Fear and anxiety are two unpleasant emotions that can be healthy and adaptive because they can move us into action and keep us alive and out of trouble.
Anxiety and fear also come in many guises, ranging from intense heart beats, feeling of terror, and thoughts of impending doom. Sometime you may even experience panic attacks that seem to come out of nowhere or they may be triggered by specific situations (e.g., social setting, crowded places, on a aeroplane etc).
You may have memories of traumatic experiences or find yourself caught in a cycle of unwelcome obsessive thoughts and ritualistic acts like checking, counting, washing. But no matter what you do, you may only get a brief honeymoon from the distress and fear.
I want to emphais at this point that anxiety and fear are emotions, not disorders! Every single human on this planet experiences both emotions at some point in their life.
What really matters is how you answer this basic question:
Are anxiety and fear a major problem in your life? If so, what are they costing you?
Deep down you already know that your best efforts to control or manage anxieties and fears haven’t worked as you’ve hoped they would. Even worse, your struggle with anxiety has cost you. Maybe you have experienced broken and strained relationships, poor health and sickness, excessive stress and burnout, difficulties at school or work, poor concentration, or problems with addiction. Or, you may even feel like you have lost your freedom, and you feel stuck because these fears and anxieties keep getting in the way of doing what you want to do with your life.
To get a better sense of the price you pay each time you get caught up in the struggle with anxiety, I would like you to reflect on the impact your struggles with anxiety have on your life. Be honest with yourself and be specific. What have you missed out on, or been unable to do, because of the struggle? Jot down a few thoughts for each area if you like. Look at the costs that fit your experience.
- Interpersonal costs: How has struggling with your anxiety and fears affected your relationships and social bonds? Have friendship changed or been lost? Are you unable to engage in your roles as a spouse, partner or parent because of anxiety? Do you feel more isolated and alone?
- Career costs: How has struggling with anxiety affected your career. Have you ever quit or been fired because of attempts to get a handle on your anxiety? Has a boss or colleague commented on your performance because of your anxiety management efforts? Have anxiety problems led to unemployment, disability, or a need to rely on social services?
- Health costs: How has managing your worry, anxiety, and fear affected your health? Do you tend to get sick often? Do you have allergies? Do have have difficulites falling asleep or staying asleep? Do you fixate and stew over worry to the point of feeling physically sick? Do you avoid exercise because it might bring on anxiety? Do you spen quite a bit of time at the doctors because of anxiety?
- Energy costs: How has the effort to manage anxiety affected your energy levels? Do you pour mental energy into worry, stress, fretting over distractions, checking, and negative thinking? Does the struggle leave you feeling drained, discouraged, fatigued, frustrated, or worn out?
- Emotional costs: Has trying to get a handle on anxiety cost you emotionally? Do you carry regrets and guilt because of what you have done or failed to do as a result of your anxiety struggles? What about shame, feeling as though you are broken? Do you feel down, depressed, prone to anger and irritability?
- Financial costs: How much money have you spent on managing your anxieties and fears? Consider the money you’ve spend on therapy, medications, doctor’s visits, self-help books, audio or video recordings, or seminars. What have been your costs in terms of lost wages or expenses related to missing important or enjoyable events (such as tickets that you ended up not using)?
- Costs to freedom: How have your efforts to control worry, anxiety, and fears limited your ability to do what you enjoy and want to do? Can you shop, drive near and far, take a train or plane, or go for a walk in your neighbourhood, the park, a mall, or a forest? Is your day arranged around avoiding feeling anxious, panicky, or afraid?
Answering these questions with honesty is a crucial first step in a new direction.
It is important that you know, and allow yourself to feel, the real impace of your struggle despite all your efforts to change. It takes courage to face the costs squarely.
If you find yourself in a similar spot right now, don’t despair.
This is exactly how it should be. The point is not to feel bad or beat yourself up, but to empower you to take steps in a new direction from this point forward. You cannot change the past. But the future is yours to create.
I will tell you a big secret here-
The answer to your freedom is to let go of trying to manage anxiety, because the effort eats up your time, energy, and resources and gets in the way of what you want to do. When you struggle against your negative feelings you are actually making things worse.
Nobody can move toward a full life while also moving away from the inevitable possibility of experiencing pain and difficulty along the way. So what can you do?
You do the opposite! Instead of running, struggling, and avoiding, you decide to stay with whatever is going on inside you. When old habits compel you to pull away, you learn to lean in. When you feel pulled to shut down and withdrawl, you open up.
You can think of this practice as a way of learning to be loyal with yourself. This is one of the cornerstones of a mindfulness practice.
It is important to understand that you do this not to wallow in the pain of anxiety and just stay there, you do this because it allows you to move towards what you want to do in your life.
I want you to try the following strategy to help you to begin do this exact thing: The next time the toxic voice of avoidance speaks up, think DO THE OPPOSITE.
When avoidance demands you get smaller, think expansion, and then do something, even a baby step, that might be potentially life affirming.
I hope the basic strategy can help you in some way to move towards a life that becomes more meaningful and fulfilled.