The Power of Being with Anxiety
A path to keep anxiety from controlling your life.
It’s hard to imagine there are many people living in our modern world who have never felt anxious. Given the constant stream of information coming at us - most of it bad- it’s a wonder that we can get out of bed at all. For those who are prone to anxiety, however, simply making it out of the house can be a feat in itself.
Anxiety can be recognized by a wide range of symptoms. Some are mild, a fluttering in the stomach, irritability, or dry mouth. Symptoms for those in the grip of anxiety can be debilitating. Paralyzing fear, vomiting, numbness, and migraines can all be signs that anxiety is having its way with you. Corinne Sweet, a psychotherapist specializing in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and author of The Anxiety Journal contends that one in four people suffer from anxiety, and she offers a path to keep anxiety from controlling your life.
An important first step when dealing with anxiety is recognizing what triggers it. Sweet calls them “early-warning buttons- once they are pressed they can lead to stress.” Often these triggers result from something that happened in your past that informs your present experience. An aspect of your warning system gets set off by what someone else may think of as benign. Sweet suggests asking yourself these questions:
- What sets off your anxiety?
- Do you see any regular patterns?
- Do you notice your early warning symptoms?
When you start feeling anxious, Sweet recommends discerning between whether there really is a danger, or if it is something that is being created by your mind. The sooner you can catch the trigger, the more likely it is that you will be able to bring yourself back from the edge of anxiety. She writes, “Anxiety can spiral out of control very easily. Once you feel anxious about one thing, all the other things start spinning too, making it easy to spiral down into an anxiety whirlpool where you worry about absolutely anything and everything.” Becoming aware of this “habit” and learning ways to circumvent it are key.
She uses a spiral staircase as a metaphor for the kind of circular thinking that can spark anxiety. She asks you to imagine you are going down a spiral staircase, but you get halfway down and you no longer want to keep going, but you can’t turn around. She describes someone throwing a rope down to you and “you catch it and you are towed up to the light and fresh air. Freedom.” She says that you need to throw yourself that rope and bring yourself back to freedom. You can learn how to catch yourself, “hold on to the rope, and move upwards, finding a new sense of yourself and your inner strength.” Since anxiety can make you feel incapacitated, reconnecting with that inner strength is vital.
Sweet is clear that CBT takes about six weeks to learn, and is best done with a qualified professional, but she insists that even incorporating some components can make a difference. Once you know what your triggers are, you can go through a process of exposure, letting yourself experience the triggers and facing your fear around them. “Once you face the thing that frightens you,” she writes, “and you see that you can do it, then you can go on to build on that experience.”
Sarah Wilson writes of her experience with anxiety as a spiritual quest in First We Make the Beast Beautiful. Her memoir on living with anxiety and other mood disorders invites readers to explore their experience with curiosity. She found a way to cope with her anxiety through eliminating sugar, walking, intentionally missing out on things, (to quell the anxiety she felt that she was missing out), and developing a meditation practice.
Wilson learned an approach that allowed her to let go of having such a tight grip on life. She writes about her mediation practice and how, as she progressed, she would intentionally meditate in places that were inherently distracting: airplanes with screaming babies, while wearing pants that were too tight, in a room with annoying clicking sound. Part of that was resisting the urge to stop meditating and take care of that thing that was distracting her. She writes:
To sit in anxiety is to stay a little longer. A little longer. A little longer. And to see what happens. We experiment with it, curiously.
‘Let’s see what happens.’ My meditation teacher, Tim says this. “Let’s, as in let us, as in you, me and the workings of the the universe, simply observe what happens if you don’t fight it, if you just stay.’ I do this, I stay in the muck and the mire. I like the idea that it’s not just me on my own doing this. It’s all of ‘us.’
It’s not easy. I don’t think anyone ever said staying in your anxiety would be.
Learning to cope with anxiety takes a steady hand, it takes practice. It takes building new patterns of thought and can be approached from any number of directions. The trick, as Sweet and Wilson both offer, is to have a willingness to be vulnerable, to ask for help, to be willing to try different things until you find the way that works for you.