- What do you consider the lowest depth of misery?
- Living in fear ~David Bowie
Living with fear and its lesser demon, anxiety, is uncomfortable at best and at worst, miserable. One of obstacles to reducing anxiety and fear that anxiety so uncomfortable we try to avoid it. We don’t talk about it, we push it down, we try to pretend it’s not there. We may even eliminate the people, places and things that make us anxious until our world gets smaller and smaller.
It may seem strange but the best action we can take when we’re anxious is to move toward what is making us anxious.
I grew up inland so my idea of swimming is a mountain lake, surrounded by forest. Throw in an inner tube to float on and that’s my idea of fun in the water. When I moved an hour from New Jersey beaches I had a lot to learn. When I first walked chest deep into the ocean and saw a wave coming toward me, I turned and ran back toward the beach as fast as I could. It seems a little ridiculous now. It’s impossible to outrun a wave. It took several poundings from incoming waves before my friends on the beach took pity and gave me a few hints. When you’re waist deep in and facing an incoming wave you can float over it, you can dive under it or you can ride in on it. The one thing you cannot do is run from it.
Anxiety is like a wave coming toward you. You might want to turn and run but the best thing to do is turn toward it. But have a strategy in mind:
- You can float over it by learning some ways to relax your body and mind. It’s a physiological truth that when your body and mind are relaxed you will feel calmer and more ready to face the wave. Use your relaxed body and mind to reassure yourself that the water will hold you, you will float over the anxiety and soon it will be behind you. An easy way to learn to relax is to try mindfulness based stress reduction(MBSR). You can even learn it by downloading the app www.headspace.com where you will access free instruction on how to practice calming MBSR.
- You can dive under it and see what you can discover beneath the wave. You might find that your anxiety is connected to reactions and thoughts from past experiences that are no longer relevant. Once you discover the possible irrational thoughts underneath your anxiety you can begin replacing those thoughts with more realistic and positive messages based on your current circumstances.
- You can ride it in. I sometimes watch kids on the beach learn to ride the waves on their boogie boards. They start close to the water’s edge and learn to skim in the shallows. Then they move out deeper and and deeper as they improve. In the same way, you can ease slowly into facing your anxiety. This is called ‘desensitization.’ If you’re afraid of flying, for example, you can start by looking at pictures of places, then going the airport and watching planes take off and land. In formal programs for people who are anxious about flying, you even sit on a plane not the runway for awhile. Finally, you work up to taking a flight. If this slow progression toward managing your fears appeals to you you I suggest you pick up the excellent book Feeling Good by David Burns. It explains this approach and includes great self help exercises.
It might seem counterintuitive for you to face your anxiety instead of avoiding it. The truth is that avoiding your anxiety just makes it worse. It doesn’t solve any problems you might be facing and the problems can even get bigger the longer you avoid them. With a few simple tools you can turn your life around and who knows….even have some fun riding the waves of success.