This Common Strategy For Handling Anxiety Actually Makes It Worse
With over 40 million people diagnosed with anxiety in the United States, it's clear that we're dealing with an epidemic. There are many ways to treat anxiety, but what I've found in my work over the past 20 years is that most of the modalities fail to address anxiety from the root.
Anxiety is primarily a mental state, meaning that when we're in anxiety, we're cut off from our bodies. So in order to shift from an anxious state to one informed by well-being, we must be willing to look beyond simply reframing or challenging our thoughts and instead look to the messages that anxiety is attempting to deliver.
The root cause of anxiety.
There can be no doubt that anxiety is an attention-getter. Whether it's the intrusive thought of the day that spins you on a mental hamster wheel as you try to find the answer to an unanswerable question (part of the definition of "intrusive thoughts" is that they're fundamentally unanswerable) or the insomnia that bolts you awake in the middle of the night—when that anxiety takes hold, it's difficult to ignore it.
And that's the point: Anxiety isn't here to torture you. It's here to deliver a message about one or more areas of your life that you've stuffed away or overlooked. And most often the message is that it's time to peer into the dark cavern of your interior realm and begin to address your emotional life.
But feelings are messy and scary, and most people in Western culture were raised with the belief that feelings are weak and to be pushed aside. "Get over it," "Buck up," and "Don't be so sensitive" are phrases that my clients often heard growing up. The more sensitive you were emotionally, the more you were told that you were "too much" or "too sensitive" and that you needed to "grow a skin." Children then learn to harden over their heart and shut down their emotional passageways as a way to get through childhood.
But feelings don't disappear. We can push them underground for a period of time—for decades, even—until eventually they pop out in the form of anxiety, panic, worry, insomnia, and intrusive thoughts.
The addicting trap of overthinking.
When clients find their way to my virtual doorstep, they often say something like, "I've never had an addiction like this. It's so powerful. It just takes me over." What they mean is that the habit of overthinking, obsessing, and seeking reassurance takes over almost as soon as the feelings appear. And the more they indulge the habit of staying in their heads, the worse the anxiety becomes.
In psychological worlds, we now refer to this type of thinking as a mental addiction. All of your ruminating, thinking, worrying, and obsessing are defense mechanisms designed to protect you from feeling the vulnerable and raw feelings that live in your heart. This habit is a powerful force, and it has served you well for many years (meaning, it helped you to survive), but it's no longer serving you.
You might be asking, "What's wrong with trying to figure it out and seek reassurance?" Nothing. In fact, we need to spend time effectively reflecting on our actions, and seeking reassurance (in small doses) can help us through a rough patch. But when those mental habits shift into overdrive, and we begin to rely on them as ways to avoid the emotional realm—in other words, when we become addicted to trying to think it out—we stunt our capacity to truly heal.
You must heal your anxiety from the root—meaning you have to be willing to travel back in time to that young child who learned to shut down and communicate a message that it's OK to feel those feelings now. That, in fact, your life and your well-being depend on it.
You need to feel your feelings.
What does this look like in practice?
It looks like slowing down enough to be able to notice and then name when you're feeling anything uncomfortable—sadness, loneliness, vulnerability, uncertainty, emptiness, fear, jealousy. It means resisting the habitual impulse to distract in any way, including trying to "figure it out."
It means saying, for example, "Oh, it's the end of the day, it's 5 p.m. and already dark outside, and I'm feeling a familiar sad and lonely feeling. I wonder what it would be like to stay with these feelings instead of try to think them away. I can breathe into them now. I can let myself cry. It's OK. It's going to be OK."
This might sound simple on paper, but there's nothing simple about rewiring a lifelong habit of pushing away pain. It's an enormous act of courage to enter into the forgotten realms of self, the places that you closed off years ago, and invite yourself to open up those hidden boxes. But this is exactly one of the messages and invitations of anxiety: to heal from the root, to travel back down from the cool chambers of the mind and allow yourself to feel your buried pain. It's not fun, and it's not easy. But it's one of the requirements for healing. And like most things in life, the more you practice, the easier it becomes.