How can we best understand anxiety? How and why do people get anxiety? What exactly is anxiety and why can it be so paralyzing at times?
Many people come to therapy wanting to learn how to manage anxiety. Anxiety and mental health are intimately woven together.
By and large, most of us who have anxiety can agree that the physical experience of it feels the same:
- Our lungs may feel constricted
- We may have difficulty breathing deeply
- Our pulse may quicken
- Our bodies can feel both hot and cold
- Our vision can narrow as the world gets louder
These physical sensations can make us want to hide or run away from the situation or person who is causing the anxiety to stop it, even momentarily.
What if we open ourselves up to our anxiety instead of regarding it as something that we need to run from? What if we open ourselves up to the things that make us anxious?
Often people come to therapy looking for answers to their anxiety, looking for solutions to fix it, and looking for their therapists to cure them. Humans love certainty; it’s hard for all of us to deal with doubt and insecurity.
What if instead of seeking a cure or a definitive explanation, we instead explore our anxiety and learn to describe it so that we can better understand life and its challenges? To do so, we need a willingness to have an open mind and the courage to observe candidly how the mind is closed.
“The affirmation of one’s essential being in spite of desires and anxieties creates joy.” -Philosopher Paul Tillich
Tillich explains that anxiety and courage are two sides of the same coin of life: courage arises when anxiety is faced. If we try to escape or avoid it, we instead fall into despair.
American psychologist Rollo May also emphasized the importance of recognizing that there may be a reason why we feel anxious. That reason, he concluded, was that anxiety is necessary to live a full life. He believed that anxiety helps us recognize what we value, and that what we value is what makes life meaningful.
We cannot live without anxiety, but we also cannot live with too much anxiety. We all have our limits; words can crush us, and actions can hurt us. When anxiety turns into panic, we need to learn how to find a safe space again—both physically and emotionally.
How much anxiety can we hold, and be aware of, without acting on or avoiding it? Apart from these very real, practical limits: how do we learn to accommodate a large amount of anxiety?
Once we learn to hold our anxiety and observe it, we can see the values that it is revealing to us.