What is anxiety? Is it my thoughts? When did I *get* anxiety?
Anxiety is commonly believed to be a problem with irrationally worrisome thoughts and exaggerated fears of and from those thoughts.
Typical treatment attempts to correct these thoughts with the hope that the sufferer gains relief.
Why are the thoughts irrational? Experts claim that no one really knows but it seems to be some combination of brain, genetics, life experiences and personality.
They are right. The thoughts of an anxious person can really be brain bulldozers. But the thoughts are still not anxiety.
I have a different take on what 'is' anxiety, and what 'makes' anxiety 'anxiety'.
If you perform anxious behaviors, you become an anxious person. You become someone who has anxiety.
Before the behaviors, all you are is someone who has thoughts and sensations he doesn't care for.
It is true that in any given anxious episode, a few things are going on with you:
Your thoughts aren't the prettiest. Your body overflows with doom and dread. Maybe you're stuck with some badass issue sucking the sunlight out of your life. Maybe you suffered in the past in ways that have left you traumatized. Maybe no one around you is ever a good example of calm and composure. And maybe neither are you. Maybe all of this is happening not individually, but all together, making the words "gut wrenching" the only sane way to describe your present moment. And the worst of it all. Maybe you're face-to-face with the horrifying truth that chaos, worry and despair is all you've known in your life.
If you come to me today and ask me if you have anxiety because of the aggregation of all this - I will say No.
You have anxiety in this moment only because of the behaviors you choose to deal with all of this in this moment.
Past is painful - YES! - but past be screwed for understanding anxiety.
Your negative experiences - with life, with anxiety, with yourself - have created the painful distress that you feel in your mind and body. A commonly used term for this distress is 'symptoms'.
The symptoms are the physical manifestations of the (often unconscious) conflicts/incongruences you face between what you desire and what you are actually stuck with.
E.g. I hate this thought but I have this thought. Reality? Conflict. Result? Heart racing.
Other ones: I hate my heart racing but my heart races. I hate this memory but I'm stuck with it. I hate my job but I'm too scared to leave.
Conflict, conflict, conflict? Symtpoms, symtpoms, symptoms.
The physical symtpoms are natural, expected and are the result of the brain doing it's job in response to your quick, automatic and mostly unconscious conflicts. Biologically speaking, the symptoms are the result of your amygdala triggering to create a flight-or-fight response in your body.
Notwithstanding this intellectual explanation, let me say upfront that amygdala symtpoms can be VERY difficult to tolerate and the compulsive need to do ANYTHING to get rid of them is justified. Pounding chest, difficulty breathing, muscle tension, nausea, butterflies in the stomach, lump in throat, sinking feeling and more? If you weren't bothered by these, that would be seriously strange.
If you learn proper ways to deal with these symptoms - actually, your conflicts - you'll be fine. Anxiety gets bypassed. Choose the wrong behaviors and it opens a whole new can of worms.
BEHAVIOR, BEHAVIOR, BEHAVIOR:
It's most useful to look at anxiety as a behavioral problem and nothing other than that.
We cannot control the people around us and the shit that we're handed.
Trying to control any of this only takes our problems to a whole new level of ridiculousnes.
But what you were, and are responsible for is what you choose to do to deal with the stuff. Even if its stuff that is beyond your control. In fact, especially if it's stuff beyond your control.
You are responsible for your behavior. And this you can always control.
Sorry if this sounds like a candy-flossed greeting card.
It's not your fault that you didn't know what else to do in the past (you can learn now). But it still wasn't a problem with anything other than behavior.
If we are human, we think and feel. Our thoughts are (assumed to be) the product of how we process, reflect and give meaning to our existential experiences. We have good experiences, we have good thoughts. We have bad experiences, we hope our thoughts will make them good again.
A real trigger alarm for us is when our own thoughts are "bad".
We believe that since we ourselves produce our own thoughts, these "bad" signals must be truly how we feel about what's happening or about to happen.
Bad thoughts = Bad outcomes
Take a relatively common, undramatic but upsetting thought (common in Generalized Anxiety and Depression).
"What if I am a failure?" isn't the best thought. Who in his mind would be comfortable with a thought like this? The next automatic thought is "This thought makes me queasy. What do I have to do to flip it to something nicer?...like say...hmmm..."you are not a failure."?"
Fused with these thoughts, now behavior follows:
"Alright, now I have to prove that I am not a failure." Or "Alright, now I have to watch out for signs that I am a failure." or "Alright, remove this thought otherwise you will behave like a failure."
Result? Hyper-vigilance to signs of failure. Everything else be screwed.
Now take a somewhat dramatic thought (common in OCD).
"What if I am a terrorist?" "Alright, now I have to prove that I am not a terrorist." Or "Alright, now watch out for signs that I am a terrorist." or "Alright, remove this thought otherwise you will behave like a terrorist."
Result? Hyper-vigilance to signs of being a terrorist. Everything else be screwed.
You overarching relationship with thoughts is one of god and worshiper. Your thoughts are God and you are the worshiper. The belief is that all thoughts are indicators, predictors or warning signals of some absolute truths applicable to your life.
With this belief, you respond to life with behaviors intended to successfully deal with these thoughts.
When behavior comes from a place of absolute fusion with thoughts and symptoms, then it's a problem. Because sooner or later they become unsustainable.
This usually happens insidiously; in the beginning it's hard to catch what you are doing wrong. In fact, your reactions in response to your thoughts may seem very, very right.
"How long does it really take to check the stove again? Not even two seconds. Plus I save 4 lives."
"How long does it really take to overextend a little, so that it all turns out perfect? Nothing really."
"How much is the party worth going to? Nothing really. Plus now I won't have a panic attack."
You start training your self to become someone who is guided by his thoughts, especially the negative ones. Because hey, from early on in your life, you learned to believe that this thought business is some serious business. That you produce your thoughts and that all thoughts are indicators of something real and honest that is happening or about to happen.
But how long before your stove-checking starts creeping into your time at college?
How long before your friendships start getting affected by your absences from social hangouts?
How long before your professional goals get compromised because of fear of peoples' judgments?
Sooner or later, you crash. Not because you failed to get your thoughts to shut up. But because you wasted too much of your life (and mental health) taking them too seriously in the first place.
AND in the end, things anyway didn't turn out the way you wanted. Despite "the plot".
AND in the meanwhile, you never really gave yourself a chance to see how you would have handled life had it been allowed to unfold in its natural, un-manipulated setting.
The point at which your behaviors become unsustainable hurts the most. It rips your heart out.
You see that there is nothing you can do to soothe/stop the thoughts. Watched the movie, The Aviator? And this makes your anxiety hit the roof. "After all, there was always something I could do, but now, even that power has been snatched. I am trapped."
Even now you cannot see that you are in a mess because of your lifelong training to take thoughts for reality. And that the way out of this mess is to, counter intuitively, give up on trying to control the mind. and start learning to tolerate the discomfort created by automatic thoughts, ambiguity, uncertainty, imperfection and lack of control.
When there is no separation between thought and self, when "what if" becomes "it is" and when there is no wiggle room to allow for alternatives, then invariably the final chosen behaviors are distorted.
"I have to check the stove again" leads to checking the stove from once every day to 105 times a day because your original thought didn't stop at one. And hey, you're a guy who takes his thoughts seriously.
"I have to be perfect" leads to landing up in the hospital with chronic exhaustion and manic depression because you couldn't say no to hosting the 17th party for your husband's extended family visiting from Japan.
Pretty soon, your behaviors are no longer sustainable for you without seriously compromising on the quality of your life and the ability to meet your goals and values.
AND THIS THEN BECOMES THE DEFINITION OF ANXIETY. THE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION "WHAT IS ANXIETY?"
THE GOOD NEWS:
There is a cure to this behavioral problem. What is it? Surprise, Surprise. It's behavior itself.
But a different kind of behavior.
It's behavior that comes from a place of defusion with thoughts and fusion with values and goals, despite all past dysfunctions. This means that despite whatever your anxiety has been like and however long you have been anxious, it is possible to change by choosing different behaviors.
Once you learn to change your anxious behaviors in spite of the symptoms (thoughts and sensations), a process quickly starts taking place in your brain. You get instant feedback that you have had an episode of recovery. All the areas which feed the anxiety loop get instantly jolted by the automatic recovery process initiated by behavior. And soon, the physical symptoms ease. They start to loosen their grip over you. Eventually their force, momentum and frequency are reduced to a point where you are free of anxiety.
The very good, promising news here is that it doesn't matter how long your anxiety has been around - a week, a decade, even if you just celebrated a silver jubilee. It also doesn't really matter what type (2) you have. All you need is behavior.
Achieving an anxiety-free state has many other fringe benefits apart from just living without anxiety. Your life opens up to possibilities, opportunities, courage, optimism and wisdom, and you find fewer psychological barriers to hold you back from enjoying life.
How? Because in your journey to become anxiety-free, you have witnessed, understood and practiced firsthand that you are more than your thoughts; you are your behavior - which unlike everything else, you can always control.
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