Anxiety can be a frightening feeling, but it is also the feeling of fear itself. Those two truths are at the core of what can make our anxiety much worse by snowballing into something that gets bigger to the point of it causing impairment in our lives. In reality, everyone has anxiety. In fact, we could not live without it. The goal is not to have zero anxiety; for if we did, we would not function. We would have no motivation to get anything done. We also do not want to have our anxiety to be (say from a 0-10) at a 7 or an 8 all of the time. The truth is, we want it to be between 1 and 3.
Anxiety affects all of us in many different ways. Many people have their own unique symptoms. Some of the symptoms are acute and some are more chronic. For some of us, it is a low-level, chronic hypervigilance we experience where we can never relax, be in the present moment, and always feel like something bad is right around the corner. Yet, some of us might experience anxiety only in response to certain triggers; these triggers being in the form of certain events, objects, people, or experiences. Sometimes we have been conditioned to associate certain experiences, situations, or people with certain negative outcomes and our anxiety is born from fearing that a past experience is happening all over again. Of course, this is a sign that we need to resolve a past event so we can respond to the present in a healthier way and for what it is- the present.
Now onto the snowball effect of anxiety. Many people develop a fear of their anxiety. We literally begin to fear our feelings of fear rather than normalize them. This is often where it begins to feel that our anxiety is spinning out of control. Everyone has fear, but some of us learn to fear our anxiety. Some of us may have had a temporary stressful time we passed through and during that time we experienced some acute anxiety and had symptoms we had never experienced before. Symptoms such as panic, loss of safety, loss of confidence, loss of appetite, or just overall not feeling ourselves. This creates an emotional memory of that experience. We then begin to fear having those feelings or that experience again. We then become hypervigilant to any symptom of anxiety. When experiencing normal daily stress or anxiety we begin to have the thought “oh no, I’m getting anxious”. That in itself is an anxious thought, which then creates more anxiety. This additional anxiety then has more negative meaning and fear assigned to it, which then creates more anxiety and our anxiety quickly begins to snowball. Before we know it, the presence of anxiety in our life is like that of the “boogey-man” who can show up anytime, unannounced, and seemingly out of our control.
In cases where there was panic experienced or even a panic attack, we can end up becoming hypervigilant to bodily sensations. Symptoms such as breaking out in a sweat, diaphragm muscles tightening, feeling light-headed, and rapid heart-rate are all normal anxiety symptoms. They do not mean anything bad is going to happen. However, for those who have experienced a panic attack, they often assign catastrophic meaning to these normal anxiety symptoms. At the first sign of a normal anxiety symptom, the thought emerges “oh no, I’m getting anxious, what if I have a panic attack!”. It is this very process that then creates the very panic they sought to avoid. In essence we do it to ourselves. The fact that we often worsen our normal anxiety or bring panic on ourselves is a comforting thought. Why is it a comforting thought? It is comforting because it means we can control it. It is not this frightening external beast which rules our lives. It is the result of a series of thoughts and perceptions that send us into a cycle of anxiety.
The more we learn about anxiety and how it works in us, the more confident we become in the face of it. We see it as something we can master and control rather than as something that masters or controls us. To quote Aaron Beck, “all emotion is preceded by perception”. Things in general are often what we make of them. If we think something is frightening we will be scared, if we think something is sad we will cry, and if we think something is funny we will laugh. Our anxiety is no threat to us. It can even be perceived as a friend or ally who is telling us something; that something is bothering us. If we work to discover and resolve what is bothering us, our anxiety will go away. However, avoidance of the things we fear, or our emotions, will make anxiety worse. We need to normalize it, lean into it, and engage it. We dialogue with it. In counseling, when there is a trained therapist, we will often be asked to sit with anxious feelings or physical symptoms associated with anxiety until we become desensitized to them and no longer fear them.
We would do well to practice the following: if we feel anxious, we think to ourselves, “okay, I’m feeling a bit anxious, and that’s okay, it’s normal. But what’s the fear? Where is it coming from?”. We become our own private investigator who is able to troubleshoot the source and resolve it. We discover the feared scenario and we sit with it and challenge it. When we do this, we often see the feared scenario is survivable and not as bad as we thought. It may be something that was bothering us unconsciously, perhaps an approaching change or life stage transition. Perhaps it is just too much going on in our lives and we feel out of control. Perhaps there is an anniversary of some kind. Maybe it is something going on in the present that is reminding us of a past event or experience. Once we identify the source, acknowledge it, talk about it, pray about it, and deal with it openly, it is precisely then that we feel better. We begin to learn that anxiety is like the wizard, from The Wizard of Oz. Instead of this great, powerful entity, we see it is the result of a series of thoughts and perceptions that we respond to emotionally. We can wield it and master it. Rather than running from and avoiding it, we literally learn to chase it down and throw the covers off of it to see it for what it is. This leads to a much greater sense of confidence and inner peace. Our anxiety is what we choose it to be. Chase it down, lean into it, engage it, discover the source of it, normalize it, and it can become an ally that is simply trying to tell what is bothering us in our lives.