Here’s the #1 most empowering fact to know about anxiety
As a colleague of mine succinctly puts it, “Anxiety sucks.” But because anxiety can operate like a silent thrum beneath our awareness, we may not even know that we are anxious or recognize the mischief that anxiety makes in our daily lives.
Eliza who came to see me for therapy feeling like an emotional basket case. Eight months ago her mother had died of a heart attack and her dog, her best pal of thirteen years, had died only weeks later. Since that time, Eliza had lost all sense of her competence.
Eliza expressed feelings of utter helplessness and the conviction that she would never be able to handle what came her way. She told me things like “Something is wrong with my mind” and “I just can’t learn new things.” She also shared that she felt ugly, pathetic, unlovable, and weak. At the age of 36, she was convinced that her chances for happiness were over, and that she would never accomplish anything worthwhile.
Eliza was now avoiding social situations and new opportunities to learn. Avoidance, of course, only made her feel worse about herself and increased her fear. While Eliza had always been shy and self-conscious, her sensitivity to criticism and disapproval had now spiraled to intolerable proportions.
She told me, for example, that while she was walking toward a restaurant with several women from her workplace, she tripped on the pavement. It was a trivial fall. She picked herself up, brushed herself off, and told her co-workers she was fine. But she felt so horrible (“There was no reason to fall. I tripped over nothing”) that she had hardly been able to eat her lunch. She knew, objectively speaking, that her co-workers had not thought less of her for tripping. Still, her conviction that she appeared ridiculous stayed with her throughout the day—and beyond. Eliza began eating alone in her office.
Eliza had read a book on the anxiety disorders, and even before our first meeting, she had diagnosed herself as having a “social phobia.” She also knew that losing her mother was an emotional event of vast proportions, complicated further by the major blow of her dog’s death.
Eliza had made a connection between these profoundly stressful events and the loss of self-esteem she was experiencing. In these ways, Eliza was ahead of the game. She recognized that the awful things she said to herself about herself were merely symptoms of anxiety, shame, and depression rather than essential truths. But most people fail to recognize that anxiety effects the way each of us perceives ourselves.
As author Susan Jeffers (link is external) reminds us, anxiety activates the little chatterbox in our heads that spews out catastrophic scenarios and serious doubts about our ability to cope, do new things, and handle whatever life brings. It drives our “lower-self” thinking, which spurs us to operate from our most reactive self. So, if you want to sign up for a ceramics class or give a dinner party or move to another city, your anxious mind will immediately counter with several reasons why you’re inadequate to the task and shouldn’t try it or, for that matter, even think about it for another moment.
A vicious cycle ensues. In the face of anxiety (even the anxiety we’re not aware of), we tell ourselves we can’t cope with whatever the new challenge is. We let fear stop us. Fear then grows bigger and stronger, because nothing is more frightening over time than the feelings of helplessness and powerlessness that come from inaction, avoidance and a commitment to sameness.
We are all in the anxious soup together. As long as we are alive, anxiety will interfere with the accuracy of our experience of self and others.
The number one most important challenge in facing anxiety is to recognize anxiety for the mean trickster it is. Don’t confuse the symptoms of anxiety with who you really are.
Some of us happen to have an overactive fear response. As I explain in The Dance of Fear,(link is external) this has absolutely nothing to do with how strong, worthy, or mentally healthy we actually are.