The Unexpected Way Out of Anxiety
Guest blog by Kalina Jones
The thoughts would hit while walking out of my office. While spending time with my partner. In the middle of a conversation. What if how I felt for my partner wasn't enough? What if I chose the wrong career? The ending of the "what if" would change, but the terror I felt every time was the same. They wouldn't be brushed off. After years of struggle, I made drastic choices to try and escape them. I left my partner to quiet their incessant whisper. I froze and did nothing, choosing no career at all so I couldn't choose wrong.
I learned to argue with the anxious intruders, to analyze them, to turn them over and upside down. The process was time-consuming, and new variations of the "what ifs" would inevitably rise to the surface and need to be argued with, too. Being haunted by your worst fears while trying to go casually about your life, do your job, love your spouse, and talk to your friends is exhausting. If you are one of the many of us facing anxiety right now, you know this. Whether you struggle with "what if" type doubts or some other version of your mind's incessant nagging about all the tiny details of life that could maybe go wrong, the current of anxiety running underneath it all is the same.
We spend a large amount of collective time and resources trying to find ways to get rid of our anxiety. From picking up a prescription for anti-anxiety meds to seeing CBD in everything (including popsicles!), it's easy to get the impression that anxiety is the bad guy. And that, if we are lucky, we will find something strong enough to quiet it to a barely audible whisper. It makes sense. Anxiety is unpleasant—it’s scary—and it can shrink our lives to a tiny fraction of what they once were. But what if this is all the more reason to rethink the way we see anxiety in the first place?
Teaching the Brain to Fear
There's a growing movement within the field of psychotherapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy that basically says the thing we really fear is, as the saying goes, fear itself. Research supports that the way we relate to our anxiety can powerfully change the way we experience it.1 ACT, as it is commonly called, basically teaches that when we react to our anxious emotions like they are actually a threat, this strengthens our conscious and unconscious beliefs that they are really something to be afraid of. And so, the next time they come up, our mind is even more frightened by them. This can snowball into a cycle of nightmarish chronic anxiety, similar to what we see in anxiety disorders.
Ideally, this basic concept could be used to prevent anxiety from becoming disorder-level to begin with. But by the time I realized I was terrified of being terrified, I was at least ten years into this whole anxiety thing and it was easy to believe that it was too late to do much about it. If you're also pretty far into giving anxiety the upper hand, the good news is that this idea can still transform your relationship with your anxiety.
The connections between neurons, or brain cells, are plastic. That's just a fancy way of saying they're not permanent. Certain neural connections are made when we respond to anxiety with fear, and different connections are made when we change our response. Over time, changing the way we respond allows the old connections to fade and new connections that serve us better to form. The less afraid we are of our anxiety, the less power it will have over us.
To begin to react to anxiety differently, we first need to understand that anxiety is not inherently negative. It can be hard to see this after struggling for a long time and, honestly, I hated the idea at first. Because sure, Susy, maybe your nervousness is just the right amount to give you an edge in public speaking, but everyone raise your hand whose anxiety is making them a dysfunctional basket case! Thought so.
So first, we have to understand that no one is saying that such a high level of anxiety is overly helpful. It's just that the anxiety itself, as in those excited nervous feelings, has evolved as kind of a neutral alarm system. "Something might be wrong! Oh, just kidding, false alarm. But better safe than sorry, eh buddy?" The anxiety we experience that feels terrible isn't actually any different than helpful anxiety - it's all the same emotion when you break it down. It's just a matter of how our brain responds to it and whether it gets stuck in the ON position.
In so many ways, we've been taught that feeling anxious is bad. But anxiety and even anxiety disorders are pretty normal to struggle with, as 31% of adults in the US will experience one in their lifetime (that's almost 1 in 3!).2 In other words, it's not that unusual to wind up with your alarm system a bit trigger-happy. Continuing to believe that the only way to deal with anxiety is by making it go away, will likely make the anxiety stronger and more persistent. We have to be a bit counter-intuitive. We have to start thinking a bit like a hippie bumper sticker - maybe, just maybe we can coexist.
The Way Out
What you will need to do to continue down this path is a willingness to get comfy with the uncomfortable. It is literally the only way to coexist with anxiety because anxiety can be incredibly uncomfortable. The racing heart. The nausea. The scary thoughts that pop up. We want to learn to sit with the anxiety and, to do this, we need to get good at noticing when it makes its first appearance. This is before it has spiraled into a hot mess of a murderous anxiety demon and we can't think straight and are huddled in a sobbing mess. Yep, preferably want to catch it before that point.
And when we do, we need to accept that it's there with us, not threatening us, and ride it out. Barry McDonagh, the author of Dare: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks, teaches audiences and readers to use the acronym DARE: Defuse, Accept, Run toward, and Engage to help them do this. It's a helpful way of remembering what to do at a time when thinking clearly can be difficult.
First, Defuse. Respond to the anxiety with a "so what" or "whatever" attitude. When we do this, we're training our minds not to treat the thoughts or feelings as a threat.
Next, Allow. This is where I personally imagine a fuzzy little fluffball running around freaking out inside of me, knowing that it's tiny and adorable and kind of crazy. Panicking will just spook the 'lil guy. Breathe and accept that the anxiety is here right now and you’re okay.
Third, Run toward. Try thinking to yourself that you are excited by the feelings rather than scared of them. The idea is that since they're the exact same physical sensations as excitement, interpreting them differently can neutralize them and make even less scary over time. This step can be left out until later if it's too hard right now.
And finally, Engage. Find something to do that fully engages your mind so you don't fall back into the trap of starting the anxiety loop all over again.
It's easy to think the idea of rethinking our fear is either too simple or overwhelmingly difficult, but acclimating to my own anxiety has allowed me to live my life in spite of it. Becoming more and more cozy with anxiety allows us to see that we have been living in fear of illusions, of the man behind the curtain. And when we unmask him, he turns out to be a whole lot less scary than we thought.
Anxiety can suck, don't get me wrong. But the terror that we attribute to our anxious feelings is part of what makes them so formidable and gives them so much power. Knowing better doesn't turn our anxiety off, but it does allow us to live our best lives even in its presence. In an age of anti-anxiety hacks, it can be weird to think that maybe our primary goal shouldn't be eradicating our anxiety. That it might be more helpful to peacefully coexist. Yes, it's totally counter-intuitive. And yes, it's scary. But it also works and, yes, it may be your best bet out of the beast.
1.“Any Anxiety Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml.
2. Eifert, G. H., & Heffner, M. (2003). The effects of acceptance versus control contexts on avoidance of panic-related symptoms. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 34(3-4), 293-312. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2003.11.001.
Interested in writing a guest blog for Swift? If you have a unique point of view or voice, we would love to have you! For submission guidelines, please click here.
Kalina Jones is a blogger at the Nerdy Herbalist, where she explores how to be healthy in mind and body, naturally. With a degree in Psychology and a background in biological research, she has a passion for exploring alternative paradigms of mental health and for breaking down the mind-body connection simply. In her free time, she loves spending her time in the woods and at coffee shops.
More from Kalina: