Embrace your anxiety
Oxford English Dictionary definition of anxiety: ‘Worry over the future or about something with an uncertain outcome; uneasy concern about a person, situation, etc.; a troubled state of mind …’. NHS website: ‘Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe’.
We’ve all been there. We all know what it’s like to feel slightly sick, to go red, feel teary, to feel sweaty or shaky, to wish ourselves elsewhere, worry about the future/things going wrong/ things from the past: it’s completely natural, a normal part of the experience of being human. It sucks, but we also know it (probably) won’t hang around long, that it will pass.
The NHS website alerts us to the many different forms anxiety can take and these are very real for many people. Labels attached to diagnoses may include social anxiety, generalised anxiety, phobias, OCD, PTSD, panic disorder, and eco-anxiety. It suggests seeing a GP who can help with a diagnosis, adding you to a (long) waiting list for talking therapy, invariably CBT, and prescribing drugs to hopefully help.
Online tips are provided but can seem obvious: talk to a friend/family member, try breathing exercises, go for a walk/get exercise, try to better manage your sleep, pay attention to your diet. I’d argue that these are tools for life in general, not just at times when you’re feeling anxious or particularly stressed.
I firmly believe anxiety needs to be taken seriously, especially given the numbers who report being adversely affected by it. Anxiety is the top search word on the Counselling Directory (the source of many UK Counsellors’ work, including my own). On the Counselling Directory, 'anxiety' was searched for over 50,000 times in December 2023 in comparison with the second most searched-for word, 'depression', which was searched just over 30,000 times.
It's difficult. We are all individuals with our own stories, and often we don’t think our problems, the difficult issues we are facing, warrant ‘making a fuss’ so we brush things under the carpet and hope they go away. ‘Think what Johnny/Emma/Sam is going through’, we say to ourselves, ‘my problems aren’t nearly as bad as his/hers/theirs’. Often this strategy works, and we can kick our problems into the bushes/under the carpet where they may fizzle out. At other times, though, it simply doesn’t. We end up ruminating at night, maybe becoming snappy and irritable, maybe withdrawing and isolating ourselves. We get really tired, maybe giving ourselves ‘reason’ to soothe ourselves possibly through alcohol, drugs, or other addictions.
Everything is relative. Your problems probably aren’t as major as they might be for someone else, but so what: we’re talking about you, not them.
So how do people manage? The most recent figures from the ONS (2022) show that the leading cause of death amongst men aged 20 and 34 between 2001 and 2018 was death by suicide and injury or poisoning of undetermined intent, amounting to 27.1% of male deaths and 16.7% of female deaths. This is undeniably extreme, devastatingly sad for friends and family left behind, and also avoidable.
Victor Frankl (who was liberated from Auschwitz at the end of the Second World War, his other family members and wife having died/ been killed) wrote:
"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way" … and later …"When we are no longer able to change a situation we are challenged to change ourselves".
A personal story: Around 25 years ago my world was collapsing all around me. I knew things weren’t ‘right’, but I never labelled it anxiety. Nor did the doctors I saw who sent me off to clinics to have cameras stuck up my bum and down my throat, thanks to my stories of chronic indigestion and pain (or so it felt to me) which had been going on for several years.
Eventually, after yet another poke around my guts yielding nothing of concern, a doctor casually asked if I was feeling stressed or anxious at all. Stressed? Anxious? – why yes, big time! This was during a period of ten years or so during which: my mum died (after having fallen victim to serious scammers who removed every penny from her name… and my and my siblings’ potential inheritance); my parents-in-law, and sister also died, (the latter tragically); my husband abandoned me and our three kids to live in Mongolia leaving me bankrupt in the process, our ‘family home’ having been sold prior to my husband’s move to Mongolia; I had to move six times within 12 years with the kids, (although one had left for university during this time); I then received a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis as the cherry on top.
Yes, I said to the doctor, I’ve most certainly been feeling anxious, and left. No one ever suggested anything that might help, so I most probably went home to a couple of cigarettes and a few glasses of wine.
Looking back on this decade with the benefit of hindsight, counselling training with a lot of reading too, I changed from feeling permanently sorry for myself to taking control and re-inventing myself as a counsellor.
The difficulty in my view is that many people see anxiety as a ‘thing’, like a disease that you can treat (like MS) or having a ‘broken’ part of your body which needs fixing. Anxiety is an emotion, a feeling, a form of energy: it’s like a cloud – you can’t control ‘it’, merely the way you react to it. It comes, stays for a while, it goes.
Emmy van Durzen (a Dutch existential therapist) describes anxiety as a form of energy. "What you need to do is effectively use that energy … befriend it, hold it, value it, understand its value. It’s like the flow of life – we can go with the flow even when there is turbulence and keep ourselves on an even keel".
Jon Kabat-Zinn talks of how "instead of taking a deep breath to calm yourself down, take a deep breath to access all your resources … the energy that is available to you." He goes on to describe how, in his view at least, "the only way to free yourself from a lifetime of being tyrannised by your own thought processes, whether you suffer from extreme anxiety or not, is to come to see your thoughts for what they are… When you can successfully step back and see that you are not your thoughts and feelings and that you don’t have to believe them and you certainly don’t have to act on them, when you see, vividly, that many of them are inaccurate, judgemental, and fundamentally greedy, you will have found the key to understanding why you feel so much fear and anxiety … you will (come to) see them as natural mental states that can be worked with and accepted just like any others … Fear is a natural part of living, but not something you have to be afraid of".
My qualifications for writing this article are not based on a comprehensive understanding of how the brain works or any medical knowledge over and above that which most have when working in private counselling practice. Rather, my ‘qualifications’ are based on personal lived experience and hearing the stories of others during my work, for which I am immensely grateful.
By way of ending, my moment of ‘epiphany’ which occurred during the events described in my personal story above:
I went through a period when I used to fall asleep picturing a washing line high in the sky on which all the clouds landed before moving on. Some were light, fluffy clouds which came and went of their own accord but after a few darker clouds came, hovered a while and left, the motherf***er of all clouds appeared and blotted out the sun. There was no way to get past this cloud – neither over it, under it, or passed it. It was hot, fiery, and terrifying … and it stayed there for several days.
Then, after a few nights of this, I realised I had to get up close to it, to ‘enter’ it. I did, really scared, and it let me in. I walked around inside it and felt its raw, bleeding walls. I then woke up and experienced an intense feeling of relief. The monster stormcloud never returned (and, incidentally, my digestive problems disappeared with it).
Nietzsche wrote: What doesn’t kill you makes you grow stronger. I exhort you to embrace your anxiety, get up close and personal, and learn that it’s not as bad as you felt it might be.