It’s time to listen to your anxiety

It’s Monday morning. You wake up to find yourself feeling dreadful again. What happened? It was not a particularly bad weekend; there was nothing stressful about the past few days, but there it is – that Monday morning anxiety. It feels very unpleasant to wake up like this. Our first instinct is to try everything in our heads to rid ourselves of this dread. You might succeed in numbing out the feeling briefly, but that doesn’t last long. Anxiety always strikes back. Since you haven’t been able to free yourself from the grip of your distress, what if, instead of chasing it away every time your chest constricts, you turned around, met your anxiety eye to eye and listened to what it had to say?

It is my firm belief that anxiety arises out of an existential crisis. Now, what does that mean? To put it simply, you may be experiencing difficulties in certain key areas of your life and the anxiety may be a sign that is pointing to this underlying problem. This conclusion might sound really obvious. “Of course!”, you would say, “My life is difficult because I’ve been struggling with this anxiety for years”. It is almost easy to conclude that our lives are not in line because of our underlying everyday struggle with anxiety, but it is also very possible that the anxiety is the result of an unbalanced life.

Ask yourself some of these questions:

  • What do I constantly worry about besides my anxiety?
  • Is my chosen line of work really the right path for me?
  • Are my intimate relationships in the best shape possible?
  • Have I come to terms with the limitations of life or am I struggling hard to change the unchangeable?
  • Am I still troubled by unhealed wounds from my past?

Chances are, there are areas of your life that require a closer look. Even if your anxiety were to disappear suddenly tomorrow, some of your existential problems would still persist. Sure, you may briefly feel a relief and that may cause you to, for example, continue the job that you’ve never liked, but it won’t be long before you start to feel some sort of deep, underlying, unpleasant feeling again.

Scott Stossel in his epic tome about anxiety illustrates this relationship between our lives and our anxiety. He writes:

Anxiety, as Dr. Barry Wolfe says, is a signal that the usual defenses against unbearably painful views of the self are failing. Rather than confronting the reality that your marriage is failing, or that your career has not panned out, or that you are declining into geriatric decrepitude, or that you are going to die — hard existential truths to reckon with — your mind sometimes instead produces distracting and defensive anxiety symptoms, transmuting psychic distress into panic attacks or free-floating general anxiety or developing phobias onto which you project your inner turmoil.

Ask yourself, what areas don’t feel right in your life right now? Make sure that the problems you unravel exist in the present. Don’t waste your time with problems of the past that make no sense currently, though it is possible that traumatic events from the past that were not resolved or healed have the potential to show up in the present and they are definitely to be counted. It is important to bring these psychic distresses into your field of awareness. Most often these may be events or circumstances that we do not want to wrestle with. We may be trying to avoid confronting certain hard truths about us and our lives. For instance, it is very common for people to not acknowledge that their marriage is failing because of the consequences it can have for them and their children. Stossel talks about a college sophomore who trained all his life to become a concert pianist. He was beset with panic attacks when his professors told him that he wasn’t talented enough to realize his dream.

However once a person is able to recognize their underlying issue and come to terms with the truth behind them, their anxiety symptoms go away.

Interestingly, a number of recent studies have found that at the moment an anxious patient begins to reckon consciously with a previously hidden psychic conflict, lifting it from the murk of the unconscious into the light of awareness, a slew of physiological measurements change markedly: blood pressure and heart rate drop, skin conductance decreases, levels of stress hormones in the blood decline. Chronic physical symptoms—backaches, stomachaches, headaches—often dissipate spontaneously as emotional troubles that had previously been “somaticized,” or converted into physical symptoms, get brought into conscious awareness.

It is even possible to be aware of your problem, but you might be trying to circumvent the core issue by working around it. You might not want to live in a bustling metropolis but instead yearn to move to the countryside. Since that may come at the risk of losing your job, you might desperately try to bring in peace and quietude through daily activities such as calming guided meditations or a lunch-time stroll through a small park. Nevertheless, you may feel anxious whenever your urban tranquility is disturbed by the unavoidable dissonant rhythms of city life. I get it, it is not easy to throw away a life you have tried to build for several years, but if this is not where a big part of yourself wants to be then frantically trying to bargain with the unworkable areas of your life is going to be harder in the long run.

People readily buy into the notion that they may have a biological propensity towards anxiety, but find it hard to admit that their anxiety could be a result of not coming to terms with their reality. It is relatively easy to blame genetics and continue to be tortured by panic attacks than to make the necessary change in one’s life. I’m not saying that there’s no biological basis for anxiety, but it is unwise to entirely blame your genes without any introspection about the root of your worries. Once you admit these truths to yourself and make the required changes in your life, you’ll start to feel lighter and there might not be a need for this underlying anxiety.

On some occasions, it might be very easy to put a finger on the source of the distress and imbalance in our being. Other times, our tired mind has trouble figuring out the root of our existential challenges. Life would be simple if our minds had the ability to easily tune into our feelings (both pleasant and unpleasant) and interpret what’s behind them, but in the midst of strong emotions the mind often cannot think straight. It is not uncommon to associate benign activities such as going out for a walk to be the cause of dreadful feelings. We avoid talking to people or going out because we can’t handle the anguish of being with someone and our anxiety at the same time. The result is that we lose out on life. Instead of making unsound associations in figuring out the cause of our anxiety, let’s try to understand the existential aspects of our lives and see if we can find out whether anything is out of alignment.

You can make a great start by listening to your anxiety and seeing it as a signal to issues that demand your attention and awareness. If, on the other hand, you are struggling to figure out where the instability in your life is coming from, find someone to work with your anxiety. When you are in the cycle of worry and feeling anxious, bringing some clarity through external help may be just what is needed. Talk to that person, not just about your anxiety but also about other issues that may be bothering you. It might be easier for a professional to make the connection between the various problematic areas in your life and their manifestations as anxiety or any other mental illnesses. With the right guidance and support and by implementing the necessary changes in your life, you will begin to feel the loosening grip of anxiety over time.

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