A New Way of Relating to Anxiety
By Katie Dutcher
Oxford Dictionary defines anxiety as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” But you didn’t really need me to tell you that, did you? If you’re like many people, you already know anxiety very well. Perhaps you have been experiencing anxiety for a while, maybe even for as long as you can remember.
The Fear of the Unknown
Anxiety seems to be linked to a fear of the unknown, a fear of change. We know that we can’t escape change. There is not a single person or thing that always stays the same, and growth and decay are the story of life itself. Even though we know this in our brains, change is still so frightening for us in our heart of hearts. We experience shock again and again in the fact that the ground keeps shifting under our feet, and we often live in fear of this— that what we love will disappear, or that what we dread will come to pass. The fact that all of this is mostly out of our control...this is a big part of what causes anxiety to arise. Anxiety can feel like a clenching to ward off what we don’t want, or a clenching around all things staying just as they are right now.
Am I Enough?
Another type of anxiety is linked to our insecurity or unsureness of ourselves and our abilities. A situation arises, and we may doubt our capability of coping with it. This doubt may be just a vague feeling of unease, but if we really tease out the questions, we might be silently asking ourselves questions like, “Will I have what it takes? Will it all be ok? Or will I fail? Will the situation be ruined, and everyone will know that it was my fault?” This feeling of worry, fear, and shame often feels sickening. Unknown situations, unknown capabilities...to be in this space is to be in a space of vulnerability.
Resistance as a Reaction to Anxiety
We often feel that we’d like nothing better than to escape this feeling of vulnerability. I’ve been there, in this useless question of “Why can’t I just jump out of my brain right now and escape this?!” One of the most common reactions to anxiety is resistance. We want to escape the whole experience— the feelings, thoughts, and sensations— so we try to get away from the experience. Often, this doesn’t even feel like a choice— it just happens before we know it!
Here are some common forms of resistance:
Aversion: We push it away, we push it down— anything to not acknowledge it.
Distraction: We turn to something else...technology, tv, food, picking a fight, something… Anything to keep the mind, body, and heart busy on something else.
Judgement: Spending time thinking that we’re wrong to be feeling this way. We’re weak, we shouldn’t be this way, we ruin everything with our inability to just be normal and happy about things.
Impatience: We have no time for this crap!
Ignoring: Nope. Everytime the mind slips to anxiety, we slip away again, imperceptibly, almost subconsciously.
Fixing: It feels “wrong” to be feeling like this, so we try to figure it out and fix “the problem.”
Are any (or all!) of these familiar to you? Resistance is a very, very normal response to such an unpleasant experience as anxiety! And yet…
Unfortunately, resistance doesn’t seem to do us any good. Oh, maybe in the moment, it seems to feel better...but in the long run, it’s a never-ending cycle. Anxiety→ Resistance...Anxiety→ Resistance. The anxiety doesn’t actually go anywhere. It’s always running in the background. Sometimes it creeps into our dreams. Sometimes we wake up already seeping into a feeling of dread. Sometimes we get angry and grouchy for “no reason.” Anything that we try to push away with such vehemence somehow gains more and more power over us.
Opening to Anxiety
So what to do, then? I’ll give you a hint— it’s the most counter-intuitive thing. It’s the thing we don’t want to do. Instead of running away, we stay. Instead of ignoring, distracting, judging, we just acknowledge. Instead of turning away, we turn toward. We actually open to fully experiencing anxiety. Scared yet?
Even though this might seem crazy, there can also be a sense of relief. We can exhale here— we don’t have to fight anymore. This is not a giving up, but a surrender to this reality, this experience of anxiety. In turning towards this pain, we face it, only then can we begin to work with it— not a shadow looming behind us, but out in the open. Only then is there a possibility of change, transformation.
In her poem, “Allow,” Danna Faulds writes:
“Resist, and the tide will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry you to higher ground.
The only safety lies in letting it all in
– the wild and the weak; fear, fantasies, failures and success.
When loss rips off the doors of the heart, or sadness veils your vision with despair,
practice becomes simply bearing the truth.
In the choice to let go of your known way of being,
the whole world is revealed to your new eyes.”
In allowing and acknowledging, we uncover new information about this pain, these frightening thoughts and predictions. So rather than denying, we are diving in— exploring these parts of ourselves with curiosity. What is arising? What is here? What does it feel like?
A New Process
Rather than our old cycle of “FEEL ANXIETY → RESIST...REPEAT” our new process might be:
Notice the feeling of anxiety
Notice resistance, wanting to escape.
Choose to stay here with this experience.
Turn toward the experience. Lean in. Explore here. Sense what this feels like. Name what you’re feeling.
Offer kindness and self-compassion: this is painful and difficult!
Let's Travel the Path Together
Anxiety and one of its antidotes, self-compassion, are very close to my heart because I work with them very, very frequently in my own life. This spring/summer, there will be an opportunity to journey further into transforming the way we relate to ourselves, especially when we’re feeling anxiety. I love these courses because even just the fact of sitting together and naming our experience of anxiety and our need for self-compassion goes a long way in normalizing this and making it less of a “big scary monster.” I hope you’ll join me, and please let me know if there are other ways that I can support you in your journey.
May course: Transforming Your Relationship with Anxiety
June course: Tending to Yourself with Self-Compassion