People will often come to counselling wanting to get rid of their anxiety, which is completely understandable when it can be so difficult to live with. Everyone can experience anxiety in different ways but some ways it might present include: shortness of breath, panic attacks, spiralling thoughts, a tightness or flutter in the stomach, a racing heartbeat, dizziness, feeling constantly on edge or difficulty making decisions. So a desire to remove these feelings make a lot of sense. However, and this may sound counterintuitive, but I’ve often found that acceptance is the most effective way of dealing with anxious thoughts and feelings. Acceptance is not the same as giving up hope of change, far from it. Acceptance is about recognising how things are right now, challenging assumptions, and embracing uncomfortable aspects of ourselves.
Of course a certain level of anxiety is perfectly normal, and everyone experiences these feelings in different ways and in different levels. Some people may feel a gnawing sense of dread or be hyper-aware of their surroundings. They might feel anxious about specific circumstances, for example social situations like meeting new people or speaking in public. They may feel anxious about going to the doctor or dentist, have a fear of illness, a fear of being in large crowds or public transport. Other people may feel an existential angst, feeling as if there is no point or meaning in their lives. The best judge as to whether your anxiety is a problem is you – if it’s become overwhelming, affecting relationships, or stopping you pursuing things you would otherwise engage in then it might be a good idea to seek out help if and when you feel the time is right.
I think it’s important to recognise that while there are individual things you can do to help reduce or manage your anxiety, there are structural changes to society that would go a long way to reducing situations which cause anxiety or stress for many people. Living with structural racism, poverty, sexism, ableism, transphobia or homophobia (or a variety of these) can of course increase anxiety and as a society we need to recognise that huge changes are needed. Although the stigma around talking about anxiety may have lessened, I still think there’s more that can be done to normalise sharing our experiences as well. Individual change through practices like mindfulness or getting more exercise can be helpful, but in my opinion there is an over-emphasis on this at the moment as it resolves larger institutions of their responsibility to address societal problems. Sometimes this can lead to people internalising the idea of taking personal responsibility for their suffering, to such an extent that they feel guilty or shameful that they have these feelings, as if they are their own fault.
I do think there are ways in which we can take control over our anxiety or stress, and things like more exercise, eating healthily, mindfulness or a decent nights sleep can make a big difference. Speaking to a counsellor can be helpful too if that’s something that feels right to you. A counsellor can look at the reasons behind your anxiety, what is unhelpful (or even helpful) about your anxiety, recognising what is and isn’t in your control, becoming curious about long-held assumptions, and at ways of accepting those uncomfortable feelings through compassion. Often when we start to explore our feelings with curiosity without a desire to get rid of them or change them, we can start to accept them and they become less overwhelming. It may seem like a paradox but accepting yourself as you are can lead to change. If someone dislikes themselves or a part of themselves then accepting that part is actually a huge change in and of itself.
Fighting against anxiety can crate tension, and also means our focus is always directed at anxiety. In that way it can loom large over all aspects of our lives. If on the other hand we approach it with curiosity, even a playfulness, we may see the anxiety in a different light. For example if you were worried about an approaching job interview you may wish to get rid of the anxious feeling in your stomach. However perhaps you are right to be worried! It could be a great opportunity to change your career, and who wouldn’t be worried about performing well in an interview? The worry is there to tell you that this is important, that you care about this, and it may help you focus your attention on preparation. In accepting that anxiety is a part of our lives instead of fighting against it we can slowly and deliberately turn our attention elsewhere. In orientating ourselves differently the worry or stress may become lighter, as we’re able to focus on other aspects of our lives.