A better approach to anxiety

 In Articles

ealing with anxiety can often seem overwhelming. No wonder this is one of the most common issues of our time. Fast heart beat, dry mouth, tremors, dizziness, hyperventilation are some examples of what our bodies experience when in a stressful situation. To our ancestors it meant they would very quickly get ready to run away from some dangerous animal or fight for their lives. For this reason these responses are also known as fight or flight response. It goes without saying how essential it became to our survival that we were able to experience such sensations.

The truth is that even today anxiety is part of a healthy life. What is important is how we respond to anxiety and how we manage it. The way we feel is connected to what is important to us, to our history, to whom we are. In other words it gives us clues about the path we have been on and is very helpful in figuring out the path that we wish to pursue in days to come. But what about when it consumes most of our waking hours, hinders our ability to make decisions, puts a strain on our relationships, and prevents us from getting where we want to be? If on the one hand feeling anxiety is ok and necessary, then on the other hand when it is out of balance and constant in our lives, anxiety can become unbearable and unsustainable.

Our culture is full of misleading concepts over how to handle discomfort – including anxiety -: “You’d better distract yourself with something else”; ”Just don’t pay attention to it”; “Think positively”. – These are some of the common pieces of advice we hear when facing a difficult moment. And if you struggle with anxiety you probably have already tried them all and a bunch more. They don’t work.

What we learn in our culture are very often ways of avoiding the source of anxiety or distracting ourselves from it. But at the end of the day anxiety is happening in our bodies and has more to do with the way we have learned to deal with that particular situation than with the situation itself. For example: we might feel very anxious doing a presentation at work or at school. But other people find the same action just fine. One might feel high levels of anxiety when required to speak their mind to someone else. But for others it is not just fine, but a temptation that must be halted whenever possible.

Anxiety has a lot to do with our life history. We go through our everyday experiences, slowly but surely becoming the person we are. So the first step in dealing with anxiety is to understand which experiences in our history were relevant to the way we experience each situation today and why that causes us so much pain.

It is also essential to accept the fact that it is impossible to have a life without anxiety. It is part of our experience as human beings and is even important to us in many ways (but let’s talk more about that in another text!). It is useless trying to arrange life in a way with hopes to have zero stress or anxiety.

What we learn in our culture are very often ways of avoiding the source of anxiety or distracting ourselves from it. But at the end of the day anxiety is happening in our bodies and has more to do with the way we have learned to deal with that particular situation than with the situation itself.

If we analyze it closely, what really makes anxiety suffocating is the role it starts to have in our lives. Something that dictates our every move. Because we tend to avoid situations that create this discomfort we end up cutting ourselves off from things that are actually important to us. We end up living a life that is possible to live while we avoid anxiety and every context that would usually trigger it instead of the life we would like to live.

Obviously, just like any other issue in our complex human lives, anxiety is not happening in isolation from the rest of our past history or disconnected from the abilities we already have. Improving the way we deal with anxiety must happen in coordination with everything we are. We must make use of the skills we already have, the abilities life has already taught us. So we can use the topic we are passionate about, that activity that we enjoy doing, or even the person with whom we feel more comfortable with and try to get closer to the context that causes anxiety.

Yes. You did read it correctly. I am suggesting that to learn how to deal with anxiety we need to get closer to it instead of trying to think of escape routes. It is like learning to ride a bike. It is not possible to do so from knowing all the mechanics or observing it. We need to be in the situation that requires the ability to ride (even not knowing yet how to handle it) in order to learn to do so – we need to be on the bike and try to make it move. We do fall a few times. We do feel scared. But between falls and scratches we get the hang of it!

On this journey of learning to ride our anxiety bike better we must find ways to strengthen our muscles. Each rotation of the pedals will require endurance, we need to persist. Try again and again and in doing so gain abilities. With that I mean technics and exercises that will help you cope with what your body experiences, allowing you to keep going the direction you want in your life.

We also need to enhance our sight. We need to know the road we will ride. Both the road behind us with all our past history as well as the road ahead of us and where we would like to go. Knowing we are learning to ride this bicycle (anxiety) is part of the road of our lives and that we can indeed do it!

It will only make sense to work on your riding skills if you recognize that it is worth to face this challenge as it allows you to do things that are important to you. It can be because it is important to enjoy life, because you need to ride this bicycle to be able to work in the field that you are passionate about, to be able to approach that one person that makes you feel complete and so on. As long as we know what really matters and where learning to ride the anxiety bike will fit in our lives it will be well worth it.

Patricia CarvalhoPsychologist in Amsterdam


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