Taming the Anxiety Monster
I recently asked fellow friends and family on social media what mental health topic they would like to learn more about and the resounding response was anxiety. In the United States, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness (1). In the first half of 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that eight percent of the population had generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and in May 2020, that number rose to 30 percent (2). The COVID-19 pandemic and the drastic changes that came with it caused a 22 percent spike in the diagnosis of anxiety disorders.
For decades, people have been told that small doses of anxiety are helpful for the brain to focus and accomplish tasks. This belief came from a study in 1957 that showed how rats swam faster after holding their heads under water (2). In 2015, another study found that any level of stress inhibits performance and the more stress, the worse the performance (2). We see from the first study that the rats’ fear caused their brain to react with a normal fight, flight, freeze response. That type of fear reaction is adaptive in rats and humans, and it helps us get out of harm’s way. Anxiety is different because it arises from uncertainty or the unknown, and it is maladaptive (2).
Anxiety is maladaptive because it causes difficulty with thinking, performing, making logical decisions, and it predisposes us to depression (2). Most people do not realize that their approach to anxiety is often what keeps them in a constant dysfunctional cycle, reinforcing the brain’s reward center, and resulting in the brain responding with more anxiety so it can be rewarded again (2). For instance, when you worry and engage in activities that cause you to feel a sense of control, you feel better for a short time but you also reinforce a cycle of trigger, behavior, and reward (2).
A common negative response to anxiety is to tell yourself to stop worrying, rationalize away your feelings, attempt to escape them, or judge the anxious part of you. Those approaches do little to help and result in increased anxiety. A more helpful way to approach your anxiety is with curiosity and compassion. When you are experiencing anxiety, it is an indication that an internal part of you called your “exile” needs attention (3). As a preface here, it is completely normal for all humans to have inner parts of themselves, with the ultimate goal being that those parts work together as one unique whole called the “self”. I like to think of the exile part as your inner wounded child-self. It’s the part that is usually vulnerable, pushed aside and ignored. Just as a fearful 5-year-old needs comfort and assurance from an adult to calm down, our exile part needs the same approach from us. This process of interacting with your anxious part takes a great deal of practice, but you can start by personifying your exile part and visualizing yourself being compassionate toward it. Over time, exercises like this will become easier and you will begin to stop the cycle of reinforcing negative behaviors that lead to increased anxiety.
As you have now learned about the misunderstood role of anxiety in people’s lives, hopefully, you have a clearer understanding of how it plays a role in your brain becoming stuck in a cycle of needing to experience more anxiety in order to reward itself. You have also learned that there are more adaptive ways to attend to your anxiety by focusing on the internal parts of yourself that need you to be curious and compassionate, instead of dismissive and avoidant. In the second part of this blog series, you will learn more about your internal parts and how developing a relationship with them can help you tame the anxiety monster within.
- Anxiety & Depression Association of America. Retrieved from: https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics
- Brewer, J. PhD. (2021 July/August). “We’ve Got Anxiety All Wrong.” Psychology Today.
Cook, A. PhD. & Miller, K. (2018). Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies. Nashville: Nelson Books