Article by Tom W. Originally published on May 15th 2014 at 15:50, republished today for throwback Thursday…
This article was written in response to the Mental Health Foundation’s 2014 report on anxiety, which was released to mark this 2014’s Mental Health Awareness Week. The report states that one in five of us feel anxious a lot or all of the time. Here, a young person offers his thoughts on anxiety and its popular perception, and, following extensive personal research, explores the causes, real consequences and ‘antidotes’ to anxiety.
‘Everyone gets anxious.’
This is a difficult sentence for many suffering badly with anxiety. Why am I suffering more than others? Why do others poo-poo my suffering as imaginary and label me as “weak” and as someone who just “can’t cope”? Is something different happening to me than to others?
The truth is everyone does get anxiety at some point in their lives, so what does this mean for this statement, for this narrative and for the sufferers? To answer this, we need to consider some other great truths, which are often untold, often ignored by the non-sufferers and often hidden by the embarrassed and socially isolated sufferer. They are that some people naturally get more anxious thoughts than others, some get stronger anxious feelings than others, different people respond to different anxiety triggers, and some genuine sufferers get intense anxiety for no apparent reason. When anxiety gets a grip of the sufferers, it does all it can to feed itself and keep going. Therefore, it is simply not possible to just shake anxiety off. Those uninformed, misinformed, ignorant and/or patronising people who say “just get over it” or “just calm down” don’t realise that their words, just like the repeated self-talk I’m sure most anxiety sufferers go through every time they’re hit by a wave of anxious feelings, have limited effect. The truth is biology has taken over. You can’t speak words to your neuro-chemicals and your adrenaline. Your anxious voice is louder than any voice trying to reason with you. Anxiety is inherently irrational and maintains itself until the apparent “threat” passes. This means that trying to reason rationally with someone with anxiety, even if it is yourself, is a dead-end task. So, anxiety is not only real and chemically-based, it can be intensely awful, life-limiting and very hard to get out of. It can lead to depression, self-loathing, a lack of self-confidence and even suicide, but it won’t kill you itself, whatever your anxious mind is telling you.
Giving you extra: ‘resistance is futile!’
The good news is that the same biology that creates and maintains anxiety also brings its demise and can bring you continued peace. Even though anxious thoughts will always continue, they can stream through your mind less often and more slowly than they are now, by simply resisting them less. In fact, why don’t you invite them in right now? If they had a mind of their own, they’d be saying “We’re reluctant to do so because there is no point; we can’t do anything to you now!”. You will read in every anxiety book or journal or self-help information leaflet that ‘there is no magic cure for anxiety’ or ‘there is no absolute cure for anxiety’. Unfortunately, you will read my next words with unease, but be braced, peace is on the other side: these two quotes are correct. You cannot get rid of anxiety altogether. Having some anxious feelings and thoughts is normal. We can’t stop them if they’re trying to come in. Wisdom has taught us for millennia that things we can’t stop hurt less if we accept them. People who suffer long-term pain often bizarrely find some relief if they accept their pain. I guess they never realised that some of their pain comes from resistance and some of it comes from memory. This is not an imaginary help; for months, years, decades even, you’ve possibly added pain that you didn’t need to add. Your trying to get rid of pain not only brought a magnifying focus onto it but it also produced a resistance, which is a pain in itself. So why do we resist at all?
Why do we fight it? The trap.
We only resist because we think anxiety is trying to come in and “get us”. We think that with anxiety, we won’t be able to cope. For the modern housewife or househusband overwhelmed by household chores, nurturing children, nursing marital problems and perhaps experiencing part-time or even full-time employment stress, having stress itself can be limiting. It can reduce our ability to think clearly and effectively, it can keep us “always busy yet achieving nothing” or “always heading somewhere but getting nowhere”, and it can exhaust us. For these reasons, the overwhelmed and stressed housewife or househusband may want to rid themselves of stress or try to block stress from happening. This only feeds the stress. Anxiety, like depression, is a type of stress, so the implications of this are far-reaching.
In the same way, the socially anxious person, that is someone who has an intense fear of people, groups of people and/or performing in front of them, may feed his or her fear by trying to stop fear happening in the first place. If this seems illogical on the surface, well, that’s because it is: you’re fighting fire with fire. But let me show you just how reasonable and easy it is to get into such a mess. You have a big presentation in work or have to put your hand up to answer a question in front of the whole class before you’re allowed home from school. You notice people watching and listening to you, you fear “getting it wrong”, and deep-down you fear looking a fool and becoming socially embarrassed or isolated as a result. You feel anxious. You then realise that your chance of the apparent “failure” that you fear happening is now greater because you have high levels of anxiety; your heart could beat out of your chest and hit your teacher in the face, your breathing has gone ape and doesn’t want to make it easy for your talking, you can’t think straight anymore let alone come up with an answer. You don’t know where the feelings came from or how to stop them, you don’t seem to have enough time to get rid of them before “your turn” and you try to fight them with all your might. But, like above, this only feeds the stress.
Beyond ‘extra’: ‘the universal antidote’!
In the above two examples, feeding stress with more stress has the effect of growing the stress and, importantly, it is the only reason why stress is kept alive at all. Of course, these examples must be read with a loud, maybe even screaming internal stress voice, which stops us from “just switching off”, as some might suggest. This is another point in this article where you may feel more panicky, as I have described a terrible “trap”. The inverted commas are important here because it is only an apparent trap; one particularly hard to see a way out of whilst being shouted at by your loud stress voice and being bombarded at the same time by a big wave of intensely terrible stress feelings. But please continue reading, as peace from the grip of stress does truly await. So far, I have described why stress increases when you resist it, so the assumption is that it decreases somewhat when you stop resisting it. However, acceptance, which is often described as the ‘universal antidote’ for stress, including anxiety (note: not ‘cure’), does more than just turn down the heat of stress, it can extinguish the pain from it altogether; it can provide peace that is both lasting and within the normal bounds of stress i.e. the levels that we don’t mind or might even enjoy. Therefore, it doesn’t just kill the fear of the fear, it can kill the fear, too. Enough will be left to keep us safe but not hurt or limit us at all. Perhaps surprisingly, it is at the heart of this rather unglamorous sentence that the key to unlocking stress and acceptance lies: we need to consider why we have stress to see why acceptance works. It’s rather clever; it’s kept our species alive so far.
Why acceptance works: the purpose of stress…
The purpose of pain and stress, including anxiety, is to warn and prepare us and to ultimately keep us safe. When we are in a genuinely dangerous situation, the body needs an alarm system and an effective mechanism to prepare us to respond in a way that will save our life. This response needs to be quick so is sub-conscious and is not slowed down by our conscious thought. Our life-saving solution, which we have employed since the inception of our species, is fight or flight. Imagine a grizzly bear chasing us or imagine another of our species attacking us or our children… we’d want to respond as best as we could, wouldn’t we?! Well, the body prepares us for this flight or flight survival mechanism in a number of ways. It pumps us with adrenaline to give us all sorts of super abilities, it makes us hypervigilant so we can identify all threats, it gets more oxygen into the body by breathing more deeply, it pumps blood faster around the body, and so on. It even gets rid of excess fluids by sweating and stops wasting energy on the bladder so lets us wee ourselves! If you think adrenaline is over-rated, then try this story for size. In 2012, a father in Virginia, America, called Alec Kornacki, was fixing something on the underside of his car when the levered car slipped and fell on him. His 22-year-old daughter, Glen Allen, ran to his rescue and, with super-human strength, lifted the car off of him and successfully performed CPR on him to save his life. They call this hysterical strength. Who thought stress could be so funny? Seriously, thank God for this survival mechanism. The key point is that this mechanism is to protect you but your body only responds in this way if you treat a situation or those stressful thoughts as a threat. So, if you accept stressful thoughts and feelings, your body sees them as “no threat” and switches off its preparatory response – it stops preparing you for fight or flight and goes back to “normal”. This is why acceptance is your way out of stress, including anxiety.
A Synthesis: “Who’s powerless now?!”
Fortunately, the protective mechanism requires no work on our part, as our intensely powerful sub-conscious minds take over and protects us, often before we even have time to consciously think. However, when this powerful life-saving mechanism occurs in the wrong place, when there is no real threat, then it can be life-limiting and not life-protecting. Therefore, the battle every stress sufferer faces every day is one of apparent life or death. Even though stress won’t kill you and even when there is no real threat; your body just acts as if your life is in danger. If the situation isn’t actually threatening, then it reinforces the point that it’s our interpretation of the situation that makes it a “threat”. It’s our reaction to stress that matters, not the stress itself. It’s the value and power we give the stress that gives it any power at all, otherwise it has none. Every time stress is at its worst, comes up most often and lasts longest, it’s because we treat it as a “threat” (even when it isn’t one) and we try to stop them coming up or being there. Every time we have weak feelings and infrequent waves of them, it’s because we’ve accepted them (and the thoughts on which they’re based), which makes them “no threat” and our body reacts as it should. The truth is that the body will always react as you tell it to, as long as you speak to it in the right language. So let go; it’s just the fear of it not working that keeps you holding on but it’s the letting go that diminishes the fear! Stress, including anxiety, is a treat, not a threat, but if we act otherwise, our reliable body will automatically kick into action to protect us from it.
The ‘antidote’ in this article is similar to the famous World Health Organisation’s video, ‘I had a black dog, his name was depression’.
Future troubles: The Second Coming and the “Good News”
Even when the stress sufferer has made good progress, they are tricked by stress’ return into thinking it’ll always be a problem. However, they are only listening to their anxious voice! This return is still part of the body’s protective duties. It won’t give up on you, so thoughts and some feelings will always happen; don’t get spooked when more come up. The worst thing you can do is to try and get rid of them and to try and have none left. Remember, we can’t have perfection anyway, so resistance is futile. This stress is the same as before, so you can deal with it in the same way: if you keep allowing it, it keeps passing. In fact, even better news is that stress always goes on its own accord if you let it be (hence the phrase “let it go”), and not only does it keep passing, but the thoughts also come back less often. So, this is a “good news” story. When we start this positive cycle, stress has already lost its grip on us, we are already in control (as we always can be), and we get progressively better in a self-perpetuating manner. Thus, the power of the stress cycle works both ways, but it takes patience for it to work for you. However, when it does, you will have one of the most powerful tools (note: not cures) in the world at your mastery. It gets even better…
Long-term improvement: sensitisation and desensitisation
The last point is that the strength of the future automatic waves of stress feelings you get can also be decreased. Whilst you can always reduce them when they arrive, you can also reduce how strongly they arrive in the first place. However, to understand why this happens you need to understand why you get automatic feelings anyway. You get automatic feelings because your body is sensitised to what it sees as a threat. As soon as you enter a situation or have a thought, memory or even smell of something you once treated as a threat, your body will react to prepare you for fight or flight, just in case the “threat” reoccurs. This is to prepare you as soon as and as well as possible for the “threat”. If we walked into the grizzly bear den in a zoo after facing one of the mighty beasts before, our bodies will react to make us ready for the bear even before it appears. Similarly, if we are performing a particular exercise or stretch that has caused us damage before, we may get pain in that area again to warn us of potential forthcoming damage, even if we’re not currently damaging ourselves. It’s very clever. However, on the down side, it means that the social anxiety sufferer can get intensely anxious feelings by just being in room with other people after one bad experience in their past and/or can get intensely anxious feelings by just having anxious thoughts, such as “What if I can’t function or perform with anxiety?” So, where’s the good news?
Firstly, remember that even though automatic, these feelings aren’t a problem because they pass if you accept them – the body switches off to the threat. Secondly – the really key bit here – if you practice acceptance then the body gets used to switching off to the “threat” and gets used to the idea that it is actually less of a threat than it once thought. This means that next time you enter that same situation or have those same thoughts, memories and/or smells, the body automatically responds less, so you receive automatically weaker feelings. Remember, the stress cycle works both ways so you’ll get progressively better in a self-perpetuating manner, but only if you keep the work up and keep practicing. You may ask, how far can this reduction in feelings go? Well, as far as is “normal” and safe for you to go, whilst not interfering in your life. They certainly won’t stop you doing what you want to do and may give you enough adrenaline and heightened awareness to give you that edge. That edge is the same edge that lawyers try to give themselves by pricking themselves with pins before a court case, so they can be on top of their game. Yearn it. It’s certainly not enough to stop them participating in or playing their game. So keep going; more stress will come up, but if you don’t resist it, it will pass, and, over time, it will become even easier.
So, fear not!
Sub-Ed’s Note: If you need any help with or advice on stress, including anxiety or depression, please contact Meic online, via their helpline on 080880 23456, or via text on 84001. All their advice is free and confidential. It is estimated that although stress is the most commonly seen thing at a doctor’s, half of those with stress do not get seen. Your GP can give you advice and put you in touch with Cardiff and The Vale Of Glamorgan’s Primary Mental Health Support Service, which offers an extensive range of recovery-focussed help and free, life-changing courses.
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