Rethinking anxiety to our advantage

Carmen BryceBlog posts

Worry and stress have become socially acceptable code words for anxiety.  Anxiety is rooted in our fear response. How we process fear is a long-held system that we build over our childhoods and continue to cement, well into our adult lives.  It feels immutable, unchangeable and overwhelming. However, like any other system that we have, though self awareness, we can not only identify where our anxiety process has come from, but we can become more comfortable with it, knowing what it does for us and to us and therefore, we have some power to influence it, should we choose to do so.

Anxiety has become part of our vernacular in terms of how we engage with the world.  Every day, we hear or speak about anxiety, without allowing the charge that the word holds to really manifest.  When someone speaks about being anxious about something, they are telling us a little about their fear response as well as offering their vulnerability, within a distinct social boundary.  Fear is part of our lives and we should be able to encounter fear without feeling like we are acting outside of the social norm. Fear is necessary, understandable and present, whether we like it or not.  We have gendered and social conforms that restrict us in terms of how we can express fear. It is an individual response, with many unifying commonalities, in both experience and expression. What this means is that though each of our fear responses will be built from encounters, experiences and reactions over many years, there are always certain manners in which it is ‘safe’ (ie socially acceptable) for any of us to express and feel fear.  

Interchanging the word ‘fear’ with the word ‘anxiety’ feels controversial.  Instead of saying ‘I feel anxious about meeting X person’, if we allow the full emotional content to impact, we would say ‘I feel fear about meeting X person’.  The social consequence of this is that we encounter the person X as someone who inspires fear. However, this is not what the person making the statement has said, or what they mean.  Rather, they are saying that they feel fear. This fear may be because of certain traits or behaviours that person X displays. It may be because of the circumstance in which they are meeting person X.  However, most likely, it is a piece around how this person encounters people, in places, at certain points in time. Using the word ‘fear’ in place of the word ‘anxious’ opens our personal exploration of what we are feeling at a point in time.  This exploration is very empowering.

Within the moment of anxiety, there are a few points that we need to keep at the forefront of our understanding.  

First of all, we all have an automatic assumption that anxiety is a negative experience.  However, many of us are at our most productive and engaged when we are anxious. Therefore, we need to allow that it can have its uses and that we function in a certain manner because of it.  Acknowledging that we use anxiety in a functional manner is a powerful experience in itself.

Second, we need to each ask ourselves how anxiety manifests within us.  Do we experience it in terms of how we think (racing thoughts, obsessive streams of consciousness?)?  Do we encounter it physically (elevated heart rate, disrupted digestion?)? Or do we feel our anxiety, in the manner of emotional response (overwhelm of fear, paralysis of other emotions?)?  The manner in which we experience it informs what we can do with anxiety in our lives. We can ‘treat’ each symptom of anxiety separately, thereby utilising the ways in which anxiety adds benefit to our daily experience and minimising the impact of the ways in which it undermines us.  

However, it is more important that we reframe our understanding of what anxiety means to us.  We are not controlled by our fear, any more than we are controlled by any other emotion. Allowing it sufficient space to be part of our experience empowers us to boundary it and therefore to live with it.

By Lorraine Hackett