Anxiety has many faces. It doesn’t always show up as intrusive thoughts. Some people experience the physical signs of anxiety without connecting the dots with their unresolved emotions.
The physical symptoms of anxiety include:
increased heart rate/palpitations
nervousness/butterflies in the stomach
lump in throat/difficulty speaking
impatient/quick to anger
low/no sex drive
There is also situational anxiety, where we experience anxiety only concerning specific circumstances. Common examples of situational anxiety include:
Sunday anxiety as we dread the coming work week
Anxiety before a big event like a job interview or giving a presentation
Morning anxiety – some people wake with dread, but it passes once they go about their day
Sleep anxiety – if you’ve ever experienced insomnia, you know that getting to sleep can be stressful as our most intrusive thoughts tend to occur in the dead of night.
While anxiety and dread may feel awful, what if it wasn’t the enemy?
What if there was some hidden benefit to anxiety?
If you experience a lot of anxiety, it might be hard to contemplate, but just for a moment, consider the possibility that anxiety has a purpose other than making us miserable.
Don’t shoot the messenger.
I tend to view anxiety as a smoke alarm. When the smoke alarm sounds, it lets us know that something is burning. While the alarm is loud and annoying, it’s not the issue. The alarm is the symptom; we need to get to the source of the fire; otherwise, the alarm will keep going.
When we feel anxious, it’s a sign that something is burning on our ‘mental stove’. When our anxiety is triggered, we rush to silence the alarm instead of addressing the cause. We keep pressing the button to turn the smoke alarm off instead of addressing the burning issue. Anxiety is a warning signal from our nervous system that something’s up. Our nervous system has evolved to keep us safe from danger. It’s always scanning the environment looking for potential threats. Our nervous system has a negativity bias; it’s designed to look for what could go wrong.
While it’s uncomfortable, feeling anxious isn’t the problem, yet many of us confuse the symptom for the cause.
“One of the strange and fascinating elements about anxiety is that it’s not actually a feeling. We feel the manifestations of anxiety in our bodies and minds through physical symptoms and intrusive thoughts, but anxiety itself isn’t a real feeling, but instead a placeholder for the vulnerable feelings that we’re too scared to feel” Sheryl Paul
Beneath anxiety is often a deeper feeling:
fear of failure/humiliation
fear of rejection
fear of abandonment, and
feelings of unworthiness or not feeling good enough is often underneath our anxiety.
Anxiety can feel familiar. And even though it’s uncomfortable, our body will prefer the familiarity of anxiety over the deeper feelings that anxiety is masking.
When we view anxiety as the alarm rather than the enemy, it will change our relationship to anxiety.
When we bury, ignore and suppress our anxiety, it becomes stronger and more intense. This is because we’re ignoring the signs, so the alarm needs to get much louder to capture our attention.
Instead of trying to defeat or overcome anxiety, our anxiety can become a powerful tool for self-awareness. If we can listen to anxiety, feel the source and see what’s ‘burning’ then we quiet the alarm and lessen the intensity of anxiety.
There is a key question to ask ourselves when the alarm is triggered:
If I wasn’t feeling anxious right now, what would I be feeling?
Answer this question, and you’re well on your way to discovering the key to healing anxiety.
Feeling our feelings is the key to healing.
For most of our lives, we’ve been taught that it’s not cool to get angry, so we suppress it. When we’re upset or disappointed, we’re told to cheer up and look on the bright side. When we’re feeling down, we’re told to think positively.
While all this advice is well-intended, it’s actually a way of denying and bypassing our normal human emotions. When we deny our feelings, they don’t go away. When we don’t express our emotions, they end up stored in our body as tension and anxiety.
If we try to let go of our anger/sadness/resentment before we’ve actually acknowledged and expressed it, it will end up being stored. Emotions are like energy; they need to be discharged and released before we can let them go. And to discharge and release our negative emotions, we need to feel and acknowledge them.
Anxiety is a sign that we have unexpressed emotions in our subconscious mind. And the energy it takes to keep those emotions suppressed, creates tension and anxiety. The tension continues to build and build, and the anxiety gets worse and worse until we’re forced to deal with it.
If your smoke alarm is always going off, it’s a sign of something deeper beneath the surface. Get to the source, and you will find the key to healing anxiety.
If you want to learn practical tools to manage anxiety, check out the Art of Relaxation. It’s a 3-day course to teach you how to regulate your nervous system.
If you want to learn more about the effect that our emotions have on anxiety, check out Yoga Alchemy. It’s a 7-month transformational coaching program to heal our emotional wounds.