It is crucial for psychiatrists and therapists in NYC to educate clients that anxiety is not to be avoided, feared or simply doused with psychiatric medication. In fact, it needs to be pursued, befriended and mastered.
All competent mental health professionals agree that living well requires that we regularly take emotional risks and incremental steps outside the comfort zone—both of which cause increases in anxiety. This type of anxiety (situational anxiety) is healthy because we are generating it on purpose, so to speak, in the service of positive change and growth.
When we don’t pursue things that cause anxiety, life itself will still ensure that we experience generous amounts of it simply because it is built into the human condition. This type of anxiety (existential anxiety) is characterized by it feeling vague, free floating and disorienting. That is, until we learn to use it wisely.
Both existential and situational anxiety are best understood as signals in the body reminding us that our lives are short and that we need to be making the most of our limited time here by engaging meaningfully in life. Meaningful engagement could take the form of creative projects, forming or deepening relationships, tending to daily tasks, communing with others on a spiritual path, having fun, working on career, being still in meditation or prayer, being of service to others, taking care of business… The list is endless.
What matters most is that we use our limited time and energy in ways that are aligned with our deepest values and vision. No one does this perfectly, but one thing that can help keep us on track is to respond to the inevitable anxiety in life by: (1) bringing ourselves back to the here and now; (2) reconnecting ourselves to what is most important to us; and (3) re-engaging in meaningful and/or productive activity.
Anxiety is not the enemy; being at war with anxiety is. This is why learning to befriend anxiety is synonymous with learning to master it. Anxiety is not something we can eliminate from our lives. Any attempt to do so is like trying to push a beach ball under water—it’s going to push back with equal or greater force. Our responses to anxiety must be more subtle and nuanced, more creative and strategic.
Anxiety is a resource, like nuclear energy: if we learn to use it well, it can be of great benefit, but if we do not understand it and use it wisely, there can be leaks and disasters. Thus, the important question is:
– or –
Is anxiety a destabilizing and destructive force in your life?
It is helpful to think of emotion as e-motion (energy-in-motion) in the body. The bodily sensations of emotionality are highly subjective and deeply personal experiences. They are best understood as signals reminding us that we need to connect with others, practice self-care, deal honestly with challenges, get help, ask for what we want, seek comfort, take action, be present, etc. Adopting this perspective allows for anxiety to actually be a means to learning, growth and more intimate relationships in our lives—rather than being a chronic, annoying and paralyzing obstacle.
When I see people in therapy who have issues with anxiety—whether it be in individual therapy, couples therapy or group therapy—the first thing I help them do is to make a commitment to changing their relationship to anxiety. Anxiety itself does not feel good—but what really makes it toxic is when we fear it, fight it or try to flee from it. Avoiding, minimizing or trying to numb anxiety all make it more intense and more chronic over time.
When we fail to befriend and master anxiety, it can take over and play a highly destructive role in our daily lives. Befriending anxiety represents growth into further wisdom and maturity in terms of how we handle our emotional lives. Ending the internal war is the first step toward truly taking back your personal power and learning to use anxiety as a force for good in your life.