Oh, anxiety! It’s the pits, isn’t it? That knot in your stomach, the racing heartbeat, the thoughts darting around in your mind like frightened minnows… The question I hear the most when it comes to anxiety is, “How do I get rid of it?”
But wait a minute, not so fast. Imagine, for a moment, that instead of just coming on to torture you, your anxiety served a purpose. A bout of anxiety can mean that someone is struggling with two opposing thoughts, one consciously held in her mind, and another, buried much deeper, on a gut level.
For example, imagine you have received an invitation to a party. Immediately, you feel yourself start to tense up. Anxiety manifests in the body, and if you have felt it, you can probably describe where it shows up for you. Common symptoms might include nausea, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, numbness or tingling in your limbs and a feeling of fearfulness, just for starters.
As the feeling of anxiety starts to arise, you might begin an interior monologue. “For heaven’s sake,” you admonish yourself, “You should be happy you got that invitation! Parties are fun. What’s the matter with you? No one else gets anxious when they get invited somewhere. You’ve been saying you should go out more, now here’s your chance.”
That is what we might call an intellectualized response. It might seem like you are following a line of rational thought, but how do you feel? Does talking to yourself this way soothe your anxiety?
Now imagine, as you receive that invitation and feel the anxiety set in, you said to yourself, “Hmmm, I’m starting to feel anxious. I wonder what that’s about?” Rather than trying to talk yourself out of your anxiety, what if you gently explored how you feel?
As a jumping off point, I might want to know, is there a “should” to this situation? That is, do you feel like you should go? Sometimes the word “should” can operate as a blinking neon arrow pointing at a place where you are already in opposition to yourself, or, as my clients have heard me say repeatedly, “should” implies resistance. “I should do that” often really means, “I don’t want to do that.” “Should” can mean that you are very aware of the reasons to do something, but not quite as in touch with the reasons not to do that thing. I think it’s important to find the reasons you don’t want to that underlie that “should.”
Let’s say that one of the reasons you feel you should go to the party is that you have been out of work. Going to a party might be a good opportunity for you to let people know you’re looking; that’s a conscious reason to go to the party. But what might be triggering the anxiety is that you feel some shame about your predicament. Perhaps you’re afraid of feeling judged about that job loss. Maybe you’re worried that if someone asks you about your work situation, you’ll choke up and be unable to say anything. In this circumstance, you need to treat yourself with compassion. You might find that it alleviates a lot of your anxiety to slip a mental arm around your shoulder rather than wagging a finger at yourself. Perhaps you could give yourself permission to use the party as a place to relax rather than network. Perhaps it would help to remind yourself that close friends will be there and it will feel good to connect with them. Or perhaps, this time, you simply need to be let off the hook. Maybe it’s less important to know why you don’t want to go to the party than to respect that you don’t want to go.
Many of us have been taught that the right way to overcome a fear is to confront it. When it comes to anxiety, it’s important to discover which kind of fear it is. There is a category of fear that I call “Dark Alley Fear.” That’s the fear you might feel when contemplating taking a short cut down an alley. Trust your instincts! We don’t need to know why the alley scares you; it’s enough to know that it does. Trust your fear and go around the block.
Another kind of fear is what I would call “New Class Fear.” That’s the kind of fear you might feel standing outside the doorway of a classroom you are about to enter to learn something new. You might feel shy, worried the teacher won’t like you, or nervous that you won’t understand the material or be good at what you are setting out to learn. Despite that fear, there can be much to be gained from at least trying that class. That’s the kind of fear I would recommend confronting.
To return to you, our reluctant partygoer, what becomes important is to understand which kind of fear you are feeling at the idea of going to the party. There might be many valid reasons not to want to go and those should be respected. You don’t care for the host, who has been hostile to you in the past. You had already promised yourself that you would reserve that night to stay home with a good book. Whatever your reasons, you don’t want to go and it is okay to find a polite way to decline that invitation.
If, on the other hand, the anxiety about going is based on ungrounded fears, the best path out of your anxiety is to acknowledge those fears. Dismissing your feelings and strong-arming yourself through the situation won’t work, but reminding yourself of what feels right about the situation just might. Take a compassionate stance toward yourself by validating your own feelings and then see if you can sort out a way to make it work. You may be surprised by how anxiety decreases when you have your own back!
Sara Kenney, L.C.S.W. Bio
Sara Kenney is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has practiced analytically-oriented psychotherapy in Los Angeles for 15 yearsLearn More