I am inspired to write this blog about overcoming anxiety after constantly seeing friends, family, acquaintances, clients, and at times, myself, caught up in a struggle with anxiety. What is anxiety after all? If you break it down, anxiety is really just a term used to describe a series of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that one experiences, that over repeated experiences in our lives have come to be labeled a common term with pretty negative connotations. This is interesting that we get so frustrated and angry about it when the anxiety response in humans actually evolved to our advantage to help keep us alive. Where did we go wrong then that something that evolved to be our safety system is the very thing that seems to make us feel unsafe?
Humans seem to have evolved almost too quickly for our own good, such that our complex language system can trigger the anxiety alarm, even when there may be no actual threat present. It seems then that you have two choices: turn off your brain; or learn how to live with it, even when it triggers something that feels unpleasant. Clearly I am in favor of the latter, thus, the question is how to learn to handle anxiety effectively, instead of constantly trying to control it and avoid it. As my professor used to say, in trying to control the anxiety, the anxiety controls you; give up trying to control, and a sense of control is found.
Let’s look at an example. Let’s say John has a fear of snakes, and his wife and children really like camping and hiking. Whenever John sees an image of a snake, or thinks about a snake, he experiences anxiety symptoms such as racing heartbeat and shortness of breath, and his mind is flooded with thoughts of “that snake is going to hurt me or kill me.” Consequently, in order to avoid these very unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and sensations, he has decided he is going to avoid any situations where there is a possibility of coming across a snake. However, remember, John’s family loves the outdoors, where there are snakes, and thus, John has been missing out on family outings because he does not want to be somewhere with the possibility of coming across a snake. John comes to therapy and presents his dilemma.
John has two choices – 1. Continue allowing his fear of snakes to dominate his life and control his ability to spend meaningful time with his family. OR 2. Face his fear of snakes, be willing to have his anxiety present with the possibility of coming across a snake, and get the quality time with his family that he values so greatly.
In my model of therapy, I help clients approach their fears and anxiety in service of living a life consistent with their values. Thus, in this case, I would help John expose to his fear of snakes. This can be done over time and in a progressive series of imaginal and in-vivo exposure situations, so that the therapy goes at a pace that John is comfortable with, and he keeps making progress every week. Progress in this case will be defined by John’s willingness to be present with his anxiety and increased arousal in increasingly “dangerous” or fear-provoking situations – such as being in a room with a snake, touching a snake, holding a snake etc. Over time, these situations will get easier and easier because the more you do something that makes you anxious, the less anxious it makes you feel over time. Imagine watching a scary movie; it might be a 10 on a scale of 1-10 the first time you watch it, but if you watch that same movie 100 times, eventually you will get used to it and it will not scare you any more. The same process occurs with all forms of anxiety, the key is for the client to be willing to face the things that scare her or him. Thus, in our example, after repeated in-session and between-session homework exercises where John is exposed to his anxiety around snakes, his anxiety will go down, and he will now be more willing and able to go hiking and camping with his family, and enjoy the quality of time with them that he values.
The take home message here is that you don’t have to beat anxiety, or control it. Instead, being willing to face it, sit with it, and experience the sensations that we label anxiety, allows you to live the life you want, regardless of whether anxiety shows up or not.