Anxiety can feel debilitating and paralyzing.
You have knots in your stomach. Your thoughts are racing. You toss and turn, wishing you could sleep. Maybe you feel other things too: anger, sadness, self-doubt.
Anxiety can be difficult to shake. It can become consuming and sometimes lead you to tears.
But anxiety serves a purpose. It often happens when something important to you is threatened. We wouldn’t survive well without it. We need it.
But you might be frustrated with yourself and wish you could take things more in stride. Maybe you feel insecure about something you said to someone, worried about your future, or distressed over a decision you have to make. You might think, “If I was more confident, this wouldn’t bother me so much.”
Pushing anxiety away is often not the answer.
Although anxiety can sometimes seem to get out of control, the more we avoid anxiety and judge ourselves for having it, the more likely it’s going to stick around.
It can be helpful to find some space for yourself to stop and be with the anxiety for a moment. Notice what you are feeling. Notice the thoughts you are having. This might sound cheesy, but for just a moment, welcome the anxiety and thank your body for alerting you that something is wrong. I say this because if you judge your anxiety or judge yourself for having anxiety, it can’t do it’s job. Making peace with it’s presence in your life can have a lot of value.
Now ask yourself what the anxiety is trying to tell you. Is it alerting you to danger (a problem)? What is the danger? Maybe it’s worry about rejection. Maybe it’s fear of losing your job. Maybe it’s concern about losing an opportunity or concern over risk of embarrassment.
Once you have a sense for what the danger is,
take a breath.
Now ask yourself if there is something you can do about the danger (about the problem). If there are a number of issues building up into a larger problem, it can be helpful to list the various concerns. Sometimes we become anxious because we’re not looking at the little solvable pieces but are only looking at the big picture.
Once you’ve identified each of the problems, ask yourself if there is anything you can do about them. Maybe some of the pieces are solvable and some aren’t. You can create two columns, one for solvable worries and one for unsolvable worries.
For the solvable worries, you can begin listing potential solutions or next steps. Sometimes the next step for a particular problem or worry is simply, “I need to get more information about this.”
Sometimes you might find that your anxiety is actually centered around only one small piece of what feels like a large problem. For instance, maybe you feel fine about solving most of the problem except that in order to do so, you need to have a conversation with someone you don’t like and that is really the only part causing the anxiety.
And the unsolvable problems.
If there is nothing you can do about the problem, sometimes it means having to sit with pain or uncertainty. Sometimes it means accepting ourselves and our emotions as we are. We can’t always avoid pain. We can’t always get the things we desperately want when we want them. Sometimes we lose...and it hurts.
Anxiety is sometimes a result of avoiding our pain.
In this instance, it’s ok to shed a few tears, nurture yourself with a good film, or a night out with a friend. You can also try a mindfulness exercise, which I wrote about last week.
If the pain feels overwhelming, it’s really important to get help. Talk to a friend. Call a family member. Find an online or in-person support group. Or seek out a therapist.
We all have to face uncertainty and pain. You are definitely not alone, although I know it can feel that way when you are in it. In American culture, we tend to run from pain and uncertainty, doing whatever we can to solve problems even when they are unsolvable. But we can miss out on valuable elements of humanity and even spirituality when we do this and we miss out on the opportunity to make peace with our anxiety and to connect deeply with others who share our experience.
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I am a licensed mental health counselor in New York City with a psychotherapy office in the neighborhood of Murray Hill in Manhattan. Find out more about me here. I'd love to hear from you. Email me if there's a topic you'd like to read about here.