Yes, you read the title correctly and as a clinician specializing in anxiety issues, I know how backwards it feels to say that anxiety really isn’t the problem. But hear me (and science) out…
If we are healthy (enough), functioning (enough) people we should be able to experience some anxiety in our lives. When we’re running late to an appointment, have some hard news to deliver, or realize we made it to our destination but our baggage did not… To cut to the chase, any time we experience uncertainty around what will happen next, some anxiety should appear and there are at least two reasons for this: 1) Uncertainty is vulnerable. Vulnerability can be uncomfortable. When we’re uncomfortable, we are wired to ease that distress. So anxiety shows up as a way of motivating us to get back to our comfort zone as quickly as possible. 2) If the situation/experience has meaning for you (you really, REALLY need the clothes in your suitcase for your best friend’s wedding you just traveled 450 miles for) it’s going to bring up some anxiety when something of value to you is now hanging in the balance. As Kelly McGonigal writes in her book The Upside of Stress, “Stress happens when something you care about is at stake. It’s not a sign to run away – it’s a sign to step forward.”
But often, instead of taking a step towards what matters when anxiety rears its head, we put our focus on the anxiety- more specifically, we spend a lot of energy trying to get rid of it. This is where the problem really begins.
When we start aggressively driving instead of just making a call to say, “I’m going to be late to my appointment” or we cancel plans with someone instead of having that hard conversation or we exhaust ourselves screaming at the baggage service coordinator instead of figuring out a plan B, it’s kind of like handing the steering wheel (sometimes literally) over to anxiety and letting it guide our behaviors.
Acceptance commitment therapy guru Russ Harris calls this process our “struggle switch” and it’s kind of the key to not letting our lives get dictated by anxiety when it shows up. So the next time you notice anxiety or any other uncomfortable emotion show up, pay attention to the ways you try to make it go away. What does this do to your energy or mood? What does it cost you?
There are many ways you can practice letting uncomfortable feelings be present without having to fully go with them. There’s meditation, visualization, or sensory stimulation. Try things out, add them to your repertoire and remember, emotions will always show up- their presence is not a measure of your mental or emotional strength- so these practices are life long ways to mindfully move through your days!
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