes - what is making our body anxious? Some believe anxiety is caused by fear, so let's start there.
Fear is how our body responds to an external danger. For example, if we see a bear running towards us, our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes rapid, and blood flows into our limbs to prepare us for fight or flight. This is all before we have time to think about how to respond, which helps us react to the situation faster. In this example, we can see the usefulness of fear, without which we would be easier prey. We can also see that what we are afraid of is an actual danger that exists outside of ourselves. In comparison, anxiety is a response of an internal threat. And what might be considered dangerous inside of ourselves? Our emotions. Emotions can feel overwhelming and scary, especially if we haven't had any help in understanding and working through them. Perhaps it was not safe to feel specific emotions in the past, or perhaps they were too painful so we tried to avoid them. When these same scary emotions are triggered later in life, or body responds by wanting to bury them and keep them inside. To do that, our body physically responds by tightening and tensing, causing stomach aches, migraines, shortness of breath, and other symptoms of anxiety. This can all happen in a split second, without our conscious awareness of the initial emotion that triggered the anxiety.
To help illustrate how this works, let’s consider a fictional example of Mary. Mary has been married to Joe, her high school sweetheart, for 10 years. She recently found out that Joe was having an affair and had plans to end their marriage. Mary is devastated and experiences a range of emotions from this betrayal. However, Mary tends to the practical implications of the situation (separating of finances, separation agreement, custody, etc) and uses alcohol to deal with the hurt. Years later, when Mary tries to enter a new relationship, she experiences high levels of anxiety. She is unable to sleep, has digestive issues, and can’t seem to stop her racing mind. Mary is not sure what is making her so anxious. We can understand that as she becomes close to someone new, this triggers old emotions that are connected to being close to someone. The last time she was emotionally close to someone she was badly hurt. These emotions were not worked through at the time, and her body began to experience them as threatening. As these emotions get triggered again, anxiety takes over in an attempt to shut them down. Mary might benefit from working with a psychotherapist who can help her experiencing and process the underlying emotions that are making her anxious. Once this old emotional wound is healed, she can experience a new found freedom and an internal sense of peace and calm.
So how do we cure anxiety instead of cope with it? We face the emotions that are triggering the anxiety. This is a challenging task as these emotions may be from a long time ago, so long ago that we have forgotten what they’re connected to. These emotions can be painful and uncomfortable to experience, which is why we avoided them in the first place. If painful experiences happened when we were young, and we didn’t have any help in working through our big feelings, we may have pushed them out of our conscious awareness to get through the situation. However, the more we can experience the emotion underneath the anxiety that is trying to shut it down, the less anxiety we will feel. Instead of symptoms of anxiety, we will be in touch with the deepest parts of ourselves, parts that have been shut down and cut off long ago. Not only will this free you from anxiety, but you’ll build the confidence to experience any emotion that comes your way, even joy and love.
If you’re ready to cure your anxiety instead of coping with it, contact me for a free consultation.