Anxiety, the Messenger.
Updated: Nov 4, 2021
I'm thinking today about anxiety and how many of us suffer with varying degrees of this deeply uncomfortable feeling.
Anxiety can range from a sensation of increased alertness and an inability to relax, to complete overwhelm - such as a panic attack, accompanied by physical sensations of a racing heart, inability to breathe properly and perhaps dizziness or a sensation of faintness. All of this feels very unpleasant and can wreak havoc in our daily lives as we seek to avoid certain situations, take sick days off work or become so preoccupied with our inner world that we're less able to connect with others.
It's because anxiety feels so awful that we can end up spending a lot of time trying to control, overcome it and push the discomfort away. We develop a knack of putting on a front and desperately hoping that nobody else will notice how nervous we are, because somehow we associate anxiety with weakness and feel ashamed of not being able to cope the same as everyone else. Only our thoughts about how we are perceived by others are rarely true - we are our own harshest critics. Often when we do confide in someone else we can be relieved to discover that they know exactly what we are talking about and have also suffered with anxiety. It's way more common that we believe.
Rethinking our fear
I wonder if we can change our view of anxiety? So rather see it as an enemy that ruins our lives and must be destroyed, instead whether it's possible to perceive anxiety as being our personal messenger that wants us to pay attention to something we might be trying to ignore? Could anxiety be a way for an unheard part of us to get the attention it needs? To be properly listened to in order to make essential life changes?
For example, I have worked with many people whose anxiety wreaks havoc in relationships. Sometimes this is because they have had a hard time in other relationships and are wary of trusting another, but equally it can be because they are doing everything they can to ignore the inner knowledge that this relationship is bad for them. When we are scared to leave a relationship that no longer honours who we are, it's often because we fear being alone, or are scared that we can't cope without the other, even if we are in pain. So we ignore all the ways in which we are being taken for granted, undermined, abused or simply have nothing left in common, so that we can avoid what scares us. Anxiety can be a demonstration of our inner self shouting for us to pay attention. A bit like a fire alarm going off - we ignore it at our peril.
Similarly I have watched people struggle in jobs that are sucking all the joy out their lives, but are carrying on regardless because they convinced it's their only option to make a living, or that to resign would be admitting defeat, or perhaps failure in the eyes of others. Beginning to have anxiety in the form of insomnia or panic attacks, should be an invitation to stop and listen, not an indication that we should just pull ourselves together and try even harder.
Don't Ignore - Explore.
If you are struggling with anxious thoughts or feeling overwhelmed I'd like to invite you to move into the feeling, rather than suppress it in the hope that it will go away. How would it be to take a kinder more compassionate approach and ask yourself what the anxiety wants to tell you? Do you need more time to yourself? A change of job or relationship? Is there a situation that you have been putting off or avoiding that you know needs your attention? Have you experienced painful or traumatic past experiences that you need to find a way to resolve? If you have experienced any kind of traumatic or abusive event in your past, then you might want to engage the help of a trustworthy therapist or support group rather than go it alone. Likewise, if you find yourself constantly anxious in social situations because of your worries about what others think of you, then that too might be worth exploring with a trusted professional.
It is possible to recover fully from chronic anxiety, but attention rather than suppression is the answer.