How do I get rid of anxiety?
I get this question a lot.
It's often why people seek out therapy, or why they speak to their physician about medication, or try to cope with it in a variety of ways to stop feeling overwhelmed and scared and to calm the raging thoughts in their head.
When I speak with people about their history and relationship to anxiety, it's usually a long one. They've been struggling with it for years, they've tried lots of things to make it go away, and nothing has worked, not for very long anyway. Sometimes clients are also taking medication for their anxiety and while for many of them the medication has helped ease the symptoms, they find themselves still struggling. They talk about wanting to get control over their anxiety, stop the thoughts in their head, and make the overwhelming, frightening feelings go away.
Control is the problem.
Often when we think about anxiety we think about words like "control," "stop," "eliminate," "go away." I think this is a natural reaction to the phenomenon of anxiety because of the way our brains are wired. As human beings we're problem solvers. If a faucet has a leak, you'll think of ways to fix it. If you're driving and your car starts making a noise, your mind will troubleshoot what might be happening and how you can address it to make the noise go away. Problem solving makes sense for most challenges in the external world.
I don't think it works as well for what goes on inside of us. As much as you might have tried to "fix" or "stop" or "make" your anxiety go away, it comes back. In fact, the more you struggle with it the more intense it seems to get. So, what can you do?
Adjust the willingness switch.
Here's what I'm suggesting: change your relationship to anxiety and become more willing to have it. That might sound oversimple or not really like a solution but there's a good metaphor to describe what I mean. Imagine that your anxiety is a knob on a device (like a stereo or a blender). The knob is labeled "anxiety" and often for you it is dialed way up. When you notice that it is dialed up, you attempt to move the knob down to get rid of the anxiety but it does not work. You keep forcing the knob but it refuses to turn, in fact it seems to be controlled by some other mechanism because instead of going down, sometimes it goes even higher when you attempt to move it!
There's another knob on this device, however. This knob is labeled "willingness." As you move this knob around you notice something: it is connected to the anxiety knob. In fact, you soon realize that when you turn willingness down low, the anxiety knob locks into place, but when you turn the willingness knob up, the anxiety knob starts moving on its own, going up but then coming back down. You realize that the knobs are connected and that you only have control of the willingness knob.
Why does this matter? Because our attempts to control our internal experience are like the knobs on this imaginary device. The only thing you can control is your willingness to have the experience of anxiety. If you attempt to control anxiety, it often locks into place (that feeling of being even more anxious because you're anxious!) but if you choose some willingness, the anxiety will usually morph and change, grow and then subside, somewhat like ocean waves.
Yes, you will continue to have anxiety in your life. But instead of being an overwhelming experience that you will fight and struggle with, it can become an experience that sweeps and subsides, comes and goes. You can change the experience of anxiety and how you interact with it.
Start by being willing in small ways.
How does willingness work? I'm not suggesting that you simply sit there and attempt to have every overwhelming, excruciating thing you can possibly experience with anxiety. Instead, I suggest starting small. Create a space where you can be open to what you are experiencing, even if it is only for a minute or two. Be curious and open to what the experience is like. Try some breathing to keep yourself calm, or use your senses to stay in the present moment. See if you can notice how your experience of anxiety changes as time passes, it can become more intense but then it can diminish. With practice, you may notice that you are relating to anxiety differently, perhaps viewing it more as an observer than a participant, as an experience that comes and goes.