Make Friends With Your Anxiety
How often do you think of anxiety as your friend? This may sound like a strange question, but I believe the way we relate to anxiety plays a significant role in how we experience it. Cultivating a positive relationship with anxiety can be an important part of recovery, but it’s also really difficult to do. When I was experiencing frequent panic attacks in college, I started off by fighting against them in whatever ways I could. I changed my diet so I wouldn’t feel anxiety as often, I exercised very frequently to improve my mood, and a host of other attempts to avoid my panic attacks. Unfortunately, the panic attacks just kept coming despite my efforts to avoid them; at least, they did until a seemingly insignificant shift in my perspective changed everything.
Make Friendship, Not Fear
After experiencing many panic attacks, you’d think they would just be scary, annoying, and frustrating, but my shift in perspective transformed my panic attacks into things I actually wanted to experience. My key change was thinking about my panic attacks as an opportunity to learn about panic directly so that I might be able to help someone later. That’s it. But this seemingly minuscule change in my thinking made all the difference, and my panic disorder dissipated rapidly afterwards. Paradoxically, the more I wanted to learn about panic, the less I got to experience panic attacks. I didn’t really understand why this happened at the time, but since then I’ve thought a lot about it and I think the key is that I wasn’t afraid to experience panic after that, in fact I was curious and excited in some ways. Each panic attack became an opportunity to learn something new and grow instead of a purely scary experience I wanted to avoid. In essence, I allowed myself to be open to the experience of panic and even looked to it as a positive opportunity.
Now, this specific strategy may not be the one that works for you, but the general takeaway here is that the way we think about and relate to anxiety actually plays a significant role in how we experience it. The panic I felt when I focused on learning from it had all of the same physical sensations as the panic I felt when I was trying to escape it, but the fear I used to feel was absent. I still felt the panic attack, but my response to that experience was completely different. And this is where I think we can all improve our relationship with anxiety, not by trying to change the anxiety itself, but by changing our response to it. For me, finding something positive about my panic attacks helped me change my response because it allowed me to be open to anxiety and respond with compassion rather than fear. Finding ways to cultivate an attitude of openness (or even pursuit) of anxiety can be difficult, but below I share a few ideas I’ve found helpful.
Cultivating a Positive Relationship With Your Anxiety
- Consider the positives. This was the most important step for me because until I took a moment to consider what good might come out of my panic attacks, I was completely focused on avoiding them. I believe there is always something meaningful you can find in your anxiety, even if it takes a while to find, and this can open you up to the experience of anxiety as well.
- Embrace your curiosity. Once I’d found something positive in my panic attacks, what helped me engage further was that I discovered my curiosity was even more powerful than my fear. There’s a lot we can learn from anxiety, so making that process of discovery your goal during an anxious experience can help you learn even more.
- Cultivate gratitude. This one might be the hardest of all, but once I saw my panic attacks as opportunities to learn, I began to feel diffierently about panic, and actually started to feel thankful for my experiences with it. If you can find a reason to be grateful to your anxiety, it means you’ve found something positive within it too, so I think this step can follow naturally as you look more for the positives in your anxiety.
The way we relate to our anxiety can have significant implications for our experience with it, so I hope you will try cultivating a positive relationship with your anxiety this week. If you have tips that have worked for you, please share below!