When you hear the word anxiety, what thoughts often come to your mind? For most within our “fast-paced” culture, anxiety is thought of as a sign or symptom that we are “functional” members of society.
When it comes to our relationship with anxiety, it is most likely something that we believe must be:
But what if there was another option? What if anxiety could be viewed as a gift, something that is here to teach us something? Now if you have intense social anxiety, or are unable to leave your house due to a deep sense of fear, hearing that sounds insulting most likely.
Anxiety is most often viewed as something that limits our experience, that stops us from being able to express the fullness of who and what we are:
- We want to get up on stage and talk to others, but start shaking when we do.
- We want to go after our “dream job” but walk into the interview and our mind goes blank.
- We want to go on a trip somewhere, or see a friend, or have a connection and we find ourselves unable to even attempt these things.
So we meditate, we obtain therapy, we do everything in our power to “deal with” this aspect of our experience.
And yet, even those who don’t “struggle” with anxiety disclose that they get anxious. It’s because fear and anxiety are often two words that we put together, due to viewing them as part of a single experience. But, unlike fear, what if we viewed anxiety as our teacher rather than something to resist, cope with, or manage?
I often see anxious clients in my private practice, and when I met Darcy she already had a host of doctors and other professionals giving her options. From intense medication to behavioral therapy, she had gone through it all. I remember sitting in a session, designing with her, a plan to allow her to have decreased anxiety. I felt we had covered all the variables, and Darcy also agreed with this. Yet the next week Darcy reported not only that the plan did not work, but that her anxiety was worse than ever.
I left my session with Darcy very puzzled, unsure of what I did. How was I supposed to help Darcy, when all the treatment planning, amazing therapeutic interventions, and other ideas had been tried? Often when I get stuck with a case I tend to drop my planning and return to the following session intent to listen even deeper to the client’s experience.
As Darcy talked about the nature of her anxiety I began to feel in my body that rather than fight or block her anxiety, what if we welcomed it? What if, rather than resisting it, Darcy allowed anxiety to bring awareness to her that nothing was off with reality but instead with her experience of reality?
Or to quote Alan Watts: “When the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way.”As research is starting to show, anxiety is linked to our ability to process information quickly, not correctly. What if anxiety is a call from ourselves to take a step back? “In other words, there’s something wrong with the way that we think, and while that is there, everything we do will be a mess.”
Darcy returned to the following session in tears because she had begun to experience a reality with reduced anxiety. This was not, from my understanding, a sense of “self-love” as so many self-help books suggest. As she told me, “it’s who I am here, right now in this session that matters”. Darcy’s anxiety had become her friend, had become a reminder to return to herself, to the present moment, to the now.
Anxiety is something that we know rests in the body and forms in the amygdala and hippocampus parts of the brain. The amygdala is tied to our fear response, while the hippocampus is tied to our long-term memory and emotional responses.
Therefore, anxiety is a teacher that shows us we are responding not just emotionally, but from a place of fear and memory. It’s almost like we are using this aspect of pure “logic and planning” that anxiety seems to arise within us stronger and stronger. Yet human beings are a balance, between the planned and the unplanned, between the order and the spontaneity of life. It’s not running from our emotional reactions, or medicating them, that provides answers. It’s the awareness of obstacles that allows us to be present.
So what if anxiety, rather than being something we run from, manage or embrace, is a sign, a signifier, a teacher? Is it simply a signal from within? It seems to me that anxiety is a reminder to return to the present moment. Each year, each week, each day unfolds in a way that is at least a little different than how we planned it. What if this teacher, and how we view it, could change everything about our lives?