What are those anxious feelings trying to tell us? Clinical psychologist, Leanne Hall, explores how to listen to anxiety and harness its energy for a balanced emotional state.
Anxiety. Its symptoms are broad, often non-specific but significantly debilitating. They affect our relationships, our ability to function at work and/or study, and our self-esteem.
When anxiety hits, our grades can drop, our performance at work can suffer and our physical health can be negatively impacted in a number of ways.
But is anxiety always a bad thing?
Anxiety lies on a spectrum, and the impact of anxiety on our functioning differs at each point on that spectrum. Unfortunately the word “anxiety” is nearly always associated with the pointy end of the spectrum where debilitating anxiety meets clinical disordered anxiety. Rarely is it seen as a positive influence on our behaviour.
As such, when we experience anxiety we react to it. And because of its negative connotations, and the fact that it really feels quite unpleasant, the reaction nearly always involves some form of avoidance. But what if that anxiety is really only trying to tell us something important?
Anxiety as a warning system
The terms stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably. However, while stress is a specific reaction to something (such as an exam or job interview), anxiety refers more to a lingering “worry”. The trigger or cause of anxiety is often multifaceted and in many cases lies outside the conscious awareness of the sufferer.
Often anxiety is experienced without any immediate recognition of the trigger. However, this is often because the trigger is internal – related to the way we think about and interpret situations and events. As such, the only way to reveal the causes and maintaining factors of anxiety is to turn your attention inwards.
In our modern pleasure-seeking society “anxiety” is often interpreted as a negative emotion, and one we should either ignore or challenge. In a nutshell, it’s an emotion which when experienced, draws negative judgement. And it’s this negative judgement that fuels anxiety and gives it the necessary power to impair our day-to-day functioning.
So what is the purpose of anxiety?
In simple terms, anxiety is a warning system. It’s an emotion that basically gets us to address our problems and issues. It’s our minds way of tapping us on the shoulder, warning us that something just isn’t right. The problem is, anxiety feels unpleasant, and as such our reaction to it can be impulsive, and result in anything from drug and alcohol misuse, avoiding specific situations, or even aggressive behaviour.
While it’s human nature to run away from things that are unpleasant, avoiding anxiety is like ignoring the warning light on the dashboard of your car. While the car may continue to work fine for a while, over time the engine sustains more and more damage until the driver is forced to stop, look under the hood and figure out what is going wrong.
Stop and listen
The first step in learning how to treat anxiety, is to make it your friend. Stop and listen to it. What is the anxiety telling you?
If you don’t know, or if you find that your anxiety is tied to a number of non-specific and varied “what if’” thoughts, then it may be the case that you need to consider talking to a health professional or give anxiety counselling a go. This will help you learn how to manage unhelpful thinking patterns.
However, if your anxiety is pointing to something more specific, then it’s important to listen to the warning system and turn your attention to how you can respond. For example, it may be that you’re anxious because a particular area of your life is not aligned with your values. Or it may be that a person in your life is placing unreasonable demands on you. Whatever the cause and/or trigger, it’s important to turn your attention to how you can resolve the issue.
By stopping and listening to anxiety, you take away the negative judgement and the reactive way of responding to it. For example, instead of reaching for the wine after work every night (a common way of avoiding anxiety), you create opportunities to think about how you can resolve the issue/s. For example it may be that you need to plan your meals ahead of time creating less anxiety after work with regard to dinner preparation, or you may need to think about how you can assert clear boundaries at work so that you can leave on time.
Once you have listened to anxiety and understood what it’s telling you, you have befriended it. It’s no longer something to be feared and avoided. Now you can start to consider the benefits of anxiety, and in doing so, learn how to harness its energy and make it work for you.
Anxiety as a motivator
A moderate amount of anxiety is a terrific motivator. It’s about finding the right amount. Too little, and motivation can be non-existent, too much and you face burnout!
The right amount of anxiety (and this differs for everyone) basically helps us get things done. Remember it’s a warning system, and as such its purpose is to get us to act. So when you feel that anxiety, use it to drive you forward in the direction you want to go.
Anxiety and empathy
When we are anxious, we tend to overthink. We are on alert.
Because of this, we can tune in to the emotions of others, allowing for greater empathy. In addition, by developing a greater understanding of our own emotions (in this case anxiety), we can better relate to others. So when we say, “I understand how you feel”, we really mean it!
Anxiety and awareness
Finally, anxiety leads to increased self-awareness and self-growth. Listening and responding to anxiety creates opportunities to problem-solve issues. It turns our attention inwards and helps us learn how to take responsibility for our own internal environment as opposed to blaming external factors.
Anxiety is only one of the broad range of human emotions that we all experience. All of these emotions are valid, and all have something important to tell us about ourselves…if we take the time to listen.
An important part of managing any potentially negative emotion is to face it and listen. Avoiding these experiences, as unpleasant as they can be, only adds fuel to them and turns them into something that can be debilitating and overwhelming, and this is especially the case with anxiety.
So the next time you become aware of those anxious feelings, use the energy to move you forward as opposed to giving in to the impulse to run in the opposite direction! This is how to beat anxiety, and make friends with it instead. Not only will this help you resolve your issues, it will lead to a more balanced emotional state. No more reactive outbursts!
Interested in helping people with anxiety? Check out this snapshot of the Counselling industry here.