We are so used to the language of war. We fight cancer, talk about our battle with depression, or try to overcome anxiety when it feels overwhelming. Mainstream thinking is that anything that is causing unease must be fought and conquered. But when such strategies are aimed towards psychiatric disorders, they are futile at best, and at worst, it prolongs the duration of its associated symptoms.
How can anyone win a fight where the mere act of fighting increases your chances of losing? You might have realized this in dealing with your own anxiety. The more we put up a fight and resist those unpleasant feelings, the more intense they become. When we turn our backs and run away from it, the worse the anxiety gets. What I’m about to suggest to you in the following paragraphs might sound diametrically opposite from what your instincts tell you to do in the when experiencing anxiety. Before you let your defenses stop you from reading the rest of the article, I suggest you tell yourself that you’d get through it regardless of what your kicking and screaming mind tells you.
That’s right, the best defense against anxiety is not an offense; it is none at all. Surrender to your anxiety. Throw in the towel, throw up your hands and yell, “I quit fighting. I give up!” Giving up the fight with anxiety is the first step towards recovering. We waste a considerable amount of energy (both mental and physical) attacking anxiety and it doesn’t have to be this way. When you give up the fighting, you also give up the suffering. This is the key realization that got me closer to breaking free from the confines of anxiety. Once you give up the struggle, there is a lot more room for you to stretch. You go where your anxiety takes you without throwing tantrums or resisting.
We are not hardwired to react this way to anxiety because we perceive it as a threat. When facing a threat, our instincts tell us to gear up for combat or run away to avoid the apparent danger. This might have helped our ancestors survive the dangerous African plains, rife with predatory animals but when the same strategy is applied to problems inside ourselves, it fails profoundly.
With anxiety, you sometimes have to do the opposite of what your fear instinct is telling you to do. Surrendering to anxious feelings is not very easy. An underlying belief that makes this possible for me is the fact that anxiety is harmless. It cannot damage me physically. I am not going to die from it or go insane, even though that is exactly what my fearful mind tells me in the midst of high anxiety.
Why It Makes Sense to Surrender
Your anxiety is a result of a high level of stress in your life. When this happens, there’s a part of your nervous system called the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) that kicks into action. Whether this stress is physical, like a grizzly bear chasing you down, or psychological, as in you’re stuck in a job that you highly dislike, then your body produces certain stress hormones; namely adrenaline (short-acting stress hormone) and cortisol (which takes a lot longer to be secreted but remains in our system for an extended period of time). The effects of these hormones are usually felt as racing heart, sweaty palms, dizziness, and other tell-tale signs of anxiety. I’m well aware that anxiety cannot be simply reduced as a result of stress chemicals in the body; it has an existential and spiritual component to it, but for the sake of this article I’m keeping it simple.
After the stressor in a situation has been removed, the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) kicks in which has the opposite effect of the SNS. It relaxes your muscles, lowers your heart rate, and puts the body into a more restful state. When you are under a high level of psychological stress, the stress hormones released make you feel anxious. When you fight those feelings, it puts an additional stress on your system which makes you feel even more anxious. This stress-anxiety cycle can only be broken by engaging the PSNS.
By surrendering to the feelings of anxiety, you send a message to your brain telling it that there is no harm at the moment. You give full permission for the anxious feelings to come and go thereby negating any threat. When you do that, the body and the mind can relax and that can be the key to breaking that vicious cycle.
When you experience an acid burn, you have to neutralize it with a base. When we resist the feelings of anxiety, it is akin to adding more acid on top of your burn. By moving towards your anxiety instead of running away from it, you neutralize the situation.
You Are Not a Coward
In modern times, with its insistence on always being a winner, the word ‘surrender’ has become synonymous with cowardice. If you are already feeling ashamed of your anxiety, then telling you to give up and surrender to it would seem even more hurtful to your ego. But this is an act of bravery. To move towards your fears without your protective shield is a prime example of courageousness. Hollywood tells us that we are heroes only if we slay the dragon, or conquer our nemesis. If the relationship between you and anxiety is that of a warrior and a nemesis, then be prepared to fight for a long time to come. We cannot confront fear with resistance; only acceptance can extinguish that fire. Anxiety is the excitation of your nervous system; fighting it only produces more excitation. Giving up and floating through the anxiety calms down and rebalances your nervous system.
Having a Word With Your Anxiety
Next time your anxiety is running high, imagine it as a person (and not a scary monster) and talk to it. To make it simple and easy, I’ve included a short script:
“Hello, anxiety, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again. But today is different. Today I am not going to resist the way you make me feel. I am defenseless right now and I give you full permission to do whatever you desire with me. You are free to make me feel nauseous, light headed, churn and upset my stomach, constrict my chest, make me feel unreal, and cause a high degree of fear in me. I am open and completely accepting of the sensations, thoughts, emotions, and feelings that you produce. You are welcome to stay as long as you want.”
Whenever I repeat these words to myself in the midst of a strong current of anxiety, I feel as if more space has opened up inside me and a weight seems to be lifted off of me. However, the anxiety does not magically disappear right away. This is not a magic mantra to instantly dissolve anxiety. It is not some reverse psychological trick to rid yourself of fear. You will still feel all the symptoms of anxiety, especially if you have been fighting it for years. But slowly, over time, after being open to these feelings, you’ll start to notice that the intensity of these feelings gradually reduces. You will feel the uneasiness, but you won’t suffer unnecessarily. This approach reduces your hypervigilance towards anxiety and you start to worry less every day. Your level of caring and pre-planning for your next encounter with anxiety decreases dramatically. This frees you up mentally and emotionally giving you the much needed time to take up long-forgotten activities of interest. Indulging in those can also help you forget about your worries and connect more with life. Wouldn’t you want that?