You Should Thank Your Anxiety; Here's 3 Reasons Why
I know, I know, anxiety sucks, right? Why would I thank it??? I had that thought last night, after I saw something that immediately triggered a huge flood of anxiety. I had all these impulses to get sucked into overthinking, or to create an argument, or to just shut down and crawl into a hole in my mind. So, I had a pretty good night 😅 In all that intense anxiety, I remembered 3 important lessons that I wanted to share here. If you want my biggest tip on how to respond to anxiety or stress, jump to #3.
1. It creates a surge of energy that can be used for good things.
Anxiety is literally an adrenaline rush—only, it's less fun because you're not doing it on purpose. Take a moment to think about how you feel physically when you become anxious... I know for me, my chest immediately tightens, my shoulders and fists tense up, my breathing becomes shallow, and I feel like I could run for miles (away from my problems). This morning when I woke up at 5am 😫, my mind was racing and everything felt like it was going a mile a minute. That intense energy can feel really overwhelming, and, it can be used purposefully to retrain our body and our nervous system. For the last few months, I've had a really hard time waking up before 8am, but this morning, I was suddenly wide awake with no chance of going back to sleep. Nice! Now, instead of starting my work day at 10 and ending at 4, I was able to start my day sooner and end even earlier.
Maybe for you, it allows you to go on a huge cleaning splurge in your home, or finally sort through your inbox, or to jump into the shower, or a million other things that require the mobilization that our body is geared for when we're in fight-or-flight. Our bodies are literally primed to DO.
I use those examples not to make fun of the situation, but to highlight the reality that the anxiety can be transferred into something good. Whether it's the laser focus that comes from being anxious, or the need to fidget and keep your body moving, we can choose where the energy goes.
2. It reminds us of the things we care about.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: We're scared where we care. Anxiety, nervousness, and fear only show up when there's something we care about. Maybe we're scared of losing it, breaking it, messing it up, being judged for it—no matter the reason, anxiety reveals vulnerability, and under vulnerability is always a value. So what does this mean in the moment? You don't have to find the silver lining or look at the bright side, but you can have some compassion and understanding with yourself about why you're so anxious. When we understand the care part of the scare, we might change how we talk to ourselves. Instead of self-talk like "I'm freaking out over nothing!", you might say "I know I really care about my job, that's why I'm so scared of losing it" or "It's important that I'm kind to people, so I understand why I'm worried that I said something rude." The catch 22 here is: the more we care about something, the higher our potential is for fear and anxiety. Isn't that fun?
3. It gives us an opportunity to practice.
If you follow any mental health content on social media, you've inevitably heard the term "feel your feelings", often without an explanation of what that actually means. And here's where the practice comes in. Anxiety is an intense emotion, one that our body naturally wants to reduce or eliminate, and for those reasons it is the perfect challenge. It gives us an opportunity to witness the emotion (and all the physical stuff that comes with it), notice the thoughts coming up, and just sit with it patiently—aka, feel the feeling.
The "witnessing" or "noticing" part is the trickiest, if you've never done it before, but basically you imagine yourself as an observer of all those inner experiences. You can pretend that you're a person behind the glass window at the zoo, watching all your thoughts and feelings bounce around on the other side of the glass, or like you're watching a play of emotions and words happen in front of you.
Personally, I like to pretend that I'm taking those feelings out of my body and holding them in my hands, almost like it's this glowing, fiery ball of fear and anxiety, and I just watch it for a bit. And I'll be honest, even after 8 years in the mental health industry, my gut instinct is still to turn away from it. As I practiced noticing my reactions, breathing through them, and resisting my impulses to go absolutely ballistic, I had to notice the impulse to hide and ignore it as well. Because I know that when I do hide, avoid, and ignore, I almost always feel more stressed out by all the effort it takes to run away.
I've said it once and I'll say it again: we can't avoid anxiety. Doing so makes it worse. What we can do is eliminate the anxiety about the anxiety, and stop hating it for doing its job. The more we practice noticing our sensations, understanding the values underneath, and embracing our anxiety, the less control it has over us.
As always, your friendly, honest, neighbourhood psychotherapist,