Picture yourself on a battlefield. You’ve been fighting for years, perhaps decades. In the trenches, you’re trying to take a quick drink and get a bite to eat while the enemy approaches, yet again. You’re vigilant for their approach and terrified that they’ll get to you before you’re ready. The terrain is muddy and disgusting after so many years of fighting. You have a long, long history with this enemy. You’ve won some battles, they’ve won some, but the war rages on. What more, the stakes have only gotten higher. Your enemy has taken so much from you: your ability to be with your family, to do the things you love, even your right to sleep peacefully at night. If you lose the battle, you’re certain to lose what little chance of freedom you have left. Meanwhile, your enemy seems to have only gotten more powerful. You know you can’t give up now, and in any case you’re certain you would lose the war instantly if you did. So, you grab your gun, get out of your trench, and wait for the battle with your enemy, Anxiety, to continue.
If you’ve experienced anxiety and panic attacks, you know what this battlefield is like. You fantasize about the day anxiety stops coming back, when you finally win the war. In the meantime, you focus all your energy on preventing Anxiety from reaching you. You avoid activities that make you anxious, you numb out with substances or endless TV, and you desperately try to find some magic trick that will make it go away forever. When you “win” these battles by avoiding that party you were nervous about or calming down by getting high, you feel fine at best. After all, Anxiety could come back at any time. When you lose the battles the situation is even worse. You tried to make Anxiety go away but your heart is still pounding and your thoughts are still racing. You feel hopeless, overwhelmed, even depressed. Sometimes you might feel so bad that you keep fighting the battle using your weapons-of-last-resort, like contemplating suicide or engaging in self-harm. Either way, the war starts to feel like your whole world, and the only thing that matters is stopping the battle.
What if I told you that there is a way out of the battlefield? Would you take it, even if it meant dropping your weapon?
The thing is, beyond the battlefield there is a town. You don’t know much about it, because you’ve been busy fighting the war. It’s where your family and friends live, and maybe there are some soldiers there too, from both sides. You know you’d like to go check it out, but if you leave your trench you won’t know what your enemy will do next and you won’t be able to fight Anxiety.
Accepting Anxiety doesn’t mean you like being in the war. It means accepting Anxiety is really here and that fighting him has cost you more than you’re willing to pay. It means walking away from the battlefield and being willing to experience whatever comes next.
At the end of the day, your anxiety is not an army coming to kill you, although it might start to look like that when you spend most of your time fighting it. In reality, anxiety is a combination of thoughts (“I’m going to fail!”; “I need to figure out what to do.”), emotions (fear, worry), and physical sensations (nausea, shivers, heart racing). These thoughts, emotions, and sensations are your brain’s normal, adaptive way of trying to handle uncertainty.
Although it’s uncomfortable to let these feelings get closer to you, they are not as dangerous OR as persistent as they seem. Accepting anxiety won’t hurt you, even though it often feels that way. What does hurt you is continuing to fight the war.
You’re back on the battlefield. Anxiety is coming at you, looking big and threatening through a cloud of smoke. You glance over in the direction of the town. You think of everything fighting this war has cost you. You look back at Anxiety. He looks scary. In a moment of bravery, you understand that you don’t really know what will happen if you let Anxiety in. What you do know is that, if you keep pushing him away, you’ll spend your whole life on this gray, mucky battlefield. That, you’re no longer willing to do. You drop your weapon, look Anxiety in his eyes and say,
“Hi Anxiety. I don’t like you, but I understand that you’re here right now. Why don’t you come to town with me? I’m going there anyway. Let’s grab coffee.”
Anxiety looks confused.
“Aren’t we in a war?” he says.
“Not anymore,” you reply, “You can attack if you want. It’s not worth it for me to keep fighting you when I have so much else to live for.”
At this point in the story, several different things might happen. Perhaps Anxiety disappears in a poof of smoke, having nothing left to attack. It’s also possible that Anxiety might take the opportunity to mount an attack, temporarily making your thoughts race and your stomach churn. Finally, Anxiety might start to look less like a scary soldier and more like a little kid who’s been trying to keep you safe in the only way he knows how. The common outcome is this: you are free to live your life outside the battlefield, and you never had to win the war in the first place.
It’s easy to tell a story like this, but harder to apply it to your real life. If this way of understanding anxiety resonated with you, take 5 minutes to journal on the following questions:
What weapons do I use to fight my war with anxiety?
Ex: I try to keep anxiety at bay by not doing things that make me anxious, like going on dates or applying for more challenging jobs. I also normally smoke weed to numb it out.
I keep fighting anxiety because I don’t want to feel ____________
Ex: I think I keep fighting because I’m really scared to feel that sensation of panic (heart racing, trembling) and the way my thoughts race and stop me from sleeping.
How do I believe anxiety stops me from doing things that matter to me (“If I wasn’t anxious I would__________”)?
Ex: If I wasn’t anxious I would start dating again. I’d also look for a job in cooking because that’s what I really love, but I feel like I’m too anxious to apply right now.
How does the time I spend fighting anxiety stop me from doing things that matter to me?
Ex: Right now it feels like my whole day is about fighting anxiety. I try to just do things that won’t set me off and I end up thinking a lot about anxiety, which is exactly what I don’t want to be doing!
What happens in my body if I close my eyes and gently say to my anxiety “I accept that you’re here. Come on in.” What happens in my mind?
Ex: Feels kind of foreign. A little freeing...maybe a bit less intense? I guess my anxiety doesn’t feel as scary and active if I’m telling it to come in. I also noticed that it got more intense for a second (heart clenched) and then released when I said “I accept that you’re here” again.
What happens if I close my eyes and ask my anxiety whether there is anything he/she wants me to know?
Ex: This feels really different. My anxiety says something like “I need you to take care of me” or maybe “I need it to be OK that I’m here sometimes”. It feels like my anxiety needs care.
What would it be like to allow anxiety to come and go, and know that that’s okay?
Ex: Maybe anxiety wouldn’t control so much of my life…? I wouldn’t have to spend so much time worrying about worrying! Maybe I could do things that matter to me without having to be so worried about feeling anxious.
Accepting anxiety can be really hard to do on your own. If you’re struggling, it helps to have a companion on the battlefield with you. You can reach out to one of our therapists and self schedule an online or virtual appointment or calling 215-922-LOVE x100.
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