Why a Compassionate Approach to Living with Anxiety is Key
Anxiety about being anxious often makes our feelings even harder to live with
Dr Eric Goodman asks you to discover a new relationship with your anxiety, a compassionate one
If you are living with chronic anxiety, we have therapists and counsellors ready to support you – find yours here
Anxiety can feel like such a beast.
Its howls echo through your mind, filling you with scary thoughts, images, and memories. Its roars flood your bloodstream with stress hormones, causing your muscles to tighten and your heart rate and breathing to speed up. And its cries try to convince you to avoid things that feel important to you—like meeting new people or going on a first date.
It can feel like your anxiety beast is the villain in your life’s story.
It doesn’t help matters that you are surrounded by societal messages saying that you can cure, overcome, or eliminate anxiety if you think the right thoughts, drink the right potions, or live your life the right way! There are countless books, blogs, and gurus promising methods to forever rid you of anxiety. These promises are, indeed, enticing, but they are works of fiction that demonise a natural emotion.
Anxiety is not the villain of your life’s story—though it may feel that way
Anxiety may feel like a beast, but just like in the fairytale Beauty and the Beast, your anxiety is actually a misunderstood hero. It can be loud and unpleasant to be around, but it means well. Its job is to protect you from ANYTHING it perceives to be a threat to you—whether that be the footsteps behind you in a dark alley or public speaking at work. Your beast is always trying to be of service to you.
All the great heroes, however, have a weakness. For Supergirl it is Kryptonite. Your anxiety beast’s weakness is that it frequently misperceives relatively safe things as dangerous. It’s not its fault. Your anxiety beast was developed for survival in the far distant and dangerous prehistoric past. Even today, your anxiety is at its’ best when facing threats that are immediately present, apparent, and imminent, like the ones early humans faced regularly.
But change came very quickly to humans. The industrial revolution changed the human way of life and was only around two-hundred and fifty years ago—not even a grain of sand on the beach of time. Much more recently, the explosion of new technologies has even more radically transformed human life. There is 24-hour news, constant internet connectivity, smart phones, and social media. Our anxiety is still stuck in—Just pick up a large rock and beat the animal with sharp teeth on the head!!
Your anxiety beast is your lifelong companion
Humans are anxious animals. Having an over-sized prefrontal cortex means that we are aware of our place in the world, our status among others, our fragility, and our mortality – not things that other animals concern themselves with. Even with the most effective anxiety management strategies, you will remain a member of a species that worries about things!
Buying into the message that anxiety (in itself) is an opponent to be defeated at all costs only makes you anxious about being anxious. Trying to be anxiety-free and battling with your anxiety beast when it shows up to protect you only leads to more suffering. And running from or avoiding reasonably safe situations that awaken your anxiety beast is a recipe for developing an anxiety disorder—a clinical condition that can hold you back in life.
Changing your relationship with your anxiety beast
Instead of fighting or running from your anxiety, you can learn to have a more compassionate relationship with it. Rather than trying to evict it from your life, you can treat it with care, understanding that it is a glitchy inner bodyguard that is overzealous in its’ pursuit of protecting you from threats. It just wants to help. By seeing it from a gentler lens, you are bringing in the soothing power of compassion rather than the intensifying effect of resistance and struggle.
Giving your anxiety beast a good home
Your anxiety lives within your nervous system. When your nervous system is agitated, your anxiety naturally howls louder. If you take better care of your nervous system, your anxiety beast will take better care of you at those times when life feels threatening.
For example, life during the Covid pandemic is naturally anxiety producing. Your anxiety beast wants to protect you from this unseen threat. All of the uncertainty these days naturally wakes up the anxiety beast in most of us.
If you’ve made a good home for your anxiety within your nervous system, you have chosen to:
- Prioritise sleep
- Exercise regularly
- Eat reasonably healthy foods
- Minimise stimulants like nicotine or caffeine
- Avoid alcohol the night before
- Practice mindfulness
- Spend time with loved ones
- And set a reasonable pace for your day
This creates a more soothing environment to contain your anxiety.
Contrast that with someone who is drinking too much at night, fuelling up with excessive caffeine throughout the day, sleeping poorly, and neglecting exercise and nutrition. Their anxiety will feel louder and more on-edge.
Training your beast to be a better inner companion
Your anxiety means well and believes it is acting in your best survive-and-thrive interests. When it has learned that something is a threat, it will be on the lookout for it and shoot adrenalin throughout your body when you even imagine that “threat”. It will only stop trying to protect you from that threat once you have trained it that there is nothing to fear.
If you are afraid of dogs, for example, your anxiety beast needs to see you safely interacting dogs for it to learn dogs are safe. It is not enough to just try to convince your anxiety that dogs are safe using logic and reason—it needs to experience it. If you avoid things you are afraid of, your anxiety won’t have the opportunity to learn and grow—and to become a better inner companion. By facing your fears, your anxiety can learn to be less reactive in those situations.
Taking your beastly companion with you on your life’s journey
At times it can be difficult living with a well-meaning, but very glitchy anxiety beast. While it can learn to be much better behaved, it will continue to howl at shadows, at least occasionally. That’s why it is important not to put your life on hold while you wait for a mythological blissful state of tranquility to permanently replace your anxiety beast.
Instead, decide for yourself – What is a good life? Is it a life filled with friendships? Or is it a life with romance? What lies just beyond your comfort zone? Rather than waiting for anxiety to leave you in peace you can choose to bring it with you—taking it gently by the hand as you show it the best life you can. It may learn a thing or two along the way.
Dr. Eric Goodman is a US-based clinical psychologist and anxiety disorders and OCD specialist. He is the author of Your Anxiety Beast and You: