There are a number of reasons why some people suffer from excessive anxiety, but in many cases, anxiety begins at a young age and develops, through repetition, into a habit. Often unhelpful patterns of thinking and dealing with emotions are learned from our parents and other adults.
Essentially, anxiety is created and reinforced when we resist experiencing our emotions. For example, if we are afraid of experiencing anger, then whenever any hint of anger arises in our minds we will try and push it away, and this produces a strong sense of anxiety. Each time this happens, we creates a pattern or habit in our mind, so that whenever the feeling of anger arises, we are likely to resist it and will experience anxiety instead.
Often we judge our feelings as either “good” or “bad”. If a feeling is judged as “bad”, we may tell ourselves that we “shouldn’t” be feeling like this and that the fault lies either with ourselves or others or our life circumstances. Whenever we tell ourselves that things “should” be other than they actually are, we disempower ourselves. We may try to resist reality and alleviate our “bad” feelings through unhealthy coping strategies, such as substance abuse, controlling our eating, working long hours, self-harming in one way or another; or we may try to change others through bullying, withholding or manipulating. These strategies may seem to help in the short term, but ultimately do nothing to alleviate our anxiety, and may even increase our sense of shame.
What happens when, rather than pushing our feelings away or trying to control them, we simply allow them to be, without judgment? If we feel sad or angry, we just feel sad or angry. It isn’t right or wrong, good or bad – it just is. This non-judgmental attitude allows us to be present with our feelings, without the additional suffering that comes with blame or shame. It also allows us to take responsibility. Rather than blame others or ourselves for our sadness or anger, we can simply own it, experience it and let it go. Where others are are mistreating us, we can begin to make more empowering choices, recognising that our feelings and our lives are our responsibility alone. When we adopt an attitude of self-acceptance and responsibility, anxiety begins to dissolve as we experience life with a sense of empowerment rather than helplessness. Those around us also begin to change, as we give them the space to take responsibility for their own feelings and actions, rather than blame them and raise their defences.
New habits of thinking take time to learn, and giving up old patterns initially creates more anxiety as we contemplate letting go of an illusory sense of control. It is hard to give up a position of blame or self-blame. My own experience is that the benefits far outweigh the pain of the journey. Life looks very different now, and inner peace and freedom have largely taken the place of feeling trapped and helpless. Paradoxically, I feel more in control now that I can accept there are many things that are out of my control. I am free to focus on what is within my control – my own responses, reactions and decisions.