Making Sense of…..Anxiety

Anxiety means something different to everyone just as we feel it differently in our bodies. Sometimes just seeing or hearing the word makes us feel like we are hanging off the top of a roof about to plunge into the unknown.

It is important to realise that anxiety is a normal part of being alive and is a normal reaction to imagined danger. Problems begin when our minds get a little too involved - that anxiety is associated with the imagined outcome of an event, and considering that our minds are capable of imagining just about anything, it makes sense that anxiety can become pervasive, chronic and crippling in our day to day lives.   

So, what is Anxiety and how do we avoid it?

Human beings are ingenious at creating solutions to problems.  We apply our problem solving skills all the time in our external worlds that have helped us not only survive but thrive.  As such, it is only natural that we try to apply these same skills to our internal worlds, to the psychological world of thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations and urges.  The problem is that all too often, when we try to avoid or get rid of unwanted private experiences, we simply create more suffering for ourselves.  For example, virtually every addiction known begins as an attempt to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings such as boredom, loneliness, anxiety, depression, and so on.  The addictive behaviour then becomes self-sustaining because it provides a quick and easy way to get rid of cravings, withdrawal symptoms, and ultimately, unwanted thoughts and feelings.  Addictive behaviours, as well as anything that is used to try to avoid unwanted thoughts and feelings (shopping, sex, food, gambling, surfing the internet, pornography, obsessive cleaning and tidying, and many more) can be called ‘emotional control strategies’ as they are attempts to directly control how we feel.  Many work in the short-term but usually become costly and self-destructive in the long-term.  Instead of providing comfort, these give discomfort.

To illustrate this point I’ve laid it out below in a flow chart which explains how we can act and behave to defend ourselves from feeling anxiety. I’ve used a simple example that many of us can probably relate to when experiencing change or making big life decisions. In this case it’s going for an interview for a new volunteer role. Or maybe just relate it to something you’ve been though yourself recently.





You feel that initial rush of anxiety because you’ve got an interview for a volunteer position.

You feel anxious because you might have been out of work for a long time or ever or maybe your confidence is still really low. Completely understandable stuff!


And now you are sitting in that place of discomfort because you are weighing up two opposing thoughts:

-‘’I really want that position, it’s the challenge I need right now’’

-‘’I don’t want to be rejected and I don’t think I really have the ability to do it anyway’’

Anxiety is that feeling of discomfort – which has clear parallels with Cognitive Dissonance - that occurs when a person holds in their mind two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at one time. This is an exhausting place to be in and no one wants to sit in that discomfort for too long.


How we act and behave to get rid of feelings of discomfort and anxiety.

You don’t go to the interview or call to cancel, and simply block any thoughts and feelings out.

This is the behavior you do to alleviate that feeling of discomfort. It’s an unconscious behavior as you are acting on the feeling of anxiety without thinking about it.


To get back to a place of comfort now you respond by finding ways to self-sooth. Maybe it’s to eat a tub of ice cream and binge on Netflix all day or buy lots of stuff on E-bay. Whatever the behaviour, it will only work short-term as the initial situation wasn’t solved. It’s also always going to be in the back of your mind that you really wanted to do the interview.

If you were acting consciously (with intention and awareness) maybe you would have been more mindful of the feeling of discomfort in the first place. Maybe you would have been able to sit in it a bit longer and recognize that what you were experiencing was a normal reaction to a new challenge. Being able to pin point the root of the anxiety helps us evaluate our thoughts and feelings a bit better. This helps you make a more conscious decision which could be to go to the interview for example. And to know that if you don’t get it, you’ll be able to look on it as a positive experience, just by the very fact that you tried. Remember this isn’t a blame game - we all act on anxiety. Working with and not against your anxiety takes practice and gets a bit easier each time you do it. 

The point here is that if we don’t acknowledge these feelings of discomfort and push them down then we will unconsciously (which means we are doing it without being aware) act to defend ourselves against feeling it. Instead, the ultimate aim is to try and build a better relationship with it, to understand it, to not fear it. Each time we feel stress and discomfort we can practice sitting in it a bit longer with the intention to pin point where the feelings of discomfort are coming from in the first place. By doing this, we gain more self-awareness around our own responses and behaviors.

The irony is that the more time and energy we spend trying to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings, the more we are likely to suffer in the long term.  Anxiety is not the problem (remember, anxiety is a natural human response), the problem is trying to control or avoid the anxiety.  The more importance is placed on avoiding anxiety (such as the elaborate rituals a person with OCD may devise), the more we develop anxiety about our anxiety, thereby making it worse.  Control is the problem, not the solution!


So how do we work with anxiety?

Again, the first thing to recognise is that anxiety is not abnormal, but quite the opposite. That doesn’t mean experiencing anxiety is a pleasant experience but understanding that the physical sensations are not the problem is the first step. Try to fully experience the feelings of the anxiety and more often than not, you will hopefully see that the sensations pass and are not as bad as you were anticipating. Try to build a relationship with your anxiety instead of constantly trying to control or run away from it. Anxiety is often a signal, a sign, and if we listen, it can tell us to prepare more for that interview, can tell us that we are taking on too much and need to let something go, can tell us that we need to put ourselves first instead of taking care of everyone else.

Sometimes we can link our anxious state to the fact that we drink 15 cups of coffee a day and are unable to sleep at night – another sign to make a change in a more positive direction.  We might realise that our anxiety is linked to a core belief we had from our childhood, such as “I’m useless”, and that if we really think about it, we can see it doesn’t apply to us anymore as we have enough evidence now to contest it.  All of these positive steps are only possible by listening to the anxiety rather than trying to do everything we can to numb and avoid it.