Living with anxiety
Anxiety can be a major obstacle to our personal development, which is why this first post is dedicated to it. If you are someone like me who spends most days trying to find ways to deal with the symptoms of anxiety (which can sometimes be very severe), you’ll know there’s barely any time left to threat the underlying causes of anxiety! And how are you supposed to grow as a person, if you are busy feeling anxious all the time? Anxiety detracts from many good things in life, including personal development.
So let’s look at anxiety in more depth. Firstly, it is important to consider that we are lucky to be exploring this concept in a time when attitudes towards mental health have evolved towards taking it seriously. For example, going to therapy is no longer considered something that only people who are mentally unwell would do – it is understood that psychotherapy is about personal development in general; the same way you don’t do physical exercise because you are ill – you do it to stay healthy. We are lucky that nowadays physical and mental health are recognised as equally important.
It is important to note that anxiety isn’t all bad – there may be times when it can make you more alert and actually help you in your life, such as right before sitting an exam. However, using the same example, anxiety is a problem if you’ve spent the last month not being able to sleep and think about anything else but your exam until it has actually passed. In that case, anxiety has overtaken your life for a month; a month which you could have otherwise used for your personal development.
Secondly, I want to explore a common misconception about anxiety. It is considered that anxiety only occurs in cases where a person fears an unknown outcome. Yes, I googled it to see if that definition would come up and guess what – it did. In reality, it is very often the case that we experience anxiety about things whose outcome we know or can anticipate, such as knowing whether or not you will fail an exam.
The triggers of anxiety can also be completely invisible. I sometimes experience an uncontrollable fear of absolutely nothing. At least nothing I can identify and put my finger on to say: “This is what my problem is and this is why I am afraid and worry about it”. Let me know in the comments if you can relate to that.
Unfortunately, this happens because of evolution and in particular because of the fight-or-flight response. If you struggle with anxiety and you’ve done some reading on it, you’ve probably heard about fight-or-flight so I won’t go into detail. Briefly, if you lived some million years ago when there was a constant need to be vigilant about potential threats to your life, you would have two options if you encountered one such threat: you could either run from it, or fight it, in which case you’d put dinner on the table. So even though today we very rarely need to run from immediate threats to our lives, the response instinct in the form of fight-or-flight is still there. This is why sometimes it may not be possible to pinpoint what the trigger of fear and worry is.
This highlights why anxiety can be so difficult to live with and manage. Some of us have to deal with it more than others as a result of differences in our upbringing, traumatic past events or a natural tendency to worry. The most commonly prescribed methods for dealing with anxiety are meditation, and deep breathing exercises, but I have personally been unable to benefit from these due to one severe symptom of anxiety – restlessness (to which I will devote a full post). I simply do not have the patience and persistence it takes to adopt meditation.
And it’s not very helpful to have someone who doesn’t experience anxiety the way that you do rationalise it for you and tell you that there is no reason to be feeling it in that particular moment. At best that might make you defensive, putting the relationship you have with that person at risk. This might lead to additional anxieties, as – given that you’ve discussed your anxiety with them – they must be a pretty important person in your life. On the other hand, if you come across a person who understands because they are going through the same thing almost every day, it can be pretty consoling.
This leads me to empathy – the one thing I genuinely believe can help with anxiety. It is so important to surround yourself with people who understand, or who are willing to listen and try to understand. As humans we are social beings, and even the most introverted of us need at least one person they can rely on and confide in. Equally, it is extremely important to avoid discussing your anxiety with people who would just dismiss it. Ask yourself who these people are in your life and do the simple exercise of splitting them into the two groups: those you can rely on to care and to help you, and those who – while they may care about you – may not necessarily understand where you are coming from or may be a bit narrow-minded, making them unable to comprehend that you might be experiencing anxiety in a different way to them.
So, writing this blog post has made me realise that even though anxiety is a very complex issue that we deal with almost every day, perhaps we can take small gradual steps towards tackling it. We can dwell on each symptom of anxiety for as long as we want, as they are all unique and we can develop unique mechanisms of dealing with them, but if anxiety is truly a problem in your life this may not be the best course of action. It is too time consuming and won’t leave you any time to focus on your personal development. Thus, you can start by doing one simple thing: identifying those people in your life who would understand and those who wouldn’t. That’s not to say the second group of people are the bad people in your life that you should avoid talking to or being with– they are simply people with whom you can talk about other things, not anxiety.
And if your anxiety has reached a level where talking to people has become something that you dread because it might cause a panic attack, it might be time to seek professional help from your doctor as you might be suffering from panic disorder. Even though talking to people in your life about anxiety helps, don’t forget that you are the first person who needs to take care of you, and if your anxiety issues have become particularly difficult, only you can seek out and accept the help that you need.