‘Anxiety frequently howls at shadows where there are no true threats’
What is an anxiety beast? Do we all have one?
The anxiety beast is a metaphorical and compassionate way of looking at our experience of anxiety. Like the beast in the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, our anxiety superficially feels like a monster, but upon closer inspection it turns out to be a misunderstood hero.
Anxiety evolved over millions of years to vigorously protect us from prehistoric threats. In the (relative) blink of an eye we have gone from prehistoric to modern life. Our anxiety is still stuck in prehistoric time so it is utterly baffled by today’s very different circumstances. It is always trying to help – it means well – but it most often misperceives threats. Anxiety frequently howls at shadows where there are no true threats.
For example, being the centre of attention surrounded by strangers, was a very dangerous situation for our prehistoric ancestors. Giving a speech in front of strangers today is objectively safe in most cases, but anxiety often floods people with the adrenalin needed to fight or flee prior to and during the presentation. It is a glitch in the system. Anxiety is jumping in to help when it is not needed in the modern world.
Almost all of us can relate to the ‘false alarms’ of a howling anxiety beast. That is not pathology, in itself. It is normal for our species.
How do messages from society influence our thoughts and feelings about anxiety?
Despite the fact that humans are natural born worriers, anxiety is often presented by experts as an enemy. There are countless articles, books, and blogs with titles that include:
How to be worry-free
Cure your anxiety
Overcome your anxiety
Beat your anxiety
Clinicians often describe anxiety antagonistically, as a:
There is no treatment that will lead to zero anxiety. You can’t and shouldn’t eradicate a normal and protective emotion. However, we can teach our anxiety beasts to quiet down in some situations and we can provide a soothing nervous system for it to live in.
Additionally, we humans are now massive consumers of media (social and otherwise). We start our day with images of other people streamed to our phones, we feast on these images throughout the day, and typically end our day with more of them. The images we see of people on TV, commercials, and social media are most often carefully staged images showing people looking happy, calm, and content. From that perspective, the natural feelings of doubt and fear that dance in and out of your consciousness feels like something about you is defective. At the same time, even pre-Covid, anxiety levels have been on the rise.
You take a compassionate approach to anxiety, with a chapter called ‘learning to love your anxiety beast’. What does a compassionate approach entail, and why is it better than other approaches?
The reality is that no matter how well we manage our anxiety, we will remain anxious creatures. We, then, have a choice. We can hate, fight, and struggle against our anxiety or we can take a more accepting and compassionate approach.
When we treat our anxiety like an enemy and a threat what happens? Our anxiety, whose job is to vigorously protect us from threats by activating our fight-or-flight bodily response will flood us with adrenalin when we notice anxious feelings. We become anxious about our anxiety. The harder you fight, the more you suffer.
Alternatively, as much as we are designed to be anxious, we are also designed to have that anxiety soothed through compassion. Early human life involved extreme fight-or-flight reactions to the dangerous world when out hunting and gathering. However, returning to the relative safety of our small tribes meant soothing through compassionate connection.
Increasing our compassion towards ourselves is related to quieter anxiety, less depression, and an enhanced sense of well-being. Given that anxiety will remain part of our lives, it makes more sense to hold it gently with compassion, rather than living with an enemy to fight within your own nervous system.
Do you think psychologists need to change how they think about anxiety, or how they work with people who are anxious?
Psychologists have a lot to offer people who are suffering with their anxiety. Good treatment can and does lead to symptom reduction (not anxiety elimination) and increased functionality in an anxious world. People who are struggling and suffering from anxiety benefit greatly from getting good mental health treatment.
But, the language used to describe anxiety matters. When anxiety is described as an antagonist to be vanquished it reinforces the notion that anxiety is a threat. Given that anxiety will continue to howl, it sets people up for more anxiety about anxiety in the future. And for some, the presence of anxiety leads to feelings of shame.
Helping people see that their anxiety cares about them – it only wants to help – can bring the soothing power of compassion to override the exacerbating effect of struggle and resistance.
Psychologists can then help people learn to soothe their anxiety rather than fight with it. They can show them that teaching their anxiety through exposure therapy can make anxiety a better lifelong inner companion.
Have you learnt to love your own anxiety beast?
I love my anxiety the way I love the health benefits of eating a healthy salad rather than the short-term gratification of deep-fried everything. By eating healthy I can live a longer, more energetic life. I can be around to see my children grow up. Embracing anxiety with compassion, in the long term leads to a better inner companion than the short-term relief of running from anxiety.
I love that anxiety motivated me to leave my parents’ basement and venture out into the big wide world of education, career, love and parenthood. Feeling anxious can be a sign of pushing beyond one’s comfort zone – which is where a meaningful life can be found.
I love that anxiety adds spice to my life by giving me a thrill on a rollercoaster or heart-pounding excitement of watching an action movie.
I love that anxiety gives me the focus and energy I need when I teach evening classes.
I love that anxiety keeps me from falling asleep while driving on the highway at night.
I love that anxiety kept me vigilant and protective when my daughter had a 105 degree temperature and I needed to stay up half the night fighting her fever.
I love my anxiety because after spending most of my life hating it, I see that gently embracing it has led to less suffering and more willingness to step outside of my comfort zone.
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