What Is Anxiety & How Can We Learn From It?

mbg Contributor By Sheryl Paul, M.A.
mbg Contributor
Sheryl Paul, M.A., has guided thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her best-selling books, her e-courses, and her website. She has her master's in Psychology Counseling from the Pacifica Graduate Institute, and is the author of The Wisdom of Anxiety: How Worry and Intrusive Thoughts Are Gifts to Help You Heal.

A 60-year old man bolts awake every morning at 4am worrying about his financial future (even though he's financially secure).

A five-year old girl frets about robbers breaking into her home (even though there's an alarm system and she lives in an extremely safe neighborhood).

A 25-year old woman worries that she doesn't love her boyfriend enough (even though deep in her heart she knows she would give her life for him).

These are all people who are suffering from anxiety.

Anxiety is the great equalizer in that it transcends boundaries of age, sex, race, geography, and class. It doesn't matter how much money you have, how many letters follow your name, how long you've been married, or where you live: if you're prone to anxiety (and most people are), it will find you as you're falling asleep at night, in the quiet, predawn hours, or anytime you've slowed down enough to feel your feelings.

But what is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of dread, agitation, or foreboding associated with an unidentified danger that does not exist in the present moment.

Unlike fear, which is a feeling of dread or terror caused by a real or present danger, anxiety exists in the mind and usually begins with statements like What if...? (worrying about the future) or If only... (obsessing about the past).

With its hallmark focus on what-ifs and if-onlys, anxiety kills any joy that may exist in the present. In fact, it's often the joy of the moment that anxiety attempts to protect against because the ego (wounded self) fears that if you embrace the joy you'll expose yourself to the possibility of losing it. So instead of opening your heart to the vulnerable, messy, risky realm of feelings, anxiety keeps you hostage in the uncomfortable yet familiar and controlled realm of your head.

While living with anxiety can feel like a living hell, what most people don't realize is that anxiety is a messenger: embedded in the anxiety is a profound opportunity for healing and growth. Culturally we treat symptoms, which means that if you have a headache you instinctually pop a pill, but what we miss in this approach is the fact that both body and mind communicate to us through non-verbal symptoms, so if we're quick to numb the symptoms we miss the underlying message.

What is the message of anxiety? It's different for everyone, but it's almost always the soul, the inner self, crying out for attention. It's our need for reassurance, comfort, meaning, and purpose projected onto the obvious life stressors of health, money, prestige, and relationships. So when we take the anxiety at face value and immediately try to extinguish the symptoms, we miss the soul's calling for growth.

This is obviously not the mainstream approach, but from what I can see the mainstream approach isn't working very well. We have millions of Americans on anti-anxiety medication and antidepressants, and while medication can provide short-term relief (and often necessary) relief, it's not a long-term solution that addresses the root cause of the anxiety.

What is the longterm solution? Again, it will be slightly different for everyone, but to discover your solutions requires the willingness to slow down and approach your anxiety through the lens of curiosity and compassion. Instead of running from it and trying to get rid of it, you learn to turn and face it head on and ask, What is it that you're trying to tell me? 

You may not find answers the first time you sit down with yourself. You may not find answers for days or weeks. But when you approach your anxiety with a profound desire to learn and grow, you'll eventually discover the diamonds that have been living inside the anxiety all along.

Sheryl Paul, M.A.
Sheryl Paul, M.A.
Sheryl Paul, M.A., has guided thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her...
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