Anxiety often intensifies when your life feels out of control. That’s why a lot of people, myself included, work hard to maintain control. We schedule, we plan, we make lists, we think, we worry…. We imagine all the bad things that might happen and all the potential solutions for when they do.
We might turn toward things that help us forget or ignore the anxiety and stress we’re feeling. For example, we turn to our phone, laptop or iPad for distraction, or stream Netflix shows we’ve already seen. Or we use substances, food or exercise to try to calm down and move the anxiety to a back burner.
All of these behaviors make us feel as though we’re managing our anxiety when we’re probably making it worse. Those behaviors are aimed at ignoring, avoiding or distancing ourselves from the stressed anxious feelings. And the energy we put into not feeling the anxiety can leave us feeling exhausted, unfocused and unmotivated.
Focusing attention on the physical sensations of stress—a racing heart, shortness of breath, chest tightness, a stomachache or headache—is another unconscious strategy for avoiding anxious feelings. We put our physical health foremost in our minds instead of the difficult feelings. Again, we are probably making our anxiety worse!
Often the source of the stress and anxiety lie beneath the surface. Even though we’re not aware of what lies in our unconscious, we know we feel uncomfortable—and we don’t like discomfort. We want it to go away!
Planning every perfect moment, until…
I’ve struggled a lot through the years when I felt like things were out of control and in this week’s episode of the Woman Worriers podcast I share my experience with managing my anxiety in the moment when things didn’t go as planned.
When I was a young mom, my anxiety centered on knowing what was next. I made lists. I’d plan lunch, dinner and the kids’ activities. I’d need to know what time we were leaving to go wherever it was we were going. I’d want to know who would be there. I think I drove my husband a little crazy! The problems came when the “plans” didn’t go as planned. Maybe a child got sick, or the car wouldn’t start or my husband got stuck at work. Suddenly I would be filled with anxiety because we couldn’t stick to the plan. My anxiety would come out as irritability or anger. I’d snap at those closest to me.
The anger and irritability were easier than the emotional pain I was feeling. I focused so much of my energy on taking care of everyone else’s needs that I often felt unseen, resentful and under-appreciated. But those feelings were buried below the surface, and I rarely expressed them to myself or anyone else.
Unfortunately all of the ways we try to put off or avoid feeling the discomfort only work in the short term, and sometimes they don’t work at all. The anxiety is usually our body’s way of telling us that it’s distressed. We continue to tell it that we don’t care, that we don’t want to hear it or see it or feel it. And so the anxiety and stress don’t go away. They keep coming back.
Facing the feelings is the way to go
What I’ve learned over the years through therapy, meditation and a mindfulness practice is that the more I avoid the anxiety, the worse I feel. That turning toward the anxiety, feeling the discomfort and identifying what’s below the surface can actually make you feel better!
I’m not saying that it’s easy, or that change happens overnight. But with effort, practice and mindful attention, we can learn to tune into our feelings and feel them when they surface. We might still have some anxiety, but as we learn to soothe ourselves in difficult moments, we can make feeling our feelings our superpower and keep anxiety in the passenger seat where it belongs.
If you struggle with starting or maintaining a mindfulness practice, and you live in the Annapolis, Md., area individual and group therapy is available to help get you started and keep you going.
If you enjoyed this blog post and would like more insights into living with anxiety, tune into the Woman Worriers podcast. In each weekly 30-minute episode, host Elizabeth Cush, LCPC, and her guests explore living with anxiety, relationships, parenting, surviving trauma and other topics and offer insights into mindfulness, meditation and other helpful resources.
Elizabeth Cush, LCPC is a therapist, blogger, creator and host of the Woman Worriers podcast, and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md and she’s been featured in these major publications. Elizabeth helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose. If you'd like to know more about how individual, online and group therapy can help ease anxiety and stress call me 410-339-1979