by Glynis Sherwood MEd
“What” you ask. “How can anxiety be a gift”? Well true, anxiety is not a gift in the traditional sense, meaning something you look forward to like a birthday present. But anxiety can be helpful nonetheless, in that it has something to teach us about what we really need. Only by knowing what we really need, can we then make a plan and take action to get it.
I think of emotions and moods – like anxiety – as messengers. These messengers show up in our lives to let us know how well things are going in our lives – happy, sad, neutral, bored or bad. When we are aware of how we are feeling, we can either savor the positive emotions that tell us we are in sync with our needs and life, or use the difficulties to spur us on to make choices or take action that will help us feel better.
The Role of Anxiety
Not all anxiety is problematic. In fact some anxiety is adaptive. For example, the anxiety we feel when a speeding car is bearing down on us helps us jump out of the way of that car. Some anxiety can also be helpful when we are doing public speaking or acting, as it sharpens and focuses the mind, thereby improving performance. In both cases anxiety is a normal response to a temporary threat or challenge.
Although anxiety may be a response to physical danger, frequently it’s a reaction to an emotional threat. For example, we may feel anxious when we spend time with people who don’t seem to care about us. In that case, anxiety is a healthy response that tells us to limit or avoid contact with uncaring people.
How Anxiety Works
While anxiety in response to a threat is adaptive, chronic anxiety is almost always counter productive. Long standing anxiety often manifests as negative or limiting beliefs we are buying into about ourselves or our world. For example: “No point in trying to stand up for myself because I’ll likely make a fool of myself, or get shot down”, or “The world sucks and is only going to get worse, so why try”. These beliefs not only create chronic anxiety, but also feelings of powerlessness. What’s even worse is that these beliefs may be unconscious.
At its heart, chronic anxiety is about negative fears. This fear takes many forms: Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of being embarrassed or humiliated. Fear of being unmasked as a fraud. Fear of getting close to someone, or fear of distance. When fear runs us, we feel powerless. This loss of self control – real or imagined – puts us in an impossible situation where we either believe we have no control over our destiny, or that if we act, we’ll fail. Either way, anxiety both undermines faith in oneself and the ability to take effective action, as we fear the worst. It’s a paralytic state. People who are chronically anxious have either stopped believing in themselves, never believed in themselves and/or feel helpless and give up.
How To Transcend Anxiety
Getting over anxiety requires four steps: 1/ Awareness, 2/ Understanding, 3/ Questioning, and 4/ Action. Once you recognize that you are feeling anxious, ask yourself “What is this anxiety trying to tell me?”, and “Is it true?’. Next, try and figure out “What do I really need?”, and “How can I get it?” Then make a plan and take steps every day to achieve your goal.
Breaking free from anxiety takes practice and can be challenging. You have to learn to believe in yourself more and to act, especially when anxiety is telling you not to. You likely need to learn physical and mental strategies that calm your body and enable you to think more rationally. Feeling calmer in the moment allows you to make decisions and take action that in the long run will help you take back your life from anxiety.
Need more help dealing with Anxiety? Visit my Stress & Anxiety Counselling web page
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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor, Certified Addictions Counsellor is a Psychotherapist specializing in recovery from Chronic Anxiety, Complex Grief, Family Scapegoating, Couples Counselling and Love Addiction.