Anxiety is a totally normal experience. Humans evolved to experience anxiety as a form of protection against predators and threats to our safety. Unfortunately, most anxiety sufferers feel shame and guilt about their anxiety, only because they don’t know how to manage it.
When you don’t learn how to manage your anxiety you tend to fear it. This is when anxiety becomes overwhelming and negative coping mechanisms develop as a result. This results in a cycle that creates more anxiety, shame, and negative coping mechanisms. Yet if you begin with the simple act of accepting that anxiety is normal you can learn to manage it.
Our Evolution Betrayed Us
Learning to manage anxiety should be taught in schools because let’s face it, anxiety is a fact of life. Fear, worry, and anxiety happen to everyone. Yet when we don’t learn how to manage it, it can really get out of control.
Most people waste their time worrying about nonsense. Worrying about things completely out of their control. Worrying about things that may never even happen. Putting all of this energy into something that says “this is my greatest fear, this is the big giant monster that I am terrified of ….. here, LET ME FEED IT”.
And it’s generally a monster that doesn’t even exist.
Unlike our ancestors, we aren’t getting chased by lions. But the human brain is slow to evolve. Even though our modern society protects us from being eaten by predators and other threats to our existence, we still have this internal system of anxiety that rears its ugly head and makes us miserable.
Learning to control anxiety can mean the difference between being a satisfied healthy person and a puddle of tears on the bathroom floor. Trust me, I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to feel like the world of imaginary scenarios is going to fall down on your head and crush you.
Which Wolf Will You Feed
When it comes to your thinking, to your habits, to your emotions, to your relationships:
- What you feed expands.
- What you starve contracts.
When you spend your days and nights worrying about what might happen you end up creating imaginary monsters out of thin air. When you spend your time focused on all of the possible big bad scary things out there in the world you end up feeling like you need to live in a padded room in order to feel safe.
You end up feeding the wrong wolf.
There’s a Cherokee story about two wolves. A grandfather tells his grandson “there’s a war going on inside of me between two wolves. One wolf is evil – filled with greed, worry, envy, self-pity, pride, superiority, regret. The other wolf is good – he is love, peace, joy, ecstasy, happiness, contentment, connection, generosity, empathy, and faith. The same fight is going on in every single one of us.” The grandson turned and asked his grandfather “which one will win” and the grandfather responded, “whichever wolf you feed”.
Those Worries Are A Bitch (Oh snap – the Shame Spiral)
We each have these raging powers inside of us that try to demand our precious time, energy, and attention. That tells us, “If you don’t worry more about that conversation that you just had, the world’s going to end!!”. That intense pressure inside of you that says that you must stay awake a while longer and think through all the possible negative outcomes that might happen if you send your kid to camp this year, or if you spend time with your parents over Christmas, or whether that ache in your side is a bowel obstruction.
Every single one of us has this war going on inside. The war that rages for our attention. That world made up of mostly made-up fears, anxieties, and worries.
It’s like the Jay-Z song with a twist: “I’ve got 99 problems, and 98 of them are totally made up scenarios in my head”.
Many people with anxiety believe, falsely, that people who don’t “have anxiety” are never anxious. That’s the myth that keeps them stuck in a spiral of guilt and shame about feeling anxious. The guilt and shame about feeling anxious, afraid, and worried.
They feel that “something must be wrong with me” if I’m spinning in these feelings. Because look around me, no one else is obsessing about whether I’ll say the wrong thing during my next meeting. No one else is spinning out on whether that guy I’m interested in will ever call.
Hiding Anxiety Makes It Worse
Everyone has some degree of this simmering angst going on inside. Everyone feels fear, anxiety, and worry.
The trick isn’t to say “you must be free of anxiety, fear, and worry”. The trick is teaching you how to manage it so that it’s no longer a prison of your own creation.
You see, the real prison isn’t the anxiety. The real prison is the shame about anxiety. Because when you feel ashamed of it you never allow it to come out in appropriate ways. You isolate yourself and never talk about the fears and anxieties. So, it sits inside.
Anxiety is like mold, the more you keep it in the shadows, the more it grows. When you bring it into the light it tends to disappear.
Imagine that you have gas and that you never let yourself fart. What would happen? Your stomach would get bigger and bigger. You’d blow up like a balloon. Your stomach would hurt. You’d feel like you were going to burst. All from holding it in.
The same is true of anxiety. You need to know how to healthily let it out, express it, allow it to be useful rather than feeling it as a cold-pressed prison where you have nowhere left to turn. Otherwise, like the gas bubble in your stomach, you’re going to feel like you’re going to explode. All because you didn’t allow yourself the freedom to do what was natural.
Feel your anxieties without shame. And to learn to shut down the anxieties that are monsters of your own creation.
Emotions are Like a Water Balloon
I have this theory I call the “Water balloon hypothesis”.
Have you ever taken a water balloon between both hands and sort of tried to squish it?
I don’t know why, but this seems to be a universal experience. Everyone has squished a water balloon between their hands.
Well, the more and more you squish that water balloon, the more likely it is to spring a leak in some random place.
The same holds true of anxiety, worry, and fear.
When you ignore them, when you suppress them, when you shove them deep inside, they are more and more likely to come out in some other uncontrollable way that makes a mess out of everything.
Free Floating Anxiety
The other important factor when it comes to anxiety is taking the time to identify where it’s really coming from.
When you stuff down anxiety, when you numb it with wine, being busy, or even with work it’s going to come up and spew all over something.
For example, let’s say you’re anxious about an upcoming work project. But you feel like this is stupid so you keep telling yourself that you have no right to feel anxious about it so you stuff it down inside of you. What do you think happens to that anxiety? It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t disappear.
Instead, it ends up cropping up its head somewhere unexpected. Maybe you start worrying that you have some medical problem that you’ve never heard of before. Perhaps you obsess about your friends not returning your calls for a few days. Because you weren’t honest with yourself about what you were really anxious about, and you refused to give it a voice, you ended up making it worse. You ended up with a big bag of “why on earth am I so freaked out about this?” wondering why on earth you’re feeling almost like having a panic attack because the pizza is late.
This is why understanding what your anxiety is about is one of the most important steps to overcoming anxiety. Because when you deeply understand what your anxiety is about you can look at it seriously and establish whether or not it’s worthy of your concern and fear or whether it’s something that can be dismissed and allowed to flow through you.
“When you allow yourself to feel physical and emotional pain you give yourself access to extra information that will fill out holes in your perception.” – Click to Tweet
Anxiety Is Normal And Emotions Serve a Purpose
You see, anxiety, fear, and worry can serve a purpose. This is another reason we don’t just want to shove them off the table and say “Nope. Not feeling that anymore”. Because then you’re cutting yourself off from some potentially important pieces of information.
Yes, some anxiety is fruitless and baseless and serves no purpose.
But other anxieties? They indicate things that you need to pay attention to. Things you need to tune into in order to live your life in the best way possible.
Perhaps you’re feeling anxiety after eating cheeseburgers every day for a year? Maybe that’s an anxiety that’s trying to tell you that there are some changes that need to be made there.
You see, all of your emotions serve a purpose. Only when you tune in to all of your emotions can you use all the tools available to you, like your intuition.
You’ve been sold a lie that you’re supposed to be a super positive ultra-happy person all the time. This is one of the great lies in personal development and self-help. That you must be positive and happy all the time. This is like saying “you must be pain-free all the time” physically. Physical pain serves a purpose just like emotional pain and discomfort serves a purpose. When you allow yourself to feel physical and emotional pain you give yourself access to extra information that will fill out holes in your perception. You see, when you ignore your anxiety you’re ignoring extra data. By shoving it down, numbing it, or avoiding it through those good excuses like “I’m too busy hustling to be anxious!” you’re actually making it come out somewhere else! (see the water-balloon hypothesis above).
Unless you are 100% aware all of the time there will be things in your life that you’re saying “yes” to that are not fulfilling you. That is not making you happy. Things that don’t fit or feel right.
In those times, you’re going to feel anxiety and fear and worry and sadness and general angst. And not know why.
This is like a blinking emergency light on an airplane that’s saying “Hey! You! Pay attention to me! We’ve got something important to tell you!!” When you ignore it, the entire engine may blow out of the plane. Just like when you ignore those internal nudges which are trying to tell you something is out of alignment, you end up with anxiety and don’t know why. And then suddenly you start to create all of those imaginary monsters, and all of these uncomfortable emotions end up squeezing out somewhere you don’t mean them to.
How a Toxic Childhood Can Create This
Anxiety, and pushing down emotions in general, is an issue that pretty much everyone in our society deals with. However, it’s a really big issue for those who come from a toxic or traumatic childhood.
When you come from a toxic childhood you grow up with the feeling that it’s your job to keep everyone else around you happy, especially at the expense of yourself.
So, you will inevitably push down your uncomfortable emotions in order to make everyone else around you happy. In order to take care of everyone else around first. It doesn’t matter if you feel depressed, or like your head is about to blow because of a panic attack – you’ll hide it and feel afraid and ashamed of those emotions because it owning up to them would put the focus on you. Because you fear that to acknowledge those emotions would mean you were being “selfish”. Even though this isn’t true.
Or even worse, you’ll get emotionally or psychologically abused for owning up to your feelings.
And so, you push yourself down, your anxieties, and pretty much all of your emotions in order to prioritize everyone else’s stability and happiness.
Being Hyper-Aware of Others
When you come from a toxic childhood you begin to become what psychologists call “hypervigilant”. This means that you’re constantly on the lookout for other people being upset. For any potential tilt in their moods. For any shift in the way other people are approaching you. Any subtle change that could indicate that there might be a possible explosion because mom or dad is stressed, drunk, or in a “mood”.
That constant observation of everyone around makes you super aware of any and all possible reasons to get anxious. You walk into a room and look for reasons to be afraid. You go out on a date and look for reasons to worry.
This was adaptive when you were growing up and saved you many times. But it’s no longer working for you. Now it just makes everything that doesn’t go exactly according to plan feel like an extreme source of anxiety. When you were growing up, there were valid things to fear around you all the time. Possible explosions or abuse. Possible put-downs or criticism.
So, you squished yourself down and you observed. But the problem has persisted into adulthood. And you still see threats everywhere. You still feel as though the world could cave in if something small happens, if something is out of your control, if the people you’re around have a mood change, or if you’re suddenly surprised by an unexpected challenge.
When you come from a toxic childhood, you are more likely to experience feelings like worry, fear, and anxiety because of this pattern.
It Doesn’t Have To Stay That Way
Just because this was your past, doesn’t mean it has to be your future.