Therapists Say Beating Anxiety Is A Matter Of Embracing It
Love your enemy.
When it comes to anxiety, becoming “friends” with it is probably the last thing you’d want to do. It seems akin to befriending the enemy, one that keeps you up at night (and possibly all day long) with worry. But experts say befriending anxiety can be helpful in terms of managing it. Before doing so, however, it’s important to understand what anxiety entails.
“There are varying degrees, but in general, anxiety is having excessive worrisome thoughts that are usually accompanied by anxious, physical sensations,” Andrea Wachter, psychotherapist, author, and Insight Timer teacher, tells TZR. Dr. Monica Shah, a licensed psychologist practicing in New York City who specializes in mindfulness and acceptance-based cognitive behavioral therapies, adds that there are different components of anxiety. “We all have different thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to connect our experiences,” she tells TZR. “With anxiety, it’s the same thing.” While one person may experience it through worrisome thoughts, another might through feelings, like having difficulty with uncertainty, while another may only have physical sensations, such as an increased heart rate or upset stomach. “These are all ways anxiety can manifest,” she says.
If you suffer from anxiety, you’re not alone. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental illness in the U.S. Each year, it affects 40 million adults — 19.1% of the population. So why befriend something so debilitating? Ahead, therapists sound off on how taking an alternative approach can decrease your anxiety and help you manage it better.
Why You Should Befriend Your Anxiety
“It’s completely understandable to want to get rid of your anxiety — it doesn’t feel good,” says Wachter. “But our feelings don’t soften when we disapprove of them, hate them, or try to get rid of them. Rather, they soften when we offer them warmth and compassion, and tend to the needs they represent.”
Oliver Drakeford, a licensed marriage and family therapist who also specializes in anxiety, agrees, adding that people have developed a tendency to avoid dangerous or unknown situations. “This has been an amazing strategy that has been key to our survival as a species, we tend to run from snakes, and not go too near tall cliffs, and so we have survived,” he tells TZR in an email. “But the problem is, we start treating our feelings as if they were as dangerous as hungry beasts or scary cliff ledges.”
This is where befriending anxiety comes into play. “To me, befriending your anxiety means you no longer avoid it — you shine a light into it,” says Drakeford. “Rather than run from it, or see it as dangerous, you begin to work with it, understand it, and explore it.” He says it’s important to do this, as it will lower the intensity of the anxiety you’re experiencing and make it manageable rather than paralyzing.
Shah echoes Drakeford. “The more that we villainize something, the harder it is to manage it,” she says. “Anxiety is going to be in all of us, evolutionarily speaking — it’s meant to protect us. In the past, it would be protecting us from very real physical danger.” She says it can be akin to an overactive protection mechanism. “Part of befriending it is understanding it and being able to work with it. Also, to figure out when it is serving us and when it is not, when it’s in line with our goals and values.”
Ways To Befriend Your Anxiety
“High levels of anxiety can lead people to change their eating habits, stay on screens too long, or stay lost in anxious thoughts,” Wachter explains. “Befriending anxiety means meeting — and treating — feelings of anxiety the same way you would if a scared child came to you. Instead of disapproving and trying to get rid of the feelings, you’d offer them compassion and tenderness.” She says this is done by becoming aware of the anxious thoughts or sensations. Then, tune into them and try speaking to them kindly.
Wachter also says to ask yourself what you’re needing — like doing a calming activity you love — and then doing your best to take care of your body so your system stays regulated. She says you might say something like: “It’s OK to be feeling this way. We all feel scared sometimes. Remember you felt scared the other day and you felt it in your tummy and then it went away after a little while? That’s what will happen to these feelings, too.”
Wachter also suggests trying EFT tapping, which stands for emotional freedom technique. It’s a healing modality that involves tapping on various acupressure points while reciting statements that relate to the issue you’re experiencing. You might say something like, “Even though I feel anxious about my work presentation tomorrow, I completely accept myself.”
“You can try self-havening and deep breathing techniques, as well,” says Wachter. “These will help soothe the autonomic nervous system and increase your level of calm. With self-havening, it’s as though you’re giving yourself a hug. You cross your arms across your chest, with your hands on your shoulders or upper arms, and then you slowly move your hands down your arms to your elbows, like you are stroking and comforting yourself.” She says some people also opt for “palm havening,” where you slowly rub the palms of your hands together. And the third area of self-havening is the sides of your face. “By stroking either your upper arms, the palms of your hands, or the sides of your face, you can actually boost serotonin levels and decrease anxiety,” Wachter explains. “These will all help you befriend your anxiety by calming it down in the moment.”
For the deep breathing aspect, Wachter says you can use your favorite technique, whether it’s box breathing, mindful breathing, or deep belly breaths, to name a few. “With box breathing, you count to four, four different times — as you inhale, while pausing at the top of your inhale, while exhaling, and then after you exhale,” she says. “I have some anxiety-reducing meditations on Insight Timer, but I recommend that people try various techniques and see which ones feel the most soothing.”
Drakeford points out that we each have a unique zone of tolerance with how much anxiety we can handle — too much is likely to make us freeze or procrastinate. “‘Reality testing’ is a way to consciously decide how important something is to us,” he says. In other words, if we can take a minute to consider how much value we’re placing on the thing in front of us, we can decide if we want to — or if we can — lower its importance and feel less anxious.
“For example, accurate reality testing would mean that I’m assigning an appropriate amount of importance to this interview and providing you with decent answers so that your readers find it helpful,” he says. “While a distorted version would mean I was placing too much importance on this interview — this would generate a huge amount of anxiety, and that would get in my way of answering in a clear and concise way. I might ramble, stumble over my words, or just shut down and not be able to answer at all.”
Drakeford says, hypothetically, he could ascribe this interview with a numeric value, such as a “9.” If he felt paralyzed with fear, he could try to lower the “9” to a “7” by doing some reality testing. “This might loosen the grip anxiety has over me,” he says.
Wachter says that practicing mindfulness, or listening to a guided meditation, can help, too. “You can also reach out to a safe support person, such as a trusted friend or therapist, or use a tool to calm your symptoms, like Byron Katie’s ‘The Work’,” she says. “It is a simple — but extremely powerful — way to question the thoughts that are contributing to anxiety or arising as a result of anxiety.”
Speaking of therapy, Shah says you do not just need to go when you’re having an issue or concern. “It can be helpful in having a guide or a coach to help you deal with the necessary evils of being human,” she says. With her clients, she says she’ll act as a coach and guide as they examine how their thoughts and feelings affect them. “The person is the expert on themselves, and by coming together, a therapist can help them move toward their goals and values, and to better understand themselves. In terms of anxiety, a therapist can also work with the client to assess their reactions to things and how to manage them and live a more fulfilled life.” And that’s what it’s all about, right?