5 Ways to Change Your Relationship with Anxiety

5 Ways to Change Your Relationship with Anxiety

Anxiety is a funny thing. When I tell people my specialty is anxiety disorder treatment, they often reply with, “oh yeah, I have anxiety” or “my __________ has anxiety.”

It’s funny, because they’re referring to it as if it isn’t a basic emotion. No one would say, “oh yeah, I have happiness.” They’d say, “I feel happy.”

In truth, anxiety isn’t any different than joy, happiness, anger, sadness, or frustration. But yet our response to it is different. We fight it, because feeling anxious feels uncomfortable and scary.

What happens when we fight anxiety? It increases and becomes even more uncomfortable and more scary. And that extra part — the fighting it, resisting it, wishing it away — that’s the part that we refer to as the resistance, which causes suffering. That’s where we have agency to change.

How might resistance sound? Here are some examples:

“Why does this always happen to me?”
“Why am I so anxious?
“I f@*king hate this … I hate my life … when is it going to end?”
“If only I wasn’t so anxious..”
“Think of something else, every time that thought comes in, think of anything else …”

It doesn’t have to be this way, however. You don’t have to resist, and you don’t have to suffer. Anxiety has a purpose, which is to keep us alive and alert us to danger.

For those who feel as though the danger emergencies are non-stop, they may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. A diagnosis happens when you meet specific criteria. For example, you experience certain physical symptoms or distress or impairment at a level for X amount of time that’s not better explained by a bunch of other situations.

Even if you don’t meet the disorder criteria, however, you may still be struggling … a lot. Changing your relationship with anxiety takes practice and patience.

5 ways to change your relationship with anxiety:

  1. Stop avoiding it—when you’re avoiding something, it seems like it’s everywhere. Ever noticed this? When I was scared to fly, I would avoid looking at planes, because I thought they might crash (true story). I remember days when it felt like all I saw were planes everywhere. The same thing happens with feeling. If I’m feeling anxious and avoiding it, more things are likely to spike my anxious feelings.
  2. Actually want it—WTF does this mean? ha! This is probably the hardest one for my clients to accept, but it is a gamechanger. It’s not enough to just stop avoiding. It’s a good start but when you want it, you get into the mindset of full acceptance. You accept the presence of the feeling and physical sensations, no matter how uncomfortable they are. When we get into a mindset of wanting anxiety, we don’t fear it.There’s a concept I talk a lot about in therapy called “white knuckling it,” which means you’re doing the exposure but resisting it either mentally or physically (generally out of fear or ambivalence). When you can accept the feelings, and eventually want them, your white knuckled grip loosens.
  3. Get out of the content—think about how you’re responding to it. Dare I say, it’s never about the thing, but it’s how you respond to the thing. Stop investing in the wrong market.
  4. Give up your need to know—and you can’t say “well, I don’t like uncertainty,” because no one does. Learn (by repeated practice) that you can tolerate not knowing. It may not feel good, but the feeling doesn’t last forever. The benefits, however, are great. You’re living in reality versus a fantasy land (which is the only place where certainty exists) You’re showing your brain that you don’t need to avoid uncomfortable feelings, and, if you’re a parent, what a great lesson to teach your kids.
  5. Go out and DO something—be in the present and out of your head. Oh, and being on your phone or laptop scrolling social media, texts, emails does not count. Sorry not sorry. I’d argue those are ways to increase your anxiety since they encourage checking, reassurance seeking, and other short-terms ways to avoid feeling your feelings.