How many of us have felt the gnawing sensation of anxiety in our lives? Most of us are aware of the word “anxiety”. After all, anxiety disorders are the leading mental health issue we face as a species today. But how many of us are actually able to identify the emotion when we experience it and understand what it is trying to tell us?
The way anxiety manifests for every individual differs slightly. For some this can be felt as a chest tightness, throat constriction, and shortness of breath. For others this may be a swirling of thoughts in the mind, leading to dizziness and vision impairment. For you, the sensation of anxiety could be something completely different than the next person might experience.
Identifying the anxious state is step number one, so good on you if you’re already able to do this! The next thing we all want to work on is understanding anxiety for what it is in order to accept it as a deeply human condition, and understand the purpose of anxiety plays in actually assisting our wellbeing.
I know, I know, it sounds outrageous! Anxiety? A good thing? How can this possibly be? Here’s a few things I learned along my mental health journey that helped me to understand the role of anxiety in my life.
1. Anxiety Does Not Define You
You are not an anxious person! Anxiety does not define who you are as a being. If you find yourself identifying with anxious tendencies, try to examine the way you are speaking about yourself regarding anxiety.
When we say, or even subconsciously think the words “I am”, whatever follows is incredibly powerful. When we say I am fill-in-the-blank-here, we are in the processing of making that statement a reality. Whether the words that follow are in the favor of your growth or inhibiting you from it is entirely up to you!
The way in which we perceive ourselves sets the stage for how our lives will unfold. So instead of saying, “I am an anxious person”, try amending this to “I am an individual who can at times experience anxious tendencies”.
In making this change, we are not outright denying the existence of anxiety in our lives, nor are we identifying as the anxiety. We accept that anxiety is a crucial part of the human experience. From here, we can define for ourselves what we want this to mean in our lives.
2. Anxiety Occurs When You Are Not In The Present Moment
When we are in an anxious state, the issue is that we are not engaged in the present. Eckhart Tolle describes this in length in his book The Power Of Now. Our minds so often are trapped in what Tolle calls psychological time – that is to say, our minds get stuck ruminating on past events of projecting into the mind created future that does not yet exist. Similarly, social anxiety occurs when we live through the lens of others’ perspectives of us, we’ll talk more about this in a future post.
The mind being stuck in the past can go a little something like this. My coworker today made a joke that was not funny and triggered some unresolved trauma for me. I reacted in a way that I’m not proud of and wish I could go back in time to change the interaction. Instead of biting his head off, I wish I had chosen to respond with understanding or even just ignored his behavior entirely. It doesn’t just stop there though. Many of us go over every detail with painstaking obsession and review every possible way we could have done things differently instead.
When the mind is sucked into the projected future, we experience a similar response. I really don’t want to get into a fight with my partner today. I’ve had a stressful day and the last thing I need today is for her to do something annoying. I can tell by her texts she’s not in a good mood and I don’t want to make the situation worse. I wonder if I should pretend like everything is okay, talk to her about her day, or if I should play some video games to destress. What if I try to talk to her and she gets mad? She’ll probably be mad if I play my games instead of interacting with her. But if she’s going to be mad either way, I’ll just take the games.
The issue with being trapped in psychological time is that we often don’t even realize we are stuck in it! So we unconsciously follow these thought trains until we spiral into an anxious frenzy of I wish I coulds and what ifs.
The next time you catch yourself feeling anxious consider this – are you absorbed in whatever it is you are doing in the present or do you find your mind is elsewhere? Perhaps you’re thinking about the endless to do list as you’re trying to fall asleep. Or maybe you’re dreading the morning rush hour traffic at the start of your day.
I’m not suggesting that everyone be present without fail one hundred percent of the time. Unless I’m really loving what I’m doing, I still struggle with unknowingly getting sucked into the psychological time trap. However, in becoming aware that this is something that occurs, I am more able to remain conscious of when this starts to happen.
When you find yourself in the psychological time spin, try asking yourself if this is helping the situation you are worrying about. It can be beneficial to review the past to learn something new from it. It can also help immensely to look ahead to the future in order to plan how you want to create the life you desire.
The mind is a tool and can be our ally. We can consciously decide to engage in psychological time if it is beneficial to us in the moment. If we find that this is harming us more than helping us, we can also choose not to board every thought train that comes to the station. How can we do this?
By becoming fully present in the (you guessed it) present.
If like so many of us, you have a difficult time remaining present and are constantly seeking methods of escape, consider that perhaps you don’t actually like your life. A hard pill to swallow, no doubt. But this can be the single most powerful realization you have. With this acknowledgement, we can begin to take the necessary steps to change our lives to better suit our needs and desires.
3. Anxiety Is Trying To Tell You Something
Our minds act in a self-protective way – it will act in our perceived best interest. Sometimes this is not always apparent when we are at odds with how little control we seem to have over our thoughts and beliefs. When we come to understand the mind, we understand that it functions as a tool – how we use it is up to us.
The state of anxiety is bringing the individual’s awareness towards a discomfort, which can either be interpreted as a disability or as an opportunity to grow. Often when we feel anxious, our attention is being called to what we are yet unaware of.
Using the previous example of not wanting to fight with your partner and feeling anxious as a result of the perceived impending doom, we can see that our anxiety may be trying to tell us something. The message our anxiety may be trying to send is that we spend so much time worrying, we are not enjoying actually living. The message could also be that my partnership is no longer emotionally intimate and I need to do something about it.
Or perhaps there is a childhood trauma to be uncovered here such as – growing up, I was blamed for mom’s bad mood. If I was upset and she had a bad day, she would tell me she didn’t have time for my nonsense today. I felt this rejection deeply and now fear my partner doesn’t care about my needs and only cares about her own.
Only you can uncover what shadows your anxiety is trying to make you aware of. The point here is that we cannot disown this important emotional state and expect it to simply go away.
We can of course choose to ignore the message, in which case the anxiety will tend to worsen over time. We can also choose to succumb to the fear based state, which we ensure that our lives are crippled by lack of action. AND we can choose to commit to uncovering the deepest parts of ourselves that deserve our attention and healing.
4. Your Views Towards Anxiety (And All Emotions) Stem From Childhood
The key is to first become aware of the ways in which we perceive anxiety and to flip the script we tell ourselves. How are we interpreting our anxious tendencies? Do we see them as signs of weakness or defectiveness? Do we judge them harshly and wish they would disappear?
When we view our tendencies through the lens of shame, we come to believe that something must be very wrong with us as people. In order to heal the shame associated with anxiety, we must fully surrender to the experience of the feeling. If we continue to resist the experience, we tend to prolong and exacerbate the state. What we resist will persist.
It is helpful to spend some time in meditation with this aspect of ourselves and identify what false beliefs we hold in regards to the anxiety. For me, the debilitating false belief I had regarding anxiety was – there is something fundamentally wrong with me and I am going to be this way forever.
After spending time in meditation with this, I came to understand that my beliefs towards my anxious tendencies stemmed from early childhood traumas. I accepted the fact that yes, my primary caregivers did the best they could with what they knew, AND it was also damaging to the way in which I view myself – namely my self worth.
Loving your parents and receiving trauma from them are not mutually exclusive! We can love our parents and appreciate all they have done for us. At the same time, we can also acknowledge we were deeply wounded by them.
Everyone living today has experienced trauma – we’re all in the same boat here. The point of this is not to point the finger in blame, but to understand why we are the way we are. After we have done this, we can then consciously decide to reclaim our power.
We come to know that as adults, our mental health, energetic state, and emotional traumas are our responsibility. When we claim ownership of our experiences, we step out of victimhood into empowerment.
5. Your Relationship With Anxiety Can Be Healed
We, especially those of us who have experienced the ins and outs of the mental health systems, have been taught that anxiety is something we must cope with and that it is a condition we must resign ourselves to.
One of the most detrimental beliefs we can have towards anxiety and panic attacks is that this feeling is going to last forever or I’m going to be this way forever. I know I was especially prone to this way of thinking in the past. When I felt trapped in a panic attack, it was borderline impossible for me to know that the feeling was only temporary.
We can heal our relationship to anxiety by recognizing and surrendering to the anxiety when we feel it rising. Now when I say surrender to the anxiety, I don’t mean that we let the anxiety take control of us. Instead we allow ourselves to be fully present with the emotion. We identify what triggered this feeling and address it accordingly.
Once we have sat with this feeling and gone inward to explore what about a particular situation triggered the anxious episode, we can reflect on when the first time we experienced this emotion was. Think back to the first time you felt “anxious”. How old were you? What was going on in your life at the time? How did your primary caregivers respond to you during this time? What beliefs did this create for you?
This process will look and feel a bit different for everyone! Let’s say you experience tremendous anxiety with the approach of deadlines. You then start a visualization exercise of your first experience with anxiety regarding deadlines. You may recall that your caregiver was extremely critical of you when you failed to complete tasks in a timely manner. Rather than trying to understand why you didn’t complete a task on time, your caregiver may instead have punished you and withdrew love.
The belief that was reinforced here is – if I don’t finish things on time, I am a failure and do not deserve love. As this pattern persisted throughout your life, you at some point adopted this belief and came to experience intense anxious episodes revolving around deadlines.
Now that we understand why these anxious episodes happen, I want you to visualize yourself as the child experiencing anxiety towards this situation. If you as an adult could visit your child self in this circumstance, what would you say and do to comfort this hurting child?
Maybe you find that your child self simply wants to be held and told that it is okay if they don’t finish their task on time and that they are no less worthwhile as a person because of this. Maybe you discover that your inner child wants to be allowed to do things more in alignment with their own interests rather than an arbitrary task. Perhaps your child self wants you to do the task together with them. Or you find your inner child wants to be told that it is enough to simply try your best.
Allow your adult self to parent your inner child in whatever way feels healing and good to you! Be prepared for some kind of emotional release and an epiphany or ten. When we are talking about deep rooted traumas that most are not conscious of, the experience can be very intense, but also incredibly liberating.
Whatever you discover during this visualization technique, apply this to yourself in your current situation. When we beat ourselves up for experiencing anxiety, we perpetuate the cycle of self abuse. Try asking yourself, would I treat a child this way for feeling the way I do? Then treat yourself accordingly!
If you need a break, take one. If you need to get something done because it would be more detrimental to your self worth not to do it than to do it, get a move on and make it happen. If you need unconditional love and understanding, give that to yourself without judgment.
6. Anxiety Lessens When We Love Ourselves And Our Lives
Have you ever noticed your mental-emotional or energetic state when you are fully absorbed in something you absolutely adore doing? For some this could be a creative project, gardening, cooking, participating in a sport, or spending time with loved ones.
I have come to find that my anxiety is pretty much nonexistent whenever I am fully absorbed in what I am doing in the present – some call this energetic state “flow” or “flow state”.
Flow can be described as the feeling we get when we are in the zone – the energetic, enthralled state of being totally immersed in the present moment. In this state, we forget about external worries and pressures. All that exists is what we are doing in the now. (To learn more about flow state check out my post 3 Ways To Find Your Focus.)
If you find yourself in a constant state of anxiety as I once did, chances are your life isn’t very well suited to your needs, interests, and happiness.
At the period in my life when my anxiety was the most acute and constantly present I was working a part time job I did not enjoy, studying a major that I wasn’t compatible with, in a toxic relationship, had an atrocious diet and little to no exercise, and had very little support in my life. To top it all off, I was also heavily medicated.
My anxiety was begging me to make a change (or several if I’m being honest). I had panic attacks on a daily basis – when I was in lecture or in the lab, when I would fight with my partner, when I felt overwhelmed by trying to be someone I’m not, which was pretty much every waking moment.
My anxiety was trying to help me, but of course, the message was not well received by the me at the time who really needed to get shit done and not be encumbered by the “burden” of emotions.
Fast forward several years of self discovery and transformational lifestyle changes. Now, I am working a part time job that I adore, working on building my business, have multiple creative outlets, eat a whole foods plant based diet, am blessed with an immensely supportive partner, and do yoga more days than not.
Perhaps most importantly, I am powerfully connected to my purpose of constant evolution and creating positive change in the lives of others.
While I do still experience mild anxiety on occasion (I’m still human friends) and very rare panic attacks due to emotional trauma triggers, I can wholeheartedly say I absolutely love my life. I owe a huge thanks to my anxiety for playing such a pivotal role in awakening me to how much I hated my life.
Without the painful experience of my abysmal mental health, I would never have felt enough discomfort to make the changes I needed in my life. Rock bottom is a great place to be because there is nowhere to go but up. I can only say this because I dug myself to my own rock bottom before I realized I was going in the wrong direction!
I challenge you today to tune in to what your anxiety and emotions are trying to tell you. Are you deeply in love with yourself and the life you have created for yourself?
If not, this is a wonderful opportunity to level up!
Creating a life you are ecstatic to live from ground zero will be difficult, painful, and at times may feel impossible. Be gentle with yourself, beloved, and commend yourself for the progress you are making, no matter how small it may seem.
I promise you, it is so worth it.
What is your anxiety trying to tell you? If you’d like to talk about how to work with your anxiety instead of against it, contact me by DMing me on Instagram @lotusawareshare or shooting me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.