The feeling of anxiety is something many of us experience. That doesn’t have to be the way we experience the world. Here’s a little on how I managed to create a better experience for myself.
If you type “how to deal with” into your Google search bar, the first thing that comes up is anxiety. If that’s not a clear indicator of how we are all feeling I don’t know what is.
Anxiety is something that is hugely impactful for those experiencing it and it can have huge implications on your physical and mental health.
So what is it?
Anxiety is your body’s natural response to stress. It’s a feeling of fear or apprehension about what’s to come. It can feel different from body to body, but for me, it’s something I can feel bubbling in the centre of my chest. I also have a stress knot in my left shoulder that dials up and down based on how I am feeling.
Learning what the markers are in your body is so so important. It doesn’t mean you become suddenly immune to the feeling, but it does give you a great barometer that can tell you if you need to course correct.
It took me a while to realise that I was experiencing anxiety, because from the outside I can appear pretty steady a lot of the time. I was good at fooling myself too. Then when I started to unpack and consider what feelings I was having in my body, I would often say things like; “as an anxious person…”.
That’s not true either. It is not absolute. I am not an anxious person. I am a person that has absorbed energy easily and has often let things like anxiety creep in. I did that because I didn’t have the boundaries to hold the rest of the world back.
What did I do about it?
A few years ago I was wound up like a coil. I had developed some fairly firm beliefs about how I should be showing up in the world and was tying myself up in knots. I decided to unpack the feelings of anxiety I was experiencing, and worked with a therapist at the time to do so.
She described me as “a bit like a kitchen which has all the utensils it needs, but at that time they were in a big pile in the centre of the room, needing to learn where everything lived and what it all does.” She was right. I had all my “utensils” I just didn’t know how to use them for the right activity.
When we really looked at the root cause of what was worrying me, every single time it boiled down to the fear of what other people thought of me. If you want to do the same thing, it’s pretty easy.
- State your concern.
- Ask yourself why you feel that way. Ask yourself why again and what the feeling is underneath. Ask yourself why again.
- And keep going until you get to the honest bedrock of what lies underneath your fears. Your underlying theme.
- Help yourself to understand a more realistic outcome.
We keep asking why because it means that we get past all of our justifications and excuses. Let’s see that in action.
- I’m worried about the client presentation I need to give next week.
- Why? Because it is a really big deal and a lot of the senior team will be there. Why is it a big deal? Because it is an important account so I am worried about getting something wrong. What would happen if you got something wrong? It could feel embarrassing and I might lose the respect of my peers. And what would that mean to you if that happened? I would feel bad and separate from the rest of the team.
- The underlying theme here is a fear of what other people think.
- Given it is normal for people to make little mistakes in every day life, if you were to get something slightly wrong, what is a more realistic outcome? That I would apologise for the misstep, and complete the rest of the presentation.
Once we had created the space for me to learn those things about myself, we were able to work together to change the narrative I told myself from “I must” to “Ideally I would, but it is okay if I don’t”.
Some of my WAY too rigid beliefs were:
- I need everything to be fair
- I want to be perfect
- I want to be held in the highest regard
We changed them to:
- Ideally I would like everything to be fair but I am okay if it isn’t
- Ideally I would like to be perfect, but it is okay if I am not
- Ideally I would like to be held in the highest regard, but if I am not, that is okay
Together, we were able to create space between me and what I was letting in. What that has given me is the power of choice. It doesn’t mean that those feelings go away, it just means that when they do, I can have a conversation between the rational and irrational parts of myself.
I recommend doing this as a written exercise when you are getting started. Take a sheet of paper and create two columns. Write how you feel on one side, then on the other side, write a reply to what you have just said from your rational side. Then reply from the irrational feelings and so on, until you have talked yourself into a place of reason.
If you are wondering how to access your rational side, start by thinking how you might answer if it was your friend who was telling your their feelings about something, and you were helping them to rationalise them. Learning how to have these conversations with myself was critical in learning how to self soothe, and how to be my own therapist.
Our reactions are learnt
Most of the things we say that we “are” are things that have been introduced. We are born as joyful, worry-free creatures that then become distorted by the world around us. As we look to our primary caregivers for our needs to be met and they aren’t, even in a small way, that’s where the worry kicks in. Something as small as a facial expression can be the difference between feeling safe and feeling exposed and vulnerable.
Given how we are born, anything that we then become can only be something that is introduced. That means there is always a chance to find our way back to our default setting. Much of my journey back to me has been more about unlearning things which I held to be true.
Unlearning this stuff and getting better at using our “utensils” means that we can create the space to choose another path. We can find the means to create space between us and what we are letting in and sit firmly in the driving seat of our lived experience.