Updated: Oct 15, 2020
How can we deal with Anxiety when we treat it as if it’s a bad thing? Anxiety is not our enemy. Anxiety only becomes problematic when it dominates our thoughts. Anxiety has served us, as a species, for a long time. We have survived as a species, in a large part, because of Anxiety. So, our work, today, is to allow Anxiety its appropriate place in our day to day activity but keep it from dominating all that we do. We can learn to reframe our story about Anxiety which transforms it from a limiting story into a more empowering one.
Anxiety kept our ancestors safe
Think about our early ancestors sitting out on the savanna. If they were sitting in the grass on a hill, and weren’t on guard, anxiously scanning the area for potential dangers, they might easily get attacked by a predator, or miss an incoming warring tribe, or not notice a fire spreading in the distance. In other words, if they weren’t looking for the immediate dangers, they probably wouldn’t have survived. Anxiety kept our ancestors safe. It’s an important part of our evolution.
Our lifestyles are very different now, however. Our anxieties are different. Nowadays, we are often anxious about future dangers that aren’t so immediate—we worry about things that might happen 10, 20, 30 years in the future. We also have many more potential things to worry about than just a few immediate threats. I don’t think our ancestors worried about their kids getting involved in drugs, they didn’t worry about the stock markets, they weren’t worried about mortgages and jobs, they didn’t worry about larger social issues. Their lives were slower, and their concerns were simpler.
The antidote to anxiety is action
My therapist once told me that “the antidote to anxiety is action.” Unfortunately, the only way to move past anxiety is to do the thing we are most afraid of. This is more easily done when our anxiety is focused on a specific thing. For instance, if you are anxious about public speaking then the only way to overcome that anxiety is to do public speaking. If you are anxious about meeting new people, then the only way to overcome that is to go out and meet new people. If you’re scared to get a shot, the fastest way to get over that fear is to get the shot. It sucks because it’s hard. But I’ve found it to be true in my life.
However, anxiety over social ills or a pandemic are a little different. Our fears are broader, less defined, and often don’t have a specific action step we can take. One thing that has helped me in these situations is to go through the “worst-case-scenario.” Now, I want to make a caveat here, this doesn’t work for everyone. My daughter hates it. For some people it just increases their anxiety. But I’ve found it helpful. Let me give an example.
I don't always know how, but I know we will deal with it
When I was a young mother I used to be very anxious about my children and about whether or not I was doing a good job as their mother. If they were acting moody, my anxiety started spinning—what if they get in with the wrong group of friends, and then they get involved with drugs, and maybe get pregnant, and never graduate from high school, let alone college, and then they end up in jail, or dead? Somehow, I went from moody to “in jail or dead.” So, I started asking myself: “what if they did become a drug addict? What would happen? What would I do?” and although I didn’t know exactly how we’d deal with it, I knew we’d deal with it. “What if they did something so bad that they ended up in jail?” Again, my ultimate answer was that we’d deal with it. For every worst-case scenario, I always came down to the same conclusion: we’d deal with it. And remembering that allowed me to let go of the fear.
Regardless of how good of a job I do as a mother, crappy things are going to happen to my kids. That’s just life. No one gets to go through life without hardships. I can’t shield them from pain. But regardless of the hardships, I know that we’ll deal with it. Even if, God forbid, one of my children dies. Somehow, I am confident we will deal with it. So, I went from the anxiety of needing to protect my kids from all bad things, to focusing on having the type of relationship with my kids so that when bad things happen, I can be a safe, soft place for them to land. Sure, I still worry, but I no longer get caught up in anxiety and panic over all the “what-ifs.”
Focus on relationships and embrace the uncertainty
Maybe something similar can work for you, in our current situation. Is it possible to move from focusing on the “what-ifs” to figuring out what kind of relationship you want to have with your loved ones, your neighbors, and society at large and then start working on building that relationship? I think if we focus on relationships rather than the unknowns, we can learn to be confident that regardless of the unknown, we will make it through. It won’t always be pretty, perfect, or easy. We can be quite confident that our lives will be messy, imperfect, and sometimes really hard. But knowing that allows us to let go of the need for feeling certain about our future. We can be certain that life will always be unpredictable. Maybe it’s time to learn to embrace the uncertainty.
How can we alleviate our anxiety?
Embracing uncertainty is a life-long process. But we are currently in a global situation of immense, immediate stress and need some immediate help. So, what can we be doing today, this very moment, to deal with our Anxiety?
Here are a few small, simple steps to alleviate some of your Anxiety:
Try slowing down your breath—take a long breath in, maybe counting to five, then a slow breath out, counting to 7 or 8. Do this 5-10 times in a row.
Go outside and listen to the birds or look at the sky. Nature is unafraid. Nature is always in the moment. Let yourself be in the moment with Nature, if even for a short while.
Listen and dance to some fun music.
Find some comedic relief—look for stand-up routines on YouTube, or comedy podcasts, or just a funny movie or TV series. It’s good to laugh.
Look for a creative outlet—painting, writing, coloring, crafting, knitting, sewing, playing an instrument, etc.
Exercise. Try it for even 5 minutes a day. It will make a difference.
Call or text a neighbor or friend and just check in on them. Make sure they are okay. Look for ways to serve those around you. Take care of each other.
Stop consuming the news and social media! I find the more I check on the news, the worse my anxiety gets. So, I’m trying to limit my news consumption to just a few times a day (as opposed to almost every hour!).
Give yourself (and others) some Grace. We are living in strange times. None of us really know what to do. We’re just doing our best. So, don’t be too hard on yourself. If you have a break-down, that’s okay. If you lose your shit, don’t beat yourself up. Just apologize to those around you (if necessary) and try again. That’s all any of us can do.
Try it! Ask yourself, “what is one thing I can do right now, to alleviate some of my anxiety?” If you’re drawing a blank, try some of what I’ve listed. I’m sure there are many other ways that can help, experiment and find the ones that work best for you.
Being Anxiety-free is not the goal
Often in our society, we are focused on Happiness and being Stress-Free. We see articles and magazines and online courses dedicated to helping us find Peace and Happiness. We talk about “Happily Ever After” as if that’s what we can expect in life. I think those things are great, and I love having them in my life, but I’m concerned that we are creating false expectations and unrealistic ideas of the future. No one gets to live life without hardships and difficulties. No one is happy all the time. There are definitely things we can do to minimize our stress and increase our peace, but I no longer believe that Happiness is the goal. That mindset actually exacerbated my depression—I thought that because I was unhappy, I must have some defect; I believed I “should be” happy. Ironically, once I made space in my life for depression and anxiety, I started healing.
I used to talk to my daughter, who struggles with anxiety, in terms that suggested she could live a life anxiety-free. As I’ve learned how to reframe anxiety, however, I’ve changed my story. Now when I talk to her, I don’t tell her that one day she can be totally free of anxiety; I tell her that there will always be times in life that cause us to feel anxious. The goal isn’t to never feel anxious; a healthier goal is to learn how to control the anxiety so that it doesn’t control us. The goal is to not let Anxiety keep us from experiencing all the ups and downs of this amazing, uncertain life.
I’ve become a big believer in learning to accept all emotions without judgment. I believe a good way to help us deal with Anxiety is to start to see it merely as a part of life. But how do we do that? I think one of the first steps is to acknowledge our anxiety and accept it. Instead of casting Anxiety as the problem or as a bad thing, we must recognize that it is an emotion, a reaction to stress, and it is neither good nor bad. Too often, I find people, myself included, who start feeling anxious because they are feeling anxious! It’s a crazy cycle. So, instead of feeling upset or anxious because we’re are experiencing Anxiety, try to stop that flow of energy; break free from those thought patterns. This is part of the process of rewriting your story. The next time Anxiety demands your attention, you can try this rewrite (or write one for yourself):
Wow, I’m feeling anxious. Understandably so, there is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now! It’s okay to feel anxious.
I recognize that anxiety has its place in life, and in my life in particular, and I want to honor that.
I am refraining from judging my anxiety. It is merely an emotion I am experiencing. It is neither true nor false, neither good nor bad. So, I will not base my decisions and actions in this particular emotion.
It is okay to be afraid and yet I choose not to cling to the fear. I work on living my life and making choices from a place of love, rather than fear. Courage is not the absence of Fear, it is taking action in the face of that Fear.
One more thing
And there’s one more thing I do. It might sound a little hokey. As a pragmatic, scientifically minded individual, I used to roll my eyes at certain things (like what is below) that I do regularly now. So, put aside your judgement for a moment and consider this approach--Address your Anxiety directly, personifying it and speaking to it as if it were an individual:
“Hello Anxiety. Thank you for serving me and looking out for me and protecting me. I appreciate your concern. I am aware of you. Thank you for being there for me. You are doing a great job keeping me aware of potential threats and problems, but you don’t need to take control of my life or be the center of my attention. I am resilient and capable. I acknowledge you and appreciate you and release you. By doing so, I am not ignoring you—I promise I will be cautious, and I will be brave. I am strong and proactive. Most importantly, while honoring your voice and your role in my life, I am making decisions in my life from a place of love.”
We’re all in this together
We’re in this together, folks. We’re all scared to some degree or another. Most of us are going through a rollercoaster of emotions right now. I hope we can help each other through this. As a narrative life coach, I help individuals learn how to reframe the stories they tell themselves about their experiences. They learn to rewrite those stories. During this pandemic I’ve been looking for new and specific things I can do to help others. One thing I’m putting together is a free, on-line workshop on Reframing Anxiety. If you’re interested in joining me, sign up for my email list and you will receive information on when these workshops will take place and how to participate. Whether you join with me or not, I hope that we will all start practicing reframing our anxiety and find a bit more peace in these uncertain times.