Do you sometimes experience anxiety about anxiety? ? In this post, you’re going to learn how to interrupt the cycle of being anxious about anxiety. You’ll also learn about one modern lie that keeps you trapped in the anxiety cycle.
Fear Of Anxiety
Alright everyone. You’ve probably been lied to about anxiety. In our culture we have this myth that anxiety is super dangerous for you. That there’s an epidemic of anxiety. That Anxiety itself, the feeling, is a threat, that having that feeling is dangerous, it’s harmful, and that it’s worse than it’s ever been before. This is fueled by cultural messaging that screams – If you’re not happy all the time, something’s wrong with you! (And you should probably buy what we’re selling to fix it!) and it’s also fueled by modern media which profits off of scaring people. Literally.
I googled the anxiety epidemic and got 35 million results. I mean, there are actually good reasons to have anxiety, if you look you can find that trouble abounds. But as far as actual dangers, we’re safer than ever.
So now instead of having a real threat to face, fight off or escape from, we’re sitting around navel gazing, getting anxiety about our anxiety. We are afraid of our feelings. We feel we must escape from them, or force them to change.
The truth is that yes, more people have disordered anxiety than ever, but the narrative that the feeling of anxiety will harm you is a lot like the idea that cauliflower is a suitable substitute for rice: a straight up lie … Chronic stress, and chronic anxiety (which is what causes chronic stress) can cause physical illnesses. But, those are treatable, they aren’t inevitable. Feeling anxiety won’t harm you. Your body is wired to feel anxiety. It’s supposed to. You can handle it.
But when we become afraid of our feelings, then suddenly we get stuck in a super unhelpful spiral. We start struggling against them, trying to force ourselves to calm down with “deep breathing or meditation” anything to make the anxiety go away.
But this just makes things worse.
We pile anxiety onto our anxiety.
How Anxiety About Anxiety Looks Like
- Fear of losing control- If I can’t sleep, I try to force myself to sleep, which makes me more anxious and makes it harder to sleep.
- Hyperawareness of physical sensations- If I’m shaky before a presentation, I try to force myself to slow my breathing, but the more anxious I get the faster I breathe, which makes me shakier.
- Anticipatory Anxiety: Feeling anxious about the possibility of experiencing anxiety symptoms in the future. This can lead to a cycle of worrying about when the next anxiety attack will occur, or trying to avoid or control situations, which can trigger more anxiety. It’s kind of like when you were a kid and discovered if you held a mirror up to a mirror it goes on forever and ever and ever. Except now with a fun pinch of existential dread.
- Worrying that others will notice that you’re shaking or sweating or or stumbling over your words during a YouTube video about anxiety.
- Feeling anxious about your anxious thoughts. Oh no! I’m catastrophizing again! This will ruin everything!
I mean, this even happens to me. One day I got a letter in the mail threatening legal action. I felt upset about it. I called my lawyers and figured out a strategy to deal with it, but I still felt anxious. I had family visiting from out of town, so now I started to worry about what would happen if I was anxious when they were here. “This will ruin everything” I thought. I have to make it go away so I can be happy and pleasant with them. I felt the anxiety build and build. So I tried to force myself to calm down, the anxiety only spiraled. I tried breathing. Taking a walk. Journaling. Calling a friend and talking about it. And while these strategies often help, this time they didn’t.
I went for another walk, and suddenly it clicked-I was stuck in the spiral of anxiety about anxiety. And, when I recognized that, I knew what to do. But first, let’s talk about how your brain works.
When we struggle against our feelings, that tells our brain that those feelings are really important and it actually makes them louder. What we consistently pay attention to, give energy to becomes louder, that’s one of the ways neuroplasticity works, and it can feel like you get stuck in a cycle of anxiety about anxiety. This can feel hard to escape from.
Now, you can decrease anxiety, you can gain a massive amount of influence over your anxiety, but you can’t force a feeling to change directly. It’s a paradox.
You can train your parasympathetic response to be more active,
But forcing it just feeds the anxiety cycle.
So the paradox is this- we have nothing to fear but fear itself. We have nothing to fear but fear of fear itself.
What’s The Opposite?
What helps us work through anxiety instead of feeding the cycle?
- Challenge the belief that anxiety is dangerous and must be avoided. It’s safe to have emotions. You can feel anxiety and be ok. Dropping the struggle with anxiety will actually help you spend less time with it.
- Lean in not out. Willingness. I’ve got two ancient proverbs that help here- “Don’t feed the internet trolls”, and from the Tao te Ching- “ A tree that won’t bend easily breaks in storms. The hard and strong will fail. The open hearted prevail.” Can you open yourself up to having feelings?
We can learn to show Acceptance and compassion towards our anxious feelings.
“Hi Anxiety! I see you’ve shown up today.
I can feel this feeling and be ok
If I can’t fall asleep immediately it’s ok, I know my anxiety is just trying to help me prepare, and struggling against it won’t help. I know I can handle it- even if it means I don’t sleep that well tonight. (you might be thinking “No! Anxiety is going to make me lose sleep! Which is going to make me cranky and miserable tomorrow! Which is going to make me fail at …parenting…presenting…whatever I have to do” but that is also just a thought. Is it helpful? Does believing that thought, buying that thought help you sleep better?”
“I can feel anxious about going to book club, but that’s ok, I want to be around people today, even if I feel anxiety sometimes”
Lean in…make so much space for anxiety that it can be there, but it doesn’t make your decisions anymore. It’s kind of like getting your in-laws a hotel room instead of having them sleep in your living room. You’re making a space for them.
So back to my story.
While I was out on the second walk, and noticing that I was engaging in this spiral, I had this realization- Silly Emma…you know what to do here…you don’t need to force your anxiety to go away. You can feel the anxiety and be ok anyways. I made space for my feelings and sensations. I said “It’s ok to breathe fast, to have your heart beat fast. It’s ok. Your body can handle it. You can handle it.” Bring it on I said. Turns out, even my family members could handle it. I had a conversation with one of them about it and it really helped us feel closer together. When I dropped the struggle with anxiety, the pressure just melted away. Not all the anxiety did, but the anxiety about anxiety did.
- Practice shifting your attention with your sensations. When you feel anxiety you might have a very strong focus on your uncomfortable physical sensations. It’s ok to have feelings, it’s ok to have an upset stomach, fast breathing or sweaty palms, you can make space for that, send them some love. For example, you could put your hand on your stomach and say “Oh hi there butterflies, I notice you, I feel you. How are you today?” and listen for a moment, make space, and then gently redirect your attention to other sensations- What can you hear right now? What can you see? What can you smell? In somatic therapy they call this pendulation, we swing with gentleness from paying attention to inside ourselves and then outside ourselves.
- Allow anxiety to be there and shift your attention back to what you do care about. It’s like you’re acknowledging a child who keeps interrupting you, do it with as much kindness as possible “Hi there honey, what are you saying? You want more ice cream? Not right now dear, I’m in the middle of something. I’ve got to clean for 15 minutes and then we can play.” You acknowledge the anxiety, listen to what it’s saying, and then redirect your attention back to your values. Well, I feel anxious about giving this presentation but I also care to share my opinion, so I’ll allow that anxiety to be there and focus on getting my point across.
- Accept what you can’t control and focus on what you can. I can’t control whether I feel anxiety, but I can choose how I respond to it. I can’t force my thoughts or sensations to change, but I can choose to be compassionate towards myself. You have to admit to yourself that you can’t control your feelings, only your actions. The serenity prayer is helpful. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Shift your attention to what you can choose. I don’t mean this in a “why bother” sort of way, there’s a lot you can do to influence your anxiety, to decrease it over time, but you can’t force anxiety symptoms to change in the moment and it’s usually harmful to try.
So there’s 5 skills for working with anxiety about anxiety. 1. Remember, anxiety is a feeling, it won’t harm you. 2. Make space for anxiety 3. Acknowledge your sensations and shift your attention outside as well. 4. Shift your attention to your values. 5. Clarify what you can and can’t control.
Making space for anxiety, instead of resisting it and fearing it, is a practical step that you can choose to take. It’s an action that you can practice until you get really good at it. And when you do, it opens you up to shift your focus from your anxiety to the things you really care about, whether it’s the people around you, the presentation you need to give, or just being a kind and connected human.
If you want to learn more about anxiety, click the link below to access the course , Break the Anxiety Cycle in 30 Days.