In my practice I run into a couple of issues more frequently than others. One of those issues is anxiety. It seems that the Americans of today are programmed to operate just a little more on edge than those of generations past. As a result, we are now a Nation dependent on medications that numb our feelings and we are chronically addicted to avoidance. Of my clients who walk through the rehab doors, I’d say that well over half were, at one time, simply trying to manage their anxiety, and lost themselves along the way. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health the prevalence of anxiety is at an all time high, 18.1% of American adults have been diagnosed with an Anxiety Disorder. What’s more, the average age of onset for an anxiety disorder is 11 years old! We are hard wiring our children to be laden with worry!!!
What fuels this seemingly unceasing battle against our own ill conceived worry? The prevailing school of thought that we shouldn’t be anxious. It is a common belief in our society that feeling“bad” is wrong. That’s part of the reason the number anxiety diagnoses has skyrocketed. We all want to feel good all the time and if we feel anxious at all, we will do anything to numb it.
The anxiety we feel is not “bad” at all. It just is. We feel anxious for a reason. Numbing it out only creates a chronic pattern of avoidance that exacerbates the anxious symptoms. In fact, anxiety, itself, is an evolutionary development that puts us a step above other species. Our ability to benefit from anxiety has helped us to become more aware of our surroundings in an effort to keep us alive in an increasingly dangerous world. It’s what sets us a cut above.
How we choose to manage, or deal with, our anxiety is the problem. How we think we should feel is the real issue. If we can learn to “befriend” our anxious minds, settling them as we feel a rush of worry, we can live freely. Fortunately, I have some helpful tools to help do just that! But first, let’s look at the problem we have created.
I recently read a very interesting article in NY Times on how the drug Xanax has grown immensely in popularity among Americans. It is now one of the most heavily prescribed drugs in the U.S. This is largely due to onslaught of anxiety we feel we must avoid. Xanax, like other substances, is simply a way to numb out the Anxiety. And yet, we crave it we feed on the anxiety provoking media and alarmist social agendas. Talk about a paradox! We chronically attempt to avoid the thing we crave. One of the most interesting sections in the article was this, “Anxiety is starting to seem like a sociological condition… a shared cultural experience that feeds on alarmist CNN graphics and metastasizes through social media… It seems we have entered a new Age of Anxiety. Monitoring our heart rates. Swiping ceaselessly at our iPhones. Filling meditation studios in an effort to calm our racing thoughts.”FOOTNOTE: Footnote Our nation is transfixed on the next fad that is just around the corner and obsessed with FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Both things that are completely out of our control. And we wonder why tweens can’t handle a routine exam anymore without a mental breakdown, or why trophies are handed out like candy? We have done this to ourselves.
THE UNKNOWN AND THE FUTURE, ANXIETY’S FUEL
How we feed our Anxiety is rooted in several things, there are two in particular that I want to focus on: the unknown and the future. Both are very similar and both we are unable to grasp at the present moment, therein lies the problem. We focus on what isn’t happening right now, instead of what is happening right now. This is our response to feelings of anxiety. We provoke the anxious response by focusing on the unknowable and uncontrollable.
Think about the last time you felt worried. Why were you anxious? Was it about something you could control? Or were you transfixed on a future something-or-other that plagued your inability to deal with the unknown? I’m guessing it was the latter.
Not too long ago, I had an awful run in with anxiety that nearly knocked me down for the count. A few years ago when I was in grad school I was overwhelmed and overworked. I was working full-time as an administrator at a residential treatment center for struggling adolescent boys, attending full-time graduate school, and working as an intern at Adult Probation and Parole as a part-time therapist. Needless to say I was anxious mess. Just as the school year was finishing and things at my internship were winding down, the end was in sight. I focused on what I presumed was my future, as if it were the only thing that could calm the whirring noise anxious thoughts in my brain.
Just when the end was in sight, something completely unexpected was dropped on me. I was let go from my long time employment of seven years, the place I planned to spend my future. I had originally entered graduate school so that I could be a therapist at the treatment center. I felt so betrayed and blindsided. Suddenly all of my future plans were obliterated in a matter of seconds! I had placed all of my eggs in one basket and that basket was just lit on fire. My anxiety was out of control! What would I do now?
This was a moment of reckoning for me, only the unknown lay before me and I had no way to fix this. I felt broken by uncertainty. All the years of helping others deal with their own fear and anxiety, and I felt completely unprepared to deal with my own. I tried all sorts of ways to manage my anxiety: I blamed everyone else, I avoided my responsibilities, I isolated myself, and I was meanest to the people I love most. My anxiety had morphed into depression.
THE ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION LINK
If anxiety is focused on the future, depression is focused on the past. The two are interconnected in such a way that one begets the other and visa-versa. I was so hyper-focused on my past and how I had failed, that the only thing left for me to do was to focus on how to fix my failure. And in doing so, I completely missed out on where I was at that moment. I would jump from ruminating on why I had lost my job, what I should have done better… back to what I needed to do to keep that from ever happening again, what I needed to do to “fix” what I perceived as broken, myself. This is the essence of anxiety.
You can’t fix what isn’t broken, and every time we try something new to “fix” ourselves, we inadvertently send the subtle, yet powerful, message of “I am broken.” My feeble attempts to control what I couldn’t, the future so I could fix the past, were only creating more turmoil and reinforcing my belief that I was broken, that I was damaged.
I was soon forced to accept my situation. I soon adopted the mantra of, “This sucks and there’s not a whole lot I can do about it.” I accepted that I was in an awful situation and blaming others or avoiding doing something about it was not working. I soon learned that as I focused on what I was actually doing, in the moment, I was happier and better equipped to manage my situation.
There is a reason why Step one of the 12 steps is all about “acceptance.” (If you’ve never read the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, click the hyperlink to read them.) Accepting powerlessness is the foundation to overcoming anxiety. If we insist on believing that we can control our discomfort, instead of accepting it, all we do is resist and create more discomfort for ourselves.
WHAT CAN I CONTROL?
After accepting my situation, I then learned to focus on knowing the difference between two things: 1. what I could control and 2. what I couldn’t. One of the most helpful tools for managing anxiety is the following graphic. To this day I use it with every one of my clients and in my own life. I actually used this in two sessions today!
If one can understand the difference between what one can control and what one can’t, anxiety becomes helpful. In my situation at the time, I was too heavily focused on what I couldn’t control. I was focused on other’s actions. I was angry that I had been let go from my long time job. I felt that I was owed my employment. I was letting the actions of others and my own mistaken beliefs take over my feelings. I had lost sight of what I could do about my own situation. I realized that I needed to focus on what I could control in the moment. That’s the key, one needs to focus on what is happening right now to be able to manage an over active, anxious brain.
When we oscillate our thinking from the past to the future and back to the past, we miss out on what is going on right in front of us. We lose sight of what we have control over. What a miserable existence that is. When we focus too heavily on what we need to do to fix our problems, we miss out on what we can do to learn from our feelings right now. All we do is ignore the messages our feelings are trying to send us.
OUR ANXIOUS FEELINGS CAN BE HELPFUL
Our anxious feelings are there to help us, not hurt us. Left unchecked by an overactive focus on the unknown and the future, anxiety is no longer helpful. When put in check, our anxiety creates understanding and clarity.
Once I figured this out, my anxiety became not only manageable, but helpful, and my depression withered away. Today I still struggle with knowing how to use my anxiety to my advantage but I’m learning. Anxiety is helpful in many situations, think about competition or sports. Our anxiety is there to sharpen our senses, so that we can hit the ball at the right time or sprint as soon as we hear the starting gun, in those situations anxiety is helpful. Why should every day life be any different.
Now, I challenge myself to notice my anxiety symptoms and instead of trying to get rid of them, I “lean into them.” This looks like, feelings stress and using that stress to help me focus on what I’m doing in the moment rather than needing time to calm down. This looks like, feeling my heartbeat increase and breathing more deeply to slow it down all while focusing on how it feels in my chest when I breathe in and out. All things are there to keep me focused on this moment. It helps. We can “flip the script” on our anxiety and learn to use it to help us understand the world around us and to live more freely.
A great book on this subject is entitled Come to Your Senses by Dr. Stanley Block. He teaches us how to focus on the here and now using our five senses. It’s pretty remarkable stuff, you should check it out.
If you struggle with anxiety and need help managing it, contact me and I can help you get the right resources to help you end being crippled by it.